Naval Base Kitsap-Bangor, Washington – 11 October 2008
I remembered MATADOR today. Not the whole Operation, but bits and pieces of sound and fury. It seems incongruous here to recall violent death in the stinking heat. The Pacific Northwest – so hollow with immense distance and towering heights – often seems capable of swallowing up the present and muffling the past. It appeared so to me today as I drove slowly down the convoy route on my way to check the naval base perimeter. To my right the early morning October sun flashed brilliantly through tall cedars and stately pines before illuminating glowing patches of icy diamonds on the forest floor. Autumn’s first hoar frost bristled briefly against the bright attack like the lances of a drunken legion, then winked into droplets of submission on ochre stalks.
The road angled down a steep slope through a narrow draw as it fell toward the water. Ahead of me across the silent canal, a great leaping expanse of the Olympic Mountains sparkled with a dusting of fresh snow. It was a beautiful morning – so sharp and clear that one almost expected the ridgelines to cut the sky.
While slowing the vehicle to make a turn near a production building a solitary, sandbagged position caught my eye. The bags were stacked and pressed neatly but the position lacked a proper firing point. It was the work of Marines who had never been in combat and who had carried out a task without understanding the “why” of it. An amateur mistake, but one that would need to be corrected. I sighed and mentally added it to my list of mundane tasks for the day.
I’m tired – a fact, not a thought. One rarely thinks he is tired – he merely is. But one is made aware of the fact by the requirement to act. For me the constant, pedestrian need to supervise Marines; to correct the same mistake a dozen – a hundred – times; to subordinate personal wants, physical needs, and comfort-based decisions to the greater requirement of Setting the Example: this was what wore on me and exhausted me more than the bad chow or lack of sleep. It was the constant burden of the leader who cares – and I was tired of it.
But I was unable to stop. Bouts of harsh self-criticism paired with morose reflection were not unusual for me while driving distances alone. Hooking two gloved fingers into my throat protector, I absentmindedly worried the flak jacket away from my chafed skin while analyzing childhood antecedents for this particular disorder. My weariness deepened.
I shouldn’t drive the perimeter alone, I thought ruefully as the slick blacktop skittered to a stop amidst slimy potholes and fallen leaves. Then I was on a narrow, gloomy forest trail and the tires hissed softly against wet gravel as I climbed a steep hill choked with blackberry thickets and aging trees.
Abruptly the path leveled, the underbrush receded and the trees rose in a kind of huge, vaulted cathedral. Stained-glass light filtered softly through leafy crowns and suffused the path with a green, ethereal glow. Rising above me, great branches bearded with moss swept up and then arched back down, delicately dropping emerald tears onto thick carpets of decaying leaves.
The vehicle slowed to a crawl. Every time I entered this hushed place I was reminded of Stephen Crane’s protagonist in The Red Badge of Courage: alone, separated from his unit and confronting a moldering Confederate corpse in an eerie forest chapel. The sense of an other-worldly presence was so sudden and intense that I shivered involuntarily and my eyes smarted. The feeling passed as quickly as it had come, leaving in its wake a quivering sadness and regret.
I was alone, and not.
In the sepulchral quiet of the forest, faint echoing memories of war stirred, gained composition, and in a rush of stark clarity threw themselves headlong before my eyes. Swallowing hard against the pain, I remembered.
Al Qa’im, Al Anbar Province, Iraq – May 8, 2005
It was Mother’s Day and coincidentally the 60th anniversary of the Allied victory in Europe. The ironic juxtaposition of life and death associated with those two events would find terrifying new expression later in the day. But at 0200 as I stumbled blearily towards the dirty, chipped sink in an alcove of our one-room berthing area, my mind was on more banal issues. I needed to shave.
I didn’t want to – much as I didn’t want to do anything but sleep at such an hour – but six years in the military had programmed me to perform automatically the hated daily ritual. Scraping your face it was called by drill instructors and Fleet staff-NCOs who hewed enthusiastically to the ridiculous idioms common to the Recruit Depots.
