STEPPING OFF THE C-130 in Jacobabad reminded me of every description I’d ever read about another generation of Marines arriving in Vietnam. Only five days after the commandant’s speech, it was Bravo Company’s turn to secure Shabaz Air Base at Jacobabad, in central Pakistan. Even in November, the sun was so hot I watched dark sweat stains spread across the tops of my tan boots. Sandbagged bunkers ringed the tarmac, and fuel trucks, Humvees, and helicopters were crammed onto every square inch of pavement. Adjacent to the runway stood a metal hangar painted in a splotchy brown camouflage motif. Staff Sergeant Marine and I walked toward it.
Inside, government-issue cots filled half the space. Men slept, their eyes shielded from the light by bandannas and T-shirts. Assault rifles lay within easy reach under the cots. Ponchos hanging from parachute cord provided minimal privacy. It looked like a refugee camp. The other half of the hangar was divided into separate briefing areas, with maps, charts, and rows of metal chairs. Our footsteps echoed through the silent hangar, and no one moved as we walked the length of the room to the doorway on the other side.
I squinted in the bright sunlight. Behind the hangar were a dozen low, white stucco buildings. South of them, stone aircraft revetments were built at random. Neat rows would be more vulnerable to aerial attack. But what interested me was to the west, back across the runway from the hangar. The town of Jacobabad stretched from smoggy horizon to smoggy horizon. It sprawled in a vaguely menacing third world way, with boxy water towers and television antennas sticking up from the alleys. The dusty brown construction blended with the smog. Marine and I walked the whole perimeter of the base, filling Alpha’s old positions with our Marines and plotting mortar targets in case we had to defend the field.
Tucked behind one of the revetments was a black Chinook helicopter, propped forlornly on a pile of cinderblocks, missing one of its landing gear. I pointed it out to Staff Sergeant Marine. “That’s the Sword bird we heard about. Lost a wheel taking off out of Mullah Omar’s compound. Looks like it should be sitting in a front yard in West Virginia.”
“Or Maryland, sir.”
Jacobabad was a spook fest. A different team of scruffy-looking commandos lived in each revetment. “Lockheed and Boeing contractors” — masquerading CIA and Delta Force operators — mingled with Royal Marines, Special Air Service troopers, Air Force pilots, SEALs, and others. A maintenance crew patched bullet holes in a helicopter, while another group played touch football on the taxiway next to them.
One of the MEU’s recon teams manned a position atop a hangar, and we climbed up for a look around. The air was hazy, filled with dust and smoke from a thousand burning trash piles and cooking fires. Scrubby trees ringed the runway, but otherwise the ground was bare, baked into cracks and fissures by the relentless sun. Nothing moved. Rudy Reyes and another Marine wore T-shirts caked with white sweat stains. With sunglasses and zinc-covered noses, they could have been lifeguards. Binoculars, a radio, and a sniper rifle lay between them. Recon Marines trained as observers. Sitting atop the hangar in Jacobabad was a perfect observation mission, albeit without the drama of snooping through enemy territory in the dark.
“You guys ever see anything interesting up here?” Marine asked as if he doubted the answer could be affirmative.
“There’s an ambulance casing us,” Rudy said. He stood and I noticed a drawing in his hand. He was sketching the airfield’s perimeter, recording azimuths and distances to landmarks so he could call in mortars or air strikes with precision. “It has a red crescent on the door, and the shades are always drawn. They come by every day, and a guy with a camera snaps pictures from behind the shades. ISI, probably.”
The Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence agency had helped put the Taliban in power. We knew they were no friends of ours, but I was surprised to hear their surveillance was so bold. Officially, no American forces were operating in Pakistan at that time. When pressed, defense officials had acknowledged a small U.S. presence but stated that it was there only to provide logistical support or to launch search-and-rescue missions. We knew there was precious little difference between search-and-rescue and search-and-destroy.
“Do they watch you watching them?” Marine’s interest was piqued.
Rudy shook his head. “We try to stay cool about countersurveillance. Only two Marines up here at a time during the day, and we keep a low profile. The real work happens at night. We patrol out near the town, plant motion sensors, that kind of thing.” Recon’s mystique had grown out of clandestine missions like those.
To daytime observers, like the men in the ambulance, the air base would have looked nearly deserted. Most Americans slept in the cool shade of the hangar, and the Marine positions on the lines were well camouflaged. Members of the Pakistani air force puttered around on scooters, selling cold glass bottles of Coke.
