by Chip Lauterbach
I felt the kick, but it might not have been the first. “Get up. We got a brief with Staff Sergeant Lopez.” I opened my eyes; Larr was looking down at me with his ever-present death stare. “Hurry up. Be in the COC in five.” He turned and hurried out of the tent.
My watch read 2040. I paused to consider. Should I throw a bitch fit, or just get up silently? I glanced around, and—aside from the other team leaders rising—the tent had an eerie stillness as the rest of the squad slept. They looked dead, but happy. I longed for that deathlike sleep. We had only been here a few hours after patrolling from Saipan all day, zig-zagging through the streets and talking to the locals. I lifted myself off of the cot. Without a word, I cracked my neck and pulled my notepad out of the utility pouch on my plate carrier. I joined Marty and Dicarlo outside the tent. I lit a cigarette. We walked over the crunching gravel courtyard, through the damp darkness, and into the belly of the beast.
COP Turbett was the home of the command element of Lima 3/9. It was named in honor of Corporal Jacob H. Turbett—a combat engineer who was killed a year earlier during the initial assault on Marjah. His portrait was placed beneath the flagpole to remind everyone of his sacrifice. A hastily thrown-together outpost, Turbett was situated on the northern edge of the city’s massive local marketplace, which was well-known around Afghanistan, and the only thing still somewhat standing from the pre-Soviet era.
The combat outpost, or COP, consisted of two abandoned mud brick compounds merged via a knocked-out wall. There were two entry points: one for vehicles and one for foot mobiles, with Marines at each. These were part of a total of six guard posts all occupied by Marines, except one the ANA occupied to show that the Marines were simply there helping the glorious and successful Afghan National Army. If the Taliban had wanted, they could easily have tossed a hand grenade over the wall and ruined the Marines’ tiny gym.
The dog-and-pony show was strong at COP Turbett. Aside from FOB Marjah, this was the only location that State Department officials and members of Congress visited. As a result, haircuts, shaves, boot blousings and bunk checks were of more importance than maintaining a combat mindset. For a lot of guys this was not the place to be.
I followed Dicarlo and Marty down a long, dark corridor that was the center in a maze of rooms that included living quarters for the company staff, the command operations center, a briefing room, and (most importantly) the morale, wellness and recreation room. The MWR was a sacred site, being that it was home to the only computers with internet, a luxury for those of us who only had snail mail and an unreliable satellite phone.
We entered the COC and milled about, waiting for the word. There were only a few people who actually belonged there. I felt a hand grab my shoulder from behind as I leaned against the entrance. “Hey, Fatty, the snacks are over in the kitchen. This is where decisions get made, you must be lost.” Recognizing the voice, I spun around and gave Sills a big hug. This was the first time in two months I had seen him.
“Damn, Sills, I thought some weird little hairless shit goblin had grabbed me, and from the looks of you, I was only half right.”
“Very funny, you’re still fatter than me. So, you guys are gonna be going along with first platoon on this snatch and grab?”
“Sure, I guess. All I know is Larr jumped at the opportunity to do something with his old platoon. Ever since they plucked him from first he’s been itching to get back around them and do some running and gunning.”
“Well, I don’t know how much running and gunning you’re going to be doing, but Staff
Sergeant Lopez is supposed to brief you guys any minute now. Did you talk to Karen on Valentines?”
“Yeah, she’s doing good. We chatted really briefly on the sat phone back at Saipan, but it kept cutting out—that thing is junk.”
“At least you don’t have to wait in a long-ass line every day, I just stay awake and wait for everyone to go to sleep. And don’t get me started on the squatters who live on the computers!”
Sills was cut short by Staff Sergeant Lopez sticking his head into the COC.
“Alright, dummies, we’re moving this brief down the hall. This is not the place for a bunch of mouth breathing knuckle draggers to hang around. We’ve got important war-winning things to do in here.”
I shook Sills’ hand. “I’ll come find you later tonight, try not to get killed sitting in
this nice AC and talking on the radio.”
“Don’t die on the toilet like Elvis, you fat bastard,” Sills shouted after me, “and go see Stamper when he gets back tonight!”
