Rules of War:
- Young warriors die
- You cannot change Rule #1
- Someone must walk point
I’m writing this post about a day I lived and should have died, in August 2010. It was nearing the end of my seven month deployment.
“Alamo” is the code-word used over the radio informing the chain of command that the base is being overrun by the Taliban. If we heard “Alamo“ over the radio, we dropped whatever we were doing and hauled ass to our assigned defensive position. My defensive position was on the roof of the White House, the building we resided at. More about the White House later…
Making it to August left our team with just over six months in country. It felt like a lifetime. We had a tough deployment all around and Murphy’s Law was the norm. I was drained, physically and mentally. 1st Battalion of the 2nd Marine Regiment (1/2), the outfit I was attached to, was preparing to go home. They were being relieved by 1st Battalion of the 8th Marine Regiment (1/8).
I had spoken to my Platoon Chief, Gunnery Sgt Misa, at the beginning of the month and he gave some me great news. The 2nd Intel Battalion had arrived in country with four Sensor Emplacement Teams who would relieve us. Our replacements, hurrah! We’re going home boys! Gunny told me our replacements would be en-route to Musa Qala within the next couple of weeks, weather permitting. Two weeks and a wake up, I could handle that. I was shocked we’d made it this far. I could just make out a flickering light at the end of the tunnel.
Two weeks and a wake-up and it was sayonara Middle East.
I tried my best not to get excited or let my mind dwell on how “glorious” life would be when I got back to the States. A lot of shit can happen in two weeks. It could be a wrong step, forgetting to check a door for wires etc. I could write a novel on the number of ways to get fucked up over there. It was important to keep my mind on what I was doing and shed the bullshit.
When my mind did wander, it always shot back to when we first arrived in Musa Qala. It was May and the British (2 Scots) were still in control of the AO (Area of Operations). Our initial job was just getting familiar with the area, the terrain, locals etc. As we were conducting route recons north of the city, the British SAS (Special Air Service) teams were conducting raids to the east.
The Brits were looking at two to three days until their deployment was officially done. After two days outside of the wire, we returned to hear the devastating news that two Brits had been killed. Not far from us. Just two days before they were supposed to rotate home. It was a brutal way for them to end such a long, strenuous deployment. Reality set in, “this shit is for real”. After that day I knew this race was going to be a slog to the finish line. I had to keep myself in check, had to stay in the present moment. It was imperative for survival.
There was constant activity all around us, 2nd Marines on their way out of the shit. 8th Marines barreling their way in. The situation on the ground, the situation that we were passing on to 8th Marines was lackluster. Months of working closely with the Afghan army and police had led me to believe that all the Taliban had to do was ‘wait’ the Americans out. Just wait until the Americans left the area for good. Not that hard of a strategy if you ask me.
I didn’t have confidence that the ANA (Afghan National Army) could hold their own against the Taliban…not without our help. That and the majority of the local population distrusted their own civil authorities, law enforcement, and armed forces. They weren’t alone in their suspicions. The corruption in Afghanistan, at that time, was wide spread and very unsettling. Some of the locals expressed that they just wanted everybody, both the Americans and Afghan government out of their town.
It wasn’t that they liked or preferred the Taliban, they were just straight up tired of war, conflict, and death. I couldn’t blame them. They just wanted to be left alone to work their fields and raise their children without worrying that one of them might get shot, step on an IED or have a bomb dropped on them. I could understand their concerns. 2010 was the bloodiest year of our decade long war there. The Afghani’s have literally been at war, or in some armed conflict, constantly for the better part of a generation. Two if you include the occupation by the Soviets.
I believe the words “War” and “Afghanistan” are paired together. You could say that war is almost intertwined in the language. For example: The Pashtu word for the time between May and September literally translates to the “campaign season“, so not the “summer” or “farming time” but to the fact that it’s warm now, so let’s grab our weapons and pick a fight.
We ran missions all over the Helmand. Our team traveled in our own, customized MATV, a scout vehicle with similar design features as the MRAP (Mine Resistant Ambush Protected) vehicle, but sexier. The MATV was designed to carry five Marines, with a 50 cal. turret on top, equipped with all of the toys you’d expect: armored v-hull, VHF/UHFa radio comm, blue force tracker, FLIR cameras, chameleon counter IED system and … but that’s another story.
Between missions, we billeted in the Musa Qala District Center. The name of the city, Musa Qala, literally meant the “Fort of Moses”. The District Center was a cluster of buildings located at the western entrance to the city. Further to the east was the brown moonscape of the high desert plateau. To the north, “Mount Doom” towered above Musa Qala. To the west stretched the gray and brown plateau of the open desert, broken up by the incisions of the deep canyons or wadis that cut through it like the veins of a leaf.
We occupied an empty room in the “White House”, the largest building within the District Center grounds overlooking the city. The White House became our castle. The White House was positioned between two smaller buildings, the Governor’s compound on the east side and the Afghani National Police compound to the west. Our “home away from home”. From the White House I had a 360 degree view of the entire valley. Not too shabby.
