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Common Scenes & Common Thoughts

A helicopter roars into FOB Jackson in Sangin, Afghanistan. Medical tents are just next to the Helicopter Landing Site (HLS) so casualties can be quickly loaded.

SSG Justin Fitzsimmons, wearing uniform, who had also been on the Gurkha patrol, beat me to the river.  Justin had been out to inspect the school that had been damaged by the bomb, and three ANP checkpoints that need work.  Rifleman James Tong also was cooling down.

Lieutenant Hannah Keenan hits the creek.

A bomb detonated and rattled over base.  2 Platoon, who had been inspecting gear and weapons, had rolled onto a mission and gotten hit.  There were two big fertilizer (believed) bombs in an open field, and both detonated at once, severely wounding a young soldier.  2 Platoon had been keeping their intervals or it would likely have been far worse.  QRF (Quick Reaction Force) was “instant on” and began to assemble within a couple of minutes, and within maybe five minutes they seemed ready to dive into the thick of it.   Everyone knew they likely would also be hit.  Were it not for such young soldiers, we would be at the mercy of every demon.

And then another bomb detonated and the mushroom rolled away and I wondered how our friends were doing.  And then another bomb.  And another.   Four separate attacks.

I crossed the river and climbed up to the guard post which was bristling with more weapons than one might imagine, and I climbed the homemade ladder to the fourth floor, the top.  There, with three British soldiers, all calmly taking in the situation amid terse radio chatter, I peered through the CLU of a Javelin missile.  (No Javelin was attached).  The CLU, or Command Launch Unit, is an excellent optic, and there about 2kms distant, orange smoke wafted above the trees, as the call came that the British MERT helicopter (Medical Evacuation Response Team) was nearly on scene from Bastion.  I asked a British soldier on the radio why they popped orange at the landing zone; was the LZ hot?  Why didn’t they pop something else, like green or white?  The Chinook roared over the smoke, low and at a high rate of speed, and headed straight for what appeared to be about 5km before it banked right and came back.  I tracked the helicopter through the CLU, and on the way back another orange smoke popped, but this time the Chinook took a neck-breaking right U-turn and swooped in with far more agility than one might expect from such a large helicopter.   Through the CLU, white smoke could be see wafting above the trees, and the Chinook came down and I could see the ramp was open, and then the MERT roared away with the badly wounded soldier to the trauma center at Camp Bastion.  A soldier later mentioned that the wounded man was at the trauma center 53 minutes after the first attack.  Every soldier knows that if they can get you on that helicopter alive, you’ll probably survive.

That night and the next night I had dinner with the Gurkhas.  They had picked up a goat from the market, and also some Pakistani rice, which they say is better than Nepalese rice but more expensive.  Rifleman Santosh Sherestha, from Bhojpur in eastern Nepal, stayed over the fire cooking the goat while Nepalese music played in the background.

The cookhouse reminded me of Nepal.

Rfn Sanjay Limbu Dharan came in to help with the cooking.  Sanjay is from eastern Nepal about two days’ walk from Mt. Everest (that would be about 3-4 days walk for normal, fit people).  I walked three weeks one time to Everest base camp; the Taliban have nothing on the Gurkhas and their mountains.  Adventurous souls who want to know what the terrain is like where many of our people fight in Afghanistan might consider trekking for a month in Nepal.  The mountains are not friendly, but the people are.  After a month deep in the Himalayas, there will have been time to reflect on why we need either another couple hundred thousand more soldiers, or at least understand why more helicopters are crucial.

Before dinner, Corporal Chitra Thapa disseminates important information, warning for instance that nearby FOB Inkerman got hit with IDF (apparently rocket or mortar).  The Gurkha way is usually supportive, not condescending, and Chitra congratulates other Gurkhas for doing some daily tasks such as keeping the combat gear ready, and the weapons spotless.  There is more gunfire on the perimeter but it’s so common that nobody thinks much of it, except that we are about a 30-second walk from the gate where “Terry” (the Taliban) might like to come in.

Someone on the perimeter fires a small parachute illumination which drifts down under the moon.

And floats away.

The men want to know about the American soldier who was captured but I know very little and will not write about anything I would know.  A Gurkha said that he read that the American prisoner is 27 years old and asked if I think we will get back our soldier, and I say that I pray for him and that we have good people who specialize in such things.  Even the stoic Gurkhas want to know how Americans have been able to serve back-to-back combat tours, some as long as 15 months, and I recount the story of a soldier named Jeff who did nearly three years straight in Iraq, and that he was very high-ranking and never had to go to combat but he went to combat constantly.  And I say to the Gurkhas that our young soldiers keeping going because old soldiers lead the way.

The war goes on.  In the morning I ask LT Cripps, and then later SGT Grimes, the same question.  I asked how the men are doing after the latest casualty, and their answers are frank and similar; some of the younger soldiers are shaken, especially the closest buddy of the stricken soldier.  But they are absorbing this punch and are ready for the next mission, and I offer to go with them.  LT Mark Cripps singles out the medic, Beth Sparks, for special praise, saying she is always there in the mess, and had treated the badly wounded soldier the day before.

And that’s about it for some common scenes and thoughts from a common night and day.  There were casualties and firefights again yesterday.  2nd Platoon has been out all night on another combat mission and they are still out, probably giving the local Taliban a big headache.  There was a large explosion about twenty minutes ago.


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