FEATURE

Shades of Green

A Marine in Afghanistan writes home

by Michael Christman '00SEAS Published Fall 2013
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The convoy commander, Staff Sergeant Jones (not his real name), was a talkative man, confident to a degree that bordered on arrogant, but humorous enough to not be annoying or over-the-line. There was always a kernel of truth to his combat stories (he had scars from IED strikes to prove it), but he certainly took some liberties. Still, the Marines looked up to him, and he always had their best interests at heart, so I would patiently listen to his stories and take them for their entertainment value. I liked Staff Sergeant Jones and enjoyed his tales as a way to pass the time.

Less than twenty minutes after the convoy left our position, we received a semi-panicked call from the convoy. They had hit an IED, and there were casualties.

The next half hour was chaos. On the positive side, all the resources of the battalion and the regiment (regiments are made up of battalions, battalions of companies) were focused on us. Quick-reaction forces from two companies raced to the scene, medevac aircraft were launched, close air support (bomb-dropping aircraft) circled overhead.

On the negative side, this influx added to the chaos. They originally sent a large British medevac helicopter from Leatherneck that could carry all the patients at once. When that took too long, a second order was given to launch two smaller American aircraft from a nearby base. Every aircraft showed up at the same time, and it was on me to coordinate it all while at the same time trying to help the Marine running the show at the attack site to keep calm and focused enough that we could bring in the aircraft safely. At one point, we had six aircraft — two US UH-60 Blackhawk medevac helicopters, one British CH-47, two British Apache attack-helicopter escorts, and an armed aircraft — all trying to pick up the wounded Marines.

The Marine at the scene of the attack was so nervous and upset that he mistakenly threw the smoke to mark the landing zone twice before the aircraft were on station. Lucky for us, a team from another company arrived and was able to take charge of the situation.

With the patients away, the guys on scene were able to concentrate on the recovery effort. The same Marines, now with the blood of five of their brothers staining their uniforms, had to bring back the downed truck, which in Afghanistan is no small task. The entire process took several hours and involved a small gun battle and an unrelated IED find that required some of the security to be redirected.

As the hours went on, we began to receive reports from the medical facility where the patients had been taken. The driver of the vehicle was badly injured, with severe burns to his face and disfiguring wounds to his right arm. Other passengers, two Marines and a Georgian interpreter, would survive, but their recovery would be long and difficult. The fifth patient, Staff Sergeant Jones, had died of his wounds upon arrival.

A flyover during the memorial service for Staff Sergeant Jones.The convoy made its way back up north. A freak storm whipped through the area, forcing the Marines to stop once again at our base. One of the hardest things I’ve had to do is to stand in front of them and tell them that Staff Sergeant Jones had died. They reacted as you would expect a group of Marines would. There was no immediate crying or outbursts of emotion, but you could read on their faces the torrent of emotion going through them: astonishment, disbelief, anger. Some would come to the realization that they were in fact mortal. One began to feel survivor’s guilt after he realized that the person who took his spot on the convoy had been one of the men wounded.

Mental-health experts remind us that the most important thing for these guys to do is to take care of each other, and that talking is the best form of therapy, and they are right. Venting your anger, telling stories, taking a day or two off are all things that help.

Perhaps the hardest part about leadership is that you are a team of one. Being the solid rock for these boys is difficult. If I break down or go internal, the Marines will break down or go internal. If I blame the Georgians for all the problems, the boys will do the same, destroying the relationship we have worked so hard to forge. For now, my role is to remain the steady ship. To listen when the Marines want to talk, to rein them in if their attitudes become toxic, and to have the wisdom to tell the difference between the two. No amount of training or Ivy League education can prepare you for that.

And yet the fight goes on, whether we like it or not. This has been a trying few days, but the boys are doing as well as can be expected. They’re not back to a hundred percent, but have started joking around again as only brothers can. Keeping them working and focused on the task at hand is the only therapy that I can provide.

I can’t help but think of the wife and child Staff Sergeant Jones left behind, or his badly injured driver, a lance corporal not more than twenty years old who hadn’t quite grown into his body. I think about what the rest of his life will be like. While his peers are starting their lives, dating girls, getting married, and starting families, he’ll be spending the next months, if not years, in painful rehab. And when he does go out on the town, will his scars keep him from getting a date? These are the circumstances that these young men will have to live with for the rest of their lives. It’s a sacrifice that they chose to make, volunteering to join the military during a time of war. America, whether or not she realizes it, is built on the backs of men like these. It is an honor to serve with them.

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