Friday, May 28, 2010

Wounded Girl Update


Here's a bit of positive news about one of five children wounded when Marines returned mortar fire on the village of Kenjak-Olya.

Rozya, 6, was the most seriously wounded. Her face was torn up and her left arm was badly mangled. She lost that left arm but her face isn't as badly damaged as feared. Yesterday her father, Khan Mohammad, 40, came to our combat base looking for his daughter. He had not been told the extent of her injuries.

To make sure he really was her father he was photographed and that picture was e-mailed to the hospital in Kandahar. Rozya did not recognize him, throwing the entire issue in doubt. But when he returned today and told she did not recognize him, he suggested it was the medication she was on. She had given the medical staff the names of two of her brothers. When Mohammad was asked, he gave the same names. But the clincher came when he was shown a photograph of her in a hospital bed: He broke down in tears. Afghan men don't cry in public. I've told this story to several Afghan interpreters and they were astounded at the public display of emotion. Later, Rozya was shown her father's photograph again today and this time she called him "papa."

Mohammad assured the medical staff here that his daughter will be welcomed back into the family despite her scars and the missing arm. Healthy daughters are an important family asset. Grooms pay for their brides, and they pay a substantial amount. For instance, at the current market prices for opium and girls, Rozya would have been worth her weight in raw opium. (In U.S. dollars about $9,000.) Rozya's prospects will be diminshed, the father said. She might end up having to marry a cousin at a discounted price.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

The Raid

The intel was quite specific but you'll understand if I'm a little vague about details. We had a name and description of a man suspected of being an IED facilitator. A facilitator helps the guys who build and plant the improvised explosive devices that have twisted a dozen of Alpha Company's armored vehicles. (Twisted, yes, but every Marine in them has walked away.) The intel also told us where and when we could find the guy.

Now I've been on raids like this before -- in Vietnam and Iraq. And more times than not you come up dry.

But not this time.

The place we were told we could find this guy was in a compound near patrol base Sofla in a village called Kenjak Sofla.

Compound. Imagine a twisting maze of alleys, eight-foot tall mud walls, a collection of houses and garages and small barns. Chickens and turkeys running loose. In all, maybe an acre or two. We were told we could identify which compound by the green doors.

We pulled up in broad daylight in four armored vehicles, nearly two dozen Marines and a pair of Afghan National Army soldiers. The Marines cordoned off the compound with practiced ease. The only confusion came when the Marines discovered several green doors. They picked one.

Inside they found a heavy-set, middle-aged Afghan man. He told us his name, which matched that of the suspect's father. He told us no one else was there, and with that a door opened and into the courtyard walked a young Afghan man. Well, almost no one else. The old man led us to a larger courtyard and there we found still another young man, a man who fit closely the description of the suspect the Marines were hunting.

Staff Sgt. Keith Kesterson, who was leading the raid, and Moi Tai, his interpreter, began the questioning. Kesterson had a practiced set of questions to break down any evasions. "What's your name?" Kesterson asked. The man simply and promptly identified himself as the guy they had been sent to find.

Sometimes it's just that easy.

The suspect was tested for the presence of explosives on his hands, arms and clothing. He tested positive. In one of the garages the Marines found four 50 kg bags of ammonium nitrate-based fertilizer. Because that is the chief ingredient in the IEDs the insurgents use, it is illegal to possess it. The Marines destroyed the fertilizer by dumping it in a ditch and soaking it with water.

The suspect was flex cuffed and put in the back of one of the armored vehicles. In truth, his father seemed more upset that the Marines confiscated several thousand dollars in Afghanistan and Pakistan currency than the arrest of his son.

As of this writing the son is still in custody.

A Hard Day

Thursday, May 20, 2010

It started out as a routine patrol.

It ended as one of the worst days for Alpha Company.

The routine part was one of those dreary assignments grunts get in war zones. One squad of 2nd platoon was to provide security for a team of engineers who was going to blast a path through a minefield to the top of a hill overlooking a valley leading to Kenjak-e Olya. The look out point is called Outpost Arizona.

