July 19, 2011
Dear America: I’m a Soldier in Afghanistan
Here’s a letter from the front. I’ve republished it with approval. It’s heart-breaking at times, so be prepared:
Happy Summer Friends and Family!
I’m sorry that it took me this long to get an email update out. Some of you may not even know that I am back and half way through my fourth deployment to Iraq. No seriously – Iraq. Yep, we’re still here (over 50,000 U.S. men and women last time I heard) and there is definitely still a war going on. I arrived just in time for a couple of weeks of “mud rain” in April. Now summer is in full swing and it is HOT – hot like you can’t believe, hot like the other three summers I’ve been here and I’m STILL not used to it. I’m not dealing with the elements too much on this deployment though. This time I am working the night shift as an “Individual Augmentee” Marine (only about 100 of us left in the country) at a primarily desk job with the Army and the Air Force in the Al Faw Palace in Baghdad Iraq. I help coordinate the movement of the many U.S. Generals and Admirals as they bounce across the country from meeting to meeting. Lord knows I’m not a desk job guy, especially out here, so this has been both challenging and educational experience so far. I was expecting a Baghdad vacation of sorts, with time to catch up on emails, reading, writing and some military online courses without worrying about the usual Iraq War outside the wire stuff of previous deployments – especially now that everything was winding down over here.
Yeahhhh . . . about that . . . I should have known better . . .
This deployment was perfect timing. In February I was finishing up as my squadron’s aviation safety officer and we were starting to transition from the older UH-1N Huey to the newer, incredibly more capable, UH-1Y Huey but the time between learning the new helicopter and my next set of orders was too short for it to be worthwhile for the Marine Corps to train me up. “Luckily” this spot opened up, I gladly volunteered for a spot that no one else wanted to fill, and here I am. There is an article at the bottom of this that talks a little about what the UH-1Y is doing in Afghanistan starring our great buddy Marine Capt Bret Morriss. The article is over a year old and he’s home now, but another great American, Marine Capt Nels Dahlgard is out there wreaking havoc on the bad guys from above with the UH-1Y Hueys and AH-1W Cobras of the HMLA-267 “Stingers.” Please keep them in your thoughts and prayers. Nels’ address is after the article if you want to send him and/or his crew some love from home.
What about IRAQ you ask? Good question. I’m stalling. One of the reasons I hesitated to write this email is what the old folks always told us growing up right? “If you don’t have anything good to say, don’t say anything at all.” Trust me, I have read and reread and rewritten this email several times. This is the nice version.
Things are not good out here right now. I experienced three very different phases of this War and never before did I feel as helpless or more frustrated than we all feel here. My first deployment was close. We were flying overhead, watching the ground guys get blown up by Improvised Explosive Devices (the infamous IEDs) on the roads and in the towns, with often no triggerman in sight and no one to shoot back at. Frustration was high. Morale was low. Still, there was a sense that what we were doing made a difference and, towards the end of our deployment as the “tribal awakening” was beginning to take shape and local leaders were starting to join the fight against the insurgency, that things were going to get better. My second deployment was spent mostly helping the Iraqis piece their broken lives back together and squash the last bit of influence the insurgency had over these people. During my third deployment, we trained, advised and evaluated and really confirmed in my mind that the Iraqi government and its security forces were ready to take control of their own destiny. We were quickly closing bases across the country and collapsing smaller ones into bigger ones. The last Marine Infantry Battalion showed up, saw the fight was over and ended their deployment early leaving the Army training and advisory units to slowly back away from the fairly sturdy foundation of success that both the U.S. and Iraq had sacrificed so much to build.
That was August of 2009. Now, here I am two years later with incredible wireless internet, never failing air conditioning and working in a giant command center on a giant base surrounded by the tens of thousands of servicemembers and even more contractors that are still here in Baghdad, Iraq?? Bases are still closing but I was shocked to see the infrastructure still in place, the street sweepers that still run in the morning, the Indian men that still cut our hair, the others that make our omelets to order and stir our Cesar salad, and the happy smiling Asian women that wash and fold our laundry just so. There are still parking lots full of hundreds and hundreds of Ford Explorers, armored Chevy Suburbans, armored MRAPs, HMMWVs and hundreds of aircraft that ferry us from base to base and landing pad to landing pad. Before I deployed, I joked that we would be living in tents and eating packaged meals by the time I left Iraq this time. Turns out I’m still going to be able to order an Iced Vanilla Latte from the coffee shop if I want . . .
All of the above isn’t why this deployment is so frustrating. Did you know that there were 11 Soldiers killed here in April, two more in May, FIFTEEN in June,and two YESTERDAY just outside our security wall?! Does the news even talk about us over here anymore? The frustration comes from the helpless feeling that we are doing nothing in retaliation in response to the increasingly brazen attacks, often in the middle of the day. Since I arrived back here in mid April, we have been attacked with rockets and/or mortars nearly every other night. Sometimes the sirens start before the explosions, sometimes after. Sometimes they don’t hit anything. Sometimes they blow up our gym and hurt a bunch of people – sometimes worse and often executed in full view of the Iraqi Security Forces (police, army and border forces) that are supposed to be preventing these attacks. At best the ISF are incompetent and inept, which after working with them I can almost buy. At worst, they are facilitators and participants in the attacks and again, after working with them, I can also buy. It’s probably a little of both.
