In the searing July heat, in the graveyard of empires, a small band of young men from America’s Battalion fought like wild animals to gain ground in a vicious daylight attack against Terry in the worst part of Helmand in 2008. They pushed until they had too many casualties to continue and that’s where the combat outpost was built. They named that spit of ground after Charles Sharp, who was a twenty-year-old kid from a small town north of Atlanta. He was one of many that died so the leaders in the rear with the gear could “own the battlespace and continue to conduct kinetic operations.”
There was a small cross made of wood and cardboard at one end of the outpost, and it had Sharp’s name at the top, followed by the names of others who had given their lives. Published reports said America’s Battalion had sustained more casualties than any other Jarhead unit in Afghanistan during their time at COP Sharp. That battalion was eventually replaced by The Warlords and the men of Fighting Fox.
I got dropped off at the outpost by a CH53 helicopter before dawn and made my way to the head shed (headquarters area). Two large monitor screens with a constant black infrared video feed showed the immediate vicinity outside the outpost; the black and white landscape revealed nothing to the untrained eye. But, the men who watched those screens knew every inch of that area and could spot anything out of the ordinary in seconds. There were maps on the walls with hand-written plastic overlays taped to them, and they had grids, targets, and last known sightings scribbled in the grease pencil shorthand of constant battle. It was silent and cold. The radios came to life every 30-minutes for checks and the sudden sound, although low, punctuated the stillness glaringly, and then it was back to blissful silence. A few men stood watch, and it smelled like wet socks and stale Copenhagen. They were all gaunt and sunburned; most had shaved heads.
First light revealed the small outpost. The main command building had thick mud walls, but it was a blown-out shamble and pock-marked with round impacts. It had been reinforced with a lot of sandbags, Hesco barriers, and hard work. A smoldering fire constantly burned wag bags (human shit) and everything else. It smelled like turds and fuel. There were hastily built shave tables, endless crates of water bottles, and MREs stacked like Legos. Combat engineers had built up the outpost in a way that resembled a castle, complete with lookout positions on four corners. A small stream ran along one side, much like an ancient moat. A makeshift, prison-like “cell-block-D” kind of gym had sprung up behind the main building; green ammo cans were filled with cement and hanging from a metal bar scrounged along the way. Wooden ammo crates were jammed together as a makeshift weight bench, with cut-up green sleeping mats attached to them with a shitload of green duct tape. Even in daily combat, some men were getting their chest swerve on. I had just left the opulence of Bagram Air Field (BAF), a classic rear-echelon airbase with state-of-the-art gyms, open 24-hours a day, so the Air Force and big Army could, “Stay in the fight.” It was a perfect example of the stark contrast between grunt and pogue life. Grunts referred to pogue havens like BAF as “Disney Land.” Most people in the internet age, even in the civilian world, understand what a Person Other than Grunt (POG) is. I prefer the term pogue as a direct reference to the band “The Pogues.” Picture a young Shane MacGowan in a blues cover, shouting incoherently as he shits his pants in fear. That is what I think of every time I deal with another glorified office manager in cammies (pogue) who cannot load his weapon correctly.
At the main guard tower, overlooking the front entrance of the outpost, haggard Jarheads, covered in dust, stared south through an old HMVV windshield. It was covered in spiderweb cracks from being stitched with multiple rounds. It had become useless from its original intent, but it was better than nothing to help stop incoming 7.62 rounds. It stood ominous watch over a snake-like entry control point. All of the lookout posts that ringed the perimeter were sandbagged to the hilt and draped in Cammie netting. The 120 mortars were ready to fire north and south, with pits dug and aiming stakes out. A large open area within the Hesco walls was used for choppers to land, and it was wide open to sniper fire.
Fleeting moments of peace existed like melting snowflakes. On a sunny day, a man on watch could tilt his head to catch a light wind and absently watch farmers working in the fields. The quiet countryside and sheer normalcy of daily life were fraudulently pleasing. A man could unintentionally let his mind drift a little too far, with his rifle slung across filthy thighs, thinking about different times that seemed too far away to be real. A man on watch always has a mental checklist running like code in the background of his mind; “On safe, mag in, condition 1, farmers look normal, wrecked Toyota still at 300 yards, ma deuce up, ammo stacked, red is dead, two to the body, one the head, etc.” A blackened canteen cup filled with lukewarm MRE Folgers coffee, Hydroxycut, a fresh dip, and/or a Marlboro Red, mixed with the soft memory of some long-forgotten pussy, that you could practically smell through your daydreams, tended to offset the little daily agonies.
You feel the grumbling stirrings of an oncoming MRE shit and instantly plan how you will meticulously and joyfully abuse your cock in the festering mud-walled shitter. If you are lucky, you get all your bodily functions expended in peace with no interruptions. You take your position back on watch and absently pick at the blisters on the inside of your lip from all the dipping before you put another one in. You smell your rotting chinstrap and do a press-check in the crease of your thigh, right under your balls, and smell that too. It all smells the same. Your mind recalls a favorite old song and some wonderful memory associated with it. You are so far down the rabbit hole of joy and exhaustion that you don’t even know where you are or how long you drifted off. It all comes to a screeching halt when a round cracks off and wizzes nearby. Adrenaline races as you scan with hyper-awareness. You feel your heart pounding in your rib cage, and you are mindful that your hands are shaking slightly. You are instantly back in the shit show, and it is time to go make the doughnuts. Those who are honest with themselves will acknowledge at least once in a while they like the feeling. In my life, many men have told me they preferred the simplicity of life in combat. It is the mundane insanity of daily life in the civilian world that fucks them up the most.
