Extracts from the Journal of Lance Corporal Joshua D. Heller, USMC
Helmand Province, Afghanistan
It was 120 degrees today. Stinging sweat dripped into my eyes while our armored vehicle lumbered back to our patrol base. Sand crunched between my back teeth no matter how much I tried to spit it out. We were sent to check out a possible Taliban safe house on the outskirts of Marjah. It turned out to be nothing. Luckily, I had the shotgun seat and wasn’t crammed in the back with the other ten or so sweaty, cranky Marines.
The desert landscape is all the same here—you can’t approximate your location based on terrain or landmarks. When I get home, I’ll probably paint this place. The desert will be mixtures of titanium white, burnt sienna, and permanent rose. Then, I’ll probably just toss the finished painting in the bonfire my step dad stokes behind his trailer every time the Gators play. And while the canvas transforms into ashes, I’ll have a Bud Light and forget I ever stepped foot in this place.
On the way back from today’s patrol we stopped off to talk to one of the village elders. We asked him if he knew Marwand So-and-so, a suspected insurgent. The village elder swore that Marwand was a good man and then he demanded to know when we were going to fix his wells and repair some buildings. In a few weeks, Marwand or someone like him will probably blow up some women and children or a squad of Marines and we still won’t have fixed the village’s wells or buildings because we’re too busy trying to slow the never-ending tide of insurgents.
On the way back from our patrol in Marjah, we passed a small poppy farm (same one I’ve driven by probably fifty times). The pink flowers sway as the gusts from our convoy blow into the green field. Every time we drive by, the farmer’s outside his brown mud shack beating his sons with a stick. People like this farmer have no idea what we’re doing here. There’s only one dynamic they’re concerned with—they need to sell their poppies so that their families can eat. From what I was told, poppies are more valuable than wheat and a hell of a lot easier to grow in a desert environment. Something like 40% of the world’s opium is made with materials grown right here in Helmand. It’s a different way of life and I’m not sure if our politicians realize that poppies and despair grow easier here than western ideals. I love being a Marine, but it’s time to come home and take care of our own business and leave these people to theirs. Don’t get me wrong—I want heroin off the streets as much as the next guy. Just not sure if burning a farmer’s poppy fields is going to win the war on terror. Reminds me of the little Dutch boy trying to plug holes in a dike with his fingers...
I was looking forward to dinner, until I found out that our food shipment was accidently delivered to the Georgian base (Georgia the country, not the state). They didn’t bother to tell the deliverymen that it wasn’t theirs--they kept it anyway. This means another two weeks of powdered eggs and bread for breakfast and chili mac for dinner. Well, it won’t be the first time, and it won’t be the last. Could use a Big Mac right about now.
When I got back to our tent, I changed out of my sweat soaked uniform and went to our improvised gym with Chris Hoffman (a squad leader from my platoon). As it turns out, Chris is from Florida, too—the Orlando area. Our whole childhood we lived right down the highway from each other and never even knew it. He seems like a good guy.
Got a letter from Jess. She sent one of those black and white ultrasound photos of the baby. It still looks like a lizard, but it’s exciting anyway. She said she’s gonna meet me in Camp Pendleton when I get back, finish her two year degree soon after, then take a break from college while the baby is still little. She finally told her dad she was pregnant. He wants to help her move to California. He also mentioned that I could work for him when I get out of the military and we move back home. I would make decent money at his company. I guess he feels bad about how pissed he was when we got married. Sounds like the thought of her leaving home made him feel guilty. We’ll see. He was a major ass when he found out she went to the courthouse to marry a Marine. I thought it was because he’s a super liberal, but Jess says it’s because his older brother was killed in Vietnam. Maybe it’s both.
Hung out with Chris some more. We watched a few episodes of Dexter on my laptop in our tent. Our tent is home to twelve green, military issue cots—six evenly spaced on each side. You can tell who each area belongs to by what kind of personal items clutter their living spaces. My rack has stacks of books crammed underneath it—from Dickens to Tolstoy to Stieg Larrsen. Chris’s rack is surrounded by cylindrical containers of workout protein and pictures of his family scotch-taped to the wall of the tent. Lance Corporal Lee’s is littered with cartons of Newports and dirty socks. The top of Private Miller’s cot is strewn with cellophane wrapped logs of Copenhagen dip and deer hunting magazines. And so on down the line...The inside of our tent is dark, but each rack has a single light bulb over the cot for use by its occupant.
After watching some stuff on my laptop, we got to talking about Chris’s wife and two kids. He joined the Marines in his early twenties after trying to support his family doing odd jobs for construction companies. He had a cousin killed in the World Trade Center. Sounded like they were close. Anyway, we’re gonna get our families together when we get home. His wife is gonna call Jess and get to know her and tell her what it’s like living on a Marine base and stuff.
