The Last Journey

September 3, 2010, COP Turbett, Afghanistan

Two patrols on 02 Sept, plus, cleaning up on 01 September


It is now Friday, September 3, 2010 here at COP Turbett.  I find myself constantly trying to catch up on things, organize up my gear and somehow get clean and have clothes washed, just to be able to stay prepared for each day’s events.  A lot of things happen just being here and lots of things go on in our surrounding area that I only hear about second hand.  Playing catch up on the writing end of things keeps me somewhat sharp in my mind and is similar to exercise for the physical body.  Today is turning out to be one of those days.  Let’s go back to Wednesday, September 1.


After the patrol on Tuesday with Cpl. Dillon’s group, I decided that I would collate all my thoughts, take a shower, and prepare for the next day, which would be Thursday.  Wednesday I designated as a day off to get things in order.  It is important in this environment to get on top of things daily otherwise in very short order one will find himself totally overwhelmed with just things to do and stuff to try to remember. So Wednesday was one of those days to just get back on track.  It is also a day I learned that in our neighboring areas, two other companies, Echo and Golf, each sustained some losses.  When that happens here is phone lines go down until families of those killed in action are properly notified.  The term here used is called, “River City”.  That is the way everyone knows some Marine(s) lost their lives.  It is always sobering to see the cardboard note in the room that says the words “River City”. 


On Wednesday, I was scheduled to go out on a patrol early in the morning, but the patrol commander who was not familiar with me yet, said that this particular patrol had a few officers with it and a visiting gunnery Sgt and really did not need an additional civilian tagging along.  Lt. Boyle asked me if minded hanging back on this patrol and of course I complied without hesitation.  It was really appreciated and gave me a chance to also get to know the Sgt who was in charge of the patrol to get to know me.  It always works out for me if I just remain flexible.  I always am and the Marines here completely appreciate it.  After rising early this day, I grabbed a cup of coffee and photographed the patrol getting ready to head out.  After they left, I began my plan for the day which involved taking a shower, washing clothes and then writing and compiling all my stories, audios and photos that had been back-logged.  Later that evening, I was invited by Lt. Boyle to attend dinner with his Afghan counterpart who is also the XO for the Afghan Army contingent here.  That was a great meal and I have really begun to settle in here at Turbett.  It is how I always intend for things to go.


The patrol that went out that morning happened to draw fire at one point.  One round hit the radio that was being carried by the Captain’s radioman.  It is another one of those many stories that I hear on a daily basis of a remarkable instance where someone is miraculously spared.  If one stays here long enough, you will hear time and time again old stories constantly updated by new instances of such things.  It would be impossible to catalog each and every story however, each time I hear of one, I make note of them mentally.  By the end of this day, I was feeling all caught up on my personal things and was ready for what the next day would bring.  I had noticed this day upon rising early that the coolness of the morning air was definitely apparent.  It had dawned on me that it was now September.  Although the day time temperatures are still blisteringly hot, the mornings are nice and a hint of a change of season is in the air.

This would be the end of Wednesday September 1, 2010 at Turbett.

Now comes the morning of Thursday September 2, 2010.


During the late afternoon and evening of Wednesday, I had gotten to know Sgt. Mathers who is one of the squad leaders of 3rd platoon.  He was the one who requested that I not attend the previous days patrol.  We began talking at length and soon we found ourselves talking about everything from his Boston Red Sox to my NY Yankees.  The rivalry between these two teams is classic and only in a war zone can two opposing fans become excellent friends.  We spent the rest of the evening talking about the Sgt.’s past and current deployments.  Mathers had extended his current enlistment just to be able to come to this fight.  He needed to do this for his own reasons.  Sgt. Mathers is no wimp.  He has had duties in Iraq and also was chosen to do a stint at Camp David.  Mathers is good.  He’s been through much during this deployment.  He will exit the USMC after this deployment and further his education with a goal towards becoming a US Marshall.  If it were up to me, I’d make a way for him to just be admitted into the Marshall’s job upon arriving home.  There would be no better recruit for such an organization than Sgt. Mathers who has a world of experience just in this current fight for Marjah.  Perhaps someone in authority will see what I see.


Before we both hit the sack, Sgt. Mathers invited me to tag along on his morning patrol.  I readily accepted and hit the sack knowing an early morning would be in order.  To be invited along by the squad leader who less than 24-hours earlier had put his foot down and said no to any “media type” person tagging along, to me is a high compliment.  I endeavored to keep the integrity of my journey in line.  I enjoy being accepted.  Seems it is usually in war zones that I find good fellowship.  Only my wife understands. 


On Thursday morning, September 2, I woke up early just before sunrise.  I headed over to the command operation center and grabbed a cup of good, hot coffee to begin my day.  The patrol briefing would be soon and I wanted to get ready and make sure all the morning things that needed to be taken care of were done.  By sunrise the briefing was being conducted and shortly thereafter, we headed out with Sgt. Mathers’ squad.  This would be my first patrol in the direction we headed. 

