The crumbling wall of the parapet on the northwestern corner on the ancient caravanserai was built up with sandbags and topped with concertina wire. The long barrel of a .50 caliber machine gun (M2, or Ma Deuce as she is affectionately called) points north across the desert toward a very small mud-walled village 1000 yards out and a few smaller walled compounds more or less the same distance out. Sharply rising Afghan mountains here in Farah Province are about four miles beyond the village. This southern province touches Iran to the west and a corner of Helmand Province to the southeast, where abundant poppy farming produces 60 percent to 90 percent of the world’s heroin and where the Taliban flourish for an obvious reason, drug money.
By James Rembert
Chief Military Affairs Correspondent
Tuesday, January 27, 2009 4:38 PM EST
I talked with India Company first sergeant awhile, then climbed a short, sharply inclined narrow dirt trail to the outer wall’s NW parapet. Lance Corporal Rodriguez, what is your first name? Frank, sir. Where are you from? Brooklyn, sir. May I look at your range card? Here you are, sir. His .50 cal. MG has an effective range of 2000 meters, about a mile and a quarter.
Lance Cpl. Rodriguez, why did you join the Marine Corps? You know, sir, just out of high school, bored, wanted adventure. What did your family say? Ma said, Son, don’t join the Marines, that’s dangerous. Ma, Brooklyn is dangerous. I went to Parris Island, and after seven months I came home and said, Ma, they’re sending me to Afghanistan. She said, Son, don’t go to Afghanistan; you might get shot. Ma, I been shot. Whoa, hold it there. Let me get my notepad. Now start from the beginning. The storywas so simple and clear I didn’t jot a note but carried it in memory for two weeks.
On to Helmand Province
After too long a stay in Kabul to the north I finally linked up with the U.S. Marines at Kandahar Air Field (KAF). The C-30 flight west to Helmand Province from Kandahar was a snap, and Camp Bastion was orderly if arid, smack in the middle of the desert with some small mountains on the horizon toward the north. A communiqué put out recently by the American Embassy in Copenhagen, Denmark, noted that of the 5,000 troops at Bastion, including British, Danish and Estonian soldiers, just over a thousand are U.S. Marines and a smaller number are U.S. Special Forces. “You can recognize the latter by their Afghan-looking beards and very serious countenance.” The Marines, said the communiqué, “head out daily to engage the local population and confront the enemy.”
At Camp Bastion Master Sgt. Chuck Albrecht, USMC, a deer hunter from northern Michigan, took charge of me, introduced me to the men of India Company, 3rd Battalion, 8th Marines, especially to Gunnery Sgt. Mills, MRAP driver Lance Cpl. Eldridge, 1st Lt. Bailey, company executive officer, and Company Intelligence Sgt. Nicholas Bender in the top turret with the M240 machine gun. 1st Lt. Bailey was riding shotgun and Gunnery Sgt. Mills was half way astern, back to the outside wall, with a bank of radios. They had assigned me the rearmost seat, safest from an IED explosion, across from Gunnery Sgt. Mills, back to the wall.
For maybe two hours I watched Marines like ants going in, around and over the 19 vehicles of the convoy readying them to leave later in the afternoon, 13 heavily armored Humvees which they call gun trucks, two seven-ton military trucks and four MRAPs, Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles, the four-wheeled kind weighing 36,000 pounds, six-wheeled 42,000 pounds. A Toyota Camry weighs 3,300 pounds. The convoy vehicles all had swivel turrets with mounted weapons like the 7.62mm M240 machine gun, the 40mm Mark 19 automatic grenade launcher, and the .50 cal. machine gun. Infantry troops especially like the latter two, which can reach far out to keep in touch with the enemy.
Arrival at FOB Bakwa
The convoy of 19 armed vehicles pulled up, some of their noses to the wall of a still largely intact caravanserai (“caravan house”) that the company commander, Captain Mike Hoffman, estimated to be as old as the 13th century. Apparently he had done some research on the home for 45 days of India Company, 3/8. In ancient days caravans from southern Iran came up through Afghanistan heading north, some going to the northern Silk Road. Camels needed fodder, drivers food; both needed water, shelter and nightly protection from bandits, hence the walled exteriors.
