Afghanistan, I can't quit you

My mom pushed me to join the Marines. Now that she's gone, I'm still drawn to war zones

Published May 13, 2012 1:00PM (EDT)

A child flies a kite in Kabul on Tuesday Mar. 27, 2012.     (Geoffrey Ingersoll)
A child flies a kite in Kabul on Tuesday Mar. 27, 2012. (Geoffrey Ingersoll)

The heat. That's what I remember most. Shimmery and bright. Blinding. Stifling. Heeee-eeaat.

The kind that's not just on you, wrapped around you, but balled up and pulsing inside you -- a desert blanket with teeth. It's a type of heat that makes your skin cry and your eyeballs sweat, even in the shade; heat like a predator you can't run away from.

I notice it right as I get off the plane -- not just the degrees but also the dust. Dust you can smell, kicked up by a thousand years of struggle. In a region this old, I'm sure each breath carries a dose of unintended history: Inhale, Alexander the Great; exhale, the Ottoman Empire; inhale, the USSR; exhale, the Taliban.

And now, at 90,000 troops, it's America's turn.

I have my own history.

A week from now, it'll be a year since my mother passed. Horrific car accident, traumatic brain injury. It wasn't the first TBI I'd seen, but I hope it's the last.

She's the reason I and my brothers joined the Marines.

The last time I was in a war zone, though, it was Iraq. Anbar. Operation Iraqi Freedom. I was also a journalist -- Marine combat correspondent, a Private Joker, like Full Metal Jacket.

"Get rid of that peace pin and get with the winning team, kid," the Colonel says to Joker.

Yeah that was me, Raptor Man and Joker rolled into one person, hopping around the combat zone with a camera. By the end, I could tell you the type of helicopter approaching just from the sound alone.

I remember we were all terrified of roadside bombs. Nothing could rip the life out of you as quick as an improvised explosive device. Practically invisible. Pressure plates. Propane tanks. Shaped charges and command det. Incendiary bombs frying the flesh right off your bones, and tank mines turning tons of Humvee steel into an indistinguishable mess, quick as a red-light-running SUV.

Mom's car was like that, nearly indistinguishable. Her crimson "Marine Mom" plate was bent and hanging from the front. In the backseat, purchased moments before impact, was a mangled case of Rolling Rock, the beer we all loved to drink together when the boys and I were home. When it happened, Mom was getting ready for us to come home again. The green glass from the bottles spread around the demolished Ford at a scarred Pennsylvania crossroad.

She told me once that she had cried every night during my first deployment in 2006. I deployed again in 2008. Long before I even went to bootcamp, though, she had told me she always pictured me living out of a backpack in some foreign country, carrying around a camera and a notepad.

I land in Kabul with a bit more than that. I have a pelican case of camera gear, a backpack, a duffel bag and an old Corps Alice pack. Double of everything; redundancy is key.

The big difference here is that I don't have the Marine Corps to back me up. I'm alone in my own zone, no Conex box full of extra camera bodies, batteries and lenses. What I have is what I got.

I'm used to freedom. During deployments as a combat correspondent, or "CC," I had an almost insane amount of freedom. I could be in Baghdad on Sunday, Ramadi on Wednesday, and Mosul by the weekend. I was one of a very select group of "non-rate" entry level Marines who could justifiably look in a colonel's eye and ask, "Why?"

Also, I had a top-down, bottom-up view of the battlefield. I was included in high-viz command briefs as well as presence patrols.

The only problem was the multilevel public affairs web, a dicey bureaucracy hell-bent on "happy glad" editing and stories that reflect rosily on the command staff. It's like the scene in "Full Metal Jacket," written by a former combat correspondent in a short story called "Short Times":

"So you didn't see any enemy bodies, no casualties?" says the public affairs officer.

"They must have carried them all away," says Joker.

"No blood trails?"

"It was raining."

"Well, throw in one casualty, say, a dead officer; grunts love to read about dead officers," says the PAO.

"How 'bout a General?"

Yes, I'll admit, Military Public Affairs was a spin machine I desperately wanted to be free of. Full of "command messages," clever omissions and helpful little edits.

Criticism at all was out of the question. I guess the idea was that we got enough of that from the civilian side of coverage. But to even call what we did "coverage" would be a bit of a misnomer. It was more like public relations with a journalism arm.

It's like this. Ribbon cuttings: The General stands there smiling in front of a new clinic, and I take the standard big-scissor picture -- snap. He and some Iraqi leader shake hands then -- snap snap -- and everyone's happy right? But there are no details about how much we paid and how long it took to finish the project. I can't even mention that there's no electricity or acknowledge the smell of shit in the air, wafting from a waterless outhouse just meters from the building.

