17 February 2011


By Andy Weddington
Friday, 18 February 2011

"We signed up knowing the risk. Those innocent people in New York didn't go to work thinking there was any kind of risk." Private Mike Armendariz-Clark, USMC

On occasion I receive email from military friends that, while reading, cause me to pause, think, and swallow hard before continuing. One of those emails arrived Wednesday evening, 26 January. And it's been on my mind since. How best to present it? Time, as it usually does, provided the answer.

First, perspective--as to the aid of time.

Late last Friday afternoon...

After spending hours at computers "painting" and writing I went out the front door to enjoy the late afternoon crisp desert air. About that same time the mailman was pulling up--he waved. He had a small haul for us; the usual pre-sorts, flyers, solicitations, junk and more junk, and a birth announcement. One of the pieces of "junk" caught my eye--a bold banner on the envelope read, "You're a Sweepsteaks Winner!" Cool. But wait, isn't that "Sweepstakes"? I didn't bother opening it.

And there was two small plain white boxes ever-so-slightly larger than the perimeter of a CD case and large enough to hold four or five. The boxes were post marked Iona Music Inc.,Toronto, Ontario.

A friend alerted me a couple of weeks ago some music was on the way but I'd no idea to what extent. Eight discs. The sender, Mr. John McDermott--Canada's superb tenor and internationally known recording star and philanthropist, whom I wrote about a couple of weeks back. He sent the music in appreciation for my words. If you missed the Commentary ("MAPLE LEAF RAG"), take a few moments and tune in (see Archive left)--it's a short story about Mr. McDermott, his remarkable voice, and mostly his patriotic service to his country, and ours. And as I put the final coat of polish on today's words, his powerful, soothing music is playing in the background.

Super Bowl Sunday...

I'd no interest in the pre-game circus. And only passing (nice pun) interest in the game. About an hour before kickoff I decided to turn on the TV in our casual living area--it did not cooperate. Three remotes and punching about half the possible button permutations for 20 minutes did not solve the problem. Unplugging power and cable to reboot did not work. At this point in my younger days I'd have calmly unhooked the works and thrown it out the door. These days that is too much effort. So Plan B--pulled up a chair in the bedroom and rearranged the 13" diagonal on the dresser.

While taking a seat I heard the familiar heart-warming sound of helicopter rotor blades (USMC Hueys and Cobras)--aka: the sound of freedom--and then the distant rumble, some 35 miles to the east, of heavy artillery and maybe bombs. Marines and Sailors were training Marines and Sailors. They were training to go fight.They are training to go fight in Afghanistan.

And there I sat with a cold Blue Moon remembering days and nights of yesteryear riding in helicopters and training in the desert; times that do not seem all that along ago. And now others selflessly step forward to take on those dangerous duties so others may play football...so others may watch others play football...and all do so with little concern for their safety and well-being.

I watched the game but did not watch it. But it did not go unnoticed Fox was, before and during the game,  saluting our military for their sacrifice and service to country. Our national anthem--disappointing. Abysmal. Why no rehearsal to preclude such a flop? Surely someone had some explaining to do. The half-time show? Is that what it was? Though a thought occurred to me as soon as the Black Eyed Peas started in on their enegetic, thumping, hand-clapping tune, "Pump It".

A few years ago a U. S. Navy squadron, while deployed aboard a carrier, made a video to that tune...a good, wholesome, fun video that ended up making rock stars out of some of the Sailors, and as lore goes, had a ranking admiral asking another admiral as to why their recruiting homepage did not get anywhere near the hits as the YouTube video? Damn good question. And so my question, "Why was the squadron video not shown on the world's largest flat screen in that Texas stadium during the tune?" What a recruiting opportunity--the message being short...the Navy has an important job but fun it can be! Don't take my word for it, see what you think: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DqaWdkdFb3Y

Now, as to the email at the heart of today's words...

Following is the short note I sent back to the retired Sailor and long-time friend, who happens to be an admiral, who sent it to me. I have slightly expounded upon that note (italics) for the purpose of this Commentary.

