News: Five days, two pairs of socks later: Marine convoy operations in Afghanistan
Story by Cpl. Paul Peterson
CAMP LEATHERNECK, Afghanistan - There’s no psychological relief from the fact that you’re sitting. It’s not rest but rather subtle torment as fatigue sneaks into the body.
The discomfort is unavoidable while strapped into a bucket seat, rubbernecking the world around you, without the ability to move or fully extend a leg.
You can’t sleep or click on the radio, and bathroom breaks don’t even exist. The enemy threat is real, and the struggle to remain vigilant is a daily reality for Marines with 2nd Platoon, Transportation Support Company, Combat Logistics Regiment 2.
Their most recent operation began when they departed Camp Leatherneck for a resupply and consolidation mission at dawn Oct. 19.
It took longer to clear the roads than expected, and the delays brought more than synced nerves and cramped muscles. Every lost hour of light brought the quiet understanding that their two day mission was about to get a lot longer.
At first, the vehicles cast shadows out to earthen compounds lining the desert road. As the hours dragged, a rising moon turned on the Marines and ran dark tendrils from the buildings out to their trucks.
“Out here everything is opt to change,” said 1st Lt. Andrew Lark, a Chuluota, Fla., native and commander of 2nd Platoon. “We’re trying to make sure the missions happen within a certain time limit. We’re pushing because we know we have to fall into a certain timeline.”
Timelines, however, can’t dictate on-the-ground realities, and safety is a primary concern, said Lark.
Nearly 12 hours into the mission, the convoy halted between a series of desert dwellings a few miles from Forward Operating Base Shir Ghazi, north of Camp Leatherneck. The Marines sat and watched as the last bits of daylight disappeared.
The indiscernible faces of local children peered through black holes in dirt walls. Afghan coyotes bayed their peculiar, high-pitched howl, and the occasional wild dog slipped in and out of view along the dirt road.
Even buttoned up behind bullet resistant armor, the Halloween-like scene complete with silver moon can make one’s skin crawl.
The vehicle crews simply waited, helpless to change their circumstances or relieve their discomfort.
“It’s painful,” said Sgt. Nicholas Adcock, a Raleigh, N.C., native and squad leader with the platoon. “For most of us, it’s kind of the equivalent of doing a leg day at the gym when you get off the convoy … It’s all you can do when you get out to stand up without falling over.”
They didn’t move for more than an hour.
“We try to push the envelope … Sometimes it’s out of our hands,” said Lark.
MAKING THE MOST OF IT
Nearly 20 hours after leaving their motor pool at Camp Leatherneck, 2nd Platoon finally rolled into their first stop at Forward Operating Base Shir Ghazi. The original plan called for half as much time, but the unit made the journey without incident.
Still, any hopes to push further north to the heavily populated area of Musa Qala were gone. It would take two more days before the convoy could move again – simple, uncontrollable realities.
The troops settled into the situation without complaint. The Marines even kicked off an impromptu game of catch to kill the boredom and stretch their muscles before hunkering down for the long wait.
Those that brought sleeping bags unfurled them near midnight and sprawled out around their trucks in hammocks and worn metal cots. They slipped off boots and stripped away sweaty, pungent socks.
Most of the servicemembers packed for a simple two-day journey.
After spending months working in the brutal Afghan summer, the chill of October was both a reprieve and harsh lesson.
Wet feet slowly chilled into an incessant ache.
Most of the Marines replaced their socks by 3 a.m. to stave off the cold. Some folded their second pair into makeshift mittens to cover their toes. It was mildly effective.
“We’re all suffering through the same things,” said Adcock “It’s what we do. You get used to it.”
The platoon spent two more days at the FOB exhausting any fresh pairs of skivvies they packed for the trip.
They finally got the chance to press on to Musa Qala four days into their once two day mission. The group spent the better part of a month traversing the barren deserts south of Camp Leatherneck or conducting quick convoys to more populated areas such as Lashkar Gah, the provincial capital.
It honed their patience, but Musa Qala was something new. It represented a mild degree of excitement even if the mission of supply and backhaul remained the same.
The road into the city hooked and dipped through narrow streets crowded with people. The area is impoverished but alive. It even has a booming bazaar on Mondays and Thursdays, said Lark.
The convoy passed through the city outskirts and into the neighboring base within three hours of leaving FOB Shir Ghazi. A bit of providence and extensive preparation made the trip run with all the smoothness of the original plan.
“We’re far enough now where they know that they have to do,” said Lark. “A lot of junior Marines have definitely stepped up and tried to take leadership roles – constantly hard working. That’s definitely something I’m proud of.”
The base itself is shrinking by the day. Dirt walls and HESCO barriers conform into a tight defensive perimeter. The backhaul mission of loading unused equipment took place with a scarcity of instruction.
“They’ve been able to take our intent and basically run with it,” said Lark. “There’s still supervision on our part, but a lot of it can be handled at a [lower] level.”
The Marines completed their on-load and off-load in a fraction of the time required to reach the base. The first truck teams to complete their tasks quickly turned their attention to crews still working on their loads.
“The ability to come together and work as a team is the most important thing we have,” said Adcock. “Where we’ve got to now is very rewarding as a sergeant to know my Marines work for me the way they do and trust in me the way they do.”
The ride into Musa Qala was mostly a blur as the drivers focused on the dips, turns and the people around them. The road out was a chance to actually see what they’d already passed through.
“It’s not quite what I imagined,” said Lark. “It’s definitely unique. You see the struggles of the people.”
Children watched, waved and gestured for treats.
One Marine tossed out a few toaster pastries hidden away to alleviate the tedium of the long drive. They were gone in a momentary flurry of running kids.
Despite all the cultural differences, Lark said he was struck by the similar day-to-day struggles shared by the Afghans he sees and many Americans back home. It builds an appreciation for what is often taken for granted.