"Do you remember the moment when you accepted the fact that this would be your reality for the rest of your career?" He asks.
-“Yeah,” I tell him, “July 2nd, 2009. We had just landed in Mian Poshteh, got mortared, rocketed and shot at, at one point simultaneously, we had just lost a guy and it’s two hours later and I’m laying in the prone next to Flores and he’s telling me there’s 600 Taliban surrounding us and there’s ICOM chatter they’re planning to overrun us, so I’m going over every possible scenario in my head that would get us out of there. Did you ever do that?”
-“So I turn to Flores and I’m like- what happens if we get overrun? They’ll come get us right? We’ll leave? Flores just looks at me in disbelief and he sees I’m freaking the fuck out so he holds back and calmly, he says- ‘Naw dog, we’re holding. No matter what, we’re holding.’ And I couldn’t fathom how I was going to make it for the next twelve hours, much less the next 6 months we were scheduled to be there. That’s the last thought I had before I went to sleep that night and I think that’s the actual moment I became a Marine. I woke up the next morning ready to do what had to be done because no matter what happens, we’re holding. That’s how I got through 6 years and 3 deployments.”
"I can see how that stuck with you. For me it was also in ‘09. We’re all sleeping and Sgt Engles comes over and wakes me up - ‘McDannel! Tell Big Worm- Big Worm was my Staff Sergeant- that there’s 6000 Taliban headed for us right now on horseback.’ I start fucking shaking and I wake him up and tell him. Groggy as hell, Big Worm says ‘well, if you hear some horses, wake me up, it’ll be a target rich environment.’ And he turned over and went back to sleep. You know Lt. Spears in Band of Brothers says it’s just a game? It is. It’s just a game and guys like Big Worm just knew how to play better than the rest of us."
On the morning of the 28th, I still hadn’t come to terms with the fact that we were really going to board a hovercraft and partake in the third goat-rope field op of this deployment. “Sustainment” is what they officially called it.
I was supposed to be on the second outbound LCAC and my disbelief about this op was due to it being cancelled earlier- a month prior- when Egypt was happening. I brought all my gear down and watched the marines run around like headless chickens. Some of them too stupid to even successfully tuck in their shirts.
Hulsey comes up to me- “You know you’re A-Driving me, right?”
- “Uh… No. It would’ve been awesome to know before I put all my gear inside the other truck though.”
I correct the situation and we mount the LCAC which is much louder inside the well deck.
When we get to the beach we find our staging area and learn that we’re staying for the night.
It’s hot. Really, really hot. But not as hot as I thought it’d be. I walk over to the cammie netting and grab an MRE as SSgt Stoude grabs ice out of the orange cooler with bare hands.
“Savages,” he says “grabbing ice with dirty ass hands.”
- “I hear if you don’t get dysentery, it’s not a real deployment. I should be alright though, I’ve drank tap water in Afghanistan, Cuba, Mexico…”
“I drank well water in Afghanistan and died for about thirty days.”
The conversation turns towards sharks when we hear we’ll be allowed to swim and Africa supposedly has the most shark infested waters on Earth.
“They mate here, dude.”
“They mate off of Rhode Island too and nobody gets bit. You don’t fuck where you eat. Everyone knows that. Even sharks.”
- “Yeah, okay.”
Pure speculation. What, you got Google in your pocket?
“Also,” and I have no idea how this comes up “Don’t piss in the water. You know there’s a fish in the Amazon that’ll swim up your dick hole and latch itself to your bladder?”
“I’m never going swimming in the Amazon, dude. I don’t want to get dick-fished.”
Most of the guys go in the water.
“Hashtag: Best field op ever!” They yell from the surf. I decide that if I’m going to be a ball of sand and sweat for four days it’s definitely not in my best interest to add salt and water to the mix. The guys find a little shark in a bag on the beach, the fin has been cut off. Most of them shit their pants and get out of the water.
With my last field op out of the way, and today being my son’s first birthday, I thought it a good time to do this. Leaving the Corps is bittersweet, but this way we’ll be over the bitter and when I get my DD214, it can just be sweet.
