Friday, December 30, 2011

The Lads of Lima Company

By Cpl. John Scott Rafoss, HQMC 
HELMAND PROVINCE, Afghanistan - Dec. 25, 2011  — We “yomped” forward. Carrying two days of rations, including six liters of water and hundreds of machine gun rounds, mine detectors, grenades, ladders, radio equipment, heavy javelins, and other explosives; their packs were heavy. My pack was just the bare necessities – water, a few meals, and my camera.

The sky was gray. It was raining, muddy and cold. I’m tired. Everyone else must have been tired, too, but the Royal Marine Commandos are elite – they weren’t showing it.

“That’s what we do, we yomp,” said Sgt. Noel Connelly, of the Royal Marines.. “Just like the Falklands in ‘82. We’re bootnecks. That’s what bootnecks do… yomp.”

We stopped and rested on the side of the road. Reports over the radio were saying the tanks couldn’t get through because insurgents have dug ditches in the road. The tanks had to find a new route and that would take time. So we waited and endured the mud and cold rain.

“Hey USMC, do you want a smoke,” said Connelly, platoon sergeant for Royal Marine’s 9th Troop, “L” Company, 42 Commando, as he took out some English cigarettes. “These are healthy cigarettes.”
We all huddled underneath improvised cover and the Royal Marines talked about football in England. They asked me questions about the U.S. Marine Corps – What is my training like? Is boot camp like the movie Full Metal Jacket? “What do you do?” said Cpl. John Owens, an assault engineer nicknamed Johno.
“I’m a combat correspondent,” I replied. “I’m what the Americans call a POG – personnel other than grunt.”

“Well, you aren’t a POG right now,” said Johno, as we looked down at our muddy boots. “You’re with us now, mate.”  After smoking about four cigarettes, we got the call to move forward. The tanks had found a route through a field. So we picked up our packs and started to yomp to the village of Zargon Kalay. Our superiors said Zargon Kalay is filled with die-hard enemy insurgents, but they said that about the last village and nothing happened.

The mosque, which is in the center of the city, was becoming more visible with every step. We were a few hundred meters away when Lima Company split up into different parts of the open ground in front of the village. It was farm land. 9th Troop moved to the right flank and we maneuvered along the edge of an irrigation stream.

We approached a compound and the bootnecks at the front of the patrol positioned themselves on the roof to get good arcs for their machine guns. The rest of the platoon waited in the open outside of the compound.

I sat by the edge of the irrigation stream, bored. All of a sudden something flew past my head and it had a distinct sound. It was the first time I heard that sound. Cracking and whizzing – bullets sound a lot different when they are coming at you.

Without even thinking, I jumped into the irrigation ditch. I looked up and saw Marines jumping off the roof. The trees behind them were being ripped apart.
My heart was pumping while I sat in the stream. I looked at the plants in front of me and thought about staying alive. “Am I dreaming?” I thought. “This can’t be real. A picture isn’t worth my life.”  I was embedded with 9th Troop, Lima Company, 42 British Royal Marine Commando during the 18-day combat operation known as Sond Chara, which is Pashtun for Red Dagger. An outsider, and the only reason I was with them is because of my eagle, globe and anchor, and my camera.

It all started like the beginning of an American football game – like we were getting ready to run on to the field. We were all pumped up in that helicopter. We felt like Spartans during the Battle of Thermopylae. But this wasn’t a game, or a movie, or a book about legendary battles in the past. This was now.
I felt like I was in a Higgins Boat heading toward Normandy. I looked up and saw the crew chief scanning the horizon for insurgents with his night vision goggles.

We landed in the desert and it was quiet. I couldn’t see anything. Everyone else had night vision goggles. I didn’t even have a night vision lens for my camera. All of the bootnecks were silhouetted and we moved towards an Afghan compound a few hundred meters in front of us.

We stopped in our tracks when we heard gun shots in the distance. It was Kilo Company. They landed about an hour before us and they were already in a firefight. There was a lot of gunfire. But this wasn’t the O.K. Corral, it was Helmand Province.

