Hope everyone has had a great week! Just wanted to say that Hill 406 is off to a great start!! Thank you to all of you who’ve purchased it!! I’m truly honored.
The reviews have started to come in, and so far, so good! One prior Marine infantry officer had this to say in his review: “Using the current war in Afghanistan as the setting, Stan Mitchell delivers a story with all the dust, sweat, and conflict of the Afghan war. As a former Marine Infantry Officer, I read these book with a critical eye, but Stan Mitchell is a former Marine Infantryman himself and he gets it right. If you want to feel the sweat of Marines in Afghanistan, you can’t do better than Stan Mitchell.” (Link to review.)
A reminder, if you haven’t left a review, please drop a quick one for me. There’s no better way to help promote the book and given new readers, who haven’t heard of me, to give my work a try. Here’s the book link again on the off chance that I can twist your arm to drop a review.
I’m going to end this post by saying that if you haven’t already purchased a copy, and you’re on the fence, I’m going to provide you the first six chapters below my signature. So, keep reading. And believe me, take the plunge. It’s worth it. 🙂
Stan R. Mitchell
Stan R. Mitchell is a writer and author, as well as a prior Marine infantryman. Mitchell served in Alpha Co., 1st Battalion, 8th Marines, and was lucky enough — or unlucky enough — to snag a Combat Action Ribbon. (The details of his military career.) Looking for something free to read? Here’s a piece of fiction that he wrote for you to sample. Hopefully, it’s both powerful and inspiring: The dreamer’s lament. And click the link at left to check out his books.
Grant Morgan first met Sam Dean inside a dusty, parched machine-gun bunker in Afghanistan, just about a quarter of the way through Morgan’s third deployment to the country.
Morgan was a sergeant — having put in five tough years in the Corps — and he’d been blooded and forged in his previous three combat deployments. Morgan ran into Dean at Camp Dwyer, deep in the Gamir District of the Helmand River Valley. Morgan had seen a lot of shit in his nearly six years in the Marines, and word had it that this new corporal assigned to the platoon, named Dean, had seen a lot as well.
Morgan hoped it was true. He needed an experienced man like a dog needs a bowl of water on a blistering day. And fuck was it hot in Afghanistan. Both in temperature and in spilled blood. Morgan’s platoon had already taken too many casualties and needed an experienced non-com, like yesterday.
Corporal Dean, his new man, was sitting behind multiple layers of sandbags and a big .50 caliber machine gun. Dean wore no body armor and had his helmet kicked off by his side. It had been 120 degrees earlier in the day, and it hadn’t cooled down much since then.
“You get caught without your gear on while on post, they’ll write you up,” Morgan said. “Might take a stripe from you.”
Dean was sprawled back, his hands behind his head, leaning against a couple of sandbags. The man looked as if he didn’t have a care in the world.
“I have had stripes taken from me before,” Dean said. “Makes no difference to me.”
“You catch a bullet with no armor or helmet on, you might think differently,” Morgan said.
Morgan was a Non-Commissioned Officer, an NCO, and it was his job to keep the men in line. But Dean, a corporal with five years in himself, wasn’t having it.
“I have been in enough tight spots to know that when it’s your time to go, it’s your time to go. I think I’ll just keep my flak jacket off. It’s hot as hell out here.”
Morgan wasn’t sure what to say. He was in charge, and he knew he could order the man to put on his armor, but he also knew that Dean was a corporal and probably didn’t deserve to be ordered around as if he were some lowly private first class. Plus, it wasn’t really how he wanted to start things off with a fellow non-com.
Dean made his move before Morgan could decide what to do. Dean turned around and studied Morgan.
“I see you’re wearing all of your gear,” Dean said. “You’re buckled up tighter than a tanker in the reserves, out on his first combat patrol.”
Morgan was indeed buckled into his body armor and helmet, even though it was still hot enough in the dusky darkness to cause his underarms, crotch, and feet to sweat profusely. Must have been at least ninety, even with no sun, and Morgan’s shirt was soaked through. He sort of agreed with Dean that wearing armor was probably overkill. Hell, it hadn’t cooled off much.
A light wind at least graced the ground now, but it felt like a warm hairdryer blowing lightly across your face. It could’ve been worse: they had suffered several damn sandstorms that had popped up with no warning. Those blistered and peppered any exposed skin, and they truly made the Helmand Valley feel like hell on earth.
