Friday, July 30, 2010

Invitation to the Norman Rockwell Museum

The Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Mass. has invited me to speak there next Thursday at 5:30 PM. I hope if any of you live within easy driving distance you'll attend.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Today's Motivation

Poem penned by Hamlin Garland and found written on the wall of Marine combat Observation Post Karma

Columnist Mark Shield's piece about the Marines and our values appeared in newspapers across the country today. It's a good read, especially the boot camp part.

A half a century ago, I spent the longest 13 weeks of my life at an out-of-the-way place called Parris Island, S.C., then and now the home of the Marine Corps Recruit Depot.

We were strangers who arrived there in the middle of the night and were immediately relieved of all our civilian clothing and possessions — including our hair. Standing there confused, apprehensive and bald, I remember asking myself over and over: What the hell am I doing here?

Then silently appeared in our midst a man in a starched uniform and polished boots brimming with self-confidence and a sense of command. This was the Marine drill instructor, the DI, who did not conceal his disgust with what he saw in us. I can still hear him that we were the sorriest collection of misfits and rejects he or anyone else had ever seen.

What followed was 90 days of splendid misery. Civilian habits, speech and attitude were marched and drilled and driven out of us. The DI was relentlessly democratic. He treated everyone on our platoon, 189, with equal contempt while double-timing us 12 hours a day from mess duty to the rifle range and back. He used his personal term of endearment to remind us, "Maggot, remember, you volunteered to be here."

Somehow after more than three months of no Cokes, no beer, no TV and not even a day off, the DI, by then our Ultimate Authority Figure, reluctantly conceded that just possibly, maybe someday, we might actually be Marines. The combination of joy, relief and pride was unmatched.

I was not a great Marine. I never saw combat. I got a lot more from the Marines than the Marines got from me. But I believe fervently that this nation today needs the values of the Marine Corps as much as the nation needs the Marine Corps.

Of course, honor, courage and commitment are always in short supply. But the Marines teach personal responsibility and accountability by example, that any chain is only as strong as the weakest individual link. As a unit, we are stronger working together than the individual members can separately be.

Marines take care of their own — and they take care of their fellow Marines before themselves. The well-being of the country and of the Corps is more important than our individual well-being.
This may best be stated in the hard-and-fast Marine rule: "Officers eat last." The Marine officer does not eat until after his subordinates for whom he is responsible — the corporals and privates — have been fed. Marines live by the rule that loyalty goes both up and down the chain of command. Would not our country be a more just and human place if the brass of Wall Street and Washington and executive suites believed that "officers eat last"?

The Marine ethic emphasizes responsibility to duty and responsibility to others before self. This is the very opposite of the unbridled individualism that elevates profit and personal comfort to high virtues. The selfish and self-centered CEO or senator who disregards and discards his loyal "troops" would be shunned in the Corps.

Civilian Americans must understand that the greatest civil rights victories have been won by the Marines and the U.S. military, the most successfully integrated sector of our national life. Why? No racial reference and no racial discrimination. The first time I ever slept in the same quarters with African-Americans or Latinos — or took orders from them — was as a private in the Marines Corps.

Yes, America really does need more Marine values and influence.

I want to echo Mr. Shields with a photograph I took at OP Karma back in June. The words you see in the photo are written on the back wall of one of the most dangerous places in the world.

What the......?

Okay, I'm officially fed up with Michelle Obama and Vice-President Biden. Michelle wants me to sign a birthday card for Barack and Joe Biden wants me to donate. Where in the name of Pete did they get my email address? Here's Biden's personal appeal to me:

Mike --

$200 million.

That's what Republican-aligned special interests have pledged to spend on the 2010 election. Just to put that in context, that's nearly $40 million more than every interest group spent on the 2008 presidential election -- combined.

When our administration and this movement decided to take on the special interests, we knew we were making a choice. And the consequences are clear. These groups have fought us at every turn in our struggle for change, and now they're trying to drown out our voices -- and our accomplishments -- with their campaign cash this fall.

We're not going to sit back and let that happen. Today, Organizing for America is announcing the By the People Fund with the goal of getting 3 million citizen donations to fuel our grassroots campaign for the upcoming election.

Please donate $5 today and help us take back this election from the corporate interests.

With our By the People Fund, we're going to make a statement this fall -- strengthening our grassroots efforts on the ground, focusing on getting first-time voters from 2008 back to the polls this year, and holding the Republicans and their special-interest allies accountable.

We've all gone to the mat with these folks time and again -- ever since Barack and I took office. And, from the Recovery Act to historic health reform to Wall Street reform, you helped prove we could win those fights.

