SHORTLY BEFORE CHRISTMAS, every conversation started with a whisper. Al Qaeda’s top leadership, maybe including Osama bin Laden himself, was holed up in a cave complex near Tora Bora. It was rumored that we would be sent to capture him, “dead or alive,” as President Bush had put it. Three days after the ambush on Highway 1, Task Force Sledgehammer had returned to Rhino. Kandahar fell, and the Taliban collapsed with it. American attention in Afghanistan turned to al Qaeda.
The Tora Bora mission was supposed to be a secret, but everyone seemed to be talking about it. The name lent itself to the lineage of Marine battles: Iwo Jima, Khe Sanh, Dak To. Tora Bora had the right flavor; it fit. On a night when neither Jim nor I could sleep, we stood in the tower, keeping watch over the desert and thinking about the mission. Tora Bora lay far to our north and east, in the mountains near Jalalabad, ten thousand feet above sea level. In December, the snowdrifts would be waist-deep, and night temperatures would fall below zero. There were no passable roads, and the mountains were too high for most of our helicopters to cross. They, and we, would be confined to the valleys, vulnerable to attack from the ridgelines above.
As I laid out these challenges, Jim was quiet, thinking. Finally, he said, “Do you think we’d get the reward if we caught bin Laden?”
After a week of swirling rumors, I began to suspect the mission was just wishful thinking by commanders who always wanted a bigger role in the game. Then the cold-weather gear arrived. We had shivered through a month of freezing nights, and there was never any talk of supplying us with the coats, socks, boots, and gloves the Marine Corps surely had stored somewhere. Now word spread quickly that a C-130 had landed with pallets of fleece jackets, down parkas, and thick winter gloves. This, too, I dismissed. Then the platoon was lined up and issued the gear. Wearing my new gloves, there was no more denying it. Maybe, I thought, we would go to Tora Bora after all.
On December 22, I woke up covered in frost. A heavy dew and freezing temperatures had coated my sleeping bag overnight, and it cracked as I sat up, sending little avalanches of ice onto the sand next to me. Tora Bora. It was my first conscious thought each morning. I stood up stiffly and hobbled toward the COC, willing the blood back into my legs. Captain Whitmer was there, studying a map.
Our plan had been refined. We would fly to Bagram and then on to Jalalabad. Part of the task force was already up there and had reported that the runway would support a C-130. From the Jalalabad airfield, we would move overland to two valleys near the Pakistani border. There we would set up blocking positions while special operations units called in air strikes on the caves where the fighters were hiding. If they tried to flee, they would run right into us. Captain Whitmer gave me a map of the valleys and told me to memorize it. This mission, once fantastic, was inching from possible toward probable with each passing hour.
I joined Patrick on Christmas Eve at a Mass near the end of the runway. It was nearly dark, and a couple of dozen Marines stood around a makeshift altar — a poncho liner thrown across stacked boxes of machine gun ammo. The chaplain was relaxed and wry, noting the old adage about there being no atheists in a foxhole. “I suspect many of you are more lapsed than my normal crowd, but given the circumstances, this can’t hurt, right?”
We sang “Silent Night” and “O Come, All Ye Faithful.” I closed my eyes and crossed the ten thousand miles to home, imagining my family doing the same thing. They would go out for Chinese food, an old tradition, and then to a party we’d gone to every Christmas Eve for more than twenty years. The night would end at Midnight Mass, where they would sing these same songs. I hoped they would know I was safe and wished I could tell them that most of my days were a walk in the sun.
Our service was interrupted by a line of airplanes thundering overhead. Each began as a drone far up in the dark sky. Because of the missile threat, planes arrived over Rhino at ten thousand feet. Then, with the safety of Marines below, the pilots flew a steep corkscrew down to their final approach. The C-130s flew in darkness until near the runway threshold, when they flipped a switch and bathed the field in light. Their landing lights stretched from wingtip to wingtip, like ten cars driving abreast. C-17s looked the same, but only through night vision goggles. Their landing lights were infrared, invisible to the naked eye.
Mass was over. Thinking about the night’s long-range patrol out beyond Rhino’s lines shattered my fragile illusion of peace. I had to get back to the tower to finish planning for it. Patrick and I walked off into the darkness together. We were both so busy with missions and our platoons that we rarely had time to talk.
“How you doing?” His tone invited a longer answer than the question usually did.
