The Last Journey

August 29, 2010  COP Turbett, Afghanistan

Fox Company, 2/6 Marines


It was Sunday, again, in Afghanistan yesterday.  I always enjoy Sundays.  It just is a time to catch up on things.  There has been so much going on to keep me busy in the past several days that only now can I have the opportunity to fill in all the gaps before it all runs together and just becomes a memory subject to changes.  That is what I am going to do now, try to fill in the blanks from all that has led up to put me exactly where I am at this moment.  Right where I’ve been trying to get for what seems like an eternity.  I am here now though and it has all been worth the wait.  I am with Fox Company, 2/6 Marines, at Combat Out Post Turbett.  I have found Sgt. Jimmy Bernard and Cpl. Sam Dillon just like I said I would.  By golly it worked and as always, I love it when a plan does indeed come together.  What a blessing.

When I was young growing up in Las Cruces, New Mexico, I was raised in and among the space program.  My step father was very involved in the design of the assent state of the lunar excursion module (LEM) and understanding how things worked and how to plan for events was a very integral part of my learning experiences.  In 1969, most everyone nowadays, remember the landing of the first men on the moon riding in an aircraft called, Eagle, and carrying Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin.  That was July of 1969.  What most people don’t remember was the preparation and previous missions that led to the success of landing men on the moon.  Specifically, in May of that same year, just two months prior, Apollo 10 blasted off for the a trial run with Thomas Stafford, Eugene Cernan and John Young, all highly experienced astronauts, to circle the moon, go into lunar orbit and test out the LEM and descend within eight nautical miles of the lunar surface.  If something went wrong, they were also prepared to actually land on the moon if need be.  The mission turned out to be a success and after the systems all worked at planned, the three astronauts returned to the earth and final preparations were made for the history making journey of Apollo 11.  Number 10 was before #11. 


From August 22 to August 28, I was delayed at Camp Dwyer awaiting flights via helicopter to forward operating base Marjah which from there I would eventually be taken to a combat outpost which at that time was yet to be determined to link up with F/Co, 2/6 Marines where locating Jimmy Bernard and Sam Dillon was my goal.  While being stuck at Dwyer, I managed to spend two separate days with the Dust Off crews of the helicopter medevacs in hopes of getting on a mission and take some photos of them doing what they do.  Dust Off crews are always good folks to hang out with and these ones were no exception.  They were great and full of good cheer and welcomed me to their abode and extended to me two days of really great conversation.  During that time I became quite refreshed on their procedures and spent a great deal of time chatting with them about their work and comparing it to previous deployments in Iraq.  All agree that their current work loads are more kinetic these days and seems to be continuing in that direction as the current surge in Afghanistan keeps ramping up to full speed.  Back home what people hear is the word “surge”.  Over here it is called “kinetic” and issues in real life and death experiences on an hourly basis.  When things are “surging”, lives over here are being saved and sometimes, lost.  It’s what goes on in war.


On the 27th of August, at sometime in the late afternoon, a mission came through to pick up a Marine who had been injured with a bad back but was not a severe priority.  Arrangements were made and a decision was reached to go ahead and pick him up.  I was invited to tag along and immediately jumped at the opportunity to take a ride and snap a few photos.  We loaded up and I was given a seat and in no time we were airborne heading to “parts unknown” as far as I knew.  Basically, we were headed to the general vicinity of Marjah, which was right where I would hope to eventually end up.

As we flew over the terrain I peered out the window and saw a barren landscape which explained to me why the dust storms had recently put a damper on my schedule.  After about a half an hour or so, some greenery began to appear and life in a desert region seemed to pop up out of nowhere.  I was now over the area of Helmund province that previously I had only read about.  I was getting close to my destination. 


In short order, the Blackhawk helicopter I was in began descending and weaving left and right preparing for an approach to somewhere quite soon.  I knew we would be landing fast and picking up our patient.  Right away, in no time flat we were on the deck and the medic and crew chief opened the doors and assisted the patient onto the aircraft.  I extended my hand to him as he took a seat next to me and it was obvious he was in some deep pain as the grimace on his face tried to conceal the obvious.  He thanked me and introduced himself to me and the medic and crew chief secured the doors and we prepared for lift off.  Before we took off, I asked the Marine next to me what unit he was from.  He told me, Fox Company, 2/6.  I said, “really!”, in amazement.  I then asked him as we began to lift off the ground if he knew Sgt. Jimmy Bernard and the Marine readily told me, “yes, he’s right over there”, pointing to the compound that was now becoming increasingly smaller in view as we gained altitude.  I was completely startled. 


