May 23, 2009

I never was patriotic, even after I endured the cruelty of basic training in the frosty Missouri winter or even after that September morning in 200l when our whole nation stood speechless. In fact, in spite of my fairly pedestrian political stance, I feel strongly we, as a people, have drifted from the intentions of our fathers. But after coming home from Afghanistan and watching my brothers in arms killed for “freedom”, I fight tears every time I hear the National Anthem and mean every word in my Pledge.

I remember getting back to that Marine FOB in Jalalabad and seeing Ben, my brother. We hugged like never before or since. I couldn’t hold back the tears, and the memory of that embrace is causing my eyes to well as I type this. Ben didn’t go on that mission with us, thankfully. I remember when we left Jbad for Asadabad. It was going to be a quick trip to Abad, and the next day would involve a quick recon of an obstacle on what we called “IED Alley.”

Asadabad is about as close as you can get to the border of Pakistan without being in it and we knew that IEDs had been found around that area. At the time, that was the hot point in the north. That’s why we had our RCP (route clearance package) leading the way. When we first got to Jbad, I remember meeting SSG Ray. He had a quiet swagger about him and I could tell his men respected him. I had heard good things about Ray and he had received his E6 not long after we deployed to Afghanistan. In my opinion, a SSG (E6) has the hardest job in the Army. He is in charge of about 8-10 men and has to lock up the respect of the soldiers he is leading, some of which he has been selected over, and earn the respect of his platoon leader.  The best ones can balance both and the worst ones focus too much on one or the other and end up a puppet and not a leader. I liked Ray from the first time I met him because he had both. He was in charge of the 391st RCP in Jbad. His team was Sgt Hill, SPC Atkins and attached to them was Sgt Hiett, a medic who had volunteered to go with our Battalion when his wasn’t deploying.

I remember that night in Abad, before we left for our recon. One of my soldiers and I ended up finding a poker game with a group of marines. Hiett played with us. I can still see his big full smile and hear his deep genuine laugh. After playing poker, we sneaked back into the hooch where the rest of our joint team was sleeping, except for Tom, who slept outside on the ground about 20 meters from our door. Tom, a contract specialist and retired Special Forces, was like our guide. You could tell he had seen a lot of enemy contact. He didn’t act like a tough guy because he didn’t have to, but he was the baddest man I have ever met in person. He would go out with the Afghan Special Forces on ‘hiking’ trips over the demanding and dangerous Afghan terrain near the Pak border. I am glad that he was with us for what turned into the longest 48 hours of my life (at that time).

On March 12th (March 11th back in the states-Carla’s birthday) we left the marine FOB in Abad and headed out for our recon. I knew, besides the route we to took to the US Special Forces camp the month before that this would be the most dangerous trip I had taken, but after being in Afghanistan for over 300 days, I had a feeling of invincibility (which would be shattered and replaced with fear very soon). We had a great trip up the mountain and stopped by another Marine camp about 3 km from our turn around point. The marines, with their 50 cal gunner in the turret had been leading the way on the trip up. We stopped a few times so our RCP and theirs could get out and manually check a few “tight” spots. Of course, we had our various “signal jammers” like Acorns, MMBJ and Warlocks and were following all our training. After checking a fording area on the river, we turned around and headed down the mountain. We stopped again at the Marine camp and again at our recon area to take pictures and discuss obstacle blasting and removal.

For some reason, I didn’t take my Sat phone because it was just supposed to be a quick day trip and then back to the FOB for some chow and rest before we headed back to Jbad the next day. We had been having a few troubles with our TACSET that proved to be very memorable to me. A few km down from our recon spot, we rounded a turn and I heard a loud blast immediately followed by a black cloud. It’s hard to remember what came over the radio but I do remember how time was suspended and how adrenaline burned my veins. It was like time stopped and then sprinted to catch back up to itself. I was the TC in my vehicle and I had two LTs in the back with another SSG. SGT Coles, one of my soldiers was driving. We all jumped out of the vehicle and headed in different directions.

About an hour previous, after we crossed the river at our turn around point, the marines had taken the rear and our guys, SSG Ray’s vehicle had taken the lead. For some reason, Hiett, one of our two, and best medic, had switched vehicles and was riding in the front vehicle with Ray. Atkins was the driver and Hill was in the turret. When we found them, all of them had been thrown from the vehicle. Atkins was under the HMMWV and it had landed on its side. He had no vitals when he was found and it was difficult getting the vehicle off of him. Ray’s door had been thrown over 100m into the field on the right, a door that is covered with 3/4in armor plating and double pane bullet proof glass. The IED had detonated right behind his seat. Hiett was ejected out of the vehicle on the left into a tree. Hill, because he was in the turret was propelled upward by the chunks of metal peeled from the floor of the vehicle and thrust into his legs.

While I was trying to get a good signal on our radio to call in the 9 line, Coles and the Navy medic were trying to save Hill’s life. Coles told me later that night that as soon as the medic saw Hill that he went into shock. So, now we have no medics; fortunately, Coles had taken a 2 day combat life saver course. While he was performing CPR on Hill, his mouth would fill with blood from Hill’s. Hill’s legs were just raw meat- he was bleeding out fast. I will never forget the image of Coles straddling Hill and performing chest compressions, and the  red mass that was once Hill’s legs. By the time the Blackhawk touched down in a tornado of red smoke, we had lost the lives of four warriors and defenders of freedom.

