A LATE START
Veteran, Matthew Mason
It was late November, two days before Thanksgiving, 2010, that I arrived at 1st Platoon to rejoin the unit in which I had fought with in this same A.O. 18 months before. I had been with the Company since it stood up in 2004, save my tour at Battalion, as assistant Operations Sergeant Major. I was greeted by my new Platoon Leader, 2LT Matt Jones at the HLZ on touchdown. Having been stationed here before, things looked similar as very little had changed on FOB Kushamond since my last tour. FOB Kushamond was located in the Kushamond district of Paktika province and would be my home for this tour once again; unbeknownst to me at the time, it would also be my final tour of combat. The FOB was small, only about 700 yards long and 500 yards wide, a lonely outpost in the middle of vast open terrain, mostly flat, save some wadis and rugged mountains in the distance. It didn’t sit on a strategic point such as a crossroad, but did allow for access to the large open area surrounding the base. The amount of dust, which at times had been knee high, was now virtually gone, whether trampled down or blown away by winds. What was left was hard packed earth and rock. We quickly loaded my baggage into a MATV (Mine Resistant All Terrain Vehicle), and drove up to the dust colored buildings where the Platoon spent their time when not on patrol, working out, on perimeter guard, or some bullxxxx detail.
As we downloaded my bags, familiar faces started venturing out of the “B” huts to greet me; I greeted each one asking about the men and how things were on the base. SSG Shawn Murphy, a young thin NCO was a member of the Company that had hunted with me on my land back home; quickly got me up to speed with current events and the enemy’s disposition and capabilities in the Platoon Area of Operations. I began to settle in quickly before the other three Squad Leaders stopped by to re-introduce themselves. SSG Andy Esqueda was my 2nd Squad leader, SGT Gary Smith, who was soon to be my 3rd Squad Leader; and then there was my weapons Squad Leader, who will I will not name due to what transpired and was discovered later in the tour. The men had already been hardened by a harsh fighting season and had been without much leadership after their former Platoon Sergeant had abandoned them due to “PTSD” issues; the result of being wounded by mortar fire in September. Abandoned, such a harsh word it seems for someone wounded in combat but in this case, a harsh reality. The man had reached his breaking point, without a word to anyone he simply boarded an outbound helicopter leaving his men to their fate. I was here to take care of the men on the all too familiar base, to get things back in good order, discipline, and take to the fight to the enemy. It was good to be home again, on the line, a Gunfighter. A giant.
Over the next few weeks, the men would test my judgment, as is normal when a new leader takes command; no one walks in and takes over without proving they can do the job. It took nearly three weeks for me to learn all of the men’s names, many of which seemed barely more than babies, ranging in age from eighteen to twenty-five. Only two men were my age; SGT Smith and PFC Jones. On the men’s young faces you could see the effects that several months of combat and extreme stress and lack of rest had on them. War does strange things to men as many have said before, aging even the youngest of them at a rate much higher than their friends at home. Young, bright eyes become dull, tending to stare off into space, lost in thought with fears they face yet keep locked inside. Faces that started soft were now hardened by sun, sweat and life in the combat. Gray strands of hair came from nowhere, caused by worry and stress of what could happen and what is to inevitably come. The babies they once were, are now gone, many have killed men; all of them have tried while fighting in this hard land. The price already paid is more than anyone can imagine that has not been in their shoes. Feelings they once knew are now gone. Love is pushed far back in the mind of many, it is nothing more than an alien concept, except for the love of their brother to the right and left; many would have problems once they returned home to their loved ones. Feelings, repressed for so long, the mere idea of finding them again feels impossible. Things that would make them shed tears in the past now roll off of their backs, not from lack of emotion, but from the need to keep it suppressed to live through the next day. They know one family here, the men beside them, the giants they count on day to day to keep them alive.
