It had been a while since I’d walked off of bird at night and I seriously couldn’t remember which side of the 53 the tail rotor was on. I waited like an idiot for the crew chief to point and then followed his outstretched arm blindly into a grey, hazy darkness. The bird blasted out of there, quickly giving way to that pristine silence that blankets all combat zones at night. I was first aware of how many stars were in the sky. The area had no light pollution so I could see things the way our ancestors saw them thousands of years ago. After a while, I racked a round in my weapon and kind of wondered if we were even in the right place. We were supposed to land at the most southern combat outpost in all of Afghanistan. I hobbled up the berm in front of me and peered over the razor wire, wondering sheepishly if I could be seen. As my eyes adjusted, I became aware of a guard tower about 20 yards to my left. I made my way to it and carefully climbed the rickety, homemade ladder that led to the top. I was careful with my left ankle. I had managed to twist it a few days before we had left for the operation, running on some slippery wood pathway behind our living area at Dizney Land and I’d gone down hard. By the time I got to the base hospital, my ankle looked like a grapefruit had taken up residence on it. I spent three days in the rack with constant ice on my ankle, hoping the swelling would go down and I could actually put weight back on it. I made it to the top of the ladder and issued a quick clicking sound out of the side of my mouth.
A tarp covering a makeshift opening in the sandbagged tower was flung open and I caught the glimpse of green night-vision goggles being tilted up on a helmet. A shadowy, short figure crouched down to my level and I asked him if we were actually at COP Shure. I used the official HQ name for the place and was quickly corrected by the young figure. He said the pace was called COP Sharp and he gave me directions to find the command post. I smiled inwardly as he talked because every other word he used was “fuckin” and I knew I was back with my people. I was far away from the sedentary, flaccid, uptight, politically correct weenies who owned my soul in my newly chosen job profession. I was back with fucking jarheads in the middle of a very bad place. I actually felt safe.
The men who owned the outpost named it after LCpl Sharp; the first person to pay the ultimate sacrifice in that far away place. The original unit that had taken control of the battlespace was 2/8. When 2/8 had first landed, they got off the birds and immediately started fighting. They advanced as far as they could and under fire, they started digging in. Where they started digging would become the combat outpost I was standing in. They had pushed out into the outlying area for six months and made a lot of progress. They had recently left to be replaced by the men of Fox Company, 2/2 who called themselves “Fighting Fox” and they were expanding on the success of 2/8.
There was a small cross made of wood and cardboard at one end of the outpost and it had LCpl Sharp’s name at the top followed by the names of others who had given their lives. A recent article in the Marine Corps Times said the Marines of 2/8 had sustained more casualties than any other Marine unit in Afghanistan in 2009 during their time at Cop Sharp.
It had been so long since I had felt that brotherhood. I had been floundering for five years up to that point. I had been surrounded by some of the most limp-wristed, over-educated, prissy, backstabbing scumbags you could ever imagine for so long that I had forgotten what real brothers looked and sounded like. The group of weak-minded, perfect speaking, fembots I worked with in my new career field had been giving me a meticulous "breaking in" to the so-called “real world” for five long years. They didn’t use Vaseline and I never even got a reach around from the sadistic bastards. They just gave me two full barrels of perfectly enunciated “eat shit” from day one and I had been trying to free myself from their estrogen-drenched grip ever since. That young corpsman from 2/8 was like a breath of fresh air in a hot room full of stale beer farts. He reminded me there still were some amazing souls out there and they were at a place called COP Sharp. It didn’t matter that the HQ types called it COP Shure. The people, who understood, knew the truth.
That warrior spirit permeated COP Sharp. I found my way to the head shed and was greeted kindly by the officer on watch. A young Lcpl showed me to a small tent that was occupied by a few people. It was around 4 AM by then and they were all sleeping. The place smelled like feet and stale Copenhagen. I settled into a dusty spot in the corner and tried to sleep, but didn’t. A few hours later, I was meeting the same young lieutenant from the night before and I gave him my pitch. I wanted to tell the story of the men of 2/2 with my video camera. I wanted to do what they did and follow them on patrol. I was expecting to hear the same thing I’ve heard for the last five years. “Well that’s all good and everything but, you can’t film this and you can’t see that stuff over there and you can’t talk about virtually anything that would tell the story.”