I saw a little boy come running out of it, smiling, excited the Americans came to visit, and I walk over to take a look inside. A huge pile of human shit intermixed with, strangely enough, pages from prominent American magazines. A smeared Vogue cover; I think I see Esquire, too, and then Johnny Depp peers at me from between turds, flies kissing his face like teenage girls probably do to their posters back home.

It was all so very strange, ignoring details like this, simply because "civilian journalists" don't want to reflect harshly on command or the military, in general.

Don't get me wrong, though, I'm not here to pull the rug out from anyone's feet. I'm not looking for a runaway general, or a hard-hitting expose.

See, I understand that despite what the news media, pundits and commanding generals say, the reality of war is wall-to-wall gray. It may look cut and dry, good and evil, right and wrong, but on the ground, the moral abyss that stretches between weapon sights and targets contextualizes even the most distilled aspect of human struggle: Kill or be killed.

Death, like a black hole, distorts everything around it.

Speaking of death, once I arrive in Kabul city, what I'm wishing for is a little more security. As an independent operator, I'm not as comfortable as I once was rolling around with 50 well-armed 19-year-old Marines.

My travel isn't so structured. Sit. Stand. Sleep. Get the bags off the truck, Private. Move the bags over here. Now over there. Eat. Form up. Go away. Get together. Load up. Strap in. I said: Strap. In. A C130 from Kuwait, and then you're in the shit.

Not so now. I land in Kabul a disoriented mess. I'm not with DynCorp or Raytheon. I'm not a former SEAL with Blackwater. There's no burly white guy waiting at the gate with a sign bearing my name.

I'm a freelance journalist. I have to rely on some tiny, jumpy Afghan who's looking to make a quick buck to help me get my bags, fill out forms and register with the government. Then my "fixer," a journalist facilitator, shows up with his driver and car.

Still, they are Afghans, it is not a Humvee and I am not surrounded by armed service members who are eager to dispatch my enemies.

I've come a long way from being that aimless college grad living in his mom's basement. I remember I had recently become a Teach for America reject. She called me upstairs not long after I got the rejection letter. It was the afternoon. I probably still had bed hair, my breath a mixture of cold pizza and coffee.

I'll never forget her ultimatum: "Either you go back to school …"

With my habit for whiskey? No. No more school.

"you get your teaching credentials and teach down by your father …"

In South Carolina, nah, I'll pass. What's the last one?

"or you enlist in the Marines."

What? Really?

"I know a recruiter …" -- undoubtedly from her days as a high school front desk secretary -- "Gunnery Sergeant Fannel. You can call him right now if you want."

Hmmm … "What's the number?"

Years later, seeing me as a success, my two brothers would follow suit.

When I do finally meet a service member in Kabul to pick up my media credentials from the local base, he drives out of the entry control point in a lumbering "hard skin" vehicle (one that looks like a regular SUV except it's armored).

He gets no farther than about 50 feet from the ECP, parks and gets out. He's totally covered in protective equipment.

I see now how ridiculous we Americans sometimes look to the locals. Obsessed with protection to the point that the protection itself actually makes us slower and more apt to trip, stumble, or get caught up -- in a lot of ways more vulnerable.

Also, it acts as a very ostentatious barrier between us and the Afghans.

This is not the first time I get the perspective of the locals. Another big difference this time is that I've given myself a week in the mix before I have to meet up for my flight out to Camp Leatherneck and the Marine units with whom I'll embed.

So I have a week to tool around Afghanistan, free as a bird flapping in the breeze, and my perspective is not solely limited to that of the military. It's important, I believe, to talk to the people and get to know them. I think the Marines would agree that talking to the people was no small part of their success in Anbar during the "Awakening" in '07 and '08. I hope it will be a part of my success as a reporter, this time on the civilian side.

The first time I was in Iraq, I'll admit that I hated all of them. A deep, scornful hatred, like black syrup pumping thick through my heart. A hawk that eats foreign policy hawks for breakfast, I wanted to glass the whole country.

Second time around, tasked with transition teams, I got to know a lot of Iraqis. Picked up a little Arabic. I began to understand them as a people, their generational struggle to exist beneath the iron arm of Saddam's royal tyranny.

You can Monday-morning-quarterback the shit out of our operation -- whether it was legal or not, how it was handled, etc. But in between the lines of the opinion sections of the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times, it's prudent to understand that real people with families, mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, dreams and nightmares -- actual human beings -- are trying to exist and cope with a never-ending cycle of trauma.

The Iraqis used to laugh at the American concept of post-traumatic stress disorder. Actually laugh. They'd say, "PTSD? Look at our children; they've grown up with PTSD."