“They have a casualty,” whispered one of the radio operators. “He was hurt from the back blast of a javelin.” My stomach started to sink when I heard that. But I kept quiet and kept moving forward with the bootnecks. Johno blew a hole in one of the walls of the compound and the bootnecks rushed in to the clear the compound of insurgents, but there were none.

I moved in and dropped my pack immediately. I was already tired and we were only two hours into the operation. I took a seat by one of the walls, and one of the Marines on the rooftops opened up his machine gun. An Apache came in and dropped a bomb on top of the insurgent vehicle he had stopped. The sky glowed from the burning car and I listened to the rounds cook off in the car.

“This isn’t normal,” I thought, and tried to get some sleep.

We stayed at the compound for a couple of days and were mortared everyday, but I was slowly getting used to the bootneck lifestyle. We were given orders to take the village we called KK. We left at about four in the morning. It was about an eight-kilometer hike, yomping through the farming fields, with a break about halfway. My boots were covered in mud. I tried to scrape it off, but the mud had a funny smell, and when I brought it up to my nose, I realized it was manure. We picked up our packs and yomped on.
We got to the village and everything seemed normal. Children were running around playing. Afghan men were working in their fields. Tractors were transporting goods. Camels were walking by bundled up with supplies. The locals said the insurgents had left the day before. So it was a good day – a quiet day. We rested in the village and got ready for the next hike.

We hiked another eight kilometers to Forward Operating Base Argyle. When we got there, we stayed on the outside of the FOB inside an old fortress, which was built by Alexander the Great thousands of years ago. It was a beautiful ancient fortress. We rested there for a day and started yomping again, this time about six-kilometers hto the Village of Zargon Kalay.
After we were shot at in the field near the irrigation ditch, we moved forward to another compound. I set my backpack down by a wall and moved into one of the rooms to take a break and eat. Then I heard the cracks again.The insurgents were dug in and were firing rocket-propelled grenades, mortars and small-arms fire.

A Royal Marine ran inside to get supplies. Connelly asked him what what the situation was outside. With typical combat humour, he replied, “We’re all going to die!”

I was shaking. I’m not sure if it was because I was cold and soaked from the irrigation ditch or because I was scared. When the fighting died down a little bit, I ran outside for my pack. I needed my smokes. When I got to my backpack there were bullet holes all over the wall above it. I grabbed it and ran back inside.
We drank tea and listened to artillery, tanks and helicopters take down the insurgents in the village. It sounded like they were using everything they had in the UK arsenal.

I wasn’t used to this kind of thing. In my mind, this was the kind of stuff soldiers and Marines did in Vietnam, World War I and World War II. I didn’t realize how bad war could be in Afghanistan. I was used to drinking coffee at the beer garden in Kabul or eating at Pizza Hut in Kandahar. I normally took pictures of handshakes and ceremonies, not combat.
We got the order to move forward to the next compound. But there was a problem. We had to move through an open field where an hour ago, little lead hornets were buzzing around. But one of the bootnecks had a good idea.

We popped smoke grenades and ran behind tanks. The first try didn’t work, because when we went into the open, we were fired on. But it worked on the second try. We ran for our lives behind those tanks. I thought it would make a good picture, so I put my head down next to the tank’s exhaust and took pictures with my camera over my head. I wasn’t even looking at where I was shooting.

“This is World War II shit,” yelled Connelly, as we ran behind the tanks. He was joking, but I didn’t laugh.
We made it to the next compound, and puffed down cigarettes. It was the best cigarette of my life, but it was hard to smoke because my lungs were filled with tank exhaust.

7th Troop moved into the outskirts of the village that night and we stayed back as over watch. We listened to them fight. They were getting some – we had already gotten ours.

The next morning we moved forward into the village. We met up with 7th Troop at a compound. They pushed forward street by street and made it a few blocks away from the Mosque and now it was our turn to move forward.