When you first walk into the recruiter’s office, he’ll tell you about the world of difference the Marine Corps is going to make for you. He’ll tell you about pride and brotherhood and camaraderie. But he won’t tell you what you’ll have to give up.
Over the last 6 years, I’ve been away from my family for 22 entire months. Fourteen of those, I spent in a Taliban-infested war zone. I’ve spent probably another 4 to 6 months in the field or doing training operations. That’s well over two years I’ve been away.
As a hopeful poolee, or even as a new Marine driving off of Paris Island, I didn’t know the toll this would take on my family. I didn’t know my mom would need therapy for the emotional damage caused by having a son go to war. I didn’t know it would cause my parents’ marriage to crumble. I didn’t know I’d miss my sister’s high school graduation and countless other birthdays, holidays or significant events.
Over the last 6 years, I’ve worked my ass off to become the best man I’ve ever been. I’ve endured physical, emotional, and spiritual pain unlike I’d ever imagined. I can’t count the lessons I’ve learned. I’m grateful for that. I’m grateful I’m better now than I was before.
But today is my son’s first birthday, and I’m halfway across the world. If not missing another birthday was the only reason I had to leave the Corps, that would be reason enough.
I applaud the men and women who stay and make this a career and sacrifice endlessly for their country. I know I am capable of making the same sacrifices, but I’m done making my family suffer along with me.
I’m a better man, after all. No longer naive. And from here on out, I have little to gain- more money, more authority… but now I know the cost.
I’m the first one in the stack, ready to hard-knock the compound. Jerry donkey-kicks the door which shatters as if he’d used a block of TNT. I rush in and my selector switch is on Semi before the door splinters fall on the ground- anything that moves dies. We called over on a bullhorn that if you are in this compound and you wish to see the sun rise tomorrow, you’ll be found with your face on the ground and hands on your head. A dog growls and lunges towards me- a bullet from my rifle converges with Jerry’s to send dog brains scattering all over the yard.
We slow and call the entrance clear. We stack up on the doorway of the house. I shoulder-check the door hard and pin it with my right leg to trap any wise-guy waiting for me behind it, in the corner. I spot movement with my left peripheral- Bam! Bam! Cat. That’s two pets in under 10 minutes, PETA would not give me any awards.
I turn the corner and spot a boy looking at me with the biggest eyes I’ve ever seen, his hands up in a frantic don’t-shoot-me manner.
He points towards the back door.
"Dude," Jerry calls to me "You just made two entries- stay with the kid."
I don’t argue.
I lower my weapon and switch the selector on Safe, walking towards the kid. He startles-
-“Easy…” I say, slowing down, “I’m not going to hurt you.”
I reach into my cargo pocket and pull out some MRE crackers. He frowns and looks down.
-“I know, they’re not very fancy.”
I notice he was looking at the cat behind me. He takes the crackers and I sit beside him. I put my hand on his shoulder-
-“I’m sorry about your cat, bud.”
I hear shots outside and think, here I am trying to console you while my buddies are probably outside shooting your dad.
-“Today is not your day.”
He looks at me, confused, and bites down on the crackers. I cringe when I remember the dog in the front yard. I don’t mention it. From that moment on I can only think about whether or not this kid is going to grow up to fight my kids or their kids’ kids.
I think about how much more I could’ve swayed him away from the darkness if MREs came with better crackers.
We come back from the bar we’ve been frequenting for the last couple of nights and we find the First Sergeant to talk to him about putting in for overnight liberty so we can stay at this bar and party longer. It didn’t end up happening because it was late into our stay at this port and all the hotels had to be approved by the USO and they were all booked. Anyway- we’re both pretty wasted, Garcia and I. He was definitely more wasted than me though. We’re talking to the First Sergeant and I’m making a strong case about how we’re two of the best NCO’s in the company and we’re not likely to get into any trouble. When it was all said and done, we all clanked our beer cans together, said cheers and First Sergeant walked away. When we get up to the berthing, I turn to Garcia and say-
"Dude, it was a good thing you let me do all the talking."
And he responds-
-“That’s probably because I forgot what the fuck I was doing there.”
6 months, 6 countries, 8 cities, 4 deserts, 5 time zones, 3 international conflicts, best, worst, most grueling, boring and amazing cruise- ever.