Even though the real heat of summer hasn't arrived yet -- it can regularly reach 120 degrees in the summer -- the temperatures nudged 100 in the shade and, as they say, there ain't no shade. As far as the grunts were concerned the only redeeming part of the patrol was watching the engineers blow shit up. At the base of the hill, which rose steeply 170 feet from where the Marine vehicles were parked, the engineers fired a rocket that streamed 100 meters of 1,800 pounds of high explosives in a string up the hill. The high explosives detonated with a thoroughly satisfying bit of fury that was intended to set off any mines in its path. The engineers worked their way to the summit using smaller, rocket-launched explosives. We could see at least one secondary explosion, a mine intended for a Marine.

And while all of that was highly entertaining, the security Marines then morphed into pack mules. Every bit of food and water the men on the outpost would need had to be hand carried up the hill. That was the easy part. Coils of barbed wire and sections of the ubiquitous Hesco fencing also had to be lugged up the hill in the afternoon's blistering heat. Even fit 20-year-old Marines staggered under the loads.

It was 1800 by the time all of that was done and we had just climbed back into our vehicles when a mortar team in Kenjak-e Olya opened fire on us. Marines on top of OP Arizona actually saw the team and its mortar tube. The first three rounds of 82 mm mortars landed about 150 meters too long. The next three landed about 150 meters too short. They had us bracketed. All they had to do was split the difference on range and we'd have been able to test how mortar resistant our armored vehicles really are.

The Marines opened fire with every weapon they had. Even though the mortar tube was about 2,500 meters away, Marines with M-4 rifles blazed away. The maximum effective range of the M-4 is 800 meters. Many were firing their weapons for the first time nearly three months into their deployment. The one Mark-19, which fires a 40- mm high explosive projectile, jammed after firing one round. The .50 caliber machine gun, the only weapon in the platoon that could have been expected to be truly effective at the range, jammed after it fired each round. It got off maybe six rounds total. The M-240 medium machine guns, whose maximum effective range is 1,800 meters, burned up ammo. More about that later.

2nd Lt. Cody Hardenburgh, 24, of Long Beach, N.Y., was in overall command of the Marines at OP Arizona. He leads 1st platoon, whose men will man the outpost. He called for 120 mm mortar fire from his nearby patrol base at Sofla. The six mortar rounds appeared to land in an open field on the far side of the village. An artillery unit at a different patrol base fired six rounds of 155 mm artillery. Those rounds appeared to land near where the mortar team had been seen but some also appeared to land in the heart of the village.

Sure enough, within minutes of the mortar and artillery fire, two car-loads of wounded civilians arrived at PB Sofla's gate. One Afghan man was dead, another two were wounded. There were also five wounded children.

Without hesitation the Marines loaded the wounded into their vehicles and raced back to Combat Outpost Cafferata, where there were dedicated trauma doctors, nurses and more corpsmen. One of the wounded adults died moments after arriving at Cafferata. One other wounded man showed up on his own at Cafferata. The wounded were stabilized and sent by helicopter to even better equipped medical facilities. All survived.

But surviving their wounds may not mean a happy ending for two of the wounded, girls, each younger than 10. One of them, hit in the face by shrapnel, will be badly deformed. Another lost a foot. A Navy nurse told me that their families may well kill the girls because they will never be able to marry. Girls are a source of revenue for families; husbands pay the families for their brides. There was a wedding a few days back near our base. The bride was variously reported to be 12 or 14. The groom was in his 30s. The nurse recalled a young girl who underwent multiple surgeries for burns, whose family shot her when she returned from the hospital. "They didn't even take her to the house," she said. An Afghan interpreter, however, says that it is unlikely the girls will be killed. "But life will be a struggle for them," he said. "They will never marry."

I imagine those two girls in hospitals beds -- beds cleaner than any they've ever dreamed about. I imagine them eating strange food -- but food in endless abundance. I imagine them being treated by people whose words they can't understand but whose care must be obvious. And I imagine they worry about how their families will react to their deformities when they return home.

The one possible positive side in all of this is that the Marines believe the two dead men were part of the mortar team. Their names appear in intel files. The Marines also believe the two men died from gunshot wounds, most likely from the M-240 machine guns. That would have been damned lucky shooting at that range. But according to Navy Chief Petty Officer Eric Motz, a corpsman who treated the men -- and whose judgment I trust explicitly -- said the men died from gunshot wounds.