Young Marines began unloading the vehicles, rucksacks up the glacis, passed up to mates astraddle a low point in the high wall, passed down into the enclosure, others taking six-foot steel stakes for securing concertina wire and making a wide, short ladder connecting top of glacis to low point in wall, others filling sandbags with shovels, still others stretching out and securing concertina wire beyond the wall to enclose the newly-arrived vehicles. Soon a gunnery sergeant called for drivers and began loud instructions, back up and turn vehicles around facing out to the desert, all turret weapons accessible. Much whining of diesels and grinding of gears.
The company command element traveling with the 1st Platoon set up a camouflaged tent affair between the exterior and interior walls, and I put down my rucksack beside their nearby sleeping bags. Those were the Marines I’d gotten to know best. Soon with long cables they had two or three computers hooked up to batteries in Humvees (gun trucks) just over the wall, and radios set up, a camp table or two, folding stools, map boards upright, ready to command and administer defense, feeding, logistics and general welfare of us all. A masterpiece of organization and energy.
Ma Deuce on the Parapet: A Charleston Gunner, and a Lance Corporal’s Story
The next morning I climbed up to the NW parapet, now reinforced with sandbags topped with concertina wire. I wanted a view of the desert and mountains to the north and to talk with the morning crew, a most pleasant .50 cal. machine gunner. Lance Cpl. Joshua DeForest, North Charleston born and bred, went to North Charleston High School and has been in the Marine Corps a year and a half into his four-year enlistment. His assistant gunner is from Mississippi, brought there from Korea as a baby, speaks with a good Southern accent.
That afternoon I talked with the afternoon gunner, Lance Cpl. Rodriguez, and looked at his range card. The rest of the story: When he was 15, Frank Rodriguez told me, he came out of a Brooklyn grocery shop down the street from his home, heard gunshots as a car sped off, dropped the eggs and milk and ran back to the store. The owner dropped the metal barrier in front of Frank’s face, and when he turned around a bullet hit him in the chest and knocked him down, missing his heart by half an inch the doctors told him.
He got up, ran home “bleeding all over the place,” rang the doorbell, his mother said “What’s all this ringing . . . Oh my Lord!” He passed out, woke in the hospital, stitches out in a week, no internal hurting after a month.
A year later his brother was playing basketball near home, two “bad guys” rifled through his jacket, he tried to stop them, knifed in right lung, in back, in right shoulder. Survived. “Ma, Brooklyn is dangerous.”
“They Better Bring 250 Body Bags”
Sitting on the low place in the north wall I was writing up a conversation when Captain Hoffman and 1st Sgt. Andrew Marshall climbed up the dirt bank to this part of the wall and stood beside me, ignoring me as I wrote and as they looked out over the desert toward the mountains. They talked about the enemy breaching this wall while the 2nd Platoon had not yet arrived and part of the 1st was off on an IED-hunting mission. The company commander said, I can’t imagine they’d come with a couple of hundred men across that open space even if they could muster them.
The first sergeant chuckled, glanced at the captain and at me and with his compelling Tommy Lee Jones accent said, “If they come with 250 men, they better bring 250 body bags.” I pointed to the parapet above my right shoulder and said, I guess this .50 could take care of them all. Yep, they nodded. I said, They’d have to be crazy to come across there, but at times they are kinda crazy. They agreed, with an acceptance of the irrational.
Advice from a Hospital Corpsman
A week earlier during a three-day stay at Camp Eggers in Kabul I talked with many contractors at chow. A Navy Hospital Corpsman sat down opposite, and I asked where he was from. Beaufort, SC, and in Afghanistan to teach medical treatment to the national army. He asked and I told him of my soon joining the U.S. Marines in Helmand and Farah Provinces. He said although Hospital Corpsmen enjoy a good reputation among Marines, each one has to gain acceptance when he joins a unit. How, I asked. By doing the tough training with them sometimes, by being unselfish and by showing professional medical competence. You’ve got to earn acceptance, he said. They won’t give it.
After Captain Hoffman and 1st Sgt. Marshall left me to continue writing I looked up after awhile and saw the captain just below the wall sitting on a silent gas-operated generator in front of the net-camouflaged combat operations center, COC, which in my day we called the command post (CP). Three standing Marine NCOs and seven others squatting or sitting formed a semicircle before him. My note reads, He’s talking quietly and seriously, sometimes pointing out east with hand or forefinger as the ten listen, focused, respectful, serious. I cannot hear his words, only a rising tone sometimes. They all know I am nearby up here writing. They can see me but they don’t look. They have accepted me.