Now these groups have one goal in mind when it comes to November 2nd -- erasing the progress we've made together.

By spending an unprecedented amount of cash to support Republicans, they're doing their best to buy their way back into power. And, if they do, they've been clear that they will do everything they can to undo the historic achievements we've fought so hard to win.

It's no wonder that each and every Republican in the Senate on Tuesday voted to allow these special interests to have a greater say in our elections. Their vote will allow these groups to spend millions on campaign ads -- and not have to reveal who's actually behind them.

I've been in politics a long time. I'm used to seeing the good guys outspent by interest groups. But we've never been outnumbered -- and we've never been outhustled.

I'm asking you to make sure it stays that way. Will you chip in and help us grow our By the People Fund?

Please donate $5 or more today:

Thank you,

Vice President Joe Biden

"Buy their way back into power"? Does this guy remember the last election and the financial juggernaut his running mate commanded. In fact, running his election campaign machine was the only thing Obama could point to as his "executive" experience qualifying him to sit in the Oval Office. Obama raised over $750 million in his run for office in 2008 and between himself and McCain he was the larger recipient of contributions from the infamous BP. Decrying the paltry sum of $200 million seems a bit of rather ridiculous political theater. Oh, and isn't the President currently in the lead garnering money from Wall Street?

So Joe, no money from me, and Michelle, don't wait for me to sign the birthday card for hubby.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Raw Stuff

For the past two weeks I've been at the University of Hartford attending the first session of their limited residency Master of Fine Arts in Illustration program. I haven't worked this hard since attending The Basic School at Quantico during the summer of 2006.

The instructors for this program are world class and include the likes of Murray Tinkleman , Dennis Nolan and Alice "Bunny" Carter. These folks have been both encouraging and pushing me to dive deep into my war experiences. They've also gotten me to work from imagination and memory, something I rarely do. Here are a couple pieces based on actual battlefield events I've witnessed. In the interest of privacy I'm not going to reveal the individual's whose pain, suffering and death are depicted.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Firefight and Medevac

June 7, 2010: Patrol Base Karma, Weapons Company, 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment

It’s a dry heat. Repeat often. Staff Sergeant Worley, the Patrol Base Karma QRF (quick reaction force) leader, doesn’t want to hear the actual temperature. When Sergeant Morse, one of his team leaders, looks up from his Dick Tracy wrist GPS and announces “116 degrees” he gets back a scowl and a terse reminder to never mention the temperature. Worley, a North Carolinian, likes to pretend the temperature is always 94 degrees. Always.

We’ve been sitting out in the unforgiving Afghan sun over six hours. At 0805 the sounds of a hotly contested firefight, small arms fire and grenade blasts, erupted 700 meters off to the west of PB Karma. Worley’s QRF of a dozen Marines and an equal number of Afghan National Army troops was quickly marshaled to provide a blocking force on the eastern flank of a gun battle raging between a platoon from Lima Company and a Taliban cell.

The engaged platoon sent up a green flare to identify their position, slightly forward to our right and screened by low mud compounds. Shortly afterwards a red flare appeared over the besieged platoon’s position, one of the Lima Marines had been shot, a sucking chest wound, and Worley’s first task was to secure an LZ for a medevac helicopter. The golden hour was ticking down for the stricken Marine being tended somewhere to our right in a tree line on the far side of a large irrigation canal paralleling a major road called Route Cowboys.

On this morning the Marines of Lima had been providing a western security force for an element of US Army and Marine combat engineers’ doing IED clearing south along Route Cowboys, the central artery running through the heart of the Helmand River Valley. A parallel road on the valley’s eastern flank, Route Giants, had been cleared of IEDs down to PB Karma months before. It was now time to extend Marine presence to the intersection of Giants, Cowboys and a third road converging from the west, Tarheels. This strategic junction, only 300 meters southwest of Karma, was until now in Taliban hands. Daily sniper shots, rocket propelled grenades and 107mm rockets reminded the garrison at Karma that the enemy wasn’t going to retreat from this key intersection without a major fight. The few kilometers long stretch being cleared harbored dozens of IEDs.

This operation, Zokar Khan, had already taken the lives of three Marines. The day before one of the large MRAP mine-resistant vehicles had lost its footing on the earthen road and tumbled into one of the deep canals along Route Cowboys. Three Marines and a military working dog made it out of the quickly submerging vehicle, but three did not. Besides the heat, everyone was feeling the loss. Given their druthers, Marines would rather die in a firefight than in an accident.

