KANDAHAR PROVINCE, Afghanistan --
"Condition one on first load.” It feels surreal as the command echoes over the radio. The Marines understand the words, but are obviously still coming to terms with its meaning as they force rounds into their weapons. There is a new sense of urgency in the way the driver grips the steering wheel, the passengers stare out windows and the radio operator strains to hear each new message. Each piece of trash blowing around the Afghanistan countryside is an improvised explosive device, each movement of the locals is suspect, each boarded up window hides a sniper – the mind plays awful tricks on a man. All vehicles stop. The radio mutters “possible,” as in possible IED. Marines don’t flinch, but in this moment you realize the frailty of life. As soon as you process that “possibility” the convoy continues.
Somehow the farther out the vehicles travel the easier it is to digest, anxiety turns to alertness – this is outside the wire.
“It was like, I have no idea what is out there. I have no idea what is going to happen,” recounted Pfc. Conan Hudson, turret gunner, Personal Security Detachment, Battalion Landing Team, 1st Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment, 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, NATO International Security Assistance Force.
From his seat he would see it all transpire, his mind already racing with possibilities.
Maybe Marines have unique perspectives about life and its limitations. They are 'born' at recruit training, reciting the names and accomplishment of heroes -- Dan Daly’s stamina, Chesty Puller’s bravado and Jason Dunham’s sacrifice. So when they talk about driving into a war-zone to practice firing machine guns, their perspective of danger is slightly skewed.
The built-up anxiety of a seven-month pre-deployment training cycle, coupled with weeks spent here preparing for missions, unleashed fury on Hudson. Once outside the gate it was “exactly what I’ve seen” and yet completely unreal.
Perched atop an armored humvee in a gun turret Hudson did the basics, “I made sure my ballistic shield was clear and my weapon was good to go. That’s all I had on my mind. As long as that was good, I’m good.”
These were the first 24th MEU Marines leaving the wire and Hudson was in front.
“It is extra scary because you are the first one who sees everything,” he said. “Visibility is bad; there is dust, especially for the gunner. You have no windows, no shields, you just have to take it all in and look out for these (insurgents) guys.”
He was searching the vast Afghan desert for everything and anything.
“I had like super hearing and super sight,” he said.
This was different from every other humvee ride Hudson had ever been a part of… this was real. “It’s your life! Back there (home) no one is shooting at you,” he said, explaining his amplified awareness.
But he is here not ‘back there,’ and his vision is essential for more than just himself. “I’m the eyes for the whole convoy. I’m the first one, so I’ve got to look out for anyone on the side of the road, IEDs, potholes and wires.”
“Man, there are too many potholes,” he quipped, still feeling the bruises from being tossed around.
Hudson’s vantage point allowed him to view the terrain, scanning for danger, but that’s not what he saw.
“At first it’s like, you’ve got ears and eyes and all you are thinking about is bombs, guns, enemy, enemy, enemy; when you see those kids you are like wow. It changes your mind, but you have to stay focused no matter what,” Hudson said.
Making it real
While officially named mission 001 and 002, the Marines of BLT 1/6 hesitate to use a word that conjures memories of their firefights inside of Iraq’s worst neighborhoods. So the name might be a misnomer, but delve deeper into the psyche of these men and you find that putting boot to ground, or in this case powder-thin dust, is an important threshold to cross.
Week after week, more Marines arrive at the base. More Marines wait for the call from their commander, ordering the start of operations. When the time came for the first contingent of Marines to break from the weapons maintenance, acclimation hikes and rules of engagement classes, the question of if they wanted to go never came up – this is what Marines do. They were going.
“Today was just a test fire of 240’s and 50 cal (machine guns),” said 1st Lt. Micah Steinpfad, executive officer, Alpha Co., BLT 1/6, 24th MEU, ISAF.
Steinpfad is cautious about calling this a mission, comparing this to the hornet’s nest these Marines walked into during their last deployment to Iraq would be unthinkable, but this was the first chance for his Marines to get outside the camp.
“The more you can push Marines out, get them talking to the local people, the more they start to comprehend what is actually going on out here. The closer they get to the enemy and civilian populations, two very different things, I think the more real this becomes… the more real their sacrifice becomes,” he explained.