At night, the charade stopped. A full day’s work was crammed into the frantic ten hours between sunset and sunrise. Aircraft landed at five-minute intervals, sometimes having flown nonstop all the way from the United States. Most of them were big cargo planes, carrying supplies for the war in Afghanistan. Jet fighters came and went, and so did Predator reconnaissance drones flown by the Air Force and the CIA. I was always unnerved to be walking down a taxiway and have the pilotless Predator roll past, eyeballing me with its movable cameras. Nighttime also brought more activity outside the airfield’s walls. Strings of red tracer fire reached into the sky, and explosions rocked the dark town. Pakistani officers invariably claimed that these were wedding celebrations and cars backfiring. But we were under no illusions — Pakistan’s support for the United States didn’t extend much below President Musharraf. Life at Jacobabad took on the tone of spy versus spy.
A week into our stay, on an otherwise indistinguishable drowsy afternoon, a man wearing a traditional Pakistani dishdasha knocked on the door of the building serving as our company headquarters.
“I must speak to the senior American present.”
Captain Whitmer was in a meeting, so I identified myself.
“Sir, there is a telephone call in our offices. Please come with me.” His speech was exceedingly formal and lightly accented. A slight bow of his head followed the request.
I went with him across the field to a building I had not yet entered. Whitewashed rocks lined the walkway, and a Pakistani flag was painted on the bed of stones surrounding a small sign announcing this as an operations center of the Pakistani air force. I knew the general story of the United States’ relationship with Pakistan’s air force. After paying the U.S. for twenty-eight F-16 fighters, it had received none of them following Pakistan’s 1998 nuclear tests. But I hadn’t realized the intensely personal effect this soured deal still had on Pakistanis.
Entering the dim ready room, I paused to let my eyes adjust from the sunlight outside. A dozen pilots in green flight suits lolled in chairs, smoking. Conversation stopped, and they stared at me. Taped to the walls were dozens of pictures of F-16s: flying, landing, taking off, flames shooting from afterburners. It looked like an eight-year-old boy’s bedroom. The hangars at Jacobabad had been built for the expected jets. Now they sat empty. These pilots had been trained and transferred here to fly them. Now they sat idle.
I picked up the phone, overly conscious that I personified my nation’s diplomatic bludgeoning. The line was dead. When I told my escort, he shrugged.
“What unit are you from?” This didn’t sound like idle curiosity.
“The U.S. Marines.”
“Which unit specifically? How many machine guns do you have?”
I pushed past him and back into the sunlight.
After nearly two weeks at Jacobabad, we were all getting restless. The company received warning orders for three different missions, but none of them launched. Everyone had a different euphemism for Afghanistan — “up north” or “over the mountains.” We were fixated on it. On the ship, we had wanted to go ashore. But sitting at Jacobabad wasn’t enough. We were so close but not doing anything. We felt like the second string and imagined other units doing all sorts of missions across the border. Our generation had been reared on the hundred-hour war, and we feared this one would end without us.
Early one evening, Jim and I sat on the porch of the building we used as our headquarters. It was incongruous, lounging there on wooden chairs in the dusk, looking out across a baked field to a distant line of trees. Except for the pistols strapped to our thighs, we could have been anywhere. A field ration heater gurgled at my feet, warming a ham omelet for dinner. I took a bag of M&M’s from the MRE pouch and tore it open, reading a printed advertisement on the inside of the bag.
“I can enter to win tickets to the Olympics.”
“Which ones?” Jim had opted to pass on dinner and was drinking coffee instead.
“Summer Games. Barcelona. 1992. This fucking MRE is ten years old.”
“Enjoy that omelet, bro.”
Captain Whitmer joined us. He had just come from the nightly commander’s meeting, and he was smiling. We were leaving Jacobabad as abruptly as we’d come. The next morning, the Army’s 101st Airborne Division would relieve us, and we would fly back to the ship and prepare for a follow-on mission in Afghanistan. The Twenty-sixth MEU, sailing from North Carolina, was cutting through the Suez Canal to join us. Together, the two MEUs would be known as Task Force 58, commanded by Brigadier General James Mattis. I sat upright. Task Force 58 had been the name of my grandfather’s unit at the Battle of the Philippine Sea. That night, we packed our gear, excited finally to be going up north, over the mountains.
“Tomorrow is Thanksgiving. Celebrate it on your own time.” The Dubuque’s captain spoke wryly over the ship’s intercom, but his message stuck: we’re busy out here, and it’s no place for the comforts of home, even if they are only in your mind. I sat at the desk in my stateroom, catching up on paperwork. I had made the mistake of not bringing my laptop to Jacobabad, thinking we would be busy with missions. Now I waged war by keyboard, ensuring that Marines were promoted and evaluations written before we jumped off for our next stint ashore.
In spite of all the competing demands on everyone’s time, the Dubuque’s crew prepared a feast for us the following evening. We sat down at a wardroom table decorated with paper turkeys and plastic pumpkins. Turkey, mashed potatoes and gravy, stuffing, cranberry sauce, and apple pie. For a short time, we were able to pretend that life was normal again. We held hands around the table and said a prayer for our families at home, for the thousands of families celebrating their first Thanksgiving with an empty chair at the table, and for our comrades whose vigilance allowed us the simple gift of sharing a meal together. When we finished eating, I returned to my room to pack for the flight to Afghanistan.