During our down time the men told stories of fights they had been in, IEDs they had hit, and of rockets that seemed to fall from the skies like rain at times. Many of the men had acted heroically in these fights but would never be recognized for their actions, it takes an Infantryman being wounded while fighting to be seen as a hero, and many times, he must die before the Government admits his worth. Many men that fight and die are never recognized for what they have done, except by others who were there and lived to pass along the memories. The stories were overwhelming, as I began to feel the fears I had as a young Private during the invasion of Iraq. It would take time to suppress the nervousness of being back in combat again, this was the real end of the dirty, not some theory taught to new lieutenants in IOBC; I felt behind the power curve on this one. As I was sitting safe at FOB Sharana, these young men were shedding blood, and losing their sanity on a daily basis, sweating in the heat, humping combat loads, and shedding tears for friends wounded or killed, all while having to continue each and every day. While I might have been safe during my time at Battalion, I still knew firsthand what these young men dealt with each day they were here. Unlike new men fresh in from home, I understood the stories being told in something other than the abstract since I could match each with one of my own.
With the absence of Senior NCO Leadership for about a month, discipline had become an issue. I walked directly into that tangled web which had to be taken care of if we were to once again be hailed as the best Platoon in the Battalion. Military units run on discipline, with a strong leader missing to keep the men on track, any unit would have trouble in short order. It didn’t take long for my first serious incident to raise its ugly head. Late one night, a Private was found lying on the floor of his room, convulsing, an empty can of compressed air that he had been huffing lay beside him. I came to realize this was a serious problem as I listened to My weapons Squad Leader, this looked to be more prominent than we thought, affecting several of my men. As the PL and I began questioning the young man, he began crying, blurting out several more names of men that had either shown him how to inhale the canned air, or, had actively participated in the use of it. He knew he had let down the men and he understood he was about to be made an example of for the good of the rest of the men. The problem with drug use is nothing new in any part of society; these young men were by no means immune. In the days following the incident, paperwork was processed, he was charged with a Field Grade Article 15. Within the month he was moved to another Company for a fresh start. This was also a wakeup call for what I needed to do to take control of these men, now it was up to me to repair the damage done by the last several weeks of lax discipline and leadership. Finding the young Private, which uncovered the use of drugs, was just one of the problems facing this Platoon, now it was up to me to rein them back in.
Let the games begin; it was time the leadership laid down the law once more. Details, useless details at that, were started; the men worked day and night on useless projects between daily patrols, to once again instill the discipline that was lost. I could see the men breaking, exactly what I wanted to see; they had to know who was in charge and what was not going to be tolerated, by myself or my squad leaders. It didn’t take long, 5 days at the most, to regain the control that was lost. The men understood that I was fair, but at the same time, wit was not in my make-up to take any of their bullshit. Once they had gotten that in their heads, I knew things were going to be just fine. Along with discipline comes pride, and that can grow with men doing a dangerous job, knowing they do it better than the rest. I had no doubt these men were ready to continue the task.
The Sky is Falling
Shortly after arriving at Kushamond, death and destruction began falling from the sky at random. 107mm rocket fire had been a serious hazard for over 3 months on a daily basis and the guys sending them in our direction were good at their job. The accuracy of the rockets was stunning, I soon find myself jumping at the slightest noise, not wanting to be the next one to be caught out when the death shafts hit. Rocket fire increased dramatically whenever a Combat Logistical Package (CLP) Convoy showed up, this convoy normally consisted of between seventy to eighty men and women plus plenty of vehicles bringing in much needed fuel and supplies to FOB Kushamond. The enemy knew that hitting us when these convoys were here would greatly increase chances of causing damage to equipment and casualties to personnel. Their intent was solely to drive us out of the area so they could take over once again. Which, they ultimately accomplished about two years after we had been relieved by another unit. So much time, and so much blood wasted, for nothing in the end.
The first “CLP” arrived within two weeks after I was back on base; the rockets began landing within an hour of the column arriving at the gate. As we attempted to upload and download the trucks the first round came in from the west, smashing into the wall that separated us from the outside. As shrapnel flew in all directions along with dust, rocks and pieces of wall people ran towards bunkers, it was the duty of senior NCOs to ensure no one was wounded and everyone made it to cover. I ran along a wall as I rounded a corner at the motor pool and there was a small group of Soldiers just standing outside of their trucks seemingly oblivious to the attack underway. I began yelling, utilizing some rather inventive profanity to emphasize how serious I was that they would be better off not standing in the open during a rocket attack. As they realized that perhaps Sarge might have a good point they ran for the bunker, a second round screamed in with a sound that can’t be described as anything other than terrifying. Luckily, the men had made it safely to the bunkers encouraged by my more colorful language just as the rocket impacted less than five feet from where they had been standing. Shrapnel ripped into trucks, kicking up dust for a hundred yards around as metal splinters whizzed through the air, a pressure wave leading the way rocking vehicles and stressing nearby walls. Payback time, a call had gone out that we were taking indirect fire, help was on the way, Apaches, locked cocked and ready to rock.
