As You Were Cover

89 Cents

by Dustin Strong

Eighty-nine cents.

That was the price for my Combat Action Ribbon, purchased at the Post Exchange in Twentynine Palms. The tiny bit of blue, yellow, and red cloth has since come to remind me of where I have been, what I have endured, and who I have become.

The day we received word that we would be heading into harm’s way, we had been fighting a war game against some Army Rangers (and kicking their asses by the way). We were pulled out of the field and trucked back to our barracks, meaning it had to be important—grunts never get trucked anywhere.

Each platoon was called in turn to the rec room of our barracks, where extra sets of boots and chocolate chip desert camouflage fatigues, pack covers, and boonie hats had been piled for us. Attention momentarily focused on the television as a CNN crew ambushed Navy SEALs with cameras and spotlights as they came ashore somewhere in Africa. So we were headed for the Somali desert. That made sense—we were desert Marines, after all.

Platoon sergeants and section leaders frantically passed out cardboard boxes and told us to pack our civvies, dress uniforms, and everything else that we weren’t taking with us. We stripped our racks of linens and left them folded up at the foot. Anyone with a personal vehicle had to park it in the MP impound lot and turn over the keys to the First Sergeant. We stuffed our ALICE packs with a basic combat load, and filled our seabags with extra socks, shirts, cammies, boots and hygiene gear.

With the barracks cleared out, next came the armory. We drew rifles, machine guns, mortars, SMAWs, SAWs, and 9mm pistols. We were ready.

We endured a long, boring flight from California to an empty wing of a London airport on a 747 provided by Federal Express. That seemed appropriate. “If you absolutely, positively need it destroyed overnight,” we joked. Most of us slept as we crossed the Pond, but the hop across Europe was filled with nervous anticipation. DeNoux and I anxiously tried to figure out what medals and ribbons we would get for this grand adventure. We were among the boots of the company—those of us who had missed the Gulf War in 1991—and we were eager to prove ourselves to the old salts who had fought in Kuwait.

The pilot told us we were landing in Cairo; he wanted to top off his fuel tanks before making the final leg of his “delivery.” As we banked toward Cairo’s runway, I saw the Great Pyramids and was awed by their sheer majesty. Having grown up in a family of bricklayers, I admired and respected those ancient masons.

We weren’t on the ground for more than a few minutes. The shudder of the plane taking off seemed all the more intense as we considered our next stop. Gunny and the platoon sergeants began handing out live ammunition, and for the first time since coming out of the field thirty-six hours earlier, I felt doubt and fear.

This shit was suddenly getting all too real.

***

 

My company had been qualified as Special Operations Capable that summer in Okinawa, so we were sent ahead of the rest of the First Battalion, Seventh Marine Regiment. We spent our first ten days guarding the recently recaptured U.S. Embassy in Mogadishu, establishing the endless rotation between guard duty, security patrols, and quick reaction force that would dominate our daily routine for the next six months. When the rest of the battalion arrived, we moved out to our new area of operations along the Jubaa River.

We flew to a rendezvous point near a small, recently abandoned village. Along with Bruce, another mortarman and platoon-mate from boot camp, I was tasked with establishing a listening post on the first night. After the sun set, we found a piece of ground with good cover and concealment and dug our fighting position. We spent a restless night in that hole, jumping at every little sound coming from a nearby tree line. Both of us had a bad feeling that something wasn’t quite right, but neither spoke of it for fear of looking like a chicken-shit.

The next morning, we learned the village had not been abandoned after all. We had dug our fighting position in an unmarked mass grave.

***

On Christmas Eve, the battalion chaplain made his rounds, offering comfort to those who wished it. Just before sundown, he set up a small altar for a non-denominational Christmas Eve service. This was a surreal moment: a Christian service in a Muslim country administered by a Jewish chaplain the day before we were supposed to make a big attack to seize a dirt airfield.

Later that night, a massive thunderstorm rolled over us. Figures. At the embassy, we had a roof over our heads and not a single drop fell. Now that we were out here in the sticks, sleeping in a bombed-out village, the rains came. The curse of the infantry.