Gonna get to bed. Early patrol tomorrow.
Uneventful patrol today.
No hot water to shave or shower. Generators were down--again. Also, had a hard time sleeping in the heat, so I just sat around outside and smoked cigarettes until they got the air conditioners running.
Ran into Chris at the chow tent. We sat alone talking at a plastic table with folding chairs, our paper plates of chicken bones and crumpled napkins pushed to the side. A few other Marines, among the last of the dinner crowd, sat finishing their cans of strawberry Shasta while watching rebroadcasts of baseball games from the States on a small television. The occasional rumble of military aircraft shook the tent as they flew overhead.
I showed Chris the ultrasound picture that Jess sent me. I always have it with me. He just sat staring at it, a distant look in his eye. He said it reminded him of the birth of his first little girl. He didn’t pass out or cry like people think men do in the delivery room. Instead, he said he couldn’t stop laughing in disbelief at the sight of that slimy head emerging into the world—a miniature hybrid copy of him and his wife—a concoction of common and contradictory traits (his nose, her eyes, his temper, her sense of humor, etc). His smile disappeared when he reminisced of the time when their second girl was born and his wife’s blood pressure dropped drastically during delivery. They rushed him out into the loneliness of the waiting room, without so much as a “she’ll be OK” or “we just need to monitor her more closely.” She ended up pulling through, but he spent the next two hours in the waiting room wondering if his two year old girl would understand why mommy wasn’t home, but her new little sister was.
Listening to him talk, I wished that I could be in his squad. Someone who loves his family that much and can sit and relate these kinds of feelings must be a good leader. There has to be some humanity in people trained to kill for a living.
Chris was killed on patrol today. I was asleep on my cot when I was awoken by the sound of people whispering and moving objects around in our tent. I thought I was dreaming for a minute. I sat up, rubbing my eyes, and when my head cleared I realized something was wrong. Nobody would be in the tent messing around at that time of night. Johnson, a guy from Chris’s squad, was crying a little and packing Chris’s things into his bags. A few other Marines from Chris’s squad were taking his pictures down and folding up his blankets. I asked what happened and Johnson said that Chris was hit by an IED while on a patrol. He said Chris lost both legs up to his groin and bled out by the time they got him to a trauma center. In shock, I helped them pack his things and move them over to the company office. No one else said a word while we packed his things. It’s an inevitable task in war, but when you sit around the tent and pick up a hunting magazine from someone’s rack because you’re bored or you borrow a Newport because you’re out of smokes, you never think that you might end up packing those items to send home to their family. That’s how I felt about Chris’s things as I collected a few of his photographs. His two little blonde girls stared at me, smiling, while I zipped them into an outer pocket of a duffel bag that would be sent home to his wife.
I couldn’t sleep the rest of the night. There wasn’t anger and crying like you always see in war movies. It was just silence. Nobody said a word. I got up and almost started to write Chris’s wife a letter, but I couldn’t get past the date at the top of the paper. “Dear Lisa” seemed like a ridiculous thing to say. But not being able to say anything seemed cowardly, so I balled up the piece of paper and threw it into the corner of the tent. As I stared at the crumpled ball, I finally started to cry. That piece of paper was the period at the end of a long, dismal sentence.
After eating breakfast, Johnson said the guy who placed the IED that killed Chris was caught in a raid and brought to the temporary detention facility on our base. The makeshift prison is guarded by a few Marines. Private Sierra, a truck driver who lives next to me in our tent, said he knew the guards on duty and he asked if I wanted to go in to see the scumbag.
We went in, bribing one of the guards with a pack of Newports. The guy was sitting calmly, barefoot and cross-legged in the dirt, leaning against the wall. Dirty tan pajamas hung off his light frame. He appeared to be middle aged (maybe thirty or forty). He wore a short, black beard, peppered with gray, and curly hair fell into his eyes. Staring straight ahead, he didn’t acknowledge our presence.
There was an interpreter in the room—a young Afghan man wearing a desert uniform similar to ours. He sat in a metal chair, legs crossed and arms folded across his chest. He told us the insurgent wouldn’t talk to us, but that the guy had told him his mother was shot during a street battle when the Americans first came to the country. She was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. An American medic tried to help her, but she died. He swore revenge because they don’t like men to touch their women. He thinks the shooting would have never happened if we hadn’t shown up in their country. As the terp told us this, the guy smiled slightly, as if his vindictive legacy was now validated, but he never looked at us or said a word.