The village was quiet. Everyone had fled and I hoped the insurgents were all dead. We moved into a burned-out school right across the street from the mosque. I tried to get pictures of the Marines patrolling though the mud, but getting good images was the last thing on my mind.

We started taking small-arms fire from the west of the city. We moved through the village, forward to the sound of the guns. I thought human beings are supposed to run away from the sounds of guns, not yomp in the mud toward it. I thought to myself, “these Lima Company bootnecks are the real deal.”
I looked up and watched a javelin missile fly high up into the sky. It was shot off by Marines on the roof of the school, who had locked onto the insurgents. I was happy the javelin did all of the work for us and we moved into a compound behind the mosque and stayed there the night.

“We still have the Triangle of Death,” said Johno, as we smoked cigarettes in the compound.  “It sounds like a video game,” I joked. “The Triangle of Death … the last level of Operation Sond Chara.”

The Triangle of Death is an area about four kilometers behind Zargon Kalay. We called it that, because on the map, it looked like a triangle. Reports were coming in that all of the insurgents were fleeing there. That made the Triangle of Death Taliban land.
We hiked through more of the surrounding villages before reaching the Triangle of Death. But the insurgents had heard about Zargon Kalay and many of them were fleeing for their lives.

In the early morning hours of Christmas Eve, we headed into a village we called Yellow Four. It was the beginning of the Triangle of Death. However, it had been quiet for the past few days and I was beginning to think the insurgents had learned their lesson.
Yellow Four is a little village holed up next to a big river with a big rusty crane in the center for exporting and importing goods. On top of the crane was a huge white Taliban flag. It seemed like an old trading port. But when we got there most of the villagers had fled.
We moved into the village with ease and took positions at an Afghan compound below the crane. I was pretty tired and I grabbed a few blankets to get some rest.

“It seems pretty quiet; hopefully they won’t attack us. What do you think?” I asked Royal Marine John Baiss, 9th Troop medic. “They are just observing us right now,” he replied. “Give it an hour.”

I didn’t want to believe him so I put my head down for some rest. An hour later I woke to gunfire. Smalls arms fire, rocket-propelled grenades and mortars were everywhere. I immediately put on my flak jacket and Kevlar helmet. I grabbed my rifle and camera and then sprinted outside to see what was happening.
“Someone put a wet on,” yelled Connelly, in the beginning of the firefight. We all laughed a little bit. A wet is British slang for tea.

Bootnecks were on the rooftops shooting and screaming. They were climbing on top as fast as they could to get more rounds downrange.  “I see them … I see them,” screamed Lance Cpl. Paul, as he unloaded his machine gun. “They are in the tree line.”
I was getting used to gunfire, so I was confident when I started snapping away – trying to get some images of the lads in action.

I climbed up on the rooftop with the help of some of the bootnecks who pushed me up. I crawled up next to Paul and tried to get a view of the insurgents in front of us. There was a ceiling of small-arms fire over our heads. I looked up and saw a rocket propelled grenade fly over our heads. I followed it with my eyes in slow motion.

“Get a … LASM down there,” someone screamed, which is like a rocket launcher.  Lance Cpl. Ben Whatley grabbed his LASM and went forward. We all bent down because of the backblast.

“He’s hit, he’s … hit,” screamed one of the bootnecks on the ground. I looked up and saw him lying motionless in front of us. Once the bootnecks next to me saw what had happened, and with out hesitation, they stood up and moved forward through the small-arms fire to save him.

The firefight went on for about half an hour more. The bootnecks kept fighting, knowing their friend was badly hurt.

We found out a few hours later that Ben was dead.
After Christmas Eve, we no longer called it the Triangle of Death … just the Triangle.

On Christmas morning we moved forward into the heart of the Triangle. We yomped toward the white flags – insurgent flags. We were surrounded by white flags. This was their stronghold. It is a very eerie feeling walking through open ground, seeing white flags in every direction.