From the beginning of my lateral move into this job, I was astounded by how many doors were simply closed to me because I carried a camera. Even guys I knew from the old job would tell me point blank, “get that thing out of my face, you should know better.” I couldn’t blame any of them. I had seen it myself for many years. Dumb ass reporters who had watched too many movies, and didn’t know shit, trying to tell the story and never getting it right had made everybody I knew in the old job leery of people with cameras. I was very surprised by what the young lieutenant told me. He said the doors were open and I could film whatever and wherever I wanted to. There were a few things that couldn’t be mentioned because of operational security, but they were minor. He finished by saying, “You’re one of us.”
There was a patrol leaving that morning that was being led by the Afghan National Army (ANA) and they were headed to a place where they and the Marines had taken fire just a week before. They had one open spot and it was mine if I wanted it. I quickly began my patrol prep and checking all my gear. Everything I had learned as a Community guy was coming back to me like riding a bike. I had spent five years getting ready for that moment. Up until then, I had covered endless stories about nothing or dealt with infinite hassles from people who got in the way of a good story. The good people, who deserved to have their story told, usually wanted nothing to do with me. Then there were the overly anxious types, who just had to be on TV, and they hounded me with ridiculous requests and mindless information about nothing relevant, thinking it was the most important information in the world. I had navigated through all of it and become more and more cynical, hoping to someday really tell a good story about the ground pounders and what they did every day from the perspective of somebody who had once walked in their shoes.
I asked the Marines a lot of questions, not really to learn any new answers, but to let them know I would not be a burden to their patrol. I asked about their IA drills and how they called for air etc. I asked enough questions that the inevitable question got asked of me by their first sergeant, “guns, what’s your MOS?” And as always, I awkwardly told him and waited for the sarcastic smile and offhand comment about my chosen profession that would follow. I wasn’t always embarrassed to be what I am now. I had learned to be embarrassed because there were so many cheesy scumbags who populated my job field. In the last few years, I had gotten into the habit of apologizing for who I represented. And if you knew all the repugnant, flabby, inept, lying individuals I knew in this job, you would be embarrassed too. The old, angry lance criminal in me hates pogues even more now because I’ve seen firsthand how they really are. I foolishly thought I could navigate their treacherous poguey terrain, but they’ve chewed me up and spit me out of their delicate, intellectual mouths.
The first sergeant made his remarks with a half-cocked smile and I said, “But I used to be an 03.” He paused and looked at me differently, “what kind of an 03?” And there it was; one little question that always unlocked the flood gates. My answer would cause me to be even more embarrassed because I knew what was coming. I looked at the ground and said, “I used to be a Community guy for 14 years.” He said the same thing everybody has said to me ever since my lateral move, “well why in the hell did you stop doing that?”
I still don’t have a good answer for that one. But my unofficial credentials were out there. It would only be a few minutes before they all knew, and in turn, looked at me a little differently. I had taken that look for granted all those years I was a Community guy. I had gotten used to it. I had accepted it as both a curse and a blessing. It was a look that gave me instant creditability. I had given that look up when I lateral moved to have it replaced by sneers. Five years later, I still missed that look.
The area around the COP reminded me of the terrain I had worked in while I was in Iraq, in 2005, with my last Community unit. Mostly fertile farmland and adobe-style mud-hut dwellings. The reason the land is so fertile is because of a giant irrigation system that had been built by U.S civil engineers in the ’50s. The water made the area perfect for growing crops. Unfortunately, the crops that made the most money for local farmers were poppy and weed.
