The Last Journey
September 7, 8, and 9, 2010 COP Turbot
Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday

Wednesday morning brought an interesting meeting at the CMOC. Here, many of the local elders would come and meet with Captain Zepeda and his crew, including the two female Marines on the FET team as well as the new female interpreter. The school now is considered a success at this point but the next phase is to draw in the young girls to attend. The meeting that was scheduled is called a “Shura”, which is like a gathering of the elders, all men with white beards on one side and the Captain and his men on the other side. I had heard about these types of meetings in the past but this would be the first organized one I would attend.

Once the meeting began, I took my place in the room after everyone was already in place and the meeting began. By now many of the elders in attendance have recognized me as the man with the camera. Most cannot figure out that I am a media person and they just assume I am with the Marines. I like it that way, no questions are ever raised about what I am doing or why I am doing what I am doing. Captain Zepeda began by speaking to all the elders openly and frankly about how good the school setting was proceeding and that over 240 children had been registered and are attending classes now. He thanked the elders for their cooperation and then proceeded to explain to them about the next step in the education process which is to get the young girls to attend. This is a touchy subject and is one that has to be treaded over lightly, yet firmly.

The man named Bosgool sat next to Captain Zepeda as well as one of his men on the other side of Captain Zepeda. The rest of those in attendance sat across from the Captain and listened. Bosgool has a way of making it look like he is aligned with the Captain. Like I have said before, he is clever and a survivor. At his compound or village, he is open to having a school there for the young girls but what is wanted is for them to take advantage of the two schools in close proximity to where the village is. One school is about ½ a mile down the road which would be easy to make use of. However, Bosgool knows that he is safer within his own village and really does not want to venture out with young girls to attend schooling. The Taliban have made much noise about not educating the young girls. It is a delicate situation. But, in order to move forward, education is the one key to unlocking many problems here in Afghanistan and all concerned do agree on that.

The meeting went very well yet there were some concerns voiced by the elders. Most of it was about security for when the children would be walking to and from school. Captain Zepeda offered increased patrols and reiterated on several occasions that the Afghan Police are now picking up much of the slack for local security concerns. This is the plan. The Captain ended the meeting with reminding the elders that the decision whether or not to allow the young girls to obtain education will be theirs and theirs alone. He offered to have female tents set up strictly for the young girls and female teachers as well. Working within the local culture is always the way the Marines approach. At the end of the Shura the Captain asked all those in attendance to pose for a photo with the Captain. I readily snapped the photos and gave them to the Captain at the end of the morning. All in all, I felt quite privileged to having been witness to see how things get done here in Afghanistan when it comes down to the nuts and bolts of the building process. I am always amazed that the Marines are tasked with doing what in my mind should be state department work.

The shura ended before noon and by 2:00 pm a patrol was going out with Sgt Reed and his squad from the PMT. I decided to tag along and it departed the gate right on time, during the hottest time of the day. We headed west and then north mostly through fields and over and across ditches. At one point during the patrol we came to a large canal that had to be negotiated. I knew right away this one would be a challenge for me so I tossed my camera to the other side to Sgt Reed. I then followed his instructions by grabbing onto a branch and trying my best to kind of vault across the ditch. He assured me he would not let me slip into the water. I gave it my best shot, was doing real well and then my right foot began to slip. Sgt Reed used all his might and grabbed hold of my right are with his and hoisted me up the bank. Only my right foot got a little wet. I had a big smile on my face and he said to me right away, “I told you Jim I would not let you fall”. I had a good laugh about it and we continued on with our patrol. It is another experience of bonding with these Marines that keeps me focused here. I do my best to pull my own weight yet once in a while I need a little assistance. They are always more than willing to help.

The patrol continued and we came upon a mud wall surrounding a compound that had a hole bored out of it for a shooting position. Sgt Reed made not of this and logged in the grid coordinates to report back at base after the patrol was over. Each day something new is found and noted. Patrols are never just a walk in the park. There is a reason for each patrol and keeping the pressure up on the enemy by showing who owns the territory is one of the ways to do this. It is grueling on all the Marines doing the patrols, but it is what happens in a 7-month deployment.

During the patrol we came upon a place that is kind of like a little store out in the middle of nowhere along a ditch bank road. We stopped there for a while and I looked around the place. There were marijuana plants growing everywhere and way off in the back of the place there was a field that had at least a few acres of marijuana growing all the plants being well over 10-feet tall. I just can’t imagine why the pot fields have not been eradicated, yet. It is part of the money source for the enemy. Just another piece in the complicated puzzle. The patrol finished up by about 5:00 PM and we returned to base all tired, hot and drenched in sweat. It had been another quiet patrol, thankfully.

That evening I noticed a new face in the camp. It was the Chaplain who had come to pay a visit to the Marines here. He is well liked among these Marines and I was invited to attend a small service at 7:00 PM near where everyone brushes their teeth and washes up in the mornings. I of course agreed and by 7:00 PM I found myself singing familiar gospel hymns with the Chaplain and ten other Marines. It was really sweet and nourishing. I was well received and enjoyed some brief, but good fellowship. The Captain was present as was the 1st Sgt. Also, some of the Marines from the PMT squad were present including Sam. I felt really at home this evening and I was very much basking in the enjoyment of what the Lord had provided. We closed singing the hymn “What a Friend We Have in Jesus”. I went to bed right after this church service. I was tired and felt a cold coming on. I would need my rest for the upcoming days ahead. Getting sick is not something to look forward to out here.

This is how I ended the day on Wednesday, September 8, 2010 at COP Turbett here in Helmund province, Afghanistan.

Jim Spiri