A few minutes later with the conference below concluded I descended to get some water, and Captain Hoffman said, You’re already writing up some stuff. Yes, I said. Would you like to hear what? (Many military units are suspicious of journalists, because they can write and publish impressions sometimes starkly different from the troops’ take on what they themselves are doing. Then a sense of betrayal pervades when troops read the account or see the footage after the journalist has returned home.) Sure, he said. Quietly I read aloud to him the preceding paragraph. At the last words he looked at me with a barely distinguishable expression I cannot describe and will not forget. “Yep,” he said. “We have.” I was wrong thinking I was too old and jaded to be moved.
Back at KAF I told Colonel Duffy White that Captain Hoffman is a good infantry company commander, better than I was in the 1960s, I’d say.
One night Captain Hoffman put down the phone in the COC, turned to me and said, “Bad news, sir. They’re sending a helicop-ter for you at 0905 hours tomorrow.” I shook my head and tightened my mouth. The chopper was coming a day earlier than expected. It was large a CH-53 Marine helicopter, one of two ordered up the night before to bring parts to a device for exploding IEDs that had been damaged a few kilometers away in the desert. After the drop the chopper would pick me up.
The next morning reluctantly I was packed and ready before 0900, standing out beyond the concertina wire with 1st Sgt. Marshall 40 yards from the LZ made of a 50-foot square tarp secured to the desert floor. Two big dogs fresh from a nearby burn pit were lounging on the tarp. Here came not one but two huge choppers roaring, flaring and easing in towards the tarp. The dogs tried to look cool, but at the last moment to the delight of Marines on the wall behind us, they skedaddled.
Dust cloud. Ramp lowered, mail bags and MRE boxes unloaded, crew chief motioning me aboard, sitting amidships, only passenger in the large cargo bay, buckled in, back end of chopper stayed wide open, NCO moved his stool to center of open space, affixed his .50 cal. machine gun pointing out back, two side-window .50 cal. gunners stood to their weapons, pitch pulled, we rose with the other CH-53 following. The flight at 1000 feet back to Camp Bastion was captivating, isolated sharp mountains, then mountain clusters, always desert, some ancient mud houses, bleak and beautiful sight for miles, roar of engine, constant rush of air, so loud no one had spoken to me nor I to anyone, descent, overnight at Bastion, C-130 to KAF.
That last evening at KAF, packed up and sitting outside the terminal building beside the flight line, I asked a tall contractor what company he worked for. He said one that ships MRAPs here from the U.S. on huge Russian Antonov An-124s because the USAF does not have enough C-5s and C-17s to do the job rapidly enough. He asked and I replied I had been with the MAGTF and was now headed for Charleston. He walked over and shook my hand. He’s from North Charleston. He said yesterday he saw a formal ceremony of Marines easing a flag-draped coffin onto a C-17 for the flight back to the states. He heard it was a Marine from the MAGTF, killed it turns out the evening of the day I left Bakwa. I asked which unit. He didn’t know, only that he was 21. I went inside the terminal, no Marines but many British soldiers, USAF troops, Canadian Army and others. A clerk said she heard he had a Latino name. An Air Force captain said he’d heard he was from the Bronx, or Brooklyn.
That NW parapet with its .50 cal. at Bakwa was southern Afghanistan’s far western edge of exposure in the war against the Taliban as far as I knew. I flew to Kabul that night, did not sleep well, asked my German lieutenant colonel friend the next morning what he knew, he got out a folder, said he could not mention a name, but the Marine was not in India Company; he was in Lima, a sister company in the battalion. I was prepared for a stunned conclusion to this story. The conclusion is still bad, someone’s son, maybe someone’s brother, husband or boyfriend, certainly a friend, killed by an IED set by practically motiveless criminals who will not come out and fight because we are at this time too strong and getting stronger.
And so it goes. Vonnegut in Slaughterhouse-Five used those words each of the many times he mentioned or described someone’s or something’s death in that anti-war novel. In the context of Middle East wars the words seem to suggest interminability.
