Rounds were whizzing overhead and skipping along the dirt beside me as I began to think to myself, “how the hell did we wind up in this mess?” It was January 28, 2010, and we had been operating out of a 20-man outpost for the last month and a half. Our area of operations was similar to the scene of a John Wayne or Clint Eastwood movie. It was the Wild West, and any afternoon patrol spent too far West of our home, Outpost (OP) Man Bear Pig, had a significant chance of taking contact. To take contact is to engage, or be engaged, with the enemy. This could vary from an inaccurate “pop shot” or a coordinated attack. We were on the front lines of the Global War on Terror, and the area had been giving US forces trouble since arriving there some five months prior to us showing up.
Earlier that day I had patrolled to the base known as the Nest- a slightly larger base where higher ranking enlisted members and officers lived and planned out missions for Bravo Company. Unfortunately the reason I found myself walking back to the Nest was for a funeral service for a friend of mine. It wasn’t the first, nor would it be the last, that would occur over our seven-month deployment.
On January 25, 2010 Timothy Poole Jr. was decapitated while out on patrol. He had taken a knee and found himself on top of an IED, also known as a roadside bomb. The IED was victim actuated, meaning that the victim detonated the device. While Poole took a knee his body weight rested upon a pressure plate, which completed an electrical circuit that activated 15 pounds of homemade explosives. The explosive decapitated the Marine and he was killed instantly.
Marines came from bases across the battle space to pay their respects. A haunting part of the funeral service is roll call. The Marine leading the service, traditionally the Company’s highest enlisted member, calls out the names of the Marines in the squad that suffered the casualty. The names are called out one at a time and the Marine whose name is called out replies “Here!” The names are read out in alphabetical order, eventually ending on the deceased. They call out the name three times. “Lance Corporal Poole.” The crowd is silent other than the occasional sob. “Lance Corporal Timothy Poole.” Still silent. “Lance Corporal Timothy Poole Jr.” There are few places on Earth as quiet as a Marine Funeral. First Sergeant Sean Greenleaf, the senior enlisted man for Bravo Company and leader of the funeral service, called out for Lance Corporal Timothy Poole. There was no reply. Poole was dead. After the moment of silence had passed First Sergeant Greenleaf called out, “Honor the Dead!” Taps began to play. A song played by a lone trumpet player, each note slow and deliberate. As taps is played a firing squad performs a 21-gun-salute, 7 Marines each fire three rounds, one at a time, in unison. These moments last maybe a minute or two, but seem to last a lifetime. The chills creep over your body as taps is played, followed by a jumping sensation as the first round of gunfire cuts through the trumpet’s tunes. Your mind wanders and you find yourself imagining what your service would look like. You think of home and the friends and family that you left behind. You imagine mom and dad lying sleepless in bed as they worry about you.
After the service I patrolled back to Man Bear Pig where the rest of my team carried out their daily duties of weapons cleaning and mission planning. Our platoon commander, a former enlisted Marine with a chip on his shoulder, patrolled back with me. He had allegedly come this far west to check on our team, but he was actually out to get a taste of combat. He was itching to get into a firefight and get his Combat Action Ribbon, awarded to service members for getting into contact with the enemy. In the Marines we call it “chasing CARs”. Our eight-man sniper team’s call sign was Stalker One, stalking being the sniper’s art of hunting the enemy, and we had been at Man Bear Pig since December. We had seen enough combat to know that this was one place where a person shouldn’t visit with aims to prove him or herself. The eight of us know the difference between harassing fire and someone who was determined to kill you. Every time a new squad came out west they came chasing CARs. Their ambitions blind them and they become complacent as they looking for a fight. The scenario the repeated itself with every batch of newcomers reminded me of the Johnny Cash song Don’t Take Your Guns to Town. In the song a boy named Billy-Joe goes into a town trying to prove himself as a man. His ego becomes his downfall and ends up drawing his weapon on a seasoned gunfighter who then lays the young man to rest. The two stories are all too similar.
