THE FOLLOWING Monday morning, I put on my green dress uniform for the second time. It had been nearly two years since I’d checked into 1/1, and I wasn’t a boot anymore. I wore a few ribbons from Afghanistan on my chest and all the confidence that went with them.
Recon’s headquarters was called Camp Margarita, a collection of single-story offices near Pendleton’s airfield. A sign at the entrance bore the insignia I remembered from Colonel Leftwich’s statue at TBS: a skull and crossbones surrounded by the words “Swift, Silent, Deadly.” The battalion had been formed in 1937, and had fought with distinction in almost every Marine campaign since.
The clerk collected my orders and sent me to the battalion commander’s office, saying the commander liked to shake hands with each of his new officers when they checked in. Lieutenant Colonel Stephen Ferrando, trim and fine-featured, was on the telephone when I knocked on his door. He motioned me to a seat. A bout with throat cancer had left him with a raspy voice, and I understood why the battalion, under his command, used the call sign Godfather. After hanging up, Colonel Ferrando didn’t waste time on pleasantries.
“Your job is to be the hardest motherfucker in your platoon,” he said while pointing at me across the desk. “Do that, and everything else will fall into place.”
He added that I was assigned to Bravo Company, call sign Hitman, and wished me luck.
I stood at attention, about-faced, and stepped straight into Major Whitmer. He had been promoted after our return from Afghanistan and was recon’s new operations officer. Just back from ten weeks at combatant diver school in Panama City, he looked tan and fit. I was happy to see him.
“Congratulations on getting through the pipeline, Nate.”
“Congratulations on your promotion, sir. I hope you didn’t get the field-grade lobotomy that goes with it.” It was a running joke among lieutenants and captains that field-grade officers traded their common sense for the rank.
“Careful, Lieutenant. You’re about to feel the wrath of a field-grade officer.” Whitmer smiled, and I laughed, remembering the warning from 1/1’s operations officer in Afghanistan.
A genial captain commanded Bravo Company. He was a former all-American football player, an intelligence officer by trade, with virtually no infantry field experience. But unlike the infantry, recon operated at the team and platoon levels. Since the company existed only for administrative reasons, the CO’s background didn’t bother me. He welcomed me aboard and asked which news I wanted first, bad or worse. I chose bad.
“You have second platoon — Hitman Two — and there are three Marines in it.” Dill’s full-strength recon platoon had had twenty-three Marines. After returning from Afghanistan, some had left the Corps or moved to different units; others were away at school but would return later, in the summer and fall.
“We’re leaving next week for a month at Bridgeport. I hope you weren’t planning to go on vacation after all those schools.”
The Marine Corps Mountain Warfare Training Center is in the High Sierra, near Bridgeport, California. It opened in 1951 to train Marines to fight on Korea’s snowy peaks. Afghanistan’s terrain is similar, and in the summer of 2002, a return to Afghanistan seemed likely. The battalion would spend three and a half weeks rock climbing and running recon patrols through the mountains. Had we known then what we knew a few months later, we would have gone instead to the desert training ranges at Twentynine Palms.
Since my “platoon” was smaller than one full-strength team, I spent most of the time at Bridgeport in the reconnaissance operations center (ROC), learning all the details of planning recon missions. By the end of the first week, I felt like a college student again. Late nights under fluorescent light, surviving on sludgy coffee, getting lots of theory but no practice.
I told my CO that I wanted to go on patrol with a team. His answer surprised me.
“Yeah, it’ll make us look good.”
Look good? I couldn’t care less. I wanted to see a mission from the team’s end of the radio. It was like flipping the map around. Generally, recon platoon commanders coordinated planning and logistics from the ROC while team leaders ran the patrols. I didn’t want to step on toes, but I needed a feel for a team’s abilities so I could better plan operations once my platoon was manned.