The Afghans are no different. In fact, they're worse.

I cruise out west, to Kunduz, to the farms and the bazaars. I talk to farmers, fishermen and kids. Inside the city, I talk to prominent businessmen and city officials. In the park, I talk to regular citizens and even senior citizens as they play chess.

I go up into the mountain slums and give bubblegum to the children. I ask them what they want to be when they grow up, what they learn at school, and who their heroes are.

"John Cena!" Yells one kid, scrunching into a wrestler pose and smiling.

What amazes me is the amount of hope. It's understandable when a kid in New Jersey tells you he wants to be a firefighter or a doctor. Every kid here either wants to be a doctor or an engineer. It strums a chord of sorrow in me so deep that it takes all I can to ignore it; as I watch a toddler paw through an open sewer, it takes all I have to keep a straight face while I carry on a conversation with children who have lived nothing but war.

The city scene is what we would think of as post-apocalyptic. So is most of the countryside and suburbs, all the bazaars and farms. There is tinge of post-apocalypse everywhere. Not like Iraq, though. In Iraq, in Baghdad, they remembered once that their city was beautiful.

Here it is not so much post-, but also during, maybe even pre-. Even the parents of those children grew up in war. The Russians held ground in the '80s. The Taliban ran a regime of fire in the '90s. Now unfinished, unoccupied buildings dot the landscape as proof (alongside the looming U.S. withdrawal deadline) that the crooked fingers of 2008's economic apocalypse reach even into the darkest depths of war.

And once we go, where does that leave them? Most of them think Pakistan or Iran will take over. The optimists hope Russia or China will gain influence. Either way, the vast majority want the U.S. to stay.

It's funny, they refer to their country as the football field where armies come to compete for global dominance.

Regardless, I find they are a proud, strong and courteous people. They are also willing to fight for their country, which I find out once I get to Delaram II, a Marine base in Helmand.

After spending a week in Kabul and the surrounding area, I meet up with my military liaison and catch a flight south, to Camp Leatherneck and then down to Delaram II, to embed with a Marine Advisory Team.

I realize things are really different once a Marine -- one who would have drastically outranked me --calls me "sir."

"You don't have to call me sir, dude. Geoff will do just fine."

I realize I've just called a Gunnery Sergeant "dude." Yes, as opposed to being a guy in uniform with a camera, now I'm just a guy with a camera. The distance, regardless of my history, is palpable, typified by an intelligence lieutenant who stammers through an interview, unsure exactly of what to divulge.

Finally, for me, it begins to sink in that the phrase, "Once a Marine, always a Marine," is literally just that: a phrase.

The unit here is "advising" a brigade of the Afghan National Army. My first day there, the Afghan army simultaneously repels an enemy assault and finds some IEDs. They do both to a degree satisfactory to Marine standards, except they bring the IEDs back on the base, sending the Marines into a tizzy.

Marine explosive ordinance disposal appears to take care of the bombs (it turns out, they were inert anyway), and I find myself an interpreter so that I can talk to the Afghan chain of command. I think I'm going to focus on them more than the Marines, who are due to leave in the next two years anyway.

Inside the Afghan command center, I am alone, aside from the interpreter. No Marine Gunny. No PAO.

So there is freedom, and there is also more of a degree of objectivity, but objectivity is a relative concept. I know I have more latitude, but I also have more time. There's no quota. I can focus on whatever I want (there's a motorcycle-riding General here whom I've pretty much pegged for my next piece).

I guess that just leaves the question: Why? Why did I come back?

I've wondered that myself quite often. I remember on that last plane ride out, after my second deployment, there was a soul-deep sigh when the bird finally left the ground. Thank God, I thought, I have all my fingers and all my toes, all my limbs, all my skin, and I'm out. I don't ever have to come back.

But here I am. Again.

Maybe I want action. Or maybe it's that writers write what they know. It could even be that I miss the Corps. But that's not quite right.

I know that I want to offer a voice to voiceless people. I know that I want to see the truth -- report the truth -- in depth. And I know that, if not for anyone but my little brothers, I want to tell the stories of 19-year-old Marines -- Americans who were as old as those Afghan children when the planes took down our towers.

The truth is I don't really know why. It could be many things.

It could even be my mother, whom I still see in my dreams, and the drive to be the man she dreamed me to be. I wish the nearest Rolling Rock wasn't 4,000 miles away.

By Geoffrey Ingersoll

Geoffrey Ingersoll is a freelance journalist, documentarian, writer, photographer, and veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom. He is the recipient of the Sam Stavisky Award for Combat Reporting.

MORE FROM Geoffrey Ingersoll

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Afghanistan Editor's Picks