Monday, April 30, 2012

Afghanistan Diary Part 10- Task Force Nomad (October 31-November 1, 2011)


And now it's beginning to seem like we're wasting time. Day three of no missions and our next foreseeable one is not for another four. The latest news is that our next task, which is to build two HLZ's from scratch, will include convoying approximately three times back and forth to Alcatraz to load water for the hydroseeder. After this the word is we will go back to Alcatraz and sit around for another week, in case something pops up. I am no expert, but this is beginning to seem like a colossal waste of man-hours and resources, though I know my personal desire to get back to Leatherneck and have better communication with family back home could be skewing my opinion as well. I am objective enough to know that is a possibility.


This next story will most certainly impress animal lovers, and possibly infuriate wives, girlfriends, and family members. The other night a few Marines and I relaxed with fine cigars and evening conversation. As we puffed away over an hour or so we conversed almost exclusively about our dogs. That's right...not our kids, wives, or girlfriends, but about man's best friend. I apologize to my family for this story, but if it makes them feel any better there has been plenty of talk about them in other conversations. No, this night was dedicated to our canine companions, and let me tell you that many an entertaining story can be told regarding dogs. Tales of humor, loyalty, and bravery. Dogs possess some of the most respected traits of the military. I was most satisfied to find that I am not the only one who has a special voice for his dog, used to narrate what I believe him to be thinking at various times throughout the day. No, I am not a loner in that category. I do it so much at home that he (Charlie) recognizes that the voice has something to do with him and wags his tail anytime he hears it.  

Friday, April 27, 2012

Afghanistan Diary Part 9- Task Force Nomad (October 2011)


     The saga began three days ago when the senior Non-Commisioned Officer, Cpl Mickley, awakened to find that one of his boots had vanished into thin air. Immediately suspicious of the rest of the team, and rightfully so, he began questioning each member regarding the possible shenanigans being played at his expense. After somewhat calming his initial suspicions he began contemplating the alternative possibility. Yes...the possibility that wild dogs had stolen his boot in the middle of the night. 

     We had seen these four-legged pests lurking at the top of our berm one morning as we were forming up for a debrief. There was no time to investigate at the time, as we had a convoy in an hour. Luckily, my Cpl had thought to bring an extra pair of boots along for this task force, and he annoyingly dug them out of his pack, still with a suspicious eye cast on the other members of our security team. As the day went on without anyone coming forward to claim responsibility for the missing footwear, the event became an increasingly humorous catalyst for canine/footwear jokes. There was just no end to the sarcasm and my Cpl became increasingly confident that his boot had “gone to the dogs.” See how easy it is??

     Yesterday evening, just before chow, during a round of boot jokes, we convinced Cpl Mickley to climb to the top of the berm and look out over the desert to see if it might be down there somewhere. As we cracked jokes about the Taliban training dogs to steal boots merely to get unintelligent Marines to climb the berm into the open, Mickley proclaimed from the other side, “I found it!” Just like that, the three day mystery had come to a dramatic conclusion. Further investigation revealed that the dog more than likely realized he was not going to be able to get the boot back through the concertina wire he had successfully traversed on his way into the compound, and had dropped it there. However, Mickley has yet to reunite his foot with the boot, as upon finding it, he threw it back over the berm and it landed in a stream of drainage water from the hygiene area.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Afghanistan Diary Part 8- Task Force Nomad (October 29 2011)

     Well we have now completed three missions. This last mission was somewhat of a repeat of mission two in that we were at the same location. That is where the similarities end as we did not have the same problem with the tram. No, we had an entirely different set of problems today which have me at my wits end. 

