52. Panda

Panda

You visit the earth and water it; you greatly enrich it; the river of God is full of water; you provide their grain, for so you have prepared it.

Psalm 65:9

Before dawn, on August 26th, 2011, with my ruck on my back, my day pack over my right shoulder and a huge desert brown duffel bag wheeled behind me with my left arm, I walked to the grinder.1 Several other scattered Marines scuffed their boots in the same direction with their gear in tow. The crisp morning air and scent of Pendleton’s unique foliage added a familiar comfort as I continued. 

When I pulled up to the open tarmac amidst the congregation of Marines and their tearful families, I drifted into space as the sky once again revealed itself to me. Though the stars glistened in their usual carefree manner, one celestial mass was missing. Scanning above battalion headquarters, I found the missing object in the form of a silver sliver hovering amongst us. The near new moon, approaching the end of its thirty day cycle,  reinforced the sentiment that I was about to enter a pivotal shift in the story of my life. 

Many saddened children tucked themselves away from their fathers, hoping that they might never depart if only they withheld their heart-wrenching goodbye. They couldn’t choke back the tears. The children’s wails and anxiety sickened wives added heaviness to the already solemn moment. The little kid inside me who unraveled more at his father’s departure than experiencing his terrifying presence empathized with their cries. Just like me, they would soon lose their fathers for a worthy cause they did not choose, a cause that may, as in my case, lead to permanent separation. Though some may have been able to rationalize why their dad was leaving, they still groaned with a deeper why that no amount of explanation can satisfy. They didn’t care about the greater good, or nation building, or terrorism, or his righteous goals to defend our country, they only wanted their dad, and would give anything to keep him. 

I made my way through the grieving masses and met up with my squad and set down my gear. 

“Are you scared?” Kath asked me after I dropped my packs.

“Honestly, no.” I think my answer caught him off guard because he, a much more gung-ho combat-craving Marine than me, likely sought validation for his naturally unsettled nerves. I was too unaware to detect this and offer consolation in the midst of my zen-like state. Everything leading up to this moment felt so meaningful, so intentional, so palpably orchestrated that my proclivity to default to fear in even mild confrontations wasn’t triggered. 

Friday, August 26, 2011

Time: 1331

We arrived at March Air Force Base at around 0900 and have, since then, expertly executed our skills in the art of “stand-by,” which has become perfected as an art through many arduous hours since my time in the service. Finally after over four years, I have learned to “redeem the time,” as Paul the Apostle calls it, by engaging my mind in studying, reading, writing and listening to lessons on theology and various sermons recently added to my Ipod. Thankfully, this large hanger has some dedicated volunteers replenishing a supply of PB&J’s, pastries, nutrition bars and drinks, including my favorite: coffee. “stand-by,” in this luxurious a setting isn’t all that bad.

We loaded up on the plane later that afternoon with all our belongings checked except our trusty rifles and flew commercially to Bangor, Maine, arriving after midnight to be greeted by several elderly patriots and vets, each giving every one of us a hearty “Thank you,” and a handshake. With my M-16 slung around my shoulder, I wandered to a gift shop and spotted what I called a “bottle of sleep,” which I figured would be quite useful as I never acquired the skill most Marines possessed, which was the ability to sleep wherever, whenever and in whatever position available. We departed for Leipzig, Germany at 0200 and I popped my sleep aid to hopefully do what I’ve never been able to do on a plane. Thankfully, it worked.

Our stop in Germany was restricted to only about an hour long and one small section of the airport with a gift shop and bathrooms. I found a row of padded seats to lay down on and catch some more rest. From Germany there was one more stop before Afghanistan.

“We here at Delta Airlines are proud to welcome you to Manas Air Force Base in Kyrgyzstan where the local time is 8:10 A.M.” the soft voice on the intercom said. 

Kyrgyzstan? It’s not every day you find yourself in a country you’ve never heard of. 

“It has been our pleasure to serve you thus far but we can go no further. We wish you the best and will keep you in our thoughts and prayers.”

We emptied the plane to a cloudy, gray scene amidst the tarmac and loaded onto a bus. After about five minutes, we paused at a gated checkpoint. I peered through the windows, viewing an airman guard standing atop the Hesco2 walls in a Hesco bunker. Once through the checkpoint we drove a short distance and emptied out to find the rest of our gear in a pile. Gunny Thomson dismissed us for the day after we all gathered our gear and carried it to our hooches. 