“Frustrated, man.” I poured out all my bottled-up gripes — sitting in the static defense, running from the RPG teams, the operations officer’s callous treatment of my platoon, sleeplessness, concern about the Tora Bora mission. All of it. Patrick stopped walking and turned toward me, cradling his rifle across his chest. He nodded encouragement and listened without interrupting as I continued. After so many weeks of wearing a stoic mask before the platoon and Captain Whitmer, bitching to Patrick was a relief.
“Feeling better now?” he asked with a smile, knowing that I did.
We shook gloved hands and wished each other Merry Christmas before returning to our platoons.
Christmas morning dawned clear and cold. The patrol had been uneventful, and I walked the lines to see the Marines. I thought some of the younger guys might have a hard time that day, but they were festive. A captured tumbleweed stood next to each fighting hole, pruned by hand into the triangular shape of a little pine tree. Candy and mini Tabasco bottles from MREs hung from the branches. There were even gifts. During the past week, Marines had squirreled away packets of cheese or pound cake — MRE delicacies — for their buddies. The mortar section, with great ceremony, presented me with a dog-eared porn magazine. I returned the favor, flipping two cans of Copenhagen into Staff Sergeant Marine’s hands.
When I returned to the tower, Jim was standing over a cardboard box, looking disgusted. A Christmas card from the commander of U.S. Naval Forces in the Middle East, based in Bahrain, was taped to the outside. It was addressed to “U.S. Marine Platoon, Camp Rhino, Afghanistan.” Inside were two dozen bags of microwave popcorn, an electric fan, and Jackie Collins novels with titles like Hollywood Husbands and The World Is Full of Married Men.
“Bro,” he said as I climbed the stairs, “do you ever get the feeling that no one has a clue what we’re doing out here?”
The next morning, I was called to the COC for a brief. Our mission to Tora Bora was canceled. No American forces would take part in the operation. Instead, our Afghan allies would do the job. There were already rumblings about most of the assembled fighters slipping away across the border into the wilds of Pakistan’s North-West Frontier Province. Colonel Waldhauser said that fear of casualties had prompted the cancellation at the highest levels of the U.S. government.
Back in the tower, Jim kicked the wall when I told him the news. “Goddamn chickenshit decision. Casualties? What the fuck do they think happened on 9/11? This is our chance to get those bastards.”
I agreed with him, and so did Staff Sergeant Marine. He heard us yelling in the tower and came up to see what was happening. “Afghan allies? We don’t have any Afghan allies. We got Afghans who’ll do what we say if it helps them and if we pay them to do it. Bin Laden will trade ’em a goat and escape.”
With that mission went our dream of laying hands on America’s most wanted man. But we felt relief, too. A winter fight in the high mountains against hardened mujahideen would have been ugly. They’d fought the Soviets on that ground for ten years. It was a measure of the mission’s significance that the Marines knew all the dangers and still wished we’d gone.
The cold-weather clothing was collected, leaving us again to shiver through the nights on watch. But those nights were few. The Northern Alliance had routed the Taliban. They would probably live to fight another day, but their control of Afghanistan was over. Hamid Karzai was already positioning himself for a role in the replacement government. The Twenty-sixth MEU, the other half of Task Force 58, held Kandahar International Airport. Rhino had outlived its usefulness. The dirt runway required hours of maintenance each day just to withstand another night of landings and takeoffs. And the remote location, once a welcome boon to security, was now merely an inconvenience. We were told to prepare for our return to the ships.
Charlie Company was first out, then Alpha, LAR, and recon. By January 3, 2002, Rhino was almost empty. The entire MEU had either moved up to Kandahar or back to the ships. Bravo Company was alone. The afternoon our plane was scheduled to arrive, most of the company packed its gear and moved out to the runway. Captain Whitmer instructed Jim and me to stay in the tower and to leave the mortars set up until the plane was on the ground. We scanned the horizon in every direction but saw nothing moving. The air was cold and clear beneath a wintry overcast. A few snowflakes drifted down.
“This place is straight-up hell,” Jim said as he threw a tiny Tabasco bottle into the sand beyond the tower.
“It’d be great to come back someday and explore, though,” I replied. “Like old guys going to Normandy or Monte Cassino.”
“Shit, bro, I’ll be back when there’s a golf course, a Hilton, and direct flights from Nashville. Until then, this place can fucking rot.”