We filed down the dark hall and into a red-lit room. In the center of the room was a small table with an open map. Staff Sergeant Lopez shifted back and forth from the map and checked his notes one last time. “Okay, do we have everybody here? Duke, Conrado, Larr—you guys got all your team leaders here?”
“Yes, Staff Sergeant.”
“Staff Sergeant, we’re all here.”
“Okay, do we have the guys from CAAT here? Where are my vehicle commanders at?”
“We’re all good, Staff Sergeant,” a voice from the back said.
I turned to see a few Marines from Weapons Company. They were from the Combined Anti-Armor Teams—vehicle-mounted, tank-destroying Marines with enough firepower to take over a small country. Being that Afghanistan had no serious heavy armor threat, they were relegated to providing blocking security and running mail.
“Okay, if we got everybody, pay attention ‘cause I’m only doing this once. While the rest of the company joins India Company in their push to open up their AO, we get to do the fun stuff. We will be setting in a cordon and searching the center of this cluster of compounds to our west. Corporal Larr, you and your guys will be in the outer cordon providing security with CAAT; your job is to set up checkpoints and keep an eye on anybody going in and out of that area. Sergeant Conrado, your squad will be on the inner cordon, and, if need be, you will be the support element for Duke’s squad. Sergeant Duke, you and your guys will be searching this compound that we believe—based off intel—is where the Taliban are hiding either an IED cell, a high-value target, or both. Now, if we can get in there quickly, we might get lucky. But, we all know that military intelligence, isn’t. So don’t be surprised if this turns into a white whale. Since this was just handed down the grapevine to me, the operation is going to be called OP Lopez, because I wrote the damn order. Any questions?”
Staff Sergeant glanced over each of our faces.
“Okay, well, if none of you got anything for me, I have nothing further for you. Oh, one last thing. The time on deck is now 2105, and we’re gonna be stepping off at 0200, so get some rest.”
“My team leaders hang back,” Larr said, as we tried to shuffle out with the rest of the herd. “Make sure all of your guys are topped-off on water and check their weapons to make sure they’ve been cleaning them. Dicarlo, you’re going to be with me doing checkpoints. Marty, your team is going to hold onto the right, and Lauterbach, you’re gonna be on the left and keep MacDonald’s machine gun offset from the road, covering down the avenue of approach. If any vehicles try to rush us, light them up before they get any closer than a hundred meters. Okay, so, we know what to do?” We nodded in unison. “Then go try to get some sleep.”
We all nodded and walked back to the tent.
“So, do you guys think it’s just a little strange that we’re doing a snatch and grab, and we don’t know if the target is even there, or what exactly the target is?” Marty asked breaking the silence.
“I was thinking the same thing. Seems like we’re just going on a wild-goose chase,” Dicarlo said, loading a large pinch of dip into his lip.
I kept silent; I wasn’t thinking about the mission, I was thinking about Karen. I had made up my mind to call her after I checked Mac and the machine gun. Our conversation on Valentine’s Day had been interrupted several times with flyovers by Apaches and Blackhawks—I can’t say for sure if they had jamming instruments, but every time they got close the sat phone dropped calls.
Back in the tent I woke Mac to brief him on what we were doing that night, and to make sure his gear was set. Mac was less than thrilled.
“So, we’re just chilling by the road with no guarantee of shooting anybody? Not interested. See if they can do this one without me, I need to sleep for at least three days to make up for all that post you’ve been having me stand.”
“Yeah, well, you’re not gonna want to sleep. They’ve got the inter-webs here and the later it gets, the emptier the MWR becomes. I’m gonna hunt down Stamper and chill for a bit and then try to reach Karen.”
“Well, shit, I’m gonna go check my Facebook. You want me to hold you a spot?” Mac was out of his sleeping bag and fully clothed in thirty seconds.
“You go on ahead, don’t worry about holding a spot for me—I’m not sure how long I’ll be with Stamper. I’ll find you if word changes, and you do the same for me if you hear anything.”
“I gotcha. I’m gonna see what I’ve been missing for the past few months.”
