The Last Journey
September 19, 2010 COP Turbett
Firefight with Herman, Hollis, Lambert, Johnson, Lamoines and Me

It is Sunday, September 19th. It was an eventful day for me today. One that I will not forget. Today, I feel like I got a few photos that I’ve been trying to get for years. If I went home today, I would be at least satisfied with what I had accomplished and then some. I knew that today would be the day to draw contact in a serious way. I felt it for a number of reasons including the fact that the enemy had pretty much a free roam of things yesterday due to our having stayed inside the wire for the most part because of the elections. I had figured that the enemy would have felt a little more emboldened and would have been out in force a little more today. Turns out I was correct.

In my tent is Sgt. Dan Mather, the squad leader for 3rd platoon, 3rd squad. He has been sick the last few days and it kept him confined to his cot lately. He had wanted to go out today but at the last minute he just could not. He placed Lcpl. Herman in charge of things and he (Herman) directed things from the get go all day for this patrol. The first thing we did was to go into the map room and discuss the plan of the patrol as is done before every patrol. This particular patrol had written beside it, “contact patrol”. I knew what that meant and I anticipated that today might lend itself to a few good photos.

After the briefing, we lined up outside the command operations center and were checked for proper PPE gear, water and snacks should we get bogged down and stay out longer than anticipated. Once all was good, we headed out the south post, #3, and began walking up the street and then headed north on the ditch bank road. Our first order of business was to stop this one particular person, check his ID, and then run him through the biometric system to see if he comes up an enemy combatant or not. While doing this the system went down as it often does. We left that position and headed down the road for a while to the north and then headed into the fields through the canals and the plowed fields. Once again began the hard work of walking through concrete hard giant dirt clods and trying to avoid twisting an ankle or two. Not to mention the constant battle to avoid falling into canals with water in them. The temperature is now much colder than it has been and as each day passes the hint of winter is bearing down harder and harder. I am glad that soon I will be out of here just for the mere fact of staying warm sounds like a real good idea.

As we were walking through some fields of cotton, some chatter came over the radio about some Taliban fighters who were up the road that we had just exited off of and were probably going to attack us as we were headed directly into their path. One of the farmers we came across prior to coming back on the main ditch bank road had told one of the ANA soldiers that Taliban were up ahead. More comms with the COC ensued and we continued to move in the direction of where we anticipated the enemy to be laying in wait for us. There was about 10 Marines on this patrol, a corpsman and myself. I was with first team which included Lcpl’s Hollis, Lambert, Lamoines, Herman and the corpsman, doc Johnson. Lambert was on point while Herman and I were close behind. Herman has the radio so I can hear any comms. We soon entered back onto the main ditch bank road near what is known here as the Taliban tree. Things were eerily quiet. The atmospherics of the upcoming situation at hand were on high sensitivity. One of the Marines spoke up as we were walking along the road, “…ok, we’re gonna get shot at today…”

I was making sure my camera was on the ready and was just finishing telling Hollis about me having been surrounded and protected by a bunch of Boston Red Sox fans during my time here when all of a sudden shots rang out all over the place. We took cover immediately to the west where a canal was. Lambert crossed this canal by basically flying over this tube structure. The next Marine to give it a go was Hollis who immediately went down into the water in front of me. I instantly helped him out of the water and went across. Next came Lamoines who did this amazing back flip right into the water convincing me I was not going to try to cross this canal in this fashion. I immediately told him to grab my hand and yanked him with my right arm as hard as I could to right himself and get out of the canal. The amount of weight these guys are carrying makes simple moves difficult. I am travelling relatively light so it is usually much easier for me to move in and out of places. But, then again I am at least 30-years older than most of these guys which makes up some handicap on my part. Once I got Lamoines righted I walked down the canal about 10-feet, crossed at a concrete place where the water was about three inches deep and proceeded to scurry along the path next to this adobe wall following the Marines in front of me. I was good to go and we all kept moving forward.

We came to the main ditch bank road again and crossed with caution one Marine covering the other with me sticking close to Herman. More shots rang out and some return fire ensued. As this transpired, my Chinese made audio recorder decided to screw up and I had a hell of time trying to get it to work. It seems to have a mind of its own lately and I can’t figure out if its batteries or just old. Anyway, during some of the shooting, it went on the blink. So to give the reader a little bit of a picture, we’re taking fire, we’re returning fire, I’m messing with my audio recorder and taking photographs at the same time while all along keeping an eye on whether bullets are getting too close to my ass. It’s a good scene in a movie and one I look back on and smile about now.

