The Last Journey
September 11, 2010 COP Turbett
“Nine Years Later”

Today it has been nine years since the attacks on 9/11 in America. Like everyone else, I remember exactly where I was on that morning in 2001. When the attacks happened and the reports came out that the perpetrators had originated from training facilities in Afghanistan and were members of some group called, Al Qaeda, I determined that one day I would go to this far away place and see for myself where it was and what it was like and what the heck the conditions were that allowed such events to happen. Today I have succeeded in fulfilling that goal and have found myself embedded with United States Marines in a place called Helmund province on the ninth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. This marks a milestone in particular journeys for me and it is quite sobering to be here in this very place on this date. I determined specifically to be exactly where I am at this very time for quite a long, long time. I honestly believe that anyone who really cares about what happened to us as a nation nine years ago and is concerned about anyone who is deployed to this region ought to either come here for themselves or at the very least educate themselves to the uttermost about just what it is like here in this place called Afghanistan. I for one had to come because nine years ago my younger son was among the first troops sent into battle in Afghanistan. I felt as his father that my generation sent him here and the least I could do is go and find out for myself exactly why we did so. That is in a nutshell why I am here in Afghanistan on September 11, 2010, nine years after the attacks on US soil that changed all of our lives.

I rose early this day and walked around the post from east to west taking photos of what it looks like today from my vantage point. I started at the east end in the deep moon dust type dirt next to the burn pit and walked west throughout the camp. I came upon the sign hung on a tree that identifies this place as, “COP Turbett”. I know where I am, but on this day, looking at this sign, I found that just seeing it and knowing it was named after a Marine that lost his life years after the events of 9/11, took a hold of me strongly in my being this morning. Next, I stood for a while at the flag that is here on a pole in a makeshift memorial. It is a crisp and clean flag hanging this morning solidly still as I stood in front of it for a while reminiscing about all it stands for. I took this photo as well. I wanted to remember today that I remembered where I am and why I am here. Old glory hanging before my eyes in this place on this day seems to say much more than words can. I tried to stand as still as I saw the flag hanging and wanted to be one with all it stood for today.

I was not sure exactly what I would do this day but I knew I wanted to go out on patrol for sure. I had been sick the past couple of days and was not sure how well I would fare today. But then I spoke with a DOD civilian who is what is called a “LEP”, which stands for law enforcement professional. He accompanies the Marines on patrols and advises them as to crime scene procedures when collecting intel and detaining individuals. He also is armed when on patrol. In speaking with him I learned that he was a police officer in New York City the day that the attacks happened on 9/11. He was going on patrol this day and at that moment I felt clear to go on patrol with him as well. He is in his mid forties and is here too for similar reasons as I am. Although he is working, he found work a way to come here on this day as well. I was glad I ran into him. Now I knew which patrol I would head out with.

I would go with Sgt Langalotz’s squad who happens to be right next to me in the tent. I’ve already traveled with him before and he and his men are quite comfortable with me tagging along. They also like the photos I give to them at the end of the patrols. We would patrol out to the east first and then head north. It would be about a four hour trip and would be done before the heat of the day set in. Morning patrols are always best for me. We geared up, had the morning brief, got a good supply of water and were headed out the east gate by about 0630. As we stepped out the gate I thought hard about exactly what I was doing at 55-years-old walking down dirt ditch bank roads in Helmund province with United States Marines who were in their early 20’s. Here I was nine years later with one Marine in particular who is actually a Navy corpsman but considered a Marine. His name is doc Johnson. He is given the name “doc” as a term that is earned, not just handed out. Once they’ve become one with their Marine squad and earned the respect of the Marines they, the corpsmen, are then referred to with respect as, “doc”.