I watched him walk out, and I sat as the other teams started to grumble and move around, prepping for movement. No one was happy about setting in a cordon during the middle of the night. The increased risk for IEDs isn’t what makes night missions hated above all, but the fact that it’s muddier than usual, and the fact that even with night vision you can’t see all that well.
I found myself wandering all over Turbett looking for Stamper, who I heard had returned while I was in the brief. Each time I entered a tent or room, its occupants glared at me as if I were a cop and they were in the middle of disposing a body. Marines are famous for playing games, so each time I entered a tent or room and asked for Stamper, I would get the go-to answer, “He’s in the next one over.” Even Lieutenant Olsson, our company artillery coordinator, wasn’t above pulling a fast one. “Who? Stamper? Oh, I’m pretty sure you gotta go back where you came. Yeah, he’s two rooms back.”
I was about to give up when I ran into Wright who roomed with Stamper. “Have you seriously been walking tent to tent and room to room? You’re lucky I stopped you, you almost went in Gunny’s room, and he would have probably made you clean the shitters if you bothered him. Come on, our room is tucked away behind the water pump.”
He led me to an area that looked like it had been hit by a TOW missile, a spot that I had walked past at least half a dozen times in my search, never once thinking that people could live in such a bombed-out area. Behind an inconspicuous green metal door I found a well-lit, decently furnished living space with four cots—and sitting on one of those cots, reading a Maxim, was Stamper.
“Joel, what did I tell you about letting dirty homeless people into our room?” I walked over and gave him a quick hug. “Damn, Chip, you look like shit. You look like you’ve been fighting in a war. You need a Rip-it? Pepsi?”
“I’m good, Dino, I just figured I’d come hassle you—the only time I ever get to see you is when you bring me my mail. Must be nice to skate all the time, riding around in air-conditioned MRAPs and having steak and chicken whenever you want. Hell, I even saw you guys had a shower set up.”
“Bitch, I fucking ride from sun-up to sundown all over this shitty country. There is definitely zero skating going on. And that dickhead, pog First Sergeant we have refuses to hand out any of the chicken and steak. He keeps it for staff meetings so they can stuff their fat fucking faces.”
“But you do get to take showers, right?”
“Yeah, that is pretty nice. But I’d rather be out there running around with you, shooting motherfuckers in the face. At least you get to live somewhat far from the flagpole—here we get yelled at if we wear white socks, because that’s what hinders Marines from being effective killers.”
“Yeah, white socks will lose the war for America!” Wright said, moving a stack of magazines off his bunk.
I sat next to Wright, and the three of us passed the next few hours talking about things going on in the world back home, how we missed our wives, what our plans were for when we rotated back to the world. I left them sometime close to midnight and tried to figure my way back through the maze of corridors, rooms and tents. I found the crunchy gravel courtyard and as I walked across Harkrider and Nanner came sprinting up to me.
“Dude, where the fuck have you been? We’ve been looking all over for you! Larr is pissed. The word changed, and he sent us to find you.” Harkrider was out of breath with a worried look.
“How long have you been looking for me?”
“About twenty minutes. We weren’t able to find you at first so he sent us back out,” Nanner said.
Without another word we jogged back to our assigned tent. I followed behind, hoping they knew where they were going. Back at the tent I braced for the worst; Larr hated not having accountability of his Marines, especially his team leader.
“Hey, I heard word changed—what’s up?”
“Where were you?”
“I was with Stamper and Wright in their hooch.”
“Do you have any plans to go back out?”
“Just to the MWR to try to use the computers. What’s the word?”
“So, battalion said we need to have an Afghan face on this operation, and we now have to brief the ANA and the AUP and give them time to get ready. Now we’re not staging until 0600 and we’re rolling out at 0630.”
“Really?” I let out a sigh. “Well. That’s good, gives me a chance to talk to my wife and get some sleep. So, wait. You’re not pissed at me?”
“For being hard to find? Nanner and Harkrider said you were furious because it took them something like twenty minutes to find me.”
“What? The word changed like, five minutes ago. I sent them out to find you, and you all ran in like thirty seconds later, panting like dogs.”
I glanced over at Harkrider and Nanner, both of them were laughing.
