Please read the beginning of this story as shown within the “Afghanistan Story” tab above.
Afghanistan, June 2010, Camp Delaram
I shuffled back up to the compound to meet up with Virkler before the grunts came to get us. As I entered the compound, I glanced over to see William standing on the porch, cigarette in hand. He looked at me with all of my equipment on and looked stunned. He waved me over to him. I glanced around to see if anyone was around to intercept me before I completed my walk to the porch. No one was there so I walked extremely slowly. Was that because of my added weight or because of my hesitation with him? No one showed up and I made it to the porch.
“What are you doing?”
He gestured to my complete combat getup.
“Going outside the wire to help the grunts.”
“I thought you weren’t supposed to leave. Congress pulled all women from the front lines.”
“I have to work. They need me.”
“You can’t go.”
“Well, I am, in about five minutes.”
“When will you be back?”
“Come find me immediately when you get back.”
“You’re mine. Come back. And be safe.”
He smiled. I looked back with a shocked expression, blushing and perturbed.
Virkler walked out of the network tent and headed my direction.
“Remember what I said!”
I waved at William and exited the compound. Virkler and I walked down the hill to the first row of cans that stretched to the left in a straight line. There were four MATV vehicles, lined two by two, to the right of the row of cans. These vehicles were huge, with a V-shaped bottom to deflect improvised explosive device (IED) explosions if the IEDs were detonated below the vehicle. Studies showed that the V-shape caused the explosions to travel outward instead of upward, which protected the Marines who rode inside the vehicle more than the traditional flat-bottom.
Marines were milling around the vehicles, some sitting on the ground leaning against the tires and smoking, some sitting inside the MATVs with their legs propped up on the open door and sleeping with their heads lolling about. There were about ten Marines that I could count.
As we approached the vehicles, Virkler strode up confidently and I looked like some kid sister who stepped inside her dad’s combat boots to play dress up. One Marine walked directly up to us and with the most confidence I had ever seen in a man, spoke very directly and clearly.
“Yeah, that’s us.”
“I’m Sergeant Poklembo. Call me Sgt. P. We’ll be heading out here soon. Just waiting on some guys to get back. What are your names?”
He walked off and started talking to each man in his platoon. One of the guys nearby leaned over and spat out a long stream of dip juice as he looked at us and spoke.
“He’s in charge, if you can’t tell.”
“Sure looks like it.”
I watched Sgt P as he walked around. He moved three times as fast as everyone else, adjusting stuff that was hanging on the sides of the vehicles, climbing into the first vehicle and checking the radio communications with the other vehicles…he was a blur. Everyone responded to him immediately and respectfully.
Some guys walked up and threw a giant bag from the small postal exchange into one of the vics (vehicles).
“Hey, Sgt. P, we got the smokes. And Owens grabbed the last of the dip cans.”
“Hell yeah, let’s go! MOUNT UP!”
Sgt. P directed his last words to the mingling men before heading straight for Virkler and me. The other Marines sprang into action.
“Virkler? Virkler is it, right? You’ll be in the second vic. Cannon, you’ll be with me.”
He had discussed none of this with anyone. He made the decision alone and everyone hopped to it. The people in the second vehicle cleared a seat for Virkler and Sgt. P walked me over to the first vehicle. He yanked my backpack from my back and tossed it on the side of the vehicle, deftly strapping it down.
“Get in behind me.”
I looked at the door handle of the giant backdoor of the MATV. It loomed above me what seemed like eight feet in the air. Having an “Alice trying to reach the door key that’s on the table” moment, I reach up and pull the handle down. The handle drops and I pull on the door. The door does not budge.
I glance over at Sgt. P, wondering just how hard he was judging me. He was reaching inside his door to his seat, completely ignoring me. As I yank the door again, it creaked open about an inch. Sgt. P is still ignoring me, but I’m sure he knows exactly what is happening and is choosing to let me struggle and figure it out. He throws his flak jacket over his head, but that’s when I notice that his flak jacket is smaller than mine, less bulky, and well broken-in.
I lose attentiveness to the giant door issue at hand and turn to him.
“What the hell is that?”
He looks to where my eyes are looking, squarely at his chest.
“What? This? It’s a plate carrier. That shit you’re wearing is ridiculous. Do you really think you can move effectively in that thing?”