One of the battalion’s senior officers, later nicknamed “Major Benelli” by the Marines because he insisted on carrying a Benelli shotgun, disagreed. “That’s not your job, Lieutenant. Just stay in your lane.” Benelli couldn’t speak to someone of lower rank without smirking.
But Major Whitmer pulled me aside. “Go out with the team. You’ll learn a lot. There’ll be plenty of time to rot in the head shed when you’re a major.”
The mission’s scenario had the battalion operating clandestinely inside a hostile country. Army Airborne was planning an invasion the following week with a mass drop of soldiers and equipment. Recon’s job was to creep close to the drop zone and report back with details of its suitability for the mission. It was a classic, foot-mobile recon mission — get in, take a look, and get out without being seen.
It was midmorning when our helicopter settled toward the landing zone. I was shadowing a six-man team. The only man I knew was Rudy Reyes, the sergeant who had led workouts on the Dubuque and then manned the observation post atop the hangar in Jacobabad. He was serving as the team’s radio operator. The team leader was in command; I would just bird-dog them. Through the window, I saw an impossibly small patch of yellow grass bordered by a wire fence. But the pilots were reserve lieutenant colonels, willing to put their bird into any zone an inch wider than the diameter of the rotor blades. The wheels thumped down, and the team filed toward a skirmisher line of scraggly pines. Flashes winked from the shadows. All I heard was the roar of the rotors turning a few feet behind me.
“Contact! Back to the bird,” the team leader yelled. Another group of Marines was playing the opposition and shooting at us. The team deployed into a staggered line, with half the Marines firing while the other half moved. They struggled under the weight of eighty-pound packs, aiming from a knee and then turning to lumber toward the helicopter. The team leader and the pilots shot clipped sentences back and forth.
“Under fire. Gotta go.”
“Twenty more seconds. Don’t leave us.”
A door gunner leaned into his machine gun, blazing away at the shadows in the tree line. With the last team member still on the ramp, the helicopter rose from the compromised field. We flew to the team’s alternate insert point and made the drop-off. The team leader led his men off the zone and settled them into a tight circle, each man watching and listening as the helicopter clattered away. After the noise and motion of the insert, eyes and ears needed time to adjust to the more subtle rhythms of the woods. I watched pupils darting within bright whites, the Marines’ only recognizably human features. Even those would fade with a day’s fatigue, as bodies adjusted to dusky equilibrium with the forest around them. The team remained frozen for thirty minutes. Birds resumed their song, and squirrels again scurried through the fallen leaves. Only then did the Marines rise.
Three miles of mountainous terrain separated us from the drop zone. Landing any closer would have been too risky. The team planned to move into position around sunset to observe the objective and take photos to send back to the battalion. Then we would use the safety of darkness to recon the zone up close before moving to our extract landing zone, known as Sparrow, for pickup in the morning.
The patrol moved out with a corporal on point. He placed each heel on the ground, slowly rotating his foot to shift his weight silently to the ball. Behind him walked the team leader, followed by Rudy, moving sprightly even under the weight of the radios. Two junior Marines lugged the bulk of the team’s supplies — mainly water and batteries — and also the firepower of the team’s one light machine gun. The assistant team leader walked tail-end Charlie, watching for stragglers and ready to take over if something happened to the leader. I shadowed the assistant team leader at the rear of the patrol, watching the team move, charting our time and distance on the map, and trying my best to be invisible.
Just before sunset, the team stopped in the densest, most inhospitable thicket they could find — a perfect patrol base. Three men would remain there while three others went on a leader’s recon of the objective area. I opted to move with the leader’s recon.
We padded through a piny glen and reentered the sunlight to climb a shallow ridge of exposed rock. Enough shrubbery clung to veins of soil in the stones to conceal our movement, and we climbed quickly to a vantage point almost a thousand feet above the proposed drop zone. As two Marines scanned for threats, the team leader unpacked his equipment and went to work. He spun a telephoto lens the size of a wine bottle onto the camera body and began snapping a panoramic series across the length and breadth of the objective. He took five more shots with a different camera. After stowing the cameras, he unzipped a nylon bag and took out a sketchpad and a handful of colored pencils. In quick, confident strokes, he drew the outline of the drop zone, adding obstacles such as trees and ditches, penciling in estimated heights and dimensions. After cramming the page with data, he zipped the bag and stood. We clambered back down the ridge.