Harkrider even pointed at me. “Well, to be fair, Chip, he does always have that pissed-off look.”
I found my patience wearing thin, so I made my way to the MWR. When I got there,
Sills was sitting at one of the five computers, Sergeant Merced at another. I sat at the outdated, black laptop and let out a sigh of relief; this was the first time in my deployment—since we left FOB Dwyer two months earlier—that I was able to communicate with my friends back home. I logged onto Facebook. I had a bunch of old messages, but surprisingly nobody was on.
Since Afghanistan is eight-and-a-half hours behind America (and it was just after midnight Afghan time) that meant it was three-thirty in the afternoon in the States. I sent a message to Karen, posted some pictures I had taken the past few weeks, and then jumped on a phone to try to reach her. She didn’t answer. I figured she was either working or training for the 10K that was supposed to happen in the next month. I decided to sit on the computer to kill time. I looked at all the things I wanted to buy when I got back. After spending some time looking at a bunch of motorcycles that I would never buy, and some rifles that I certainly would buy, I tried to call Karen again. Just like before, it went to voicemail. I wondered what was going on. She knew any weird number that called would be me—was she okay?
I was becoming frustrated that I couldn’t get through to Karen. I called four or five times and sent her a few messages, but I didn’t even get a quick response. I became worried that something had happened to her. Before long it was 0530, which meant I had spent all night on Facebook and the phone, not sleeping like I should have been. I went back to the tent; everyone was stirring and getting ready to go to the staging area.
In the middle of the night, someone with a lot more brass on their collar had decided we would be inserted by seven-ton trucks, which, given the short distance we had to travel and the fact that there was always an IED risk, seemed to be a less than thought-out plan. Barreling down the road in seven-tons, we also lost the element of surprise, and gave any Taliban fighters plenty of time to get out of there.
After we had loaded up and were waiting to move out, I smoked constantly to help me stay awake. I even emptied an MRE coffee pack into my lip and held it there like tobacco to get a caffeine jolt. As the sun came up, we laughed, knowing this mission was already turning into a shit show. I sat in the seven-ton, dazed and kicking myself for losing track of time. I kept telling myself it was cool; I’d had many sleepless nights, this was nothing.
We pushed out of COP Turbett and noisily made our way down the dirt roads. Those of us in the back of the trucks were tossed like rag dolls, as the uneven roads did not jive with the suspension of a seven-ton. After a loud arrival, things got louder as we tried to unload the trucks in an orderly manner. Everyone was either too tired, or the trucks were just in the wrong order, but no one was sure what the hell was going on. After we finally oriented ourselves and made it away from the trucks, all surprise was gone. We just walked to our checkpoint and set up shop. Mac and I set up the M240B on the far edge of a field adjacent to the road. And there we waited.
After an hour, Larr came over and started moving pieces around. “Hey, pull your gun in this field instead of being bunched up like that—use some dispersion and give yourselves, like,
thirty meters, or some shit.”
“You do know that a machine gun team is supposed to stick together, right? And if we’re in the middle of the field we have no concealment.”
“Listen, dickhead, the entire fucking city of Marjah knows we’re here, and I don’t give two flying fucks about machine gun doctrine. I’m more worried that if a mortar or grenade lands around here, the next thing I know I got two dead Marines who were more interested in being cuddle buddies than they were with living.”
“He has a good point. See ya, boss.” Mac said, standing up and walking to the middle of the field.
I felt like nothing was working the way it was supposed to, nothing was making sense. It seemed as if we were just wandering around this war zone, running checkbox missions to help advance someone else’s career. If we were lucky—or, if we just stumbled upon the enemy—we could shoot them and pat ourselves on the back. Afghanistan was turning me into a cynic. I laid my head down to clear my thoughts.
“Well, well, well, my fearless team leader has shown his ass and is now sleeping on the job.” I looked up and saw Mac standing over me. The 240 on his shoulder reminded me of Christ carrying the cross.
“Fuck off, dude, I just put my head down a few seconds ago.”
“I hate to break it to you, but I heard you snoring all the way over there, and I’ve been standing here for a good minute or two.” I was beyond horrified. If Mac had walked up on me like this, so could a Taliban fighter.