Despite the efforts by the Marines and Navy medical workers to save injured villagers, word spread rapidly in the area about the dead and wounded. Five days later company commander Capt. Jeremy Wilkinson visited Khurghay, a village to the south. The people in Kenjak-e Olya and Khurghay belong to different tribes. Nonetheless the Khurghay village elder confronted Wilkinson with this blunt question: "What's the difference between you and the Taliban? You kill innocent people."

"We don't fire at anyone who doesn't fire at us," Wilkinson answered. "And we take care of those who get hurt." Nonetheless, it is a setback in the war to win hearts and minds.

Villagers in Kenjak-e Olya hotly deny that the two dead men were Taliban but Kenjak-e Olya is a heavily mined area. In fact the day we visited the village -- and heard the claims that the two dead men were innocent bystanders -- a motorcycle driving by the edge of town hit a mine, leaving little of the driver to bury.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

"Did you lick it?"

videoThis video will make more sense if you read an earlier posting: "In Afghanistan, heroin grows on trees."

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Two Characters




When we first pitched the idea to the Marines of a two-hour film based on one platoon in some tough forward position in Afghanistan we explained that the story would be character driven. That is to say, we'd tell a larger story by focusing on a few Marines from one platoon.

The Marine Corps got the idea right away.

We told the Marines we wanted some unit deployed as part of President Obama's Afghanistan surge. The Marines picked the 1st Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment. The battalion commander, Lt. Col. Michael Manning, handpicked the outfit we're with: 2nd Platoon of his Alpha Co.

Now in those corny old World War II movies the squad's cast of characters always included some tough-talking Italian kid from the Bronx, a muscle-bound Swede from Minnesota, a sergeant with a dark past that he never spoke about and a Harvard grad who somehow ended up in the infantry and decided to make the best of it by writing a book. Everyone calls him The Professor.

We didn't end up in that outfit.

But boy have we found some characters. Let me tell you about two of them.

The platoon leader is Staff Sgt. Keith Kesterson. Typically, a Marine platoon is led by a lieutenant. Neither Manning nor company commander Capt. Jeremy Wilkinson are in any hurry to replace Kesterson with an officer. Spend ten minutes with Kesterson and you see why.

A 10-year veteran, Kesterson, 34, seems born to lead young Marines. But he's not the gruff, foul-mouthed, bull-necked Marine NCO of Hollywood fame (though in fact since we started shooting this film the other Marines have taken to calling him "Hollywood"). Instead, Kesterson is an affable guy, quick to laugh even at his own expense.

Another of our characters, Navy Chief Petty Officer Eric Motz (more about him in a minute) calls Kesterson Chesty Puller. Puller was a World War II Marine hero and later commandant of the Corps. He was also compact. (It has been my experience that you don't call a Marine small or short or skinny -- compact doesn't seem to offend.) Kesterson is compact. How compact is he? I woke up one morning in the field and looked at where Kesterson was sleeping. He made such a compact lump under his sleeping bag I wasn't sure he was still there. But when Chief calls him Chesty Puller Kesterson does wince and say with some small bit of pain, "I wish he wouldn"t call me that."

On a recent patrol I watched Kesterson chew out some of his men because they hadn't loaded enough drinking water in their vehicle (I was riding with them and they probably underestimated how much I could drink). I have been around a lot of grunts who've been chewed out and let me tell you what they almost universally say as soon as the sergeant is out of earshot: "What an asshole." But Kesterson has the touch. He left them feeling that they had disappointed him. That truck is ready for the next patrol and I'm happy to report there is a lot more water on board this time.

Kesterson joined the Marines after what he described as dead end jobs working on the production line at a John Deere factory and at Wal-Mart in his hometown of Greenville, Tenn. His father spent 27 years in the Army.

Now about Chief Motz. The Chief is an independent duty corpsman, the Navy equivalent of a physician's assistant. (For those of you who don't know this, the Marines don't have medics, they rely on Navy corpsmen.) In his 13 years in the Navy Motz has had six combat tours. Two of those tours were with Special Boat Team 22 in Iraq and one tour was with SEAL Team 7 in Iraq. In the field the Chief carries a beefed up M-4 with a high-powered scope and a sound suppressor. He refers to it as preventive medicine.

While Motz, 37, has the resume and the physical appearance of a hard ass, he is one of the funniest men I've ever met. The other night sitting outside his little clinic a Marine limped up.

"Let me guess, you dumb ass, you jumped off your vehicle," Motz said.