The outpost was situated at a dirt-road intersection, and a small cluster of abandoned and shot-up buildings made up what was once the local market across the street. Barely a hundred men took the fight to Terry (The Taliban) every day from that outpost. Another thirty men occupied a small patrol base about 1500 meters to the south. The main outpost I was on had a sister Afghanistan National Army (ANA) unit, located about 150 meters to the east. They seemed alright, but I got the impression that they were difficult to replace when they died, just like the Romulus guys that the famous one-legged Recon Marine, First Sergeant Woody Hamblen, worked with in Da Nang. The front yard of their building was riddled with piles of human shit. They didn’t smile ridiculously like many of the other ANA units.
The young captain running the show was solid. I still hear his name mentioned in certain circles, and they all confirm his courage and loyalty to his men. He was the kind of leader that led calmly and effectively from the front, with bullets cracking all around him. He would gladly die first for his men and almost did a few times before he left. He helped write the counter-insurgency manual for The Corps. He gave me complete access to everything, and his only guidance to me was to do my job well.
There was a patrol getting ready to leave, and they were letting me go with them. I started asking basic questions about their area of operations, immediate action drills, timelines, on-call targets, etc. It did not take more than a few minutes to make them understand I wasn’t a total jackass, and I wouldn’t be in their way. But they still weren’t sure. I asked enough questions that the inevitable question got asked of me by their First Sergeant, “Guns, what’s your MOS?” I sighed a little and awkwardly told him I was Public Affairs (PAO). Then, I quickly said, “But I used to be an oh three.” I deliberately only stated the general military occupational specialty (MOS) term for an 0311 infantry Marine or “03,” and I did not mention the 0321 Recon MOS I held for nearly 14 years. It did not matter. He paused and looked at me differently. Then he got kind of pissed off and asked, “Why in the hell did you stop doing that?” I did not have a good answer; I still don’t. For the most part, I was embarrassed by the inept, lying fools that controlled my new life as a pogue. They were real scumbags with clean uniforms and fake smiles. Grunts hate those kinds of folks; they can smell pogue lies a mile away. My new life as a pogue happened after I made what was called a lateral move (Lat-Move) late in my Marine Corps career. I went from being a Recon Marine to Public Affairs, with the ridiculously naive idea that I could be creative both as a Marine and in my free time.
Before I lat-moved, I foolishly believed I could tell the “real story.” There was no precedent for what I did. I have never even heard of anybody making a lateral move from Recon into PAO. I spent nearly two years in school to include a year at Syracuse University, studying advanced broadcast journalism techniques, so I could tell stories about the knuckle-draggers from the perspective of somebody who had carried the weight. I was going to make a difference. I was going to tell it like it was with no fucking compromises and no bullshit.
Almost four years later, I had gone from water-walker to total shitbag, even as I succeeded at my new job. I could not stop pissing off my new superiors. I had been passed over for promotion twice, and I had nearly gotten kicked out of the Corps at my 15-year mark after an RE3 code (unable to re-enlist) magically appeared in my electronic record book soon after I lat-moved. I also had to deal with the scorn of a senior PAO leader, who I truly believe was part of the infamous Beltway wife-swapping mafia, but I can never prove it. I only have my intuition and hard-earned instincts. He was a real creeper 9000 motherfucker, and in the end, he and his cronies made my life, and my family’s life, a living fucking hell until my very last day of service.
From the perspective of a Recon Marine, I irrationally believed the grass was greener in Pogueyland. All I saw was lots of chubby, placid people. Their cammies didn’t have holes in them, and they were filled to the brim with truly asinine motivation, “Ain’t no field cammies in da real Corps debil dawg!” They had air conditioning, and they rode in vehicles instead of walking with a heavy ruck. They got Navy Achievement Medals for writing book reports. I saw what I wanted to see to prove my working thesis that joining Pogueyville was a smart decision.
I was a fucking idiot, and I sold my soul to the devil to jump out of the frying pan right into the fire. I left the Recon community in the middle of two wars when they needed every available body so that I could become a broadcaster and a radio D.J., just like Adrian Cronauer in “Good Morning Vietnam.” The last group of Recon Marines I served with sent me packing with the ultimate disgrace of deafening silence. I deserved every ounce of their dishonor, and I will regret leaving the community until the day I die. Adrian Cronauer was the guest speaker at my military broadcaster school graduation. He said the whole movie was bullshit except for one part, which came about after being hungover and late going on air. Cronauer rushed into the studio, turned the mic on, and stretched out his words like rubber bands as he cued up the first record and said, “Good morning Vietnam!”
From the very moment I joined PAO, I had my character and integrity assassinated almost daily by pudgy nerds with too much time and power on their hands. Virtually every person I encountered in PAO was quick to remind me that I “wasn’t in Recon anymore.” More than a few people openly challenged my motivations for leaving the community. “You must have fucked up; I mean, who leaves Recon to do this?” It did not take long for me to become just like the kids I worked with; I was disgusted with it all and just marking time until I could get the fuck out and move on with my life.
