The Last Journey

September 4, 2010 COP Turbett


Today is actually Sunday, September 5, 2010.  I am tired and have slipped on finding the time to write.  But now I have some time and will catch up as best I can.  As always, there is just too much to write about in any given twenty four hour period.  It has taken all my energy and time to just be able to file my photographs as well as my audios and to be able to somehow back them up and keep them for safe storage.  Not to mention having found the time to go out on local patrols, keep clean, try to wash clothes and at the same time find time to squeeze what all happens in what seems like a 48-hour day into one 24-hour segment with just enough time to rest somewhere in between.  That is what I am trying to do now.  So here goes.


On Friday, September 3, I decided to spend all day with Sgt. Jimmy Bernard and his group of Marines at the CMOC.  That in itself is a story all by its’ lonesome but for now, I’ll just say I spent the day with Jimmy.  The COMC is a very fun, interesting, crazy and downright “happening” place here at COP Turbett.  It is a mixture of civil affairs, medical clinic, translator tent hang-out, and center of activity for all the locals to come and find “projects” the US government is handing out in order to win some hearts and minds around here.  It is absolutely the most diverse place I’ve seen in quite some time.  I would say honestly it has a mixture of what we all saw on the old TV show “MASH” with a 2010 twist to it and starring all Marines.  In short, the Marines from Weapons Company have been assigned as a kind of civil affairs group to oversee dispersing of funds for approved projects to selected individuals who usually are not working with the Taliban.  However, that is not always the case.  Some are playing both sides against the middle in this complicated little corner of the world and from this vantage point one can only observe and try and figure it all out later, if one has the energy to do so.  Either way, what goes  on at the CMOC on a daily basis is quite remarkable and is basically State Department work being carried out by US Marines.  As always, if someone want the job done, they usually call upon the Marines because they know how to get things done. 


While at the CMOC, I saw many, many children being brought in to be treated for minor ailments ranging from stomach flu to infected blisters.  The Navy corpsmen who are always attached to the Marines, treat each patient and log the flow of traffic into their records.  Watching these children being brought in reminds me of something on the line of doctors without borders or operation smile, both organizations dedicated to helping those in need with various medical and dental situations in underdeveloped nations across the globe.  Here, the parents bring in the their kids who are always very dirty and in need of a good bathing.  I don’t know how these kids don’t come down with some serious infectious diseases.  Cleanliness is just not a big priority here. 


The Navy “docs” I see treating these kids always manage to keep the kids from crying.  I would imagine that one of these medics will see more in one deployment than perhaps some full time medical practitioners stateside might see in a multiyear setting.  As the patients are treated, free of charge, a building of trust between the locals and the Marines ensues and little by little some forging of relationships is developed.  Doing something for the people seems to help strengthen ties and root out undesirable elements opposed to moving forward in these parts. 


In the afternoon, I accompanied the crew from the CMOC to go and check on the progress of the building of the school on the west side of the COP, just a few hundred meters outside the wire.  We went over there on foot patrol in full battle gear as always, in the middle of the hot afternoon.  What I observed was very slow progress on the actual building of the school, which in my view is not progressing very rapidly at all.  It’s a simple construction, mostly cinder blocks being laid, but so far all that has been erected has been a footing with maybe one layer of cinderblocks laid half way around the perimeter of the structure.  When we spoke to those who had been tasked with the actual work on the project, it was quite apparent they pretty much had been loafing around and possibly indulging in the local weed that is grown here in abundance.  Getting things done is always like pulling teeth especially when taking into consideration huge chasms between cultures on how and when something should be finished.  It is possible that this particular project will get done, but at the moment, as an outside observer, I have my doubts.  Time will tell.


We returned back to the CMOC after having been outside for less than an hour and I watched as activity resumed at the meeting place for those seeking projects.  At the moment, future projects are on hold as more funding for such activities goes through its’ lengthy process.  I have no idea where the money comes from to fund these projects but I know it does not come from anywhere in Afghanistan.  It comes from the Americans and where they obtain that money is way above my pay grade, so to speak.  But, this is not the first time I have seen bags full of money being dispensed to local residents in a third world setting for such jobs as, cleaning up the streets.  Perhaps this is a way of winning hearts and minds, and there is for sure hopefully a method to all this madness, but for now, it just looks like throwing a lot of money to questionable folks to accomplish very little as each day goes by.  Some things actually do get done but, the process is very time consuming.  There are some that actually say that the money we give for these projects ends up directly in the Taliban pockets.  Hard to say, but that may not be all that far off.


Later this day on Friday, I was invited to dinner at the CMOC with the crew as well as some of the Afghan Army folks, including the Afghan Lt who is the XO.  Captain Zepeda joined us and during dinner one of his Marines came in to give him a message.  The message was that a Marine had lost his life and was from Echo Company.  The atmosphere immediately turned very quiet and it is one of those moments that I will not forget.  Echo Company is just down the road a ways.  They have had serious losses since I’ve been here.  The rest of the meal time went by and people pretty much finished up their food and went to their various hooches to bed down for the night.  It had been a crazy sort of day and at the end it was a terrible sobering reminder that we are at all times in a war zone.  People die and some of them are US Marines.

