The Last Journey

August 31, 2010 COP Turbett



I woke up on the morning of August 30 realizing I had accomplished so far quite a bit of what I had set out to do.  That being mostly just arriving at COP Turbett and seeing my friends Sgt. Jimmy Bernard and Cpl. Sam Dillon.  I knew now that the rest of the journey would pretty much be icing on the cake.  Just to have gotten to this point took a major effort on a lot people’s parts and a bit of a toll on my being.  All of it was well worth it and I felt a bit of burden released off my shoulders.  Now, the work would begin and I would give it my best shot for this indeed would be my last journey. 


The night before, I had heard from Lt. Boyle that some higher ups would be visiting the COP in the morning, which would be August 30.  I decided that night, that in the morning I would rise early, get cleaned up and put on cleaner looking clothes for the visitors.  I needed to test my hand at the “shower” anyway and decided this would be a good time. However, before getting cleaned up, I needed to learn a new experience. Upon rising, I now learned about the “wag bag” experience.  Basically, when nature calls, things just have to be taken care of.  So, I feel it best to explain how these things work because it is the one thing that everyone has to experience and no one here is void of this experience.  For males, urinating is not such a problem.  There is an area that was dug out, filled with rocks and has two tubes protruding out of the ground right at about the same height a urinal in any bathroom would be in a gas station or public restroom.  In those tubes, men just aim and let go.  That’s easy enough.  Now, for the defecating procedure, this is something that is a bit rough but works just fine. 

Because these combat out posts are so remote and basically void of most modern conveniences, something had to be designed to take care of daily nature calls.  Enter here, the wag bag.  Basically, a couple of plastic garbage looking bags, one more firm than the other.  In a place set conveniently located, there is a double stalled porta-john looking area.  But, actually, what they are is nothing more than a “private” area where a make shift toilet seat, kind of what would be used for camping, is set up.  One goes in the stall, closes the door that has a bailing wire latch, and takes out one of the plastic bags and places it as best as possible forming a kind of way to sit down, do your business and hope that all goes as is generally directed.  Rushing something like this is not a good idea.  Once finished, and after using the paper that is supplied, the user folds up the one plastic bag and places it and its contents in the other plastic bag and seals it firmly shut.  Then, you take that bag and walk to the other end of the camp, to the burn pit, and heave your personal bag of shit into the fire.  Then you are done.  It works fine.  Every day.  Sometimes, twice a day, per person.

Now that the important things were done, I got into my Marine shorts which are designed out of a material that is quick drying.  I got my soap and scrubby thing for washing I brought from home and proceeded to pump water from the well and let it flow over my head across my entire body.  It felt great.  I lathered up, rinsed off and repeated this procedure a few times and also washed my hair.  I had been rather filthy the night before and after this particular shower, I can’t remember having felt better.  Oh, I was not as clean as I would be using the shower at home, but, I was a whole heck of lot cleaner than I was prior to doing this.  And, I looked and smelled a lot better also. 


By late morning, activity began happening here at the COP.  A convoy had come from camp Dwyer and stopped at Marjah first.  Originally, I was set to be on a convoy but I got to here two days earlier with the help of my USMC PAO, Lt Reney, who worked very hard to make this happen for me.  He is one of the nicest folks I’ve ever met in the field and knew I was trying hard to get to where I needed to be.  That is why I did not end up on the convoy and was flown via C-130 and then CH53 to Marjah, and then convoyed from there to COP Turbett. 

Prior to the convoy arriving, the area commander for 2/6, Col. Newman, showed up here and watched as the new Afghan police folks arrived to set up here at COP Turbett.  This is a big step and is a kin to how some things were done in Iraq.  Little by little, the local faces become the ones that take over the security.  How successful that becomes is always the part that is difficult to predict.  But that is what is going on here, just a few months after the Marines had wrestled this area, the opium capital of the world, from the enemy.  That in itself is progress.  It is all part of the clear, hold and build process.  Where we are in that process right now is up for discussion.  Politicians want to say we are in the building process.  The Marines on the ground will probably tell you more of the truth.  Most would probably say that we are at the very best in the hold portion but pretty much still in the clearing process.  Perceptions on this matter will probably change according to how the polls say the elections will go in November stateside.  In the mean time two generals were here walking around the bazaar area on August 30, here where I am without their flak jackets on.  Whether that was staged for a photo op or if it’s really that secure, only time will tell.  But my recent experience here about half a mile from where the general was walking on the 30th is that the enemy is still able to cause and inflict injury, mayhem and death.  And, within just a couple klicks from here, five Marines were just dealt some severe blows resulting in at least one of them being killed. 


After the general’s visit was over, things got back to everyday life here on the COP and by later that afternoon, I went back into getting to know what this place is all about.  In the evening I was greeted by Captain Zepeda who is the one in charge here at COP Turbett.  He apologized to me for not having come and spoken with me earlier due to the amount of things going on.  I told him immediately to please not worry about that and we then sat for over an hour talking and getting to know one another.  What I found in Captain Zepeda, who is from Washington state, is perhaps the most honorable and respectable officer I’ve ever come across in all my travels.  It would be impossible to explain it all in writings, but what I can say is that after an hour or two of conversing and fellowshipping with this warrior, it was extremely clear to me that arriving here at COP Turbett, under the direction of Captain Zepeda is not just an accident.  I believe it was sovereignly arranged.  This is where not only I wanted to be, but where I was led to come. I just know it in my being. 