Immediately after my note is the eye-witness account for today's Commentary. Do not expect to get through it without a hard swallow and maybe blotting a moist eye.

These people represent the best of America. Thank god they're on our side.

First, to my friend...


Nothing Marines do surprises Marines--the spirit is seared into us at the recruit depots and hills of Quantico during entry-level training. Magic! As a variant of a popular saying goes, "Only Marines and the enemy understand Marines. All others can only wonder." And that includes the bewildering moments of remarkable courage, and equally remarkable stupidity (e.g. Marines going outside "the wire" in less than complete and properly-worn battle gear and being snookered by kids who steal their gear. Those incidents and the others reminded me of a problem while on a Mediterranean deployment thirty years ago. In short, while training ashore, a young Marine tired of carrying a heavy, expensive, and classified piece of equipment; he just quit carrying it. Not until after embark was the discovery made by the platoon's leadership. And not until after the ship pulled anchor and started to steam was the company and battalion leadership informed. In short, it was ugly. The platoon commander, lieutenant, and his platoon sergeant were ordered to return to the training areas and search for the gear, but that could not happen until we pulled into port in another country--a few days later. The mission was hopeless. But executed it was--'Take a message to Garcia.' Most likely not to recover what everyone knew was long-gone gear but to teach the young officer and his platoon sergeant a lasting lesson about leadership and supervision. The gear was not recovered. The young Marine who abandoned it was punished. And his chain of command up through the lieutenant was disciplined. Lesson learned. And not just by those Marines. We all learned a lasting lesson--and here I am writing about it; recalling the shipboard fiasco and all the names and faces as if it were yesterday.) They are Marines, but they are human, too. We sometimes forget that minor detail. Bottom line: Leadership

The colonel who was hit in the face with a rock and had his nose broken was on the brigadier general list recently released. One Marine opined he may be the only soon-to-be GO (General Officer) with a Purple Heart (if that wound qualifies--I don't see why not).

That was an interesting read. Well done. I felt like I was there amidst the madness. And had feelings of how much I miss being around Marines and the Sailors who serve with Marines. Hands down the finest America has to offer. How fortunate you and I share the title(s) and are in the brotherhood. A membership that cannot be bought and I'd not surrender for a king's ransom. Ever!

Thanks for sending. This made my evening.

Following is how the material came across to me in email...

"Sent: Wednesday, January 26, 2011 5:41 PM
Subject: 2011 Afghan Ops update

From the net...courtesy of Mike and an IA (Individual Augment) Navy Sailor...

So far, 2011 has been ridiculous. The rapid succession of unfortunate events since the New Year led to the command decision to shut down the internet/phone center – hence, my lack of communication. Understandably, the Commanding Officer is concerned that Marines are spending too much time focusing on Facebook and YouTube and have lost their focus on combat operations.

The first thing to happen, right around Christmas, was a mounted patrol (everyone in vehicles) hitting an IED. There were two Marines injured, one with eye trauma and another with shrapnel in the back of his head. From the injury pattern of these casualties, it was obvious that neither were wearing their appropriate protective gear (helmet, goggles or ballistic lenses). Venturing outside the wire without all protective gear is a huge no-no, and brings about questions of complacency, lack of discipline, etc. The command requested that I make a statement about the injury pattern as evidence that proper equipment was not worn. I decided that that it was beyond the scope of my practice to contribute to the Courts Martial of these Marines who were both severely wounded.

The internet/phone center might have survived one such incident, but unfortunately two more events occurred. At one of the other bases, a grenade was thrown over the wall. While seeking cover, a Marine left his M240G (heavy machine gun) and it was somehow picked up by the enemy. On the same day, another Marine in a security post had the IR night vision scope stolen by some kids. Apparently the kids often come up to the security post to beg for candy. On that day, they threw a puppy into the guard post. With the Marine distracted by the puppy, they swiped the IR scope. With the loss of a heavy machine gun and a night scope, the CO decided that some drastic changes needed to take place. A handful of Marines were severely disciplined, all free time was reallocated to training, and the internet/phone tent was shut down.