Morgan hated to admit it, but the truth was that the chances of attack at Camp Dwyer weren’t too high — the ground around the base was flatter than Kansas, with no trees or cover to be found — but Morgan didn’t want to completely capitulate to Dean’s words. Morgan finally muttered, lamely, “I follow the rules.”
“Suit yourself,” Dean said, and then he promptly turned away, ignored Morgan, and recrossed his hands behind his head, watching his sector.
Well, that was a hell of an introduction, Morgan thought. He had no idea what to do. Whether to be an ass, and order Dean to put his armor on? Or to let it go. At least this one time.
He decided on a different tack.
“How come you not report in?” Morgan asked. “That’s what new guys do when they arrive to a new unit. You ought to know that, and you ought to know that I’m the platoon sergeant until Staff Sergeant Hester gets back from that re-supply run, which is going to be a long while.”
Dean turned again.
“You’re just a squad leader, same as me. Quit trying to pull a power trip. You’re nothing more than an acting platoon sergeant. I met the men. I grabbed a shift on the line. Wouldn’t have a hard time explaining that to anyone.”
Morgan considered grabbing Dean by his neck and knocking his teeth down his throat. But Dean was tall and lanky. He had strong-looking arms, showing beneath his t-shirt. The man looked as if he could handle himself.
Morgan, on the other hand, was stocky. He was thick, built like a bulldog, but average in height. A confrontation in the tight machine gun bunker would be a hell of a scrap, but it was too hot to be scrapping in this hell hole.
Besides, Dean was right. Morgan was only acting platoon sergeant. And though he knew nothing about Dean’s reputation, the new transfer was clearly a good leader since he had taken a watch for his squad on his first night with the unit. Dean could have easily skated out of duty for at least a night or two.
But Morgan still couldn’t completely let go of the comment about him pulling a power trip. Not on Dean’s first day with the unit. Besides, Morgan wasn’t the kind of guy to pull a power trip with rank.
“Look, I’m not trying to pull a power trip,” Morgan said. “I’m just trying to do what’s right and follow the rules. Acting platoon sergeant or not, that’s how I’ve gotten to where I am, and that’s how I’ll get to where I’m going. We follow the rules in 3rd Platoon.”
“I thought you got that rank by charging into a compound to rescue two wounded men?” Dean asked. “Earning yourself a bronze star in the process?”
“I just did what any man would’ve done,” Morgan said.
“Whatever you say, chief,” Dean said, and the man never looked back at Morgan.
Morgan let the comment go, and he also let Dean keep his armor off while on post. The bottom line was it was too damn hot and they weren’t going to get attacked.
Morgan exited the machine gun bunker shaking his head, utterly perplexed and amazed at the new man in his platoon. And so began what would come to be his unbreakable bond with Dean. Neither man had any idea on that blazing-hot night just how significant their uniting would prove.
Sometimes, things truly do happen for a reason.
One week after Morgan met Dean, their platoon — 3rd Platoon — was assigned a mission to find a high-value target of the Taliban.
The platoon had been scheduled for another three days of mostly rest at Camp Dwyer. Nothing like showers and a little time off following a brutal month in the field, but orders were orders.
“Fucking Corps,” Dean muttered as the men loaded up into helicopter sticks.
Helo’s were supposed to arrive in twenty minutes, but given how most things went, both in the Corps and especially Afghanistan, that twenty-minute wait could stretch to six hours. And if it did, not a single man in 3rd Platoon would be surprised.
Morgan had grown to like Dean since their first, rough introduction, despite the fact that they were almost nothing alike. In fact, they couldn’t have been more different. Morgan was wired tighter than taunt barbed wire, stretched to its breaking point, while Dean was as loose and uncaring as a disorganized pile of unspooled kite string, lightly tossed across a room.
But they shared one big thing in common. Both had grown to hate life in the Marines in their first enlistment only to find themselves drawn, and eventually sucked, back into the Corps.
Dean had lasted less than six months as a civilian. He had made it to college — the University of Kentucky — a big dream of his while he was getting shot at in Afghanistan during the first enlistment.
“The girls there love to party and they love badasses instead of those limp-dick, frat boys,” he’d once claimed, while a lance corporal, dreaming of becoming a civilian.
But things hadn’t turned out that way. Not at the University of Kentucky. Nor at any other college, he’d heard from others with similar thoughts.
Dean hadn’t fit in. Even though he’d been just four years older than his “peers,” his tattoos, cold eyes, and real-world experience had kept the girls at a safe distance. It turned out girls actually did prefer the soft, care-free frat boys, who got their money from their mommies and daddies.