Later that night I heard that he got transferred to a permanent prison in another part of the province. Lucky for him—if I had to see someone taking him another hot tray of food I may have blown him up myself.
Early this morning my squad was mobilized in response to a prison break northeast of Marjah. Some Taliban created a diversion outside of the prison, killing several civilians. In the chaos, the prisoners overpowered the guards and made their escape.
The long ride ended with a shudder and a hiss of the brakes—Lee had sang down to eight bottles of beer on the wall by the time we got there. As I jumped from the back of our armored truck, I smelled burnt flesh and gun powder. Dust blew into my eyes, so I put my goggles on before surveying the scene of the carnage. A white van at the entrance to the prison’s perimeter fence stood smoldering; the top peeled back from the force of the explosives packed inside. It looked like an open can of sardines. The driver still sat in the seat, but his charred head sat detached on the hood and his left arm dangled from the shattered window.
The desert sun was beginning to rise. It framed the silhouettes of uniformed Afghanis who wandered dazed through the rubble, scratching their heads or staring at the ground, in a fruitless search for nothing. One of them said about a hundred prisoners were either killed in the shootout with the Afghan police or had escaped.
I wondered if the guy who killed Chris was among the bodies that littered the outside of the prison. In one area of about a hundred square feet, not one bit of earth was visible though the layer of corpses. I did my best to only step on a person’s arms or legs instead of their heads and torsos—as if they were still alive and I was trying to be as courteous as possible. Silva and I walked around the perimeter looking for Chris’s killer, but many of the bodies were burnt and unrecognizable.
There were a few veiled women here already, wailing on their knees over their dead. I found a dead kid in the sea of corpses. The blast blew her right out of her sandals and ripped part of her clothes off. She was awkwardly posed on top of other dead bodies, her limbs twisted in impossible angles. I caught myself reaching to pull her tattered brown dress down over her exposed buttocks, but hesitated, remembering that we weren’t supposed to touch females, dead or alive. I stood for a second staring at her and decided to pull her dress down anyway. I would want someone to cover her if it were my daughter.
Since the remaining prisoners had already fled, there wasn’t much for us to do, so we headed back to base.
At the gym that night, someone told me that the prisoners were using women and children as shields as they moved through the neighboring villages. Because of the rules of engagement, that precluded us from attacking them with artillery or aircraft as they moved through the towns. We’d have to hope that ground troops catch up to them eventually.
The shit has hit the fan.
Went out on a large operation in Marjah—insurgent activity has picked up over the past few days by means of IEDs, assassinations of local officials, and attacks on other patrol bases.
I was at an intersection with a few other Marines providing security at a vehicle checkpoint. We were aiding some Afghan police who were checking IDs of men driving through the area. Although summer has passed it was still hot—by 0900 our uniforms were soaked through with sweat. You could tell how long someone has been outside by how big the white circles of salt were on the armpits of their uniforms. Suffering through this kind of heat because this country can’t get its shit together is enough to make you want to kill someone.
A squad of Marines from another company passed through the intersection. They were patrolling the deserted streets, weapons held low with fatigue, fighting the “thousand yard stare” by scanning the surrounding buildings. These guys had probably been out since about 0400 or so. They halted and their squad leader conferred with the guy in charge of my group, Corporal Landon. We would be joining with their squad as they head back to the district center for some rest before their next patrol. It wasn’t safe for just four of us to go back alone.
My fire team followed the squad through dusty streets lined with mud wall compounds. We were in a standard file formation, staggered along each side of the street, moving like a funeral procession past dead dogs and broken down vehicles. Due to the recent upswing of violence, not a lot of people were out and about. An occasional old man or boy with a jug of water or box of food walked by.
Not long after we began our trek back, a thmp sounded from the front of the squad. At the front of the line of Marines I could see a body being tossed into the street by the blast. Debris rained down on the shoulders of the men running to his aid. We assumed a cordon around the blast site, taking cover with rifles facing outward. A second, louder thmp erupted a few seconds later from the same general area. Typical tactic of cowards—as Marines run up to aid someone injured in the first blast, a second IED is detonated to harm the responders and add more confusion and chaos.
Marines from the squad were running around, treating wounded troops and shouting out commands to check our areas for signs of more IEDs or triggermen. I could see the initial victim from my vantage point. His legs were gone up to mid-thigh, replaced by leftover flaps of skin and gore. An impossible amount of blood streamed from the wounds. A circle of black grew around the stumps. When blood mixes with the dirt of the roads, it’s black, not bright red like you’d think. The injured troop was laying in the middle of the road, trying to talk to another Marine who knelt over him, holding his hand. Two corpsmen were applying tourniquets and field dressings to the wounds. After a few minutes of frantic first aid, one of the corpsmen threw down a bandage in frustration and ran off, probably to treat someone who had a better chance of making it. The kneeling Marine threw his helmet to the ground and started crying, tears falling down his grimy face. He pulled something out of the dead man’s cargo pocket and placed it in his own pants pocket. It looked like a folded up letter.