Johnson is 20-years-old and from Idaho. I turn on my audio recorder and we talk briefly about what we both are doing on this day. He tells me he was eleven years old the day 9/11 happened in 2001. He was just a small kid. Now, to me, what seems like just yesterday, I find myself walking the roads of Afghanistan with a Marine who was eleven when all this went down that changed all our lives. Nine years later, he is carrying the load to try and fix a problem that is still ongoing. We talk about it for a short while on the audio as we continue to head into the morning sun on this patrol.

Today on this patrol as in almost all patrols, there is a contingent of Afghan Army personnel as part of the patrol. The idea is to continue training them to be able to take over the security of this job on their own and then we can, the US, can leave. I’m not sure how realistic that idea is especially after nine years and seeing that only in the past year has Helmund province been tackled. I have no idea what the real timeframe is according to the powers that be but what I do know is that today, nine years later, some Afghan Army soldiers are tagging along on this patrol so as to be the face first seen by the locals upon entering for various reasons. Most all of the Afghan Army soldiers I see are Tajiks, not Pashtuns. It was the Tajiks that were most of the makeup of the so called Northern Alliance that was headed by the “Lion of Panshir”, Massoud. He was assassinated less than two days before the events of 9/11/01. He was at the time of his death trying desperately to alert the United States as to what was happening in Afghanistan and that the US was in imminent danger. For whatever reasons, the messages were not ever relayed to the proper folks and the alarm went unheeded. When he was assassinated, it should have been very clear that all hell was about to break loose. I don’t really know who was in control of such information in those days but we have all heard that the ball was dropped by some entity at some point in time. The enemy obviously exploited the lapse on our end of the left hand not knowing what the right hand was doing. That is all I can say about it. It does no good nine years later to play any kind of blame game. Every Tajik Afghan Army soldier I have seen here appears quite committed to working with the US in stabilizing Afghanistan. They all carry on with the memory of Massoud close by. Nine years later we still are reeling from not listening to Massoud and we still lean on the Tajiks to help.

As we come upon dwellings that we begin to enter for searching, I find myself as always photographing young children, and specifically always trying to photograph the young females. They are so difficult to capture up close in a good photograph due to cultural limitations, yet they always seem to want to be photographed but play this game of covering up as they are told to do. I remember years ago a National Geographic photographer capturing a great photograph of young Afghan girl that later pretty much became known as the face of Afghanistan. I understand how he was diligent in getting just the right shot. It is not so easy. On this day, I am trying in the limited scope of things I operate in to emulate the same great photo this National Geographic photographer accomplished. In my small way, I am honing in on that good photograph.

The morning patrol continues and we visit and enter a few rural farm dwellings. I take lots of photos and watch as some folks are questioned by the ANA as well as by the Marines. Some of the folks being questioned are getting a bit belligerent and the ANA begin to take over explicitly. The locals know the Marines won’t touch them, however the ANA don’t put up with too much. As the decibel level increases by some old lady in one of the compounds the ANA become more adamant that people better calm down. It’s a local thing and the local troops know how to deal with it. Pretty soon, people shut up and we are on our way. Walking down a back ditch bank area hidden from the road, we come upon a dug out fighting position that was put in place by the Taliban. It’s simple, crude, but very effective and it is in perfect hiding view of the road that is traveled by our vehicles from time to time. I take a photo of it for reference. The enemy is everywhere but hard to find. Everyone knows something but getting good intel is the key to success. It’s been this way for nine years apparently.

We continue the patrol and come to a position where we switch out squads. Langoltz stays with his men and we pick up Mather and his men. They rotate time at this particular position and today is the day to switch out squads. It takes us about 45-minutes or so to return to the COP and the days patrol is about done. It’s sometime around noon or later and the day is not too hot yet. It’s been a simple, uneventful patrol which is a good thing in these parts. Everyone is always ready for the unexpected and I am always ready to take as many good photographs of eventful happenings should things go down that way. However, I have no problem with boring days, as they are called. It’s always better that Marines all come back to base without a scratch.