But it seemed the Taliban had learned their lesson once more and we weren’t attacked that day. So we moved into a compound for rest and to get good arcs for our machine guns on the surrounding area.
It didn’t feel like Christmas.

Once in the compound, Marines Greg Bennett, a machine gunner, and Denbigh Hopkins, an infantryman and former South African hunter, had smiles on their faces. In the back of the compound was a room filled with turkeys.

“Looks like it’s going to be Christmas after all,” said Capt. Oli Truman, commander of 9th Troop, Lima Company, 42 Commando.

That night we sat around the fire, ate grilled turkey and enjoyed each others’ company.  “Camaraderie is very important,” I remember hearing Paul say with his face glowing from the fire. “We should do this more often. It’s good for the troop.”

It wasn’t the best Christmas I ever had. But, spending Christmas with bootnecks out in combat, I grew a better appreciation for it.

The lads of Lima Company are special. They have something most people in the world will never have or understand – their brotherhood. 

And the next day we yomped forward …

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Climbing the Moutain

For a bit of local adventure, I joined one of my DEA counterparts this morning to climb the mountain ridge located behind our compound in Kabul. Locally, the Asmai and Sherdawaza mountain ranges dominate the landscape, ringing the city of Kabul in all directions.
A view of the surrounding mountain ranges reveals a staggering number of peaks already covered in snow. Surprisingly, more than 49 % of the total land area in Afghanistan lies above 6000 feet elevation. Here in Kabul, the elevation averages just over 5,800 feet, with the mountain crests adding to the total. The average elevation in the state of Virginia is only 950 feet, which certainly requires a temporary adjustment period that one definitely feels when engaging in physical activity.

The mountainous areas are mostly barren, or at most remain sparsely sprinkled with trees and stunted 
bushes. True forests, found mainly in the eastern provinces of Nuristan and Paktiya, cover barely 3% of the country's area. Even these small reserves have been disastrously depleted by the war and through illegal exploitation, with less than one million acres surviving today.

During our climb, we passed several rock walls and 
hand-dug gun emplacements that were once used for cover by the mujahadeen during their fight against the Soviets. The ground remains littered with all types and sizes of rifle casings, while signs warn of the dangers of straying off the trail as you climb toward the crest. A local goat-herder discovered the unfortunate result of straying too far from the path when one of his goats stepped on an unexploded land mine and blew itself up. I am unaware of anyone human doing the same thing.
Along the way, I stopped numerous times to take in the view of Kabul, hardly believing that the city I was seeing was the same one I'd driven through. From 6,000 feet, it looks like a typical sprawling city spread out over thousands of acres, a thin layer of smog hanging heavily above it. From my vantage point, I could clearly make out the Kabul International Airport and saw at least a half dozen jets, both military and civilian, climbing slowly toward us as we continued our ascent.

From atop the ridgeline, the view of the surrounding area quickly deteriorating as the morning progressed. The haze seemed thicker the higher we climbed and obscured the higher mountain tops in the distance. On the opposite side of the ridge, a vast expanse of desert plain lay before us, apparently an unfriendly area to our coalition forces.

The previous night’s rain had made the usually dusty climb more tolerable than normal, however, resulting in a number of other adventurers braving the cold to reach the peak. Joining us at the top were several Brits, one Lithuanian, a team of FBI agents, and several contractors, many of whom were also on their first trek up the mountain. Although some of the climbers had dressed in PT gear, I noticed most were armed, with some even wearing their armored vests. By the time I had reached the top, I was certainly glad I’d left my vest behind.

While taking in the view, we noticed several individuals climbing an area of the mountain that was unmarked and without trail. Using the magnified scope atop my rifle as a makeshift set of binoculars, I determined the people were simply collecting firewood and placing it in cloth bundles strapped across their backs.  I had no idea where they came from and even less of an idea where they were headed to after reaching their limits. 
The walk down the mountain proved tougher than the walk-up, at least on my knees. Regardless, it was much quicker than I anticipated, with plenty of time left for breakfast. Unless the weather fails to cooperate, I'll likely make this a routine event.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

A Change in Scenery

I recently moved from 350 miles N from Camp Leatherneck to Kabul. At first glance, Kabul international airport seems very modern, as there are actually several civilian aircraft parked along the runway. The airport is partially blocked off to allow military aircraft access, with restrictions set in place to separate military from civilian aircraft.

