It was a cold December day in southern Afghanistan's, Helmand Province. I've been in the country for two months and was dying to leave the base to see some action! Being a POG, (person other than grunt) was hard enough but not leaving the wire (base) was simply embarrassing. It wasn't so much the yearning for battle but rather the wanting to escape the prison which my base had become. Week after week, watching convoys depart the gates armed to the teeth with .50 caliber machine guns, it's enough to get any Marine excited. When would it be my turn to gear up for the rugged and dangerous Afghan countryside?
My Sergeant came rushing in saying, "Alphabet, get your gear ready you're going to the rifle range in an hour". The range was some three miles outside the base. It wasn't the dream situation but still leaving the wire nonetheless. Quickly gathering my flak jacket, Kevlar, and rifle, I was now ready to roll. Excitement had come over me like a little kid going to the toy store. After an hour, my gear was tidy, magazines were all full, and I was ready to go. Before any convoy left the wire it was required to have a mission briefing which was conducted by the beautiful Lieutenant Scholl. Fresh from college about a year older than me, you could see the inexperience reigning through her baby blue eyes.
Fifty or so Marines packed into a small 20 man tent, beside me my good Kentuckian friend Hunter. Being eagerly excited to leave he had a wide smile upon his face. It didn't take much to make Corporal Hunter happy, chow usually did the trick. Lieutenant Scholl began the brief using her usual un-commanding tone. You could tell the Marines who had left the wire from the ones who haven't. There excitement levels showed it all. I tried to remain cool as if I done this my share of times. Nothing remotely interested was being said during the brief and in was obvious everyone was getting bored, growing antsy. One thing caught my attention, when the Intelligence officer began talking about a group of local Afghanis. They stood besides the range waiting for us shoot while watching patiently for our departure. Then, gather the empty casing left behind for money. This was not to be allowed, all the casings were to be collected and rounded up for proper disposal.
We mounted up in the trucks, packed like sardines in a can. As we approached the gates it was good to see other people looking at me for a chance, thinking we were going on some eleven-hour convoy. Of course this couldn't be farther from the truth, but I was content with them thinking it. Fast approaching the Front-Gate, the command to go to condition one was giving. This ordered us to cock a round in the chamber of the rifle. "Clink...Clink...Clink", ah the sound of that medal hitting medal was music to my ears. I imagined running into a group of Taliban, how cool would that be?
The moment of freedom came as the gate guard gave the signal to pass, free from my prison at last. In fact that's what the base looked like from the outside, a huge prison like the ones back in the States. There were no paved roads as we began off-roading through the bumpy landscape. The ground was so dry, the dust and sand shot in our faces. About 15 minutes later we arrived at our designation. You could see the base in the back landscape with its huge sentry towers. The range was nothing more than a built up mound of dirt, to the left there was a high area some six feet in height. Quickly, the order was given to dismount and setup the targets. To my dismay there were no Afghanis in sight. The two Humvees set up security around the perimeter. We were broken up into three strings with me being in the last. As the rounds starting flying down range I noticed two young Afghani children about one-hundred and fifty yards away. They reminded me a lot of myself at that age, amused with anything military-related. Finally, my first encounter with these people although at a safe distance I was still excited. Taking a knee to adjust my rifle's settings, I rose to notice 3 older Afghani males joined the kids. All dressed in traditional Afghan robes of whites and grey's with little circular hats on top of their heads.
Approaching the firing line, the command was given to conduct a typical box drill. This consisted of "two shoots to the chest, one to the head" upon the target. "Pop... Pop... Pop..." like the sound of popcorn in the microwave exploded through my rifle. "Cease fire...Cease fire" was giving by the First Sergeant. Quickly catching a glance towards the Afghanis, there was now a whole group of them! Some fifteen strong, it was hard to concentrate on shooting when there were so many of them nearby. Though poor and dirty, these people were really enjoying the show, I wanted nothing more than to interact and learn about their culture.
Once shooting was finished we began collecting all the empty shells that littered the ground. The Afghan people didn't like this very much as we were ruining their plans. I didn't see the harm in letting them have the brass, but then again you never knew who the enemy was. They started walking towards us, wanting to collect some of the brass before it was all gone. The security team quickly pulled up in front to deter their advancement. One Marine raised a hand doing the traditional stop symbol. A little Afghan child came forward while the others stopped, it was apparent he spoke some English. Elevating his rifle, the Marine was intent on keeping them at a safe distance. The scared child let out a scream while running back to his father's arms, seeking protection.
Things all seemed to be under control until out of nowhere, the Afghanis feeling desperate, charged at us like we were taking their gold. My initial reaction was to raise my own rifle scaring them away while protecting me and my fellow Marines. But these people came in so fast, there was nothing but surprise and shock on all are faces. They began smiling as they plunged on the ground to gather what remains were left. Our frustrated First Sergeant quickly gave the command "mount up" as everyone scrambled to their vehicles. Watching the security teams try to control these people was like watching a comedy. The kids were running through our vehicles laughing, making silly faces at us. Being the last one to pack up on our truck, there was not enough time to pull up the ladder.
Looking upon these people's faces while they gathered these empty casings, it reminded me of watching 5 year olds pick up candy from a busted piata. As the convoy departed the kids continued to run through our vehicles. One kid in particular gave me an open-mouthed-teeth grinning face trying to scare me. The only thing I could do was laugh, as this kid proceeded to keep up with our truck. The kid grabbed the left down ladder while beginning to climb it. Hastily realizing it was no longer funny, this kid had simply gone too far. I didn't want to hurt this kid by kicking him off the vehicle but something had to be done. As I stood up from my seat, glaring down upon this kid, what was I going to do? Corporal Hunter and few others cheered for me to kick him off. I defiantly didn't want to let them down but, kicking a kid with my size Ten-and-a-half steel toe boots, could I really do that? The decision came to me quick and fast, this needed to be done, he was endangering the lives of me and everyone else in the truck. Raising my leg high in the air I proceeded in a downward thrust with all my might. With the boot about to make contact with his face, this kid had left me no choice he was going to get seriously hurt.
The kid would go on to be unharmed just barely avoiding the blow of my boot. Shortly after the convoy would return to base, but this time it didn't seem so much like a prison. The story quickly spread and everyone thought it was awesome. I still wonder what it would have felt like to kick the kid had he not moved. Never had I seen such an act of desperation before, the Afghanis their will not be forgotten. I would go on to do many more convoys to multiple destinations. But I do not remember them like I do this one, the face that kid made at me always brings about a smile.