We arrived at our position in the crisp stubble of freshly shorn wheat after jog through fields of chest high dried poppy stalks, and across muddy irrigation ditches. Worley had quickly deployed his Marines and Afghan National Army troops in a broad arc anchored along a ditch running east to west the length of a sprawling village compound of sun baked walls and homes. Contact with the Taliban, hotly anticipated by the QRF, failed to materialize. The sound of gunfire off to our right diminished with the appearance of Cobra gunships.

A sortie of two US Army Blackhawk medevac helicopters flared into a field 200 meters away in a great cloud of dust. Just as quickly they lifted off and were gone, leaving only dry hot silence and flights of dark blue swallows darting everywhere.

Until further notice Worley’s QRF was to hold its position. With the circling threat of Cobras overhead the Taliban melted back south beneath the thick cover of mulberry tree lines. The Lima Marines, with a wide canal lying between them and the enemy position, moved a couple hundred meters north, closer to the road clearing detail under their protection. Worley said the Taliban would be back as soon as the Cobras were off station.

Now, at roughly 1400, the PB Karma QRF found itself proned out in a shadowless expanse of Afghan fields running low on water and information. Worley’s grizzled and sunburned cheek was pressed to his radio handset asking for a resupply of water and chow. Over and over his voice could be heard repeating his call sign, Crusher Six, as he responded to requests from Karma for reports of movement to our southwest. Small dust devils danced through the fields as the Marines stared through ACOG sights at the mute face of the mud village compound bordering Route Cowboys. The day had ground to a silent sweltering halt. Somewhere in the air above, among the darting swallows, came the buzz of a Scan Eagle surveillance drone circling slowly over the contested ground.

Word was passed down. The wounded Lima Company Marine didn’t make it.
SSgt Worley

(*The day after I left SSgt Worley he recieved a severe gunshot wound to his leg.)

Rocket Attack at PB Karma

June 6, 2010: Patrol Base Karma, Weapons Platoon, 3rd Battalion, 1st Marines, Helmand Valley

They must have mis-spelled my name, the Taliban that is. It’s a common mistake. Even the best meaning of folks add an “e” to the end-Faye rather than the correct Fay. Sometimes I politely remind them that the vowels are a, e, i, o, u and sometimes y; placing an e after the y isn’t necessary for the correct pronunciation of Fay. I’m not generally known for being efficient, but when it comes to my last name-three letters does quite nicely thank you.

At 1630 today a Taliban 107mm ChiCom (Chinese Communist) rocket plowed through the back compound wall and exploded in a rear room of Patrol Base Karma (the squad normally living there was out at another observation post). This was our second attack of the day. It had my name on it, sort of. It missed me one meter to the left. I was sitting on the cot closest to the rear hatch in the back hallway right next to the room it sliced into. Maybe I should re-think making a fuss over minor mis-spellings.

Today started out like any other. I’ve been in Afghanistan about a week now and the morning routine is pretty much set. Get up around 0530 (it starts getting light about 0500), shake out boots (scorpions and spiders), and head to the piss tubes. Return to cot and grab worn green towel and toiletry kit (my fiancée Janis gave it to me for Christmas-it’s L.L. Bean and has a monogram of my initials) and head over to the hygiene pit (pick up a couple bottles of water on the way). Wash essential body parts-private bits and hair. If it’s the every other day, I shave. Brush teeth and floss. Take Prozac, Doxy and blood pressure medicine. Eat an MRE. If nature calls extra loud, get a wag bag and retire to the ad hoc toilet facility in the compound’s former stable.

This is my first full day at P B Karma so I start by exploring. The night before we had humped the five clicks from FOB Gorgak down to Weapons Company’s furthest south outpost, Karma. Beyond Karma there are only Taliban until the Pakistan border. The walk down a dirt road the Marines call Route Giants last evening was lovely. The fields and earthen compounds, framed by lines of mulberry trees, glowed in the sunset. The sequins on the little girls’ dresses and boys’ distinctive Kandahri caps flashed at us from the eastern bank of the deep irrigation canal we strolled along. Down in the canal laid deep beds of reeds filled with the bird sounds. But, by the time we arrived at the outpost the gloam was thick and night was mere minutes away. I couldn’t get a good look at the place. These patrol bases are blacked out after sunset.

