Please read the beginning of this story as shown within the “Afghanistan Story” tab above.
Afghanistan, June 2010, Town of Delaram
Sgt P went over the rules of engagement as everyone placed their rifles in Condition 1.
“Remember; do not engage, even if we are fired upon. Evade fire and wait for further orders.”
“We can’t fire back?!”
I was incredulous.
“Nope, we are here to train and protect, not kill unless we are in danger.”
“Well that’s a load of shit. If I’m being shot at, I would assume I am in danger. Fucking bullshit.”
“Keep your eyes open and report anything suspicious to your fire team leader.”
The fire teams were four men deep. Sgt. P led the way in the first fire team. As I watched him leave, all I wanted to do was be in his group. I waited to hear what my fire team leader would say while we lined up to exit the compound. We weren’t at the entryway that I had come into the compound in the MATV. This was a second entry that was much smaller. Marines would leave two at a time, one on each side of the road. The rest of the platoon filed out and my fire team was the last to go. Dumaw, my fire team leader and the only one with a handheld radio (PRC-153), placed me on the right side of the road, staggered across the road and behind him. Owens was behind me and across the road.
As we began to walk through the village, I was already in pain. Marines are supposed to be physically fit. There is a reason grunts train in tough physical conditions with a lot of equipment. That is their job, to be fit killers. POGs don’t train like that. If we go on hikes, it is with maybe 25 pounds of equipment and it’s for a five mile stroll in 70 degree weather. Personally, I hadn’t PT’ed more than sporadically while I was in the fleet. Our leadership was too concerned with training our brains and sending us to classes. While the classes were necessary to perform our jobs, we had completely neglected the physical portion of our training. In fact, we had exactly one hard physical training session in 2009. A Gunnery Sergeant took us on a nine mile run up the coast of California. We had to swim a portion of it and I eventually took off my shoes and just ran barefoot. When we got back to base, with me sans shoes, the command told the Gunnery Sergeant to never do that to us again. We had hated it and we had loved it…and it was probably necessary for us to not be weak.
So here I was, when physical training was necessary, and I was trained on all of the wrong stuff. I had to remember a lot of what I had learned in Marine Combat Training (MCT) from April of 2008 and RAZ training in December of 2009. It was a total of five weeks of combat training that spanned over two years. The technical terms came back quickly enough. I could follow Dumaw’s orders and properly scan the area, spinning slowly left and then right with the shotgun in my hands. But physically, I was in a rough spot. Nothing prepares you for that heat. Even the heat of the Mojave desert, where the Marines train in America, does not equate to the heat of Afghanistan. I took constant sips of water from my camelbak mule pouch that hung on my back.
We walked through the village, mainly alongside walled compounds that had their monotonously sandy mud walls broken by an occasional gate. As we passed one metal and rusted gate immediately on my right, it creaked open. Three girls, maybe five, eleven, and fifteen, gazed out wide-eyed at the patrol. They looked at all of the men and when their eyes fell on me, they broke into huge smiles and walked out to me. They were barefoot and dressed in brightly colored, long robes that covered every inch of their body and khamir headscarves that loosely fell around their faces. Dark blue, red, and purple, these colors were brighter than anything my eyes had seen in months. They were a stark contrast to their surroundings.
These women walked up to me quickly, and began speaking to me in a language I couldn’t speak. Our interpreter was up with Sgt. P and I looked wildly around to see if anyone could translate. The women touched my skin and my hair, speaking to me the entire time.
“I’m sorry; I don’t know what you’re saying.”
The older one kept gesturing up and down at me and then to the male Marines.
“Yeah, I’m a girl; there are a few of us.”
More smiles and gestures. The youngest one touched my cheek. Her eyes were bright and kind. I reached into my dump pouch and grabbed three suckers and handed them over. They made thankful noises and touched my arms in thanks.
I looked up and noticed that the patrol had continued to move and Dumaw was stalling for me to catch up.
