The Last Journey




On September 11, 2001, my wife Candi and I were at our daughter and son-in-laws home in rural Oklahoma, on our way to Washington DC to meet with members of the United States Senate.  Two months earlier, we had buried our son Jesse, a newly commissioned 2nd Lt in the United States Marine Corps.  Jesse was commissioned on May 11, 2001.  Twenty-four hours later he had a seizure and was medevaced up to Albuquerque, NM.  On the 14th of May, emergency brain surgery was performed on Jesse.  By May 16th the authorities had decided to discharge him out of the hospital.  Tri-Care had balked and we had a battle on our hands that turned into a war.  It was determined that Jesse had brain cancer.  It was decided by some Colonels in the Air Force who worked at the VA hospital in Albuquerque, up the street from UNM Hospital where Jesse was a patient, that because of a so-called loophole in the small print of the insurance statement by Tri-Care,  Jesse would not be covered by them and they were going to turn their back on my son’s health situation.  They were blatantly leaving one Marine out in the cold to die.  I was told point blank by these Air Force Colonels that quote, “there was not enough money available in their budget to treat his brain cancer”. 


I never forgot that statement.


I had determined to take my country to task and get the law defined in such a manner that no other military family would ever have to suffer what my son suffered and what we his parents and family suffered.  That is how and why I was able to get a bill in Congress named, “The 2nd Lt. Jesse James Spiri, Military Medical Coverage Act of 2004” passed.  I did this without a lawyer, without a lobbyist and did not ask for a dime.  I did it to correct an injustice.  My country also knew I would never shut up until they fixed the problem. 


When the attacks of 9/11 hit our country, I was still reeling at the loss of my son Jesse.  But on that fateful day of 9-11-01, while at my daughter’s home in Oklahoma, as I watched the second plane slam into one of the towers, I felt immediately that I was not in this suffering alone.  I knew right away that my country was at war and my younger son, who was and still is in the Army, would be deployed immediately.  I took a back seat on my personal issue and yielded until my country regrouped from the horrific attacks of 9/11 and pursued this previously unknown enemy to me called, Al Qaeda and Taliban. 


I did not know hardly anything about a place called Afghanistan. I did not know much about Al Qaeda or the Taliban.  In the days following the attacks of 9/11, I determined that one day, I would go to this place called Afghanistan and see what these people were all about and go on patrol with United States Marines in pursuit of this previously unknown enemy to me.  And I would take my camera.  And I would find my son in the war zone and I would find other sons of America in the war zone as well.  That is the honest reason that I took this last journey nine years later to Afghanistan and spent the 9th anniversary of the attacks on our country with the USMC, out on the front lines hunting the enemies of the United of America.


That is the simple explanation for having taken this recent journey to Afghanistan.


However, this “Last Journey” cannot be looked at in only those terms in regards to my life.  Nearly a decades’ worth of life (and death) experiences have to be factored into this understanding if anyone is to really comprehend the significance of just what it is that I have done and why.  Of course there is no possible way to put this explanation into words that has evolved over the last nine years.


I have never done this type of thing for pay as a job.  It is too important to me to have done this rather as an unpaid historical observer, instead of regarding my experiences and time in these war zones as a “JOB”.  There is a saying that I have always remembered and it goes like this:  “If a man loves what he does, he will never work another day in his life”.  When I am with the Soldiers and Marines in the war zones, it can never be work.  I could never be hindered in the slightest bit with trying to satisfy an editor or getting a photo in order to sell it to someone for money.  That to me seems like being a whore.  I could not do that.  I have had way too much wrapped up in this and other similar experiences to take that kind of route.  So, what I learned way back in 1987, when I first went to a war zone with a camera (El Salvador) I determined that I would not seek to make money with the camera as a journalist.  I have kept that promise to myself and I have never sold a photo from the war zone nor sold a story.  I figured out I would only be able to do this type of thing sporadically at best with large amounts of time spread between journeys.  I would have to find different employment in order to be able to do my passion with a pure heart and pure conscious. 


And that is exactly what I did. 