Despite the initial appearance from the outside, it more closely resembles third world airport inside, with few amenities, most of which are in place for official military use only, such as encrypted telephones, weapons and baggage transfer points, ID card scanning stations, etc. Outside the front doors, the mountains loom ahead, very steep, jagged and foreboding - some already covered in snow at higher elevations. Lately, the airport has been relatively safe, whereas the American Embassy endured a 20 hour attack in September.

Leaving Kabul International Airport, the environment quickly turns sour.  The roads I traveled were full of deep potholes, no pavement anywhere to be seen once I left the airport perimeter. A variety of "businesses" inhabits the slums and shanties sitting off the sides of the road, with a crazy mish-mash of buildings, garbage, trash piles, junk cars, and rubble all mixed together in some odd form of apparent civilization. I actually think it's worse than Iraq...there is still much destruction left over from not only recent fighting, but from the Soviet occupation 20 years ago. I am told that the opposite side of town is much more modern, but I have yet to see it.

There was significant traffic getting out to the compound where I  currently reside, with cars jockeying for positions to pass each other on the roadway, all trying not to bottom out in some of the largest potholes (more closely resembling craters) I've ever seen; cars were sometimes spaced 2 to 3 wide across the road; at other times, there might have been 4 or 5 side by side, each headed different directions, a near disaster. Here, the biggest car wins, and most of them are owned by westerners - military, contractors, or government of some sort.

Throughout the drive, I viewed a variety of compounds obviously built for coalition forces or foreign contractors. They are obvious, as all are surrounded by huge walls, concertina wire and hescoe barriers to discourage attacks. Host nation guards are visible at most gates and block entrance to the compounds. Regardless, you never feel absolutely safe in this environment. 

Situated on the slope of a large mountain, my particular compound lies at nearly 5000 feet elevation and has a great view of Kabul. Nearby, the mountain steeply rises another 1000 feet where an ANA (Afgh National Army) outpost rests along the ridge line looking directly down at us. 

The mountain is littered with unexploded ordnance left over from the soviet invasion. Just last month, a goat allegedly managed to get away from his herder and blew itself up after stepping a few feet off the well traveled trail leading up the mountain. Several of the compound residents here have climbed the same mountain, but make the climb with body armor, long guns and a heightened state alert for safety sake. It makes the climb a little harder, but the view is apparently worth the climb.

Friday, November 18, 2011

The Long Road Ahead

I am currently serving with some superb U.S. and British officers in the Current and Future Operations section, where operational orders are drafted developed and published. These guys are the truly brains of the command and conceive all of the rough draft orders and concepts of operations that upon approval, form the basis of operations conducted by the combined military forces utilize in this region.

The office is a pressure cooker, with planners putting in 12-16 hour days every day of the week. What keeps them going is a bottomless coffee pot and a great sense of shared humor among the members of the group.

Nothing in a military environment is executed without a written order, and in Afghanistan, our forces have to coordinate closely with higher headquarters in Kabul, as well as the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, referred to as GIROA.  it's a very complicated and extremely cumbersome process, but somehow it works. 

This command's particular region of interest lies within the Helmand Province, one of 34 provinces in Afghanistan. It is one of the largest Afghan provinces and arguably the most unstable. To make matters worse, the Helmand province yields the highest quantity of illicit opium, morphine, and hashish in the country, all of which funds the insurgency and the Taliban via illegal "taxation" of the farmers. The illegal flow of narcotics out of Afghanistan destabilizes the government and hinders the transition of military operations from coalition forces to the Afghan National Security Forces, or ANSF.