At the patrol base, the other Marines had set up the high-frequency radio while waiting for our group to return. They wanted to transmit their information back to the battalion so that even if the team got captured or killed, the mission would not have been in vain. The team leader furiously typed a report on his tiny laptop while Rudy tried to contact the ROC.
“Godfather, this is Hitman Two.” They were using my call sign, the second platoon of Bravo Company, to call the battalion.
“Godfather, Godfather. Hitman Two. Come in. Over.”
The mountains interfered with a conventional whip antenna, so Rudy shinnied up a nearby tree and wrapped a spool of thin wire around its branches, effectively turning it into a huge, field-expedient antenna.
“Godfather, this is Hitman Two.”
“Hitman Two, Godfather. Send your traffic.”
The team sent its pictures and text report back to the battalion as an encrypted digital burst transmission. I knew the Marines in the ROC would be clustered around the receiving computer, anxious to see near-real-time imagery sent by a team miles away. Even in training, this was impressive technology. After sending the report, the team packed its gear and waited for dark before moving to the drop zone.
I was learning lessons that would help me make better use of my platoon in the future. Recon teams never have enough time, enough batteries, or enough information. They always have too many questions to answer, too many mandatory radio checks to make with headquarters, and too many mouths to feed.
The point man drifted down the slope like a wisp of blown fog. I dropped night vision goggles in front of my eyes to track the team in the dark. Without them, I had not even crunching footsteps to follow. I was amazed at how good they were.
We split into two groups at the southern edge of the drop zone and zigzagged along the edges of the field, with a kilometer of grass between the team’s two halves. A rising moon illuminated each condensed exhalation from my mouth. I labored silently under an eighty-pound pack filled with warm clothes and batteries. No grunting. No cursing. No carelessly snapping a twig underfoot. We threaded single file along the shadow paths cast by pines. Moving in the open under this moon was too conspicuous. Far overhead, airliners slid through the dark, winking red and white. I imagined coffee cups being collected and tray tables placed upright in preparation for landing in San Francisco. Twenty minutes for them; twenty light-years for us.
The teams linked up expertly north of the drop zone. Radio calls, flashes of infrared light, a cautious approach, a whispered password, a hurried reply. Pastry. Tiger. The team leader steered the team halfway to the extract landing zone before settling into a tight circle. There we repeated the earlier drill of composing and sending information to the battalion. The drop zone had been free of obstructions. Let the airborne invasion commence. With dawn an hour away, there wasn’t time for sleep or food. Rudy compensated for both by sprinkling instant coffee crystals on his tongue, grinning with all the satisfaction of a content connoisseur.
The eastern sky was still dark when we began the final sprint to Sparrow, balancing stealth with the new need to meet the helicopter. The point man still placed each heel down with care, but his steps fell in quicker succession than before. I looked at the map — just under two kilometers to the zone. A rule of thumb in terrain like this is one kilometer per hour. We had twenty minutes to do nearly twice that. I imagined the pilots flying toward Sparrow, trusting us to be there. Just as we approached the zone, rotor blades echoed through the valley. The team leader contacted the bird.
“Moonlight, this is Hitman Two. We’re oscar mike to the zone.” (He used the abbreviation for “on the move.”)
“Roger, Hitman Two. Give us a buzz saw and a NATO-Y.”
The pilot had requested the most favored method for guiding a helicopter into a landing zone in the dark. The NATO-Y, standard throughout the Western militaries, is four chem lights tied to premeasured lengths of parachute cord. When laid on the ground and pulled taut, they form a Y. One of the Marines pulled it out, already tied, and cracked the four chem lights. He laid them across the landing zone, with the base pointing into the wind and the two legs marking touchdown points for the helicopter’s main landing gear.