By the evening time I was given a new place to stay.  I was now with a group of Marines in a tent that holds about a dozen folks or more.  Some of the Marines are out assigned to other outposts or patrol bases and some are here stationary.  Either way, I’m here with them now and I like it.  It has given me more of an opportunity to get to know all those around me and whom I will travel with from time to time.  I bedded down this night after a huge BBQ that some of the guys had put together again.  The food was really good and I had a hard time sticking to my current diet.  I did pretty well though. 


This was the end of Monday, August 30, 2010.

This is the beginning of Tuesday, August 31, 2010 


On Tuesday morning I rose early and began taking photos of the COP in the morning light.  The morning is the best time as far as I’m concerned.  It is just so brilliant lighting that it is hard to not get up in time and take the photos.  I had heard that there would be a delivery of mail to a base a ways from here delivered by the MAP (mobile assault platoon) Marines and I asked to go along.  Not a problem and now I was headed out to another place to see more of my surroundings.  We loaded up in armored MRAPS and away we went. On the way we drove on similar roads that actually are ditch bank roads.  Looking out the windows I saw more of the agriculture that is grown here.  Then there was this one crop that was dark green and the plants were about 1-feet tall.  They were all straight up and the closer I looked the more I realized that it was a large couple of acres of marijuana.  Here I am in the drug capital of the world.  I had somehow forgotten that.  I remembered rapidly where I am just seeing this one field.  The Marines have told me that there are thousands and thousands of acres of pot here. Once again I realized I’m in the middle of a drug war of sorts. 

We delivered supplies and mail to 1st Platoon here in their quaint little hacienda type setting.  It was remote, but not all that far from us the way a crow flys.  I walked around the place, took some photos and then after about an hour it was time to leave.  We returned to COP Turbett before noon and then I had time to rest up and get ready for my next patrol.  That would be with Cpl. Dillon’s PMT group and we would go out around 1600 and plan to spend about three hours out trying to see who would end up taking some shots at us.  This would be my next foot patrol.  I would plan well for this one.


By 1600 we had been briefed on what the mission would be and where we would go.  We stepped out the ECP right on time and we walked down the bazaar road and then turned and headed towards fields.  For the next hour to hour and a half, we walked through fields that were a bit difficult to negotiate but not too hard.  Sometimes we had to cross ditches and canals and at one point I got wet on my left foot.  The hardest part of all this was keeping my footing from twisting my ankles.  That could happen very easily.  I did not want that to happen.  By now it was very hot and I was doing well.  I had not consumed too much water and I had remained hydrated for the day earlier as well as the day before. 


We came to a road and we all took a break in another ditch type area bordering the road.  It had trees in it and there was shade.  It was now late in the afternoon and the evening light was good for photos.  I had taken lots of photos on this patrol and was beginning to get into the groove of it all.  We all got up and began walking on the other side of the road as others stayed on the side we had just come from.  All of a sudden a burst of gunfire rang out and everyone took cover immediately.  I heard the voice of Sgt. Reed yelling, “get in the wadi, get in the wadi.”  That is the word for ditch.  I followed the Marine in front of me and now we all were in a defensive position.  Here it was.  Second foot patrol here in Afghanistan and I’ve drawn fire already.  I knew this would happen.  But it always is startling when it does. 


I immediately got out my audio recorder and left it one to capture the events that followed.  By now I was in the ditch hunkering down, but crept up to the top of the ditch to get good photos.  I wanted to go and get closer to where it was happening, but I figured on the first patrol drawing fire, I would watch and see how things transpire and let the guys realize I’m not going to get them in trouble.  This was a good call.  I got close to the gunny and began photographing him.  I decided he knew what was happening best and if anything got out of total control, well, I’d just follow him. 


All the Marines functioned as trained and the entire ordeal lasted about 15-minutes tops.  I watched these guys do what they do and they observed me lay low key and do what I do.  They were a bit impressed that I crept up forward to get some photos but they were also impressed that I did not do anything stupid and cause them any problems.  That was my goal.  Keep it simple.  Get the audio.  Get the photos.  Get back to the COP, safely with all my body parts in place.  It worked.  That was the plan.


We continued the patrol and wound up arriving back at the COP around sunset.  On the way back I took lots of photos and adjusted for the low light levels.  It had been a good patrol.  I saw things happen.  I was with my friend Cpl. Sam Dillon and when it all went down, I watched him do his job in excellent fashion.  It’s strange looking back on it and trying to write about it.  It’s also very hard to do.  But, it must be done.  One day, some will want to know what it was like in the August 2010 in Helmund province with Marines on the front lines.  I was here.  And for the moment, I’m still here, making new friends everyday and hearing stories that are too difficult to write about.  I can only write about the stories I experience.  But one day, I want to write more about the stories they (these Marines) keep telling me.  They have experienced much more than I ever will.  I get the feeling they want to tell me more and more.  I’ve always had an ear for listening to veterans from wars past.  Now, I feel tasked to listen to current warriors tell me about this war.  I’m so tired lately.  It’s hard to have the strength to go on.  I keep trying to keep my eyes open and ears perked long enough to hear one more Marine’s story from Helmund province. 


When we got back into the COP, I came up to Sam Dillon and shook his hand.  He had a big smile on his face.  I told him, “I love you bro..”  He told me, “I love you too bro”.


Another reason I came this far to see the Marines.

This was the end of Tuesday, August 31, 2010 COP Turbett. 


Jim Spiri Last Journey