The Last Journey

August 29 “B”


I arrived at COP Turbett well before noon on August 29th.  The ride over took less than an hour and covered all of a couple miles.  The road was actually ditch bank roads similar to what I know in New Mexico.  I rode in an up armored MRAP.  I sat in the back seat nearest the door with all my gear. Peering out the small window I could begin to catch a glimpse of the country I had only seen from FOB to FOB.  Now, I was out in the countryside, yet still within the confines a large military vehicle designed to absorb the blast of an improvised explosive device.  That is a bit of a safety assurance, however, many of person has been injured or killed riding in such vehicles here in Afghanistan.  We pressed on ever so slowly along the ditch bank road.  Little by little I would see goats being herded, kids with sticks managing the herds and just general life in this area.  It looked much like so many places I’ve seen on the planet, only the people look a bit more hardened here, at least at first glance. 

Upon arrival I got my things out and headed into the main area of the COP.  There I was greeted by the XO, Lt. Boyle.  He had a big smile on his face and said to me, “you must be Jim Spiri”.  Three years ago, I had been embedded with this unit in Fallujah, Iraq and one of the Lt.’s at that time was Ben Kessling of 4th Platoon, G Company.  He and I had remained in contact over the years since and recently he found out about me heading to Afghanistan.  He and Lt. Boyle are very good friends and he informed Boyle of my pending arrival.  That turned out to be a very good thing for by the time I arrived it was like I already knew this XO and he knew me.  This is just the beginning of a very good situation for me to have entered into.  I knew from the very beginning after meeting Lt. Boyle, I was finally in exactly right place.  I was among friends; brothers; comrades.  I had made it.


I was shown around the FOB and quickly realized this is a small FOB with very big responsibilities.  The conditions are basically rough looking at first sight, but the more one gets to know the place the more that basic needs are met with simplicity in mind.  I was given a cot in the XO’s room for the first night until the occupant of that cot returned from his duties in the next day or two. 


The place I am in is a warehouse of sorts but is made of mud construction, similar to an adobe building in Mexico or other places of the southwest part of the US.  It has concrete floors and is full of dust.  There is just no way to get rid of all the dust.  In the past this place had been used by the Taliban as a drug warehouse and processing center of sorts.  It is a part of life in these parts of Helmund province.  There is a water supply in the middle of the area here that operates via hand pump.  It serves as the shower facility of sorts for everyone.  Using the term shower is relatively speaking and must be understood in context.  It is merely a source of water, clean looking, not for drinking that is used to pour over the head and used for cleaning the best one can.  The first morning I woke up here, I found it to be rather refreshing and was able to get cleaner than I was prior to using this apparatus.  But it is not a shower.  But, it is sufficient for the time being. 

After meeting everyone and getting more or less settled into my new dwelling, I began to search out two people in particular.  The first one I saw was Cpl. Sam Dillon.  Sam was one whose family members I had stayed in contact with via email and kept them abreast of my travels and plans to come to Afghanistan.  His mother, Deborah, had looked forward to my linking up with Sam and was rather excited as she knew I was getting close to seeing her son.  When I saw Sam, we greeted each other and began immediately catching up on things from the last few years.  Sam had overcome some recent obstacles pertaining to his feet in order to remain with this unit and get deployed here to Afghanistan.  In the few weeks before I arrived, Cpl. Dillon was caught in a firefight and was shot in the chest.  He had told me about the situation via email and when I arrived here we spoke at length about that day.  He took a bullet that had gone through his body armor and had also passed through the butt of his rifle.  The bullet ended up lodging in his right upper chest area and came within millimeters of turning into a dreadful condition.  Basically it was a miracle Sam was not mortally wounded.  He was medevaced to the CSH in camp Dwyer and had two subsequent surgeries.  He recovered and is right back on duty.  It’s hard to keep Marines down. 


The next person I sought out was Sgt. Jimmy Bernard, another Marine I was embedded with during my time in Fallujah in 2007.  Jimmy’s family had also stayed in contact with me and informed me of his deployment.  Prior to Sgt. Bernard’s arrival to Afghanistan I spoke with him over the phone and he relayed to me who his superiors are that I would need to be in contact with in order to link up with his unit.  I did exactly that and with Bernard’s help I was able to begin a process of coming to Afghanistan with the goal of specifically embedding with Bernard and Dillon’s unit.  That is how this entire journey really began to take shape.  It was with the help of the family of Jimmy Bernard and Sgt. Bernard himself encouraging me to come that made me push hard to accomplish this trip.  Seeing the faces of Cpl. Sam Dillon and Sgt. Jimmy Bernard upon my first day at COP Turbett, made me realize that all the delays and obstacles and long nights prior to leaving New Mexico all was worth it just to walk up to both these Marines here in the most volatile area of Afghanistan and simply say, “hello, what’s up?”  Then shaking their hands firmly sends a resounding AMEN throughout my being that it is a good thing for me to be here.

Once I got acquainted with my surroundings and figured out where Jimmy and Sam stay, I began to wander around and blend in with my new surroundings.  Little by little the folks heard that there was a reporter of sorts here and he knows some of the guys here already.  As the day progressed I began speaking as spoken to.  One by one each person began to open up a little at a time, once they realized who I was and why I was here.  The door had been made open already and I was just making sure that it remains open.  It was not hard to do.  It did not take long for all to realize my story of having been here on a medevac a few days earlier to pick up Sgt. Stewart.  All remembered the helicopter landing right here in the COP.  Once they found out I was actually on that helicopter and one of the Marines actually recognized me I began to be even the more received.  It was a good welcome and one that I surely will not forget.