Upon entering the lengthy half-moon tent, a blast of cool air rushed over me with the steady hum of a half-dozen AC units. I dropped off my gear at a chilled rack, grabbed a bite to eat and began to write.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Time: 0918

When we departed from Germany, we headed for our last stop before Leatherneck: Manas Air Force Base, Kyrgyzstan. Here we will stay until tomorrow morning when we will make our final flight. The chow hall in this shoddy, Hesco-fortified Air Force outpost is far superior to ours in San Mateo. It is no mystery why so many Airmen are overweight. My plans are to check out the 1030 protestant service and then take a nap.

We boarded a C-130 for our final flight. Once landed, we congregated to the rear bay. As it opened, the dusty brown tarmac revealed itself and a rush of hot air flushed my face, greeting me the scent of charred wood. I stepped down the ramp towards the dirty runway with the others. Quonset huts, wooden buildings, and shipping containers filled this sunbleached metropolis. We finally arrived. Camp Leatherneck, Afghanistan. 

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Time:10:12

Leatherneck is huge, flat and desolate. 29 Palms seems like an oasis compared to this. At least there are a few shrubs and some elevation change over there.

I’m Not sure why I described it so bleakly because Leatherneck had all the amenities of a Marine base and more. The chow hall, though a dimly lit plywood structure, was a wide open pasture where free-range fat kids could endlessly graze through all their greasy, sugar-filled  fantasies and even snatch an energy drink or two on the way out. For the more healthy among us, a roughly fifty-foot tall half-dome tent spanning at least a hundred-fifty feet from corner to corner was filled with dusty weights, treadmills and all manner of paraphernalia for any fitness goal. There was a church, a hut full of computers and phones, hot showers and yes, even a Domino’s Pizza outpost. The thousands of personnel working on the base traveled to and fro by happy Afghanis driving shuttles throughout the dirt metropolis. Too bad we only spent a few days at this all-inclusive resort.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Time: 1523

There is an air of earnestness and eagerness. The last few are packing their remaining belongings that they will not bring to the AO in their sea bags. Though nobody will admit it, I sense a solemnity in the demeanor of the platoon. I think the reality of where we are going has finally hit home, because we are leaving tomorrow.

By the time September 5th rolled around, we boarded a Chinook and flew to the north. My native squad, second, was dropped off at outpost Habib along with the bulk of Golf Company. I was an augment for third squad, so I continued my journey further north with the rest of the platoon.

Pushing further into the hills of Helmand, the birds dropped us off at a much smaller outpost, De Carez. From there, we continued the rest of our journey with trucks. At daybreak the following morning, a convoy of MRAPs and Armadillos picked us up. I found my seat on the Armadillo’s outboard facing bench. 

Once we left the walls of the compound, nothing but desert and the occasional mud hut could be seen. We bumped, bobbed and swayed for nearly an hour before the thoroughfare passed through a large coalition establishment filled with dozens of military vehicles, several excavators and dump trucks.

We descended down a hill along the perimeter and turned left, passing over a steady river. From there, the road narrowed as it turned northward along the water. The sight of tree limbs caressing our vehicle lifted my downward gaze. Then a sudden splash of blue and green on the brown desert canvas goaded me upright when the final hovering tree raised the curtain of its boughs. 

Now paralleling the river after ascending the upward curve, I witnessed the life-giving power of water on full display. Contrasted with the utter barrenness behind us, down before me on either side of the water gathered trees, bushes, crops, buildings, walls, animals, children, and families. In the absence of modern infrastructure transporting the substance we most depend on to the far reaches of the earth, plant life and civilization is restricted to the confined orbit of natural waterways and creatively sourced wells. 

I traveled into the first century, totally immersed in the presence of another world. The sensation of time travel compelled me further to soak in the children guiding donkeys, shepherds herding livestock, smoke plumes fixing naan and hand sown fields nearing harvest. This is what I imagined the world looked like when Jesus walked the earth. Only the occasional motorcycle puttering in the distance brought me back to the twenty-first century.

My riveting view was obscured when the convoy drifted away from the living river into a dead one. The walls of the wadi stood tall on either side of this dry riverbed that stretched fifty yards in width. Grinding rocks and wandering thoughts occupied my mind for the rest of our ride.

After about twenty minutes, I looked ahead to my left and saw the vehicles taking a slight right turn up to a patrol base set on the ridge of the wadi. We finally arrived at our new home, Patrol Base Panda.

  1. “Grinder” refers to the wide, open tarmac on many Marine Corps bases that is used for formations or marches.
  2. A Hesco barrier is a large rectangular-shaped folded metal basket with a sturdy mesh liner that comes in various sizes. When the Hesco is opened fully and filled with sand, it becomes a semi-permanent building-block for military establishments both big and small in deployment zones.

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