Dean hadn’t lasted long at all in college.
He’d been told by the administrators he had anger issues, and his actions had given plenty of evidence for such an allegation. He’d been thrown out of several classes for outbursts against the professor or other students. And it came to a crashing end when he punched another student in the mouth and knocked three teeth from the boy’s mouth.
“He was burning the flag,” Dean had said to Morgan.
“It’s free speech, they say,” Morgan said sarcastically, with anger in his voice.
“The hell it is,” Dean said. “Those fuckers don’t realize that their speech isn’t free at all.”
“It is to them,” Morgan said. “They don’t have a fucking clue.”
“Yeah,” Dean admitted. “Yeah, that’s true.”
Morgan’s time as a civilian had lasted far longer than Dean’s, but he’d come to the same conclusion about leaving civilian life and heading back to the Marine Corps. Morgan had finished earning his degree at the University of Tennessee, a few hundred miles south of where Dean had gone. And while Morgan had shared many of the same staunch and hard-line political opinions as Dean, Morgan had proven far better at keeping his mouth shut and his thoughts to himself.
A Marine who’s wired tighter than barbed wire has that ability, after all.
Morgan had done more than simply finish earning a degree in political science. He’d even managed to marry, nab a high-paying job in sales, and keep it all together for nearly an entire year following graduation and tying the knot with his girl Annie. But the job sucked. His PTSD and paranoia were off the charts. And the lack of a sense of mission or meaning for life, and simply the crushing emptiness he felt from no longer having the camaraderie of a tighter brotherhood than any civilian will ever know, had eventually led Annie to leave him. Then she divorced him two months after leaving.
“She leave you for an attorney or something?” Dean had asked when they were talking about their pasts.
“Nah,” Morgan said. “She didn’t leave me for anyone. And, I don’t even blame her for the decision she made. She couldn’t ever get through my walls. And back then, I was drinking every night.”
“Missed it that much?” Dean asked. “Thought of all the men getting their balls blown off over here?”
“Almost every night,” Morgan said. “Especially when things were going well. When things were at their best. I’d be taking a hot shower or sleeping in that soft bed next to Annie, and damn she had a killer body, but I’d just start feeling guiltier than hell.”
“Survivor’s guilt,” Dean said.
“Yep,” Morgan said. “Like, why did I survive and not so many others? And why had I not re-enlisted? Was I chicken shit?”
“Nope,” Dean said. “You get out because it sucks balls being in, but it can feel like you ducked out.”
“I just couldn’t stay home any longer when there was still fighting that needed to be done,” Morgan said. “I watched the news about every night, keeping up with the battles and casualties over here.”
“Yep,” Dean said. He spat a stream of Kodiak to the ground. Dean was addicted to the wintergreen taste of the dip, and the hit it provided.
Dean wiped his lower lip and said, “They don’t fucking get it.”
“Who? The women?” Morgan asked.
“No. Any of them. None of the civilians get it.”
“No,” Morgan agreed. “No, they don’t.”
They had talked about their pasts in the early morning, while the men were cleaning weapons, and while the sun was rising up and already scorching the dry sand of the Helmand Valley, which was really nothing but a desert floor. The two squad leaders had sat alone, next to each other, keeping their distance from the men, but also keeping their eyes on the men.
After the orders had come down from higher headquarters to find the Taliban high-value target, and after the men had scuttled off to get their gear ready, Dean and Morgan had remained behind.
Dean had asked Morgan, “Think anyone will die on this hair-brained mission?”
“Maybe,” Morgan said.
“You enjoy being here?” Dean had asked.
“Not really,” Morgan said.
“But you don’t enjoy being home either?”
“Yep,” Morgan said.
“Ain’t that some shit?” Dean said.
“It is,” Morgan said. “It is indeed.”
Dean scratched the back of his grime-covered neck.
“Maybe the helicopters will be on time today,” he said.
“Maybe they’ll pin captain’s bars on your insubordinate ass today,” Morgan said.
“Fat chance of that,” Dean said with a smirk.
“Exactly,” Morgan said.
The helicopters arrived only forty minutes late.
Third Platoon was flown to a landing zone approximately a thousand meters from a small clump of buildings near Marjah. Marjah was a town of a hundred thousand people, but it was spread out and sparse in its density. It hardly felt like a city or town, really.