Our room was a beat up, decrepit living space large enough for the four marines of SET Delta. We lived on the second floor, closest room to the Afghan police compound. Walking out of our door there was a balcony of sorts that wrapped around the second floor of the building. Directly to the right there were stairs leading down to the ground floor and stairs, poorly built, leading to the rooftop. It’s very challenging to explain the layout of the buildings in Afghanistan so bear with me. They don’t exactly go by American building codes.
Two British contractors lived in the room directly below us on the ground floor. I’d drink tea with Ken McGonigle, one of the contractors, every other week or so and we’d reminisce on home.
The Afghan National Police operated out of the building across the way from our room in the White House. There wasn’t anything out of the ordinary other than the normal/abnormal Afghan cray. Sure, they were smoking a lot of reefer, but that was the norm over there. I’m pretty sure the cops, not to mention the army, were high more times than not. At that time, unbeknownst to me, there was a jail that held suspected Taliban or criminal. When I found out, it was a surprise.
Because of the extreme heat in the summer, I’d sleep outside on the balcony. Each evening I’d drag my cot around the corner of our building where I had a perfect view of the stars and it didn’t smell like sweaty ass Marines. I also had a full, top-down view of the Afghani Police building across the way. There’s something to be said about the Afghan sky at night. It’s a beautiful thing to see.
Because of the lack of ambient light, it gets real dark at night. It was really eerie to hear movement directly under me while trying to sleep and not knowing what it is. Or you’d think you heard something. It could be the wind or farm animals or some Marine sneaking off to the wooden shitters to go rub one out. There were so many things that made noise out there.
I had just the day before sent Cory and Shiloh east to Now Zad to look for a SatCom system that “needed” to be extracted. The sensor had been deployed some four months before we’d even arrived. We’d had real suspicions that the emplacement site was booby-trapped, probably with pressure plate IEDs. In my head I had already chalked the sensor up as a combat loss. My command wanted me to go ahead and see if it could be pulled.
Now Zad was in Alpha Company’s AO (Area of Operations). As a part of ½, they were preparing to go home as well. After speaking with the company commander I knew that retrieving the system was a no-go. He was not willing to risk his Marines lives for the retrieval of a piece of equipment and neither was I. Sure, it was an expensive piece of gear… but under no circumstance worth life or limb.
Cory and Shiloh flew to Now Zad anyways to go and touch base with the company commander, have a meeting about not retrieving the system, eat a lot, sleep a lot and generally stay out of sight, and out of mind. Cory sharpened his skates for this mission.
The next morning, I woke up at 0715ish on the dot. Not because of an alarm. Well not exactly. There was typically a firefight or at least an exchange of fire in, or around the city at 0715 – 0730 damn near every morning. Every…day. Sometimes it would last two minutes, sometimes five, maybe ten minutes. I’ll give it to the Taliban, they were consistent.
In the morning, as soon as I heard machine guns go off I would slide off my cot, low crawl back around the corner and into our room, get dressed, squat back down, waddle down the stairs, take a leak, and then go eat a breakfast of champions…oven-sized trays of powdered eggs and ground meat, heated by chemical tabs. Delicious.
This particular morning went off without a hitch. After breakfast I went to the COC and sent out my reports. I headed back up the hill to make some coffee, British army style. The Brits had a nice boiling kit in their MREs. Around 11ish Thumper took off down the hill to the chow hall. I stayed back in the White House sipping coffee, procrastinating the inventory work I needed to get done.
A burst of gunfire ripped through the quiet of the late morning somewhere outside. Somewhere close. Real close. I stood up slowly and crept towards the door. I looked right, down the single flight stairway leading to the ground floor, but saw nothing. I looked to my left, down at the dirt path that separated the White House and the Afghan National Police building and saw an Afghan with an RPG (Rocket Propelled Grenade) on his shoulder running towards our LZ (Landing Zone), located right behind my building. I froze. He was maybe fifteen feet away from me but hauling ass. Lucky for me he didn’t look up. If he would have I would have been fucking toast. Literally, an RPG would have disappeared me.
It’s hard to express how bad I felt at that moment. What I processed at that time was that we were being overrun, I was all by myself, and that was bad. Everyone was down the hill at the chow hall or COC. Panic grabbed me by the throat and squeezed.
I remembered the machine gun nest on the roof of our building and I couldn’t figure out why they weren’t returning fire… ‘unless they’re dead’- flashed through my mind. ‘Shit! They’re already in the building’- I thought.
I darted to our rifle rack in the back of the room, clearing the line of cots like a hurdler. I thought I heard someone running up the stairs. I grabbed a magazine from the flak jacket nearest me. My hands were shaking uncontrollably so it took a couple tries before I got the magazine loaded.
The gunfire outside erupted into a full-fledged battle. I gritted my teeth, attempting not to bite off my tongue, and stacked (back to the wall, weapon at the deck, getting ready to pivot through the door frame and commence firing) on the door. My immediate concern was the stairs to the right. The stairs led right up to our enclave and it was completely open to the enemy. It would be in their best interest to take the highest point on the base as a firing position where they could lay down accurate fire on the LZ and District Center building. The White House had to be defended at all costs.
I heard yelling from the roof but couldn’t understand it between the gun bursts. I finally caught, “LAMO”. My nightmare confirmed. “ALAMO”.