Quickly, I stripped to the waist and splashed tepid water on my face, sending a quick shiver down my spine and conjuring up a brackish odor from the filthy drain. Wrinkling my nose in disgust, I hurriedly lathered and shaved, then brushed my fangs – boot camp slang again – and straightened up to examine myself in the cracked mirror.
The unsmiling face staring back was flat, hard and bronzed from ten days of combat operations near the Hadithah Dam. Our company had arrived back at the battalion forward operating base two days ago after an 80 mile, all-night desert march, nursing Night Vision Goggle (NVG) migraines and a not-irrational anticipation of a few days rest.
The Regiment had other plans. Operation MATADOR was to be a seven day, battalion-sized cordon and search of the badlands north of the Euphrates, from the series of oxbow river bends near Ubaydi to the crumbling cliffs and smugglers caves along the desert border with Syria, fifteen miles to the west. It was ostensibly 3rd Armored Cav territory but the Army had bigger problems in Baghdad, Mosul and Tal Afar.
I splashed more stinking water on my face, glanced at my watch and cursed silently. Two-ten. The other Kilo Company lieutenants were busily checking rifle magazines, stowing maps, and hurrying through a dozen other preparatory rituals in complete silence. Few men care to talk in the small hours before dawn.
It was a tiny room for the five of us and an occasional unhappy grunt or metallic rustle signaled the collision of two animated objects in transit. Across from my bunk, 1stLt John Hayes had finished his preparations first – as usual – and was perched precariously in full body armor on the edge of his rack, regarding the rest of us with a bemused half-smile and the mild aloofness common to executive officers.
Tall, lanky and prematurely grey, the Georgian had a prior combat tour as a platoon commander in Task Force Tarawa during the initial invasion in 2003. Harboring a quick mind behind piercing blue eyes, John’s thick Southern drawl often turned his rapid-fire thought process into a stream of utterly incomprehensible gibberish.
Despite the language barrier John was a dedicated, driven officer who cared deeply about the success of the command and the welfare of his Marines. Watching him watch us helped calm my standard pre-mission sense of foreboding.
“Does anyone need any maps? I’m about to head out.” Weapons Platoon commander Clint Cummings paused in the center of the room with an armful of freshly-laminated imagery. The former Colorado ski instructor was 30 and a late-join to the Corps, but like John he had one combat tour already under his belt. Short and powerful, with longish dark hair and a chiseled jaw, Clint usually masked an undercurrent of bitterness and a sharp temper with a broad smile and twinkling brown eyes.
This morning, however, ten minutes prior to the company staging time, there was not a hint of humor to be found in the hard lines of Clint’s face. As the company intelligence officer he had virtually vanished for the past two days, poring over maps, intelligence estimates, and recent aerial imagery for the battalion’s objectives. The hours of exhausting study had etched purplish smudges beneath Clint’s eyes and his shoulders sagged with fatigue. I doubted whether he had managed to snatch more than a few minutes sleep before reveille.
Responding to Clint’s offer, I shrugged hurriedly out of my flak jacket and selected an extra 1:50,000 map from his bundle, folded it neatly and slid it into the Small Arms Protective Insert (SAPI) carrier on the back of my flak. It nestled there with overhead imagery of five separate battalion objectives. Totally unreachable by me, the maps would be pulled out as needed by Lance Corporal Michael Dotson, my reluctant, towheaded Radio Operator from Ohio.
As a young, invincible Second Lieutenant it was unimportant to me that combining maps, a radio handset, a pistol, two radio antennas, and two Marines in one location at the same time might not be the best survival technique in a firefight. (A well-worn joke is that in combat one should look unimportant – the enemy may be low on ammunition). Dotson, on the other hand, was fully aware of his forced attachment to the biggest bull’s eye in the platoon. I’m sure he regularly cursed the physical toughness and mental sharpness that had impressed me with his ability and led to his selection.
I looked at my watch again. Two-thirty. Time to go.
Next post: Operation MATADOR Part II