When a dark speck in the distance resolved itself into a C-130, Jim and I shouldered our packs, took one last look out across Rhino, and squeezed down the spiral staircase. The courtyard, once full of radio towers, cooking fires, and Humvees, was silent. We walked through the gate and pulled it shut behind us. I dropped the latch into place. Taking a last look inside, I thought I knew what astronauts had felt like leaving the moon. I would never be back.
Jim asked, “How long before the bad guys are back in this compound?”
“They’ll be digging up our MRE trash before sunset tomorrow.”
The Hercules blasted us with a prop wash of sand, pebbles, and kerosene exhaust. Captain Whitmer waited at the tail ramp, grabbing our shoulders as we climbed aboard. The C-130 rose off the runway at a steep angle, the pilots piping AC/DC’s Hell’s Bells through the plane.
Arriving on the Dubuque, we were corralled from the helicopters down into the well deck to be stripped and deloused. I stood with the platoon as a sailor blasted us with a hose, like a herd of cattle. After forty days without bathing, no one complained. I climbed, barefoot, up to my room to take a real shower. While we were ashore, someone in the ship’s crew had taped a political cartoon to my stateroom door. It showed the backs of three armed Marines walking across a desert toward distant mountains. Above them was a scroll with the words “Peace on Earth,” and below them a caption: “We’re working on it.”
Hot water melted caked grime from my face, and I had to shave twice to cut through the matted grit. Finally looking in the mirror, I could see the outline of my skull beneath my face. My eyes shone, bluer than normal, but they were sunk to the back of two caves. I had lost seventeen pounds. The fresh camouflage uniform felt impossibly soft. I was accustomed to cammies stiffened with sweat and dirt. Down in the wardroom, I nearly fell asleep while eating my third plate of spaghetti. But once I got into bed, I couldn’t sleep at all.
I also found I couldn’t stay inside for more than a few hours at a time. After living beneath the sky for six weeks in Afghanistan, the Dubuque’s cramped spaces pressed in even more than usual. So it was that I found myself on Monday, January 7, standing at the rail in a scuddy mist, taking in Kuwait City’s skyline. The balls and spires had been made famous during the Gulf War, and I could have identified the city without knowing where we were. The Dubuque slid slowly up the harbor and into a berth, but our stay was short-lived.
A terrorist threat against U.S. ships in the Persian Gulf forced us offshore after only a few hours at the pier. Out past the harbor entrance, the three ships swung in a row on their anchor chains. Wind-whipped waves crashed against the bow. The view was better from out there anyway, and Patrick and I spent the evening talking over the snapping of flags against a novel backdrop of city lights.
“I’m still trying to figure out if we were in combat,” Patrick said. His hair was long, his face chapped by a month of desert wind.
“If we have to ask, that probably means we weren’t,” I answered.
“Yeah, but where we were and what we were doing . . .” His voice trailed off. “That was some dangerous shit. Bombs and land mines and missiles.”
“The official criteria are something like sustained ground combat where there’s a grave danger to the individual.”
Patrick exhaled. “So does that mean Americans won’t be in combat ever again? It’ll be JDAMs and Tomahawks and lasers? What about the guys on the ground who make all the high-tech toys work?”
Beneath us, on the dark water, landing craft churned back and forth through the night, loading the MEU’s equipment aboard for the trip home. I was ready to leave the Middle East but regretted not having the chance to explore Kuwait City. It was that old Marine dilemma again. Like business travelers, we saw plenty of airports but never got a sense of the places we visited. I was even a little depressed, thinking I might never see this part of the world again.
The Dubuque started the long trip home with a steel-beach picnic. For a whole day, the flight deck was transformed into a big backyard barbecue. Sailors flipped burgers and grilled chicken breasts. Smoke swirled out of the shelter of the superstructure, to be whipped away into nothing by the wind of the ship’s movement. Music pumped over the loudspeakers — Bruce Springsteen, U2, and Johnny Cash. Two teams of Marines turned the stern into a football field, until a long pass sailed over the side and into the Indian Ocean. The best treat of all was two beers for each man, our first since that night in Darwin 127 days before. I held mine, one in each fist, for a few minutes, just savoring the cold sweat on the cans. As I was sitting in the sun, drinking beer with the stereo pumping, the frigid nights near Kandahar seemed far away. Already, the memories were starting to fade.
