FEATURE

Shades of Green

A Marine in Afghanistan writes home

by Michael Christman '00SEAS Published Fall 2013
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A memorial ceremony for a fallen Marine, Helmand Province, February 2013. / Photographs by Michael Christman

“How could it be that so few Ivy graduates shared in our country’s burden?” wrote Michael Christman ’00SEAS in a 2007 op-ed in the Spectator. “Why was it that we had sent so many of America’s youth to war and so few of its elite were there alongside them?”

In 2005, Christman, working as an engineer in Washington, DC, joined the Marines, wanting to experience what he calls “one of the most important events of my generation.”

“Back in ’05 there were plenty of people willing to complain or point out the flaws of the campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan,” Christman says. “But very few people were willing to put their money where their mouths were.”

Christman, now a captain, returned home in April from a seven-month deployment to Afghanistan, in which he served as an adviser to one of the two Republic of Georgia battalions working side by side with the Marine Corps in Helmand Province. The opium-producing area is the historical home of the Taliban and one of the most violent regions of the country. Christman had previously deployed to Afghanistan as the pilot of an AH-1W Cobra attack helicopter, and recently served as a forward air controller. As the most senior of the ten Americans on the base of more than 150 Georgians, he found that his role included much more than coordinating airstrikes.

The following edited excerpts are taken from Christman’s e-mails home from his third and final deployment.

November 8, 2012

I had always wondered if I would react appropriately the first time I was shot at. Other than six months at the Basic School seven years ago, I haven’t really had any formal infantry training. It turns out your brain has a pretty good idea of what to do all on its own. A millisecond after hearing the first crack as the round broke above my head, I was on the ground. Go figure: the get-the-fuck-down instinct is somehow hardwired into you.

We had headed out for the patrol just before 9 a.m., pushing just under a mile from the forward operating base. As the senior guy at the position, my job mostly keeps me inside the wire and off patrols, running the command operations center (COC). But being the senior guy also means that if I want to patrol with the boys from time to time, I can. Part of my deal with my Marines is that when I go out on patrol, I’m the pack mule and carry the heaviest radio (and the only radio with the power to talk back to the COC).

The first half of the patrol was uneventful. There were plenty of women and children around. A couple of the braver kids came up to the patrol asking for food and candy. Mothers all over the world, not just in Afghanistan, seem to have a sixth sense about when bad things are going to happen. If a mom senses that something’s up, she’ll bring her kids inside or take them somewhere safe. When children are present, it’s usually a sign that things are good and the Taliban is going to leave us alone for the day.

So you can imagine our surprise when the first rounds came in. Getting shot at for the first time is an emotional event as it is, but for the Taliban to shoot at us with women and children nearby seemed just wrong. Despite my overwhelming desire to return fire, your job as a forward air controller isn’t to shoot back; it’s to get on the radio and start coordinating with higher and see if you can’t get some air on station and, if possible, tell the aircraft where to drop a bomb so that 1) it makes the bad man stop shooting and 2) the bomb doesn’t drop on you. However, with my face in the dirt I had lost line-of-sight communication with the COC. I needed to stand, or at least kneel, in order to talk with higher. I got up on one knee and was able to call back. “Wild Eagle 43, this is Wild Eagle 41. We just took a couple of pop shots.” Crack! Crack! My face was back in the dirt as two more rounds snapped over my head.

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