Tom Bowman

Tom Bowman is a NPR National Desk reporter covering the Pentagon.

In his current role, Bowman has traveled to Iraq and Afghanistan often for month-long visits and embedded with U.S. Marines and soldiers.

Before coming to NPR in April 2006, Bowman spent nine years as a Pentagon reporter at The Baltimore Sun. Altogether he was at The Sun for nearly two decades, covering the Maryland Statehouse, the U.S. Congress, the U.S. Naval Academy, and the National Security Agency (NSA). His coverage of racial and gender discrimination at NSA led to a Pentagon investigation in 1994.

Initially Bowman imagined his career path would take him into academia as a history, government, or journalism professor. During college Bowman worked as a stringer at The Patriot Ledger in Quincy, Mass. He also worked for the Daily Transcript in Dedham, Mass., and then as a reporter at States News Service, writing for the Miami Herald and the Anniston (Ala.) Star.

Bowman is a co-winner of a 2006 National Headliners' Award for stories on the lack of advanced tourniquets for U.S. troops in Iraq. In 2010, he received an Edward R. Murrow Award for his coverage of a Taliban roadside bomb attack on an Army unit.

Bowman earned a Bachelor of Arts in history from St. Michael's College in Winooski, Vermont, and a master's degree in American Studies from Boston College.

Lance Cpl. Paula Pineda relaxes at a picnic table not far from her barracks in Camp LeJeune, N.C. She's in a crisp uniform and has a ready smile. It's one of the few breaks she's had in months — and she can finally laugh about Carl.

"Carl — our special, heavy, unique dummy," she says.

It was back in March, in the heat of the Mojave Desert in California, that Pineda — sweaty and grimy and just 5-foot-2 — struggled to help pull Carl the dummy out of her armored vehicle, along with another Marine, Julia Carroll. It was part of an exercise to rescue an injured crewman.

The southern Afghan city of Kandahar was the birthplace of the Taliban and has long been considered one the most dangerous parts of Afghanistan.

But the city has grown peaceful in recent years, and much of the credit has been given to an American ally: Lt. Gen. Abdul Raziq, the provincial police chief.

On a recent day, the most feared man in Kandahar is slumped in a cheap blue plastic chair on a wide patio. He's slight and wiry, with a shy smile. He could be mistaken for a security guard at this palatial home of marble and chandeliers.

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Fuel trucks, cargo trucks and buses zip north along Highway One toward Kabul, just like any other morning. They seem not to notice what's above them on a vast desert plateau that overlooks the highway in Zabul province in southern Afghanistan.

Dozens of soldiers and police mill about, awaiting orders. There are armored vehicles, towed artillery, an ambulance and a long line of Humvees. Each one has a massive Afghan flag snapping in the breeze, like banners from some ancient army.

Brig. Gen. Viet Luong sits on a case of MREs, the soldiers' daily meals. He's inside a cavernous hanger at an Afghan army base outside the southern city of Kandahar.

A couple dozen American and Australian soldiers lounge on green cots lining the sides. Banners of U.S. military units hang on the walls. Between the troops is a 6-foot-tall shipment of Girl Scout cookies.

Luong's job is to train the Afghan military to fight a guerrilla force, the Taliban. But he's willing to talk about another guerrilla war, long ago.

The call comes into the Afghan battalion headquarters, a small concrete building that once housed American Green Berets. The Taliban are attacking a police checkpoint under construction in the foothills of Nangahar Province in eastern Afghanistan, a short distance from the border with Pakistan.

The Afghan soldiers gather in a line, lifting their palms and praying for a safe mission. They hop in their trucks and head up a winding dirt road. The unfinished checkpoint can be seen in the hazy distance.

With the U.S. combat role over in Afghanistan, the country's security now depends on men like Sgt. Maj. Faiz Mohammed Wafa, one of the leaders of the Afghan commandos.

On this day, the Afghan sergeant is screaming at trainees at Camp Commando, a training center built by the Americans in the hills south of Kabul. Two dozen trainees are seated in the dirt in full combat gear. Wafa is trying to teach them the proper way to clear a house, searching room to room for insurgents.

"I told you 10 times," he says. "Hold your weapons correctly!"

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Vice President Joe Biden says that the self-proclaimed Islamic State is no longer on the move in Iraq.

"The jury's still out, but the momentum is in the right direction," Biden said in a speech at National Defense University in Washington, in advance of a visit next week by Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi.

Biden laid out the destructive path of ISIS — also called ISIL — citing the collapse of the Iraqi Army, the fall of Mosul and the "slaughter" and "ethnic cleansing" that followed.

The man who designed the training experiment to determine if female Marines should be allowed into combat positions is not a Marine himself, but a civilian scientist. His data could also help the Marines justify their own standards for what makes a person fit for combat.

More than a dozen Marines from Alpha Company fan out across California's Mojave Desert, far into the distance. Machine-gun fire gives them cover. The small forms dash ahead. Some drop to one knee, others fall on their stomachs, firing at pop-up targets.

Only one woman is part of this group. Until last fall, Sgt. Kelly Brown was fueling helicopters and trucks. Now she's running with an assault rifle.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And we're going to talk more now about the decision to keep about 10,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan through the end of this year. NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman is here in the studio.

Welcome, Tom.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Hey, Audie.

It's a recent morning out in California's Mojave Desert, and Marine Lance Cpls. Paula Pineda and Julia Carroll are struggling to pick up and maneuver Carl. He's a 220-pound dummy, and a stand-in for a wounded Marine.

Carroll's knees buckle for a moment, but as a dusty wind picks up, the two women pull Carl off their light armored vehicle. They carry him to safety, careful not to let his head drag on the rocky ground.

Both women are out of breath.

Pineda is 5 foot 2. On the back of her helmet is a piece of masking tape with the words "Mad Max."

In the dry and craggy hills of California's Mojave Desert, Capt. Ray Kaster tries to shout over the din of a machine gun to be heard by Alpha Company, the unit of Marines he's working with during a month of rigorous instruction at Twentynine Palms training center.

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The American command in Afghanistan has for the first time in six years classified detailed statistics about the Afghan security forces — everything from equipment and training to attrition.

Gen. John Campbell, who is leading the NATO coalition's non-combat mission in Afghanistan, said he now considers all that sensitive operational information that could help the Taliban.

Campbell said he decided to classify details about the Afghan forces because they could be used by insurgent fighters to threaten both Afghan and U.S. forces.

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On this last day of 2014, America's troops in Afghanistan are still a combat force.

On Thursday, their mission changes.

"We will be ending our combat mission in Afghanistan, obviously because of the extraordinary service of the men and women in the American armed forces," President Obama said during a recent visit with Marines and their families in Hawaii.

But there will still be more than 10,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

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NPR — along with seven public radio stations around the country — is chronicling the lives of America's troops where they live. We're calling the project "Back at Base."

Lance Cpl. Jasmine Abrego is an office clerk who dreams of becoming a warrior.

She's flat on her stomach in the dirt, in full combat gear. Suddenly she pops up, slings a 44-pound metal tripod on her back and lurches forward in a crablike run. Finally, she slams the tripod to the ground. A male Marine slaps a .50-caliber machine gun into place.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has been on the defensive recently about the strategy to take on the Islamic State. American warplanes have been bombing targets in Iraq and Syria, but militant fighters are still on the move.

"We have made it very clear, I have and President Obama has, that this is a long, difficult effort," Hagel said.

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