The days previous I had been told that around the 15th of September the company would exercise an operation designed to “clear” and prepare an area out west called the Sistani village for upcoming provincial elections that were to be held in Helmund province. There were rumors that it could be interesting and there could be some resistance. In the days and hours leading up to the operation, it began to take shape and I realized that it was actually going to be kind of a big deal and that a lot of stuff had gone into this to make it work. I decided I would participate and I inquired with the Captain as to where he would suggest I be in this whole thing that was going to go down. He mentioned that being right up front with the squad with the ANA leading the way would be his suggestion. I decided to follow his lead and that is what I would do.
Now, what also needs to be said here is that there would be accompanying us two female reporters from the NY Times which tells me right away that something is up, so to speak. When I listened for more information, it was told to me that these two reporters would be focusing in on the FET (female engagement teams) and what their functions are here in Helmund province. The more I listened and the more I began to put two and two together, the more I decided I really did not want to go do this operation because it was beginning to feel a lot like a public relations thing. Having said that, I am glad I went, but I am also glad that I got out when I did. What follows is my experience of going on a mission to clear Sistani village and prepare it for upcoming provincial elections.
In the late afternoon of September 14th, I caught a ride with mobile out to the Chosin outpost where 1st platoon is staged, and has been for a good long while. I would be in the first wave of folks being shuttled out to this location which that in itself should have told me that this was really going to be kind of crowded. Oh well, I’m in and I’m going to make the best of it. It is all part of the overall experience. I had been to this location twice previously and I kind of like how it is out here in the boonies a bit and it reminds me of a old school Mexican hacienda place here in the middle of Helmund province. 1st Platoon is staged here and the guys here are under the command of a 24-year-old Lt named Stuhler. I like these guys. The further out one goes, the more interesting the little posts become.
This location is right along the road where the IED that blew up the 7-ton truck happened about a week or so back. Is a matter of fact, it was about 150 meters from the pos (which is called Chosin) where this happened. So, we are for sure in bandit country as we are everywhere in this AO. I had brought a little back pack which I borrowed from Jimmy Bernard and was packing an extra camera as well as batteries, a shirt, another pair of socks and an MRE in case we got stuck somewhere for longer than a couple days. In hindsight, I do not want to ever again take more than I need in the immediate time. Carrying extra stuff is a real pain in the ass. I won’t do it again.
Mobile left for their next load and I set my stuff down and began looking around where I would bed down for the evening. On my way in I noticed as I had before that the ANA guys all sleep on the roofs of the mud structures. They have cots. I would not have a cot this time and I was packing the inner lining of a sleeping bag that my son had lent me. I also had brought my little $3 pillow with me which turned out to be a very good idea. After searching around for awhile I determined that I would sleep on top of the roof, next to one of the posts facing north, which if anything was to happen, I would hear it on the radio and be able to react more promptly. The roofs are also mud and are held together by some branches acting as support. The roof at first glance looks quite sagging and right below is the area where the “shitters” are. Actually, it is only an area where one does their business in bags and then once again takes it to the area designated as the burn pit. I decided that this location would be my place of rest. I brought my sleeping bag up as well as my pillow and left my other gear down below. I would sleep this night under the stars in Afghanistan above the crowd in the cool September night of Helmund province out here at patrol base Chosin.
Once I got my sleeping arrangements secured I proceeded to get some chow from the heated up MRE’s they had set out. It was actually very good and I ate more than enough just in case I got stuck out in the village we would be clearing longer than anticipated. I managed to strike up a few conversations with guys from 1st platoon that I had seen previously. The word had now spread that I was hanging around a bit longer than most media types and I was now becoming part of the company. Everyone was quite comfortable with me which was a good position to be in especially now that there were two NY Times reporters on site.
Before things got rolling for this operation, Captain Zepeda gathered around Lt. Stuhler and some other folks and brought them to attention. 2nd Lt. Stuhler would be getting promoted this night in the field, to 1st Lt. This is a big deal and I quickly ran and retrieved my camera and took a couple photos of the event. It was kind of a surprise for Stuhler and he was very honored to have this happen while being in the field. Captain Zepeda said some good words of commending Stuhler for his excellent work here at patrol base Chosin and was quite moved to be able to extend this promotion to one of his Lt.s in the field. I could tell in his speaking how proud Captain Zepeda was of Lt. Stuhler.