When the blast occurred, there were 2 vehicles full of about 15 local nationals locked into our perimeter. We made them all get out and get on the ground. I remember a young marine about to lose it because one of the locals was digging into his pocket and not doing what we had instructed them to do, which was to lie on the ground face down with their hands in front of them. Through some broken Pashto and hand motions, I came to understand that this particular local was either deaf or ‘slow’. I have very little doubt that he would be dead if I wouldn’t have been in that spot at that time. Of course, we were all angry, shocked, scared, and ready to fire at anything. Our situation was that we had lost 4 men, 4 friends, 4 precious lives. So much happened, so fast before the sun went down that night, and the images still burn all my senses. The sights, the smells, the ringing, the angst and the rigid muscles still come back occasionally.

We were now 12 men that had to spend the night on IED alley, not knowing what to expect, but anything. We were in a terrible location, in the valley with mountains on both sides. Somewhere on our right or left, there was someone watching, praising their God for the loss we incurred. Several images of that area are branded on my brain. I remember my position for the night was on the left, in between two houses. Of course, there was much discussion about how those people in one of those homes had to see something. We had driven right over the same area on the way up; so, either someone placed the device within a two hour time period with a pressure plate or it was command detonated through some frequency that our jammers didn’t cover. Either way, they had to know something. But, whether those that lived in that house hated us or not, they couldn’t have stopped whoever planted that device. I remember suspecting the local police in that area. I never did trust them in all my experience there. Corruption thrives in poverty, fear and ignorance. Fortunately, Tom kept them out of our perimeter for the most part.

I remember the light show of artillery on both sides of us as our A10 brothers in the sky lit up the mountains around us. I remember how nothing felt real. Our senses were on edge but inside was a continual shaking of the head, partly in disbelief and partly in reaction to the screaming of our present reality. Coles and I were the only ones that brought our night vision. All your training comes back to you, you finally realize why you wear the weight of all this ridiculous gear, you wonder if the sun will warm your dead body or your eyes will process its light, you question why you joined the fight and remember the faces of those you are protecting at home. Something about adrenaline makes you cold and tired as it eases off. I remember being cold and I remember my body feeling heavy. My mind was a vigilant but my legs were fighting atrophy. The smell of the blast and blood seemed to claim that area, long after the smoke had cleared and the earth had soaked in the red. The back of my tongue tightens as I recall that metallic scent. I thought of Carla standing in black, weeping, her tears reflecting the colors of the flag draped over my casket. I thought of the wives and children of those friends we had placed on that sad black bird not 6 hours ago. What will they do when they find out? I can’t think of a better way to die than on the battlefield, as a sacrifice for something greater than you, as a sacrifice not only for the lives of others, but a way of life for others, for principles and values.

The 12 of us did see the sun that next morning. By lunch we were rationing MREs and talking about how many times you could drink your urine and survive. Luckily, it didn’t come to that. Another team made its way up the road and got us out of there around 2200 hrs that night. The sight of the mangled HMMWV being lifted onto that truck was an exclamation point on what had happened. The vehicle was nothing more than a mass of metal, barely resembling its intentional form. The hole in the ground was waist high and wide enough for two ordnance experts inspecting the blast. For some reason, the tree that Hiett was found in and under presses on me. I wonder what it looks like now. I have been on satellite sites and tried to find the exact point of our encounter, but I can’t zoom in far enough. I wonder what good it would do for me anyway. I guess I just expect that tree to be there, standing tall and sad, remembering, as I do.

A few days later, we had a ceremony for our fallen comrades in Jbad. I stood behind the boots of Hiett while the entire population of the FOB line up to salute and honor our fallen brothers.

Sgt. Kevin D. Akins was deployed to Iraq in 2003and then went to Afghanistan in February 2005.

Ray’s wife had a 5-year-old son who lost his father in a vehicle accident in 2002. Ray had filled the paternal role since he married the boy’s mother, Annastasia, on July 4, 2004. “I just miss him every day,” the boy, Desmond, said at Ray’s funeral in the states. “I love him. He was the only one like my daddy.” Desmond then offered a slow, formal salute while standing beside Ray’s flag-draped casket, according to an article I found later.

“I never knew I could be loved the way Joe Ray loved me so completely and so true,” Ray’s wife declared stateside. “I am so blessed to have been Joe Ray’s wife. I just want to say, now and forever, I love this man.” Ray also had a 2 year old daughter.

Hiett left behind a wife, Misty, and a 2 year old daughter, Kyra which he saw for the final time during his leave in September.

Hill left behind his wife, Alexis, and two daughters, ages 6 and 1.

They were 30 days away from seeing their families again.

A few months after getting back home, I remember telling Carla about it and balling. I never spoke much about this experience, but in the light of losing Carla, it feels easier to talk about now. She just held me and listened. In fact, I often envy Ray, Hill, Atkins and Hiett. They died a hero’s death on the battlefield fighting for freedom, a sacrifice for the life of others. I’ll probably die in some sad nursing home somewhere. I have wondered often if Carla and I would be together if I would have died that day. Regardless, it is because of their lives and deaths that I am patriotic. It is because of their sacrifice that freedom continues. I think of them when my eyes pool with pride over our flag. I think of their children, sons and daughters of patriots, who can one day tell the story to their children of their grandfather’s bravery and blood as a purchase for their freedom.

I miss you. I love you. I honor you today.


3 Responses to “Memorial”

  1. Geri said

    Michael, thanks for reposting. Words can’t describe your courage and stength to share such a personal experience. Thank you for serving.

  2. Britt said

    Thank You! I will be taking my 10 yo Daughter to Memorial services so she fully understands why she has the rights and freedoms you and your fallen brothers (and their families) have helped to grant her. God Bless you and those who gave thier ALL! Britt Warden (US Army 1989-1994)

  3. Debbie said

    Michael you are awesome and your words reach places in my heart seldom visited. I thank you for your entire blog and want you to know that I think you are amazing, talented, and I thank you for sharing yourself. I am proud of you, Ben, and the many others that sacrifice for all of us…

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