My mind drifted through the wreckage of the various disastrous life decisions that had led me to COP Sharp. I thought it was morosely funny that virtually everybody in my newfound career despised me, including the room full of grunts I found myself sitting with. The only thing grunts hate more than pogues is a PAO pogue. Every time I slowed down long enough to think about my situation, I would get angry. But, around the grunts, I felt home again. I felt safe. I felt normal. The young squad leader briefing the mission had a fat dip in and casually explained that we were going to take contact as soon as we crossed into a certain area about 600 meters north. We met with the ANA just outside the outpost and stepped off.
I was rocking the latest in pogue war-fashion with my huge wrap-around vest, complete with all the side plates and crotch pad. I even had the gigantic neckpiece. Pogues could not go anywhere in the country without their Michelin Man outfit. A worthlessly heavy, non-breathable piece of gear that was more of a burden than a help. It was mandated by career staff weenies re-inventing the wheel back in the rear echelon universe I came from. They were the kind of bosses that hid behind cement walls and sandbags while they calculated how much money they were going to make with all their “hazard” pays. People like that make all the dumb rules that glare the worst out on the frontier, where reality destroys stupidity by the second. Pogues love their rules. They like to make every base they are on just like the big safe bases they came from back in the states. They do that by creating and enforcing all kinds of rules.
By adding one more useless rule to the ether, they find another way to justify their sulfurous existence in the self-licking ice cream cone that is pogues playing war. Every new inoperable rule is then gobbled up and turned into a non-judicial punishment (NJP) offense by some waddling motivator on KAF or BAF. Places like that are beyond surreal to the weary grunts catching flights in and out of the country. Pogues playing war find genius ways to justify the stupid things they do. They like to use ten-dollar words, and they can quote from the latest rules and regulations like the robots they are. They stay wrapped up tight in air-conditioned boxes, slurping dairy Queen and playing X-box for their version of the war. They already have their award citations written two months in. They get to bang the hot Russian laundry lady or their new female “workout partner.” They get their pump on at multiple gyms that would rival anything stateside.
They also enjoy a near 24-hour chow hall that spews hot food daily. I remember hearing people complaining when the ice cream ran out. There were bazaars every Saturday on BAF, and you could get a picture of yourself sitting on a camel. Pizza Hut, Green Beans Coffee, fully stocked P.X.’s, and on top of it all, New Car Sales. Kandahar Air Field took it to another level of dumb. The base had an outdoor hockey rink and a Tim Hortons in a shopping area literally called “The Boardwalk.” In many ways, it really did resemble Disney Land. More than a few enterprising young folks also enjoyed that world-class mad local Kush that grew nearby. I knew of one heroin overdose, a contractor, and any solid medic had at least one “morphine party” story to tell late at night in the smoke pit. Booze was easy to get either by mail or through locals, and chicks were everywhere. The war was something happening at a distance while the pogues chased their tails with busy work, drank their Listerine bottles of booze, and fucked each other blind in stinking porta-johns decorated with Sharpie-drawn dicks. When the occasional rocket landed within a thousand meters of the base, most of the headquarters commandoes practically wet themselves in fear and instantly started blogging about how the war had changed them.
I remember when one rocket actually hit something on the base; it was the combat rest center, or whatever the fuck big Army called it. It was a collection of air-conditioned quad-cons set aside expressly for those who had experienced combat and needed a rest to catch their breath before heading back out. For most of the nearly ten thousand people who lived there, the reality of life on BAF was that things already were pretty damn cushy. The only people who saw any actual combat were the grunts catching flights to and from getting wounded or the Special Forces dudes who had their own compound to rest in. So, the kind of people who utilized the rest center tended to be what Army folks in the smoke pit referred to as “useless malingerers, gaming the system.” I overheard one dude laughing out loud as he described what the inside of a quad-con looked like after a direct hit from a rocket. “It was like somebody made a giant batch of popcorn in there!”
In Fighting Fox’s reality of war, the men wore basic plate carriers, and they took only what they needed and what worked well on patrol. There was very little “regulation” about them; the kind of men who bleed for an ideal usually tend to be that way. After they do all the bleeding, the pogues and motivators back in the rear take most of the credit. I got a few wisecracks about how clean my gear was, and I had to laugh because it was true.
The area we were in had a fantastic irrigation system built by the United States back in the 50s. And, as far as I could see, the only crops growing were Opium Poppy and Weed. All the feel-good “grow wheat not drugs” policies probably sounded fantastic in some wood-grained think tank in D.C. But, in Terry’s hometown, poppy plants kept the family alive. None of those same D.C. do-gooders would even consider coming near where Fighting Fox was. They peddled their wheat and corn growing fantasies up north, where things were relatively quiet. Plus, the safe bases had easy access by chopper. The cameras and reporters could be flown in and out quickly and efficiently. Hot chow was even built into the “workday.” Pogues love the routine of it all; they get all kinds of awards for executing their endless nonsense.