After chow was done, a terrain model had been set up in the west end of the patrol base and all the officers and NCO’s were directed to come there as well as the two NY Times reporters. Captain Zepeda would give a long and detailed briefing about how he intended the next couple days of operations to go. The terrain model was quite good and gave me a bit of an understanding as to where we were, what we would be doing and the time frame it would all be happening in. During this briefing, the photographer for the Times, (her name is Lyndsay) would be snapping photos in the dark illuminated by the headlamp lights most everyone but me was wearing. The briefing outlined where the first group of Marines would be going and that would be with Sgt. Ortega’s team on the far west edge of the village which borders directly into the desert. This would be whom I would go with. It was also determined that this group would depart the patrol base at 0400 hrs sharp and walk through the night to the starting point on the south end of the village. I of course had forgotten that they all would be able to see in the dark and I would not. I do not have NVG’s and this slight miscalculation on my part would once again prove how operating by the seat of one’s pants has its’ downfall at times. It was also noted that in order to cross the large canal we would have to wade through chest high deep water. This did not excite me but I figured, “oh well, what the heck, I’m here now”.
After the briefing was terminated there was some time for mingling around and for some questions to be answered. I had asked the Marine next to me, SSGT Bitting the JTAC (joint tactical air controller) just how we were all going to get across that canal. That was the ONLY question I had. He looked at me and smiled and said, “I guess we are going to wade through it.” I figured I was just screwed on this one. I would make sure that my extra camera and other electronic equipment would not get damaged. This would be one of my only concerns. After resigning myself to this fact I found myself being approached upon by the NY Times photographer. She came up to me and said to me, “you must be with the Special Forces?” At this, I had a lot of thoughts going through my mind. “Now how will I answer this one?”
I was not carrying my camera this night, all my stuff was put up and ready for the early rising of 0300 hrs. I had my Marine cammie top on, my beige looking combat pants, my yellow ball cap and my long hair and beard. I did not announce to these folks who I was and I just mingled with the Marines most of which all know me now and I would figure that from a distance I perhaps to the untrained eye might look a little like some covert type of operator. So I here I was, being asked by the NY Times who I was and what Special Forces group was I with. It was all too funny inside. So, I came up with my standard answer in the event that something like this ever transpired. I explained to this NY Times photographer, who was absolutely sure I was her next big scoop, that I was a member of the un-Special Forces which is diametrically opposed to the Special Forces. She laughed and shrugged off what I was trying to explain to her and would not accept the fact that I was just some nobody here hanging with the Marines for a month or so. She asked me then, “well, what do the un-special forces do?”, with a smile. I explained to her that folks in my line of work do everything out in the open, in clear plain sight, tell everyone what we are doing and print it in all the newspapers we can. The NY Times photog thought that was hilarious and we pretty much left the conversation at that. I had no idea she would the next morning inquire as to which Special Forces unit I was with. It became a good laugh among those who heard this story. In the morning, the Captain had been asked by the NY Times photographer who the Special Forces guy was. He told her that he had no Special Forces folks here with him. She explained to him that she had talked to one and that he had long hair, a beard, a yellow hat and Oakley boots. He had to have been Special Forces. Captain Zepeda began thinking who could she be talking about when it dawned upon him that it was “Jim” she was referring to. He informed her that Jim is just a freelancer and has been staying with his Marines for a few weeks now. When Captain Zepeda relayed this story to me in the presence of some of his Marines, we all had a good laugh about it. But I made it clear to the Captain that I in no way told her I was Special Forces and had explicitly told her I was un-special. Some people just don’t believe me when I speak.
That night I went up the ladder to the post and got my bed all prepared. I talked for about an hour to a young Lcpl whose last name was Pleimeyer from Ohio. He is young, 20-years old, married and his father is a Viet Nam veteran who was a tunnel rat in the Army. His father has some serious health problems and his days are numbered. He could pass any day now. I talked with this young Marine for some time that night and he just opened up to me about many things. He has been battle tested many times already and has performed well according to his own reviews. He is in a remote part of the fight here and is in a tough platoon. No one lasts here being weak. I went to bed that night thinking about what this young Marine will look back on 20-years from now. I bedded down and wrapped myself as tight as I could in my thin skinned sleeping bag with my $3 pillow tucked underneath my head. The night would get colder by the hour and by 0200 hrs I was very cold and the bag was quite damp. I peered my head out the bag and laid there looking straight up at the Afghan night sky filled with billions and billions of stars. Here I was in Afghanistan sleeping under the stars with Marines all around me. I was cold, tired, damp and not looking forward to perhaps wading through cold ditch water in a couple of hours. But, I was glad to be here and have this experience. I would be able to tell my grandson Jake a story about this night one day soon.
This was how the day/night ended on September 14, 2010 at patrol base Chosin, with 1st platoon of Fox Company in Helmund province, Afghanistan.
End Part 1