One day, in late 2003, while working with a helicopter company in Hawaii, I was offered a job out of the clear blue sky to work in Iraq on a flight line as a civilian.  I took that job immediately. Eventually I brought my wife to work on the flight line in Iraq with me.   And that is how things began in earnest for me to be able to come into the war zones my country was waging war in.  I always from the very beginning had the plan to carry my camera outside the wire in Iraq and outside the wire in Afghanistan. It has been said in mathematics that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line.  However, for me, it has never turned out that way.  The shortest way for me to get some things done has never been a straight line, EVER.  There has ALWAYS been twists and bends and curves and hic-ups all along the way.  But, eventually, I do get to my destination(s), it just never is in a straight line.


Flashing forward now to this current “Last Journey”……


In the past months, I have been afforded an opportunity to actually be a nobody and observe war being waged in Afghanistan from an historical perspective.  With the people that matter most to me, and that being the Army and USMC infantry as well as the Army CH47 helicopter community,  I have been afforded opportunities that most people never will get to experience and I have been fully accepted among them.  I have proven on more than one occasion in two war zones, that embedding can be done as historical observation for a citizen of our country to go and “observe” how war is waged.  After all, it is the civilians who make the decisions to task the military with waging war. 


From my youth, I have always believed what was taught to me in civics class and American history classes.  I was told, “one person can make a difference”.  I never liked crowds.  I interpreted the things I learned to mean that I, Jim Spiri, should be and subsequently was allowed to exercise my civic duty and observe and eventually report what I have seen as my country wages war.  I have proven that is absolutely possible, but, it is not easy by any stretch of the imagination. 


In 2004-2006, I worked on the flight line and saw too many young American Soldiers, Marines, Airmen, Sailors and civilians come through that had been KIA.  I saw over a thousand coffins go on airplanes back to Dover, Delaware.  I also saw thousands and thousands of wounded with every kind of un-imaginable injury one can think of.  I assisted in carrying these Americans on stretchers on to medevac flights bound to Germany.  I have personally on many, many occasions assisted mortuary affairs folks with unloading freshly slain soldiers in battle whose bodies were still warm in the bags they came in on via helicopters.  It was always my intention to go “outside the wire” to see where all this war was happening and to not just sit on base and get rocketed and mortared nearly every day.  I was able to do that for over six months in Iraq and now I have done this for over two months in Afghanistan.  And now it is time to report what my observations are concerning what I have seen as the current status in Afghanistan.  This is the part that my orders say, “in the public interest”.  If the public is interested, here is what I have to say about Afghanistan in the summer and early autumn of 2010.


One of the first the first things I asked myself as I began to travel around Afghanistan was, “what on earth were the Russians doing here in 1979-1988..? Why did they invade Afghanistan..? Why exactly were we spending hundreds of millions of dollars under the direction of Rep. Charlie Wilson of Texas, trying to expel the Russians from Afghanistan..? Why did we train the likes of Osama bin Laden and leave with him many stinger missles…?”  These questions still remain sufficiently unanswered.  I have some theories about it, but, I don’t have any concrete answers, yet. 


While embedded with the Army up along the border of Pakistan in the province called, Paktika, I experienced on more than one occasion, being on the receiving end of IDF being fired from Pakistan.  I watched as certain ROE’s kept American soldiers from responding in full force.  I learned that we know exactly where the enemy is hiding and there seemingly is not so much we can do about it, due to politics.  So, one of the next questions I have to ask is, “why on earth have we and continue to funnel billions and billions of dollars into Pakistan only to be taken advantage of by them?  One common theme among all the people I asked is this; “all the problems come from Pakistan and Pakistan is playing the US for a fool”.  I have to ask, is there not anyone in Washington DC that knows this or is this just known to young infantry troops out in the front line areas?  Are we now paying the price for having chosen Pakistan over India back in the late 60’s and throughout the 70’s during cold war manuevering…?