The lieutenant and myself arrived at Man Bear Pig just after noon. The lieutenant informed the team that we would be heading northwest, stopping just short of route Olympia, one of the most dangerous in Afghanistan for being littered with IED’s. Even the local Afghans didn’t cross the road. We planned to step off at 1530. Every time we would head West of Man Bear Pig we expect to take contact. Most of the time it is harassing fire- random shots that don’t come very close, but should be taken seriously nonetheless. Anyone who stayed at Man Bear Pig long enough will tell you that if you head northwest you better prepare for a fight. We had found ourselves in multiple close call situations in the northwest area, which included a 9-hour-long firefight that stretched our forces very thin and ammo running dangerously low. We didn’t go there unless we had to. There is a saying, “If you knock on the Devil’s door long enough someone is bound to answer.” If heading northwest was knocking at the Devil’s door, patrolling in that area around sundown was begging for him to make an appearance.
Our Staff Sergeant, Jimmy Moronta from Brooklyn, advised the Lieutenant about that particular area, and that we didn’t patrol that area at sundown due to visibility issues. They could see us but we couldn’t see them. The lieutenant didn’t heed Moronta’s warning and we prepared for the patrol. We all went about our own personal pre-patrol routines. This included listening to specific iPod playlists, filling up water bottles, cleaning of weapons and ammo checks. I always load up with an additional 200 rounds at least when we headed northwest. The sun was blood red when we left the wire. Our eight-man-sniper team, accompanied by our lieutenant, began our march northwest and a squad followed us from a distance incase we needed backup. Right before we left my best friend in this war torn country, Lance Corporal Ryan Jensen, asked me with a concerned look etched across his face, “are you feelen’ it too?” I knew what he meant. It was a gut instinct. The patrol felt wrong. It was a textbook example of what not to do. On patrols such as these we were wound tight. Every step was deliberately placed and muscles tensed up. Our senses were in a more alert state; eyes searching the area systematically, ears finely tuned listening for anything to give away the enemy’s position, and our heart rates began to elevate allowing our bodies to carry us away from danger as quickly as possible. Our fingers lay straight and off the triggers of our weapons. They too were ready to do what was necessary. To kill if need be.
We stepped off and began to patrol north. We walked through farm fields filled with mud. The soil was saturated for growing poppy and could potentially rip the boots right off your feet. I have seen a Marine wrestle his way through this mud to where his boots came off and he eventually got stuck. It took two other Marines to drag him out over 15 long minutes of crawling across the field.
We continued north until we hit a canal system that ran parallel with Olympia running east to west. There was a large gravel pile about ten feet tall next to the canal system. We noticed several families outside tending to chores as we set up near the gravel pile. Kids played outside and tended to farm animals. The sun was approaching the horizon, becoming a dark red with a heavy orange glow illuminating the skies and landscapes to the West. Under different circumstances it may have been a pretty sight to behold. We took it as an omen, a sign of what would come.
We began to set up on the Southern edge of Olympia. We kept our eyes to the west, but the sun brought visibility to an all time low, hiding the enemy who was undoubtedly just beyond our sights. We radioed to the squad and alerted them of our position and told them to stand by to support us. We began searching the horizon line for the Taliban, who we all knew had been alerted to our presence and were without a doubt watching us.
Corporal Trinidad Garcia, a lanky Mexican from Texas with a dry sense of humor, was our point main. I found his jokes funny, but my family more than likely wouldn’t appreciate his jokes. “If they come over this berm we’re dead… you understand that right?” I joked. “We can’t do anything when they’re ten feet in front of us”.
He laughed. “Yea, I know,” he replied. “If they do come over the berm just yell and everyone will turn around, but yea, someone will get shot”. I often wonder if we are as funny as we think we are. We continued to discuss worst-case scenarios as the rest of the team scanned the area. The families that had been outside performing chores had made their way inside their homes. A telltale sign that an attack was imminent. All of a sudden three to five rounds zipped over our heads. We joked about it for a second. We didn’t know it yet, but a maelstrom of gunfire was about to rain down on us.