I then asked the Marine if he knew another Marine named Sam Dillon and he told me, “yes, he too is right over there”, as we now were far away from the compound we had just landed at.  I had just landed at the place I had been trying to get to since the beginning of this journey.  Inside I could only think, “what if I had my gear with me, couldn’t I have just hopped off and been on my way?”.  Well, had this been about six years earlier, the answer would have been sure, not a problem.  But nowadays, things are done differently for specific reasons.  I would have to go back to Dwyer, wait for the system to catch up to my discovery and just be ever so patient.  But I had found where I needed to go.  I for sure felt like Gene Cernan and Thomas Stafford on Apollo 10, doing a trial run for my final destination.   Things were really taking shape now.    


We dropped off the patient at the CSH, and then repositioned the aircraft to the flight line.  The mission was over and I was quite happy to have viewed from above my final destination before I actually get there.  I thanked the crew, told them what had just transpired and we took a group photo in front of the helicopter.  The pilot, W3 Mr. Hamilton pointed out to me the nose of the helicopter where the painted red cross is on white background and showed me the signature of country western singer Toby Keith.  I thought that was pretty cool and so did they.  It had been a good mission and the dust off family was really a fun group of folks to be with. 


I caught a ride back to my quarters and headed to evening chow where I ran into my Lt. who was handling my arrangements.  We had good talk and I told him what was up with my days events.  We had good smile or two about it and I told him that I know now exactly where I’m headed.  I finished chow and went back to my quarters.  The internet was shut down so I could not catch up on messages.  I gathered my things together, got organized up for the evening and prepared my cot for a good night’s rest.  The next day would be the 28th.  It was possible I would be able to move towards my destination either by air or ground soon.  The morning would be full of new information. 

I rose early on the morning of the 28th.  I figured that if I don’t hear anything, I would once again go over to the dust off pad and hang out for the better part of the day.  After morning chow and a cup of coffee, I was greeted by LCpl Crilly who told me that I would be flying to Camp Leatherneck and then onto Marjah.  I was rather shocked because that ran the risk of now getting stuck at a location that was indeed farther away from where I needed to go, but had more traffic with a chance to get me to where I needed to be.  Things at Dwyer had been pushed back and I had no choice but to do what my PAO folks had arranged.  I of course followed their direction and gathered my things for a morning departure via fixed wing to Camp Leatherneck.  I had been given an ASR, which is like a confirmed reservation for travel to Leatherneck as well as onto Marjah, later in the time frame ahead.  I still was hesitant to head to Leatherneck.  Change of locales is always a headache once I get settled. 


I left Dwyer via C-130 aircraft which was full.  I was able to have my two bags palletized which meant I would not have to heave my bags all across the flight line.  That was a great help.  I hate carrying so much crap and have decided never again to carry this much stuff, ever again.  We landed at Camp Leatherneck and the first thing I realized is this place is gigantic and is going to be quite a mess to get around.  I had landed pretty much before noon and had to stay around until sometime in the middle of the night.  I contacted the Marine PAO folks and they readily came to pick me up even though I actually now at this point was to be handled by some Navy reservists who were not at their post upon my arrival.  Before the Marines got there to take care of me, the Navy person showed up at his post and I met with him briefly.  He at that time indicated that my ASR was not correct and that I would be stuck at Leatherneck until it got sorted out.  That put me in a bit of a tailspin but he later said that he was apparently reading the ASR incorrectly and that I may possibly be ok.  He made sure his night shift personnel would be available to take me to the rotor wing location in the middle of the night to get me on my way.  However, I was now unsure about what was going on.  There was something not right with my ASR and I was not out of the good hands of my Marine PAO’s in Dwyer and under the Navy reservists who were not sure about what was going on.  Either way, I would have a room in a tent near a chow hall and shower and would at least for the next twelve hours or so be fine until all things get sorted out. 


I went to evening chow, sent a few emails, made a phone call home and explained that I would probably be out of comms for the next bit of time and not to expect to hear from me.  Throughout the majority of the rest of the evening, I conversed with a person in the room adjacent to me who was an exceptionally good photographer from Italy named Sergio.  His conversations with me were really a welcomed event and I viewed some his excellent work.  No doubt I had known from past experiences that the Italians are really the best photographers in the world, in my judgment.  Sergio was good guy and I thoroughly enjoyed spending time with him.  It is another part of these types of journeys that keep me coming back from time to time.  In speaking with Sergio, I realized that he had admitted to me that he is addicted to his work and never did find time to have a family, although he had been married three times.  I knew I liked the type of environment carrying a camera in war zones brings, but I also knew it could never be a “job” for me.  I’d rather keep it an historical adventure and maintain “working” for a living to something that did not take away from the passion carrying a camera in the war zones brings.  I admire what Sergio does, but I could not do it for work.  He is good though at what he does and the Italians always make it a joy at whatever they do. 