Once one begins to go down this road of “what the hell is actually going on”, you begin to see other things.  The hard part is to decide if they are real or if they are only a mirage.  In 2001, after the attacks on our country, I thought we were headed to this place called Afghanistan to root out an enemy that had taken advantage of a lawless situation.  I do not remember anyone in authority telling me or the rest of America that we were going to “nation build” in Afghanistan.  I honestly thought we went to Afghanistan to seek out and find the bad guys that hit us and open up a can of whoop ass on them.  Nine years later, I cannot seem to get that question clearly defined.  In other words, “What the hell is the mission anyway?”  In my conversations with many, many, many in Afghanistan, it is very clear that the definition of the mission is murky at best.  Oh, you can get an answer, but it does not take longer than about 60-seconds to realize that answer told is more confusing that the question asked.  My own observation is that if a clear definition of the mission was dispensed into the men at the front, perhaps a more definitive desired result would be attained. 


As I began to attempt to move around Afghanistan I was completely stifled by the logistics in moving around.  I had heard some horror stories about how back logged things are, but nine years after having come into Afghanistan in 2001, waiting two weeks to go a relatively short distance is not what I call progress. In a 73-day journey to Afghanistan, using 38 of those days just for travel time, is absolutely and totally unacceptable.  For me, a simple civic minded historical observer of war being waged, it’s no big thing.  But the problem is, the same back log for the ones actually fighting the war is happening on a daily basis.  This is treacherous for efficiency, decisiveness and morale for the troops.  I cannot seem to get over the fact that the only thing that happens fast is the rolling out of the red carpet for CBS News.  That indicates to me a very, very dangerous way to wage war.  How can it be that a person such as Katie Couric and her crew can snap their fingers and demand helicopters and other assets in short supply and receive other coordinating arrangements at the drop of a hat.  All so the American public can be told some 30-second sound bite in between some unreality show. There is not one infantry person I met that agrees with how CBS can command such assets on short notice.  I have to ask the hard question, “why is war being waged according to viewer ratings for CBS News?”  Now if someone in authority in Washington DC wants to answer that question for me, I’ll be glad to sit down and listen.  Until that happens, I and many others can only draw our own unfortunate conclusion(s).  I personally do not want my son waging war according to Katie Couric’s ratings schedule, or anyone else’s for that matter.  And I don’t think any other American parent or family member of a Soldier or Marine would want war waged according to Katie Couric’s schedule either. 


As I transitioned between Paktika province and Helmund province, moving from the Army to the Marines, I was at times able to visit many locations while in transit.  There is an underlying disdain for the civilian contracting world and how it gets away with things, that still is never addressed adequately.  When this system has had almost a decade to entrench itself into the fabric of waging war, it is nearly impossible to root out severe problems with the system.  I cannot accept that it is impossible to fix the contracting world’s waste of money.  I will say it has become a little more hidden but the underlying problem is just as prevalent now as it was six years ago, only it’s in Afghanistan, a much more challenging set of circumstances. 


There is a need for some civilian contractors, this I know and agree with.  But there is no need for a person working at an MWR facility, sitting on their asses making upwards of $130,000 to $160,000 and more.  And then, the game of hiring folks from other countries, such as the former Yugoslavian mafia work force that is embedded like a cancer in the contracting system.  I feel that based on the commitment numbers per country deployed to Afghanistan should be the same rate of civilians hired by respective countries.  Now, the real question is, if an American who is usually way overweight is being paid $160,000 for a job and then a TCN is hired for $12,000, who is it that is receiving the $148,000 difference and who is paying that difference and to whom?  Try asking that question in theatre and see what happens.  That is one of the fastest ways to stir the pot. 


One of the most useful tools the Americans have in the fight is the use of interpreters.  I have been around some incredibly wonderful interpreters, and I have been around some less than favorable interpreters.  In my particular experience I found that the interpreters that are from the Tajiks, seem to be more useful and more loyal as to what is going on.  I have found that some interpreters that are from the US and were originally from perhaps Afghanistan and somewhere along the lines became citizens and thus got hired.  Some of them make upwards of $150,000 - $200,000 per year.  Now, if an interpreter is hired what is called, “local”, which means he is from Afghanistan and lives there currently, he gets hired for about $900 per month.  Now, there is a huge gap there in pay and how and why that is, is up for question. 