The farmers are caught in the middle of this war. They’re just trying to feed their families. If they could make money off of the cotton, corn, wheat, and saffron that they also grow, they would, but the reality is the Taliban had moved in years ago and forced farmers to grow poppy and weed. Many of the farmers also owed the Taliban money for those same crops. Even if the Marines destroyed the crops and offered wheat to grow instead, they would actually be hurting the farmers because the Taliban would still want their money. The Marines, down to the lowest ranking man, were acutely aware of the situation and they made a clear decision early on in this war that they weren’t in the business of drug interdiction. Instead, they focused on winning over the population, as per the guidance set down by higher headquarters. It’s not a new concept. Anybody who read Lieutenant General Victor krulak’s book “First to fight” would have recognized the concept in his “Ink Blot” theory that he put into action during Vietnam. The concept is extremely simple; win over the people by living with them, taking care of them and showing them you have their back. It worked in Vietnam and it can work in Afghanistan as well, but it’s going to take time and effort. I’m not just drinking the Kool Aid, I witnessed the positive effects of the theory being put into practice firsthand.
The obvious downside to letting the weed and poppy in the area continue to grow is the perception that it gives the world that the Americans aren’t doing it right. That misconception couldn’t be farther from the truth. And that misinterpretation also helps the Taliban with its own media campaign. Yes, they have one. They’re very smart and they’re appealing to a world conscience with their own distorted truth because they know that world opinion factors into what happens on the ground in Afghanistan.
All those pictures floating around the internet that show some service member grinning foolishly from ear to ear in a giant pot field don’t help either. The media takes that shit and runs with it. It doesn’t matter what the truth is, all that matters is what people think the truth is. Once they’ve been given distorted information to chew on and once people make up their minds, it’s very hard to change them. To illustrate my point I can reiterate a story told to me by a colonel I know. He was getting ready to come over here and touring his unit’s area. One of the new joins to his unit was a young LCpl from a rich family. That LCpl’s rich, powerful father was also getting a tour of the unit from his son and he happened to see one of those pot field pictures somewhere. He asked to colonel point blank, “What are you getting my son into?”
And so it goes. The men on the ground in Afghanistan are doing their job, to the best of their abilities every day, yet they often find themselves having to explain a delicate situation, with no easy answers, to the American public who are seven thousand miles away and not seeing what the ground-pounders see. The American public is reading the papers and watching the news on TV and taking most of it at face value.
The men who have to endure this place usually end up dealing with some asshole in a bar when they get home who wants to have a deep philosophical conversation about Afghanistan while all the Marine wants to do is drink a beer and chase women. Or they’ll face that stereotypical armchair, political aficionado at some family gathering who’s only read the Washington Post since 1963 and he’ll have the audacity to school the Marine on “what’s really going on over there.” He’ll have all kinds of facts and figures, plucked right from The Post, to back up whatever argument he’s pushing to the Marine. He’ll also never step foot in Afghanistan, but that little fact certainly won’t shut him up either.
Anybody who thinks Marines don’t talk about these very issues in their downtime is a fool. Marines are some of the smartest, well-spoken people I’ve ever known. Several of the most enlightening conversations I’ve ever had about life, politics, and women have been with a group of Marines huddled around a fire with beers and cigars in their hands. They’re the real deal; men who’ve traveled the world and seen things most people couldn’t imagine. They’ve seen what happens when you strip away all the rules of civilized society that force us to be nice to each other. They’ve seen the human condition at its base element, minus all the feel-good, smarmy bullshit that civilized society imposes on mankind.
And yes, I am biased. That’s because I’m constantly amazed at all the intellectual giants out there, with ten-pound brains, who’ve never had to sacrifice anything. They’ve never endured and they’ve never carried the weight, yet they never cease to offer their brilliant, over-educated, and myopic views to those who do endure. The ones who get the job done on the ground are privy to a certain kind of truth. Yet they always find themselves explaining that truth to the brilliant ones, safe and warm back at the mall. It's like trying to explain why you wash your hands after taking a shit to a petulant child.
After 40 years on this earth, I can honestly say I’ve never seen ONE shit-talking, over-educated, highly paid slob, who shits on Marines, ever do what a ground-pounding Marine does. But I’ve seen many ground pounders put the ruck down and go on to become brilliant members of the educated class. That’s because a combat Marine receives a very special education that you can’t learn in books or on some prissy college campus. As we continued on patrol, the men of Fighting Fox showed me a few things they had learned.