The Marine grimaced and said yeah, that's exactly what happened.

"Sit down and take you boot off," the Chief said. He then sat on the ground next to the Marine, gently lifted the Marine's ankle across his own thigh to elevate it. But as he wrapped a cold pack around the ankle he began a running attack on the appearance of one toe on the Marine's foot.

"Is that a toe or a tumor?" he asked, grabbing one toe.

The Marine, who was hurting, wasn't getting it. "It's a toe, Chief."

"I don't believe it," the Chief said. "That's the ugliest toe I've ever seen. Is there a lot of incest in your family?"

By then everyone standing around was laughing but the Marine still wasn't getting it. "No Chief, there's no incest in my family."

"Well, I don't see how else you could get a toe like that."

Like Kesterson, there is military tradition in the Chief's family. His dad was a Navy corpsman in Vietnam.


Postscript: I mentioned earlier that I had packed for weather much hotter than it has been here. And that I was freezing at night in the field. Mysteriously a sleeping bag appeared on my bunk back in the rear. I've said it before, I'll say it again: Semper Fi.

Monday, May 17, 2010

In Afghanistan, Heroin Grows on Trees

Right now the Marines in 2nd platoon are feeling they couldn't get in a fight if they went into a biker bar and ordered daiquiris. It's not that they're not trying. We're just back from two dusty, frustrating days of patrolling south of Naw Zad. I've never been with a bunch of grunts more eager for a fight. Frequently when I've traveled with grunts there has been an undercurrent of resentment: "You're hoping we get hit so you can get good pictures." These guys are shamefacedly apologetic that they haven't gotten us in a fight.

Here's how it works: We pull up outside some village in our six heavily armored and heavily armed vehicles. The Marine patrol spreads out and walks across several hundred meters of open ground to the village. When we were done in the first village -- Kurghay -- we had walked seven miles.

While we didn't find a fight, the patrol did have its interesting moments. In Kurghay, Navy Chief Petty Officer Eric Motz, one of the medical corpsmen in the group, Cpl. Timothy Glover and I had sought shade under a small tree. Glover, a hyperkinetic kid, looked up in the tree and spotted a small cloth bag. We'd been warned that the enemy was planting explosives in walls and trees (we'd already experienced one in a wall). Glover wanted to climb the tree and check out the bag. I said fine, just wait until I get on the other side of the wall. That kind of caution is how you get to be a 65-year-old war correspondent. The Chief -- as everyone calls Motz -- didn't budge.

Glover clamored into the tree and brought the bag down. When it didn't explode I came out from behind the wall. He poured into his hand brown sugar heroin, an intermediate processing step between raw opium and the powdered heroin on the streets of America and Europe.

"Lick it," the Chief said. "That's what they do on CSI."

"I'm not licking it," Glover said, with uncharacteristic good sense.

"Grissom would have licked it," the Chief said.

"I'm not licking it."

When Glover asked the platoon leader, Staff Sgt. Keith Kesterson, what he should do with the bag -- which I'm guessing weighed several ounces -- he was told to leave it. The U.S. military doesn't plow up poppy fields believing the farmers have no choice. The poppy harvest was completed just weeks ago and Kurghay is surrounded by dried brown poppy fields. So are all of the villages we've visited. The Marines had been briefed by their superiors to leave as well the processed product like that found by Glover.

The next day in another village we found a farmer with a grapefruit-sized ball of raw black opium wrapped in plastic. He was puzzled when all the Marines did was take his name and photographed him with the bag of opium.

For a good understanding of the role that opium plays in this war I heartily recommend "Seeds of Terror: How Heroin Is Bankrolling the Taliban and Al Qadea" by Gretchen Peters.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Steak for Dinner

In the field the Marines eat MREs -- if they have time. Often meals are nothing more than an energy bar and or some trail mix. Back at our little base camp there are two hot meals a day. Tray rations. The entrees are prepared in some food factory somewhere and reheated. Usually there is canned fruit and canned vegetables. But last night we had real meat, steak kabobs grilled over real charcoal. There were two other miracles with that meal: cold soda pop and fresh jelly donuts. Along with canned fruit cocktail and canned corn. I hadn't realized what a strange menu that was until I typed it just now. But steak and jelly donuts? What can I say? I wolfed it all down.

