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Photo: Lynsey Addario for The New York Times.

They expected tea, not firefights.

But the three female Marines and their patrol were shot at late on a recent day, when a burst of Kalashnikov rifle fire came from a nearby compound. The group hit the ground, crawled into a ditch and aimed its guns across the fields of cotton and corn.

In their sights they could see the source of the blast: an Afghan man who had shot aimlessly from behind a mud wall, shielded by a half-dozen children. The women held their fire with the rest of the patrol so as not to hit a child, waited for the all-clear, then headed back to the base, survivors of yet another encounter with the enemy.

“You still get that same feeling, like, ‘Oh, my gosh, I’m getting shot at,’ ” said Lance Cpl. Stephanie Robertson, 20, speaking of the firefights that have become part of her life in Marja. “But you know what to do. You’re not, like, comfortable, because you’re just — ” She stopped, searching for how to describe her response to experiences that for many would be terrifying. “It’s like muscle memory.”

Source: Elisabeth Bumiller for The New York Times.

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