Complete blackness and the roar of the helicopter are overpowering. My eyelids are heavy. I wonder if I’ll make a difference. I really shouldn’t let the sleep take me over, but it comes from all sides. It’s warm in here, and dark, and the noise drowns thought out. My kevlar doesn’t balance well with the heavy goggles mounted on front. I don’t know the Marine next to me, but he’s probably ten years older. I bet they were years in the Corps. I hope so.
I can only make out the top of Bear’s kevlar in the dark, a few inches above the buttstock of his rifle. He’s my team leader on this operation. Simon, our third team member, sits back. The helicopter takes us south, somewhere, and I let my eyes rest. I hug my rifle closer.
Dust billows as the helo steadies onto the ground somewhere in the open country a short distance from our destination, and as rehearsed, Marines silently throw their packs on in subtle chaos. Just like the escort operation, the tail end is already open, and we swiftly unload from the bird. Off the helo, I stepped seamlessly from a world of structure and order into one of uncertainty and turmoil.
It’s an unspoken desire to be a part of something big, the same thing that signed the five year contract for me. Fear and ambition, that core burning to a man which sends him into the battle or away from it, kept thought out of the equation as I threw together everything necessary for this short, unexpected operation.
Bear had personally solicited for all the gear I wasn’t issued, a full combat load of ammunition, a plate carrier with better mobility than the ones we were issued, and coached me through filling my pack with essentials, like eight bottles of water (is eight really necessary?!). I fought to go on missions, and here was my chance. We had a little over an hour from when I was notified before we had to be on the helo pad.
My pack is heavy and awkwardly sits on my back as I follow the Marine a few yards ahead of me, and my rifle bobs counter to my kevlar, making my head pound. I can’t get my night vision goggles to work, so I squint to adjust my natural night vision, focusing on the heels in front of me clod through the soft dirt. This isn’t very hard to do, because the land is illuminated from breathtaking starlight. But there’s no city lights on the horizon; Leatherneck is nowhere to be found. There are cows mooing, like cows do. Who is more disturbed, us or the cows?
I force air through my nasal passage, but my ears are still plugged. My sinuses are plugged. Five hours ago, when I walked into work to start another typical day, when they told me I was picked for this mission to support Recon during a helo insert near Marjeh, a notorious battleground in Afghanistan, I chose not to tell anyone I was probably too sick. I was their last resort anyway, and I was definitely better than nothing.
Let’s remind ourselves. I do well for myself as a Marine, but I’m 5-10, 160 pounds. I’m wearing about 80 pounds of gear I’ve been getting used to the past two hours, mostly for the first time. I’m almost dying on this hump, and we haven’t even gone a quarter mile. I was dying on the runway walking the two hundred yards to the helo with this pack on. Now I’m struggling to see beyond my kevlar, and keep my rifle in a tactical position, let alone straighten my back and stride out this hump with a pounding headache and fever. I’m wheezing. I focus on each step. This is timelessly hilarious to me after the mission. At the time it isn’t.
Across a large field and around some trees, the compound came into sight. Following the black figures ahead of me, maintaining tactical distance, I eventually reached the semi-sanctuary of the compound.
We filed through a few low door frames into the center of compound, where, still operating largely by starlight, handfuls of Marines moved about. Many them had come on an earlier helo infil. It’s a unique bustle among a deck of professionals. There’s little interaction between the many cells of specialists. We’re all here to add to the larger mission. There’s a good chance the Taliban have stashed a lot of stuff here, and our sole job is to determine if the goods are goods or duds, destroy them if they’re goods, and get the hell out of there. We’ve got no tanks, no artillery. Just a scheduled helo exfil once our mission is complete. My team is here solely for linguistic support.
We get to work. The kind of work you don’t hear about in the news. A crew of Marines who want nothing more than to make a difference, and see a product come of it. But the genuineness and proof of our effort is largely confidential information that I can’t share, sadly. Instead I’ll cut to the point: after hours of work we concluded it was just a mass of duds, and we would get out of there as soon as was tactically safe.
It’s about four in the morning before I finish my work, and Bear suggests I get some sleep.
The air was dry and cold. My plate carrier served as protection and warmth as I slept. I tucked my hands under the front to keep warm, and settled for waking every ten or fifteen minutes to adjust them from falling asleep. If it was any colder I would’ve gotten some more warming layers out of my bag. Simon was sleeping the same way next to me.
The sun was very welcomed, but it seemed to take forever for the temperature to rise. By the time it was warm again, we were well into the afternoon, fighting complacency. Suddenly, a ground shaking ‘THUD’.
I didn’t know how to react when the mortar came. It was a dull sound coming from maybe fifty yards south of us. Bear says the look on my face was priceless. All I remember at the instant the first one struck, was watching the senior enlisted recon members to see what was going on, and how I should react.