While 99% of the Marines continued to do their jobs with dedication and purpose, the second week of 2011 brought more chaos. Somehow a Marine was run over by a MTVR (big truck). He was the ground guide, responsible for directing the driver and making sure he didn’t run over anyone else. Apparently both the ground guide and driver were distracted, and the ground guide was killed. A few days later there was another incident on one of the security posts. A Marine and an Afghan National Army guy were both standing watch. His story is that the ANA guy seemed to be intoxicated and started waving his pistol around. The Marine told him to put the gun down but he did not comply. When the ANA guy pointed the pistol at the Marine, he received one fatal M-16 round through his right eye. The investigation is still underway.

Last week the Regimental Marine Colonel had to be Medevac’d with a broken nose and lacerated cheek. He was sitting at a meeting with some Taliban representatives when some Afghan guy rushed forward and smashed his face with a big rock. The Colonel is fine, and the Afghan guy was executed by his people, but I can’t say that we are any closer to establishing any sort of effective peace agreement.

Business has been steady on the medical side of the house. We have performed about 70 resuscitations, and all but two have survived for transport to the hospital. I am continually amazed at how tough the Marines are. A couple days ago a Sergeant came in missing both lower legs. Before we had given him any pain medication, he started joking about preserving his modesty while we were cutting his pants off. Many times two or three Marines come in at the same time. I was working on one guy who had lost a leg and his only concern was for his friend on the stretcher at the other end of the room. We have all become a little desensitized by the frequent trauma, and for the most part it is a good thing. The team stays very quiet for the 15-20 minutes that we work on the patient – quite the opposite of the frenzy of activity in an ER portrayed on TV. Most of our patients are categorized as singles, doubles, or triples depending on how many limbs they are missing. It amazes me to think about how easily we now handle a single amp compared to when we started a few months ago. The doubles and triples are always scary as they have usually lost the majority of their blood volume and we have to move much quicker. We have yet to have a quad survive transport to the STP. A few weeks ago a young Marine came in with his foot missing and his left arm dangling by the elbow. As we started working on him, he asked if we could remove his wedding ring to make sure it wouldn’t get lost. The guy obviously realized that after we put him to sleep he would be waking up without his arm and he wanted to make sure that he didn’t lose track of the wedding ring. Such a logical request, but under the circumstances I was awed by the courage of this Marine. I am trying to track down his home address because I think his wife should know what was on his mind right after he lost two limbs.

The Afghan wounded are a completely different story. They come in screaming and yelling and usually need to be sedated before we can do anything else. We had a situation a few weeks ago where 3 ANA patients came in and were prioritized incorrectly. The first was covered in blood screaming and yelling and appeared to be the most severely injured. The second one had a bloody leg, was loudly moaning and appeared to be having trouble breathing. The third was laying quietly on a stretcher looking around. We attended to the first two who appeared to be the worst off. It turned out that the first one didn’t have a penetrating skull injury, just a shrapnel wound to his scalp. The second didn’t have an airway or breathing problem, he was just anxious about the shrapnel wound to his leg. The third guy turned out to have a penetrating abdominal wound with internal abdominal bleeding – fortunately the corpsman picked up on the fact that his blood pressure was dropping and his belly was starting to expand. We stopped treatment of the first two and started pumping blood into the third guy just as he lost consciousness. He survived transport to the surgical suite but later died. I’m not sure if we could have done anything differently to affect the outcome, but we certainly triaged these guys in the wrong order. We have come to realize that the loudest ANA patients are usually the most stable. A Marine missing two legs will tell you that he’s OK and tell you to treat his buddy first, but the ANA all portray their injuries as if they are clinging to their last breath. It is clearly a cultural discrepancy and I try to remind myself that these guys are scared, can’t communicate with us, and probably feel that they need to “show” us that they are injured. I just have a hard time not being disgusted by the theatrics.