     Okay, how do I get into this next topic? How can I explain this in a somewhat tactful manner? I am the second in command on these missions. My boss is the Convoy Commander and he is a Captain. He and I have very differing opinions in regards to security. He is a very difficult man to work with, as he refuses to take advice from anyone, including his senior advisor, aka myself. I am the Assistant Convoy Commander, but more importantly I carry a second billet of Security Team leader. It is actually the entire reason myself and my personnel are up here with this convoy and work crew in the first place. We are the security experts assigned specifically to keep these personnel safe on their worksite, as well as during the movements from place to place. It is what we train almost every day to do. Yet, Captain...let's call him “Custer,” insists on running everything and taking advice from no one. 

     He made two decisions on this last mission that dismounted troops from the safety of their up-armored vehicles unnecessarily, placing all in greater danger during a time of darkness when our convoy was halted unexpectedly. These were not questionable calls whatsoever. They were decisions that were 100% wrong, 99% of the time. I knew before approaching him after the convoy that my advice would fall on deaf ears, nonetheless, I felt a moral obligation to approach him and get my concerns into the air. Yes, I knew he would immediately become defensive and would never admit that my security tactics were correct, much less admit that his decisions were incorrect. 

     That is precisely how it played out, with him again dismissing my concerns with his favorite defense line, “That was a risk I was willing to take.” This is becoming an extremely difficult position for me. I can continue pointing out the glaring errors, knowing full well that his pride and arrogance will never allow for him to accept that he is wrong about anything. Eventually this will lead to disaster when we become just fed up enough with each other to throw down one evening. I am 40 years old now and the prospect of “throwing down” with anyone just sounds like a bad idea from the start. 

     The second option is to let it go and let Custer rule with his iron fist. This option seems morally reprehensible to me as each time he makes such decisions he puts lives in danger. It may be a risk he's willing to take but it is most assuredly not a risk I am willing to take. I do have a third option. An option that is thoroughly frowned upon by the structure of the military. I could go around him to the next higher authority and let him know my concerns. This is called not utilizing the chain of command properly, and if not done with surgical precision, it could get me in a lot of hot water and turn me into the bad guy. I will not sleep well tonight contemplating my next move.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Afghanistan Diary Part 7- Task Force Nomad (October 24-26 2011)

LCpl Leos prepares for an early morning mission

24 Oct

It is our last day of waiting for this next mission and the mood is slowly shifting from relaxation to business. Our next mission will leave us the most exposed to enemy fire of any so far this deployment. Additionally, it will be a 3 a.m. rise and shine to complete communication checks and prepare to move out at 5am. The young Marines don't have the same mood shift that I go through. My driver, Lcpl Leos, is sitting next to me playing Grand Theft Auto on his PSP. Sadly, this Marine received a Red Cross message yesterday morning that his grandmother had passed away. His family had requested that he be sent home but he informed me that he wished to stay here, which I can completely understand. Sometimes the best coping mechanism a Marine has with such news is the band of brothers surrounding him and taking care of him. The way in which fellow Marines manage to be sensitive and yet, still screw with the Marine in need with an irreverent brand of sarcasm is a work of art, and it is normally just what the Marine needs to continue functioning proficiently out here.

26 Oct

Our 2nd mission is complete, and what a long, painful mission it was. The 0300 rise and shine was originally supposed to transition to a 0500 exit of friendly lines, and a return to base no later than 1800. We knew it was going to be a long day going in, but we had no idea how long it would become. About two hours into our on-site work one of the heavy equipment operators dumped his tram on it's side. Luckily he was not injured, but it was a major setback which turned a 16 hour day into a 20 hour day. As with the first mission, the day was filled with interesting sights, normally provided by the local Afghans. The standing record of three on a motorbike was broken when I caught sight of 4 on a bike shortly after 1400. Other than that monumental achievement, the only noteworthy detail was once again the behavior, performance, and professionalism of my Marines. My two gunners remained in their turrets from the 0500 Oscar-Mike (on the move) to the return to camp at 2300. 18 hours refusing to leave their guns because they are that serious about their job. Marines like the ones I am currently honored to be supervising are what I will miss most when I retire. I doubt I will ever witness that type of drive and dedication again in any other career path.