This more than anything was the most shocking part of coming back to Iraq. This is why I’m writing you about the bad stuff instead of shielding you from it like I did in previous deployment emails. It’s not that my other deployments weren’t dangerous and things weren’t blowing up, and lots more people weren’t dying, but this is so unexpected and SO disappointing. And when our bases get attacked with indirect fire weapons like rockets and mortars almost every day? We no longer have the “counter battery” capability to immediately and accurately shoot back like we did in the past. Those counter weapon weapons cause too much collateral damage and really haven’t been necessary for years. That capability is now in Afghanistan or sitting at home in the U.S. We can figure out where the bad guys are shooting from but they are long gone by the time our forces get to the launch point. Meanwhile, we continue our painfully slow withdrawal and the bad guys are increasing the frequency of their attacks using IEDs, RPGs, RKG-3s, EFPs and IRAMs – all of which are bad news and highly effective if employed at the right moment against the right target (look up the last three if you have time). Add that to the fact that forensic evidence now proves that these aren’t even Al Qaeda extremists attacking us anymore, they are Iranian backed, fairly well trained militias:
All of this combines to create the group of military men and women I am surrounded by on this base with the lowest morale that I have ever seen – and it’s hard to blame them. I’m a glass half full guy and I always will be. I have seen some nasty stuff in almost 25 months that I have lived in Iraq and I have always been able to tell you about it with an optimistic twist. But when a young soldier asked me the other day if the only reason we were still over here dying was so that a bunch of Generals could go to meetings and drink tea, I was so caught off guard by his simplistic deduction and perspective, I could hardly refute it with a positive response. At the basic level of his understanding, of the big picture – and frankly mine too – he’s right.
There are tens of thousands of us in these staff positions with the sole purpose of supporting the General officers that are going to meetings to ensure that our influence is greater than Iran’s or other extremists’ influence.
I explained to him that I was confident that we have intelligence and special forces out there somewhere doing something in response to these attacks, but to the regular guy like me and the young soldiers I’m surrounded by, it looks like we are doing absolutely nothing and the continuing proof of that is the daily attacks. Whether true or not, we appear to have lost the initiative, no longer dictating the terms of the conflict “to force the enemy to meet us on our terms.” I can’t tell you how counter-intuitive this is as a Marine – so much so that it hurts to even write it and re-read it. We are just sitting in the defense like “fish in a barrel” hoping that the next rocket whooshing overhead doesn’t have our name on it and isn’t as well aimed as they sometimes appear to be. All I can do is “duck and cover” because for my first time every, I can’t shoot back! I’d like to say that they can’t see inside of the “barrel” but jump on Google and type “Al Faw Palace” into the maps section. See that perfect satellite imagery and the distance scale on the bottom left part of the image? I’m pretty sure any of you reading this could target us with those tools if you knew the range of your mortars and rockets . . .
The outgoing Secretary of Defense recently spoke about Afghanistan and it’s increasingly ungrateful government. It’s hard for me now after all of these years to say it’s much different here in Iraq. After all this time destroying, rebuilding, training, advising – and sacrificing our lives the entire way – it seems that we have done all that we can do and the Iraqis have learned all that they are willing to learn from us. We are past the point of diminishing returns. Don’t get me wrong, I am incredibly proud of everything that we have done out here over the past 8+ years and the Iraqi people are most certainly better off now than they were under Saddam – and I absolutely understand that our presence provides an important deterrence to unchecked extremism here in the Middle East – but we should not be dying for these people anymore.
This is an article about how the new Secretary of Defense thinks the Iraqis will ask us to stay:
And our preemptive offer to keep 10,000 troops out here past the Dec 2011 withdrawal deadline:
Stay tuned kids . . .
As always I really appreciate the boxes and notes from CA to NY, TX to FL, OK to IL, CO to OH, and NV to TN. You know who you are and you know that these deployments wouldn’t be as easy without your love and support. It’s hard to overemphasize how much real mail means out here. You know I’m a shameless solicitor of carepackages, but I’m hesitant to put out my usual “wish list” this time. We live like kings, we eat like kings – well, ok, relative to past deployments. The gym is world class and there is plenty of room to run on this base of palaces. We even have Yoga classes three times a week. We don’t NEED anything and even if we did, surprisingly, mail is questionable at best this time. I sent mail months ago that has not been received and I am waiting for letters and packages I know were mailed months ago from home. We’re also moving to another base soon, buuuuuuut if you want to send a fun box or a note from home, I’m not stopping you. Again, it’s very much appreciated and hopefully it makes it!
This is a weird deployment but don’t worry too much. You know me. I’ll always be the happiest pig in the deepest pile of shit (earmuffs kids), and usually the more miserable everyone else is, better mood I get in. I try to keep my poor spirits in check while doing my best to keep everyone else’s spirits up. Thanks to great parents, family and friends like you, my glass remains eternally half full . . . but damn I’ll sure be glad to get home in a few months.
My address is until July 30 is:
Capt Tim Collins, USMC
HQ USF-I J33 AIR
AL FAW JOC
APO AE 09342
As soon as I get a new address and can tell you where I’m headed, you know I will.
Bret’s UH-1Y Huey in Afghanistan article:
Lastly, an incredible article of courage, sacrifice and determination about 3rd Batallion, 5th Marines, in Afghanistan (you probably got the email forward from someone and wondered if it was true):
Jacqui Murray is the author of Building a Midshipman, the story of her daughter’s journey from high school to United States Naval Academy midshipman. She is webmaster for five blogs, an Amazon Vine Voice book reviewer, an ISTE article reviewer, a weekly contributor to Write Anything and mother of a Naval Officer and an Army grunt. Currently, she’s working on a techno-thriller that should be ready this summer. Contact Jacqui at her writing office or her tech lab, Ask a Tech Teacher.