Within five minutes a call came in notifying us that Apache Gunships had identified three men located in a treeline the rockets had been fired from. It was time to go kill the bastards that had been instilling fear in the men for months. Orders were issued and men geared up to get rid of these assholes once and for all. As we loaded our trucks, the birds reported two men had gotten away but they had left their motorcycles and what appeared to be some type of rocket launcher behind. They maintained contact with the third man and utilized containment fires from their Under nose mounted Co-Axial Chain Gun to keep him from escaping. This might seem extreme to you folks reading but it is a fine way to keep someone in place so you can go have a "chat" up close and personal. The day light cameras bring things up close and night vision along with thermal imaging makes it virtually impossible to hide from an Apache even after the sun goes down. Within seven minutes we were in route to the site, five trucks deep, loaded for bear. As we approached the area where the men were first spotted darkness had set in. The last two vehicles began taking small arms fire from the north as my weapons Squad Leader’s and my truck continued to move engaging the AK-47 fire, utilizing the muzzle flash of the enemy to walk our machine guns onto our targets. We continued to move west to within a hundred and fifty yards of the fleeing man when the Battalion Commander gave the Apache Gunner a green light to engage the man directly. The rounds rained down from above in a sinister light show, tracers seeming to flow from the sky like a river of death. The thumping of the nose gun sounded as the gunner fired, impacting rounds sent sparks and dirt through the air as flashes lit the area giving the man nowhere to hide. The rounds found their mark as my men dismounted to move on the man and end the reign of terror he and his helpers had established.
Our dismounts and I jumped quickly out of our vehicles and began a semi run to where he was lying. My medic, “DOC”, is following closely behind me, stumbling trying to run through the rough field, he quickly regained his footing and pressed on. As we cautiously approached the man, his eyes were shooting back and forth between us; he had lost most of his right arm and now lay mortally wounded helpless before the men he had attacked. The men slowly gathered around, unsure what to do as the man tried to say things, his mouth moving silently, a sure sign that he was done for. Thoughts began to race through my mind, questioning whether or not he was indeed Taliban, one thing you might not be sure about since they don’t exactly wear uniforms. My men asked if we should treat him medically, I instructed them to first search him to ensure that he had nothing that could harm us before we attempted to save his life. They hesitated, never having dealt with a dying enemy fighter, finally I got down and searched him myself, rolling him over once to check his back ensuring he had not dropped a grenade or anything under him. The results of the search were clear; the bloody Icom radio he used to communicate with other Taliban was in our hands, still turned on, other Taliban were trying desperately to contact him. Little did they know, he was already gone, the man’s life had slipped away during our search. Now the nasty work of recovering the body was at hand, literally. We picked him up and placed him in the back of SGT Locastro’s truck. Locastro cursed the dead man that was bleeding out all over the inside of his truck in his voice heavily accented with Mississippi. We searched a one hundred yard circle before finding the man’s hand which we simply put in a bag and threw into the truck, striking the gunner, PFC Lindsey, in the leg. He shrieked at first and then began to laugh. The joke, “Need a hand?” was quickly established.
