Wednesday, January 25, 2006
Of Quasimoto, Dogs, Death and God
Out on the battlefield communication is important on many levels. Company commanders follow closely behind their Marines as they press forward through a maze of walled courtyards and Byzantine streets. With a radio handset pressed into one ear and a strangle hold on a well worn map these seasoned professionals orchestrate a deadly game of cat and mouse. Geometry of fire is the watchword of the day as they regulate the movement of their platoons trying to stay on line with flanking sister units while maintaining aggressive contact to the front. Often the only things these captains have to go on are the tin can garble of radio traffic, the sound of gunfire, and rising plumes of smoke. They ultimately have to trust their own experience and intuition. Most will tell you what a challenge it is to restrain a company of Marines once their blood is up, the scent fresh and the chase is afoot. With their personal entourage of radiomen in tow they leapfrog forward through gaping holes sledge hammered and blasted into walls by the advancing squads. Identifying the Iraqi home with the highest roof, a temporary command post and overwatch is set up, and the advance to the next phase line intitiated. The radiomen set up their gear and collapse into shady corners. These hybrid grunts,loaded down with personal gear, weapons, ammo, radio and extra batteries, carry more than anyone on the battlefield. Often they have to sprint to the next position over walls and down exposed alleyways. A common sight is a RO (radio operator)bent over Quasimoto-like, leaning heavily on his rifle and leashed by a corkscrewing handset cord to an officer.
Another form of communication on the battlefield is more intimate and basic. It's the communication between the military working dog handlers and their canine charges. These Marines, with their explosives sniffing assistants, dart from one IED or weapons cache' site to another. Marine and dog are inseperable day and night. With subtle hand signals and firm commands the handler manages his dog. With kind words, pats on the head, close body contact and treats he keeps his buddy's morale up. Most dog handlers I've spoken with will quickly tell you how sensitive their dogs are to the stress of combat. They are very attuned to signs, like listlessness and weight loss, that suggest PTSD is starting to affect their partner.
Somewhere unseen in the battle space are the snipers. From their "hides" they send out final death notices sealed in 173 grains of 7.62mm lead. On the shoulders of these highly trained marksmen rests a weight of divine proportion. Unseen and with mythic skill they protect their fellow Marines from afar, and are the last person to see the unwary insurgent take his final earthly breath.
Communication to the Man Upstairs is also addressed out among the sound of gunfire and the acrid smell of cordite. Chaplains and religious program specialists roam the battlefield offering words of encouragement and listening ears. The portrait accompanying this post is of "padre" Lieutenant Bryan Crittendon USN. I traveled with him in the back of a amphibious assault vehicle out into the mean streets of Husayba, Iraq. His tired worldly eyes sparkled with a special infectious light; the personification of enthusiasm. Enthusiasm is an interesting and appropriate word in this case. It comes from the Greek, entheos, which means God within, and this chaplain, a former Marine helicopter pilot, was fully possessed of it.