The Jarheads in Fighting Fox, down to the lowest ranking man, were acutely aware of the situation on the ground, and they made a clear decision early on that they weren’t in the business of drug interdiction. Instead, they focused on helping the farmers in the immediate area in any way they could. Lieutenant General Victor Krulak called it the “Ink Blot Theory” in his book First to Fight, and he put it into action during Vietnam. The concept is straightforward; win over the people by living with them, taking care of them, and showing them that you have their back.
The men had made some progress, but Terry was always watching and learning. And he adjusted his battle plan accordingly. A combat Jarhead receives an exceptional education that cannot be learned in a classroom. As we continued on patrol, the men of Fighting Fox showed me a few things they had learned. Terry knew they were coming. Within minutes of the patrol leaving the wire, Terry was lighting small fires along the riverbank. Every guy in the squad knew what that meant. They had seen it many times before. It was only a matter of time before they took fire. They switched up their route as much as possible to avoid IEDs. It was a hard lesson learned in Helmand Province; if you walk the same path enough times, you will eventually step on an IED. Terry is not dumb. One noted sign of trouble was the sudden disappearance of children from the immediate area. Also, on the main road, young men drove by slowly on motorcycles, watching silently as the squad advanced.
There’s something to be said for the sixth sense one acquires in that environment. Birds still chirp, and the sun still shines, but you just know something’s coming. You can feel it. The men still pushed on. Their target area was an obvious choke point near a small cluster of buildings where the main dirt road met the river. We were pushing across a small plowed field when the unmistakable sound of a Russian RPK machine gun opened up on the squad from the left. The squad was precise and deliberate in the way it maneuvered and returned fire. The men told me later that Terry often used women and children as human shields during firefights, so the men took extra care not to harm any civilians. There was a quick moment in the firefight when I witnessed those amazing men running towards the sound of gunfire and I was in awe of their courage and their sheer will.
There was an Indian reporter named Ramon traveling with the squad as well. He had spent almost a year with various grunt units, and he was very brave. He wasn’t well versed in tactics, and he asked me an awkward but funny question in the middle of everything. The squad had fallen into their I.A. drills, and they were moving fast. I was waiting for my time to rush when Ramon said, “Do you think we should follow them now?” I said, “Hell yes, brother, come on!” The grunts ended up loving that dude because he was so honest. He stayed for months and won awards for the things he captured with his camera. I was told he also had credit for the only still photo of an IED going off mid-blast. The grunts gave him that kind of actual access because he was real.
A solid 203 gunner laid down suppressive grenade fire to cover the squad’s advance. We took cover for a few minutes in a pot field with eight-foot-high plants keeping us hidden. Dark greenish-brown buds stuck to our clothing, and the air smelled like the parking lot of a long-lost Led Zepplin concert. There was an older terp, in his mid-fifties, that was listening to Terry talk about us on a small hand-held radio. He was sweating and jittery as he repeated Terry’s words. “They see us!!, they see four people in the field by the left hut; they are directing their fire!!!” The fear in his staccato accent was unmistakable. His wild and staring eyes almost looked super-glued onto his chubby brown face. He had the obligatory thick mustache, and he was glistening with dew-like sweat. He looked like a coked-out living version of Mr. Potato Head. The grunts worked their machine guns, making them talk in stereo with staggered sustained fire. They did not talk much. It was like witnessing a well-rehearsed play. They launched a small drone but did not bother looking at the feed because they knew as soon as Terry heard that noise, he would back off. It gave the grunts a split second to take the advantage and push forward.
Career pogues can’t even make a simple decision about how much chow to pack without a complicated PowerPoint brief. Grunts live in a world of the eighty percent solution. A world of instincts and hard lessons learned. No time to think, just react and take the fight to the enemy. Through the years, I had witnessed an endless sea of pogues seize up once they had to make a split-second command decision that didn’t allow them “time to absorb the battlespace.”
The average ground-pounder despises indecision. He also hates PowerPoint because it reminds him of the endless mandatory nonsense he has to sit through every time somebody screws up. The Secretary of Defense Gates publicly bemoaned the use of PowerPoint. Yet, everywhere he went, he was greeted by his own people with mind-numbing PowerPoint briefs about how fantastic everything was going. In The Suck, there are few things more repulsive or dangerous than a swaggering pogue leader who’s drunk with power. On the battlefield, grunts always get their revenge on those types. As long as the grunts stay bloody, the pogues stay away. It never lasts; eventually, every grunt has to go back to Pogueyland, making the circle of life in The Suck complete.
By the time the squad was within striking distance, the enemy had melted back into the population. The Jarheads said that’s how Terry operated. The enemy hid their weapons wherever they could and scared the hell out of the locals by threatening their whole families if they said anything to the Marines. A corpsman next to me said they had actually made it a lot farther than the last time before somebody started shooting at them.
The patrol began a methodical search of the area. They found a few shell casings, but they said Terry was very good at hiding the evidence. The men went to incredible lengths not to damage any property as they met with the locals. Through translators, leaders tried to get the locals to understand they were there to help. The approach was working in certain areas. Many locals were sick of Terry, and they had begun to come forward with information about IEDs and various bad guys in the area. The young captain told the locals they could go to the front gate of the outpost for medical treatment, and they did.