Each regional command (RC) has thousands of soldiers, Marines, and coalition forces working as mentors/trainers and partners to the ANSF. The ANSF not only includes the Afghan military, but also incorporates  the various Afghan National Police forces, including the Afghan national police, civil order police, counter narcotics police, and even local and tribal police. The poppy problem alone is enough to keep the police forces busy, which make the training and mentoring piece a huge task as we lead them to self-sufficiency.

Back to the officers of the FOPS section - one particular Marine officer assigned to assist in the transition of counter-narcotics operations from the coalition forces to the Afghans is Major Sean Dynan, an Annapolis grad who has is on his 5th deployment. A former company commander right here in Helmand, his company operated only a few miles away from where we currently work. In 2008, Maj. Dynan had a PBS reporter embedded with his company. Although reporters often sensationalize their experiences or inaccurately portray their subjects, this particular PBS reporter appears to have conveyed a very realistic and accurate portrayal of what is still occurring on a daily basis in Helmand Province. The report shows how  military operations have radically changed from the WWII, Korea and Vietnam eras, when the military man was simply a war-fighter. Today, our Marines are not only war-fighters, but also peace-keepers simultaneously filling military, civil, law enforcement and humanitarian roles.

Although the video is nearly 3 years old, it could have been filmed yesterday. The situation portrayed in 2008 remains the same in much of the Province. You'll see The blurred civil-military mission continues in Afghanistan today.

Here's the link:  Reporter Embed in Helmand

Friday, November 11, 2011

Happy 236th Birthday

Yesterday was the 236th anniversary of the founding of the U.S. Marine Corps. The Corps is rich in history and tradition and all Marines begin learning our traditions the day they enter boot camp or Officer Candidate School. Ask any Marine who Chesty Puller is or why we wear a blood stripe on the side of our dress trousers and they'll know. There's not a Marine alive, past or present, who can't recite the Marine Corps hymn word for word.  

One of our yearly traditions involves taking a moment to celebrate the founding of our Corps, better known as the Marine Corps Birthday. No matter where Marines are stationed, you'll certainly hear them wishing each other happy birthday. If circumstances arise, the celebration will often include some sort of cake cutting, even if it is simply a pound cake pulled from an MRE pouch in the field. It's a day we all reflect on our heritage and honor those who served in the Corps before us.  I've spent a several birthdays deployed - Iraq, Liberia, Turkey -  and we've always celebrated the birthday in one form or another. This year was no different.

Due to the size of the FOB (Forward Operating Base), several different celebrations occurred yesterday. Despite the immense walls that ring the FOB's outer perimeter, most of the units have internal compounds that are also surrounded by Jersey barriers and concertina wire for added security. As such, each unit is somewhat cut off from the other, hence the decision to hold multiple celebrations.

Sure enough, the 2nd Marine Division (MARDIV) held their own celebration within the larger Marine Expeditionary Force (MEF) compound. The celebration was held outside during sunset, with great care taken to ensure the traditional pom and circumstance held back at home was included. A color guard was present, as was a small band put together for the occasion. A series of rough-hewn benches were hastily constructed for Marines and their guests to sit on and were filled to capacity. 

The MARDIV even set up a large video screen to play the Commandant's video-taped 236th B-Day message - if you have a moment, please take a look - it's a great video and helps explain to those who've never been part of the Corps why we Marines are so proud of our service Commandant's Birthday Video.  

During the ceremony, the 2nd MARDIV Commanding General (CG) was the guest of honor. Behind the General, an honor guard marched out and the flags were retired for the evening. Following the presentation of the Commandant's video message, a birthday cake measuring at least 6' long was carried out of the building and in placed in front of the gathered crowd. As tradition goes, the Guest of Honor received the first piece; the oldest Marine present received the second (he was 55), while the 3rd piece went to the youngest Marne present, born in Sept, 1992. 