Rucksack, flak jacket, ceramic plates to stop AK-47 fire, helmet, M-16 rifle, twelve magazines of 5.56 mm ammunition, M9 pistol with five magazines of 9 mm ammo, ten quarts of water, sleeping bag and Gore-Tex liner, fleece jacket, wool hat and gloves, face paint, first-aid kit, maps, blood chit, grease pencils, compass, GPS (Global Positioning System) receiver, toilet paper, eight-inch dive knife, two pairs of underwear, five pairs of socks, three T-shirts, one rain jacket, Pashto and Dari translation guides, disposable cameras, calculator, plastic transparencies, case of PowerBars, iodine tablets, earplugs, entrenching tool, picture of my family taken the Christmas before, camp stove, signal mirror, Angle of Repose, atropine injector, sunglasses, headscarf, toothbrush, electric razor, American flag, and a thousand dollars in twenties, just in case.
While I worked, I listened to a CD sent to me by a cousin in New York. It was a benefit concert held only a month earlier at Madison Square Garden, an outpouring of sorrow, rage, and resilience in response to 9/11. A New York firefighter named Mike Moran started the recording.
“All I can say, on behalf of my brother John and the twelve members of Ladder Three that we’ve lost, the twenty members of the New York City Fire Department football team that we’ve lost, and all the people from my neighborhood, my hometown, Rockaway Beach, Queens, New York, our friends, our neighbors, our relatives, they are not gone because they are not forgotten. And I want to say one more thing, in the spirit of the Irish people: Osama bin Laden, you can kiss my royal Irish ass.”
A feeling of profound gratitude that I was in a position to get revenge for 9/11 surged through me. Its intensity was startling. It wasn’t just a professional interest in finally doing what I’d trained so long to do. It was personal. I wanted to find the people who had planned the attack on America and put their heads on stakes.
Lifting my rucksack, I stepped on the scale and watched the needle spin to 365 pounds. Subtracting my body weight of 190, I was lugging 175 pounds on my back. I remembered a study I’d read at IOC warning that Marines couldn’t carry more than 50 pounds and remain effective. Fifty pounds allowed me to carry ammo, or water, or radios, but not all three. It was just another case of theory dying in the face of practice.
After packing, I went down the passageway to TACLOG to listen as Charlie Company seized the desert airstrip in southern Afghanistan which would become known around the world as Camp Rhino. Rhino had been the code name for the field in October when Task Force Sword had parachuted in, and the name had stuck. I banged on the locked door, and a Marine let me in and updated me on the mission.
“They departed the Peleliu on time and are airborne right now. Scheduled to hit the deck there at 1700Z,” he said.
1700Z was 2100 local, about thirty minutes away. VJ was out there, and I tried to imagine what was going through his mind. He was probably sitting in the back of a CH-53, watching the dark landscape flash past as they flew “nap-of-the-earth,” following the contours of the ground to stay below radar coverage. I felt relieved but a little unworthy in the warm, bright room, drinking a mug of coffee. When we heard that the assault waves were safely on the ground, I went to bed. There was, after all, nothing I could do for VJ or anyone with him. They were on their own, as we would be soon.
I lay on my bunk, unable to sleep, thinking about the latest news. Intelligence had reported that the Taliban were negotiating surrender in Kunduz, under pressure from the Afghan Northern Alliance and American Special Forces. Unfortunately, nothing so promising was being said about Kandahar. Kandahar was the spiritual home of the Taliban movement and seemed to be shaping up as their Alamo. Our mission was to force the collapse of the Taliban there. A camp of four hundred hardened fighters was reported to the east of Rhino, and a Navy jet had a SAM launched at it near Lashkar Gah, north of Rhino. At the same time, the Taliban consul general had announced that “the fireworks would begin” in the United States during the last week of Ramadan in mid-December and that Americans would “die like flies.” Eventually, I drifted off into an uneasy sleep.
The next afternoon, the company rode ashore on a hovercraft. I watched through a narrow window as we backed out of the well deck, past the edge of the Dubuque’s stern, and thought that this adventure would be over by the next time I saw that lip of metal. We dozed to the drone of the engines on the thirty-minute ride to the beach. It was dark when the doors opened, revealing a quiet cove. Three lines of small breakers lapped at the base of gentle dunes. Overhead, a nearly full moon cast shadows on the sand.
We boarded trucks for the eight-mile drive to the Pasni airfield. I sat on my pack with a group of Marines and talked as we rumbled up off the beach across a flat expanse of scrubby trees.