The Taliban knew the Marines were coming. Within minutes of the patrol leaving the wire, there were small fires being lit along the river bank. 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. Another hard lesson learned in Helmand Province. One noted sign of trouble is the sudden disappearance of children from the area. Also, on the main road, young men drove by slowly on motorcycles, watching silently as the squad advanced. At one point, the young lieutenant from the night before turned around and asked, “Guns, you were an 03 before?” I said “yes” and he replied, “we’ll I ain’t worried about you at all then.”
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 RPK machine gun fire opened up on the squad to the front left. Everybody around me dropped and at least one instantly returned fire. The men were very aware of collateral damage. From the CO on down, it’s just understood that simply spraying bullets is not only pointless, it’s detrimental to the overall success of the mission. Harming civilians indiscriminately only turns them against the Marines. The Marines also said that the Taliban often used women and children as human shields during firefights so the Marines were focused when they returned fire, only shooting at known targets.
There was an Indian reporter named Ramon traveling with the squad as well. He was next me throughout the patrol. He had spent a lot of time with the grunts over the last year or so and he was very brave. I was told he also had credit for the only still photo of an IED going off mid-blast to be published in Agence France Press. He wasn’t well versed in tactics and he asked me a very awkward, but funny question in the middle of everything. The squad had fallen into their rush maneuvers 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!”
A solid 203 gunner had laid down suppressive grenade fire to cover the advance and by the time the squad was within striking distance, the enemy had melted back into the population. The Marines said that’s how the Taliban operated. They 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. One corpsman next me said they had actually made it a lot farther than the last time before somebody starting shooting at them.
The patrol continued as the Marines and the ANA began a methodical search of the area. They found a few shell casings, but they said the enemy was very good at hiding their evidence. The Marines went to incredible lengths to not damage any property as they met with the locals. Through translators, the Marines tried to get the locals to understand they were there to help. The approach was working in certain areas. Marines told me many locals were sick of the Taliban and they had begun to come forward with information about IEDs and various bad guys in the area. The young lieutenant offered the locals medical care as well. All they had to do was go to the front gate of the small base and they would be treated; no questions asked. The Marines were also actively trying to get the bazaar by the COP back up and running. It had been abandoned during the initial fighting that 2/8 encountered months before.
The whole time they were doing the search, the men spotted numerous people across a field watching the platoon work. One good sign was the immediate return of children to the area. They were instantly everywhere and I could feel the tension drop a little. It didn’t last long. As the squad was getting ready to leave a shot rang out from the north. There was a young boy riding his bike along a dirt path to my right. He wasn’t hit, but he was very scared.
By the time the squad began heading back to base, it had been about three hours and I was already worn out. I had forgotten how much the gear weighed and I had gotten used to my pogue life up at Dizney Land where most people were more worried about the different flavors of ice cream at the chow hall than they were about the war. It angered me to no end to listen to those fuckers at Dizney Land complain about dumb shit while they lived the good life. They even had “Salsa night,” “Spoken Word Night” and just about every other distraction you could imagine. Everything from the education center to buying a new car was all at their fingertips while the real fighters slugged it out down south and out east. The warriors out on the COPs and FOBs ate MREs while the pogues on Dizney Land complained that their steak wasn’t cooked well enough.
Those same whining pogues will go back to wherever they came from with their 14 credit hours of college credit and their combat pay saved up for their new car. They’ll be greeted warmly by a public who has no idea that they were just pogues eating ice cream for six months. I’ve seen clowns like that go back to their cheesy pogue jobs and actually try to claim PTSD. I’ve watched them solemnly talk about how the war “changed them.” The only thing the war really changed for them was their waist size, but it certainly won’t stop them from blogging about the “horrors they’ve seen.” Just like you’ll rarely meet a guy who actually rang the bell at B.U.Ds, you’ll probably never meet a pogue who admits that they sat safely behind their desk, on their giant rear-echelon base, the whole time they were “in combat.”
