The Last Journey

Article #16 “Cinch Strap”


13 August 2010, Forward Operating Base Boris, Afghanistan


I had a good horse when I was a  kid.  I grew up out in the desert of New Mexico and learned a bit about good horses.  Putting a saddle on was a task that required doing things a certain way.  My horse was very powerful.  He was a phenomenal quarter horse and was the best trained animal I’ve ever come across in my entire life.  For the record, I did not do the training, but, by the time  I received this horse at age eleven, all I had to do was learn how to saddle him up and ride like the wind.  The most important part of saddling him up was the “cinch strap” which went underneath his belly and made sure the saddle did not fall off.  Horses will bloat their bellies when being saddled up.  If a rider is not aware of this, he tends to run the risk of the saddle looking like it’s on tight, but as soon as the horse lets the air out of his lungs, and the ride is on, the saddle has a good chance of slipping off.  In order to make sure that doesn’t happen, the rider when saddling the horse up, must punch the horse a few times in the side so the horse lets the air out before the saddle goes on.  It’s not mean to the horse, it’s just part of how it works.  My horse and I were an excellent team. 


The weather here is now clear and sunny, for the most part.  It’s still more humid than I am used to and the nights are a bit on the cool side.  I’ve noticed some mosquitoes at night chowing down on my arms as I fall asleep.  There are a few things I did not calculate correctly on this journey.  Malaria, mosquitoes, rain and Ramadan.  I did not think about mosquitos in the high desert areas of Asia and I had not heard that malaria was a problem.  I think I caught that miscalculation in time.  The rain has been of course abnormal.  But I did not bring a poncho.  My son told me I needed one.  I forgot to listen.  Then there is Ramadan.  Last time I was in this part of the world, Ramadan was in October.  I just figured that it would be near about that time on this journey.  Wrong!  It started a few days ago and is based on the moon calendar.  That changes some things and also tends to make the enemy more active for some reason.  I don’t understand the thinking on that one.  We in the west usually like to take time off from lots of things when holidays come around.  War never takes a break over here. 


The past couple days I got to know some more of the soldiers here on FOB Boris.  It’s such a small place that everyone knows everyone.  While at lunch, a couple of soldiers were talking to me.  They asked me exactly what it is I do because they had heard I’m a bit different than a “reporter” type.  I explained that I’m an historian at heart.  They immediately asked me if I knew Spc. Essing, who was sitting right in front of me.  I immediately introduced myself to this gentle soldier who looked for sure not 25-years-old.  One of the soldiers, SSGT Watts, began telling me how this “old man” is the most valuable soldier in his platoon.  They made the emphasis on “old man” and it was not in a derogatory manner.  I asked Spc. Essing his age and he told me he was coming up on 46-years-old.  Doing the math instantly, I realized he old enough to be their father.  After Essing left the lunch table the other soldiers began telling me his story. 


Essing has a long history with the military.  He originally enlisted back around 1984-85 and did an initial three year enlistment.  Then he did some time on and off in the National Guard and many other things.  He had several breaks in service and a couple years ago, due to some employment and financial situations, he decided to give it one more go and join up as an 11-Bravo one more time.  That’s the infantry.  I decided that I would speak to his fellow soldiers who know him best, that being, SSGT Watts and Lt. Boyd.  These ones know him best and would give me an honest account of this interesting soldier. 


I invited Watts first to come to my quarters and do an audio interview.  He came and we discussed not just Spc. Essing’s career, but his own as well.  This is the part of this journey that I enjoy a lot.  Getting to know the soldiers one on one and having them talk about something they want to talk about, not what some reporter wants to talk about.  Watts especially wanted to talk about his admiration for Essing, being 46-years-old and hanging with the younger Rakkasan’s in combat.  He told me that in the beginning, before they deployed, when he first saw Essing he was not excited about having this “old man” in his group.  But little by little, he came to realize what a patriot this man is.  In the audio, Watts goes on to explain how valuable an asset Essing has become especially in the rough combat outposts they were disptached to on 30-day rotations, where the enemy constantly attacks them with IDF and where conditions are rough and always in need of a man that can build something out of nothing.  According to Watts, Essing is a jack of all trades and made life in the outpost that much better just by his amazing like skills with a hammer and nails.  Watts goes into further detail in the audio.  It was fun to listen to Watts talk about his fellow soldier, Spc. Bill Essing.


I decided I would ask Essing’s immediate officer who is his superior.  I wanted to see if the officer cadre agreed with the enlisted soldiers’ perspective on Essing.  Lt. Boyd came to my quarters and also gave me an audio interview discussing Spc. Essing.  Lt. Boyd’s accolades about Essing were just as impressive and had a deeper impact on me.  What Boyd pointed out was how Essing’s stamina and attitude had such a positive effect on the rest of his soldiers.  Seeing this guy, (Essing) do his job and with all  his heart, builds cohesiveness among soldiers in the hardest of times.  Basically what was pointed out to me is that Essing loves what he does and is thankful to be a part of his country’s efforts in this war on terrorism currently here in eastern Afghanistan. 


Both SSGT Watts and Lt. Boyd told me about themselves and their own lives on the audio.  Both are good men.  Watts is quite a character from North Carolina and has already 7-years in the Army at age 25.  Just talking with this soldier puts a smile on my face.  We talked race cars and NASCAR stuff and I told him about my 1969 Chevy Camaro.  During the conversation with Watts, I noticed on his arm a tattoo that was kind of impressive.  Now, I’m not a fan of tatoos by any stretch, but, I have to admit, I liked this one.  He told me the story and I just realized that this soldier is a perfect fit for the Rakkasans. 


Lt. Boyd told me some of his story and how he ended up here.  In speaking with men under his command, I found out that they all really like him and have asked their higher ups to keep him with them.  Boyd is on a good track and the Army has plans for him.  Lt.’s usually don’t get to stay too long with their platoons as their own careers take shape.  But, if the men under him had their way, they’d keep him for the duration.  That’s the highest compliment any Lt. can receive in the Army.  That told me volumes. 


Later I had Spc. Bill Essing over to my quarters and we also did an audio interview. He is a simple man from the Pacific Northwest area, Idaho to be exact.  He has an agricultural background from the farming area along the Snake River where it winds around southern Idaho.  I’ve been to that part of the country before and it is beautiful.  Essing told me in simple terms that he’s just a patriot.  He had to do his part by coming over here.  He knows now after encountering and IED recently that he’s not 25-years-old, but, he can still keep up.  He enjoys using his talents to help out his fellow soldiers.  On the audio, he talks much about how he had one specific mentor in his life that always is in his mind.  His Italian grandfather played the most significant role in shaping the life of Bill Essing.  It’s all on the audio for those that want to hear it.  I completely understand Essing’s motivation for being here. 


During this day, other events took place.  There was kind of a “welcome to Ramadan” event that kept us on our toes today.  I have a photo of some soldiers in a bunker waiting for the all clear.  I was also able to talk with the soldiers that are responsible for keeping any eye out on what’s coming “incoming”.  When they speak over the intercom, everyone, including me, listens and takes cover.  I liked meeting the guys that are looking out for my best interest. 


I’ve been going over and over how to saddle things up these days.  Things you learn as a kid do tend to stay with you as an adult.  My grandkids on the ranch in Oklahoma all know how to saddle horses quite well.  They also know how to ride their horses and take care of them.  Saddling up always precedes a good ride in the country.  Maybe I need to ask my granddaughter Gracie how to saddle a horse properly these days.  I surely wouldn’t want to fall off my horse these days when going for a ride.  She would probably say, “Pop, cinch up the strap tightly”.


Jim Spiri Last Journey