The need for interpreters is severe in the outlying and more rural areas where the FOB’s and COP’s and PB’s are.  This is where most of the work in fighting the enemy is as opposed to the big camps and bases spread across the country.  I have personally seen a huge backlog of interpreters sitting around on large camps and bases, drawing pay and basically not working.  The need for their services out on the front lines is essential and why there is not an immediate push for them to be deployed to the areas in need is beyond my understanding.  Get the services that are in need directly to those on the front lines in short order is what I am saying.  This is something that needs addressed now.


Once among the Marines in Helmund province I began to study a bit more in depth what Helmund province was all about.  I had learned that in the early spring of this year, a huge clearing operation was put in place conducted by the Marines of 1/6.  By the time I arrived and embedded with the Marines of 2/6 in the summer, the “hold” aspect was being implemented.  I presume the build phase will be next sometime after I’ve been gone.  My deep concern about Helmund province though is related to a controversial question about why the politicians waited nearly nine years to deal with Helmund province.  I learned a long time ago as a young man that when there is a serious question that needs to be answered the way to find that answer is to “follow the money”.  This is what I have done in order to answer this question about why it took so long to attempt to deal with Helmund province. 


If a person is going to go to such places where war is being waged then it is a good idea to learn just a little about the place in order to maybe get a small understanding of what is going on.  What I learned about Helmund province is that it produces so much opium for the world that the trillions of dollars in illicit drug money flows to and from nearly every direction.  What I deducted from this is that the opium fields were pretty much left alone up until this current point in time for a variety of reasons that so far have eluded me for satisfactory answers.  In other words that we all can understand, the dope fields were “hands off” because drug lords have made deals with politicians while politicians send young US Marines to walk around drawing fire from bad guys while dope production and distribution networks are protected so the black market global drug economy can continue to thrive.  This is a powerful statement and one that most people in positions of authority never want to address and do whatever it takes to keep that statement quiet.  It is dangerous to say such things but then again, I am not afraid of anyone or any government when it comes to telling the truth especially when it is my son and the rest of America’s finest that are tasked with going into places to wage war while at the same time the way to defeat the enemy is not being addressed. 


I have come to the conclusion that the enemy of America, that being Al Qaeda and the Taliban, derive all their finances from the production of opium and subsequently the marketing of this product, mostly to American consumers, in order to be able to continue to wage war on us and kill our Soldiers and Marines.  Now, if I can figure that out then my simple mind tells me the best thing to do would be to deny the enemy the use of such a tool.  In simple terms once again, getting rid of the dope fields in Afghanistan would in very, very short order accomplish this.  However, herein lies the dilemma. 


Once it is determined that eliminating this “cash crop” is the way to end the war, it stirs up all the people and tribes and governments that are making astronomical amounts of money from this product.  Once again in simple terms….you attack the enemy at the heart of the problem and you piss a lot of people off.  Drugs rule a large portion of the world these days and touching this matter is not a popular thing to do.  But, I have been on the front lines with the best America has to offer.   I have had bullets fly by my head as I  move in and around the dope fields of Afghanistan.  I have an idea how gigantic the amount of money the opium produces.  I have an idea how interwoven the drug world is into the tribal networks and government of Afghanistan and other countries.  I also have an idea how we say on one hand we are against drugs but on the other hand we wait for nine years to even go into the heart of the drug producing area of Afghanistan.  Looking at things in this light I can only draw one conclusion.  I will let the reader connect the dots for themselves on this one. 


War is ugly.  It usually does not make any sense.  It is also a fact of life and of course of death as well.  I am not so fast anymore to jump into something without having all the facts laid before me these days.  Oh, I’m still very spontaneous and ready to do something important at the drop of a hat, but, sending sons to war to die and get injured makes me these days ask a few more questions.  I am still furious as most Americans are about the attacks of September 11th nine years ago.  I do not understand completely the current definition in reality of the mission in Afghanistan.  I know what the mission is on paper, but I do not know what the mission really is in the back rooms of the halls of Congress and the Senate.  I do know that 99% of the politicians making decisions about sending my son and others to war continuously for the past decade don’t have any of their sons fighting in the war.  I believe that if that statistic was reversed the length of time waging war would be decreased and the goals would be more clearly defined.  In simple terms once again, I would say to every Senator, Congressmen and other DC insider, “put your kids out on the front lines in Helmund province and then tell me how you are going to wage war”.  Until that time, I don’t believe a damn thing they tell me at the moment.  Maybe I have seen too much.