There was a five to ten second pause after the first few rounds. The quiet before the storm. All of a sudden another barrage of rounds flew less than a foot over our heads. The incoming fire was accurate. We got as flat to the ground as we could. No matter how flat you lay, it didn’t seem to be flat enough. Like a trapped animal I began to dig with my hands. Every inch I dug was an inch I was putting between the bullets, flying at over 2,000 feet per second, overhead and myself. I carried the Squad Automatic Weapon, or the M249 SAW- a fully automatic machine gun that could fire 750 rounds per minute. I carried 800 rounds with me in four 200-round ammo drums. The drum located on the front of my flak jacket put me an additional four inches or so higher up than everyone else. My body barely fit below the berm that shielded us from the incoming rounds. As I cursed and yelled obscenities at myself everyone else took a moment to laugh. It might seem morally incorrect to laugh at someone getting shot at, but if you weren’t there or in a similar situation, then you just can’t understand it.
“Anyone got eyes on?” yelled out Moronta. There was a brief lull in the gunfire.
“Hell, no! If I knew where they were at, I’d be shooting the assholes!” replied Corporal Jon Ganci, our assistant team leader. Ganci was a bit of clown. He had a way of making everyone laugh. It didn’t matter if it was during a firefight or hanging around a barrel of burning shit.
Rounds continued to fly overhead, getting closer and peppering the ground behind us. I continued to squirm and mutter to myself. “You idiot. You dumb fucking idiot. What the hell were you thinking?” The firing stopped for a moment. They were maneuvering on us. “You think they know we’re here?” Ganci joked. We all laughed for a moment. Except for the lieutenant. He was cowering in the corner at the time.
“They’re gonna start coming at us from the canal in front of us if we don’t do something about it!” Garcia called out. I told him that I could maneuver to the side and reach the gravel pile with another teammate to provide cover fire. “Stay put!” called out Lieutenant. He was useless at this point in time. We got the approval from Moronta to move. “You go first, right behind you, I swear,” I told Corporal Omar Gonzales, a Marine who arguably had no right to be in our platoon. He was seen more as a safety hazard than an asset. Not bothering to argue about it he got up and slid into the canal and was out of sight in a heartbeat. I was next.
I tried to convince myself that I was brave as I jumped down into the canal. Rounds impacted behind me as I tore off at a sprint down the canal to reach the gravel pile. Garcia and Ganci would be next. As they began to slide into the canal the Taliban started opening up. They were throwing everything they had at us. Rounds were missing those two by inches. You could see the rounds impacting at their heels as they ran for cover. I crawled out of the canal and got on top of the gravel pile where I could provide cover fire for the rest of the team. Garcia came with me as we began to poke our heads over the gravel. As we began to inch our heads over the summit a handful of rounds impacted right in front of us. “FUCK THIS!” I screamed as we slid down the pile. It took a moment to clear the dirt and gravel from our eyes. Determined to provide cover for the Marines who still needed to move I tried my luck a second time. I moved ten feet or so to my left, the thought being that I would pop up from a different position and they would still be watching my previous location. As I slowly started to creep up Garcia reached up and pulled me down. “What the hell are you doing?! They’ll bag your ass if you stick your head back up there!” I chuckled for a moment. “Well, there’s that possibility,” I explained.
All of a sudden a deafening boom arose from where the other Marines across the way had been. I feared they had been hit with a rocket or a grenade had been lobbed over the road. It was Moronta and his SASR .50 caliber rifle, the Special Application Scoped Rifle was capable of stopping vehicles, including a plane if it was stationary. The damage it done to human flesh is a macabre sight. Entire limbs could be separated from a body from up to 2,000 yards away. The enemy was a mere 800 yards away- a shot well within reach. He continued to punish those who had dared to attempt to take our lives. Moronta hit a man center mass, about where a man’s sternum is located. The man he shot had a better chance of surviving had a train hit him.
