The Last Journey
September 7, 8 and 9, 2010 COP Turbett
Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday
#34 Part C

Thursday, September 9 would find me hooking up with Lt. Johnston who is heading up the training of the Afghan National Army troops here at COP Turbett. He has a big task but it is one that is a very critical component to how things are being done here in Helmund province. Johnston is a Naval Academy graduate and is very decisive in his actions. I had spoken to him on a few occasions earlier and the other day I inquired about going out with him on a patrol. I knew the kind of patrols he did were designed to find the enemy and deal with it. He also has spent the better part of the last 5-months training up a platoon of ANA troops. To his credit, Johnston has earned the respect of his ANA troops as well as his counter parts. Going with him would prove to me that there is some hope in all this goings on we call war in Afghanistan.

The night before, Lt. Johnston came to me and invited me to go on patrol with his men. He has five Marines with him as well as about 20 ANA troops scheduled for this patrol. We would be going to what is known as the Taliban tree area and looking in particular for one person named, Haji Islam, reported to be a player in the Taliban structure. We were ready by 0600 and were scheduled to step out by 0630. I was not sure who I would be going with this day, and I had made arrangements to go on two patrols both leaving at the same time. But, I wanted to go with the ANA side of things with Johnston and his men. Before leaving, the Chaplain had gotten up early and made excellent large pancakes for the Marines. He insisted that I have one to keep me nourished for the morning patrol. I am glad I listened to him as his pancake which he calls a “man cake” because it is gigantic, was the one thing that for sure kept me going this morning. He has some secret ingredient but it’s been said he puts vanilla in the batter. Whatever he does is fine with me it was by far the best thing I have had for breakfast since being here. I thanked him straightaway and I hurriedly scarfed down the man cake and headed out to gather with Lt. Johnston and his men.

Right on time by 0630, we headed out the gate. The morning light splendid and I figured I would go ahead and snap as many photos as I could concentrating on the lighting. I like the morning patrols for a few reasons one of which is by the time they are over, the mid day heat is just beginning. The other is the light is just right up to about 0830. After that it’s back to direct overhead light which causes blandness in the photos. We pushed west and then north near some areas I had been before, but a little deeper to the west. The fields were more intense and a bit better cultivated. There were many ditches to cross and I managed to stay behind the ANA troop that had the biggest weapon because he always found the best places to cross. It took a little more effort, but was worth it.

From the very beginning on this patrol I noticed that these ANA were much more disciplined and had their act together. I spoke from time to time about this Lt. Johnston and he told me that they have come a long ways and were not always this good. He has done a fine job with these Afghan troops and I would call it a model of what some of the politicians are hoping would be the norm in the months and years to come. But, I do not know how many Lt. Johnston’s there are out there to be able to spend the time training such ones one platoon at a time. It is a long process, but, seeing these ANA troops gives me a bit of hope. I noticed also that many of these troops were different ethnically. They are Hazaaras, another ethnic group in the melting pot of Afghanistan cultures. They look a little Oriental and are Dari speakers. The Lt that was Johnston’s counterpart was quite smart on how he handles things. Like I said, the training they have received is working, but there is so much more that need to be trained and such little time to accomplish it according to politicians back home. Sometimes I think that the politicians should come and walk the fields with me and the ones I’m walking with to get an idea up close and personal what is going on.

As we pushed through the early morning and the sun began to beat down more intently, I began to take note of where we were going. We were dealing now with more compounds this patrol. In other words, we were now going in and out of some selected farm dwellings looking for certain ones. Each time we would come upon a place a security perimeter would be put in place and gingerly we would enter the premises. One never knows what can happen.

Every farm compound we entered reminded me such places up in Nineveh province in Iraq when I was with 2/7 Cav in 2007. The area here also has a reminder to me of Mexico, but I miss the Mexican artisticness of the compounds. I’ve seen lots of third world places where cows are in the living rooms and chickens are running rampant around the living areas but here in this part of Afghanistan things just look more primitive. Everyone has a motorcycle usually and at least one or more cell phones on them. But after that, it’s primitive and filthy as all get out. I just can’t get over the dirtiness of it all. The children look like they have never had a bath and the ones that I do see bathing are bathing in absolute filthy canal water. I just don’t get it at times. I’ve come to the conclusion that the drugs grown here, that being opium and marijuana, do not obviously provide any large amount of money to change things here much on a daily life basis. Is a matter of fact I am beginning to believe that it is the drugs that keeps it so primitive. I would say on this trip the one thing I am adamant about is the war on drugs now. I do not want to see our society turn into a drug society where people and generations are just completely zoned out beyond measure. Just the way it feels to me here.

As we moved from compound to compound, scaling fields and ditches and canals, we heard a huge explosion off to the west and south. It was about one mile away and I could see the gigantic plume of sand and smoke that ensued. It looked like it had come from the area where I had just been a day or two earlier visiting 1st platoon’s position. Sure enough, word came over the radio to Lt. Johnston that mobile had just hit an IED. Many of the guys in my tent are on the MAP team and I immediately began to think about them. The explosion was so big and loud from where I was, which was at least a mile away, that I thought the worst. We did not receive any more word for a while as we continued on our mission. Can’t be distracted. Must continue on.