Sunday, May 9, 2010


Shower

Rob Curtis and I just returned from a two-day, two-night patrol. We left late Friday night and stopped at a small Marine outpost called Sofla. For lots of good reasons I won't tell you how small. Just small.

The Marines rode in a variety of mine-resistant vehicles. My ride was a M-ATV. Let me say that for a 6-foot-2 guy tipping in at 210 in full body armor, well, there is not enough room. Couldn't move my legs, couldn't really shift my position. The ride just beat the hell out of my ass. But the M-ATV does have its charms. We had visited the unit's vehicle bone yard and looked a M-ATVs that had been blown into twisted messes by the huge mines the enemy uses here. And yet everyone walked away from those vehicles. So what's a little stiff legs and sore ass?

At Sofla we threw our sleeping gear on the ground and slept. Now I had planned this trip thinking it would be 110 degrees. I have a small fleece blanket. It was probably 55 or 60 that night. Remember my beat to hell ass? Well that night I froze it off.

The next morning I was standing next to a Marine and admired the sensational sunrise over the jagged peaks that surround this valley. All tourist like I said I thought the sunsets would also probably be pretty spectactular. In that deadpan voice common to all grunts, Lance Cpl. Jonathan Pierre said, "If you're lucky, you get to see both."

Our destination was a vallage named Kenjak-e Olya. On the main road at the entrance to town somone had stacked up three rocks. They marked the position of a mine. The folks from Explosive Ordnance Disposal came and blew it up. They estimated it was made up of 80-120 pounds of high-grade explosive.

We walked into town along a path lined on both sides by eight-foot tall mud walls. While we were in the center of town a mine planted inside the wall blew up. It was filled with old nuts and bolts and rusty .50-caliber bullets. Had the mine gone off while we walked past, Marines would have died. No one knows why it went off late. A faulty detonator of some sort.

Capt. Jeremy Wilkinson and platoon leader Staff Sgt. Keith Kesterson spent nearly three hours chatting with the village elders. All was smiles as we left. We slept on the ground that night near the village (and yes, I froze again). A patrol made one last sweep in the village before we left. And again, as we were leaving we heard an explosion in town. We're all hoping whoever did that doesn't get any better at building detonators.

Back at Naw Zad I had my first shower in a week. Accomplished using two, two-liter bottles of water. Clean is, as they say, a relative thing.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Naw Zad at last

Arrived at the Marine base here today. Flew on an Osprey, which is pretty amazing because looking at I was convinced it couldn't possibly fly.

The Marines here are great -- hard working, gracious and funny. And living conditions are better than we had hoped. We have a real room with bunk beds. We're looking foward to the next five weeks here.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Arrived in Kabul

A thirteen-hour flight from Washington to Dubai, an eight-hour layover in Dubai and then a final three-hour flight to Kabul left us jetlagged and exhausted.
On Monday morning local time we checked into transient housing waiting for a Tuesday evening flight downrange. The housing isn’t bad – an insulated tent on a poured cement floor, 10 bunk beds with mattresses, and air conditioning. A shower and toilet trailer is less than 50 feet away. The air conditioning was superfluous. It was 63 degrees and raining.
One of the guys staying in our tent was Capt. David Fabricius, 47, a National Guardsman from North Rupert, Vermont.
“Did you know Tom Stone?” I asked.
Fabricius looked surprised at the question and the other Vermont Guardsmen in the tent gathered around.
“We all knew Stoney,” Fabricius said. “He was a helluva guy. Did you know him?”
“I knew his brother Dana,” I said. “We were pals in Vietnam.”
Here’s the story.
Dana and I were both young freelance photographers in Vietnam. In 1970 Dana and Sean Flynn, another photographer and son of movie star Errol Flynn, disappeared in Cambodia. They’ve never been seen since.
Tom, Dana’s younger brother, joined the army the next year, serving in the 82nd Airborne. He got out and literally wandered the world, mostly on foot, for eight years years from 1992 to 2000. In 2003 he joined the National Guard, the same unit as the guys in our tent. In 2006, on his third tour as a medic in Afghanistan, Tom was killed by friendly fire. He was 52.
Fabricius said Tom and Dana have a niece, Mariah, who’s also serving in Afghanistan. It’s unlikely we’ll get to meet her but it’s an awfully small world. Maybe I’ll get to tell her stories about uncle Dana.