Juan Urdiales, a Marine from Ohio on his first deployment, joined Jensen and jumped into the canal while the last three men provided cover fire. “Jensen over here!” Garcia yelled as rounds attempted to chased them down the canal. As he cut hard right to get to safety he tripped. As he soared through the air everything else seemed to slow down. What couldn’t have lasted more than a fraction of a second seemed to be playing in slow motion. His face broke his fall. We erupted with laughter. The firefight had been put on a brief pause as we were overcome with laughter. The hysteria of the moment began to die down as he gathered himself and joined us safely behind the gravel pit. The term safety is used relatively. At the moment a pile of sand and rock was perfectly safe- it was enough mass standing between our enemy and us.
The three remaining team members jumped into the canal and joined us as Urdiales requested help from the other patrol. He had been trying for minutes but they repeatedly asked for our position. We had sent them our position three during the course of the event and we may have moved a total of 15-20 feet. At the time we weren’t pleased with their performance.
The nine of us had regrouped at the gravel pit and the patrol had finally arrived. They were several hundred meters behind us and they began laying down covering fire to prevent the Taliban from maneuvering on us. “We have to get out of here!” Moronta called out. “Jones, Urdi, Jensen, suppress and we will move.”
The Marines began bounding backwards, moving as quickly as their bodies would allow, while Jensen and I held down the trigger. We blasted away at the berm the Taliban had been firing from. I occasionally shifted my fire and lit up a tree line they were using to maneuver. I blew through the first 120 rounds. I paused to reload. We laid down one last hail of gunfire as we prepared to move. Urdiales continued to suppress the enemy as Jensen and I slung our weapons to our backs. Urdiales, Jensen and I took off like bats out of hell as we sprinted for the rest of our team. We didn’t realize that they had bounded back approximately 200 meters. We were tired, dehydrated, malnourished, and our combat load weighed in at about 60 lbs. Fatigue caught up to us once we lay safely amongst our team in another canal. The firing stopped. Once the helicopters arrived we knew we were safe. We began to return to base. We headed southeast to a group of buildings where the squad had been providing covering fire from.
We laid there with our eyes fixated to the west. It had only been maybe half and hour, maybe 45 minutes, since the first round was shot. The sun had already set and dusk had settled in. I had wanted a smoke since rounds began impacting around us, and I finally had a chance to light one up. We al know that cigarettes will kill you. Today it is common knowledge. Also common knowledge is that the rounds from an enemy AK, or the blast from an IED, will kill you even quicker. Few people look as far down the road as lung cancer or heart disease while overseas on deployment. My team and I sat in the canal smoking cigarettes and we began to joke about the firefight. We pointed out Jensen falling, Lieutenant freaking out, and everyone shooting too much. We were smoking American cigarettes. It’s important to note this because they were a luxury item on the front lines. Compared to the Korean made cigarettes we had been smoking, for $5 a carton, the Camel Lights we were smoking became the Johnny Walker Blue Labels of cigarettes. It was the little things like this that mattered.
When we finally got back to Man Bear Pig we had a quick debrief- the Lieutenant went over the pros and cons of the patrol. He commended us on our bravery and cool heads under fire. Realistically he had no grounds for talking, nor did I take him seriously. We had no business being out there in the first place. It was his decision. He decided to take the patrol out even though he was advised against it. Afterwards we were cut loose to take care of personal matters. We threw continued to smoke as we cleaned weapons, replenished ammo, and ate dinner. After taking care of business we got a chance to settle down and relax. We had electricity at our base, but only for about two hours at night. It was the one chance we had to charge radios, GPS systems, and coincidentally our laptops and iPods. We played an episode of The O.C., a California soap opera that had been popular from 2003 to 2007. Girls cried over it when it aired on the TV back home. Here we were in Afghanistan, ten foul-mouthed Marines, surrounding a 12-inch MacBook computer, watching a soap opera that targeted teenage girls. United States Marines, too strange to live, too rare to die.