The little kids showed up out of nowhere, and the squad collectively breathed a little easier. “Meester chocolatt?” Terry was watching from his motorcycle as always, but the Jarheads would not drop him just for riding a bike. Everybody did their thing on-site, and we started to head back to the outpost. As the squad was getting ready to leave, an enemy shot rang out from the north. It frightened a young boy on a rickety bicycle nearby and sent him scurrying into a ditch. The front wheel of his bike was spinning idly as Terry watched from his motorcycle.
The debrief was not very long once we got back. As always, I was in awe of those young men and the way they carried themselves. They’re the real heroes of our time, yet our society mostly chooses to worship vapid people with no real discernable talent outside of looking pretty and uttering some catchphrase. I spent the rest of the day getting to know the men, doing interviews, and filming the daily operations of the base. They had no running water, and they pissed in tubes in the ground. They would shit in plastic bags and throw them on a smoldering burn pit that never extinguished. Their only food was either self-heating tray rations or Meals Ready to Eat (MREs). The dreaded high-calorie light-tan colored rations that come twelve to a box; each meal is also assigned a number on the bag. People who have lived on MREs for a long time can give you a detailed inventory of what is inside one of them simply based on the number on the bag. If you spend years eating MRES, you will never want to eat another one again once the shitshow has ended. Laundry was done with a mop bucket and a ringer, then dried in the sun wherever they could find a place to hang their clothes. Their “showers” were wooden boxes where they used a plastic bladder filled with water that had sat in the sun to warm up. Most guys just did the baby wipe bath.
When they weren’t on patrol, they stood watch. They patrolled night and day, and there was very little time for sleep. Existing on a few restless minutes of sleep for months on end has a way of aging a person overnight. Forcing your eyes to stay open for days through a combination of adrenaline, fear, hatred, and various chemicals creates a state of numb lucidness.
Ground-pounders on the frontier exist in that state, which is punctuated by insanity, violence, and gallows humor. Their lizard brains stay suspended in motionless anticipation until the very last second. Economy of motion becomes a religion. They come out of their cotton candy haze just long enough to strike with a ferociousness that would shock any civilized person. They quickly return to their numb perch, eyes always open, even when they’re closed. If they get to sleep for longer than three hours, they feel like they are reborn. It’s the life of a fighter on the front lines, and it has been that way since the dawn of war.
There was a platoon of combat engineers constantly improving the security of the outpost. They slept on the ground next to the head shed and never stopped working. The platoon sergeant was a female, which was rare to see in places like COP Sharp. When I asked her how she ended up there, she simply said, “This is where my people are.”
We punched out early to a small patrol base about 1500 meters south of the outpost the next day. I was feeling every muscle in my body as I took off my gear and caught my breath. I met a young sergeant with a fresh through-and-through 7.62 hole in his calf. He was part of the advance party two months prior, and he got hit on day one but refused to leave his men. They were getting ready for a big operation that night.
The young captain had crafted a plan based on recent activity during the last few days. The snipers had dropped a guy who was swaggering around in daylight with a chest rig and a Dragunov rifle. They waited for Terry to come to get the body and tracked it to a small compound four kilometers south. The car had stopped at the compound for about fifteen minutes and left. The captain’s plan involved the entire company humping through the desert and swinging into the compound early in the morning to conduct a raid. Terry was known to have at least a couple thousand reinforcements in the area. The captain said nobody had ever been that far south. They were going to walk into Terry’s backyard at the low ready.
Everybody dispersed, but I lingered for a while, savoring every ounce of solitude. I leaned against a small hill and immediately thought about my two-year-old son back in Okinawa. The last day I saw him, I was enjoying a cigar at Ogimi beach in the northern end of the island where the jungle creeps right up to the blue-green crystalline ocean. I was staring out over a small bay that Commadore Matthew Perry had mapped before his historic visit to mainland Japan in 1853. The saltwater mixed with the smoke of a Cuban robusto cigar. The smell clung to my nails. It was cloudy but still beautiful; Ogimi never disappoints. My son was running up to me and calling out, “daddy, daddy!” He was so happy just to be near me. The seawater lapped against the big rocks on the jetty. He leaned slightly over the edge of the cement wall and pointed at the water, “The waddy” he said excitedly. Little minnows darted around the rocks. I could not remember feeling such intense love and sadness all at once.
The upcoming operation had all the signs of becoming a violent engagement. Many hours later, after the platoon, the squad and the team had all briefed their parts and double-checked all their gear and people, it was nearing midnight, and we were about to step off. I stared at the stars and tried to flip that old familiar switch in my head back into the “on” position. It was the switch that accepted impending death and freed my mind from the paralyzing fear of getting blown to pieces or cut down by a flurry of rounds. Most of the men around me were sitting in their own silence. Many were sleeping or quietly talking and smoking. I thought of all those athletes that our society pays millions of dollars to, while the men in front of me carried ungodly amounts of weight and ammunition, constantly facing serious injury and death. They suffer on a regular basis for very little money. They do it for their flag and their country. Some do it for the adventure, but that shit wears off quickly in The Suck. In the end, they do it for the ones to the left and right.