The debrief with the Marines wasn’t very long once we got back to the COP. 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 chooses to worship people like Brittany Spears instead of the courageous, valiant men I met at Cop Sharp. I spent the rest of the day getting to know them, doing interviews and filming the daily operations of the base. They had no running water and they pissed in holes in the ground. They had to shit in plastic bags and their only food was either self heating tray rations or MREs. Laundry was done with a mop bucket and ringer, and 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. When they weren’t on patrol, they either stood guard post watch or command post watch. They patrolled night and day and there was very little time for sleep. It’s the life of a fighter on the front lines and it’s a scene as old as war. All of them were in it together. There were combat engineers there as well, constantly improving the security of the COP with extra Hesco barriers and guard posts. Their platoon sergeant was a female staff sergeant. When I asked her how the hell she ended up there, she simply said, “This is where my Marines are.”
The next day, we punched out early for another movement to a small patrol base a few clicks south of the COP. My old ass was still sore from the day before when we walked into the patrol base. I was feeling every muscle in my body as I took off my gear and caught my breath. They were getting ready for a big operation that night. It was a ballsy one too. The whole company was going to head farther south than they had ever gone before. Farther than 2/8 had gone. They were going deep into bad guy country and they were going to raid a compound of about 20 buildings. The CO explained everything in his operations order, which lasted for about two hours and it was just the beginning as far planning went. Many hours later, after the platoon, the squad, and the team had all briefed their parts and double-checked all their gear and people, there were only a few hours left before we stepped off.
As I watched them all, I thought of all those athletes that our society pays millions of dollars to run around in plastic and hit each other 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 and they do it for each other. They do it for their flag and country. 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 local USO at Dizney Land is named after him. Fifty years ago, serving your country was just something that was understood. Something you owed no matter who you were. As a result, the list of celebrities who served was pretty long back then. Everybody from Lee Marvin and Captain Kangaroo to Ed McMahon served, but it’s not like that anymore. These days, so-called modern role models seem to avoid service at all costs. Instead, people are elevated in status among American society for Tazing themselves or stapling their balls to their thighs for a TV show.
At our main pogue office on Dizney Land, we have a picture of Elvis getting processed into the Army. He’s standing there in his whitey tighties getting measured for his uniform. How many of our current rock stars in America would do the same? Jason Everman is the exception. The bassist for Filter joined the Army a few years ago and he even played with them in Iraq when they came through for a USO concert. I highly doubt people like Daughtry or Taylor Swift would drop their lucrative record deals to do the same. I don’t even count the long-forgotten former Pogue Marine who skipped out of deployment so he could compete in American idol. I laughed when I found out they stuck him in PAO for a while before he got out to become famous for ten minutes. Kris Kristofferson is another real deal. A former Army chopper pilot in Vietnam who went on to write some amazing music including the song “Bobby McGee.” He also acted in a shitload of great movies.
There were people like Rocky Bleier. He played a year for the Steelers in 68 and then was drafted into the Army. Nobody in their 20’s these days probably even knows 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 from American Society and the few brave souls who are out here carrying the weight every day. There’s an old quote that still rings true for me: “America is at the mall, Marines are at war.”
I tried to get a few hours of sleep in the EOD tent before we stepped off. They were really cool and let me crash on their floor. The gunny in charge, who still looked kind of young to me, knew my buddy Behner. Behner is a Master Guns these days. It seems like everybody I know from the old days is either a Sergeant Major or Master Guns or an old lance criminal that went to the dark side and became a zero. Or they’re just out of the suck altogether and growing their hair and gut.