I was grateful for the Dubuque’s old boilers and top speed of under twenty knots. We all needed time to adjust after Afghanistan. We traveled south through the Indian Ocean, past Sri Lanka, and across the equator to the Antipodes. My insomnia subsided, and I began to gain the weight I’d lost. My windburn and chapped lips healed. A week in Perth was all sun, sailing, food, and drink. Sydney was the opera house, runs along the water, shopping, and swimming. In early February, we turned east, across the Pacific, for home.
Eric Dill and I met every afternoon to lift weights. It was in the Dubuque’s gym, beneath the American eagle sharpening its talons, that he first made me an offer.
“So, Fick, how’d you like to come over to recon?”
Eric explained that he had spoken with First Recon Battalion’s new commander and had recommended me as his own replacement. I was honored but unconvinced.
“Why should I?” I asked. I knew what recon offered but wanted to hear it from Eric.
“Autonomy.” Eric widened his eyes as if the answer were self-evident. “You’ll have a platoon of smart, mature, well-trained Marines. The best equipment. More training dollars. Freedom to run it the way you think it ought to be run.”
“What about missions?”
“That’s the best part, Nate,” Eric explained. “Lots of guys live for the violence of being Marines. They thrive on it. I’ve never been that way, nor are you — I can tell.” He sat down on a weight bench, swigging from a gallon jug of water. “When a recon team does its job well, it doesn’t fire a shot. And the information it uncovers can save a lot of lives. When you do shoot, it’s not just spray and pray. This is a thinking man’s game. You should consider it.”
Eric interrupted his pitch to do a set of curls. After dropping the weights, he added, “Your boss is coming over as the operations officer. Talk to him about it.”
Captain Whitmer was reading Code of the Samurai when I knocked on his stateroom door. He invited me in to take a seat.
“Sir, Captain Dill says you’re going to recon when we get back, and he invited me to take over his platoon.”
Whitmer nodded, looking at me expectantly. It was typical of him to keep the news quiet, allowing events to unfold in due time. It seemed as if he’d foreseen this conversation weeks ago.
“Well, sir, why me?” Recon applicants usually had to try out and then pass a grueling indoctrination before even being considered.
Whitmer explained that recon’s new commander wanted to bring the battalion back to basics. The recon community had gotten too caught up in “high-speed, low-drag” training such as parachuting and scuba diving. “This country’s facing an era when units like recon may get used a lot. And it probably won’t be the sexy stuff. It’ll be the fundamentals you learned at Quantico — shoot, move, and communicate. We need young officers with hard infantry skills and experience. You’re one of them.”
Now I was excited. Saying goodbye to the platoon would be tough, but I would have to leave anyway. Officers did only one tour as infantry platoon commanders in order to make room for new guys coming in behind them. My other option was probably to be a company executive officer, the second-in-command, whose primary duties were paperwork and discipline. Going to recon would mean all the good things Dill had said, plus another year or two of command and the chance to deploy again.
“I’d be honored, sir,” I said.
When we got home, I was going to recon.
We never returned to the country we’d left. I hadn’t been in the United States since a month before the terrorist attacks, so the differences stood out. People seemed kinder, more considerate, and also edgier. I saw in them traces of what I had learned in the previous half year — a new appreciation of life’s simple pleasures, of safety and friendship and family.
I made the requisite pilgrimages to Ground Zero and the Pentagon, and went to a ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House commemorating the six-month anniversary of 9/11. I saw mourning and sorrow, but also bluster. Posturing. People vowed not to interrupt their daily routines, not to let “them” destroy our way of life. My time in Afghanistan hadn’t been traumatic. I hadn’t killed anyone, and no one had come all that close to killing me. But jingoism, however mild, rang hollow. Flag-waving, tough talk, a yellow ribbon on every bumper. I didn’t see any real interest in understanding the war on the ground. No one acknowledged that the fight would be long and dirty, and that maybe the enemy had courage and ideals, too. When people learned I had just come from Afghanistan, they grew quiet and deferential. But they seemed disappointed that I didn’t share in the general bloodlust.
I was happy to get back to Camp Pendleton in March. I felt more comfortable being around other Marines. Most of 1/1’s platoon commanders looked forward to a few months of downtime before moving back into the MEU training cycle. Patrick took over as CO of Bravo Company, and Jim went back to an artillery battery. Sitting on my desk was a stapled set of orders: “You are directed to report no later than 1200, 25 March 2002, to 1st Reconnaissance Battalion for Temporary Assigned Duty for a period of approximately 65 days.” Recon, but only provisionally. First I had to survive the training.