A letter from Afghanistan. This is heartbreaking and speaks to the damage of green-on-blue killings:
Dear Friends and Family,
Sorry for not getting a good update email out sooner. My work hours are weird and inconsistent out here in the land that time forgot. Free time and internet connectivity don’t always go hand in hand either. If you have been watching the news at all, in between election politics and Olympic events, you might have heard a little blurb about Afghanistan, but probably not. I know you don’t have a lot of information or perspective about what is going on over here and trying to explain the past few weeks, especially right now, is beyond me. I would, however, like to share one of the most moving experiences I’ve ever had in my life with you:
On the afternoon of July 19, I jumped in a small convoy of armored vehicles from a little Forward Operating Base (FOB) along the eastern bank of the Helmand River headed towards the large Marine and British base, Camp Bastion – Leatherneck. We got there just in time to grab a quick bite to eat and meet up with some of the other guys in our unit and head to the flightline. True to my callsign “Otto” I volunteered to drive a really rickety mini bus packed full of guys to where we were headed to on the flightline. We wanted to be there by 1945 (745pm). By the time we got everyone loaded up in the bus, a couple of pickup trucks and a couple of small tactical vehicles, it was already 1935.
At 1940, the bus stalled in the middle of the street and wouldn’t start.
I yelled “Everybody out! I’ll take care of the bus. Get in the trucks.” In seconds the bus was empty and the trucks were loaded with our guys, hanging off the sides like the Afghans we see driving along local roads, not an inch of space to spare. I tried the bus several times but the sound of the starter barely turning over combined with the smell of an electrical fire wasn’t giving me much hope that I would make it to the flightline in time. Every time that I let the bus sit longer, the bus would get closer to starting. I set my watch for 5 minutes. It was now 1955, it was pitch black and I was going to get hit by other vehicles before too long.
At 2000 I crossed my fingers – no seriously – stuck the key in, turned it and I was back in business driving to the flightline way faster through the base that I should have been.
When I arrived at the flightline, besides staring at all the pickups and SUVs parked along the roads and in the dirt lots by the control tower, the first thing I noticed was the silence. Bastion Airfield has to be one of the busiest airfields in the world. It’s never quiet. There is always something flying, but not at that moment. Nothing was flying in or out. As I walked towards where the C-130 transport plane was parked, the next thing I noticed was the lights that normally illuminate the “C Ramp” were all turned off. A Marine in full armored kit told me where to go through the gate so I could get to the ceremony. As I walked through the dark silence, about 200 yards in front of me a single C-130 facing away from me came into view with its ramp open. Inside the C-130 was a perfectly lit American flag hanging on the inside, stars up, and stripes pointing down towards a single casket draped with another American flag. Surrounding the ramp of the C-130 were hundreds of men and women from all of the services, as well as NATO countries and civilian contractors who had come to pay their respects to a Marine that most of them had never met. Earlier that morning, July 19, 2012, Marine Corporal Joshua Ashley, 23, was killed during combat operations in the Helmand River Valley. Cpl Ashley was a Military Police Dog Handler. He was killed by the same type of Improvised Explosive Device (IED) that he and his dog “Sirius” had successfully discovered many times before, saving the lives of the Army Special Operations Team he was attached to.
This was his Ramp Ceremony before being transported out of Afghanistan to Dover Air Force Base.
I was awestruck by the scene. My senses were completely overloaded.
Have you ever heard the saying, “The silence was deafening?” I stayed back about 50 yards away from the ceremony. Hundreds of personnel were lined up in formation on either side of the end of the C-130’s ramp, facing to the center forming a narrow corridor for the casket to pass from the Hummvee ambulance to the C-130. Even that transfer is executed with meticulous care and ceremony by the escorts who walk the coffin through the corridor and into the cargo plane. It was so quiet I could hear the ringing in my ears caused by too many deployments to places like this. There was no movement and no noise – that is, until I noticed something moving in my peripheral vision to my front and left, about as far away from the C-130 as I was.
Off to the side of the ceremony, lined up at perfect attention, were six – maybe nine – Marines, each with a dog at their side also sitting at “attention” perfectly still. But there was one dog in the center of the formation that couldn’t be stilled and his whimpers couldn’t be muffled by the two dog handlers on either side of him. It was obvious which Marine this dog was bonded to. Cpl Ashley’s K-9, “Sirius,” knew something wasn’t right about what was going on. When the formation around the C-130 was dismissed and the dogs were escorted away, Sirius just kept looking back at that C-130. It was one of the most emotionally moving things I have ever witnessed.
After most of the crowd had left, I walked toward the C-130. The formation was smaller now as Cpl Ashley’s brothers in arms lined up side by side in two single file lines facing the C-130, waiting for their turn to walk up the ramp, touch the casket and spend a few last moments with Cpl Ashley before rendering a slow ceremonial salute and saying one last goodbye. The Army team that Cpl Ashley was attached to had scrambled from their location along the Helmand River earlier in the day to get to the ceremony on time. They were dirty and bearded, most of them without a shower for months and their uniforms were patched and pieced together from over 6 months of daily fighting. To honor the memory of Marine Cpl Ashley, they all wore their perfectly clean, perfectly formed Green Berets – an incredibly symbolic gesture as well as a testament to the impact that Cpl Ashley had on the team.