Weapons Company believes PB Karma had been a hospital of sorts. When they took possession of the main building they found one of the four rooms splattered with blood and reeking of decay. They call that the death house. Despite a thorough scrubbing the sweet nauseous odor of death still seeps from its walls. The building itself is a one-story square with a cruciform layout. The structure is somewhat unusual for this area; it is very symmetrical and made of poured concrete. In fact, it sits on a dais of concrete about three feet high. There are sets of steps leading up to the platform, which forms a wide porch all way around, at all four cardinal directions. Each set of steps directs you through a door way. At the nexus where the two broad hall ways meet is a card table, where a game of hearts, spades, Texas hold ‘em or chess is usually in session 24/7. Two of the rooms are living quarters for Marines, one is the COC (command operations center) and the third (the death room) is the Medical Aid Station. The hallways are lined with sleeping cots and big improvised bins holding hundreds of water bottles. The walls are covered with gear and flak jackets hanging on something the Marines call Jesus nails-they’re big. The flight of stairs leading to the roof has the loopy symmetry one comes to expect in Afghanistan. Each step has its own logic and you need to respect it with each trip up and down them.

On the roof are sandbagged fighting positions with fifty caliber machine guns and grenade launchers, and an assortment of communication equipment and antennas. A little cupola caps the stairs and on top of that is Sable missile launcher perched in its own mini-fortress of green sandbags. It’s hot on the exposed roof, but surprisingly cool in the rooms and halls below.

The whole compound is surrounded by a two story earthen wall with vehicle access through an ornate blue metal gate. The area directly to the front is lined with MTAVs and MRAPs, dusty and mud caked behemoths designed to withstand IED blasts. Around the compound wall are various stations for washing uniforms, preparing and eating food, relieving oneself, sleeping and working out. The dog handlers, both trackers and bomb sniffers, have shaded lean-tos set up in two of the corners for themselves and their dogs.

After my tour I attached myself to a working party heading for a tree line just beyond the wire. Mulberry trees line virtually every major irrigation canal and the ones a hundred meters west of Karma block a good view of a village compound the Marines regularly take small arms and RPG (rocket propelled grenade) fire from. The detail was lead by Staff Sergeant Worley. His team, with little more than a small hack saw, a machete and a couple axes commenced to top off a couple stubborn mulberries. The work was arduous, hot and energy sucking. Marines alternated between swinging less than sharp axes at trunks, clambering up to exposed positions with the hack saw and machete to trim branches, and standing watch in the shade. That is until an RPG swooshed in and detonated fifty meters away.

A couple of Worley’s Marines on our right saw the “poof” and the rocket trail and returned fire to the point of origin. We quickly retrograded back to the patrol base through chest high fields of dried poppies. Up on the roof the sniper teams were scanning the seemingly abandoned village for signs of movement, or even another RPG launch. No joy. The hot quiet of the day settled back around us. The Scan Eagle drone buzzed overhead and the swallows cart wheeled through the air and into their mulberry rookeries completely oblivious to our presence.
Returning fire from roof top positions at PB Karma

After monitoring the snipers and looking through a set of binoculars for an hour, hoping to get a glimpse of anything out of the ordinary, I retired back to the relative cool interior of the building. I seated myself on an available cot and picked up a well-worn copy of a book detailing the experiences of Marine snipers in Iraq. A group of guys settled into a game of hearts at the central card table and off to one side two more started a chess match.

A distant wham was followed almost instantaneously by a concussive blast, a shower of dirt and shrapnel, and a thick billowing cloud of orange dust rolling down the hallway. I moved faster than I’ve ever moved before down the hallway away from the very close point of impact. As I ran crouching over I instinctively started running my hands over my body and down my legs. Shouts of “anyone hurt, anyone hurt” echoed off the still ringing walls and personnel dashed to the rear of the building expecting to find wounded.
In the right foreground is the cot I was sitting on. At the left margin there is a metal door slightly ajar with the upper glass portion missing. Through the opening of the door you can see a jagged dark area with a small white highlight where the rocket breached the wall.
My gear on the portion of the dias facing the outer wall initially penetrated by the rocket.

A gaping hole, about six feet across, became visible through the clearing dust. It was high and almost direct center on the rear wall. My little sleeping area and gear, on the dais, was covered in debris. The cammie netting that had covered the weight lifting area was down and a jagged hole in the building’s back wall showed where the round had breached the rear room. The field beyond the wall was on fire and throwing up sheets of black smoke.

Miraculously no one was severely injured. LCpl Echelson, who’d been sitting on the cot directly in front of me, had some minor bleeding low on one leg, but that was it. I was glad to see Worley. Moments before the impact he and I had exchanged a greeting as he headed to the weights to exercise. I thought for sure he had been right there. Worley, who took a moment to go around the side of the building to grab a bottle of water, was now seriously thinking about taking up religion.