The brilliant light show and deep, rolling thunder reminded me of spring storms in Kansas. A bolt of lightning lit up the sky, as if God were taking a photograph, and seemed to linger against the dark clouds for a few seconds. My cot was quickly becoming a shallow swimming pool, so I sought shelter in a five-ton truck parked nearby. I crawled up into the bed and was centering myself under the overhead tarp when I realized I had crawled into the back of our company’s ammunition truck. For a flittering moment, I recognized the potential danger, but decided I didn’t give a shit and fell asleep.

We spent Christmas Day choking on dust in the back of a five-ton truck, heading for the airfield that would be our home for the next six weeks. The militia offered no resistance but simply vanished before we arrived.

After securing the airfield, we received our first mail. The First Sergeant brought me the biggest damn box I had ever seen. Twenty pounds of homemade cookies baked by my mother and niece had caught up to me: chocolate chip; peanut butter; date logs, which we referred to as “dog turds” because of their appearance and were obviously not very popular among the Marines of my platoon, or the Somalis for that matter; pecan sandies; and, my personal favorites, no-bake “mud” cookies and chocolate-covered rice-crispy treats—more chocolate than rice-crispy.

In an attempt at some Christmas normalcy, we drafted a sickly looking bush to be our Christmas tree, and decorated it with expended brass, dog-tags, plastic whiz-wheels used for calculating elevation for our mortars, and fuse-arming wires from 60mm mortar rounds. The Captain even allowed each man a libation of a half can of warm beer.

Despite the festivities, all I really wanted was to be home.

***

Death lived in the nearby village of Berdera. Nearly four-hundred Somalis died every month there from disease, starvation, or roaming militia bands. Relief supplies had been flown into the airfield, but were immediately stolen by one of the various the militias fighting each other in a vicious civil war. Starvation was used as a weapon, and the villagers caught in the middle paid the price.

Every morning we ran a convoy through town to relieve guard posts, and every morning, we saw Death amuse himself with the Somalis. Women, tightly holding their dying infants, sang soft lullabies until the children finally slipped away. A senile old lady ran naked alongside our convoy, banging on the vehicles with a massive stick and swearing at us.

One day, the old lady decided to sit down in the middle of the street and block our progress. The Humvee I was in managed to slip around her, but the following five-ton truck was having trouble in the narrow street. She pulled herself under the truck’s rear tires. The Marines in the back were quick to bitch at the driver about hitting so many bumps in the road. None of them had seen what had happened. She was medevaced within a few minutes on an Army Blackhawk helicopter, but her broken spine, crushed ribs, and massive internal bleeding were too much for her. She died on the helo en route to Mogadishu.

The following morning, I saw a stick figure drawn on the air filter of the five-ton truck as I climbed aboard—a visible, fighter pilot-like sign of the driver’s “confirmed kill.” A few days later, Doc and I rescued Ahmed, a twelve-year-old orphan, from a particularly bad beat-down near one of the Red Cross centers. Bigger boys were trying to steal his bowl of rice. Doc patched him up and gave him some Charms (not a big loss, as Marines consider the candy to be some sort of demonic curse not to be trifled with). The next day, Ahmed found us during a foot patrol. He gave Doc a ceremonial hand-made dagger, and gave me his prayer beads. Two of his most prized possessions.

A week later, we found him stabbed and beaten to death in a ditch.

***

On a bright, sunny day, my Mortar section and the Assault section loaded up and headed into town. Some militiamen had broken into the Red Cross compound, ransacking the place for food and medical supplies. The Marine rifle squad tasked with protecting the aid workers had gathered them in a small room in the corner of the compound, prepared for a fight, and radioed for assistance.

We dismounted our trucks and cleared the compound, building-by-building, room-by-room. Like a well-oiled machine, honed by months of training and experience, our four-man fire teams leapfrogged each other, one covering while the other cleared.

On a count—three, two, one – the Number Four man kicked in the door and stepped back from the opening and the next three Marines mentally divided the room into smaller pie-shaped segments as they rushed in.

Number One went left, Two went right, Three went left, Four went right, each calling out and engaging any target that may be waiting.

