Tuesday, September 28, 2004

Fortune of a soldier

The trip home was rather uneventful. I did however meet a young marine at the airport who had just returned from Afghanistan. We talked for a long time and he had photos with him. I don't know quite what to make of the encounter.

Some of the photos were of the trip over on the boat. The sea behind him looked very blue, as was the sky. He and his fellow Marines, barely in their 20s, looked so young and enthusiastic - laughing and horsing around for the camera. The next series were from the ground in Afghanistan. They were stark and harsh as the blazing sun. He was there for 74 days.

They told his unit that they would be doing 5 day operations, returning to a base camp at intervals. Instead it turned into a 74 day mission. They didn't get a shower the whole time. They had no changes of clothes. He had brought five pairs of socks and told of how he would use one of his 12 allotted bottles of water to try to wash them in a MRE bag. He told of men removing the skin off their feet when they took their boots off. Men wringing blood out of their socks from foot diseases and men being taken off the field by helicopter when taken ill with intestinal maladies from the lack of hygiene. Quite a few left that way.

He saw and confiscated a small but significant amount of processed drugs. They would turn the drugs in to higher ups who sent them on to some undefined central clearinghouse. He wasn't sure where that was or what was done with them. I didn't mention my theory on it. They did nothing about eradicating plants. He spent several days doing reconnaissance from the middle of a huge poppy field however. He thought it was amusing. He was surprised when I asked if he found it to be visually beautiful, as if it hadn't occurred to him to even think about it in that way. He reflected for a moment and said yeah, actually it was, as if he had just realized it.

He said there was only one road in the whole country and that was in bad shape from the bombings. His unit was in the center of the country and spent their tour hiking on goat trails and open land. Sometimes the "insurgents" would surrender when they saw them coming and were glad to see the unit arrive. The Aghanis apparently like the MREs better than the soldiers do. Other times they had to broadcast insults in Arabic to flush "them" out. He never spoke of the Afghanis by name and couldn't define who the "enemy" was. They had a list of high profile targets and didn't find a one of them. He was pretty sure that we would never find bin Laden if he was hiding out in that area. "There's a million hiding places," he said.

He was proud of his mission. He found some small caches (he called them cachets) of guns. He didn't have to kill anybody. The biggest threat they faced in the end was boredom. There was nothing to do, sitting in the blazing sun in full uniform, they would shoot at stray goats and donkeys and any wildlife that happened to come within range. This bothered me. I asked him (hopefully) if they at least ate the animals to relieve the boredom of the MRES but they didn't. "Don't you think the locals might depend on those animals for milk and food?" I asked. He replied, "Yeah, maybe, but sitting day after day, just waiting like that, you go a little stir crazy. You gotta do something."

I wanted to ask a lot more questions but my plane was boarding. In the end, even though I think his orders and what we are doing there is dangerous and destructive; I told him it was bad to kill the villagers' livestock but I thanked him for going there and going through all that to keep our country safe. He was visibly startled. He clearly expected a obvious liberal to say something - well - hateful. I did it because even if I don't think it helped, I know he believed it did and was doing the best he could for this country while risking his life for misguided leaders in the process.

In the last group of photos, he and his buddies were in Croatia. These pix featured girls and tables filled with copious amounts of beer. They were smiling in these photos too but this time they looked a whole lot older.


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