57. Combat Action Ribbon

Combat Action Ribbon

He rescues me unharmed from the from the battle waged against me, even though many oppose me.

Psalm 55:18

When first squad took the first patrol at Panda Ridge, I asked the squad leader, Sergeant Suever, if I could pray Psalm 911 over them. He obliged. When they returned to the FOB, he approached me with a chaw-filled smile.

“Hey Decoup, I liked that prayer you said. I want you to keep doing it every time we go out.”

Swelling with excitement, and relief for that matter, I reassured him I would.

Before departing on my first visit north, I raised my hand, and projected the psalm over my squad mates before we left. It was well received by Sergeant Ward as well and most of the others of third squad. Then, our combat outpost came and went without incident, save my beeping metal detector and three whizzing rounds.

When the time came for first squad to venture north for the second time, I recited the prayer more boldly due to the danger of their mission to revisit the Crown. Once finished, I stepped into the COC to finish my remaining time on radio watch and sat next to the thermal imaging on the monitor. I stared at the screen as a dozen bodies overlayed in grainy, grayscale, stretched out in file down the path through the flattened, black, two-dimensional rocks until one by one, each head sunk beneath the void.

Though I was nervous for what might happen, I knew staying up wouldn’t help anything. I was tired. Besides, the Taliban only fights during the day. So I shuffled down the hill past our sad excuse for a chow  hall, stepped into the Quonset hut, removed my sweaty boots and crusty cammies, and shimmied into my cot. 

I blinked and it was day. Eight, maybe nine o’clock. The guys popped into my mind as I dressed. I hoped everyone was okay, but there was no point in worrying. All I could do was say a quick prayer before getting up, one of those prayers without words but somehow you know it communicates your heart’s desire to God as fleeting images pass through your mind. 

Grabbing a book and my Bible, I stepped out to the back end of the hooch and sat on a three-foot Hesco,2 leaning against the taller Hesco wall, cracking open my Bible beneath the shadows of the camo netting swaying in the fresh morning air. My happy place.

As the morning progressed I heard whispers from some of the guys that things got crazy for first squad. My head spun as trickling rumors tickled my ears. I tried best to push them aside until I could hear something first hand. 

About an hour later, a handful of Marines made their way around the corner of the hooches, Doc Ennis in front. He approached me with a slack jaw and eyebrows elevated in disbelief. I slipped off the HESCO to my feet and squared up with him. 

“Dude, I believe now,” he said.

“What? What happened?”

“Check this out,” he elevated his right arm to reveal the webbing beneath his armpit, pulling the fabric tight with his left hand to reveal a bullet hole.

It seems we kicked the beehive when we went north for the first time with third squad. The Taliban must have grown complacent after Sergeant Toon retreated to the safety of Panda Ridge when Corporal Jones died. They hadn’t seen us for months until we popped our infidel heads up. Perhaps they stowed away their weapons or figured we’d never come back, and once we did, after being out of practice for so long, were unable to coordinate any hasty attack on us. All they could do was set their tea down, grab a single AK and pop three rounds in our direction to send the message, “I see you. Get the fuck out.” In the meantime they must have prepared for our return. 

Friday, September 30, 2011

Turns out LT King was the one who stepped on the pressure plate & it flamed up under his feet. Doc Ennis had a round impact so close to his armpit that he felt it. Pieces of it left small scabs on his arms. There is a hole in his frog suit under the right armpit. The engineers moved from their position only to have impacts land exactly where they were. Clarkin and Wallin both had rounds snap inches away from their ears. God is good! Debritto said rounds impacted near his face, and Clarkin, when running to a different position, had rounds impacting by his feet. One round hit Debritto’s weapon. Abbot got shot at & got up to move to cover & the second shot hit where his head was just seconds earlier. 

It is wise to approach such reports of combat with a healthy skepticism. The rush of combat can cause one’s memory to err. Additionally, the storyteller tends to either consciously or unconsciously exaggerate scenarios in order to recruit the imagination of the listener to envision an accurate replication of how the catastrophe was perceived. 

My skepticism faded rapidly as more surprising evidence supporting their claims surfaced, not least of which was Doc’s armpit. We discovered one of the rounds cracking by Debritto’s face struck his rifle when he noticed horizontal line gouged across the side of M-16. At least one other Marine had a similar mark. Over the next day or so, at least two Marines noticed an annoying rattle in their flak jacket that upon further investigation, turned out to be undisturbed, perfectly pointed bullets that snuck their way in unnoticed. Every single round of each volley, perfectly dialed to a landmark of a well-known distance and elevation for both small arms and PKMs,3 missed its mark. Even the IED Lieutenant King triggered “missed.” Everyone made it back without a single scratch.

The guys from first squad were fired up. Excitement persisted as memories ricocheted between squad members with enthusiasm quickened by the rush of combat. Fear appeared to be absent, or at the very least, diffused by making light of an encounter that should have left several seriously wounded if not dead. Though it is an unhealthy mechanism long term, jokes and banter allow us to set aside the fright that would otherwise prevent us from doing our job.

I relished in the moment too. It seemed evident to me God was with them, and although I would never submit that Bible verses could be worn or peached like lucky charms, or that I had some special ability to tap into the divine, I felt grateful that I could offer something that no one else did. Despite my lack of preparedness with my competencies as an effective asset in combat, at least I could do something, even if it meant I technically did nothing but be a spectator of an answered prayer. 

Crouched behind my elation however was envy. These guys had real stories to share. I had none. All I could do was parrot their glory, jot down their accounts, imagine how it unfolded, wonder what I would have done, speculate why I couldn’t be there, and hope that I might have my turn. Perhaps I wouldn’t have felt this if one of our guys flew back to the states with a flag draped over their casket, but nonetheless it hung heavy in the back of my mind. 

Not only me, but all of us who missed out were jealous, and for reasons yet more frivolous. On that operation, first squad officially earned their Combat Action Ribbon. For we infantrymen, the CAR was was a coveted prize, a holy rite of passage, a baptism into manhood, a confirmation that our miserable training efforts amounted to something and a badge of honor that officially proclaimed we engaged the enemy that satisfied our desire to fulfill the truest essence of military duty. They now possessed this glory. Not only that, but in our weak egos steeped in the unhealthy culture of military service comparison, it was combat of more than sufficient intensity.

Combat Action Ribbon

With only one of seven months completed of our deployment, I knew we’d get our turn. Fortunately for us within a weeks time we would all earn our ribbon.

  1. I write a bit about my discovery of Psalm 91 here
  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.
  3. A Russian made medium machinegun that fires 7.62 mm rounds.

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