What I noticed at this point was how immediately when things happen, the Marines go straight forward towards the fire to pursue the enemy as soon as possible. At this point I made the conscious decision to stay right up front with these guys and the squad leader for the day, Lcpl Herman, directed me to stay with him, which is exactly what I wanted to do. I was now for sure in my element for having come to Afghanistan. This time I would concentrate as best I could in a short amount of time to get good photos of the action going on in front of my eyes. Why I was doing this is extremely hard to explain. No one is paying me to do this, no one is going to buy these photos and no one really cares (other than my family) that I’m even doing this. However, I have to do it. It’s just one of those things. Can’t really explain it. And I am free to do it this day. So I push forward and move with the four Marines and one corpsman. I am part of a team. I really like it.

Lcpl. Herman tells doc Johnson to make sure he’s got a weapon at all times taking care of me. Johnson immediately concurs, “roger”. They are taking me with them in the hunt. I feel honored and will do my best to record it in still photographs for when we return to base. The photos are the least of their concerns now and the Marines are in comms with another squad that is pushing down from the north. We are hoping to squeeze the enemy into the open. As we are going down the road again, more shots ring out. At this, Lamoines, the one carrying the “big gun” says, “I’m gonna lay down some fire, get ready, here goes…” I train my camera on him, focus, and make sure my audio is working. He begins to take a step forward and brings this big weapon up to his chest level aiming straight forward pointing down the road to the north.

At this I seem to be using both my eyes to look in two different directions. I’ve not had this type of experience before but on this day I surely did. From my right eye I seem be looking at where the enemy is firing from. From my left eye, I see Lamoines who appears to be nine feet tall with what seems like a 20-foot long weapon. He begins to fire and march forward yelling some things I can’t remember. But he is adamant and direct. I have my eyes trained on him and I can feel my right index finger holding down on the shutter button snapping three photos a second. I’m really in my element now. The noise doesn’t bother me, the scene in the view finder looks good, the sights look to all be in focus. The audio recorder seems to be working. I’m next to Herman and everyone looks to be ok. I am once again fulfilling something I captured a taste for way back in 1987 when I went on my first trip to a war zone in El Salvador. I am not tired. I feel no pain. The flak vest that usually is ripping my shoulders and back apart feels no heavier than a feather. We move forward at a brisk pace. All I can hear is the sound of my feet and the others with me crunching the dirt and rocks underneath. It’s the sound of warriors in pursuit of the enemy.

A person is scene on a roof to the east across the canal. Some say he’s a spotter. A shot is zeroed in on him. I audio record the shot and we continue on forward, to the north, alongside another adobe wall this time on our left, or the west. We come to a break in the wall and two Marines take up positions for me and the others to cross. Shots again ring out and I cannot for the life of me figure out where they are coming from. It just is that way. The only thing I know for sure is they are not coming from behind me. They are close, there are multiple shots ringing out and we move close against the wall. The next option if it continues is the big canal which is not a bad alternative if the shit really hits the fan. I will do whatever the Marine in front of me or next to me decides to do.

Earlier in the fight a 203 was launched and it suppressed one of the enemy firing at us. We believed it had eliminated him and were for a while in search of his body. It could be anywhere most likely in the ditch which is completely shrouded in tall bamboo type vegetation and impossible to search thoroughly in short notice. As we continued we looked but did not find any dead enemy. At one point throughout all this we came across a position from where the enemy had been firing at us at relatively close range and saw a dozen or so spent shells. We gathered a few of them up for evidence to bring back to base with us.

By now the firing had stopped. We maneuvered west into some fields and waited as another squad that was maneuvering from the north to link up with us came into position. The enemy had for the most part vanished, as he so cleverly does around here. Some of the Marines with me felt confident that one, perhaps two had been hit, but nothing could be confirmed. At this time, two cobra helicopters were on station approaching our position. One of the Marines yelled out at the sight of the helicopters on station, “oh great, now the fun is over…” And that was pretty much the end of the firefight for this day.

As we waited in this field in small canals for the other squad to come into position and in view, all the Marines bummed cigarettes from one another. These guys are young and really are not concerned at the moment how damaging smoking may be to their health. I can’t figure out how they can smoke and hump these fields on a daily basis. But I sat around with them and watched them. As we waited I went over to Lamoines and mentioned to him that I kind of like the weapon he carries. He gave me a grin and didn’t say much. But I could read the unspoken words he wanted to say. His body language just screamed out, “yes man, I’m a bad mother fucker with bad as gun and when I fire it everyone gets the hell out of my way…” But he did not say this to me, but I could read it all over his body.

These guys are not arrogant nor are they by any means trying to cheat death or seeking to have the next OK corral experience here in Afghanistan. But, they are trained to go out and eliminate an enemy that has been designated by their superiors and other authorities above them to be killed. It’s their job to do so. Many of the Marines felt good about being in a firefight this day for the simple reason of being able to do their job. It had been a while since these guys had been in “contact” lately. This day everyone knew they would probably draw fire. Returning fire is an added bonus on such days.