This was the end of Friday, September 3, 2010.

Now comes Saturday, September 4, 2010.


I would now go on two relatively simple patrols this day with Sgt. Mathers and his squad both in the morning and in the later afternoon.  The idea behind these patrols would be to mingle with the local residents who live here and get a feel for how things are going for them.  It is also way to pick up unsolicited intel that at times is very valuable to those fighting this war.  We also were out and about in the residential areas to remind the residents that school was scheduled to begin on Sunday, September 5th, which is the next day.  We know that Taliban insurgents have been spreading the word that schooling the children of the local residents is something they highly frown upon.  That in itself seems to be good enough reason to fight this war lately, among other things.  Getting the females to come to school will prove difficult.


The morning patrol was set in brilliant morning light and for a brief time some of the photos proved to be better than mid day lighting.  The patrol in the morning was to the west side of the COP and is in a residential area that looks more like parts of Mexico that I have seen in years past.  But here the beauty of what would be in Mexico is not seen as much.  There is always just a filth that overwhelms the atmosphere in and around these areas.  And then there is the matter of the females.  Girls are just treated very differently here and it starts at a very young age.  I saw something similar to this in Iraq among the population but here in Afghanistan it is more obvious.  It is hard to photograph the little girls.  Rarely are they seen as the crowds of children gather around.  When they are seen, they are at a distance and if one tries to take their photo, they are constantly hiding behind big scarves and turning their heads away from the camera and running away.  But, many a time I have seen them turn around, peek out of their scarves and try to catch a glimpse of what is going on.  On a few occasions, I have been successful in obtaining their photos.  But it is difficult and timing is everything. 


During the evening patrol, we set out at around 1730 (5:30 pm) hours.  This patrol would lead us to the east side of the COP about 800-meters away from the base.  I felt the timing was about 30-minutes off as far as lighting goes but was still able to get a few satisfactory photos. I had not seen this area as of yet and was glad to walk through a new and different neighborhood.  It looks just like anywhere else the local people here might live yet it had a tad bit more of a rural flavor to it.  Upon entering this little village, I noticed there was once again marijuana growing in some fields all over the place.  It seems to thrive here and must have something to do with the culture as well. It just seems to be everywhere.

We spent about an hour or so walking through the village and stayed out until dusk.  It was easy walk and one I am glad I went on.  So, on both the patrols I went on with Sgt. Mathers and his squad, we seemed to do a presence patrol and inform the folks that school was on.  Each time we do these kind of patrols some of the local folks will greet us.  There are always elders around and a large gathering of kids always ensues.  Yet, at the same time I always notice some particular looks among some of the younger male adults.  You just get a feeling that they are not really happy about you being there.  It is apparent at least from the feel and sense of things that many folks are just waiting for the opportunity to turn you in to the Taliban and make life hell for you.  It feels more like walking through a gang neighborhood rather than walking through enemy territory.  The people here seem much more uneducated than other places I’ve been but they also seem much more cluey to what an outsider is doing and perhaps how to deal with that scenario which is not uncommon to them.  It is just complicated.

Between the two patrols on this day, I went with the CO and the mobile assault team in vehicles up to a position where 1st platoon is placed.  There, I attended a ceremony that recognized the promotion of a Marine to Cpl.  I wanted to go along and see this as I have tried now to get to know as much of my surroundings as possible.  Once there, I visited with doc Lauderman, a corpsman I have known from my time in Fallujah.  I also happened to meet another corpsman who was pushing out to even a further position.  His name is HM2 Gonzales who happens to be from Albuquerque, NM.  I spent some time with him, took his photograph and conducted an audio interview with him.  It went very well and we talked at length about his job here in Afghanistan.  He had originally joined the Navy to be a corpsman in a hospital but soon found himself using his skills to help save Marine’s lives who have been injured on combat patrols.  Gonzales came to the USA from Cuba when he was about 13-years old in 2001.  He speaks excellent English with a strong Cuban accent.  I enjoyed spending time with him and discussing how the scenery around here looks similar to that of New Mexico. 

Saturday ended with dinner once again at the CMOC where I was invited.  No doubt I have now eaten too much here but there will be a chance to get rid of the excess weight.  During the day I occasionally heard far off explosions and gunfire coming from other positions nearby.  I also heard jets high above and saw cobra helicopters from time to time circling in the vicinity.  Other patrols that went out this day, including the one I usually would have gone on, did end up drawing fire.  No one was injured and no loss of life happened.  But it seems as though the enemy is always somewhat elusive and does things to harass and intimidate.  They also have been known to do such things so as to calculate how the Marines react and plan accordingly.  It is a never ending struggle at the moment.  Time will once again tell how things go for this area. 


This is the end of Saturday, September 4, 2010, at COP Turbett, Afghanistan. 


Jim Spiri