The buzz saw is a single infrared chem light tied to a two-foot strip of parachute cord. The Marine cracked it and began swinging the cord like a lariat. Through night vision goggles, the spinning chem light stood out as a circle of shimmering light, a beacon to guide the aircrew into the little patch of grass where the team squatted in the tree line.
I turned my head as the rotor wash blasted dust and twigs against our bodies. Dull green light spilled from the cargo bay as the ramp dropped. The team leader counted his team aboard, placing his hands on each man. Then he reached into the grass beneath the ramp and yanked the NATO-Y up into the helicopter. Leave no trace. The pilots added power, and we headed toward breakfast. I’d heard recon Marines call themselves “the quiet professionals,” and now I understood why. Except for radio calls to the ROC, the team had spoken fewer than ten words in twenty-four hours.
By September 2002, the platoon had filled to full strength: twenty-three Marines divided into three teams of six and a five-man headquarters section. The whole battalion gathered on a Friday afternoon in the adobe mission-style chapel at the base. The topic was Iraq. It was an incongruous setting for a war briefing but the only building that could seat everyone comfortably. I walked in with Gunnery Sergeant Mike Wynn and Sergeant Brad Colbert.
Gunny Wynn was from Texas, wise and wiry. He had served in combat as a sniper in Mogadishu in the early 1990s, and then again while working at the U.S. embassy in El Salvador. When I’d learned he was going to be my platoon sergeant, I had called Eric Dill at his new post in Hawaii. “Get on your knees and thank God,” he said. “You got one of the best.” Like Staff Sergeant Marine, Wynn wasn’t a yeller. He earned the respect of his men by being honest and fair. As a more seasoned lieutenant, I didn’t require the same coaching I’d needed two years before, so Wynn and I were partners from the start.
Sergeant Colbert would lead Team One. He was a blond, cerebral San Diegan, known as “the Iceman” for his cool performance as a recon team leader on our raids near Kandahar a year before. We all slid into a wooden pew together and chatted before the start of the brief.
President Bush had recently told the United Nations that its failure to enforce resolutions against Iraq would leave the United States no choice but to act on its own. The senior Marines in the battalion had seen all this before, and the general consensus was still that diplomatic blustering would result in some kind of negotiated solution. No American tank would ever roll into Baghdad. The room grew quiet as the division chief of staff, a colonel, took his place on the altar.
“Worshiping the god of war,” Colbert muttered.
The colonel introduced representatives from the division staff, each of whom would brief his own area of expertise. A pimply lance corporal, described by the colonel as “the most knowledgeable person in the division about the Iraqi army, its weapons, and its tactics,” climbed the altar to give an intelligence brief. Gunny Wynn leaned toward me. “If that’s true, then we’re in a world of shit.”
I heard only pens scratching on paper as representatives from the division’s logistics shop ran through plans to use funnels to conserve water and explained how to test captured fuel for contamination. Suddenly, the colonel interrupted the brief.
“I don’t hear any motivation, Recon Battalion. Give me a ‘Kill.’”
He wanted us to shout “Kill!” to prove we were motivated by the brief. Looking at Wynn, I asked, “Who is this clown? Does he think he’s talking to recruits at Parris Island?”
The battalion chuckled and shifted uncomfortably, offering only a tepid response to the colonel’s order.
“Get up, go outside, and come back in here with a little more fire.”
I thought he was joking, but he pointed at the door without smiling. We shuffled out to the parking lot, about-faced, and reentered to sit down again. Gone were the professionalism and concentration. I saw and felt surliness and disappointment. We had come for a brief about the war. The colonel had treated us like children and lost us. I hoped our lives would never depend on him.