I couldn’t help but wonder just how many of those rich modern athletes would do the same. Pat Tillman is one in recent memory that comes to mind. The USO at BAF was named after him. Back in the day, there were people like Rocky Bleier. He played a year for the Steelers in 68 and then was drafted. People in their 20s probably don’t know what the draft was. Bleier was severely wounded in Vietnam and was told he would never play football again. He went on to play for the Steelers for many years after that, winning four Super Bowls. There’s just such a disconnect these days between American society and those who serve. Seventy years ago, serving your country was just something that was understood. As a result, the list of celebrities who served was pretty long. Everybody from Lee Marvin and Jackie Robinson to Captain Kangaroo, Ed McMahon, and Joe Louis served. Kris Kristofferson was a Rhodes scholar who went to Oxford and became a chopper pilot in the Army. He went on to write some amazing music, including the song “Bobby McGee.” He also acted in a bunch of great movies, but it’s not like that anymore.
Jason Everman is a modern version of a rock star turned badass. He was kicked out of two famous bands and then joined the Army and became a Ranger and a Green Beret. These days, he plays for the band Silence and Light, a band made up of prior special forces dudes. They are getting some decent attention, but I wonder how long it will last for them once all the “thank you for your service” platitudes wear off. Gary Sinise constantly bridges the gap between Hollywood and the military, but people like him tend to be the minority. Anybody who has served in the military knows you end up working with people from all over the United States and from all walks of life. Along the way, you also experience working for good and bad leaders. It’s the perfect learning ground for life, but service has become demonized. The majority of American society has no idea how brutal the world really is and how close true evil is to their back door. The older I get, the more terrified I become when I think of the future of my country and what kind of world my kids will grow up in.
When I came in, my first platoon sergeant was still a sergeant at 13 years in. He had been in Beirut and was ruthless but fair. By the time I picked up staff sergeant, I had been in nine years and deployed a number of times. I learned hard lessons about leadership and getting the job done. I’d paid a few prices and began to understand what the word “sacrifice” meant.
As the years went on, it became increasingly common for me to meet some baby-faced Staff Sergeant who had picked up rank in five years and never deployed or even left their first duty station. People like that tend not to like me very much. And, whenever I meet somebody who’s picked up Gunnery Sergeant in ten years, it makes me think they know how to say, “Yes sir!” a lot.
Things have changed. My mouth, attitude, and even my tattoos have become illegal in the modern Corps. When I came in, every gunny I knew was just like I am now. It’s not like I didn’t try to play the game from time to time. I’m not stupid, but I lost most of my patience somewhere in the 90s. Old salts used to call people like me a Jarhead. Now, some 13-year First Sergeant with two tours on the drill field or recruiting duty and rocking an almost pervasive Bronze Star with no “V” for valor, or an accompanying Combat Action Ribbon, refers to people like me as a shitbag.
I had only brought one pair of socks for my short three-day trip. I forgot about streams and mud and sand and how it all mixed together in the bottom of a boot. After just two days of patrolling, my feet looked like they had gangrene. A young Explosive Ordnance Disposal sergeant gave me a pair. I asked if he knew my old buddy Behner who was EOD for 30 years, got blown up and lived. The young sergeant did not know who Behner was. We stepped off soon after midnight, and it was clear and cold. The stars looked like somebody had poked a thousand little holes in a black blanket. My whole body ached, and we had a good four-click movement just to get to the objective. The men I was walking with were all carrying more weight than me, and they did it with ease. A couple of night vision goggles (NVGs) went down, and the men adjusted as best they could, stumbling and quietly cursing in the darkness. One of the interpreters was so scared he left the patrol about ten minutes into our movement. I was told later; he did not say a fucking word to anybody. He just turned around and went back to the small patrol base. The men knew they had lost somebody right away, and we had to pause for a while. There was not much anybody could do about it, so they went on without him. We got a little off course a few times during the night, but it wasn’t too bad. Every time we would drift, I would see someone come hustling from the back, quietly muttering that we had drifted again. He would correct the point man, and we kept moving, like a silent herd of cattle, to our target.
We hit our rally point probably around 3:30 AM. As I tried to adjust my body and gear in a way that didn’t hurt, I couldn’t get the vision of my son, in our old house, out of my head. At the time, I was putting in long days trying to figure out how to run an Armed Forces Network (AFN) television and radio station. I tried to lead the Air Force kids, and young Marine broadcasters who worked for me like I would lead a Recon team. I tried to interact with career Air Force and Marine Pogue leaders like I would act with Recon guys. The entire organization mutinied on me, and I failed miserably. I would come home mentally exhausted in ways I did not think was possible. As soon as I would enter through the front door of our house, my son would come running from the living room. I would always hear his little feet on the linoleum floor, and then he would appear around the corner, throw both his hands in the air, and scream, “daddy!” I would pick him up and hug him dearly, burying my soul in his innocence. I could not get the sound of his feet out of my head. I could not flip that switch. We pushed on to the compound.
There was a sureness to our step as we got closer. We sped up slightly as we approached the target compound. It was pitch black, and I had no NVGs. I was just trying to stay as close as I could to the guys I was with. It was hard to see even a few feet in front of me. The dogs heard us long before we got there. They always do. There were a bunch of them, and they howled at us as we got closer. We made our way to the back of a mud hut, and I still couldn’t see anything. One of the numerous barking dogs was barely five feet away from us, snarling with a guttural, violent sound. I could hear his teeth snapping together like they had their own motor. The men would not shoot the dogs. From a simple tactical standpoint, it was counterproductive. The gunfire would only alert more people in the vicinity to our arrival. The only thing they could do was to try and scare the dogs away. Dogs bark all the time in war zones. You just have to deal with it. Plus, killing a civilian’s dog was not how one gained the trust of the locals, and the men knew it. At the ground level, I witnessed just what it took to win over the local people while trying to battle Terry in his backyard. One guy was crouched right next to me. He was looking in the direction of the snarling animal and using his free hand to blindly search the ground for a rock to throw at the damn thing.
