We’d been stalled on the tarmac at Leatherneck for almost an hour. They had scrunched us all to the front of the Osprey’s cargo bay where we now sat rocking in our jump seats, our bags between our legs, the rotors pounding turbulently outside. We were drowning in the stench of diesel fuel, stale and sick-smelling; the very thing that on a previous eight-hour helo ride had sent me hurling chow hall spaghetti into my drop pouch. It was the ultimate boot/pogue mistake, and it could never be repeated.
The crew chief stumbled up from the rear of the aircraft, coiling a leash of headset cable.
“HQ is having a change of command rehearsal,” he shouted to us. “They don’t want any flyover noise disrupting it, so this flight might be canceled.”
Leatherneck is what happens when the Corps has been stagnant for too long. The “camp” was outfitted with pizza parlors, a steak house, salsa nights. Now they were postponing ops for drill rehearsals. Stay there long enough you might think you’re back in garrison. That’s why some call it “Leatherjeune.”
“How do you like that,” said a fat Army sergeant sitting across from me. He and his three PFCs were from the 3rd Infantry Division, probably headed back to their assigned VSP, where they most likely worked as tower guards. They were dusty and tired-looking. If they were part of the FLE convoy, they spent their time ferrying supplies around the battle space and rolling over IEDs.
“Where you headed?” he asked me.
“Watan,” I said.
He snorted. “There’s a place for you. We just had two guys get wounded there from shrapnel. One lost like, twenty feet of intestines.”
He nodded at the PFC beside me.
“Hanner spent some time at Watan.”
Hanner grinned, dug into his cargo pocket. He pulled out his cover and turned it over. On the underside of the brim were scribbled eight tally marks.
“Each of those is a mortar attack,” he said, still grinning proudly. “I stopped counting after the first week.”
I nodded, pretending not to be disconcerted.
“Guess I should keep my head down.”
“What are you gonna be doing out there?” asked the sergeant, frowning at the camera hanging off my flak.
“I’m a combat correspondent.”
He unscrewed a water bottle and spit tobacco into it, his fat cheeks spilling over his Kevlar straps.
“That like a writer or some shit?”
He laughed. “That’s fuckin’ ridiculous.”
“How’s that?” I said.
He looked out the back of the helo, squinting into the dusty beyond. His smile sank.
“I fuckin’ hate this place,” he said.
We took off at dusk. Banking a sharp ninety degrees, we soared off into the east, into the Helmand valley, the jewel of the Taliban kingdom. Nearly 80% of the world’s opium comes from Helmand.
My mission was to facilitate the Information Operations campaign in the village of Watan. The team there was getting ready for a big push, from their current VSP to a new site across the river — a Taliban stronghold. I was to partner with Watan’s MISO team and assist in their efforts to influence, inform, win hearts and minds, convince the locals that inside every dirty bastard is an American trying to get out, etc.
Along with writing press releases for radio broadcasts and taking part in shuras — more than I’d care to remember — I would also, almost surreptitiously, be facilitating another mission — that of Public Affairs. I was to document, through photo, video and article, team life and operations. Most of my work would (and did) go into a vault, not to see the light of day until many years from now, when the most sensitive of secrets are deemed obsolete. Some of my photos — those that did not jeopardize identity or TTPs — were released for Public Affairs purposes. The articles were sugar-coated, cut and dry, chalk-full of command messages. Now rewrite it and give it a happy ending. It always amused me that the most intrinsic of my duties as a combat correspondent — documentation — was the most difficult to conduct. But then, being a combat correspondent at MARSOC, the Corps’ most discreet unit, was a strange thing.
The crew chief flashed his hand at me: five minutes. The sky framed in the Osprey’s ramp door darkened as we drifted into a cloud. Lightning flittered outside.
I gathered my things and unstrapped my seatbelt, buckled my Kevlar. Black tree branches reached up behind the ramp as we descended into Watan’s LZ. The air was still dark and flaring with lightning and the bird whisked up torrents of dust, sweeping past the door like a cyclone. We weren’t in Kansas anymore. Kansas was back in Herat; back on the FOB. Aside from the odd shura or municipal function, I’d only really left the FOB once, at least in a real combat capacity. And even then, I’d sat in a mortar pit for three days getting sunburned. Now I was in Watan, in Helmand’s Nahr-e Saraj district.
It was the bloodiest place in Afghanistan.
The bird touched down, the crew chief waved me off. I grabbed my bag and rushed down the ramp into a roaring sandstorm, squinting at the hail of debris. A glow tore through the murk; a side-by-side resolved itself from the whirlwind. It slammed to a halt in front of me and the driver stepped out, massive, bearded, wearing only a t-shirt, camouflage cargo shorts and flip-flops. He may as well have been driving back from the beach.
“We gotta go,” he said, grabbing my bag. Something snapped overhead, like a stick smacking a board. Another crack. Gunshots. I bobbed stupidly for a moment, not sure whether to get down or return fire.
“Come on!” shouted the driver. I climbed into the passenger seat and the vehicle lurched into motion. A tidal wave of dust rolled over us as the Osprey took off, ascending into the black sky, the crew chief’s .50-cal. chattering thunderously. I once heard it was every pilot’s wet dream to fly into a hot LZ. Of course, for an air crew working in Nahr-e Saraj, today was probably just business as usual.