This was a huge loss for everyone involved. The Military Working Dog Handler is an invaluable asset, and one that is not easily replaced out here – especially by the likes of someone like Cpl Ashley. The loss was all the more painful considering we had lost another Military Working Dog Handler, Cpl Keaton Coffey, less than two months before, only a couple of weeks into our deployment.
We had all the time we needed to make sure that everyone was able to pay their respects that night. When everyone was done and we had moved to the left side and farther to the rear of the C-130, a single Crew Chief posted himself, centered at the edge of the ramp, arms folded behind his back at parade rest while the rest of the crew did pre-flight checks.
The engines started to spin up and as soon as the ramp was up and closed and Cpl Ashley was secure, the Crew Chief came to rigid attention, faced to his right and joined the crew for takeoff. While everyone else walked away to continue the war, we were still there, some in shock, but all silent and in deep thoughts over the loss of such a phenomenal Marine.
The C-130 started to pull away, snapping us out of our daze and signaling that it was time for us to get going as well. As we all walked off the flightline, I looked at my Executive Officer, Capt Matt Lampert, (himself a double amputee from an IED blast during his last deployment and who, despite not having legs, passed the physical tests to deploy again as the second in command of a Marine Special Operations
Company) and he asked me, “Have you ever been to one of these before?”
I told him that I had never been to a Ramp Ceremony before, was honored at the opportunity to witness it, and hoped that I would never have to go to another one again. He agreed…
Less than a month later, on August 10, 2012, a uniformed member of the Afghan security forces shot and killed our friends, our brothers, Marine Captain Matt Maoukian, Gunnery Sergeant Ryan Jeschke, and Staff Sergeant Sky Mote. Once again, I found myself at the “C Ramp” of the Bastion flight line, surrounded by the darkness and silence of the mandated airfield “Quiet Hour” which allows these ceremonies to take place. This time I was a part of the ceremony, taking my place towards the front and center of the formation. More ranks than I could count faced each other at the end of and on either side of the C-130’s ramp. We formed the front rows of the corridor where the flag draped caskets of three Marines, rockstars in their respective professions, passed by and were placed side by side inside of the aircraft. This time, instead of hundreds of men and women from Nato forces all over Afghanistan, there was well over a thousand – easily. Commanding Officers from nearly every unit on the base were present to pay their respects, as well as commanders and generals from every member nation of NATO’s International Security Assistance Force from bases all over Afghanistan.
“Wasn’t I JUST here?!” I thought to myself. “How do I tell my fiance’
Linzy about this? How do I tell Ian?” The last trip we all made before I left for Afghanistan had a huge group of us in Las Vegas, causing chaos and leaving destruction in our wake – literally – with Matt and Sky leading the way. How do you cope with the loss of someone that is truly larger than life? Now how do you cope with that times three?
We do cope though. We honor, we remember and we continue the mission.
We do it because that is what Matt, Ryan, Sky, Cpl Ashley, Cpl Coffey, GySgt Dan Price, GySgt Jon Gifford and too many others before them would want us to do.
Matt, Ryan and Sky were killed right after the US vs Japan Gold Medal Women’s Soccer match. While the past few weeks were about sports and games and good will during the Olympics for the most of the world, there was very much a war going on over here. There still is. I know that it’s easy for you to have no connection to what is going on over here, especially when the news is more concerned with games and sports and whether Governor Romney paid his taxes or whether a sound bite from the President was taken out of context or not. Worse yet, I know that after all the deployments during ten years of war, you are tired of us being gone. Even with all the distractions and all the misinformation in the news, even with the concerns about the economy and the election and the deployment fatigue brought on by ten years of war, all that we ask from you is this: Don’t let forget about the daily struggles of the countless wounded warriors you have never hear about that fight like hell to heal like Colin Smith, Derek Herrera, Dan Crenshaw, Dan Cnossen and Matt Lampert. Don’t ever forget about the ultimate sacrifices made by real American Heroes like Jenn Harris, Jared Landaker, JT Wrobleski, Richard Gannon, Ronnie Winchester, Kevin Shea, Kyle VanDeGiesen, Matt Freeman, Brendan Looney, Travis Manion, Matt, Ryan, Sky and so many others. Forever appreciate and never forget what they have done for us.
I never will.
I’ll do my best to write another update to explain what it is that we are doing over here and how we are trying to make sure that when we leave this place, it is in better condition than we found it In the meantime, I’ve included a couple of links and some pictures below. I hope you take some time to get to know these guys. They are sorely missed.
Love you and miss you,
Capt Tim “Otto” Collins
MARSOC, FOB Robinson
FPO AP 96427-2558