At first the Marines were saying it was an RPG, but one of the EOD (Explosives Ordnance Disposal) guys collected up a bunch of parts and discovered it was a Chinese made 107mm rocket. I took a still life photo of the bits Sergeant Mesa had painstaking sifted from the chaos in the shattered back room. Thank God no one had been inside.
107mm Chinese Communist rocket remnants

According to the Marines, the Taliban had just had a pretty good poppy harvest and were flush with cash. The appearance of ChiCom rockets soon followed. Apparently they had a couple new toys to play with.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

At Camp Delhi

My living space at Camp Delhi

June 2, 2010: Headquarters 3rd Battalion, 1st Marines, Camp Delhi, Helmand Province

It’s such a simple thing. After fifty plus years you’d think I’d have a handle on it, but I don’t. I can’t tell my right hand from my left. I have to physically make the writing motion to cue myself. I can add another bit of brain malfunctioning to an ever growing list of idiosyncrasies, the word Delhi, or is it Dehli?

While out here I had occasion to meet an Indian Buddhist German documentary film maker, Ashwin Raman. Ash, as he asks to be called, started his documentary film career with the Marines in Vietnam, and now, days away from his 66th birthday, is marking his retirement with a final trip covering them in Afghanistan. I shared my sketches with him and immediately he chided me for my mis-spelling of Delhi on a couple. I got a few right, but on most I didn’t. Even now I have to write it both ways before my brain picks the correct one.

I arrived at Camp Delhi around midnight the night of June 1st on a CH-53 ride from Camp Bastion (or should I say the morning of June 2nd? matter). My hosts billeted me in a cave like room with a smokehouse smell and giant cotton candy spider webs in all the corners. Black Widow and Brown Recluse spiders are everywhere here. I got a broom first thing in the morning and reduced the webs to a tangle of fuzz on the bristle ends. Written in the soot covered walls and ceilings are graffiti from both American and British units. Judging by the bullet marks, both inside and out, this place saw heavy fighting. The Brits left a memorial to a bunch of their mates.

Delhi has a shower and I treat myself to one. These are Navy Showers-get wet, turn off water, lather up, turn water back on, rinse. Anything more than a minute’s worth of water is a crime. The weak lukewarm stream of water hardly seems worth the effort. Most Marines use the hygiene pit, a matted area with an open square with football size river rocks at the center, and bordered on two sides by makeshift wash stations. At one corner of the pit is a metal brace with a large flare gun-like spigot attached to an oversize hose running to a large rubber bladder containing non-potable water. Each wash station has a mirror and a circular hole cut in the waist high plywood table that accommodates a stainless steel bowl. Each table has spots for six. The bowls are stacked up at the angle where the tables meet. You’re expected to rinse yours out when finished. Even in this arachnophobes’ worst nightmare of a place there are etiquettes to be followed.

At 0900, after breakfast and some sketching, I meet with the battalion’s adjutant and arrange to get manifested on a convoy down to their Weapons Company at FOB Gorgak. Weapons is the furthest south unit in the hotly contested Helmand River Valley. The poppy harvest is over and the Taliban is flush with cash. I’m eventually heading to the where the sidewalk ends, Patrol Base Karma. Beyond Karma there is nothing but bad guys. Just last week they lost two Marines to an IED along a canal path. In another incident just days before another guy, though he survived, lost all four limbs to a pressure plate bomb.

I have until 1030, when the convoy brief will be held and my vehicle assignment made. I pack up my gear and stage it by a row of huge tan MTAVs and MRAPs. Other Marines waiting for a ride south mill about while convoy drivers and embark guys with a fork lift fill the back of trucks with supply laden palettes.

A closer look at the vehicles reveals a riot of scrapes, dings, bent bumpers and an undercoating of rock hard mud splatter. They’re as worn and dirty as the Marines sitting against underinflated tires in the shadows, and trying to catch forty winks in crew cabs stuffed with weapons, body armor, bottles of water and cases of MREs. This place is brutal on man and machine.

Off by the main ECP (entry control point) a patrol is forming up to leave the wire. This is a patrol party that virtually no Hollywood film has yet to capture. This is a FET (female engagement team) mission. Four of the Marines adjusting their gear and weapons are female.

There’s a minor statistic that doesn’t get a whole lot of play in the coverage of Afghanistan. In fact, based on my own observations, I would classify this bit of information as little more than a rumor. But the Marine Corps, being what it is, has decided to take this data and run with it. This is the unsubstantiated claim I’m referring to; half the population of Afghanistan is women. The mission of the FET Marines is to reach out to them. Those of us here can tell you there’s a better chance of encountering a Yeti than an Afghan woman. Be that as it may, the Marines have organized and deployed groups of female jarheads to actively meet with and engage them in the political process.