“Fuck no, look!”
I try to bend down and move about four inches.
“Exactly. I’d rather be naked in a firefight than wear that bulky piece of shit designed by someone who has never had to move around while people are shooting at them.”
“But how much does it weigh? Where did you get it?”
“I’ve had it since Iraq. It weighs about 20 pounds.”
His arms moved freely as he swung into his seat with ease.
“What are you waiting on? Get in.”
One last time, I yank on the 200 pound door and it swings open easily. Crisis averted.
Climbing awkwardly into the back right seat, I try to find a position to place my rifle between my legs. I feel stuffed into this seat and when I swing the door closed, it feels like I’m being pressed on from all directions. It was suffocating. The vehicle was running and a little air conditioning was running, but it didn’t make a dent in the sweltering heat of the Afghanistan sun.
Sgt. P was conducting radio checks with the other vics.
“Vic 1 to all Vics, radio check, over.”
All vehicles responded in turn. I imagined Virkler sitting in the vehicle behind me and wondered if he was as nervous as I was.
Between radio checks, Sgt. P. introduced me to the guys.
“Owens is the gunner.”
I suddenly notice combat boots to the left of my face and crane my eyes up to see a man sitting on a strap and holding a machine gun.
“OWENS! THIS IS CANNON!”
Owens ducks his head down to hear inside the vehicle.
“Hey, Cannon, Owens.”
He waves and then pokes his head back up to his machine gun. Sgt. P introduces the driver.
“Dumaw, Cannon, Cannon, Dumaw.”
Dumaw turns around and grins.
“Pleased to meet you.”
We awkwardly shake hands around Owens’ feet.
“Alright, gents, move.”
Sgt. P was the convoy commander, the one in charge, of course.
As the MATV’s engine went from idling to a thunderous rumble, we began to move. I saw the compound get distant in the window as we drove towards the exit of the base. I had never been in this area of Delaram. We slowed to a crawl and waited in silence for the other vics to catch up. I strained to look over Sgt. P’s seat through the windshield. These things were not designed for short people to see out of.
Sgt. P took ahold of the radio handset and spoke.
“Vic 1 to all Vics, Condition 1.”
There was a sudden seriousness that came over the vehicle.
“Second vic to the left, third to the right. Rear vic face back.”
Owens suddenly swung the machine gun around to face forward. The machine gunner mount clicked as he rotated the gun.
Condition 1 is the last condition a rifle can be in before the condition of an actual gun firing. In condition 1, the magazine is loaded into the rifle, there is a bullet in the chamber, and the hammer is cocked. But the safety is on. The safety is always on unless you are shooting someone.
Of course. We were leaving the wire. This is it. Of course we would be Condition 1.
I had never been in Condition 1 unless I was on a firing range with multiple weapons coaches and an ambulance on standby for any accidents. Condition 1 was the dangerous condition.
I hear Dumaw and Sgt. P. rack back their firing handles and send a bullet into their chambers. In almost slow-motion, I see Owens load his machine gun and hear the racking back of his giant weapon. My world slows to a crawl and I feel my heartbeat directly in my chest.
Thud. Thud. Thud.
I had wasted time understanding what was taking place. Everyone else had their weapons loaded. I reach into my right cargo pocket of my cammie pants and pull out the full magazine. I sit there and just look at it.
What do I do with this? How do I…?
I had forgotten how to load my magazine. Dozens upon dozens of times of loading and unloading this weapon, dozens upon dozens of times, and I was frozen.
Turning the magazine in the direction that seemed to make the most sense, I fumble to insert it. It doesn’t click and I have to slam the bottom of the mag to seat it completely. My fingers feel fat and swollen as I try to rack back the weapon to load the bullet into the chamber. My fingers don’t respond very well and I fumble further. I’m shaking as I realize I’m taking much longer than the people who are patiently waiting for me to finish loading my weapon…the people who do this dozens of times a day…the pros.
My weapon is loaded. I breathe a sigh of relief. Second crisis averted.
Sgt. P is talking to a guard at the gate.
“PMT heading to the AUP inside the town of Delaram.”
Picking up the radio, Sgt. P. glances back at me.
I nod almost frantically.
“Alight, gents, move. Keep an eye out for IEDs.”
The four vics weave back and forth between the staggered concrete barriers at the entrance of Camp Delaram.