We began by going through agricultural fields that looked a little different than the ones I had seen earlier.  They seemed more manicured at first sight and the stands of corn we would pass through looked very good, healthy, deep dark green and producing quite well.  We walked though not only corn fields, but bean fields, okra stands and cotton patches.  But, the hardest thing on this day to negotiate were the waddis, or what we call the ditches.  These particular ditches seemed much more difficult to cross and on three separate occasions I landed flat on my ass after trying to leap across like the young Marines do whom I follow daily.  However, no longer will I try to jump small or large waddis in a single bound.  By the end of the day, I had pretty much injured my right front foot at the bend and have since been favoring it gingerly.  This is the one thing I have tried to avoid desperately.  It is my first wake up call to realizing I am not as young as I used to be. 


We continued on with this patrol passing through fields, some plowed and some not.  There were also alfalfa fields that sported a deep green color.  We came upon different farm dwellings that were all made of mud construction.  Most all of these places still had the dried poppy stems from the previous opium harvest stacked up along walls so they could be used as fuel for fires.  Anyone who thinks opium has been anywhere near eradicated here in this part of Afghanistan has their head stuck in the sand or some other place for that matter. 


As we strolled upon one farm house the male occupant inside was standing in the courtyard area like a zombie.  It was explained to me he was high as a kite on opium and could care less about anything at this particular moment.  This is not an isolated incident; rather, on the contrary much of the area has similar circumstances.  Not only is a large part the world’s opium supply produced here, it apparently is also consumed on a scale that for me is yet to be determined.  But I am told that many of the enemy are users of hashish as well as opium. 

The morning patrol with Sgt. Mathers’ squad finished up about three hours after it began.  I was not so tired, but my right foot was dicey.  I was a bit concerned about it.  I knew one more wrong move and I would be in trouble.  I took it easy but felt I would be ok.  I was not filthy again and full of sweat.  I laid down on my cot and fell asleep after the patrol review meeting.  It was now late morning and the next patrol with Cpl. Dillon’s squad was going to happen in a few hours.  I decided to rest up and see how my foot would do.  I was exhausted.  I slept for over two hours, with all my clothes on as well as my boots. 


My boots are a problem.  They were purchased from Oakley via phone but was a real hassle.  They are made in China, and originally cost $175.  However, if you are in the military, they can be purchased for half price.  When I went to purchase them I was told they were out of stock and they wanted to sell me a pair that was $275.  Now I pushed hard and eventually got the pair I thought I wanted and got it for the price that a military person would pay which turned out to be $87.50 for a pair of Oakley combat boots, made in China that probably cost less than $8 to produce and receive in the Oakley warehouse in California.  I went to great lengths to try and get these shoes and was even told by the management of Oakley that I would be blacklisted from their order department for simply inquiring about the differences on pricing to the general public for those still going to the war zones.  I needed good boots.  I knew I would be on rough patrols with the Marines.  I thought I was purchasing good boots.  What I ended up purchasing was shitty boots, made in China, and having to put up with obscene salesmen who treated me like dirt.  The point is, I will no longer ever again purchase shoes from Oakley.  I will go with Converse from now on.  Each time I have a pain in my right foot, I think of the crap I was put through from the Oakley folks and the piece of junk shoes they sent me.  It is things like this that really tick me off. 


The second patrol of the day. 


By 2:00 PM the second patrol of the day for me would be taking place.  I would be with Cpl. Dillon’s squad again headed by Sgt. Reed.  I was getting quite familiar with these guys now and they have begun to give me heads up on when patrols will be happening and inviting me along.  This afternoon’s patrol would take us in the opposite direction that I went in the morning.  I figured I would give my foot a chance to see where I stand.  It is sore, but I figured if I did not press it too much, I would be ok.  I stocked up on water, made sure my lens on the camera was cleaned off, made sure my batteries were good in the audio recorder and headed to the briefing room for the upcoming patrol.  After the briefing we stepped out and headed down the road where the local bazaar is. 


The first part of the patrol was on roads and I was thankful for that.  Nothing is done fast, but in the heat, just doing it is difficult.  Each of the guys with me all have at least 65-pounds of gear on them.  I have about 45-pounds which is considerably less, however when crossing a ditch or jumping from here to there, that extra 45-pounds hurts if the landing is not just right.  We stopped at an Afghan police base and rested up there for about 20-minutes.  The rest was good but getting started again is always hard to do.  Nevertheless, we headed out and proceeded to go through fields we had just come through.  The cotton was nearly five feet high and was a bit tricky to negotiate.  There were times that the cotton just wrapped around the legs and pretty much would stop you in your tracks prior to falling down.  I was behind one of the Afghan cops that we were training and I made sure to keep an eye on him.  At one point we had come through some very high corn field after having struggled through cotton.  I had lost sight of him and realized just how easy it would be to get lost out here.  I found myself saying in as low a voice as possible, “hello….hello”.  Then I heard a reply back, “alowalow”.  He had waited for me knowing I was tangled up a bit.  When I saw him, he had a big smile on his face and I was smiling as well.  Without speaking each others’ language, we both knew I had lost sight of my way and he had made sure I would not be lost.  That was a cool experience to me. 