“So, sir, this is a pretty big deal, right? A battalion of Marines going into Afghanistan. People at home will read about this, won’t they?” a Marine asked.
I assured him that they would. This was the deepest amphibious strike ever conducted by the Marine Corps — more than 440 miles from the ships to Kandahar. It was like staging from Boston and attacking Baltimore.
Every kilometer or so, we passed dirt intersections where roads branched off from ours and disappeared into the darkness. Two Pakistani sentries stood guard at each junction, looking like World War I doughboys with laced-up leggings and bolt-action rifles. I pulled farther inside my flak jacket, trying to keep warm. Even on the coast, the desert heat dissipated quickly after sunset, leaving only an empty, bone-chilling cold. After half an hour of stop-and-go bumping, we saw the lights of a runway and heard two C-130s on the ground. A small grove of trees resolved itself into light-armored vehicles (LAVs) and Humvees covered in camouflage netting. We had arrived at the Pasni airfield, the last stop before Afghanistan.
Life at Pasni had a peculiar rhythm. Gear and Marines piled up there to be flown to Rhino. Fear of surface-to-air missiles in Afghanistan limited flights to the hours of darkness. In Pakistan, we kept up the illusion that American troops weren’t running offensive operations. That meant hiding in the stone hangars during the day, bored and sweltering. Once the sun set, the base burst into a frenzy of continuous movement. C- 130s landed, loaded without even shutting off their engines, and disappeared back down the runway. Helicopters shuttled back and forth to the ships. Mountains of equipment moved from pile to aircraft to gone.
The night we arrived, the hangars were already full, so the platoon staked out a spot in a clearing next to one. I couldn’t sleep and took a walk to explore. Strands of white lights decorated baked brick buildings, giving the place a strangely festive air. I expected to see tables set with red-and-white-checked tablecloths and people drinking wine beneath the trees. Instead, I saw only forklifts carrying pallets of ammo and sentries standing along the edges of the field, facing outward toward the darkness beyond.
Before sunrise, we woke up and moved inside. We sat in the hangar all day. I repacked my gear for the fifth time. Marines around me played cards, slept, and congregated near the doors to breathe fresh air and talk.
“So the Cobra pumps a rocket into the building, right there in downtown Tirana,” one Marine was saying. “Civilians sitting around drinking coffee, reading the newspaper. Big fucking explosion, fucking concrete falling into the streets. And we’re in uniform. ‘U.S. Marines’ right there on my chest. ‘Marines’ on the side of the helicopter. Can’t just be like, ‘Sorry, guys, I don’t know what fucksticks are in that helicopter.’”
Another guy ratcheted up the intensity. “Mogadishu, brother. You ain’t seen shit if you ain’t been to the Mog. Skinny little fuckers running all over the place. Stoned outta their fucking heads on that leaf they chew. Khat, they call it. Makes them get crazy and shoot a lot. Stay away from the walls. Bullets travel along the walls.”
From a different cluster of Marines came comic relief. “I’m riding down the main street in Pattaya Beach, two beers in my hands, two whores behind me, and we’re on the back of an elephant painted pink. What? Yeah, I knew they were women. I grab-checked them. This wasn’t my first fucking deployment.”
As I eavesdropped, I realized that although they traveled a lot, they rarely saw the places they visited. Marines aren’t travelers in the traditional sense. They view foreign countries either from behind a gun sight or through the haze of a night on liberty. Perspective skews to one dimension, as if the Marines are the players and everything else is a prop. The same would hold true in Afghanistan, I suspected.
We knew strikingly little about where we were going. No one had foreseen operating in this part of the world. We had packed for training in Thailand, Australia, and Kenya, liberty in the Seychelles, Hong Kong, and Singapore, and long-shot contingencies like a final solution to the Saddam problem. Afghanistan was literally not on our map.
We had been given hastily made Pashto and Dari “pointie-talkie” cards, which listed English phrases appropriate to our situation, such as “Drop the weapon, or I will shoot,” and then gave both their written and phonetic translations. We had only rudimentary maps. Most American maps of Afghanistan dated from the Soviet occupation. Ours were large-scale with little detail and were plotted according to different data. Rhino was situated right at the intersection of four map sheets, which were rendered in three different scales and data. Finding your position on one map sheet was a simple task of plotting your GPS coordinates. Move a bit west onto another map sheet, though, and you had to move 141 meters north and 182 meters east to match the GPS coordinates with the point on the map. Farther north, and the correction was 130 meters south and 217 meters west. I lay in the hangar in Pasni, half-listening to the Marines’ stories, committing all this to memory and hoping I wouldn’t have to recall it under pressure.
Shortly after dark, Patrick came over and said, “Here’s your ticket.” He handed me a manifest sheet with the names and blood types of the Marines who would be on the plane. “We’re on the nine-thirty shuttle to Kandahar.”