It was a nice ceremony. Having attended many variations of Marine Corps birthday celebrations, from simple cake cutting at a friend's home to the Commandant's Ball in Washington, D.C., the 2nd MARDIV celebration was more than acceptable. The CG reminded everyone, whether they were a Marine who'd just returned from patrol or a clerk working administrative issues aboard the Camp that they were all part of the continuing  legacy of the Corps. He reminded us thank our families for their sacrifice, as they are the ones left behind, taking care of things at home. I thoroughly enjoyed the event, which renewed my faith in the Corps and the bond I feel toward my fellow Marines, past and present.

Wednesday, November 09, 2011


This morning, I read a tattered news article that was tacked to the wall inside our compound. The Marines chronicled in the story are heroes. Heroes are not celebrities. They are not sports figures. They are men like Lance Corporal's Dominguez and Love, the men whose photographs appear on the front page of the article. Please take a look... Heroes

The fight rages on in the Sangin District. There, heroes are common. We call them Marines.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Chance Encounter

Nov. 3, 2011

Before leaving the transit base in Manas, Kyrgyzstan, I was grazing at the chow hall salad bar and noticed a long-time friend standing directly in front of me, completely oblivious to my presence. It was Col. Ken Desimone, my counterpart from the Inspector General’s Office at Camp Lejeune. Ken had deployed to Afghanistan last March as the Officer in Charge (OIC) of the Provincial Police Training Team in Lashkar Gah, Afghanistan. During his tour, the Police Station where Ken and his team were living was hit twice by suicide bombers, both times killing a number of Afghan National Police Officers whom Ken’s team was mentoring. As Ken later noted, it was sheer luck that neither he nor his Marines were injured or killed, as the building was nearly destroyed by the force of the blasts. After each bombing, the Afghani Police rebuilt the station, which still remains a favorite target of insurgents. 

Since meeting each other as young Lieutenant’s in 1988, we have managed to stay in touch and have since served together in a variety of units and locations. In 2005, I ran into Ken in Fallujah, Iraq, where both of us had deployed in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. At that time, Ken was serving as a mentor to the Iraqi Border Police, which later became the subject of a story I wrote and subsequently published in Leatherneck Magazine. A draft version was posted to this blog in 2006 - Leatherneck Border Story

As Ken glanced up from his salad-filled plate, we couldn’t help but laugh aloud at our surprise encounter. For the remainder of the evening, we swapped stories and quickly caught up. 
In Iraq, Ken joked that based upon our assignments at that time, he was a “meat-eater,” whereas I was simply a “leaf-eater” (similar to the long-standing argument that grunts, or Marine infantry, are superior to Marines in combat service support roles). This time, however, Ken acknowledged that our chance meeting at the salad bar was a sure sign that he too had finally become a leaf-eater.

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

The Waiting Game

Nov. 2, 2011

We arrived in Kyrgyzstan at 4:30 a.m. following a 14 hour flight, with an anticipated 24-96 hour layover before heading on to our next destination. Our current location is strictly a way-point where forces temporarily halt en route to Afghanistan, although the newly elected Kyrgyz President, Almazbek Atambayev, has decided that the base may close by the end of 2014. As noted in today’s edition of Stars and Stripes, the base is used by both the military and civilian airlines, which certainly is a cause of conflict among the Kyrgyz citizens.

It's very cold here – the temps were in the low 30's when we arrived and never rose above 45 degrees the rest of the day. Upon landing, we were shuttled to a large Quonset hut where we received an in-brief and temporary lodging. It took approximately 3 hours for our gear to be moved from the airstrip to the staging area, where we found that it had accidentally been combined with another unit’s baggage. It was quite frustrating to sort through 600 identical bags in order to find your own.  There's no Delta baggage crew here to do that job, but thankfully the Marines jumped in, took charge, and had the bags separated and identified within 30 minutes. As we sorted our gear, I was thankful to be wearing a cold weather jacket, as the weather was "bone chilling" cold.  

