53. I Could Never Pray That Prayer

I Could Never Pray That Prayer

He loved us and offered himself as a sacrifice for us, a pleasing aroma to God.

Ephesians 5:2

We continued in file up a short slope past a minimally fortified entrance. A handful of expectant Marines watched us as we entered the gate consisting of a single-bar. We slithered left between the confining barrier of the Constantine wire and the walls of Panda to form a U. The armadillo’s hydraulic brakes disengaged with a mighty hiss.

I climbed down the ladder at the rear of the vehicle, looking down to gauge the final one-foot drop. When I hopped off, my boots sank six inches before contacting solid ground where a cloud erupted from my landing.

Dipping my head down to my feet, I noticed tiny craters from microscopic debris peppered around my imprint. It flowed like water yet held its ripples and waves in stasis. It floated like gas yet tickled my nose hairs. Without any effort, its ethereal mass softly engulfed my fingertips as if an illusion. No wonder they call it moon dust.

I walked around the vehicles to the base of Panda Ridge and joined the others guided by the Marines from 3/2. They led us into the courtyard of the Hesco structure to the two half-dome hooches ahead. The sight and sound of whirring chest-high air conditioning units was a pleasant surprise.

Tuesday, September 5, 2011

Time: 1530

After staying a day at De Carez, we finally made it to Panda Ridge. Our living quarters is nicer than I thought it would be, but still, very under-deveoped. We are on a ridge overlooking a small town with a green strip of trees and vegetation to our east. To the south and west, there is what appears to be a large riverbed leading south. It is more peaceful than I anticipated it would be, however, hearing from the reports from 3/2 that this area has the most IEDs, our deployment won’t be without risk. Finally we can settle in and make ourselves at home. This shoddy, dusty, isolated hill is all I can call home for the next six months.

Sergeant Toon, the lean squad leader from 3/2 in charge at Panda, brought us all up to the COC1 atop the steep hill.

“Welcome to Panda Ridge,” he said. “I gotta be honest, this area is littered with IEDs.” His lips, eyes and thin mustache tipped down. “One of our guys stepped on one a few months back…” A solemn hush draped over us. “There wasn’t much we could do.” 

He took in and let out a slow breath, then looked up. “The good news is we got most of ‘em marked, and we’ve got eyes on the hot spots at all times with the Oculus.” He pointed over his shoulder to the Marine sitting at the screen behind him. 

“When’s the last time you had contact?” Lieutenant King asked.

“It’s been pretty calm over the past few months, sir,” Toon continued, “Let’s head outside I’ll show you.” He passed through our gathering and exited the hut as we followed him to the edge of the ridge. He extended his hand towards the lush valley below. “We haven’t had much trouble in this part of the green zone. We’ve got machine guns pointed down on both sides of the valley, here at Panda and Griffin’s on the other side.” He lifted his finger to the northeast. “You can see it from here.”

I scanned the area, spotting the outpost roughly a mile away, not atop the valley like us but seated on a bulge connected to it. I turned my head right as Sergeant Toon swept his hand to the southern end of our view. “And Habib is down that way. You can’t see it from here. So they quit shootin’ at us here a long time ago. If you go north, that’s another story.” He turned away from the edge and wagged his hand. “This way.”

We followed him around the COC where he stopped and lifted his hand up once again, pointing to a distant formation near the ledge of the ridge. “That there straight ahead is the Crown and that rock stickin’ up near the edge just to the right is the Nipple. It’s only about a click away but every time we’ve been past that point, we got lit up.”

“Have you been up there recently?” Lieutenant King said.

“No, sir,” Sergeant Toon looked at him, broke eye contact, and grunted, suppressing the frog that nearly escaped his throat. Toon then redirected his gaze to the nipple. “Not since Jones died.” Lieutenant King nodded in Toon’s direction. After the brief intro from the squad leader, we were dismissed. 

A few days later, I sat in the COC on radio watch from 2000 to 0200, learning the ropes from Corporal Brown. We spent most of the time scanning the region with the Oculus, trying to identify prominent features so I knew where it was oriented, which wasn’t easy at night when the screen turned to thermal grayscale.

“See that?” Brown said, pointing to an amorphous landmark.

“Yeah.”

“That’s the Nipple.”

“Really?”

“Yep. See the curve here and the point?”

“Oh, yeah I think so.”

“If we turn it right a bit, you’ll see the edge of the ridge. Make sense?” The screen shifted, splitting between a blob of gray and white to an ash sea drifting into black.

“Yeah,” I said, staring closely at the screen. “Ah, so if we keep going right,” I said, taking hold of the joystick, “we should find Griffin.” The undifferentiated space turned to land with trees and blurry houses. Continuing to the opposite end, after several circles, I caught heat signatures half way up the wall of the valley. 

“Yep, that’s it,” he said, “You’ll get better as you go.”

When I leaned back in my chair, my head tilted my head up.  Above the monitor I saw a picture of a Marine tacked above us. I stared at it for a few seconds, shifting my gaze between the picture and some words below it. After a few seconds, Brown spoke up.

“That’s Jones. The one we lost on our way north.” I didn’t know what to say, so I stood up to get a better view of the picture and see what was written. “His family still sends us care packages. He always would share them with us. So when he died, his mom committed to never stop sending ‘em over as long as someone’s at Panda Ridge.”

“What’s this?” I said, closing in on the words.

“That’s…” Brown’s choke forced me to look at him. His head bowed down. Pink rings formed around his dampening eyes. He looked up at the memorial. “That’s his prayer.”

I bowed my head towards Brown. After another short pause, I turned and zeroed in on the words.

Lord, I ask you to watch over my men as we go into the valley of the shadow of death. I know that the enemy we face is not only an enemy of America, but an enemy of Israel as well, an enemy of you Lord, so I know we are fighting for you. If it is your will that one of us from weapons platoon should fall, please let it be me and not one of my brothers. In your name I pray. Amen

Cpl. Adam D. Jones2

A watery cascade drifted down my spine. A lump filled my throat. My eyes turned to mist. I’ve prayed many prayers in my life, but nothing, never, not anything close to this. I could never pray this prayer.

  1. Center of Command
  2. “This was his last FB post on March 8, 2011. He gave his all on April 27th, 2011.” – Facebook.com/Adams-Hope

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