Once we loaded the body and were satisfied that there were no further evidence or body parts in the area, we remounted, and manuevered back to the location of the motorcycles. We established a support by fire with the trucks then dismounted to clear the small patch of trees where the men had parked the bikes. SSG Murphy quickly called out that his men had located the two motorcycles, LT Jones and I instructed the men to leave the bikes alone until the patch of trees was swept thoroughly to ensure that no more enemy personnel were hiding in ambush. Once the sweep was complete, we began searching the motorcycles while LT Jones and 3 other men were being walked onto the rocket launcher by the Apaches watching from above, with one in a tight circle pattern around us keeping track of our progress to the objective, and the second in an outer circular pattern, scanning for any signs of a possible counter-attack. The motorcycles were found to be loaded with machine gun rounds, fuses for rockets, pistol belts, and another radio. We quickly took pictures and began loading the equipment into the backs of our trucks, making sure to leave nothing behind in the tree line for the enemy. This was the evidence showing these men were Taliban and not just some locals that happened to be in the area. LT Jones called in that we had found an actual rocket launcher, the first true complete rocket launcher platform ever found in Afghanistan, and another non-expended rocket laying close by, fuse in and ready to go. This was it! The men had been chasing this launcher down for three months, at times being led directly into IEDs and ambushes with withering fires. Now they had it, they were yelling the most sincere and polite curses such as “we got you now you Mother Fucker”, and “Who’s the bitch now!” All of which were perfectly normal and acceptable in an Infantry Platoon. We secured the launcher before calling EOD to come and dispose of the rocket. As we waited, the morale of the men was higher than ever, they had done it; they had gotten the rocket man and his launcher!
The morale slowly went down, adrenaline seeping away as hours passed and the cold of the night sank in while we waited for the EOD and Quick Reaction Force to arrive. We repeatedly called back and asked when they would be on site, only to hear that they had not yet left due to mechanical issues on one of their trucks. 3rd Platoon, the QRF element, was out of FOB KKC and had come down with the CLP to provide security. Finally, LT Jones asked what the mechanical issue was and was told that one of their vehicles had no heat and they were not leaving until it worked! Rage took over most of the men, cursing and the slamming of helmets could be heard through the night. The rage wasn’t misplaced, two of our trucks had not had heat the entire night and we had been out in the cold for more than six hours waiting on people that didn’t want to be cold. None of us had the opportunity to eat that day and hunger played a huge role in the anger. The love between 1st and 3rd Platoon was non-existent, other than among the more senior members that had known each other for more than five years. Needless to say, there was no love that night. EOD eventually arrived with 3rd Platoon after more than 10 hours and the rocket was quickly reduced. The rocket ended up being white phosphorous and the dead Taliban was in fact “the rocket man”, at least for now we wouldn’t have to worry as much about random rockets landing in our yard, Noorai, commonly known as "the rocket man" was eliminated.
Before the fiasco with the rocket man came to a close, it was a normal morning. The men and myself were sitting outside smoking and joking, when two rockets came in, one of which hit the perimeter wall of the FOB and the second, that impacted right in our common area, damaging two vehicles and destroying portable johns, located only about ten meters from where we were when we heard them launch. When the first round hit, the men scrambled for the makeshift bunker and you would be surprised how many men can fit in one of those. One of my troops, Crichlow attempted to use one of the portable johns as in his words, he “had to piss”. I yelled for him to just piss in his pants if he had to but to get in the damn bunker. He did, thankfully. As soon as he made it into the bunker, which the Squad Leaders, PL, and myself had blocked the entrance by standing in front of it; the second rocket came screaming in and impacted a pallet of water, sending shrapnel like a giant shotgun blast through both portable johns. Crichlow was literally seconds away from death, but, he wasn’t even harmed due to what he thought was an asshole just trying to make him piss himself. Shortly after, he walked up to me and said, “Sergeant Mason, you just saved my life”. I didn’t and still don’t see it that way. I did my job, and a huge part of that job is making sure my men make it home. Our artillery attachments were sending rounds back within a minute, thunder has nothing on those 155 Howitzers. Soon, we knew we would be out there again chasing ghosts. Which, we did, ever single day.
IN WITH A BANG
We left the FOB shortly after 1600L or 4:00PM, heading south to another location the enemy had historically used to fire rockets. Let me explain, roads were something we never travelled due to the threat of IEDs, which by now, everyone should know, was a favorite tactic. For the most part, we travelled in the vast array of old plowed fields. These fields were not what you would think of as a normal flat plain or even what you see getting ready for corn or soy beans back home. They were rough, very rough; due to the ingenious irrigation system local farmers had created hundreds, possibly thousands of years ago. These irrigation ditches were any suspensions nightmare and kept our speeds under fifteen miles an hour the majority of the time. The ditches were anywhere from six inches to two feet deep, elevated above the terrain, much like a rice patty one would see in Viet Nam or other Asian countries. Had they been spread out it would not have posed such a nuisance. Unfortunately, the distance between them was rarely less than sixty to seventy feet. Needless to say, the ride was uncomfortable and rough but it beat the alternative of finding pounds of high explosives with your vehicle which happened often enough as it was even in the fields.