Getting to the War
I would have reached Kandahar in the south from Kabul earlier, but a USAF C-17 transport slid off a runway at Kandahar Air Field (KAF), and two of my flights and many others were canceled for two and a half days. At length I flew down in a German Luftwaffe C-160, built by a French and German consortium, which looks to me remarkably like a larger version of the older USAF C-123. As a group of German and Canadian soldiers and I walked out on the tarmac in Kabul to board the transport, I saw the plane and said to the Canadian lieutenant colonel next to me, a lawyer training the Afghan National Army in military law, “Goodness, that’s a C-123, first plane I ever jumped from, in 1964.” The Canadian chuckled and replied, “Let’s hope this one is not that old.”
At ISAF HQ in Kabul I’d remarked, I’ll bet that errant C-17 is from Charleston. Ironic if so. When we landed at KAF my host, 1st Lt. Stewart Coles, USMC, met me on the flight line. My wife wanted to hug him for weeks because of his professional and gentlemanly e-mails securing the embed with his Marines. Is that lone C-17 the one that slid off the runway earlier this week? Yes, sir, the very one. I looked at the vertical stabilizer, and across the tail printed boldly in black on a black-bordered yellow strip was “CHARLESTON” and next to it the familiar dark blue and white flag with crescent moon and palmetto tree.
First Lieutenant Coles gave me the professional briefing about the unit I would join the next day, the Special Purpose Marine Air Ground Task Force Afghanistan, SPMAGTF-A. He went over mission, organization, current operations and ground rules reminder. The MAGTF under the command of Colonel Duffy White, USMC, 3rd Marines, i.e. 3rd Marine Regiment, consists of first a Ground Combat Element, the 3rd Bn, 8th Marines, commanded by Lt. Col. Dave Odom, Citadel Class of 1991, a former English major and friend of my friend Myron Harrington from Charleston, Colonel, USMC (Ret.). I was to be embedded with this element, specifically with India Company’s first platoon. The MAGTF also had an aviation combat unit and a logistics combat unit to support the ground combat battalion. Part of the mission capabilities of this MAGTF is what the military calls nowadays “Kinetic Operations,” or ground combat, meeting the enemy. An update in December said the MAGTF had three wounded and none killed since beginning operations in Helmand and Farah in late November 2008. The day I left Helmand Province at the end of December a young Marine in the MAGTF was killed.
Convoy to Farah Province
The first leg of the convoy was from Bastion to FOB Delaram in Farah Province to the west, where we arrived at night, ate MREs sitting next to our vehicles and slept there on the cold ground in sleeping bags
The convoy to Delaram was largely on a good road cleared of IEDs by the Marines. Early the next morning we moved cross-country west to Bakwa. Riding in the rear seat of that MRAP, made by Force Protection in nearby Ladson, SC (remember the local curse of the Charleston C-17), stimulated me to find a way to explain the feel of the trip across miles of open, unimproved desert covered with ditches, gullies, ruts, dry creek beds, hummocks and furrows. Ever ridden on Thunder Mountain at Disney World? Does that last six minutes? Seven? You know how you’re tossed and slammed, big fun. Try doing that but twice as violently for five blinkin’ hours unrelenting across a desert except for two 10-minute breaks while all pile out and look for buried or hidden IEDs because the lead gun truck saw something suspicious.
Projected Taliban Attack and a Mortar
The second day at FOB Bakwa the COC received a message from Battalion HQ at Camp Bastion that evidence shows an attack might occur tonight at Bakwa. I watched the activity of young Marines hauling more crates of 81mm and 120mm mortar rounds and more belts of machine gun ammunition up the ladder, over the wall and down into the caravanserai. The attack never came. The commander told me the young Marines had wanted a fight.
Next day I waited for the mortar crew to register the 120mm mortar, which is really an artillery piece, some say, because it is so large. This is the only 120 in the only battalion in the Marine Corps to have a 120, I was told. Across the base of the tube are the words “U.S. Army.” Usually it takes three rounds to walk strikes into the registration point. I wanted to experience the muzzle blast from a suitable distance. Finally the sergeant in charge said they were trying to save rounds, and the 81s were already registered, so they’d wait. Alas.