I’ve been a belligerent, outspoken, son of a bitch my whole career and as a result, I’ve languished in the lower ranks while former students of mine have passed me up and now outrank me. I also will never see another promotion before I retire. If you put my FITREPS on a graph, it looks like a fucking yo-yo bouncing up and down. When I came in, my first platoon sergeant was still a sergeant at 13 years in. By the time I picked up SSgt, I’d been in nine years and had deployed all over the world. I’d learned hard lessons about leadership and getting the job done. I’d paid a few prices and understood what the word “sacrifice” meant. Now, it’s not uncommon for me to meet some young-looking five-year SSgt who’s never deployed and never left his first duty station. And whenever I meet somebody who’s picked up gunny in ten years, it just tells me they know how to say, “Yes sir!” a lot. The suck has changed a lot and I guess I just can’t change with it anymore. My mouth, attitude, and even my tattoos are illegal now. When I came in, every gunny I knew was just like I am now, but it feels like those days are long gone. It’s not like I haven’t tried to play the game from time to time. I’m not stupid; it’s just that I lost most of my patience sometime in the 90s.
I never lasted long trying to play the game. I always ended up getting angrier and making things worse for myself as far as my career was concerned. Old salts used to call people like me a Marine. Now, some 13-year First Sergeant, with mutiple tours on the drill field, and that ever-so-typical Bronze Star with no “V” or accompanying CAR, refers to people like me as a shitbag. The only people I can talk to these days are old friends like Behner, Yar and Barry, but they’re all about to retire soon too. But, it seems God and the souls of my brothers-in-arms are still smiling on my insolent ass even now because I work for a dude named Mike back at home station and he’s one of the good ones. He’s a rare old salt who knows the deal. It’s really nice to know that we’ll be retiring together and he’s a guy I can trust. It just feels to me these days that people like Mike are few and far between in the modern suck.
I passed out as soon as I shut my eyes in the EOD tent and when I woke up a few hours later, a young sergeant offered me a pair of socks. Like a dumb ass, I had only brought one pair for the trip. I packed real light and most of the weight I carried was my vest, ammo and camera gear. 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 feat looked like they had gangrene. I wasn’t having much luck drying my one pair of sox on the tent out back either. The sergeant had seen me at the operations order with no sox on and when he saw what my feet looked like, he flat out told me he would not let me leave the tent without a dry pair of his sox. God bless him. A pogue would have secretly laughed at my stupidity and ignored me, but then again, a true pogue wouldn’t be anywhere near that place. They’d be brushing up on their degree and blogging about the terror of some rocket landing two clicks away from their base.
We stepped off around midnight that night. My whole body ached and we had a good four click movement just to get to the objective. The Marines I was walking with were all carrying more weight than me and they did it with ease. I could really feel the tension surrounding that operation. We were going into a known bad area and at least 20 people were in the target compound. On top of that, the surrounding area was like the Taliban’s backyard. They could muster a shit load of re-enforcements real quick. It was basically looking pretty ugly. One of the interpreters got so fucking scared about ten minutes into the patrol that he just turned around and went back to the small patrol base. He didn’t tell anybody, he just said fuck it and left. The Marines knew they had lost somebody right away and we had to pause for a while as they figured out what to do. There wasn’t much anybody could do so they went on without him. We got a little off course a few times during the night. It wasn’t too bad. Every time we would drift, I would see a sergeant squad leader come hustling down the middle of the line quietly bitching that we had drifted again. He would correct the point man and we kept moving like a quiet herd of cattle to our target. We made it to our staging area around 3:30 AM and then we waited about an hour. The plan was to hit the place at first light and we were early. It was cold that night. The movement had kept me warm but as I rested, I could feel the cold creeping into me.
Over the last 18 years, whenever I found myself freezing on a patrol, I always thought about a month-long training mission I did as a young lance criminal in Korea back in 93. We had spent weeks enduring a Korean winter with nothing but what we could carry on our backs. The last night of the last patrol found us on a mountain top in the pouring rain. Then it hailed and then it snowed on us. In the morning, there was a good four inches blanketing the ground and we were all soaking wet and cold beyond words. I can’t even describe it. At one point, I tried to grab the radio antenna and it fucking stuck to my hand. I call that kind of cold “angry cold.” I remember one guy telling us he was going to run down the path a little and try to jerk off to see if he could get some feeling in his body. He came running right back 30 seconds later saying that he couldn’t feel his fucking hands and they were like ice blocks trying to grab his shrunken pecker. I’ve never been that cold ever again and I don’t want to be. I was thinking about that long-ago night as I sat there in the dark and waited to kick off the raid. I joked with myself that it was probably not such a melodramatic thing I did when I had those “what if” talks with my wife before I left on this deployment.