And Marjah had been taken and supposedly pacified by the British and the Marines. They had been replaced by the Afghan Army, who held the position now. But like most places in Afghanistan, the Taliban had never truly been uprooted or driven out.
Some days Marjah felt safe. Other days it didn’t.
Third Platoon was to patrol through the small village they had landed a thousand meters from. The small clump of buildings that was their target consisted of fifteen different huts and compounds that the platoon had studied. Their mission was the same old same old: they were to clear the buildings and search for any Taliban that might be in the area. Or any weapons that may have left behind, since it was rare to ever catch a Taliban fighter alive with weapons.
The Taliban preferred to play innocent villager. Finally, some moron in headquarters wanted 3rd Platoon to talk to locals about the high-value target. Morgan and Dean knew that it’d be a waste of time. No local would talk.
Third platoon was down to two squads — Morgan’s and Dean’s. Staff Sergeant Hester, the platoon sergeant, had returned from his re-supply run to help lead the men along with Lieutenant Gill.
Gill had come to Afghanistan as a brand-new second lieutenant, intent on winning the war. But with nearly a full squad of men either killed or wounded badly enough to be removed from his ranks in less than three months, he had lost most of his starch. Gill was focused on keeping his men alive now.
None of the men knew if this clearing operation would be a total misfire or a full-scale, terror-inducing battle. Most of the time, the Taliban were long gone by the time the Marines arrived anywhere. No one knew if they heard about operations from Afghan Army advisors or if they just had a great early warning system in place from the dozens of radio-carrying men and young boys throughout the province.
Lieutenant Gill had split his understrength platoon into two maneuvering squads under the command of Sergeant Morgan and Corporal Dean. Gill then kept a small group of men with him as a command element. This command element included himself, his platoon sergeant Staff Sergeant Hester, a radioman, and the platoon’s medic (or corpsman).
On the question of whether this clearing operation would be a total misfire or a full-scale, terror-inducing battle, it proved to be the former: a total misfire.
The men landed, they searched, they found nothing.
It was a typical day of “combat” in Afghanistan. You worked your ass off, while also sweating it off, and usually, nothing happened. Unless you managed to piss off the local villagers, which you usually did.
Today’s mission proved a total bust at finding any Taliban or weapons. The two squads maneuvered, covered each other, and climbed walls half-scared out of their minds. But the fear proved unnecessary.
Not a single thing happened, except a man in Morgan’s squad named Hunt nearly shot a goat. The goat had emerged from the shadows of a compound and scared the shit out of Hunt, and Hunt had snapped the safety off his M4 and nearly fired at it.
After 3rd Platoon cleared the cluster of huts and talked with a few of the elders, they pushed through to a small hill and set up a defensive position. It was hot, the men were soaked with sweat, and there wasn’t a Taliban member to be found for miles. At least not one carrying a gun. There was that little uncomfortable fact again.
Morgan remembered a salty Sergeant Major being asked on exactly how the Marines would know if the men they came into contact with were Taliban or not.
The Sergeant Major had chuckled.
“How do you know the Taliban from the local population? Well, for the most part, you don’t. Not until they start shooting at you anyway.”
And it was true. The situation in Helmand Province was incredibly complicated. More than four hundred British or American soldiers had been killed in this province; more casualties than any other province. Morgan didn’t even know what the most recent, up-to-date stats were, but it was quite a bit higher.
Helmand Province was a land of opium and marijuana. It was one of the major sources of cash for the Taliban.
As such, the Taliban had plenty of warriors in the area. But the Taliban also paid some of the locals, who weren’t Taliban, to fight the Americans as well.
In addition to the Taliban, there were local drug lords, with their own fighters.
The Marines referred to almost all fighters as Taliban. The one trait the Taliban, locals, and drug lords shared was they didn’t want to fight the Marines when the Americans were ready to fight. So the bad guys of all stripes employed guerilla attacks instead.
They ambushed on some days. Ran on others. And almost always hid their weapons and pretended to be simple farmers or villagers.
IED’s, or Improvised Explosive Devices, created the biggest threat in Helmand Province. Marines spent the biggest part of their time on patrol searching for them.
The bombs were made from explosives or fertilizer, sometimes up to forty pounds of it. And a regular ole’ wooden board was usually buried in the ground over the explosive. If a Marine stepped on the board, he closed an electric circuit and caused it to explode.
IEDs were everywhere. The Taliban paid civilians ten dollars to plant each one, and ten dollars was serious money in Afghanistan, especially in poverty-stricken Helmand Province.