We jerked to a halt outside a mud building, an array of satellites and antennas sprouting from its rooftop. I followed the driver inside.
The interior was like any other coalition structure in Afghanistan, a sort of post-Apocalyptic dwelling pieced together from plywood scraps and cammo netting and wires and cables and whole bouquets of computer screens. The driver went to a set of monitors, joining his teammates, all of them hulking and tattooed and bearded, studying the screens from beneath low and furrowed brows, each spitting tobacco into bottles in quiet deliberation.
An infrared landscape swept across the screens.
“It’s coming from the river bank,” said the driver.
The camera stopped, whipped back. Two men with rifles, each burning white hot, stumbled up from a fighting position.
“Got ‘em,” said the operator at the G-BOSS controls. An Army SFC standing behind him called in a fire mission. The white silhouettes on screen moved fluidly, like ghosts; silent, faceless. The essence of our enemy.
Three consecutive blasts pounded outside. The radio crackled: “shot, over.”
“Shot out,” said the SFC.
We may as well have been waiting for a touchdown. The screens went white, as if by the glare of a nuclear bomb. When the brightness ebbed away and the image returned, nothing remained but pulverized earth.
This was the miracle of modern warfare: we’d just watched men die on live television. In truth, I couldn’t help but feel somewhat cheated. I’d experienced as much combat as a Youtube surfer watching helmet-cam videos in his mother’s basement. There was much more out there, to be sure; out beyond the G-BOSS tower and the Hesco barriers. Getting to it would be the trick. MSOTs, from my very limited experience with them, were not keen on “strap hangers,” and especially not the ones that carried cameras.
The G-BOSS whipped right, catching up to one of the Taliban — “a shithead,” as I soon discovered they are called (ie. charlie), limping away from the blast site.
“Hold on,” said the G-BOSS controller. “We got a squirter.”
The SFC called in a fire adjustment, and for the next five minutes we watched a sort of sick Looney Tunes spectacle in which the remaining Taliban ran between each subsequent mortar volley — back and forth, back and forth — until finally meeting his demise (after, perhaps, just giving up).
I was getting so engrossed in the program that I didn’t notice the swarm of hostile glares that had accumulated in my direction. Even the G-BOSS controller was looking back over his shoulder, chewing, looking at me as if he were almost disgusted.
“Who the fuck are you?” he asked.
I cleared my throat, trying my best to appear amicable.
“Corporal McNally,” I said. “MARSOC Public Affairs.”
The controller rolled his eyes over to another operator, one who was older than the others, and smaller in stature. The team chief, I would soon learn.
“Come with me,” he said.
We entered a side room honeycombed with a few plywood cubicles. He sat down behind one of the desks, propping up black converse sneakers; the telltale sign of a Recon Marine. A picture behind him depicted a “fun meter,” its arrow tilted to maximum capacity. Despite being physically less-impressive than his comrades, he carried a certain aura, an all-around confidence. He had attained the nirvana of combat: he didn’t care. He didn’t care about eating MREs for months on end, about showering with water bottles and washing his clothes in ammo cans, about sleeping in rat and fly and mosquito-infested bunkers, about waking up to mortar fire, about the threat of IEDs or about getting shot at. He gave no fucks. The fucks had all been steamrolled out of him, through the hardest training in the world and through years of combat, probably beginning with the invasion of Iraq. He was every team chief I ever met.
I was not surprised that he did not want me there. Nor was I surprised that he had not been expecting me. Somewhere between the command level and the teams, word gets lost. I was just following orders, going where I was told, when I was told. I’m sure deep down he understood this. But unfortunately for me, Special Operations Task Force – West’s command group was not present. Nor was the IO cell. Nor was the Public Affairs chief. I was present, and for the moment, I was the personification of them all. So I took their share of the derision; for showing up unannounced, for forcing things on the team — and on a personal note — for selecting a candy ass MOS that slapped operators’ pictures on the covers of magazines and got them in trouble. I was not to take pictures of the team. I would not be going out on patrols. I would, however, be introduced to Watan’s MISO team, who I assumed had, as a result of their affiliation with IO, been similarly castrated and rendered useless.
After my encounter with the team chief I was assigned a room, to which I slunk back defeatedly, after, in the words of my Master Sergeant, “getting my pee pee spanked.” It was a plywood box — one in a whole row — complete with a bed, a desk, and even an air conditioner. I was pleasantly surprised. The digs would not be so nice at the next site.
My optimism was saved when later that evening I received a knock at the door, and answered it to a familiar face — an old SERE buddy, now the team JTAC, who would later prove instrumental in convincing the others that I was not a complete dipshit. He’d heard “some Public Affairs guy” was here, and had to see if it was me.
Despite discovering I had a friend on my side, I didn’t sleep much that night. The sandstorm had electrified the whole sky, and volleys of thunder rolled tumultuously overhead like great bowling balls, accompanied by eruptions of lightning. I was convinced that every thunderclap was an impending mortar attack. I stopped counting after the first week. Maybe I wouldn’t have to go looking for combat after all. I thought I must have been crazy to have ever wanted it.
I was harrowed by the worst feeling in the world; one that comes to all deployed service members at some point or another. It is knowing that the people who care about you are a million miles away, and that there is a distinct possibility you will never get back to them.