Sergeant Melissa Hernandez is an MP (military police) by trade. Today she commands a FET. She’s as geared up as any Marine I’ve ever seen, along with a team of two other female Marines and a female Navy corpsman. They’re on their way outside the wire to meet with local women. In my humble opinion these women are doing more than the entire National Organization of Women put together.

Out Into the Field

May 30, 2010: Helo Pad, Camp Bastion

At precisely 2135 my public affairs escort to the Helo Pad shows up and we load my gear into the back of a dusty beat up mini-van. My backpack is pretty heavy and there are black and blue welts on both my forearms from all the times I’ve slung it on and off the past couple days. It’s good to have a little help. I ask him what day it is and he tells me Saturday. I think it’s Friday.

The drive out to the “air head” is winding and long. With all the construction going on here the route changes daily. I really don’t know how these guys remember how to get out here in the dark. And it’s dark. There are no street lights and all the buildings and tents have strict black-out discipline. The only things visible are the runway lights and a dense mantle of stars.

The duty driver drops me off and I sign up for my flight-Angry Cat 05. The embarkation Marine behind the counter inside a small plywood building asks me for my “kill number” and I give him the number the folks at the Media Center at Kandahar gave me-KAF148. Our transaction ends with the code SWA DWR written on my left hand with a black Sharpie pen. I’m heading to a place called Camp Delhi and it falls on the flight route to Camp Dwyer, hence the DWR. The SWA is for Space A.

The flight’s scheduled to leave at 2335. I’m “Space A”, which means I could be pumped from the flight. There’s another plywood building with a refrigerator case full of cold water bottles covered in dust and seating. I’ve got two hours to poke around.

Inside the waiting room is a Navy corpsman escorting a wounded Afghan National Army soldier. The corpsman isn’t quite sure the story behind the man’s head wound. He was just asked to make sure he got on the right helo hop back to his base. The wounded soldier looks tired and frail. He’s very small in stature. He speaks no English and no interpreter is around. The corpsman goes over to the cooler and in a drinking motion with his hands asks the Afghan if he would like water-he does. The doc brushes dust off of it and hands it to him. The Afghan soldier has red finger nails. I find out later this is a common form of folk medicine and not adornment. He’s got a great face and leans his bandaged head on his right hand. Like most Afghanis, he returns your look with a direct piercing gaze. I draw him. He doesn’t move or look away. Like the help with my pack, this is also appreciated. I thank him and he nods back.

I go outside and with the deepening night the Milky Way becomes more pronounced. Mars sparkles a reddish-orange and the Big Dipper seems an arm’s reach away. A classic three quarter Moon, visible since before sunset, has distinct human features. There is the constant rumble of helicopters out on the flight line and the chairs in the waiting room vibrate under your hand.

Outside, waiting for a flight, I notice a figure sitting half in and out of the light suspended over the passenger assembly area just shy of the runway’s edge. His gear is carefully arranged around him and flooded in chiaroscuro light. This is a scene Caravaggio would have loved. I ask his permission to take some pics and he gives his OK.

The guys name is Tim Coderro and he’s a former Marine sergeant. At the moment Tim is working his way back to 1st Battalion of the 6th Marine Regiment where he’s a civilian contractor providing aid and advice on sensitive sites issues and detainees. Back in the world he was a cop in Wilmington, North Carolina.

Around midnight the embarkation Marine comes out of the first hut and announces that the birds are inbound and has us don our gear and line up for a final head count and hand check. Bats are swooping through the orb of light over our heads devouring moths. At midnight the two CH-53 helicopters of Angry Cat 05 arrive and we lean away from their blast of heat and dust covering our eyes. We wait hunched over from the weight of our packs as the helos are unloaded and reloaded. Finally word comes, tonight they’re taking no passengers-except Tim Coderro.

The public affairs duty driver comes out and retrieves me. The Navy corpsman and his charge return to a very long night in the waiting room.

In Country

May 30, 2010: Camp Bastion, LSA Leatherneck, Headquarters IMEF

The twelve hour non-stop flight from Dulles to Kuwait was cramped. I cursed myself for not spending the extra $148 for a seat up forward with the extra five inches all around; won’t make that mistake on the trip home. The plane was packed with both US military and civilian contractors heading to both the Iraq and Afghan AOs. Most seemed to be seasoned travelers-well equipped with sleeping accessories, reading material, and extra food and drink.