Eventually we located this man about my age named Haji Islam. He had a long white beard and looked like he had his act together. His compound was definitely more upscale so to speak and he was for sure not any backwoods type farmer. He knew we had come for him and there was nothing he could do about it. In previous patrols all kinds of gunfire had come from in and around his dwelling. That is why we were there. During his apprehension, which is a long and arduous process, he is retinal scanned and fingerprinted with an electronic device called the BAT system. Either people are already in the system or not, and if they are in the system a reading is displayed who they are and what their status is. On this one, it came back, “enemy combatant”. We then apprehended him and one of his sons and walked him back to the base which took about another hour or so. We walked through fields and ditches and canals staying off main ditch bank roads. Of course the reason for this is exactly what I saw earlier with an IED explosion.

As we drew near the COP, I had commented to one of the Marines if there was any further word on the fate of what the IED had done. He told me that it had hit the 7-ton truck which is made to specifically carry Marines. A troop carrier. I commented that I had not seen or heard a medevac yet so perhaps things might not be too bad. No sooner did I say that then I could see and hear in the distance two Blackhawk helicopters coming. I knew the different sounds Blackhawks make as opposed to Cobras overhead. We were now very close to our destination which was COP Turbett. I could see reddish-purple smoke marking the landing zone I had actually landed at many days earlier while spending time with the dust off crews. I knew the guys that were flying the medevacs. What I did not know was the situation of the wounded. This pressed heavily on me as we watched the medevac land from afar and then take off in short order.

So here I was, out on patrol, rounding up some players from the Taliban in Helmund province with five Marines and a half a platoon of Afghan Army soldiers, watching a medevac whom I know who the pilots are, land at COP Turbett, pick up wounded Marines whom I know I will know, and then take off. It had hit our place. I had become a little on the complacent side having gone down the road on three occasions already where the IED exploded. I thought that particular road was no big thing. Wrong. I am reminded that anywhere here is in the war zone. The enemy waits patiently and is clever. I talked with the EOD guys here who go out and investigate each and every IED incident either before it explodes or after it explodes and they told me what the details were on this one. It was a command det, which means, someone was about 75-meters away and specifically targeted the 7-ton truck carrying Marines. Turns out there were 10-Marines in the back and two in the cab. They all got tossed about in the explosion and one of them, the 1st Sgt was banged up pretty good. He was the one that was medevaced out. No one was killed, thankfully.

When we got back to the COP, I took my gear off and set it down in my tent. I was completely exhausted and sore from one side of my body to the other. I was drenched in sweat. I also felt the effects of a cold that was now bearing down hard on me. In short, I was burned out. But, in front of my tent were a few Marines one of which was Cpl Barham. He is from Riverton, Wyoming and is on his third deployment, second to Afghanistan. He was the vehicle commander which means he was in the front passenger side of the 7-ton when it got hit. I talked to him at length about this experience that had just happened to him about an hour or so earlier. I asked if I could do an audio on him and he readily agreed. What I came to find out is he was in excruciating pain in his head and was given some extra strength tylenol and sent to bed for a few days. This is his third IED that he’s hit in his career. On two previous ones on different deployments, several lives were lost and he survived. He was mad this time about getting hit again. He just doesn’t like it anymore and is angry. He is a good man, not a kid. He is 25-years-old and has seen plenty in his time in the Marines. We talked for a good while after I turned off the audio.

When I heard the explosion, I immediately had thought about Cpl. Barham, because he sleeps directly across from me in my tent. He has always been good to me and helped me out with an extra sleeping bag so I could rest better. I am glad he is fine, but I see that getting blown up not once, twice but three times is something that is not so uncommon among Marines. I had thought the road to the west to 1st platoon’s position was easy going. I hated wearing my flak gear and helmet and seat belts in the trucks. Now I will complain about that again. I believe it is what saved 1st Sgt’s life. He was the one the night before that called the final hymn, “What a Friend We Have in Jesus”, a longtime favorite of mine that I actually wanted to call that night of the church service. He comes from a long line of Marines in his family.

By the end of this day I had pretty much been really tired and getting sicker by the moment. I knew the night would be long. It would be the first time in a long time that I had been laid up with a cold. I can’t tell if it is from the dust or the fields or the freezing cold temperature in the tent at night. But I know I need rest and water. Cpl. Barham gave me some cold tablets, even though he was the one that was really hurting. He was still taking care of me through his suffering. These are good guys. I am more than a quarter century older than almost all of them yet each day they continue to teach me something new. I glanced through my photos of this day and found that many of them were pretty good. It will be hard to choose which ones to post. Now I have too many. But, not the one photo I am looking for, yet.

This was the end of Thursday, September 9, 2010 at COP Turbett.

Jim Spiri