Sometime after midnight, I was picked up by two Navy reservists who were on duty and tasked with getting me to the rotor wing facility in plenty of time for what is called, “showtime”.  That basically is a couple hours before a kind of flight time.  Nothing is ever “scheduled” per se in the war zone primarily due to OPSEC considerations, among other things.  Other factors are just components of logistical hurdles to overcome.  Now, I have had a real good relationship with all the USMC and Army public affairs folks ever since arranging this journey as well as previous journeys.  However, now I was in the hands of two Navy reservists who work for another Lt in the Navy who also is a reservist and I had for the first time begun to experience a “not so pleasant” moment(s).  I also noticed that the two Navy reservists whose last names are  MC1 Cartwright and MC2 Howlett, were a bit on the out of shape side, did not really want to be having to take me to the other side of the base in the middle of the night.  Although their shift was indeed the graveyard shift, apparently they had better things to do, as they explained to me, like eating midnight chow and sleeping.  I began to inquire about what happens if my flight gets cancelled.  After what seemed like pulling teeth for an answer, I inquired as to why I have to seemingly play 20-questions for information.  They both sarcastically mentioned to me that I was “media” and that they were not in the business to volunteer any helpful information to me.  I was rather appalled and began to explain to them exactly who I was and a bit of my history.  At that point one of them, with the other ones’ prodding, made a rather derogatory comment to me concerning the loss of my son Jesse, a Marine.  At that very point, I decided to not say another word, for fear of what I might say and do which would probably land me a rapid free ticket home.  I kept my mouth shut the rest of drive and once they arrived at the rotary wing terminal, I got out, got situated and bid them farewell.  As they were leaving I shook their hands, told them thank you and inquired as to their names one more time.  Now, they knew I would not forget.  Down the line somewhere in the future, they would be made to remember how they treated me.  Chain of command is useful. 

During the night as I waited for the helicopter, I struck up some conversations with Marines.  As always, it was good conversation.  The closer I got to arriving to Marjah, the deeper my sense became that where I was going would be more than important.  We all waited in the night for the CH53’s to show to take quite a few of us to Marjah.  I was the only civilian.  As the two birds pulled into position, one was loaded with pallets full of supplies and the other with passengers.  I had not ever had a ride in this type of helicopter.  It would be a good ride.  I liked the roominess in the bird and I had the seat closest to the cockpit.  I was all eyes watching as the small in stature Marine in the left seat operated the controls for the largest singer rotor helicopter in the American arsenal. 


Before sun up, I arrived in FOB Marjah.  It is a small place, and very, very dusty.  We were all processed, I was given a cot in a tent and I was able to catch couple hours sleep.  I was not in the hands of the USMC.  I had arrived at Marjah.  Now, all I needed to do was to get to Fox Company, which I now knew was not very far away at a nearby combat outpost.  I slept well for short while. 


In the morning I rose and found the place to do my business so to speak.  Gone are now the luxury porta-potties that were at camp Dwyer.  Urinating in a tube and defecating in a plastic bag would become the norm from now on.  I am now no longer concerned at this point about keeping my clothes too clean.  I’m camping with the Marines now.  This is exactly what I wanted to be doing. 

After grabbing a cup of coffee in the make shift chow hall I heard a Lt mention something about some vehicles pushing out to Fox company, which is at COP Turbett.  Bingo.  That’s my ticket.  I inquired and was introduced to the folks that could assist me.  I was hooked up with my POC, Lt. Holmes and he offered me a very good cup of coffee he had brewing in his small office.  He was a pleasant site to see, things were getting done and I was now on the manifest for Fox Company.  I attended the convoy briefing, was introduced to my escorts and in short order was loading up on a big MWRAP and heading out the gate towards my final destination.  It would be about a forty minute trek down what looked like ditch bank roads back home, only the layer of dust was at least four inches deep.  Everything is dusty.  Next stop, COP Turbett.  This was the end of the morning of August 29, 2010 at FOB Marjah.


Jim Spiri Last Journey