Some of our drivers had mastered the art of utilizing the air brakes and throttle of our thirty-six thousand pound trucks to make the ride bearable; mine it seemed had not. PFC Jones was a hard worker, a yes Sir no Sir trooper, which naturally he never called me, considering Senior Non-Commissioned Officers consider being called Sir a grave insult! He was new at driving, I had just fired my last driver for poor performance and now it was Jones’ turn to try to ruin my lower back. The rough ride now became even rougher as PFC Jones went about learning his new trade at the expense of my kidneys. As the sun began to set we finally made it within two miles of where we were headed. My truck, last in the group of six, was about to cross a waist high ditch but as we crept into to it enough to see, it suddenly looked much bigger than we thought. The truck smashed into the ditch and naturally I, being the kind and sensitive NCO that I am, began cursing and yelling at Jones explaining to him in my calm fashion what I thought of his driving skills. Now this is normal in the Military, you make the boss mad; he yells and curses, some NCOs have become legends for their amazing knowledge of the English language. Well, this upset him a bit and he seemed flustered so I calmed my voice telling him to just take it easy the rest of the way joking about how old I was and how my weary bones can’t take a beating like they used to. He laughed and we began easing out of the ditch nice and smoothly. As we reached the summit of the ditch, an enormous flash and violent jarring lifted the truck then slamming it to earth. This was followed by smoke and the acrid fumes of explosives which filled the truck and the air around it. Clods of dirt along with parts of the truck rained down as the world hung in a cloudy haze around us. Even with all of our caution we had been struck with an IED.
As we regained our thoughts in the seconds following I asked if everyone was okay. This was followed by Doc and my gunner PFC Parker both saying they were okay. No sound came from Jones. With smoke billowing in the vehicle I could see over the radio mounts where Jones was slumped over. Our first thoughts were that he was dead, as the majority of the blast was focused on his side of the truck. What seemed like minutes passed as DOC and I continued to yell at Jones asking if he was okay, calling his name, over and over again until finally he spoke. A huge weight was lifted off my chest as he simply stated, “Sergeant, I’m sorry”. At that point I knew he was fine. He, like many other drivers, blamed himself for an IED strike. Reality had just sunk in for this young man; it was his first IED strike, and a big one at that. Now that cool and level headed thinking had returned, I instructed him to turn off all the trucks power since fire was a very possible threat. As he shut down the truck all of the alarms that had been beeping shut down leaving a strange silence.
LT Jones was calling over the radio, but due to the damage, I could not transmit, I turned off the vehicle’s radios while turning on my dismounted radio I kept on my plate carrier. I finally got in touch with the PL and told him that we had struck an IED in the ditch and the damage was catastrophic to the vehicle. I stuck my hand out of the door firing two green pen flares into the air to ensure the other vehicles had eyes on my exact location. With the dust, it was hard to identify anyone’s location for at least three minutes while it settled. Once the dust settled I opened the door, looked around the outside of the truck for secondary devices then dismounted, instructing my crew members to follow in my exact footsteps. They did so, as we all walked away from the blast site with little more than a bump on the head. The truck was in pieces, three hundred pounds of hub assembly had been thrown more than a hundred and fifty yards away, hood gone, engine destroyed, and tires literally disintegrated. As the rest of our patrol converged on our location we all realized, it was a good day, we were alive. We were down another truck but it sure beats the alternative of not having one that can protect you.
