News: The thin line between crazy, brave
Story by Sgt. Earnest J. Barnes
WASHIR, Helmand province, Islamic Republic of Afghanistan—Most people who I’ve talked to about the occupation field where the job description requires you to go into some of the world’s most dangerous places and look for homemade bombs generally give the impression that anyone who would perform this duty walks the fine line of crazy and brave.
I recently spent seven days with the Marines of Route Clearance Platoon, Mobile Assault Company, 2nd Combat Engineer Battalion. These are the Marines who walk that fine line. Every time they leave the forward operating base they have little to no idea what danger lies ahead, but they push forward without complaint.
The mission they were supporting during my time with them was an Afghan-led operation. It was the Marines’ job to pave a safe path for the Afghans from Highway 1 up Route 612, a dirt road through the desert, to the village of Washir. We were headed northeast on roughly 25 miles of unimproved road and desert terrain to a village which was thought to be an insurgent safe haven and had not had a constant military presence since the beginning of the war.
As we set out on this mission, I really didn’t know what to expect. All I could think about was, “These guys are way too calm to go looking for improvised explosive devices.” Don’t get me wrong, I’m not scared of death, but I also don’t go knocking on its door on a regular basis. On the same note, their stark demeanor brought a peace over me. There might be some kind of psyche behind this, but in my nearly eight years of experience in the Marine Corps, I’ve noticed the mood of the Marines around you can drastically affect how you perceive the current situation.
We pushed out in the morning from FOB Delaram I, the Afghan National Army compound, as the sun was making its way over the horizon. This was the first convoy I had been on since I’ve been in country lasting more than a few hours, and by far the slowest, but slow only by the nature of the work being performed. We turned off of Hwy-1 onto Route 612 and it seemed the convoy came to an abrupt halt. The Husky mine detection vehicles were in the lead, creeping along and scanning for IEDs with their oversized metal detectors. The Afghan Route Clearance Tolai from the 2nd Brigade, 215th Corps of the Afghan National Army were trailing closely behind us.
According to 1st Lt. Christopher Campis, the platoon commander for the Route Clearance Platoon, intelligence reports stated Route 612 was riddled with anywhere from 100 to 200 IEDs. It was RCP’s job to find them and escort the Afghan forces to their destination safely.
We stopped in a wadi, which is a dried riverbed, just as the sun was tucking away for the evening on the first day. The RCP and ANA vehicles were strategically staged about the wadi to provide good security over watch for our nights’ stay in the desert. While heading into an area not strictly controlled by the government and having no idea what lies over the next ridge, it would seem logical to stay inside the Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles for the duration of the night. With Marines manning machine guns atop the trucks, there was a sense of safety in my mind knowing my brother’s are keeping a watchful eye on the horizon.
The next morning we woke before dawn to continue our slow movement to Washir. A few hours after the Huskies began carving a safe path through the desert we reached the outskirts of the village. The trip to Washir took two days and nearly 15 hours due to the fact we were only traveling during daylight hours. At this point the Route Clearance Tolai took the lead on the convoy and pushed forward to just outside of the bazaar and the Marines cleared an area where the Afghan National Security Forces’ compound will be located. We loaded the MRAPs and headed southwest back to FOB Delaram II once this task was complete, stopping at the half way point for another night in the desert.
As we were settling for the night, Sgt. Stephen LeonGuerrero (KuKu), the vehicle commander for Gun Truck 3, turns to the back of the truck and asked me “Do you mind standing watch tonight?” My policy when I attached to a unit is, I am part of that unit and there should be nothing expected from the Marines that isn’t expect of me as well. I tell him I would absolutely stand watch. From 11:30 p.m. until 01:30 a.m., I assumed the role of one of those over watch Marines I spoke about earlier. I scanned the desert horizon, left then right, with specialized optics for enemy activity. If anything will keep you awake on a midnight shift of over watch, it is the thought in your mind that you have a burning responsibility to the Marines around you. Their lives are in your hands, and that is a lot to own up to if something were to go wrong.
I got to know the Marines over the seven days I spent with them. They told me their stories, just as I told them mine. I gathered patience as a main factor to their success. Patience is required to combat and defeat a resilient and extreme insurgency. Route Clearance Platoon displays it every time they roll their wheels on the dirt of an unexplored route. There are a multitude of assets for these Marines to do their job and they take their time to investigate any potential hit from the metal detectors. They know if they don’t, it could cost them their lives.
This is one of those units you read about in a book or see on T.V. Their exploits seem fictional and their love for one another may seem exaggerated, until you see it for yourself. They’ll probably never say, “I love you brother,” but they don’t have to because you can hear it in their voices when they talk to one another, playfully pick on each other, and you can see it in their eyes. It is a love that runs deeper than blood.
My point in case … They’ve had one Marine medically evacuated during the two months they’ve been in country after a vehicle struck an IED. Pfc. Jesse Pacheo, the .50 caliber machine gunner and a combat engineer, suffered a mild concussion from the incident. KuKu, said the next mission, Pacheo was back in the gun seat again holding rear security. When I asked Pacheo why he was ok with getting back in the turret he simply stated, “I don’t want to disappoint the Marines.”
This is the character of Marine you will find within 2nd CEB. Everyday they leave the wire, they risk their lives so someone else, civilian or military, can move about the country safely. I think 1st Lt. Campis sums it up best with, “Every IED we take off the route, that is one person or one vehicle we’ve saved from hitting that IED.”