I currently have the Navy Corpsman in my security vehicle. Naval Corpsmen, or “corpse-men” as our President likes to refer to them, are the medics of the Marine Corps. We have at least one on every mission and the current one is quite a character. He can not only recite entire scenes of most movies, but is quite proficient at applying these scenes to current conversations in the vehicle. You can get a pretty decent impression of a guy when you spend 18 hours with him in a vehicle, and I have to give our “doc” the “Gunny Seal of Approval” so far. He seems pretty good to go. He is from New York originally and was actually an EMT in Spanish Harlem before trading that occupation in to become a Corpsman. He has a pretty impressive tattoo on his forearm detailing the outline of his state of New York with an outline of the twin towers inside of the state. He is extremely patriotic and a staunch conservative. As I stated before, he is “good to go,” as most Corpsmen are.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Afghanistan Diary Part 6- Task Force Nomad (October 23 2011)

     It's day four of this task force and we have completed mission one of four. It was a stressful and difficult mission to complete from a security standpoint. The rules of convoying along these roadways now force us to not impede local traffic, meaning we must allow vehicles at times to enter into our convoy or cross through it when we are halted. This is a very dangerous action we must allow, as any of these vehicles could be an enemy vehicle loaded with explosives. There is not much we could do to prevent disaster if the enemy wished to implement it. 

     It was amazing to see all of the local population crowding around to watch us work when we arrived at the work site. Stationary in our security perimeter we could see it all, and did we witness some sights. First things first, all the children just flocked to the Marines and were in awe of the heavy equipment and machines we utilized. Ultimately, they hang around and walk right up to the Marines because they are used to receiving candy and such from us. They are somewhat demanding in that they will walk right up and reach into your pockets for anything they can get their hands on. In addition to the children, it seems everyone is riding some sort of motorbike, and they will fit up to three people on it at times. Another interesting sight is a car load of local Afghans with the trunk open and more people piled into the trunk. While sitting in our security perimeter we were able to observe a funeral procession. It was quite an experience and yet we had to maintain our focus and assume any of these citizens could be enemy forces.

     We are now back in camp and waiting for our next mission. We have a three day gap between the first mission and our next one. Down time sucks!! I don't know how to put it any more professionally. When you are preparing for or executing a mission time goes by incredibly fast. When all preparation is complete and you have three days to wait time grinds to a halt. There is no better proof than the fact that I've had time to write all of this as well as find a tent which actually has internet access.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Afghanistan Diary Part 5- Task Force Nomad (October 14 2011)

Cpl Eliud RuizReyes scans the horizon for threats.

    Well my wished were finally granted. I will be the security commander for a task force going north to do maintenance on helicopter landing zones (HLZ) which will be needed for a winter offensive. I finally get to leave Camp Cupcake and do what they pay me to do.

     There are a lot of reasons to hate leaving the comforts of an air conditioned room with an actual bed and a chow hall with three hot meals served each day. There are equally as many reasons that few who haven't served will understand to be as excited as my Marines and I are to leave these creature comforts behind and venture off into treacherous unknown lands for at least a few weeks. We have convoyed up to a little patrol base called “Alcatraz”, which is much more like what most might envision when they think of Marines in combat. There is no contractor constructed fancy perimeter fence here. We have bulldozed berms and mud walls as our protection. We are here staged so we can leave “the wire” and perform at least four missions before heading back to Camp Leatherneck.

     Gone are our air conditioned cans...replaced with cots under the stars. Gone are three hot meals a day...replaced with two hot “tray rat” meals and one Meal ready to Eat (MRE). Now weighted down with vests containing heavy Sapi Plates, faces filled with sweat, my Marines couldn't be happier. Why, you ask? These Marines were excited to come to this third world country. However, they were not excited to show up, sit around for seven months, and come home. These Marines are more than willing to leave their loved ones behind for lengthy amounts of time as long as they feel they are here for a purpose. Lounging at Camp Leatherneck and standing a gate is not their desire. As I write this from the inside of my MRAP and look at the dust filled cots and exhausted Marines I know they are finally getting exactly what they wanted.