To avoid IEDs, the Marines avoided roads and paths. Instead, they walked through fields thick with crops of marijuana or opium. Or they trudged through dirty ditches, brimming with sewage. Between the heat and the sixty-plus pounds of armor and weapons, patrolling was a special kind of suffering.
It was hell. Hell on earth.
And, today had been no different. Third Platoon was spent and the men hadn’t been sitting down for even ten minutes on the hill when Lieutenant Gill called up his squad leaders, Morgan and Dean.
“We’re going to be picked up and taken back to Camp Dwyer,” Gill said when Morgan and Dean walked up.
“This can’t be good,” Morgan said.
The platoon usually went out for missions that lasted two weeks or more. To be called back this quickly? After one day? Just a few hours into their mission at that? That couldn’t be good at all.
“We’re about to get royally screwed,” Dean said.
“I don’t know,” Gill said. “They haven’t told me why.”
“That sounds about right,” Dean said.
“Watch your attitude, corporal,” Staff Sergeant Hester said.
Dean said nothing, walking off and disrespecting the platoon sergeant the same as he had disrespected the lieutenant.
“It’s the heat,” Morgan said. “Just let this time slide.”
“I’m about done letting things slide with him,” Hester said.
“I am, too,” Gill said.
“I’ll talk with him,” Morgan said. “He’s a good man. A solid NCO, who watches out for his men. He’s just a little too laid back.”
And with that, Morgan jogged off to catch up with Dean, his good friend. The two spoke alone, away from the men, and Morgan told Dean to watch his attitude. Hearing it from Morgan didn’t make it any better. Dean simply said, “Whatever you say, man. I’m just saying that maybe if some folks would sack up and speak out against the insanity, the idiotic orders, the constant bullshit, maybe some of this would get better.”
“You get to a higher rank, and then you can do that,” Morgan said.
“Fat chance of that,” Dean said. “I just want to be a corporal. And a trigger puller. AND, a man who’s not afraid to speak his mind. I don’t plan on changing.”
“And you’ll never get any real change done as a corporal,” Morgan said. “So, you just keep up that attitude and see where it gets you.”
“Whatever you say, man,” Dean said.
Third Platoon arrived back at Camp Dwyer (on the exact same helicopters), staged their gear, and stomped over into a briefing area to meet with the company commander. The platoon members were hot, angry, and anxious — all at the same time.
Their company commander, a captain by the name of Robbins, had seen a lot of men die under his command. Both this deployment and a previous one, where he had served as a lieutenant. Robbins’s gray hair was cut short, in a tightly cropped flat top.
He was probably not even thirty years old — none of the men knew his age — but he looked well beyond forty. His face was scorched red by the sun, an almost perpetual sunburn to his appearance, and deep crow’s feet lined the corners of his eyes.
The weight of command had nearly crushed him and certainly discouraged him. Rumor had it the man would get out after his current enlistment, despite an exemplary career well on its way to much higher rank. He’d told other officers, according to the rumors, that he’d ordered too many men to their deaths on his two tours, sending the men on pointless clearing operations, because that’s what the brass above him wanted. And too often, the only thing his men had found were IEDs and stench-filled, shit-filled ditches. It was all a waste of time, and he was done.
Robbins looked more weary than normal today. Charlie Company, with only roughly a hundred men, was supposed to be responsible for a ten-mile area of responsibility, but that was impossible. Even the lowest-ranking private knew it.
Captain Robbins wasn’t wearing any body armor and he only wore his soft cover, since he was behind the fortifications of Camp Dwyer’s walls. Robbins took off his soft cover, raked a sleeve across his sweat-soaked forehead, returned the cover to its rightful place on his head.
“I’m not going to waste your all’s time,” Robbins said. “It’s too damn hot for that, and I don’t have the time. Frankly, you all don’t either.”
He kicked the hard, sunbaked ground with his boot, studying the dirt. After a moment, he raised his eyes.
“Sometimes in life, we get orders we don’t like,” he said. “This, gentlemen, is one of those days.”
“Spit it out,” Dean muttered under his breath. He wasn’t one for theatrics. Or cushioning bad news.
Morgan, standing next to Dean, elbowed his newly-acquired friend. Dean had spoken too loudly, and it wasn’t conduct befitting an NCO. Not that Dean had ever sweated how an NCO should act. At least not from what Morgan had seen so far.