General Mattis arrived a few minutes later, clearing the atmosphere like a thunderstorm on a humid afternoon. Mattis is kinetic. The troops who knew him from Afghanistan loved him, and everyone else loved him by reputation. Stars on a collar can throw a barrier between leader and led, but Mattis’s rank only contributed to his hero status. Here was an officer, a general, who understood the Marines, who, in fact, was one of them. I caught Wynn’s eye and leaned toward him to whisper a question: “You know what Mattis’s call sign is?” He shook his head. “Chaos. How fucking cool is that?” Wynn nodded admiringly as General Mattis began to speak.
“Good afternoon, Marines. Thank you for your attention so late on a Friday. I know the women of Southern California are waiting for you, so I won’t waste your time.”
General Mattis didn’t talk battle plans and tactics — those would be disseminated through the chain of command beneath him. Instead, he focused on seven general principles. He ordered us to reflect on them, internalize them, and make them real. The division’s success in battle, he said, would depend on them.
“Be able to deploy without chaos on eight days’ notice.” I thought we could probably get out in eight days, but not without chaos. All our routine maintenance and repairs had to be completed. Gear had to be organized and packed for shipping. Desert uniforms issued. Manifests prepared. Anthrax and smallpox vaccinations given. I thought, too, of my personal life. A house to pack up, a car to store, bills to pay, family and friends to see. Deploying for war would be a mess, no matter what.
“Fight at every level as a combined-arms team.” Combined arms was another Marine Corps mantra. The idea was to put the enemy in a dilemma in which hiding from one weapon exposed him to another. A lone rifleman and a grenadier could be a combined-arms team, and so could the division and its air wing. We were good at this. Recon teams had more experience with air and artillery than anyone except perhaps former weapons platoon commanders.
“Aggressive NCO leadership is the key to victory.” Never a problem in recon. The team leaders, mostly sergeants, were the battalion’s backbone. They were well trained, motivated, and experienced. I suspected my challenge would be tempering their aggression, not stoking it.
“Mistakes are forgivable, but a lack of self-discipline will be met with zero tolerance.” Light discipline, noise discipline, and fire discipline would be demanded at all times. Mattis knew that victory hung on the details. Sloppiness in the little things led to sloppiness in the big things. He would quash it at the lowest level he could. Thinking back to the silence of the patrol at Bridgeport, I was confident of recon’s discipline.
“Build confidence in your NBC equipment.” NBC stood for nuclear, biological, and chemical. The general paused and looked deliberately around the room. “Expect to be slimed with chemicals.” This, frankly, terrified me. Marines spent at least one day per year in the gas chamber learning to use and trust their gas masks. But that was with tear gas. I had seen pictures of Saddam’s gas attacks on the Kurdish village of Halabja. Green corpses, choked to death by sarin or VX. Gunny Wynn summed it up: “If we get hit with chem, we’re fucked.”
“Train to survive the first five days in combat.” They were the most dangerous. This sounded good, but I wasn’t sure how training for the first five days differed from training for the next five days, or the last five days. Besides, drawing on memories of the last war against Iraq, many Marines didn’t think the war would last five days.
“Finally, get your family ready to be without you.” Mattis never explained whether he meant for the duration of the deployment or forever. Probably both, I concluded. My life insurance policy was current, and I had a will, but I decided to write letters to the important people in my life, just in case.
General Mattis closed with a divisionwide directive: no Marine in the First Marine Division would deploy with more personal gear than was allowed to an infantry lance corporal. No cots, no coffeepots, no Game Boys, CD players, or satellite telephones. No double standards. Every man would sleep on the ground, and every man would shoulder an equal portion of the daily hardship. It was a Spartan concept, quintessentially Mattis, and I liked it.
Throughout the fall, tensions with Iraq grew. In October, Congress authorized a U.S. attack if Iraq failed to give up its weapons of mass destruction. In November, the U.N. Security Council passed Resolution 1441, stating that Iraqi noncompliance with its demands to disarm would be met with “serious consequences.” Even so, my daily life remained mostly unchanged. I still lived near the beach with VJ, and we ran together almost every evening, talking about the growing crisis as the sun sank into the Pacific. We still believed it would come to nothing. In mid-November, Patrick English and I and our girlfriends went to the division’s Marine Corps birthday ball in Nevada. Officers in their dress blues swirled dates across the dance floor or clustered at the bar telling stories. I felt the eerie sense of looking at a photograph from 1939. It was the division’s last quiet month.