“Clear!” echoed through the room as Marines called out each sector secure.

“Over-watch!”

Every Marine took up a position to cover another team’s assault on the next room.

“Stand-by!”

We readied ourselves for the next room, rotating our position in the stack.

Then it was my turn to be the Number One man—the first one into the room, the first one in the line of fire.

“Three-two-one!” and a heavy kick shattered the door, slamming it hard against the inside wall, only a portion of it still clinging to its moorings. I charged through that fatal funnel, stepping right and following the wall to the far corner, dividing the room into those pie-shaped slices, searching for targets.

“Clear!” I called out, and heard it immediately said back to me.

“Overwatch!” I moved to a position covering the door. At first, I didn’t understand what I was looking at, but as the realization dawned on me, my jaw dropped and my eyes widen. Propped up against the wall, the land mine was right in the door’s swinging arc and perfectly set to detonate if the door had hit it instead of exploding on it hinges.

***

 

At the end of January, we were redeployed back to Mogadishu and welcomed a change of pace. But Mogadishu turned out to be a special kind of hell, an entire city of bad neighborhoods.

The militias were more aggressive here than they had been in the countryside. Every day, someone in our battalion was engaged. And you always knew when the mischief was about to begin.

Somalis would burn piles of tires to alert the militia when we were coming. We could track the route of any patrol through the city by just following the lengthening chain of oily black smoke. Then we would hear the gunfight erupt. Sharp and short.

One of the worst fights was literally in our own front yard—a riot had erupted in front of our hotel-turned-barracks. Hundreds of angry Somalis chanted, yelled, and screamed at us across the low wall separating our barracks from the main street. Rocks fired from sling-shots pelted our building and plunked off our helmets with dull thuds. The ubiquitous burning tires appeared in the street, dramatically raising tensions.

Quickly, things went from bad to worse. A convoy of Humvees returning from an escort mission nearly disappeared under the hail of stones as they drove through the mob.

Then the militia opened fire.

The drivers of the first three Humvees accelerated out of the crowd, but the turret gunner on the fourth, angry and bruised by a Somali curve ball, stood erect in his turret, raised both middle fingers, then grabbed the handles of his Ma-Deuce and opened fire on the crowd.

And so did we.

It only lasted a few seconds. People scrambled to get away, but more than a dozen remained motionless on the street below, half of them caught by the big .50-cal, turning them into nothing more than unrecognizable chunks of meat. It was several hours before any Somalis screwed up the courage to return to claim their dead, carting them off in wheelbarrows.

***

We did get down time in the Mog, but we could never fully escape. We had improvised a horse-shoe pit, a beach volleyball court, and a shower, and even got to spend a day on the beach next to the airport. We tried to forget where we were, acting as if we were at Venice or Mission Beach.

But every day, all day and all night, there was a constant rattle of gunfire echoing throughout the city, a dull roar that would often crescendo into a sharp, frenzied climax as opposing forces made contact. It was like listening to a fireworks display on Independence Day.

Fort Apache was one of several bunkers situated inside the compound walls at the Olympic Stadium Complex. Every company was responsible for manning at least four of these bunkers at all times, and every Marine took his turn in those bunkers every three or four days.

But Fort Apache was special. It was the most dangerous bunker, situated in front of a huge, gaping hole in the surrounding wall. Every morning, Combat Engineers filled the hole with Quik-crete, plywood, and two-by-four planks. Every night, we heard the Skinnies pulling nails and dismantling the barrier, carrying it off under the cover of darkness, and an inept Somali sniper would plaster the bunker with wildly inaccurate rifle fire.

It quickly became a morbid game among the Marines to score the sniper on his marksmanship abilities, just as if he were qualifying on the range at home. To encourage, but mainly to mock, his marksmanship, a twelve-inch bull’s-eye with two outer rings six inches apart was drawn on the back wall of the bunker. Each round he fired was rated on its accuracy from zero to five, and his last impact was marked so that he could adjust his aim.