“Let’s get to work,” a burly Recon Staff NCO says. Like a flick of the conducting baton to an orchestra, or the bell before pandemonium on Wall Street, everyone got busy. About a third of the guys move inside, a few that aren’t already there climb up on the roof, and Bear orders me to my station. The radio operators fire up, the paratroopers bustle about (I haven’t a clue what they were doing the whole operation), and Bear goes up on the roof as well. The same one that called us to action, Burly Man, pulls out a lighter and coolly starts up a cigar.
“Incoming.” Not yelled, but suggested from the roof. Prophesied it seemed.
“How do they know that?” one of the radio operators wonders, much like I wonder how his radio works out here. A few seconds and the mortar falls. Far to the north this time.
Most of us huddle inside the door frame while the mortar comes down, but there’s a few that remain outside, and of course those on the roof. I make eye contact with those outside. They’re deflecting the denial that the roof will offer us any more protection. These were Marines who didn’t have the luxury of fearing death, it seemed. The Marines who stayed outside held a familiarity with it. Apart from following orders, I really didn’t see the purpose to going inside, but I still did before each mortar strike. I stayed focused on my translation work.
In this moment, I remember wondering if the gravity of this would ever strike. Slowly that wonder was replaced with training, and a satisfaction that I wasn’t losing my cool, and instead focused on doing my job. I took advantage of the anticlimactic impact of the mortars, and equally downplayed it while working.
I imagine from the horizon, wherever the Taliban were, they could see the singular strands of smoke winding up from the compound, taunting. The unmistakable thickness, heavier than a cigarette, lighter than a fire, of a cigar. “These are the Marines,” the smoke said. And on, Burly Man smoked. “You can’t phase us.”
By the third one, our counterintelligence has a pretty good idea where they were. Simon is sitting with me, waiting to see any signs of further strikes. Bear on the roof was helping locate, and it turns out we got two or three of them. I look around for the paratroopers but I don’t know where they were. Maybe playing Yahtzee in the back for all I knew. A fourth strike comes, but no more after that. They never hit our compound, instead, missing on three different sides. The guys on the roof said the nearest was 50 meters.
The last strike had long passed but Burly Man finishes his cigar patiently, smoke snaking uninterrupted and unmatched into the clear sky. Soon it cleared and there was nothing to do but wait in silence.
The seconds dripped by while we waited for our night exfil. By now of course I was beat. The sun bore down on us, until finally leaving us alone, and I watched the sky get darker and darker, and stared at my watch for the time to peel away. I had to stand, and pace back and forth, and Bear had to coach me, to keep me awake, in case there might be plans for a second attack, or an ambush on our exfil.
Just as it started with helicopters, it would finish with helicopters. We lined up outside the gate like kids going on a field trip. “Do one last sweep of vital gear,” says one of the senior enlisted, and I reel through my head the gear in my pack. We stood in silence until the point man decided it was time to go. My pack is much lighter because I dumped out all the extra water bottles, but by the time we stepped off, the pack is starting to get heavy again.
Even when we did step off, it was slow going, but I wasn’t feverish like on the infil. I was confident. We were done. All we had to do was get on a bird. Nothing was going to happen. The shit already happened and it had been quiet since.
Our long line snakes around the compound we had been holed up in. I focus on quieting my steps. The ground is more solid than the soft mud from the night before. In the illuminated night sky, we cross the opposite side of the farm from which we came in, over a small hill and over a dried out canal. The thick, soft ground near the canal however, made it hard to maneuver, and the foot patrol got a little clumsy.
We were bottle necked and obviously unprepared for the awkward acrobatics required. Bear’s rifle got a mouthful of mud. Simon almost got a literal mouthful as Bear pulled and I pushed him out of the canal. As I’m helping the Marine after me up the canal, I fall back and plant my hand on a bunch of bristly, prickly shit. I don’t know what foreign cactus it was, but the pricks broke off in my hand.
I felt real manly having survived this much of the operation so far, so I got up like no big deal and kept on going. Maybe I would die of poison. That would suck. Note to self- take the Malaria pills when I get back to Leatherneck. We effectively respond to unexpected fire with coordinated precision, but mud makes all men look like fools.
The canal was the last hard part. We crossed a field, and near a tree line took knees waiting for the helos to come. It’s probably one in the morning. We wait five minutes. My left eye sees green and black night vision. By my right eye, the sky is a magnificent navy blue. The air is calm, fresh. No sound of cows or of anything else.
How normal was this exfil? What were the locals thinking? Did they sell us out to the Taliban? Is that why we were mortared? Would they sell us out here in the field?
More minutes passed. Nothing seemed out of order though, and a strange sense of success took me, rather than panic. Maybe it was the confidence of the others around me as well that fed my feeling of security. Maybe it was the fact that I didn’t buckle under the stress.
Suddenly, perpendicular to my position on the 360, the helo’s come in, giant metal angels relieving us of our danger. Like rounds belt fed through an automatic chamber, we pop out of the 360 position and funnel onto the open-tailed helo. In seconds we’re back in the air.
The field, the compound disappears behind us, beginning our acclimation back to an ordered world.
Next: 14. Everyday
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