The 3/5 Battalion Surgeon, Pat, is a Physician Assistant in his mid-forties who was former Navy Chief. To describe him as “salty” would be an understatement. He has developed The 4 Rules of Sangin. #1 – Don’t get blow’d up (not blown up, but blow’d up – with a Southern accent). #2 – Don’t get shot. #3 Hydrate or die (Marines are always being told to drink more water). #4 Don’t wear white socks. (For some reason, every Sergeant Major in the Marine Corps has taken personal offense to white socks, even though they don’t show when the pants are properly bloused around the boots. Black, tan, green, and brown all seem to be OK, but white is strictly forbidden. Every once in a while some Marine lets his pants ride up too high showing a speck of white sock and gets his ass chewed). Anyhow, when a call comes in that an Afghan soldier has been shot, Pat will report that our patient failed to heed Rule #2 of the Sangin. His assessment of the ANA seems spot on. He describes them as “drunken clowns with bees in their underpants”. Last night we spent 30 minutes trying to figure out what was wrong with an ANA guy who stumbled into the BAS assisted by two other frantic Afghans. He appeared to be in such bad shape that we thought maybe he had suffered a seizure or a stroke. After finally getting an interpreter to help us out, we discovered that he had a stomach ache. Two Tums, three burps, a bottle of water, and ten minutes later he shook everyone’s hand then walked out the door as good as new. I’m still not sure how the stomach ache caused the limp, but I’m learning that the Afghans don’t abide by the typical presentations of illnesses described in our American medical textbooks.

As I was reading a book last night, I came across a line that I thought was pretty funny. I’m not sure if it was the author’s original work or if it is a saying that I just haven’t heard before. One of the characters in the book advised the other, “Never wrestle with a pig – you both get covered in shit, and the pig likes it!” I can’t help but think of how this might apply to our current situation here in Afghanistan."

And so there you have it--some sacrifice so some may play, and so others may watch them play; a game called football (and all others)--played on a field sometimes called a gridiron, and sometimes,  erroneously,  referred to as a "battlefield"; it's not a battlefield--not by a long shot.

Mere hours before posting this Commentary I received a note from a long-time Marine friend letting me know his Marine son--likewise an infantryman following in Dad's footsteps--would soon be deploying to Afghanistan and asked that we keep his unit, and all others, in our prayers. Done! He also commented on recently meeting two young Marines--infantrymen--recovering from battle injuries. One lost a leg below the knee about a month ago. He said, "He (the Marine) looked spectacular, and had an amazing attitude--enthused to be getting his prosthetic leg this week." The other, he first met a couple of months back and they  crossed paths the other day, was standing and walking on his prosthetic leg and awaiting the model for running. His attitude the same as the other Marine's. He closed, "I offer that, only if you follow the main stream media too closely and maybe lost sight, we are still at war, and the casualties are still coming."

His closing remark--a sobering reminder from a Marine with a daily view of the war with a son marching into harm's way.

Shall we all remember, daily, our country is at war. Shall we all keep a closer eye on and take care of the "some" sacrificing--all knowing when they raised their right hand and swore an oath they'd, sooner rather than later, most likely go fight. They're a special breed. Yes, indeed!

Post Script

As a rule, I do not gamble; even petty bets. Certainly never before have I bet on a game taking the Packers. Because...in some ways I'm not over the Packers beating the Cowboys in the 1967 NFL Championship game known as "The Ice Bowl"--in the last seconds of the game, played in 13 degrees below zero weather, center Ken Bowman and guard Jerry Kramer cleared the way for quarterback, Bart Starr, to sneak in for a 21-17 win. Anyway, at the goading of an old retired Marine colonel  friend, supporting the Steelers, I won a lunch. Looking forward to it, Big Mac!

Author's Endnote

Thank you, John McDermott!

Take a moment to check out his work--music, of course, and notably his selfless "McDermott House" project supporting Canada's first responders, military, and their respective families. Noble.

1. http://www.johnmcdermott.com/ "Legacy of the Patriot" CD is one especially near and dear to Americans
2. http://www.mcdermotthousecanada.org/

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