For the three days following we were on mandatory down time for observation due to the blast we had suffered. Most spent this time mainly playing video games on our computers and watched movies with occasional breaks to care for our Russian tortoises. We had saved them in the desert and had been feeding and watering them regularly. The turtles were something sacred to us as we had something to take care of; we also found peace and joy, maybe even a bit of our childhood in remembered times of a pet we cared for. Each tortoise was owned by one of the men and was given a name; mine was Maxine, a large female about 15 inches long and 9 inches wide. For a bit of fun we would draw a large circle in the dirt in the area between our four wood buildings placing all the turtles in the center. Once all the tortoises were in place we would release them cheering them on as they raced to the outside of the ring each man calling his tortoise’s name! Maxine won many of the races and was my pride and joy. At the end of playtime it was always time to eat and we would go to the mess Sergeant and get "fresh" veggies for them all and they would quickly devour the feast set out before them. Times like this in a little way, took me back home, in a place away from the war and violence surrounding me. It was necessary for us to have times like these, silly times that you can get lost in. It happens in every war, whether it be a dog or what have you, perhaps a boxing match or wrestling match, these times are special to us all. Since our earliest days when man has gone to war and far into the future small things that let you forget the present and bring back the pleasant have been more important than many can imagine.
Unfortunately, as a Senior Leader in the Platoon these times when you cannot go out are not as relaxing as they are intended to be. You are stuck on the FOB, your men, on the other hand, are still going out on combat patrols. I spent many an hour in the Tactical Operations Center or TOC listening to the radio and awaiting messages from our means of communication that I still can’t disclose. Many a gray hair sprouted as I sat waiting in silence for anything, an update, a grid location, a Return To Base order. I wanted to hear anything but a call for help or a call that they had made some kind of contact, without me to guide them, controlling the base of fire for the maneuver elements with eyes or hands on. Even though I knew they could do it on their own, it troubled me to no end, one reason is I always had the medic with me. My medic was my shadow, where I went, he went, no questions asked, and now with both of us down a new medic was out there. I honestly didn't trust him yet should any of my men be hurt or wounded. Maybe that part wasn’t quite fair but you earn trust and that means working with people as they prove they can do a job.
"Doc" Greene was a special kind of medic. He hailed from California. Afraid of nothing and was always with me no matter how much fire we were taking or what was going on. He was my go to man. We would talk for hours in the truck about nothing and I think I knew more about that young man than I knew about myself. He was not only a bad ass, but he was also a kind hearted young man that cared for the children of Afghanistan and treated them with love and compassion. Doc would fix up their little burns, scrapes and cuts with the tenderest touch. But never let that fool you, he would cut the throat of the first Taliban he could in a heartbeat and not think anything of it. I think that without the two of us bitching about what we were doing, we would have both gone crazy. Having someone to talk to, to let off steam, someone that understood the way things were, saved our sanity and allowed us to do our jobs. We were a team, a brotherhood. Everyone looking out for each other and Doc was no exception. His job, in my mind was one of the hardest in the platoon. For not only did he have to take care of himself, he took care of each and every one of us. He had a huge amount of empathy and was not above telling anyone what he thought. Rightfully so, his life depended on us, and, our lives depended on him. He had just as much, if not more “pull”, than any of the Squad Leaders. However, he never let that get to his head. A truly honorable Soldier.
THIS PIECE IS A WORKS IN PROGRESS AND HAS TAKEN 9 YEARS TO GET THIS FAR. THE EVENTS ARE 100% FACTUAL AND CERTAIN NAMES HAVE BEEN OMITTED TO PROTECT THE INDIVIDUALS FROM HARRASSMENT. I STRUGGLE WITH PTSD AND TRAUMATIC BRAIN INJURIES EVRY DAY OF MY LIFE, MAKING IT EXTREMELY DIFFICULT TO CONCENTRATE. HENCE WHY IT HAS TAKEN THIS LONG TO GET THIS FAR. MANY TIMES, EMOTIONS TAKE OVER, AND I ZONE OUT FOR HOURS ON END AND FIND MYSELF JUST QUITTING FOR MONTHS AT A TIME. OTHER TIMES: JUST THINKING ABOUT COMBAT IS TOO MUCH TO DEAL WITH. I INTEND TO FINISH THIS ONE DAY. NOT FOR ME; BUT FOR THE MEN THAT I FOUGHT WITH, MY BROTHERS IN ARMS, MY “GIANTS”, THAT WERE ONCE CLOSER THAN FAMILY. IF YOU HAVE ANY QUESTIONS OR COMMENTS PLEASE FEEL FREE TO EMAIL ME AT firstname.lastname@example.org
Freedom Sings USA is honored in working with Matthew to set his story to song.