At one point during the patrol, the company commander, Captain Zepeda, came on the net for everyone to hear. He wanted to address the men about the meaning of the mission on this day, September 11th. He made it very clear that although the Marines were here in Afghanistan helping the Afghan people obtain stability and security, he stressed emphatically that the main reason Marines were here was to keep Americans safe at home on their own soil. This was a strong message by the Captain. I was glad to hear it while out on patrol on this day. He had not lost sight of what happened nine years ago. He said at one point that he did not want the lines to be blurred on the original mission of why we are here in this country. I felt that his speaking was spot on especially for how I was feeling this day. This Captain has a good grasp on what is going on. I am in a good place at the right time.

We came back to the COP and unloaded our gear. It was not sometime after 12:00 noon and the heat of the day was beginning to set in. The days are changing rapidly now and the hint of fall is more prevalent every day. One can feel it in the mornings now. It is very noticeable. The heat doesn’t hit so hard until about noon and cools off much quicker when the sun goes down. Winter is coming. I will be gone soon, winter is not for me here. I’m just not set up for that. The hot weather I can handle, the cold, I’m not prepared for. For that, I admit I am too old. I’m from the desert.

The PMT guys invited me to participate in their cookout which was just getting under way. I readily accepted knowing it would take several hours to pull off. I offered to purchase some cokes and they asked for an additional bag of tomatoes. Lately I have been venturing out to the bazaar pretty much by myself. It concerns the Marines but I always take an ANCOP with me. I go out without my gear on, just like the two generals that were here at the end of August. I’m not trying to cheat death, I’m just practical. Getting few food items and cokes within 50-yards of the COP in full view of everyone doesn’t worry me too much. If the generals are ok, then so am I. But, I’m not stupid about it. And, I’m very quick.

I saw a group of older men gathered up front across the street near the Mosque. I decided I would go see them and interview them with an interpreter tagging along. This I thought would be good material. After I got my groceries and brought them to the PMT guys, I went back to get the interpreter and walked back outside the COP. I sat down with the old men on the ground right in front of them. They were all gathered here to vouch for one person that was being detained. That happens here a lot. It’s just part of the everyday thing that goes on.

I began asking them where they were from. Through the terp, they told me they were all farmers here in Marjah. Probably I have walked through some of their fields. I asked how old they were and they were all between 55 and 60 years old. There were about a dozen of them and all long gray and white beards. They all looked old, but then again, aging here is a faster thing than back home. I inquired as to how many grow opium. None of them said they did. Then I asked how many used to grow opium and they all raised their hands. Truth be known they all still grow opium. They have a way with telling or not exactly telling the truth. They told me that growing a field of opium which is about one to two acres, nets the farmer about $3000 (US) in one year. I do not know how much heroin is produced from that amount of land but what I do know is that $3000 US is nothing compared to how many millions of dollars worth of drugs is garnered by the time the end product reaches the streets of downtown USA. I would like one day to trace the Afghan opium farmers’ product through the drug routes that end up in the streets of America and see just how much money mark up is involved. After talking with these farmers from Marjah, I realized that whoever it is that is controlling these farmers, it is important to them to keep them completely uneducated and illiterate and in a sub human world of existence so the product they produce can be exploited to astronomical amounts so much so that the world is at war over it. I come to an opinion that anyone caught with this drug in the USA ought to be given the sentence of being exiled to Marjah and at the mercy of the enemies of America. I really hate what the drug world has done to our culture at home. It should be dealt with severely and firmly. But that’s just me. I’ve been to Marjah. Perhaps the yuppie drug users in America ought to come here before they shoot up one more time.

In speaking with the Marjah farmers, I was startled to learn that almost all of them claimed to know nothing of the events of 9/11 in America. As I have said earlier, they are all illiterate and completely uneducated. All of them however remember when the Russians were here. They all agree it was bad when the Russians were here in Afghanistan. I asked them who their enemies are and all of them said they have no enemies. I asked them if the Taliban were their enemies and all of them said that the Taliban were not their enemy. I asked them if the Americans were their enemies and all of them said no. But all of them agreed it was the Americans who have made them stop growing opium. Now they have to grow other things. All of them said they currently or used to grow marijuana for hashish production. These people were not dumb nor were they stupid, but they are completely uneducated. They were friendly enough and I think once they reach a certain age here they could just care less about anything other than making it through one more day in the life of living in Marjah. I made an audio of this conversation; it will be a good historical document.