“I’ve learned today,” Captain Robbins said, “that our whole battalion is being moved. We’re moving about a hundred miles south, linking up with a British unit, and pushing still further south.”
Morgan wondered why if this was the case, the Captain was only briefing 3rd Platoon alone. Why not the entire group of Charlie Company. He knew now — more than ever — that something bad was about to go down to his men.
“Unfortunately, you men won’t be going with us as 3rd Platoon,” Robbins said. “Our company has taken some heavy casualties, as you all know, and we’re going to disband 3rd Platoon and break you all up.”
“Fuck me,” someone muttered.
“Fuck us,” someone answered.
“Shut the hell up,” Staff Sergeant Hester said. “Show some damn respect to the captain.”
Captain Robbins ignored the dissent. It was probably for the best, Morgan thought.
Robbins continued his briefing, saying, “We have two leadership positions that need to be filled. Thus, Lieutenant Gill and Staff Sergeant Hester will be assigned to two different platoons to fill out some missing positions.”
Third Platoon was too stunned to say anything.
Captain Robbins continued, “Lieutenant Gill, you’ll be assigned to a new platoon. Charlie Company lost a lieutenant two weeks ago. And Staff Sergeant Hester, you’ll be assigned to a platoon in Alpha Company. They’ve got a new lieutenant, as well, and they need an experienced platoon sergeant there.”
Hester nodded. Everyone else was too much in shock to react.
The men had trained for months and prepared to wage war against an enemy seeking to destroy them. But to be destroyed by command? In a way that none of them had ever dreamed? Or had any way to even defend against?
It was madness.
“The rest of you men, you’ll be split up. About half of you will go under the leadership of Sergeant Morgan and Corporal Dean. You’ll create a single squad and be assigned to a logistics unit. There’s a heavy truck company that keeps getting shot up. They have plenty of officers and staff NCOs, but they’re desperate for more force protection of their convoys. As such, our battalion commander has been ordered to provide a squad of riflemen. And that shit has rolled downhill and landed on you guys. I wish I had better news, but it is what it is. Those who don’t go with Morgan and Dean will be sent off as replacements to fill slots in other shot-up platoons.”
Captain Robbins shrugged, apologized, and muttered, “You men are dismissed. Sergeant Morgan and Corporal Dean, you two head to company headquarters so they can work out the details of your link up with the new unit. Last thing we want is some dead Marines while you all travel out to your new base. Your new home.”
The words seemed so final. So permanent.
“I’ll see you men back in the States,” Robbins said. “Make me proud.”
And with that, the meeting was over, but the shock was so much that the men were stunned and locked where they stood. No one said anything. No one moved.
“We’re being moved to a fucking pogue unit?” one of the men asked. “Or sent off as replacements?”
“This has got to be a joke,” another said.
“Logistics? We’re in logistics now?” Hunt, one of Morgan’s men, asked.
Morgen needed to act before this got out of hand.
“You all heard the captain,” he said. “And we’re going to do what we’re told.”
The men failed to respond, so even Dean stepped up.
“Stop acting like a bunch of weak bitches,” he said. “We’ll bear up to whatever we’re told to do. We’re going to lean into this and get it done, whatever it is.”
“What ‘it’ is will probably be a bunch of working parties, loading boxes and shit,” Wandell said.
“Shut your mouth,” Morgan said, stepping toward Wandell. “I’ve heard enough bitching. You want to say some more?”
Wandell looked away.
“Anyone else?” Morgan asked.
No one said a thing, but no one appeared pleased either.
“Everyone take five and we’ll reconvene,” Morgan said.
The men drifted off, but they moved slowly. And no one said a word.
Dean stepped up by Morgan and removed his cover. Morgan noticed Dean’s hair was too long (as usual) and needed to be cut, as Dean wiped a sleeve through his too-long locks of hair. Before Morgan could say a thing about Dean’s hair, Dean said, “You know the saying, ‘As long as the men are bitching, everything is fine. It’s when the men stop bitching that you have to worry.’”
“Yep,” Morgan said. “I think they could have survived a massive IED better, even if it’d have taken out half the platoon.”
“No one could see something like this coming,” Dean said. “A fucking truck company? You know the Corps. We’ll be helping those fuckers change out tires and everything else before this over. No one joined the infantry to come to Afghanistan to change tires.”
“It’ll be our job as NCOs to make sure we’re not over there changing out any tires or toting oil around for them,” Morgan said.
