News: Last watch: Marines reflect on Thanksgiving from mountain outpost
Story by Cpl. Paul Peterson
OBSERVATION POST ATHENS, Afghanistan - Memory of the massacre at the foot of the mountains still circulates amongst the Marines overwatching the village of Kajaki.
Mujahedeen fighters swept over the area during the Soviet withdrawal more than 30 years ago. They surrounded a group of Russian soldiers, who made they’re last stand in the city below Observation Post Athens. The soldiers fought until their ammunition ran dry. None survived.
“It was there Alamo,” said Lance Cpl. David Szemple, a rifleman with 3rd Battalion, 7th Marines. “That’s partly why we’re here.”
Szemple and the 11 other Marines at OP Athens don’t tell the story as a spooky way to pass their lonely nights on the mountain. It reminds them to stay vigilant even while the unit prepares to close the outpost.
The mountaintop site dominates the surrounding area with a 365-degree view that stretches for miles. The servicemembers have unobstructed vision of the village and desert compounds to the north. They can see for miles over the emerald green lake and broken mountains to the east and south.
It’s beautiful, but completely isolating.
“It gets lonely,” said Szemple as he stood guard Thanksgiving
“The days just kind of blend together,” continued Szemple, who grew up near New York City. “I don’t even know what day it is. I don’t even want to know. I want to be surprised by the time we get out of here … like I stepped inside a time capsule.”
The mountain itself is a harsh time capsule of sorts. Graffiti left behind by British soldiers decorates the inside of the stone structures where the Marines eat and sleep. Relics of abandoned Soviet equipment and unexploded mines dot the hillside outside the base’s perimeter, a harrowing reminder of a not forgotten war.
Recently, a sheep strayed from its flock and set off a mine at the foot of their mountain. The Marines and local population don’t know exactly where all the explosives are. They just know they are there.
It’s a sobering place to spend the holiday season.
“You just reflect on life,” said Cpl. Jonathan Hill of Atlanta, Ga. “I think it’s actually a blessing in disguise really. It gives you [time] to think and make plans.”
While Americans back home contemplated what they were thankful for on Thanksgiving, the Marines at OP Athens remained unaware the holiday was even upon them.
When news of the date finally trickled down to the guard posts, the servicemembers simply said they were thankful for the peace and quiet of the mountain and the rudimentary gym and kitchen where they spend much of their free time.
“I’m glad I got to be up here to do this,” said Hill, as he wrapped up his third week-long shift on the mountain.
He thought Thanksgiving had already come and gone, but the news changed nothing in his day-to-day life.
The Marines came to accept the football-size rats that scurry over their roofs and steal their food, the wild dogs that occasionally rustle the concertina wire on the perimeter, and the cold gusting winds.
“I’m thankful to be alive and in one piece – sound body and mind,” said Hill as an afterthought. “Just to live another day, I’m thankful for that.”
Szemple said he was thankful for the chance to think about his future and the coming year. He kept a notebook of business plans in the corner of his guard station as a reminder.
He wants to go back to college and start his own food business.
“You kind of find yourself on post,” said Szemple. “I didn’t think it would be this beautiful. There is a certain serenity to it. You take away the firefights and all that stuff, and it does have its beauty.”
Szemple and Hill spent hours on the outpost talking about their plans after Afghanistan. The tranquility of OP Athens allowed them to see beyond the landscape around them.
During the holiday season, thousands of miles from home, the barren mountaintop helped the Marines see what is at the core of their hopes and dreams.
“I’m thankful I’ve got my health – ten fingers, ten toes,” said Szemple. “Nobody I know of who I’m here with has been hurt to date. I’m thankful for that.”