     It's just like anything we do in life. If you work hard and accomplish your goals then you have experiences to be proud of. If you live life performing the bare minimum necessary to get by each day you will have little to take pride in as the years go by. A lot of people would say that just being a U. S. Marine is enough to be proud of for a lifetime. The problem with that statement is if a Marine takes on that attitude, he or she has lost sight of the mindset which allowed them to earn that title in the first place. No! Once that mindset imbeds itself in a human, it is hard to get rid of. These Marines constantly seek out difficult tasks and more complex goals to achieve. No matter what they do or accomplish they will never be content or satisfied and I love them for it.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Afghanistan Diary Part 4- Purgatory Again (September 2011)

We have now been at Camp Leatherneck for two weeks. My platoon wants to start doing their job but the outgoing unit is still here. When you deploy you are normally replacing a unit that has reached the end of their tour. There are usually a couple of weeks when you change over with that unit and they brief you up on what they have been doing during their time and what you can expect. This is normally a painful process. As the new unit arriving, you just want to take over and start performing your duties immediately. Unfortunately you are unable to and must endure the time with little to do other than watch the outgoing unit and take some notes on things you would like to continue doing their way as well as things you plan to change once they are gone.

In addition to this, we were required to sit through a Welcome Aboard/Country Brief along with an important brief describing our Rules Of Engagement (ROE). The ROE is a set of guidelines which determine when a Marine may fire and may not fire there weapon at alleged enemy assets. The intent is to allow the Marine to accomplish his mission while also minimizing any collateral damage or loss of innocent lives. I will say this much. No country goes out of their way to protect innocent civilian lives in a combat zone more than the United States. I should probably leave it at that, lest I say anything which could be deemed derogatory about our ROE. I believe in the old adage, 'It is better to be judged by twelve than carried by six.'

Friday, April 13, 2012

Afghanistan Diary Part 3- Boots on the Ground (September 2011)

Today we left the friendly confines of Manas Airbase for Afghanistan on an Air Force C-17. It was a quick two hour ride and then we were all hard at work again locating and separating our bags from everyone elses. This task should not be taken lightly folks. Imagine you have just taken a flight with 200 other people only to find once you reach the baggage carousels that everyone else on the flight has the exact same bags as you do. That is the nightmare I am speaking of. We all have the same military issue bags and must find our 3 bags among all the others. If there is one psychological disorder I possess, it is overwhelming anxiety when it comes to my stuff being separated from me and mixed with other people's stuff. It drives me mad and I am not comfortable again until I know I have every item back in my possession. When I was at Marine Corps boot camp, the drill instructors loved to have everyone dump their footlockers containing all of their gear on the floor. They would then have everyone push all of their stuff into the middle of the squad bay and make a huge mound out of it that they would often call “Mount Suribachi” after the mountain on Iwo Jima which the famous flag raising photo was taken. I think I handled all of the screaming, berating, stressing, sleep deprivation and every other psychological test they put you through at USMC recruit training quite well, but this was the one thing that would make me physically nauseous. It was usually followed by being allowed about 15 seconds to get whatever stuff you could grab and get it back in your foot locker. Some recruits would have 10 bars of soap in their footlocker, some would have none. You just had to figure it all out later. It drove me nuts, and this offloading of baggage isn't much different.   

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Afghanistan Diary Part 2- Purgatory (September 2011)

I write this from the vacation “hot spot” that is Kyrgyzstan. My Marines and I are staying in a lovely 40 man suite complete with a bed and, well...a bed. We are here waiting for a military flight to take us into Afghanistan in a day or so. After all of the flying across many time zones in the last 24 hours it is a welcome break to make an attempt at disposing of my jet lag.