“And we’ll be doing it without the firepower of Lieutenant Gill or Staff Sergeant Hester on our side,” Dean said. “You’ve got three stripes on your collar. I’ve got two. That ain’t shit. Every Gunny and Staff Sergeant over there will be bossing us around like we’re boots straight out of Parris Island.”
“We’ll deal with that when it happens,” Morgan said.
Neither of the men said anything for a few moments, both in their own thoughts; both worrying about their new assignments and all the what-if’s. They had trained for combat. For infantry maneuvers. But trucks? Big convoys in the middle of nowhere. A pogue unit?
A distant rumble sounded, and it grew into a louder and louder roar. Two jets screamed by Camp Dwyer. F-18s, loaded with bombs.
“Go get ’em,” Dean muttered.
It was something he often said when jets flew over the platoon. But it struck a thought with Morgan.
“Seeing those jets, I just had an epiphany,” Morgan said, watching the fighters move off into the horizon, carrying their sound with them.
“What if we’re about to really be put in the shit?” Morgan asked. “I remember on my second tour hearing about one of those truck convoys getting shot up pretty bad.”
“I don’t mind it if they’re shooting at me,” Dean said. “Beats dealing with IEDs.”
It was a common motto in Afghanistan. If someone were shooting at you, you could do something about it. IEDs? At best, you could avoid them. But there wasn’t much of a way to fight them. Not as you could enemy infantry.
Almost everyone preferred to fight an enemy instead of endlessly searching for buried mines that were nearly impossible to find.
But Morgan couldn’t shake the memory of the story he had heard. A big 12.7 mm shooting up the column, along with hordes of fighters up in the hills. The Taliban had even been well-supplied with RPGs, which they had rained down on the trucks and troops.
“Let’s go talk to the men,” Morgan said, and with that, the two men headed off to find their men; or what remained of their two squads.
Sergeant Morgan and Corporal Dean brought their six men to the relatively plush Camp Leatherneck the very next day. The logistics unit they were going to apparently had pull with command because an empty CH-53 helicopter was dispatched to Camp Dwyer to pick up the eight ground pounders.
One-way empty flights were almost unheard of in Afghanistan, where critical logistical resupplies might take days, but Morgan and Dean accepted the chopper as their new reality.
“Guess we’re not lowly grunts anymore, constantly getting shit on and forgotten,” Morgan said.
“Bullshit,” Dean said. “They’re just going to treat us like royalty until they ask us to go charging into some ambush or traipsing up some mine-laden road.”
“Probably,” Morgan said.
At Camp Leatherneck, a staff sergeant met the new men and directed them to their quarters. It was a simple general-purpose tent with cots, but for Marines used to sleeping in the dirt, it was solid living.
“Bet the chow will be better, too,” said Hunt, as the men threw down heavy packs and sea bags.
Hunt had been assigned for the move along with Morgan and Dean, as well as five others: Anderson, Biggs, Hernandez, Jordan, and Webb.
The men stowed their gear, explored their new quarters (including finding the head, or bathroom, always the most important part), and talked about some worthy finds along the way.
Biggs said he had seen — no shit — four different female Marines. Female Marines were supposed to be treated exactly as male Marines, but the Corps still had a ways to go on that.
“One looked hot as hell,” Jordan said. “She had some big-ass titties.”
Morgan nearly said something, but then didn’t. They were in private, and you can’t take warriors off the line and expect them to suddenly be perfectly-spoken garrison Marines. These Marines had barely seen a woman in three months. What could you expect?
The men shot the shit at their end of the tent. Morgan and Dean were staying to themselves on the other side of the large general-purpose tent.
“Guess the men are happy again,” Morgan said.
“They went from being sad about leaving the battalion to suddenly stoked about the new sights around here,” Dean said. “Guess a pair of titties will do that to any man.”
Morgan glared at him.
“I know,” Dean said, raising his hands in surrender. “I’ll be a good little NCO.”
“I seriously doubt that,” Morgan said. “Just remember that I won’t be able to protect your ass over here.”
A corporal dropped into the berthing area and said the unit commander wanted to see Morgan and Dean. They walked downstairs, met an old-looking lieutenant colonel, and got the shortest low-down either had ever received.