There’s a certain mindset that I learned to adapt to in my Community days. It’s almost like a switch. It’s an instant and total commitment to whatever will be. Complete acceptance that it’s going to be very dangerous, but worrying about it will only cause more trouble than it’s worth. Pogues just don’t understand that mindset. I still had it and I was able to put it on like an old T-shirt, but my two-year-old son kept working his way into my mind. I kept remembering the sound his feet would make when I would come in the front door of our house after work. It was a swift kind of sticky sounding patter on the vinyl floor. He would rush from the living room when he heard the front door open. As soon as he saw me, his eyes would get wide and he would throw his arms in the air like a referee calling a touchdown and yell, “Daddy!” I'd pick him up and hug him dearly, grateful to experience such beautiful moments in time.
Every day like clockwork, he always did that and I always loved to hear and see it. It was the one memory I kept re-living in the dark. I could see his sly smile and almost feel his arms around my neck. It dawned on me how much I really had to lose. My wife was also carrying our daughter in her stomach and I knew I just had to stop thinking about it all, but I couldn’t. I said my little prayers like I always did before I did something really dangerous or stupid and made my peace. The word was passed down the line and it was time to go. I turned the switch on and tucked those memories far away in my mind.
There was sureness to our step as we got closer and we sped up slightly as we approached to compound. It was pitch black and I had no NVGs so 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 were right up on one of the buildings within minutes. One of the dogs was barely five feet away from us snarling with a guttural, violent sound that screamed “I definitely have rabies asshole!” The men would not shoot the dogs. From a simple tactics 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 Iraq and Afghanistan. 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. I was witnessing just what it took at the ground level, to win over the local people while trying to battle the Taliban in their back yard. 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.
At that moment, somebody came up from the rear to tell us we were at the wrong building. That’s not uncommon. In the dark, they all look the same. The fact that we were only one cluster of buildings off was pretty damn good. I can remember being in the middle of a bunch of buildings in Iraq and arguing with my team as we tried to figure out which mud hut was the one we were supposed to be taking down. We moved swiftly to the compound and I stumbled all over the place and tried to not fuck up my ankle anymore. We took up our positions around it within minutes. I was with a group of men on one of the outside corners of the compound. 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 heard any gunfire yet.
The photographer 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. Then he turned to me and whispered, “We are really screwed if they shoot at us!” I couldn’t help but laugh a little and I whispered back, “You got that right man, it sucks to be us.” Then he just got real quite. We all did. We were in place and it still wasn’t first light, so we waited. There must have been ten dogs all around the 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 listening to those dogs and the wailing and moaning call to prayer. At that point, it would have actually been a relief to hear gunfire. It was only about 20 minutes later when first light came, but it might as well have been a fucking 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 raid had just begun.
The ANA led through the front door of the compound. The plan was to do a “soft knock.” Once again, the idea of winning over the locals is simple and profound. Don’t blow their front door down and go in screaming because they just might be innocent civilians. So, the men walked in calmly and asked permission to search the place and talk to whoever was there. I had witnessed the Marines demonstrate courage beyond words the day before as they rushed towards gunfire and I was witnessing a different kind of courage at that moment. They were in the heart of the Taliban insurgency and they were literately in the Taliban’s back yard and yet they walked in serenely and asked permission to talk to whoever was the main elder. The resulting search went very similar to the searches I had done in Iraq.
There were the requisite angry females with one hand raised in the air and another clutched around a sleepy-looking child. There were the angry, 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 lit a small fire that wafted white smoke up to the sky minutes after the Marines entered the compound. Within a half-hour, we all collectively realized it was not going to be a slugfest after all. Not one shot was fired. Instead we all kept watch on the surrounding area to see what would happen. Nothing did.