We kept going and came to this really tall patch of marijuana.  It was giant as a matter of fact.  I made sure to take a lot of photos for people I know in the states that just would not believe their eyes.  At one point I was once again tangled up in foliage only this time it was marijuana.  Walking through the fields I had this familiar smell all over me that I remembered from a lifetime ago nearly forty years earlier.  Some things one just never forgets.  Although I do not now nor have I for decades smoked marijuana, passing through these giant fields did have a tendency to make my eyes red just thinking about it, as the old Cheech and Chong album used to phrase things back in the early 70’s. 


As the rest of the patrol continued, I realized that my foot was going to be pretty much ok, as long as I did not do extra pushing on it.  It still hurts and I know if I am not careful, I will be in a jam.  By the time we were walking down the street that has the bazaar on it and leads back to the compound, I realized that doing two patrols in one day is good exercise, but it is a bit draining.  I figured I would not go the next day and try to catch up.  That afternoon, having returned from the patrol by about 4:30 PM, I realized I had time to get my clothes cleaned up and take a shower.  That is what I proceeded to do. 

I went to where our well is and tried desperately to get the water to work.  Others had already thought of the same thing because all of us were filthy and our clothes were about to become discarded if not cleaned right away.  I chose the latter.  However, the well I ended up using was the well used by the Afghan Army who are on base with us.  This turned out to be a very good thing.  I immediately took over the job of pumping the well as others filled up their buckets for washing their clothes and others took showers underneath the flowing water.  I really loved seeing how good this well worked.  The Afghans had a good time of it.  I was enjoying it.  And I knew if I waited long enough, they would pump the water for me.  Eventually, the Lt that I had dinner with a couple nights earlier showed up.  I insisted on pumping the water for him.  Everyone around noticed.  I had a big smile on my face.  Then it was my turn.  I got under the water and just thoroughly enjoyed the free flowing water over my body.  I cleaned up well and washed my hair.  I rinsed off once and then I did it again because I was really enjoying it.  I was loudly saying in English, “this is great.  I love this well…”  The Afghans knew by the expression on my face that I was having the time of my life underneath the flowing water. 

After I finished, I just dripped dried.  In about five minutes you are dry in this heat.  The Afghan Lt came up to me and we talked a bit.  He is Tajik but speaks ok English.  I reminded him of the other night when I had eaten dinner with him.  I told him that we communed together and that is a form of fellowship.  Then I told him that when we fellowship under God’s grace we receive the showers of blessing, like the flowing water of the well we both had just experienced.  I explained to him that I wanted to “shower him with blessings of water” as a thank you gesture for having me for dinner the other night.  He just got the picture and had a huge smile on his face.  Then, he insisted that I come for dinner this night which I readily accepted.  More blessings.


The dinner was exceptional with rice, chicken, dates, a salsa, radishes, onions, green chili peppers and a yogurt of sorts.  We sat down Afghan style and they appreciated that I chose to eat as they do.  I was their guest and so was Captain Zepeda.  Later the Afghan commander also joined us.  I had been brought into once again the good place to eat.  This was a very enjoyable experience.

We talked a bit throughout the night and I kept just thinking inside what a good experience the whole day had been.  I am in this war zone and I hear of death and injury all around me.  I hear helicopters overhead occasionally firing their hell fire missiles and from time to time I hear explosions in the distance.  I know of some Marines that have been killed in very close proximity to where I am at the moment.  A lot is going on all around me.  I’ve been on patrols and have had shots fired at me already.  I’ve crossed drug fields as well as corn fields and back again.  I fell down three times today and tried desperately to not ruin my camera.  I have a sort foot from jamming the front part opposite the heel.  I was filthy dirty and now I’m clean.  I washed my clothes in a plastic bucket and hung them to dry on the ropes holding my tent up.  And yet through all of this today, I am brought into a tent of an Afghan Lt to sit and dine with him on some very good local food.  These are things that happen at combat outpost Turbett in Helmund province in early September of 2010 among the United States Marines that I am embedded with. 

It’s a lot to try and describe in words in a few paragraphs, but this is what I do.  I do love being here.  It is the hardest thing I’ve done in a while, but as always, it is worth it. 


This is the end of Thursday, September 2, 2010 at COP Turbett.


Jim Spiri Last Journey