It has actually been a somewhat enjoyable trip. We have met some of the best Americans along the way. We stopped in Bangor, Maine, where a large contingent of the towns citizens have actually formed an organization which sees to it that every group of military men and women who stop in their town, whether going to or coming from a combat zone are greeted and treated like honorary guests during their brief stay there. It was a heartwarming experience which meant a lot to the Marines. I have been asked numerous times by people over the years, “what can we get you?” or “what do you need?” I have had drinks and meals purchased for me on occasion and every one of those times remain in my memory (which is quite an accomplishment these days). I can honestly say that I think the only thing military personnel need to keep them performing their duties in an exemplary manner is to know they are appreciated for their efforts. Ultimately, we don't do the job for the money. Some may remain in the service for the job security in these tough economic times, but the majority have a certain degree of patriotism and feel it is an honor to serve. To be appreciated for our service is all we really need and nobody provides that better than the awesome citizens of Bangor, Maine. I thank all of you from the bottom of my heart. You do more for the morale of military troops than you'll ever know, which has a direct effect on how they perform in theatre.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Afghanistan Diary Part 1 (August 2011)

The fact that anyone would find what rattles around in my brain to be an interesting read is very humbling, if indeed these individuals exist. I am a United States Marine and have been serving for just under 18 years now. I have thoroughly enjoyed this career and will certainly miss the camaraderie and esprit de corps I have experienced when I retire in a couple of years.

Just over a year ago, I was assigned to take over a platoon of Military Police (MP) who were preparing for a deployment to Afghanistan. We have spent the last year completing training and performing a variety of build-up exercises which are designed to prepare the Marines for a 7 month deployment. MP’s perform a variety of functions in a combat environment. They are a security and defense element for Forward Operated Bases. Additionally, they are tasked to provide security for personnel and supply convoys, safely escorting them from Point “A” to Point “B”.

We started with basics such as terminology and reporting. The Marines slowly but surely memorized a variety of important radio reporting procedures such as calling in situation reports, and medical evacuation procedures. Throughout the year the training became more difficult. The Marines became proficient with all of the weapons systems deployed by MP’s (M4 rifle, M203 grenade launcher, M249 machine gun, M240 machine gun, M2 .50 cal machine gun, MK19 automatic grenade launcher). They were trained in mobile patrolling tactics as well as dismounted patrolling. A great amount of time was spent on identifying Improvised Explosive Devices (IED) as well as reaction to an IED attack and reporting procedures. Additionally, they received a variety of classes designed to familiarize them with Afghan culture and language. This all culminated with a month long training exercise in Twentynine Palms, CA, named Mojave Viper, designed to test the Marines’ preparation and gauge their overall readiness for deployment to Afghanistan. It was my Marines’ day to shine, as they impressed the professional graders, attaining a score of 92% overall on their graded events.

The Marines in my platoon are by far the most talented group of young adults I have had the pleasure to lead, and I must admit it has little to do with me. I have been blessed with an amazing Staff Sergeant who deserves almost all of the credit in preparing these Marines. This has been arguably the most enjoyable year of my career and the Marines under my charge are nothing short of amazing. Rest assured America, that the best and the brightest are still donning military uniforms in defense of this great country, regardless of mainstream media propaganda which would suggest the opposite.

As we go forward in the next month I must admit to a different feeling than in earlier years of my career. I have always enjoyed the “band of brothers” feel in the military. There is truly no other job like it that brings a team of individuals together so tightly that they act and feel like a true family. I must admit that I no longer enjoy that type of bond. Roles change with promotions and over time I have begun to feel more like a father than a brother. Age, as well as a daughter in college, have only served to strengthen this feeling which continuously penetrates my mind. As each day brings us closer to stepping on an aircraft bound for the third world, this feeling becomes both a blessing and a curse.