The walk back to the small patrol base was filled with jokes and light banter. Everybody knew how bad it could have been, and I could feel a kind of collective relief amongst the men as they walked. Once we got back to the patrol base, I was told I would be given a ride back to the original COP we started at. I was glad to hear that. My old ass was feeling every weighted step of the last few days. The ride back was like being a ping pong ball in a small tin can. One of the bomb-sniffing dogs was in the vehicle with us and somebody with a dark sense of humor had named him “Boomer.” I spent the ride trying to keep myself and Boomer from flying all over the inside of the MRAP as we made our way through the terrain.
The next day would be my final patrol with the Marines. 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. The Marines told me that the place was like a little enclave of peace and prosperity in the area. Unfortunately, the mood was very somber as we left the wire on that November day. There was a battle going on to the south with one confirmed Marine casualty. The men all knew the name of the casualty as we stepped off. Word traveled fast. Even before we left, the choppers providing close air support were flying near the COP and I could hear enemy small arms fire trailing up at the birds as they flew by.
The village we patrolled to wasn’t very far from the COP. The local elder made it clear he hated the Taliban and was more than happy to talk with the Marines. The man was a tailor who had been uprooted from where he usually lived and worked by the Taliban. The place was also teeming with children and the Marines told me it was one of the few operating schools in the area. The elder thanked the Marines for giving medical care to the people he knew in the area. The Marines asked him to pass the word to locals that they wanted to get the bazaar near the COP opened again. A corpsman handed out candy and pens to the kids while another young lieutenant talked with the village elder.
It’s easy for people thousands of miles away from that place, with the Washington Post tucked under their arm, and their over-inflated intellect, to think of that small gesture of handing out candy and pens to kids as somehow being wrong. In their overtly politically correct, Starbucks-quenched minds, a few of them sometimes come to the conclusion that the “foolish” Marines are trying to somehow “bribe” the locals with an infantile gesture. That ridiculous conclusion is very telling of the obvious disconnect from the brilliant ones back in the Beltway to those Marines on the ground who ask their families to send something small in the mail that they can give to the kids.
It’s a fucking combat zone. Most supplies are flown in and there isn’t much space just for the basic stuff needed to get the job done. Plus, everything left in the open gets rained on or covered in dust and mud. Candy and pens are easy to ship and easy to carry and the kids love them. It’s a small gesture of kindness by the Marines. Nothing more needs to be read into it. That fact that a gesture so simple and heartfelt even has to be addressed and explained disgusts me because it shows just how out of touch some people really are back in the rear.
The tension was never far from the patrol. During the talks 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 few guys 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 had come by, handing out candy to the kids, there was one group of children who would not come near the Marines. Instead, the kids kept looking at that one building and then down at the ground. That was the building the four young men in black made their way to. I turned my attention and camera back to the scene at hand. It was a beautiful sunset with magic, golden light illuminating the area. I got some video of kids in traditional wear, bathed in almost perfect natural light. They reminded me of my son. Their laughter and curiosity were genuine.
Later that night, I caught a bird back to where I am now. I eventually posted two stories about the experience, but I couldn’t stop thinking about the Marines I had met and how warmly I was treated by the men of Fighting Fox. I’m still in awe of their prowess, courage, and sheer will. As I get closer to leaving this place, my mind keeps drifting back to those brave men (and one woman) at Cop Sharp and how much they endure daily for each other and for their country. I’m eternally thankful to all of them, and people like them, who carry the weight even as I write this in the comfort of my warm little room on my safe base with all the accommodations of home you could imagine. And as I get closer to my retirement, I realize that the Marine Corps is going to be just fine. I used to hear angry old jarheads repeat that phrase all the time when I was a boot. Now, I understand.
A couple of years later, I was working on another project and stumbled across the official video of COP 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 didn’t seem worried at all about Terry trying to kill them. I’ll bet there were at least a few young dudes on motorcycles waving at them as they drove off. I suddenly understood all those old salts from Vietnam a hell of a lot better.
In the end, the politics of it all doesn’t matter. Grunts don’t 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; 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 all their beautiful, filthy souls.