“Thank you for this. And I’m sorry we are here. I’m so sorry.”
I turned and ran to catch up with the patrol. They stood watching me. I looked back and waved. They smiled and waved back.
I was winded when I caught up to the guys. I had only fallen behind a few dozen feet but that 110 pounds doesn’t sprint well. I couldn’t catch my breath. As we rounded a street, filled with trash, my body went into the hurt locker.
Fuck, fuck, fuck. My hips. My spine feels compressed. My hips. Fuck.
Suddenly, we were in the marketplace. There were people around, watching us walk past them while selling their wares. I managed to snap a couple of pictures, blurry because I was terrified of falling behind again and not being about to catch back up.
The sun had begun to set, and people were moving about in the sudden shade. The smells of the marketplace were both disgusting and aromatic. There were puddles of liquid on the ground and with no running water; heaven only knows what the liquids were. We were glared at by everyone as we walked by. I noticed our interpreter speaking to some of the locals as we passed.
There was yelling suddenly when the townspeople noticed that I was a girl. I was suddenly surrounded by children and at first I pleased. I handed out a few suckers, which was a mistake.
Don’t let them take your pen. They can use them to make bombs. Shit, don’t they also swarm people to separate them from their patrols before killing them?
“Hey, get away from them! They can kill you!”
Stories from Iraq that I had heard throughout the years swelled in my mind. The kids were as young as two and the oldest around fifteen and much taller than me. They were all laughing but suddenly they started to grab at me, pulling on my equipment and my radio and yanking all of the suckers out of my pouch and dumping them on the ground. Terrified, I looked in panic at Dumaw.
I was trying to walk out of the crowd, but I was stepping on little feet and the crowd of kids kept growing. I slapped the hands of a few children who were grabbing at my loaded rifle as it was dangling down since my hands were filled with the shotgun.
They are going to use my own weapon on me!
The rest of the patrol heard the ruckus behind them. Sgt P started running towards me. Before he was halfway back to me, Dumaw and Owens ran up to me, smacking the kids and yelling at them to go away. The kids scattered as the men ran up.
We started again, but the kids kept coming back to me. If they got too close, I raised the shotgun in their direction and yelled for them to go away.
I’m aiming a gun at children.
Suddenly gunshots rang. Sgt P yelled for us to change directions and go in that direction. We immediately changed directions and sprinted down a few streets to where the gunshots originated.
I heard the crunch of the rocky sand underneath my feet as I ran, my flak jacket bounced up and down my hips, and I stopped paying attention to my surroundings. I went completely internal to try to not collapse. My lungs could barely expand as I ran. The protective equipment pressed on me so heavily that I could only feel that and not the terror that we were actually running towards gunfire. We stopped running and Dumaw made us crouch down and provide cover while Sgt P went to talk to the Afghan National Army that was present.
I felt a single tear leak out from my eyes and I crouched. I was unsure that I would be able to stand again. We were three and a half miles into this patrol.
We sat in this position for over ten minutes. The sun sank lower and lower.
Dumaw was trying to catch my attention from across the road. I nodded that I was listening.
“How are you doing?”
Sgt P walked up to Dumaw and after talking for a few seconds, came back to me.
“Give me the radio.”
“Nah, I’m good.”
I’m not good.
“You don’t look like you’re good. We still have to get back. Give me the radio.”
Embarrassed, I slid my backpack from my back and handed over the radio. It was given to Virkler a few fire teams ahead of me. I felt a thousand pounds lighter minus the added guilt of failure and I could walk without too much trouble. Without knowing what the gunshots were for, we walked a few more miles back to our compound and entered safely in almost complete darkness. The men scattered to get water and food.
I pulled off my equipment and threw it onto a cot. Virkler snapped a blurry picture of me in all of my sweaty glory of surviving my first patrol.
Virkler and I high fived.
“DEBRIEF IN FIVE!”