Once inside the man’s office, they were told, “I wanted to welcome you all to our unit. We really need you, and we plan to use you. You probably won’t even see me again after today, but I wanted to say just a few words. You’ll be working for a Captain by the name of Tomlin. I won’t sugar coat it. The man’s a pencil-pushing prick, and he’ll probably never leave the base. A bit yellow, honestly. On the one hand, I probably shouldn’t tell you all this. On the other, you’ll figure all this out in no time anyway. And I’ll be honest, you’re heading into the shit. We’ve lost twenty Marines already, and we’ve got five more months left.”
The lieutenant colonel stood, walked over to a map on the wall.
“Our convoys are leaving Camp Leatherneck and as you can see, we’ve only got a couple of primary routes we can take. When we go this way, we have to traverse through several towns and villages. And we always hit IEDs. But when we avoid the populace, we’ve got this high rings of hills and peaks on both flanks. We go down the valley and we take fire from the high ground on both sides. No matter what we do, we take casualties, it seems. Worst part is we’re convinced there’s at least one informant on base. Maybe more. The Taliban always knows when we’re coming. And which way we’re going.”
The colonel walked away from the map and returned to his seat.
“I mentioned that Captain Tomlin is a joke. And he is. But you’ve also got First Lieutenant Flatt in the unit. She’s kick-ass, and more than makes up for Tomlin. You stick by her and you’ll be fine. Any questions?”
Morgan had no idea how to respond to such a frank assessment. A shitty officer? Loads of casualties instead of the typical ooh-rah speech, about how no one messes with Marines?
Dean, as usual, opened his big mouth with hardly a care.
“Tomlin’s an asshole. Flatt’s amazing. And we’re going to be in the shit? Roger that, sir,” Dean said.
“That sums it up,” the colonel said. “We brought you men here because we needed some real shooters in our unit. Not mechanics who can also fire a rifle. You guys help protect my Marines. And help Tomlin and Flatt figure out how to deal with the Taliban. Good luck.”
Morgan said, “Appreciate you shooting straight with us, sir. It’ll help us hit the ground running.”
And with that, the lieutenant colonel turned and picked up some paperwork. The meeting was over.
The next two weeks were a blur. Captain Tomlin and First Lieutenant Flatt told Dean and Morgan that they believed it would be best if the men simply accompanied a few convoys and observed, until they got their legs under them and saw how things worked. Dean and Morgan agreed.
And that’s exactly what the new infantrymen did. They went out on three different convoys and learned the art of transporting tons of supplies through the middle of a war zone.
It was nothing like they expected. And even after two weeks, it was hard to wrap their arms around.
The convoys were massive. Often with as many as seventy trucks, with more than two hundred Marines involved in the long line of vehicles.
The company hauled everything. Ammunition. Water. Fuel. And of course food, but the food was less important than the first three.
A Marine could go without food for a day or two. Ammo? Or water, in the scorching heat? Or fuel for vehicles needed for fighting? You couldn’t go without those. Not for long.
The convoys had MRAPs, huge vehicles with V-shaped hulls. The angled bottoms of the vehicles were far superior against mines compared to the flat bottoms of Humvees or regular five-ton trucks. There were four-wheeled MRAPs and the larger six-wheeled MRAPs. The company had a bunch of both.
There were also Husky Route Clearance Vehicles, which looked like some kind of lunar explorer vehicle. These vehicles were typically equipped with mine rollers and were designed to survive massive IED explosions.
The mine rollers themselves attached to the front of vehicles and weighed almost ten-thousand pounds. The mine rollers had eight to ten wheels and worked wonderfully against IEDs. But they were so heavy that they made the vehicles difficult to drive and maneuver.
Finally, there were wrecker vehicles, because there were always breakdowns or vehicles that hit mines.
The convoys may have been different than how Dean and his men were used to operating, but their tactics were quite similar to those of the infantry. At night, if they hadn’t reached their destination, they’d park the trucks in a giant circle; just like the infantry would form up into a circular perimeter.
Also similar to the slow patrols that Dean and Morgan were used to, the convoys barely moved across the landscape. They averaged a slug-like three to five miles per hour.
“I’ve seen snails move faster,” Dean said at one point on their second patrol.
But the first couple of weeks were important for the men to get used to the way of life in a logistics company. They became acquainted with the techniques and tactics of the unit, and also got a better feel for the skittish Captain Tomlin and truly impressive First Lieutenant Flatt.
This would be a good thing. Because while they had avoided any ugly combat in their first two weeks in the company, their very next mission would be their first operating as a unit tasked with serving as a quick reaction force within the convoy. Their job would be to rush toward anything that happened to the convoy, and all expected action.
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