In the end, this “Last Journey” taught me that I am a blessed person to have been allowed to walk the paths of war with this generation’s finest.  I can honestly say that I had no agenda other than to just be with those I embedded with.  I wanted to be there, period.  I was allowed to go.  It was not easy.  It was terribly frustrating at times just getting from point A to point B as I have stated many times over.  But through all the frustrations and inconveniences I found that it was worth every bit of it.  I was able to find four men that had waged war in Iraq and were now waging war in Afghanistan.  These are my friends.  Two from the Army, two from the Marines.  I had two sons of my own.  One joined the Army, the other joined the Marines.  Everything I have ever done regarding my travels to war zones is because of my own sons.  My son Jimmy will go again to war.  I don’t think I want him to go any more.  Who knows, maybe I will see him in the war zone one more time, but for now, I think this “Last Journey” may be it for me. 




A Note of Thanks


The Last Journey, could not have taken place without the help of some folks that I must acknowledge. 


Cpl. Sam Dillon, Sgt. Jimmy Bernard, Sgt. Bryan Doyle and Capt. Rob Hamilton all spoke up on my behalf and got the ball rolling in order for me to come and visit them.  All four of these men I owe a great deal of gratitude to.  Major Henry Salmans, USMC (ret) who operates Devil Dog Brew, spent countless days and nights helping me coordinate this project.  I have yet to meet him in person but I feel I’ve known him all my life.  He has stepped out for a man he never even met and performed above and beyond the call for no other reason except for the mere fact that he believed in one person’s heart.  This is an example of always being faithful.  CMSgt Rich Rizzo, US Air Force, Ramstein, Germany is the one who assisted me immensely in obtaining a seat on a flight to Afghanistan.  There were some intense phone calls two days before my departure from the states and he helped me wade through all the hurdles clearing each one no matter how high they were.  I thank him in all sincerity.  Mr. Vic Robles, a civilian who became a good friend to me in Kandahar I owe a big thank you for helping me onto a flight to Bagram.  Thanks Vic.  Captain Watson of the US Army who allowed me to befriend all his men at FOB Boris and taught me how things work along the border of Pakistan.  I was honored to be present with him during his receiving of awards from Gen. David Petreaus.  Captain Manuel Zepeda, Fox Company, 2/6 Marines at COP Turbett is a man full of honor, integrity, compassion and the Lord.  I have yet to meet a man in the military that has had more of an effect on me than this person.  I will never forget staying up late at night praying with him for the men under his command.  With such men in leadership positions in the USMC, I am confident all will be well.  Gunnery Sgt. Miller always provided me with a fresh, hot cup of coffee every morning while I was at COP Turbett.  That one thing kept me going every day.  To Sgt. Mather who stayed up late with me many nights explaining to me how things work and teaching me how to survive, I say thank you.  To the family of Sgt. Jimmy Bernard who encouraged me in a hidden way that insured my journey would take place I owe much. 


Finally, to my family who knows me better than anyone else. My daughter Melain, the first born, who fretted beyond measure and worried always about her daddy and prayed earnestly for my well  being I say, thank you and I love you.  My youngest, Moriah whom I always try to impress with my writings and photographs I say this trip is for you as well as it is for me.  I love you.  To my son, W3 Jimmy Spiri, the best Chinook pilot in the US Army, I say how proud and honored I am to tell everyone in my path about you.  All of my experiences in the war zones cannot compare to having seen your face in Taji.  You are the reason I do these things.  I love you son and I am extremely proud of you.


To my wife Candace, who has stood by me for thirty-six years as I have taken her here and there and back again.  She has waited patiently all of these years as I embark on crazy adventures trying to ease my pain that only she knows exits.  There is no man on the face of this earth more blessed than I for having such a wife.  The Lord surely knew what He was doing when He joined us together in one accord.  I love you Candi. 


I am a believer in the Lord Jesus Christ.  It is no secret to those who have read my works.  Not one day went by that I did not wake up and say, “Lord Jesus, thank you for this day.  Make me an overcomer.  Lord, come back with Jesse, soon.”


Jim Spiri