Somebody came up from the rear and told us we were at the wrong building. In the dark, they all look the same. The fact that we were only one cluster of buildings off was pretty good. I can remember being in the middle of a bunch of buildings in Iraq and arguing with my Assistant Team Leader (ATL) as we tried to figure out which mud hut we were supposed to be taking down. We moved swiftly to the compound, and I stumbled all over the place as we took up our positions around it. There was no cover or concealment, just a small ditch that sunk down about six inches next to a dirt road that led to the compound. I was absolutely amazed that I had not seen any muzzle flashes yet.
The reporter Ramon was next to me, and he kept trying to lay as flat as possible in the little ditch we were in, but he soon realized it was pointless. He whispered, “We are really screwed if they shoot at us!” Then he got really quiet; we all did. We were in position around the target, and it still was not first light, so we waited. There must have been ten dogs around that place howling at the top of their lungs, and still, we waited. The early morning call to prayer went in a small mosque nearby, and we waited. It was beyond unnerving to hear those dogs wail, mixed with the soft moan of the call to prayer. At that point, it would have been a relief to hear gunfire. First light came about twenty minutes after the call to prayer, but it might as well have been an eternity. An old man wandered right next to me on the road, and I didn’t see him until it was too late. It didn’t matter because the patrol made entry.
The ANA led through the front door of the compound with a soft knock entrance. Once again, the idea of winning over the locals was demonstrated with a simple and profound approach. They did not blow the front door off and rush in screaming, but the way they did it had just as powerful of an entrance. Experience had taught them that at least one person on the other side of the door might be an innocent civilian. I had seen the men demonstrate courage beyond words in a gunfight the day before, and I was observing a different kind of courage at that moment. They were in the heart of the insurgency, yet they walked in serenely and asked permission to talk to the main elder.
There were the requisite angry females, wailing with one hand raised in the air and another clutched around a sleepy-looking child. There were fuming, sullen looks from the young men. The older men stayed hidden until the very end. The hut they came out of was the one that had a small, hastily lit fire coming out of its chimney minutes after our group had made entry into the compound. White smoke wafted lazily up to the sky. Within a half-hour, we collectively realized it was not going to be a slugfest after all. We kept watch on the surrounding area.
The walk back to the small patrol base was filled with jokes and light banter. Everybody knew how bad it could have been. We all collectively wondered why Terry’s vehicle had stopped there with a dead body in the back. A young Lance Corporal made a simple conclusion after he pointed to a number of 55-gallon drums in the back of the compound; they all held fuel. “It’s probably a fucking Hadji gas station,” he shouted, and everybody on the patrol kind of shook their heads collectively in the morning sun. Once we got back to the patrol base, I was given a ride back to the original outpost. A bomb-sniffing dog rode with us, and somebody with a dark sense of humor had named him “Boomer.” We bounced like ping pong balls in a tin can as we made our way through the terrain.
The next day would be my final patrol with the men. It was a humanitarian aid stop at a village barely seven hundred meters to the west of the area we had taken fire from two days before. I was told the place was like a little enclave of peace and prosperity in that area. Unfortunately, the mood was very somber. There was a battle going on to the south with one confirmed casualty. The men all knew the name of the Marine who was killed as we prepared to step off. Choppers providing close air support whizzed by, low to the ground, and enemy small arms fire chased after them.
While the pogues on BAF enjoyed salsa night, a massage at the spa, and prepared the main hanger so they could fly in ESPN for a Super Bowl party, the men of Fighting Fox called in a medevac for their dead and wounded. They took their turns on watch, manning the perimeter, and if they got any sleep at all, it would be fitful at best. The enemy was always prodding. A few men joked about firing off knuckle kids on watch just to stay awake. All day, every day, the grind doesn’t change. It makes a man so tired he can fall asleep standing up with a fat dip in. The grind changes people from young to old quickly. The only thing that would change about the pogues on BAF and KAF would be their waist size.
Just like you’ll rarely meet a guy who actually rang the bell at BUDs, you’ll probably never meet a pogue who admits that he sat safely behind a desk, on some giant rear-echelon base, and shopped at the P.X. while sipping Green Beans coffee for his version of war. I have lost count of how many people I met in the civilian world, who told me what badasses they were “in the war.” Apparently, everybody was in the stack killing Bin Laden. Nobody was a truck driver, administrative clerk, supply guy, or mechanic. Everybody was a badass, Team-Guy, CAG, recon daddy, sniper, motherfucker. I do not even challenge them anymore; I encourage their bullshit. At times, it is more entertaining than T.V. Other times, I want to crawl into a dark room and never see humans again. So many motherfuckers lie, and so many civilians have no clue, that telling people the truth makes them suspicious. The truth is I did not do much, but I walked amongst men who did.
