59. Into the Darkness

Into the Darkness

He walked with me in integrity and uprightness, and he turned many from iniquity. 

Malachi 2:6

When the convoy arrived at Panda Ridge, we swapped with our temporary replacements and headed back southeast to De Carez, which served as our staging point for Operation Opening Gambit. Two villages lay east of De Carez a few clicks apart, one fully inhabited and the other vacant. Echo company was tasked with aiding the locals’ reestablishment in the abandoned town by systematically clearing the many IEDs placed there from prior conflicts. For Golf Company, our primary job was simple: bait the enemy into dealing with us to prevent them from harassing Echo Company during their mission.

Word from above warned that our objective, Lwar Julji, was infested with Taliban. I was both humbled and filled with pride that my platoon, Joker 3, was chosen to represent Golf Company as the main effort. Our efforts however, would not be without the help of tanks, snipers and artillery. 

Everyone remained focused during our few days of prep. Despite our impending venture into the belly of the beast, I saw no visibly shaken Marines. I only remember tranquility. We were young men, chill as ever, calm and collected, tidying our gear, shootin’ the shit and enjoying our life. This was the life that we all yearned for, the life that everyone else would hate to live, the life that not only embraced the suck, but thrived in it, the life surrounded by brothers, quickened by danger, undeterred by bullets, or bombs, or legions, or hell, the life that danced into the reaper’s hollow, looked him in the eye and said, “Fuck you.” This is the life of the infantryman, the life of immortality. 

Snipers left the night before us. At dusk before their departure, when I walked toward the main courtyard, one of them locked eyes with me as we passed. My facial recognition stalled due to the camo paint laid thick across his features. A few steps later, I remembered who he was. The past spring before deployment, I volunteered to join the scout sniper platoon and suffered through their five day selection process. Spoiler alert: I didn’t get selected.1 I did however, push myself to new limits and became acquainted with some of them.

About half way through our haze fest, we all gathered in the snipers’ building for one of our several introductory courses for the day. I needed to stand due to sleep deprivation, or else suffer more torture when called out for nodding off in the chair, or as Marines so eloquently put it, “bobbing for cock.” During this session Lance Corporal Schmidt, a sniper I hadn’t seen until this point, stepped out to observe.

I lost focus on the class. His presence compelled me to analyze him, a phenomenon I can only describe as the man-to-man equivalent of love at first sight: respect at first sight. Something about the way he carried himself, leaned against the table, whispered to his fellow snipers with a brotherly smile and studied the prospective ones with intention, pulled me into his orbit. The snipers running the selection needed to flex their egos to prove themselves competent and spew screaming insults to force us into submission. I knew this guy knew his shit within three seconds and I would have willfully done whatever he asked, simply because his presence compelled me to respect him.

We exchanged not a single word during my time there. He had other priorities and wasn’t amongst the cadre running the class. But I did keep an eye on him every time he showed up, trying to absorb and reflect the rays of his humble, friendly, confidence. With guys like him providing overwatch on our upcoming mission, my assurance grew all the more. 

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Time: 1101

Operation Opening Gambit. We are hours away from being at the forefront of a BN attack on a Taliban-run town. We will leave tonight at 0100 & push the Taliban out & set up a PB to restore the town. A firefight is certain, and to You LORD I run.

Flood lights cast sunspots and lengthy shadows in every direction from each man’s feet, their flickering shade synchronized to the din of rustling gear, ripping velcro, snapping buttons and clicking weapons. I added a hissing pop to the commotion, the blessed Rip It cleansing me of burdensome biological mechanisms ignorant enough to assume now was the time for sleep. With renewed focus, I walked into the courtyard for the final word before stepping out.

The company commander gave a pep talk. I have no idea what he said. My vision tunneled and chest thumped because I knew I needed to pray over a crowd of maybe fifty unsuspecting Marines. I couldn’t let the opportunity slip due to fear. As far as I was concerned, lives depended on it.

Moments before stepping out, I nudged Sergeant Ward, reminding him of my proposal. He gathered everyone’s attention with several booming shouts, some of the men half turned to the exit. 

“Listen up! Decoupcrank’s gonna pray for us.”

They all faced me, dozens of silhouettes outlined by the bright lights. They bowed their heads. I raised my left hand and began to recite Psalm 91.

The projection of my voice gradually intensified as my angst found its release. I found myself speaking louder, yelling, shouting, the volume and intensity welling inside, leaping forth in a battlecry.

“And he will give his angels orders concerning YOU, to protect you in all your ways. They will lift you up with their hands so you will not strike your foot against a stone! You will tread on the lion and the cobra, you will trample the young lion and the serpent.”

The final verses simmered to a close. Then we stepped out into the darkness.

  1. Though I performed well physically, I know the nail in the coffin for me was when I pissed off Laster. We started the day off by running through a creek and my boots took all afternoon to finally dry off. When running back from our training, we jogged past water filled tracks in the dirt. Laster, the one leading the run then screamed, “If I hit it you hit it!” as he proceeded splash through the muddy water. I, being slightly behind, didn’t obey. When he turned around he caught me and called me out. I rolled my eyes as I ran back to get my boots wet. From then on, I was on the shit list, and rightfully so. I also made a series of errors during the final exercise when my inability to lead and make good tactical decisions reinforced their opinion of me. Though I was thoroughly disappointed when I found they didn’t want me, I knew why, and I couldn’t argue with it. If I could do it over again, I would. But I guess everything happens for a reason.

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