By now I was pretty much settled in and found out that a patrol of sorts was going to head out in a while during the late afternoon hours.  Now that I was stationary, I inquired as to when the patrol was exiting and about how long it would be out and about.  The Lt informed me of what was taking place and I decided that I would get my feet wet with a brief patrol now that I was here.  Finally, a chance to walk in Afghanistan outside the wire.  I wanted to do this before one more hour went by.  This is what I had come to Afghanistan for. 

I collected my body armor, put my camera around my neck, got my digital audio recorder in place and linked up with the Marines that were going out.  I knew it would not be too long of a patrol, but we would be gone at least a couple of hours.  It was also during the late afternoon and it was still quite warm outside.  I filled my camelback water backpack and took a couple extra bottles of water.  I had made sure in the days earlier that I remained hydrated every day.  Just in case I ended up going out on a patrol on short notice, such as this one. 


We gathered at the meeting point and were briefed before heading out as to what our mission exactly was.  As we all prepared to walk to the entry control point to leave, the Lt. in charge of things came around and checked on each person.  He came right up to me and tapped around my vest to make sure I had all my plates in.  Sometimes soldiers and Marines remove the side plates to make things more comfortable.  Three years ago, I did that once.  The medic at the time, Doc Louderman, (who happens to also be here in this unit unbeknownst to me prior to my arrival) gave me a severe ass chewing about that very thing and never again did I ever remove my plates from my vest.  I learned early on to listen to everything any Marine tells you when it comes to matters concerning life and death and how things work in the war zone.  It was a good lesson.  As the Lt went around and came to me, he tapped, looked at me, smiled and then I said, “I never take ‘em out sir, anymore!”  He grinned and replied, “that’s right.”


As we prepared to step out, I thought back to the briefing we just had.  I was going out on this mission which the main objective was to provide security for the FET team.  I had not heard of this before.  Female Engagement Team.  Heading out on my first patrol in Afghanistan I was going to be accompanied by two female Marines.  (This would make my youngest daughter, Moriah, smile a grin from ear to ear)  Tough old daddy, being escorted by a couple of ladies.  However, I would soon find out that these two young ladies, Marines, happened to be just as competent as any other Marine in this unit and after the first two or three steps of the patrol, I for one was quite happy to have not only one, but two Marines, who just happened to be females in close proximity to me.  The one thing I remembered instantaneously the moment I stepped outside the gate was, each and every Marine is on exactly the same page no matter what or who everyone is inside the wire.  A Marine is a Marine.  And I happened to once again have a whole bunch of them in front of me and behind me, most of them males, but on this occasion, two females also, all looking out for my best interest at all times.  I was happy.


The FOB here is set right next door to a bazaar of sorts, or what we would call a market place.  This area had been a rough area to take over back in February when 1/6 Marines arrived on scene and cleared and secured the area.  It was a tough fight and the enemy had no intentions of giving up this drug processing area easily.  Back in the spring, much work had been done to get things to this point on this day.  Mind you, things are not completely secure in this area nor in the areas in our immediate vicinity, but, it is on a path and today, this path is a bit less dicey than it was in the spring.  But let me be very clear….it is by no means safe, yet.  Every day here and around us, things happen, people get hurt and people get blown up and people get injured or killed by small arms fire.  But it was worse in the spring.  Hopefully it will remain getting better.


The patrol did pretty much a rectangle path.  We knocked on some doors and spoke with some folks and the two female Marines inquired as to being able to speak with the females in the families of the folks we were intending to visit.  Western females engaging the local female population seems to be a little less of a hindrance if it was male to female in the conversation due to cultural barriers.  We spent about half an hour on this part of the mission and then proceeded to move out.  We went towards the back of the “urban” part of this little town and then we proceeded to walk through some farm areas.  The ground was dry but was growing things similar to what I am familiar with back in New Mexico.  We walked through cotton fields, corn fields, okra fields an some plowed land all intermixed between irrigation set ups that were everywhere.  I immediately was on familiar ground, however, in these fields with body armor on, where the ground is caked with rock hard large dirt clods, is not so easy.  The first thing I realized is that twisting an ankle would be very easy to do.  I kept a sharp eye out for trying everything to avoid that situation.  It is not something one wants to rush.  I closely watched the Marine(s) in front of me and walked where they walked.  If they stumbled, I took instant note and tried to avoid any pitfalls.  This is rural Afghanistan.  This is not the streets of Mosul.  This is hard ground to navigate.  Even in the daytime.  I can only imagine the night. 


As we skirted through and around the farm area we eventually came back around where the road leads back to the bazaar area and back to the FOB.  I took a bunch of photos and felt like this day was a kind of warm up for things to come. I had accomplished one major goal of the journey.  To do a combat foot patrol in Afghanistan in Helmund province with the Marines and take photos.  My friend Sam Dillon would be on this mission.  It had been a good day.  I was tired now, dirty, a little hungry but content.  Later that evening I would be invited to the “cookout” of sorts that seems to happen around here a lot.  Being close to the bazaar lends itself to having access to fresh fruit, vegetables and some meat that these guys here know how to prepare quite well. I would find myself chowing down with these Marines that night and getting to know them as they get to know me.  I bedded down this night in the same room where the XO, Lt Boyle rests.  I had been given the best room, the best food, and had been on a patrol all in one day after having arrived that morning from FOB Marjah and made my way to Fox Company, 2/6, here at COP Turbett.  I was tired.  I slept well, even though unseen mosquitoes tried hard to eat me alive.  I was here.  I was in Helmund province, up front with the Marines.  It had taken me a long time to pull this off.  It was worth all the waiting.  The last journey had taken a step that I thought might not take place.  I closed my eyes and went to sleep.  This was the end of August 29, 2010. 


Jim Spiri Last Journey