As we began to egress back to our base, we all got into our positions and began the walk back south through fields and then onto the main ditch bank road. We were now in the staggered line of one on the left, one on the right, all the way down the squad walking along this ditch bank road. The fight for this day was over, but, just in case the enemy decides to take a few shots at us on the way home, the Marines are ready. I take some photos of the return walk home to base. I strike up a little conversation with some of the Marines and we laugh about a few things. I then walk near Lcpl. Herman and spend a little time with him. I asked him earlier while we were in the field after the firefight if I had passed the test today being with his squad. He smiled and said, “you did well Jim”. That’s all I needed to hear. And I left it at that. I just wanted to be sure I had done the right thing. I asked him as we walked along the road if I had was Marine on this day, would I have qualified for the combat action ribbon. He said for sure today would qualify me for such a thing. I had done it. Again. I earned one more combat action ribbon on a combat journey. This is for some reason important to me. But now it’s over.

As we walk the road and come nearer to the base, everyone is kind of quiet and gearing down for being bored until the next firefight while they are deployed on this tour. It is said that war is generally 95% boredom with 5% total adrenaline high speed rush. It seems that this statement is true to a certain extent. As we entered the gate into the COP the first thing that hit me is these guys have half their deployment left to adjust to being here. I will be leaving soon as planned. I’m right on schedule. I’m pretty tired from the whole journey. But I’m not tired from today’s events.

We come back and have a longer than usual debriefing. Lt. Boyle comes in and participates extensively in the debriefing process and much is learned from today’s encounter with the enemy. There are other assets that assisted in this patrol that are unseen and unheard of by the enemy. It is once again a coordinated orchestra of events that issues in the one main goal which is to deny the enemy freedom of movement in this particular area of operation.

I come back to the tent and download my photos and audios onto my computer to insure they don’t get lost. They are backed up. After this, I decide to wash my dirty laundry, take a cold bath over at the ANA well and get as cleaned up and organized as I can. I will be leaving this location soon. It is time to prepare. If I were to go today, I would be fine. This is my last journey. I talk to Sgt. Mather in my tent about how for the last 25-years or so I’ve been trying to get that one shot with the camera and that it will always be elusive. I told him I got close to that shot today, but I don’t think that the shot I am looking for will ever be found. He tells me about pushing the envelope always further and I tell him that is what I’m talking about. I don’t feel the need to push it anymore, nor did I ever feel I was pushing it all that much. But what I have realized is that just being here with these Marines is what it is all about. I think about how many resources it takes in support to just get that one Marine out here on some ditch bank road firing his heavy weapon and some elusive enemy trying his best to kill him. I have had the opportunity on more than one occasion to be a participant-observer with a camera to that one Marine doing his job that we as a nation trained him to do.

Why this is so critically important to me I have no idea how to explain. But, that evening as I was downloading the photos from my flash drive to the Marine’s computers that I had been traveling with and I saw on their faces the smiles when they saw the photos I had taken and now given to them, was a hint of why I do these things. Yes, I wanted to prove to myself that I could do this type of things ever since I was a kid. I’ve done it many, many times before but on this day, I did it with this particular team of Marines and knew from the beginning of the day it was going to be this way. What I did not know however was how I would feel about my entire life after this day’s events in relation to the fact of me carrying a camera in a war zone and trying my darndest to take a good photo of a US Marine firing his weapon with all his might at an enemy whose land harbored the terrorists that attacked us on September 11, 2001. This is why I came here. I needed to see a Lcpl fire his weapon at this enemy. I cannot explain it any further than that.

I stayed up late this night and went over to the CMOC and listened to Sgt. Jimmy Bernard and doc Grabowsky jam on their guitars some tunes from years gone by. I was chewing on a toothpick while most of the others were sucking on dip or smoking a cigarette. I was in Afghanistan. It had been another eventful day and I was still coming down from it all. I had called home and mentioned briefly about some things. I told Candi I would be leaving soon and start the long journey home. She wanted to know if I was satisfied with the results of having taken this trip. I told her it was just the right thing to do in order to close this chapter out. What I did not tell her was what she probably already knows. I wanted so much to have done this with my son Jesse. If I am to be completely honest and truthful, that is the reason I have done this final journey. Capt. Zepeda is the perfect company commander for me to have been linked up with in order for me to close this chapter. I am for sure convinced it was the Lord’s sovereign will that I come here to COP Turbett. Sam Dillon and Jimmy Bernard were placed in my path by the Lord to come here. These things I know to be true.

This is how the day of September 19, 2010 ended in COP Turbett for me. I went to sleep and was very tired now. My whole body was sore and I did not know it until I laid down.

Jim Spiri