Time drags by at waypoint locations. For the transient service member, there is little to do but sleep, eat, and perhaps read a book or check your e-mail if an internet drop is available aboard the base. As was the case in Iraq and Kuwait, the Kyrgyz base provides several Morale, Welfare and Recreation (MWR) tents for transients to relax, catch a movie, and order a coffee. These days, it seems rare to find a base or FOB without internet access, and it is not untypical to find troops “Skyping” their loved ones via video-chat, a technology that would have been unimaginable a mere decade ago.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Mules and Packhorses

“On the field of battle man is not only a thinking animal, he is a beast of burden. He is given great weights to carry. But unlike the mule, the jeep, or any other carrier, his chief function in war does not begin until the time he delivers that burden to the appointed ground…In fact we have always done better by a mule than by a man. We were careful not to load the mule with more than a third of his weight.”

- S.L.A. Marshall, The Soldier’s Load and the Mobility of a Nation, 1950

                                                                               Before packing...

In preparation for deployment, we were issued our gear/equipment from the CIF, or consolidated issue facility. Every Marine who has previously deployed knows the drill…it’s the same at every supply point, be it a Battalion warehouse or a base facility the size of the CIF. Show up, stand in line and wait…then wait some more. No matter what time of day or day of the week, it is almost guaranteed that a line has already formed at the door. 

For current deployments, the CIF regulates the type and quantity of gear a Marine draws from the facility. Unlike the hodge-podge collection of “off-the-shelf” equipment individually purchased by Marines during the early days of OIF/OEF, today’s gear list has been refined and contains equipment that rivals the Blackhawk, Bianci and Safari-land items that Marines had added to their combat load over the last decade. 

Gone are the days of H-harnesses, butt packs, ALICE packs and MOLLE packs. These days, Marines draw the same high-speed gear that was previously available only to professional mountaineers or expeditionary climbers. Today’s gear list includes improved load bearing equipment (ILBE), a fancy name for mountain backpacks. It also includes arctic parkas, booties and mittens; flame resistant outer-garments and fleeces of varying colors and thickness. No longer does a Marine have to scrounge for gear that’s appropriate for the varied climates of a particular geographic region. It’s all available at the CIF.

Enhancing the load is the addition of modern, technologically advanced protective gear, or PPE (personal protective equipment). Flak vests are relics of the past, replaced by modular tactical vests (MTV) complete with enhanced small arms protective inserts (E-SAPI) that weigh over 30 lbs. combined. The inserts are basically bullet-proof plates that protect the torso of the wearer. The plates may be heavy, but they’ll stop a bullet from most enemy rifles. Tack on the weight of the vest and the various attached accoutrements such as ammo magazines and your IFAK (improved first-aid kit) and you easily add an additional 45 lbs. to your torso. Of course, this doesn’t include the weaponry, clothing and personal items a Marine also carries into theater.

In 2003, the Corps drafted a combat load report that reported the average weights of gear that a Marine takes on deployment. The typical Marine carries 48 lbs of gear in his assault load, which is the average amount of gear carried during combat operations. The approach march load, part of which is shed before entering a combat situation, was estimated at 71 lbs.  Considering the existence load, or the total amount of gear that a Marines takes with him on deployment averages 138 lbs, is it any wonder that many Marines and soldiers alike suffer from back and shoulder injuries? Although the quality of today's gear has vastly improved, the Marine’s ability to carry that gear into battle has not changed in 235 years. Although S.L.A. Marshall noted “we were careful not to load the mule with more than a third of his body weight,” we have yet to find a more efficient - and plentiful - means of carrying equipment to the battlefield besides the grunt on the ground, the true packhorse of the Corps.  

           ....and after.

Thursday, October 20, 2011


After a 5 year respite, the Corps has finally decided to activate me again for deployment overseas. Although this was mostly a result of my own doing, I am excited, albeit somewhat anxious, to once again deploy in support of our global war on terrorism. My role has certainly changed, as I have moved on from my previous billet of USMC Field Historian. However, I will continue to post weekly observations "from the front" in order to provide an on-ground perspective of life in an active theater of war, without the typical political or media spin found in stories published at home. To be continued....