Throughout the rest of the day, I did some audio interviews on some Marines here at the COP, including my friend Sgt. Jimmy Bernard. Jimmy, along with Sam Dillon, are the main reasons I came to this place. Jimmy is a character and a very fun person to be with. I will take the time later to do a complete writing on just Jimmy Bernard. But I wanted to specifically do an audio on Jimmy on September 11th, here in Afghanistan, and I was able to pull that off. I also did an audio with Captain Zepeda who spoke at length with me about the significance of being here on this anniversary. There were a few others as well that I did audios on. Towards the end of the day I was present when an Afghan whose house I had been to earlier, came into the COP and received payment for a project he had completed. He was paid in cash a lot of money in Afghan currency. Time will tell whether he will turn out to be helpful in dealing with tracking down the Taliban who place IED’s and attack Marines. It’s a dicey and expensive game winning hearts and minds. It is the way things are done here in Afghanistan nine years after 9/11 though.

At the end of the day as evening began to set in, I was watching a doc treat a young child who had been burned in days previous. His dressings needed changed. No one knows how he got burned and any medical condition the locals have, they come to the COP to receive free treatment. Apparently here in Afghanistan, wherever there are American bases, free health care for locals is a “public option” here. That amazes me because in America that is not the case which is exactly what President Obama tried to get passed for the Americans. So nine years later, after the attacks on New York, Washington DC and the plane going down in Pennsylvania, I’m in Afghanistan watching a young Navy corpsman deployed with the Marines to one of the most volatile areas on the planet treat a young Afghan boy who had been burned and no one knows how he got that way. But the corpsman did his job without reservation and with much compassion. The corpsman also remember the events of nine years ago as well.

In the end I watched the sun go down here in Afghanistan on September 11, 2010 nine years after the attacks of 9/11 took place at a time two months after I lost my own son, a Marine. My son was refused further treatment by Tri Care because they said they had a problem with figuring out when he got sick and they said it costs too much money to care for him, a 2nd Lt. in the USMC. Nine years later, I’m watching as hundreds of thousands of dollars are being spent on shady characters who are more than likely Taliban sympathizers in hopes of winning a few more hearts and minds in the drug infested fields of Marjah, Afghanistan. I also see that local children, perhaps some of them sons of Taliban fighters, are receiving free health care from deployed American military personnel here in Afghanistan. I have no idea nine years later where all the money to pull this off is coming from. I’m not sure that Tri Care has ever asked one question about it either.

Nine years later American blood is still being spilled here in Afghanistan still avenging the attacks that happened on American soil. Politicians say that we are building a safer Afghanistan for political reasons. But I know that the reasons we came here in the first place was to make sure that we do not get attacked at home again from something that was conceived here in this lawless place called Afghanistan. I don’t know how to measure the progress of all this nine years later. What I do know is that no attack again such as the one that happened on 9/11/01 has happened on US soil since then. Whether it will happen again or not in the future depends on my variables in an extremely complicated equation of circumstances in this part of the world and in the political arenas of many countries including the USA.

I fulfilled a goal to be here during an anniversary of 9/11. I do not think I will have to do this again. I am wondering if nine years from now, when my oldest grandson will be approaching the age old enough to join the USMC if our presence here in Afghanistan will be the same as it is today. If I was a betting man, I would wager that things will perhaps not be much different than they are today, and perhaps, even worse. Time will tell. But for today, I am here and this is how this day ended for me on September 11, 2010, in COP Turbett in Helmund province, Afghanistan.

Jim Spiri