Every night, we endured his futile attempts to kill us and recorded his score, noting any improvements, and rating him as UNQ (unqualified), Marksman, Sharpshooter, or Expert. Every morning, the Engineers would repair the hole, and the entire process would begin again.

It was during such a night at Fort Apache that I heard Clint Black give a concert just inside the stadium a few hundred meters away. As I was scoring our would-be assassin on his fourth consecutive miss, Clint Black began playing, “A Good Run of Bad Luck.”

How appropriate it all seemed.

***

After six weeks in Mogadishu, my company returned to Berdera, which was not the hell it had been before. A tent city had sprung up around the airfield, like a heavily armed summer camp. Everything was tented—barracks, showers, a gym, the chow hall. There was even a tent with a TV, VCR, and a respectable library of movies. My section was billeted right next this tent, where  some sick, twisted, son-of-a-bitch former high school wrestling star relived his glory days by watching Vision Quest every  morning, afternoon, and evening.  Hour after hour, the movie’s themes song, Journey’s “Only the Young,” blared into our billet.

We again fell into the familiar routine of guard, patrol, and react, but this time it was different. The militias had melted away, and we were bored.

The monotony ended when we received word of an arms cache a few miles down the river. My platoon was ordered to seize the cache and destroy it. This would be a short mission.  We would be back in time for evening chow—the steaks that we had liberated from the Army’s refrigerators in a mid-night raid.

We loaded up on four AmTracs (lightly armored and amphibious troop carriers) and headed to the river. We followed the Jubaa for several miles downstream. No contact. No gunfights. It was just a leisurely cruise down the river on the back of the tracks on a beautiful sunny day with the smell of rot in your nose and the occasional dead crocodile floating past in the black water.

A few kilometers from the suspect village, we left the river and charged down the dirt trail as fast as the worn-out AmTracs could go. We quickly surrounded the village and began our systematic search for this supposed massive weapons cache. It turned out to be a single Martini-Henry .303 caliber rifle, left over from the Zulu War a century earlier, and three corroded rounds of ammunition.

As the amused villagers hurled insults and jeers at us, we loaded back up on the tracks and headed upriver. All seemed to go well until one of the vehicles sputtered to a halt. The crewmen worked quickly and took the broken-down beast under tow, but that was just the beginning of our ordeal. A second track, the tow vehicle, overheated and also had to be towed.  The extra work caused a third track to begin overheating, forcing the crew to nurse it slowly up the river.

By early evening, the strain became too much. The river banks were too steep for any of the tracks to climb, so we found a sandbar in the middle of the river to pull up on, called for help and waited. Spare parts would have to be flown in from Mogadishu, so we were told to sit tight until morning.

All of us had already eaten the single MRE Gunny had given us, so evening chow was the most immediate problem. The Lieutenant requested a supply drop of food and water. All of the helos, however, were on-mission and it would be well after dark before we would get our resupply.

Army Blackhawks did arrive sometime after midnight, with boxes of MREs and bottled water slung in cargo nets under their bellies. The LT used an infrared light, directing the pilots to drop the supplies in the center of the sandbar.

They didn’t, of course. Instead, they dropped the cargo in a clearing near the river bank a few hundred meters away. We would have to get across the disease- and crocodile-infested river to get to our chow.

Fuckin’ Army.

Marines pride themselves on their ability to improvise, adapt, and overcome, but sometimes it’s just a pain in the ass when others choose not to cooperate. We MacGyvered a narrow foot bridge out of ponchos, driftwood, and the ever-present 550-cord that Marines seem to magically conjure in great abundance, and made it to the riverbank. Our little squad carefully picked our way through the underbrush, chased some militia from the clearing, only to find our dinner completely ransacked by the locals. We couldn’t blame them, but still.

Fuckin’ Skinnies.

During the rest of that long night on the sandbar, sleep eluded us. Sleeping inside the track would be like sleeping in a sauna, but sleeping on the ground meant risking becoming some crocodile’s dinner. Sleeping on top of the track was the only option, but there was not enough room for more than a couple Marines at a time—not to mention we became prime targets for mosquitoes.