Warning signs began to appear at the battalion. We were told that none of the possible military options in Iraq had a role for foot-mobile reconnaissance. The war would move too fast. Instead, we would be equipped with Humvees and heavy machine guns. Such a drastic change in our doctrine was almost inconceivable. I decided to wait and see if the promised equipment actually showed up. By Thanksgiving, it had. Still, I remembered the mission to Tora Bora. All the equipment had shown up for that, but the operation had been scrubbed. By early December, there was no more denying it; we began full-time preparation for a war with Iraq.
The battalion gave each platoon five Humvees, two Mark-19 40 mm automatic grenade launchers, and two .50-caliber heavy machine guns. Most of the modifications needed to make them battle ready were up to us. Much of the gear was old, but the Marines weren’t fazed. They just wanted permission to make the changes they needed.
Gunny Wynn and I suspected that the company would deny any unconventional requests to modify the Humvees. “Wouldn’t make us look good,” I said, mocking my CO’s oft-repeated criterion for whether or not we should do something.
So we opted to beg forgiveness rather than ask permission. I knew from Afghanistan that the rules would change when the first shot was fired. By then it would be too late. Using their Afghan experience, Colbert and Sergeant Larry Shawn Patrick opened Second Platoon’s chop shop. Patrick, known as “Pappy” because of his grandfatherly thirty years, led Team Two. He was an unflappable North Carolinian, tall and thin, who had started his recon career in Somalia ten years before.
The platoon labored for weeks in the motor pool, often working late into the night. We strung lights so that we could see in the dark, and everyone contributed money, tools, and supplies. Colbert’s Humvee had light armor, but the other four were open, like dune buggies. We mottled the beige-colored exteriors with brown and gray to break up the vehicles’ outlines and reduce their visibility at dawn and dusk. Camouflage netting, rolled and hung from the roofs, was rigged to release quickly with the pull of a single strap. Each Humvee, when stationary, could be made to look like a bush within seconds.
The heavy machine guns would be mounted atop three-foot-high metal posts in the Humvee beds. Gunners would stand behind them, with the firing handles at chest level. Sergeant Steve Lovell bolted racks over each wheel well to hold extra cans of ammunition near the gunners who would need it. Lovell, leader of Team Three, was new to recon. He had grown up on a Pennsylvania dairy farm and served in the infantry as a sniper.
“One thing I learned as a sniper,” he told me while riveting an ammo rack to a Humvee, “is that nothing in the world’s as useless as ammo just out of reach.”
Corporal Josh Person, another Afghanistan vet now serving as the driver in Colbert’s team, mounted civilian CB antennas to the rearview mirrors, running cables inside to the radios. After some trial-and-error tuning, their static-free transmissions became the envy of the other platoons. Colbert bought Garmin GPS antennas at RadioShack, allowing the teams to mount their GPS receivers against the windshield rather than holding them outside open windows to pick up satellites.
By the time we had finished outfitting the Humvees for combat, we had invested hundreds of man-hours and thousands of dollars from our own pockets. The vehicles were concrete examples of the lessons learned on patrols in Afghanistan. The day the teams declared them ready to go, the battalion sergeant major, its senior enlisted Marine, came down to the motor pool to take a look. Sergeant major is a position of great influence when held by the right man. Our sergeant major, though, was distrusted by the Marines because of his fixation, on the eve of war, with trivialities such as proper haircuts and polished boots.
Looking at the Humvees, he sneered, “Y’all are nothing but a bunch of cowboys who don’t trust the Marine Corps to provide you with everything you need to win.”
Except for the cowboy part, he was right.