Twelve Hours for a Lifetime
By Benjamin Rednour, United States Army, United States Marine Corps
It is 2:30am or 0230 for us. The context seems different although it is the same. We are heading into the most significant event of our lives in a beast of a helicopter known as the Sea Stallion. My Marine brethren and I are heading into Marjah, Helmand Province, Afghanistan to clear out the Taliban. The bass from the chop of the rotor blades is beating in my chest. I have that rock in my stomach. The one you get when there is a death in the family or you get in a car accident. Over one hundred brave young men that have no idea if they will be alive at the end of the day. Most of them are not even twenty-one. Let me tell you about the four events of day one.
Confusion…. It is now 6:30am. The official start of our day. The Sun is coming out, and by the crowing in the distance, I know that a rooster agrees. Light is what we needed. Our night vision goggles will not help us to see in the dark, because there is no ambient light from the moon. Not being able to see is a scary notion when you get dropped off in enemy territory by the biggest heliborne operation since Vietnam. This is Operation Moshtarak, which in the Dari language (Persian) means together or joint. It is named this, because it is a joint operation that includes American, Afghan, Canadian, Estonian, Danish, and British forces. I am still trying to figure out why I am here? There is an internal war that wages when you go into these situations. You know that soon a gunfight is going to occur. You just don’t know when! I cannot consider this fact right now. This anxiety is what teaches me what taking things one step at a time really means. As we Marines say, “Slow and methodical” or “Slow is smooth, smooth is fast”. The first step to accomplish is to clear our way across five hundred meters of poppy field to reach the main east/west running road. We use metal detectors to sweep for Improvised Explosive Devices (IED’s). These are homemade fertilizer bombs made to kill by overpressure. Picture a water balloon popping and bursting; water splattering everywhere. That will give you an idea.
We pre-stage next to a mud hut and the Commanding Officer orders our platoon ahead to observe from the main road. I am not too thrilled about splitting up. We are to look for any enemy activity. I am considering ways to calm down at this point. Maybe some tobacco. I put in a huge pinch of chewing tobacco as we move toward the road. I cannot help considering how my children and wife will be effected if I die here today. Instead of this thought depressing me, I find my excuse not to be a victim to what lies ahead. When we arrive at the road we can see our objective. An old police station that we designated as “Building 21” that stood three hundred and fifty meters to the west. To the east, another intersection two hundred meters away. It is a ghost town. We see sporadic individuals crossing the intersections. It gives me an eerie feeling. A feeling like the one you get when you are walking through a bad neighborhood in the middle of the night, except this is the first time I have felt this during daylight. The Platoon Sergeant decides to send a squad of Marines across a deep irrigation canal just north of the road we are on to forage farther ahead. As soon as they get across the canal and into the field ahead, my eerie feeling pays off with a heavy barrage of high-pitched cracks and hisses that sends the Marine squad back to the canal.
Shock and awe…. It is 8:00am, and we are taking enemy fire from every direction. I hit the ground and stay as low as I can. My first though is that I have five more months here. I realize I am on the road still with no cover to get behind. There are Taliban firing from both intersections and I am contemplating how to get to a safe place. The volume of brass that is being sent my way is too great. I soon find my motivation when a rocket propelled grenade whistles my way from the eastbound intersection. It flies over my head and explodes ten meters behind me. Fight or flight? I pick flight. I push myself from the prone position and run across the road; scaling an irrigation ditch and diving into the muddy field on the other side. I low crawl to a nearby mud hut. My mind is racing. My heart is pounding! If I had been shot crossing the road I don’t realize it at this point. When I get to the mud hut I do a self-assessment. I was not shot. Thank God! When I look across the street, I see that our Corpsman (a Medic in the Navy), Doc Morrison was being treated in the canal. The rocket propelled grenade had sent shrapnel into his femoral artery. I really hope at this point that this was not a bad omen. I was never very superstitious, but in the heat of battle your philosophy seems to change. If someone told you that your salvation was tucked away in a Cracker Jack box, you might consider looking! Get up… GET UP!!! My thoughts are now motivating my body. What comes next? I am south of the mud hut, so I move toward the eastern corner to try and get a visual on the enemy. BOOM!! Another rocket propelled grenade hits the eastern wall of the building, blowing out shrapnel, dirt, and death a few feet in front of my face. At this point, the decision is made that the little mud hut that I am using for cover (which happens to be home to a family) will be used for the defense of our platoon.
There is a break in fire and we rush into this home. The family that lives here are very frightened. For their safety, we are required to evacuate them. I cannot imagine foreign military troops coming into my house and telling me I have to leave. It must be unsettling for them. Marines go to work immediately with shovels. We have to dig out holes in the compound walls, in order to keep eyes on the enemy and defend this little piece of heaven on earth. We end up defending this place for four hours. We develop a plan to regroup with the main body three hundred and fifty meters to our west. The plan is that we run for it.
Disbelief…. It is now noon and we are going to run across an open field for three hundred and fifty meters under enemy fire. Everything in my combat training strongly advises against this, but it is our only option. We start running like madmen! The enemy waits for all of us Marines to get out in the open before attempting to mow us down with machine guns. Everyone gets down on the ground as low as possible to try and gain some cover. I never imagined that I would share such an intimate relationship with the dirt. The forward observer for the 81mm mortar crew calls in a smoke screen. Mortars are propped up tubes that launch big bullets called shells into the air and back down to a predetermined location. These particular shells put out bellows of smoke when they hit the ground to conceal our movement. As soon as the smoke pops we are moving again. I am running faster than I have ever run in my life. Bullets provide an other-worldly motivation. We all finally reach the gas station. Luckily, no one was shot or killed. I wish I could say that was the case for all of day one. Our platoon olds up at this gas station for about two hours, while another platoon works to clear the opium bazaar (an outdoor market a block away). That is when we lose our first man. He is an engineer named Corporal Turbett setting up some breaching equipment to blow a hole in a wall across the street. We need to punch a hole in the wall to get Marines through, so that we can take our main objective. Corporal Turbett had been shot dead. I had spoke with this man just thirteen hours before while we were waiting to load onto the helicopters. Death in combat is surreal. Especially, when you could be next. Because of his sacrifice, our objective is now in plain view.
BOOOM!!! The wall blows out. It is 5:30pm. We are all standing by to rush across the street. The whole company is regrouped and I finally have a better feeling about our strength in numbers. When we advanced across the street, we take no contact. The blast must have scared them off. We clear the police station to behold that it has been occupied by the Taliban for months. We find bomb making materials and over $360,000 worth of heroin. The Marines are exhausted, but we feel a little comfort in knowing that we have earned our home for the next five months. However, the last twelve hours served a bleak prediction of the succeeding months. It is 6:30pm. Goodnight…
In conclusion, you may be wondering what these twelve hours taught me. Well that is easy to see nowadays. Treat every day as if it were my last. War is ugly. We should avoid it at all costs, because it affects everyone to include the citizens of that country that are caught in the crossfire. Most disagreements can be resolved through verbal communication. I will never forget the men that fought by my side. That is the true nature of war. No matter the ideology that brought you to whatever foreign land. You are there for the lives of the men around you. I do not handle loud noises the same anymore. The second nature that comes with an unexpected noise. The one that your brain learns to keep you alive. It has become an occasional reminder. If there is anything that I want you to take with you from this story, it is this. Realize your true strength and courage in your twelve hours. Recognize those people in your life that have made sacrifices to reinforce your courage and success. Above all, do not forget to put your humanity before your patriotism!