Huge swarms, as big as thunderclouds, harassed and tormented us all night. Every few seconds, the sound of a hand slapping bare flesh echoed between the riverbanks. By morning, when the choppers came with spare parts, all of us looked as if we had been eaten alive by those tiny little vampires.

The majority of us on the sandbar that night were later hospitalized with malaria a few months after returning Stateside. The doctors couldn’t figure out why the meds hadn’t worked.

Fuckin’ mosquitoes.

***

After six weeks in Berdera, we finally received orders to go home. We felt like we had accomplished something important. From our first arrival, the death-rate had dropped from 400 per month to less than 10. We felt proud. I remembered a phrase I saw scrawled on a wall by Marines during our time billeted at the Olympic Stadium hotel:

 

 

“We, the Unwilling,

led by the Unknowing,

are doing the Impossible,

for the Ungrateful.”

***

Flying back to the United States, after an alcohol-soaked, twenty-four hour layover in Ireland, we neared New York City and the pilot brought us in right over the Statue of Liberty, banking slowly around it so that everyone had a chance to see her. At the time, she was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen in my life, and for the first time, I understood what she meant to all of those immigrants seeing America for the first time.

I was finally home.

 

For years, I let Africa define my life, and it nearly killed me. Even today, Africa is everywhere. I still feel the hot, humid air. I hear the chatter of gawking Somalis and smell the decay of a dying country. I still get edgy whenever I’m around a cemetery, and refuse to go near them at night.

Holidays are different now. Every Fourth of July since I left the Marines, I close my eyes and hear those same street battles as my hometown puts on its annual display, accented by all my neighbors adding their own firepower to the celebration. At Christmas, I decorate a small tree with the same whiz-wheel and fuse-arming wire, and the prayer beads Ahmed gave me. I spend the day with my family, and Mom still makes sure I get the mud cookies and chocolate-covered rice-crispy treats.

For nearly a decade after I left Somalia, I worked for my brother’s masonry company. It was honest work for honest pay, but I felt empty. I had no direction in life, no feeling of accomplishment, no sense of purpose that I had in the Corps.

I was lost.

I could still hear the cries of hungry children and the soft, twig-like snap of brittle old bones after I inadvertently stepped on a dying old man’s arm during a night patrol. I remember the screams of a camel being butchered alive and the smell of its disemboweled corpse on the grass.

I crawled inside a tequila bottle, often with a loaded pistol next to me. I came close several times, but was always stopped by a pair of big brown eyes resting on my lap.

‘Sena, my Akita. A small pup with a huge attitude, and more intuitive than most people, he was a welcome home gift from my mom when I was discharged.

The day I picked him up will always be a favorite memory. The runt of the litter, he was the only one who did not run and hide. Instead, as I moved toward him, he took small, tiny steps backwards, growling as he slowly retreated. When I reached down and picked him up, he began licking my face, and I knew he was a kindred spirit. He was a fighter with a big heart.

On those dark days I never wish to revisit, I only wanted a reason to continue—any reason—and he was it. He was all I had, and it was enough.

But ‘Sena’s greatest gift to me was my wife. I dated a few women the first couple of years at home, but he didn’t like any of them. His attitude ranged from growling to outright ignoring them. She was the only girl he liked, cozying up to her as if they were old friends. He had taken care of me for this long, so I figured, what the hell…

We’ve been married for seventeen years now.

President Reagan once commented that most people wonder if they have ever made a difference in the world, but that “Marines don’t have that problem.” I wanted to again make a difference in the world, to give back, to serve. With my wife’s encouragement and support, I decided to finish my education, and I became a teacher.

***

Memories of Somalia are part of who I am, and always will be. They color everything I do, and my life is viewed through their lens, but they no longer rule me—on most days anyway. As an old Vietnam vet once told me, “The bad memories never go away, you just get used to them.”

Eighty-nine cents. That is all my Combat Action Ribbon cost. I still carry that little bit of colored ribbon nearly every day, like a talisman to ward off evil. It is a reminder of a simple truth, hard learned: in life, there will be moments that can either overwhelm and crush your spirit or force you to find a renewed strength and purpose in life. The trick is to decide: Will those moments define you, or will you define those moments?