Two US Marines kick and punch each other in a cloud of dust as their shaven-headed instructor bellows “Fight, fight, fight!”
Under the blazing hot sun, they grapple in a ring drawn in the sand as their fellow soldiers shout encouragement.
It is an afternoon session of physical training in the Afghanistan desert for some of the US soldiers recently sent to take on the Taliban insurgency.
Part of the preparation for war is the Marine Corps Martial Arts Program (MCMAP), a form of combat that combines disciplines including karate, kick-boxing and taekwondo.
Each contender is kitted out with head protection, a gum guard, a groin guard and shin pads.
On the instructor’s orders, they touch gloves and then flail wildly at one another in two two-minute rounds of unconfined aggression.
MCMAP, introduced in 2002, is compulsory in the Marines and officers say performance in the ring may soon be linked to chances for promotion.
“It prepares troops physically and mentally to take on the enemy, and it strengthens their moral character,” said instructor Staff Sergeant Richard Near, 25. “Techniques learnt here can help them kill opponents taller and stronger than themselves.”
After each bout, two exhausted soldiers hand over their kit to the next set of fighters. One man emerges spitting blood after a mouth cut.
“It is a real adrenaline rush,” said Chris Raggio, 29, after staggering from the ring. “It is good practice on how to take a blow, how to defend yourself. The aggression has to be combined with skills. You get badly bruised, especially on the legs but the injuries aren’t that serious.”
One fighter who attracts particular support is Gunnery Sergeant Tanya James, who is a MCMAP brown belt — one step below the top black-belt category.
She takes on male Marines and regularly beats them, though today’s session has been only for training and no winners are declared.
“A strict rule is that no man holds back when fighting a girl,” James, 32, said. “That is very important. Guys love fighting me and I like fighting them.”
James, who landed in Afghanistan in late May, and the other MCMAP fighters are among the 21,000 extra troops being deployed in the country as part of the US’ new strategy to defeat the Taliban.
Currently billeted in hastily built camps in the deserts of Helmand Province, they expect to soon come into contact with Taliban in the south of the province.