The village we patrolled to wasn’t very far from the outpost. The local elder made it clear he hated Terry and was more than happy to talk. The man was a tailor who had been uprooted from where he originally lived by the fighting. The place was teeming with children, and the Jarheads told me it was one of the few operating schools in the area. The elder thanked the men for giving medical care to the people he knew in the area. A corpsman handed out candy and pens to the kids.
The tension was never far from the patrol. During the talk with the elder, four young men, all dressed in black, wandered into the area and were quickly questioned by the ANA. They were sent on their way, and a few of them sneered sarcastically at me as they passed. A couple of grunts, who had been to the area before told me the place was great except for one building off to the west. The last time they were in the vicinity of that building, a group of children would not come near them. Instead, the kids kept looking at that building and then down at the ground. The four men in black were walking to the same building. I turned my attention and camera back to the scene at hand. It was a beautiful sunset with golden light illuminating the area. Cute kids were mugging for the camera. One boy was wearing a purple prayer cap, and his hair was dyed bright red. His eyes had an otherwordly blue hue to them. His laughter and curiosity felt genuine.
I caught a bird out soon after that, and within a few weeks, I found myself sitting in the airport at BAF waiting to leave. My time was up, and I had to return to Yut-Yut land where the friggin, dawgone motivators drilled themselves in robotic circles and pointed dull swords in various directions as they mouthed unintelligible gibberish.
The president of the base school’s Parent Teacher Organization would be fretting over how nutritious the school lunch menu was, “Can you do a radio spot about that gunny?” The key wives club would be angrily inquiring about the possibility of Marines stopping training during the morning rush hour, so the wives could drive easier, “The general needs to know about this!” Some pretentious PAO liaison in Hollywood was probably already clogging my inbox to see if any wives on base were interested in being in a focus group for another military T.V. show that would not go past the pilot episode.
I thought of the pedantic and adulterous Air Force leader back at AFN, who was openly banging the Japanese secretary. He would be waiting to remind me yet again that I was too mean, I yelled too much, and I did not take people’s feelings into account when I dealt with them. My fresh orders to the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) were also waiting for me, courtesy of another angry PAO leader, who I had pissed off. I spent a lot of time on that MEU through the years. It was a floating nut house. I was basically being demoted to rot on the MEU for two years until I retired. I dreaded the very thought of it all, but I rejoiced at being able to see my precious family again, even for a little bit.
The outbound waiting area at BAF was a melting pot filled with people who had served their time all over the country. There is nowhere to go, and the mind-numbing bureaucracy of the military forces people to spend at least 12 hours waiting on a flight out. People stake out their spot on the cement floor like gold prospectors. It was kind of like being in an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting in a moldy church basement, filled with people who did not give a fuck about anything anymore.
I distinctly remember talking to a young Jarhead captain. He was long beyond rage. He talked in a battered but focused sarcastic tone that many junior officers have at the end of their tours in the military. They usually have a job offer or grad school on the horizon, and it offers them hope as they chase their greener grass. The illusion of some future security gives them just enough swagger to occasionally break ranks with insanity and speak the truth. The young captain had spent his time in Kabul, and he had been in charge of giving out all the American dollars that got spent on those feel-good projects that had been implemented throughout Afghanistan. In the cash-rich bubble of Kabul’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) headquarters, no idea was too stupid when the pockets ran deep. An insider once told me, “In ISAF HQ, you can swing a dead cat anywhere and hit a pompous Lieutenant Colonel with multiple master’s degrees, who will not stop talking about, “A bold new approach.”
He explained that a kindergartener on a twisted school field trip to Afghanistan could tell anybody within earshot the truth after one day; no amount of money or good intentions will ever make them stop living in the first century. They wipe their ass with their left hand, fuck their chai boys, and chain-smoke on their haunches, smiling maniacally. They are more than happy to take whatever they can get from the latest empire in town, but they will never change. “It’s a fucking black hole,” the young captain said with dead eyes. “All we’re doing is pissing money down into a pit of darkness.” He was calm but beyond bitter. He was almost homicidal in the subdued delivery of words. “Half the fucking cash we give them gets smuggled out of the country in shitty suitcases!” He pointed randomly to the flight line. “I can’t believe how much time and money we’ve wasted on these goat fuckers.” He fell silent, and his eyes grew distant. “A fucking black hole,” he muttered bitterly over his shoulder, and then he drifted away to refill his Styrofoam cup with burnt coffee. A broken intercom sprang to life and interrupted the waiting area with some feedback as a nasal-voiced Air Force nerd informed everybody what they already knew. The flight was delayed.
A couple of years later, I was working on another story, and I stumbled across the official video of Combat Outpost Sharp being dismantled and handed back to Terry, or “the local populace,” as the press release probably stated. The pogues clearing out all the gear did not seem worried at all about Terry trying to kill them. I am sure there were at least a few young dudes on motorcycles waving and smiling at the pogues as they drove off. I suddenly understood all those old salts from Vietnam a hell of a lot better.
In the end, the shitty politics of it all does not matter. Grunts do not sign up for the college benefits and a skill they can use down the road. They join to carry a ruck and a gun into combat. War will never cease; therefore, neither must the warrior. The sons of America, some still in their teens, who fought, bled, and died on that festering wound of a battlefield, did so for each other, just like every warrior throughout history. May God continue to bless their beautiful, filthy souls.