It is first a blessing, as I sincerely care for every Marine in my platoon. I enjoy their professionalism, the pride they take in their training, and the evening stories and banter which carry through the night air to give the old Gunny a laugh each time we are in the field. Anyone who has served will know exactly what I am talking about. I will not share any of these intriguing stories and arguments, as many would require a parental advisory. What else would anyone expect from 50 young Marines after a long day of weathering 110 degree heat in numerous layers of clothing and many, many pounds of armor and gear? It is an amazing phenomenon to witness the laughter and morale that is displayed after such days and during such conversations. Yet, what other organization in America can confidently trust a 19 year old to lead 10-12 others successfully in a stress-filled environment every day, along with successfully maintaining accountability of a vast amount of high dollar weapons and gear? These Marines accomplish this with class and dignity, and they do it with pride and happiness. These actions are the definition of professionalism if you ask me. I believe Eleanor Roosevelt may have said it best, though she is not a person I would often quote.

“The Marines I have seen around the world have the cleanest bodies, the filthiest minds, the highest morale, and the lowest morals of any group of animals I have ever seen. Thank God for the United States Marine Corps!” –Eleanor Roosevelt-

I have to give her credit. She sums it up quite accurately. It is a true blessing to be entrusted with leadership over such high caliber men and women. I will never forget this upcoming deployment and am daily humbled by the opportunity.

           Seeing my role change over the years is also troubling to my mind at times. Gone are the days when I would be one of the boisterous individuals talking trash and telling stories in a carefree manner with my brothers in the evening. I now see things through older eyes. I see these young Marines more and more like my own children. As I get to know their backgrounds, their experiences, and even meet some of their family members on occasion at family functions, ceremonies, etc., my mind grows somewhat troubled with the responsibility placed upon me at this juncture of my life.

I am no longer able to be concerned with only my knowledge, proficiency, and overall welfare. I now hold some degree of responsibility in the welfare of each of these young Marines as well as their families back home. It is a heavy weight to bear some days. Their minds are on the excitement of the mission. They want nothing more than to get the opportunity to perform their duties in country and get in the action. My mind is stuck on the mission of ensuring every one of them get back on a plane and come home in seven months. These thoughts remain internalized, as deep down I know that I will perform my duties in a precise and accurate manner, as it concerns mission accomplishment and the welfare of my Marines. I firmly believe that caring deeply for these Marines will make me a better leader than one that forces himself to be detached in order to allegedly be professional. I honestly believe a good leader can be both professional and caring. I have seen over the years that a detached, professional leader can build a proficient team. If you add sincerely “caring” to the mix you can build not only a team but a family.
           So off these young Marines go to see a section of the world and a culture that few who have not been there would believe exists. I have no doubt that it will be a character building experience for everyone. Operational security prevents me from sharing details regarding dates, exact locations, etc. but I hope to be able to share some of our experiences over the next several months, should enough people find these ramblings of an old Marine interesting.  

Monday, April 2, 2012


1st row left to right, LCpl Benbow, LCpl Landsaw, Cpl Saunders, LCpl Gutierrez
2nd row, Cpl Hill, Cpl Smith, LCpl Vannewkirk, Cpl Bingaman, Yours Truly, LCpl Barnett, Cpl Scollard

I will be leaving the wonderful land of Afghanistan later this week and will be posting some of my notes and stories from the deployment over the coming weeks for anyone who is interested.  I want to thank the many who were incredibly supportive during this deployment.  So many of you sent cards and packages with items my Marines were very thankful for.  No amount of gratitude I type here would be sufficient to describe the difference your support meant to us.  My platoon is coming back unscathed after over twenty successful missions during the last seven months, and I have no doubt everyone's thoughts and prayers had something to do with that.

A deployment is an interesting social experiment, that's for sure.  Spending seven months living with a platoon of young Marines from all walks of life and cultures, spanning every nook and cranny of our great nation creates quite a learning environment, and many a humorous story as well.  So, for anyone who may be interested stay tuned for some of the inside scoop on the shenanigans of our deployment in the coming weeks.  The first installment will probably be no earlier than next Monday, as the only thing I have on my mind for my first weekend home is spending time with my beautiful wife and children.  Again God bless all of you who have been so supportive over the last seven months.  We couldn't do it without such support.