Butterflies and bullets
As the Marines rolled out to the range, they got a first-hand look at the Afghanistan country-side and instantly compared it to their pre-deployment training.
“At first it was kind of nerve racking, I mean you get all this IED training on what can be hidden. There was a lot of trash, so lots of places to hide stuff. (My) imagination was kind of running wild,” said Lance Cpl. Erick Harber, humvee driver, Personal Security Detachment, BLT 1/6, 24th MEU, ISAF.
Harber, in enemy territory for the first time, realized that all the training in the world couldn’t prepare him for the baking flour-like dust that covers the country.
“When we were back at Camp Lejeune (N.C.), we were rehearsing and stuff, but you don’t get the dust you get here. I mean there were a few times (here) we ran into dust clouds and couldn’t see in front of the hood of the humvee. It’s tough and your mind is a lot more active,” he recounted.
So how long did it take the 19-year-old, Columbus, Ind., native to get accustomed to the dirty, bumpy and slow driving required to navigate the unique landscape? About halfway through his first mission.
“I was a little nervous at first, but once I got out there, especially once we started heading back, it got a lot easier,” he said with more than a hint of pride.
Sgt. Cordy Gaeta, an Iraq veteran, explained that confidence is contagious and exercises like this help it spread.
“If I see my guys have more confidence then it will build more confidence in me towards my guys, knowing I'm doing a good job training them on what they need to do,” explained Gaeta, radio operator, PSD, BLT 1/6, 24th MEU, ISAF.
Gaeta experienced the fear of leaving camp for the first time as a lance corporal in Iraq.
“I was pretty scared,” he said, but noted that his first mission was slightly more disorienting than the mid-day movement to a machine gun range. “I was with a recon battalion so we did a little bit more than a normal battalion. Plus, we went out at night and it’s a lot harder to go out at night because you can’t see.”
“The more we went out the easier it got,” he said, a lesson he hoped his Marines picked up on this day. “It helps when you say 'you are going out today', and you get to leave. Even if it is like how we left today – for a short period. It’s a lot better than spending that short period in the tents.”
The ride home
“On the way out there it was a little tense because it was my driver’s first time ever having to drive in this (outside the wire), and then on the way back he knew there wasn’t anything that was going to happen. It was a tension breaking that eased his mind a little bit,” explained Gaeta.
Focusing the Marines on their upcoming tasks was also on the mind of Cpl. Timothy McLaughlin, the commanding officer’s driver, PSD, BLT 1/6, 24th EU, ISAF.
“It is kind of hard, because you need to keep their mind the right way. Don’t let them get complacent. (Going outside the wire), it keeps them where they are not bored,” he said.
Standing exposed, miles away from your fortified base, is a feeling shared only by those who have done it, a right of passage in an infantry unit. The experienced train the next generation of fighters, prepare them as best as they can, but it seems to be understood that some things need to be experienced, not taught.
So when Hudson thinks about an inexperienced turret gunner turning to him for guidance he quickly responds, “Make sure your weapons work, and make sure you have eye protection because of the dust. There are sandstorms that come out of nowhere.”
It’s nothing profound, just the basics, because the last thing a Marine needs to do is over think the situation.
“Basically you just have to experience it for yourself,” he reasoned.
McLaughlin understands that axiom now, after having lived it in Iraq.
“I didn’t know what to expect until I got out there and my training kicked in, and then you are used to everything,” said McLaughlin, a field radio operator during his last tour.
Steinpfad, with combat experience from BLT 1/6’s Iraq deployment, explained that the entire battalion can learn something from stepping off-base, not just their newest Marines.
“I don’t think it matters what deployment you are on. You build off past experiences and I think every time you push outside the wire you learn something new. Whether it be on your first deployment, halfway through your first deployment, doesn’t matter if you are halfway through your third deployment,” he said. “The enemy is always adapting, and you always have to adapt to those changes. As the enemy continues to change, we will continue to learn as we push out… every single time.”
For more information about the 24th MEU visit our website at www.iimefpublic.usmc.mil/24meu.