Before the plane left the ground I’d exhausted the seat pocket literature; the airline’s periodical, the emergency instruction card and the in-air shopping magazine. A former wife thought I had ADHD, which a subsequent test refuted, but none-the-less I found myself sitting there desperate for stimulation. The gentleman sitting next to me, a Naval Reserve officer on his first deployment, was reading a book on computer language. My neck craning rewarded me with pages of unintelligible logarithmic equations and calculus matrixes….why couldn’t I at least be next to some enlisted kid perusing some soft-porn mag like FHM?

These six thousand-plus mile flights chasing the spin of the Earth always leave me completely disoriented with regards to time. Chasing the sunrise at over six hundred miles per hour somehow makes twelve hours seem like twenty-four. We arrived the next day, the 28th, around 1700 local time, and made our way through customs and immigration. My retired military ID card gave the Kuwaitis some cause for confusion, but in the end my passport was stamped and I was able to gather up my luggage.

Just as I was leaving Dulles Janis, my fiancé, realized she had Kuwaiti dinars in her wallet from one of her trips, in fact well over $260 dollars worth. With this money in hand, and a porter lugging my gear, I headed out of the Kuwait International Airport terminal building to the taxi stand designated for transport out to Ali Al Salem Air Base. A familiar wave of heat greeted me as I joined a civilian contractor in engaging a cab ride. By 1830 I was standing in the Military Air Terminal at Al Salem presenting my invitational orders to a transportation clerk, who in turn informed me that a flight to Kandahar was leaving in one hour, and that I would be on it. So much for being held up in Kuwait for a couple days.

The military flight to Kandahar was aboard a massive C-17. On this kind of flight you’re more cargo than passenger. Our “stick”, other than myself, was composed of two dozen fresh faced regular Army soldiers from a Germany based Stryker unit. For most this was their first trip to a war zone. In full body armor and helmets we sat strapped into our seats trying to find a place for our feet among the tie-down chains securing a line of massive CONEX boxes filing most of the cargo bay. The next four hours would be spent staring at those containers trying to decipher the stamps, markings and packing lists plastered all over them. One of the labels I found particularly cryptic. Every container had one and it stated in bold white letters on a blue background Lloyds Certified Container Schedule. Each container also sported a menacing black stencil of a horned demon against a tan background, no doubt the logo of the unit expecting them. By the time the flight was over I was fixating on the pattern tiny water droplets had made in the thin coating of dust on their green sides. Jet lag was setting in.

The highlight of the flight came when the cabin lights went to dim blue and the Air Force loadmaster announced that we’d just crossed over into Afghanistan, a war zone. A nervous buzz and some high-fives made their way among the soldiers even as the airman sat back in his chair and picked up the movie he had paused on his laptop to make the announcement.

A couple hours later the airman announced our decent, which was steep, ear popping and sudden. The diagonal chains running forward grew noticeably taunt while the rear ones drooped slightly. In the wee hours of the 29th we landed uneventfully at Kandahar, gathered our gear and loaded ourselves onto shuttle busses awaiting us on the tarmac. After checking in at the terminal building the soldiers went their own way and I found myself alone in what seemed a largely deserted base. Now fully jet lagged I struggled through my gear trying to find the map the NATO/ISAF media embed folks had sent me with their location marked. I needed to report in to them. Out of the dark a Canadian soldier appeared and asked if I needed help and transport and next thing I knew I had my own bus and a Filipino driver. Together we deciphered the map and located the Media Center.

The first glow of dawn was starting to stretch across the eastern sky and a couple early risers were out jogging. I humped my gear into the Media Center compound and reported to the soldier on duty. He promptly put me in a room and I immediately fell asleep. I was now into the third calendar day of travel without rest. Jet lag had me in its teeth shaking me violently side to side.

No sooner had I nodded off a knock came at my door. I had a flight to Camp Bastion in one hour. My ride to the terminal was waiting. This flight would be on an Australian C-130. It would be loud, hot and blessedly short. By noon I was stumbling off the plane, being greeted by an IMEF public affairs officer and deposited in an air conditioned tent. By now I’m wired to the gills. No idea of the date or the day. Short term memory non-existent. Can’t find a thing. Hungry and dirty.

The public affairs officer, Navy Lieutenant Caires, led me to the nearby dining facility (DFAC) and we ate. After chow he points me in the general direction of my tent and departs for a meeting. I get lost. Completely. Camp Bastion’s Leatherneck LSA is a flat expansive maze of very similar looking buildings and tents. I leave the DFAC in the right direction, but that’s about it. I know I need to find the orange port-o-johns, the only distinctive landmark near my tent. I’m five years old again and lost at the zoo.

Eventually I find my tent and fall into a coma. The next morning I’m informed I have a flight set up later in the evening for Camp Delhi, the main base for the 3rd Battalion of the 1st Marine Regiment.