Another Marine ran up to the grunt who was kneeling and pulled him up by his Kevlar vest. He was pointing down an alley, shouting, eyebrows knit with anger. As they ran in my direction, I could hear one of them saying, “gonna kill those fuckers.” They charged through the cordon, eyes wide and teeth clenched through parted lips. They must have seen something, probably the IED triggermen. A few other troops followed behind them.
I brought up the rear, careening through a walled compound and into a mud brick dwelling that looked like it housed several people, probably an entire extended family. It was a long, rectangular shaped house with a narrow hallway that opened into several rooms. The others ran into the first few rooms, shouts and curses punctuated by the reports of rifle shots. I ran to a closed door in the dark hallway. I’d like to say that I was hoping to calmly capture the IED emplacers, ending the chaotic orgy of violence of the last several minutes. But the hate had flared in me, as well.
I braced myself and kicked open the worn, wooden door, running in to assess possible targets, my rifle pointed straight ahead. There was one guy sitting at a table, working on electronics of some type. He just sat there, looking at the door when I kicked it in. I trained my rifle on the center of his chest and was about to command him to stand and hold his hands up in my broken Pashtun. When I recognized him, he seemed to recognize me, too. He had the same slight smile that I remember, like he knew he had won, no matter what happened in the next few seconds. He continued to sit calmly, waiting for whatever I chose to do. An AK-47 assault rifle leaned against the wall to his side, just out of his reach. Visions of Chris’s smiling girls flashed into my head.
Our eyes met for a split second over the iron sight post of my rifle. The force of my single shot threw him back out of the chair, bouncing off the wall behind him, and landing face down on the floor. A red circle of blood marked the spot on the dried mud wall where he hit. A whiff of burnt gun powder and the tink-tink-tink of the expended cartridge striking the floor ended our reunion.
As I stood staring at his body, a boy of about eight or nine pushed past me and threw himself on the man’s body. He looked back and forth between me and the corpse, sobbing and ranting foreign words of condemnation.
Corporal Landon ran in. When he saw that the insurgent was unarmed, he grabbed me by the back of my Kevlar vest and dragged me out of the back of the house. He threw me down into the dirt, then grabbed the chin strap of my helmet, jerking my head in frustration as he screamed at me--telling me how stupid I was and how I was gonna be in jail when my baby was born. I was in shock and couldn’t even raise an arm to defend myself or process what he was telling me. Landon was still wailing on me when our platoon sergeant came back and separated us, quickly putting me on a truck back to base.
When I got back, I sat outside and smoked. I don’t know why I followed those Marines into that house. It started as duty—more insurgents off the street means we’re one step closer to finishing this. By the time I kicked in that door and looked into the man’s eyes, “duty” turned into a simple balancing of accounts—the sliding of an abacus bead. The only problem is I’m not chief accountant. I’m just the guy that makes coffee and copies.
The desert landscape seemed even drearier now. I normally would have said that the sunset was a beautiful, orange disk sinking below the horizon, but the sun was scarred by the barb-wire that ran along the top of the perimeter wall.
I spent the rest of the night lying in my tent, thinking about my step-dad’s bonfire.
I spent most of the day answering questions from officers I didn’t know. I told the truth. My guilt will be decided by semantics—how much of a threat did I feel he was, how close he was to grabbing his rifle, and other things like that. I have many more days of questions ahead of me.
I heard through the “lance corporal grapevine” that the angry Marines I followed into the compound may have killed some innocent people. CNN will probably know the truth before I do. I’m sure in that broadcast they won’t mention that a prolific IED maker was working in the same house.
I laid down on my hard green cot and thought about the dead man. Will his son seek revenge against another American for what I did? I have a baby on the way and he has a kid—do I deserve to go home in a body bag while he and his son live to kill more Americans and civilians? I’m not able to come up with an answer to whether what I did was right or wrong. By the Law of War, I should be court martialed and thrown in the Federal Pen at Leavenworth as a murderer. When I’m sitting down telling my grandchildren about my time at war, this won’t be something I’m proud of, but I’m not sure I would have done anything different either.
How long will our blood stain the streets of Marjah? Is it gone already, soaked up by the dust? Or will the black circles still be there when the next country tries to fix this place? Probably doesn’t matter--poppy will be grown and the farmer’s sons will be beaten.