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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
And that is exactly what I
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
forward now to this current “Last Journey”……
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
Last Journey, could not have taken place without the help of some folks that I
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.
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.
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.
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.”