Somewhat rested, I head out to explore Leatherneck and see the Marines stationed here. Just down the gravel street border by concrete barriers is the compound of 3rd LAAD. It’s here that I find my first subject, Lance Corporal Chris Baker. Baker, a native of Greenville, Michigan is tall, wiry and sports a ready smile. A turret gunner, the lines of his goggles define the pattern of dirt and sunburn on his grinning face. I draw my first portrait of this trip. He’s everything this place is-raw, dusty and full of good humor. And I find myself a little embarrassed at my complaining over recent and relatively minor discomforts. I’ll blame the jet lag.

Return to Afghanistan

I’ve been to war seven times. Tomorrow will mark the start of the eighth trip. A twelve hour flight from Dulles Airport to Kuwait International shoe-horned into an economy class seat will be followed by a shuttle bus ride out to a coalition air base called Ali Al Salem. Depending on the availability of military hops, a day or so might be spent acclimatizing to the heat and getting over jet lag while waiting on a flight to Kandahar Air Field.

My last time in Kandahar was during a frigid January in 2002. The former international airport had been blasted back to the Stone Age. Journalists and Marines spent nights sleeping on concrete floors and days huddled around a fire blazing in a dry fountain in the central courtyard of the main terminal building. Beyond great ovoid windows facing outward behind abandoned check-in counters lay the great expanse of Southern Afghanistan. The windows had the symmetry of a Mondrian painting, with the addition of bullet holes and shattered glass. With each setting sun a crazy quilt of blue and orange light would play through them across arched interior walls.

Life in and around the small coalition forces’ foothold in Kandahar was primitive. Toilets were plywood shacks open to the harsh winter wind. I met the commanding officer of the Marine Expeditionary Unit with trousers around my ankles sharing a lone roll of toilet paper. Off to one side of the ramshackle commodes was the “piss pit”, a shallow ten feet by ten feet depression in the ground filled with rocks and perpetually on fire, yes, on fire. Night time trips to the facilities meant following lines strung with blue chem lights and at least one serious stumble on bits and pieces of the blasted terminal building. Food was strictly MREs. Failing to sleep with water bottles and canteens meant you could look forward to going thirsty. You can’t drink frozen water.

Now, they tell me, the place has completely changed. Something called The Boardwalk offers civilized amenities. However, the old terminal building complex, which included a pocked marked mosque, remains much as I left it and is now fenced off. I wonder if land mines are the reason. In 2002 a day rarely passed without some unlucky guy stepping on a toe popper and losing a foot.

In 2002 I carried weapons to Afghanistan. This time no guns. I do have a good set of body armor and a new Kevlar helmet. A pair of well worn combat boots is joined by fresh pairs of hiking socks, but no guns. My gear has been packed and re-packed a dozen times. The new flak jacket, without a holster and pouches for both a pistol and rifle magazines looks strange. I had a big Velcro patch that says PRESS done up at one of the uniform shops out in Quantico town. We’ll see if it offers the same amount of protection as sixty 9mm and a hundred and eighty 5.56 full metal jacketed 55 grain NATO rounds. I once traveled with the Wall Street Journal writer Michael Phillips in Ramadi, and he had a piece of duck tape on the back of his flak with PRESS written with indelible marker in English. I asked him why it wasn’t in Arabic. His answer was quick and candid, “It’s there for the Marines”.

For the past three months I’ve spent a couple hours each afternoon at the corner gym on a stair climber in a flak jacket with a full Camelback water bladder attached. Nature’s been kind to me, but I’m eight and a half years older since last humping the wilds of Kandahar. The additional weight is about fifty pounds. Out in the field a three day pack will add another thirty or forty pounds. So, at least the battle load, without weapon and ammo, will be down to eighty pounds.

Although no longer in uniform, the hardest part of going to war remains the same; saying goodbye to loved ones and knowing my greatest passion, being a war artist, is the source of their greatest fears. My mother and daughter have been through this before, but they’re as anxious as ever. My fiancée Janis, although she’s been to war herself, is putting on a brave front, but I know she’s scared. She knows that war is far more difficult for those staying behind. Episodes of actual combat are few and far between. Those of us at war know where we are and our level of safety. Folks back home don’t and find their days and nights disturbed by constant uncertainty. Now it’s Janis’ turn to worry. I wish I had more than pat phrases to counter her fears. All I can tell her, as well as my daughter and Mom, is how much I love them, appreciate their support, and that I won’t place myself in too much danger. Unfortunately, one of those three things is a bold-faced lie.