I could have had my throat cut, and no one would have been the wiser; even worse, I had put my friends in harm’s way.
“Your snoring was like a dying warthog. Don’t worry, I won’t say anything.” He sat and lit two cigarettes, handing me one. “So, you doing okay? Why didn’t you get enough sleep?”
“I kept trying to get in touch with Karen, and before I knew it was time to get ready.”
“Yeah, I had fire watch in the tent from 0300-0400 and I noticed you weren’t in there.
You see, that’s why I don’t talk to Alex when we go out to do ops. Of course, because I don’t call that often, she likes to spend a good chunk of our talks bitching at me, asking dumb questions like, ‘can’t you come home sooner?’ I swear, dude, that shit makes me lose my mind.”
“Yeah, I hear ya. I just freaked out cause Karen is usually good about answering her phone. I’m just worried something might have happened to her.”
“Well, if we ever get out of this fucking field, I’m sure you’ll get in touch with her.”
Mac sat with me for another forty-five minutes. We smoked, and just sat there. Every once in a while I got up to avoid nodding out again and walked over to the vehicle checkpoint to see how things were going.
After two hours we received word the targets had fled, and there were no
IED-making materials to be found. Mac and I laughed as we picked up our packs and joked about giving the insurgents a running start. We regrouped with elements from first platoon in a small courtyard. Everyone laughed and joked that because we told the ANA, the Taliban had known we were coming since the night before.
The decision was made by Larr to hump back to Saipan because if we stayed another night at Turbett, second squad would be stretched too thin to maintain its post rotation and patrol back at Saipan. It took us another three hours to make it back, and in just enough time to start our post. Before climbing the ladder to Post Awesome, I snatched the sat phone for one more try at calling Karen.
“Hey, baby, how’s it going?”
“Hey, I’m good. Sorry I missed your calls. How are you?”
“I’m doing okay, about to go on post. But I just wanted to talk to you real quick, I was a little worried when I didn’t hear from you.”
“Well, I’m doing just fine. No need to worry.”
“Actually, I’m glad you called, ‘cause I wanted to talk to you about something.”
“Sure thing, what’s up?”
“I don’t think I can do this anymore.”
“What do you mean? What the fuck? What happened?”
“I’m sorry. I can’t do this anymore.”
“What do you mean? Are you seeing someone else?”
“That’s none of your business.”
“I’m your husband, of course it’s my business.”
“His name is Anthony.”
“Are you being serious, or are you fucking kidding me with this shit?”
“I’m sorry, but this isn’t a joke.”
“What the fuck does this asshole have that I don’t?”
“Well, for one, he’s a nice guy, he doesn’t drink as much as you—and he doesn’t sit around and talk about killing people all the time.”
“Baby, don’t do this to me, not while I’m over here. Please just wait until I get home.”
“I’m sorry, Chip.”
She hung up, and I just sat there on the ground. I heard someone behind me. I turned, and for once Larr didn’t look angry. He was silent, but he had a friendly look on his face.
“So, I take it you received some bad news?”
“Yeah. The wife’s leaving me.”
“I’ve been there.” He paused. “Do you want me to talk to Staff Sergeant Medina and get you pulled back to stay at Turbett? You won’t have to worry about getting killed with that shit on your mind.”
“No, I’m staying.”
“You sure about that?”
“Of course I’m sure. I came here to do a job, I can’t give up now.”
“Do you need some time to think, maybe relax a bit?”
“No, I’ve got post in five minutes.”
“Hey, asshole. You don’t have to pull this tough-guy shit. If you want, go back into your tent, someone else will stand your watch.”
“No. I’m good. The bottom line is, I’m here in Afghanistan and she’s back in the States and there’s not a damn thing I can do about it. I would rather keep pushing on with my brothers who need me than sit and cry over something I can’t change until I get home.”
“That’s what I like to hear.” Larr turned to go back into his hooch. “Stay sharp, we’ll drop some bodies and you’ll feel better. There are plenty of fish in the sea.”
He left, and I climbed the ladder to Post Awesome.