OkiLog#2: Sandlot

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The pitcher winds up during a softball game.

It’s 0600.  A ray of light peeks in through gaps between our curtains.  Allison stirs. Then the chanting begins.  Not Benedictine Monks, not Druids, but 10-year-old Okinawan boys.  They scream their heads off, regardless of the hour, calling cadence as they warm up.  They rival a group of grown Marines with their volume.  Allison mutters a curse and pulls the pillow over her head. We’re old hands at this.

Behind our apartment, nestled in the urban sprawl, lies an enormous sand recreational field. It measures approximately 75 meters wide and 140 meters long.  It hosts all types of sporting and recreational events, but the most common is bat-and-ball sports.  When we moved in I was convinced that the noise “wouldn’t be a that big of a deal.”  Yeah, right.

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   A view of the ball field after dinner. Sometimes they forget to turn off those lights.

The children’s warm-up happens almost every Saturday and Sunday and serves as my weekend alarm clock, but their never the first ones on the field.  Several different Grandma-Sans and Grandpa-Sans get up before dawn to log some power-walking laps around the perimeter.  Sometimes on the weekdays, I’ll be getting into my car to go to work early, and they’ll surprise me.  They creep out of the night like mismatched ninjas hell-bent on staving off osteoporosis.

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This is only a fraction of the people that gather here on the weekends. Note the East China Sea in the background. It was on that shoreline that American forces first landed here on Okinawa

Sometimes, our TV will be drowned out by fervent hecklers, or an uproarious crowd.  Tournaments are hosted, old people play croquet, little children play soccer, and there’s been at least one beer festival.   I’m also known, on occasion, to scream taunts at the players.  They usually just look up at me, smiling and waving, no matter how harsh my challenges/curses/questions of lineage.  Occasionally, I’ll completely disrupt an entire practice by pulling out one of my didgeridoos and blasting it directly at the players, but the didge is a whole other blog story.

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OkiLog #1: Grave Road

Normally I begin writing about a place immediately when I get there, but it didn’t dawn on me to write about my current home until just recently.  To that end, I will begin writing about Okinawa, Japan.  We’ve been stationed here for two and a half years, and will move to California in about six months.

The first few stories will center on my neighborhood.  It’s called Chatan, or Chatan-Cho to the locals.  It rests atop a series of foothills just to the south of Kadena Air Force Base.  At the onset of the Battle for Okinawa during World War Two, American forces made their initial landing just to the west of the neighborhood.

Chatan is a densely populated, urban environment.  It’s never quiet, and rarely truly dark. My family and I have enjoyed many walks throughout the area.  We admire the Chinese/Japanese fusion in the architecture, and we peer into all sorts of nooks and crannies.  There is ALWAYS something new to see.

On one of our first walks, we stayed on our street. At 7 pm it is usually busy, and has numerous small shops to check out.  We’d walked for maybe ten minutes in one direction, and had passed into unfamiliar territory.  We went around a bend in the road, passed a monument company, and suddenly found ourselves strolling through the middle of an Okinawan cemetery.  Space is at a premium here, so the fact that the road ran right through the middle of it was no surprise.

On either side of us, the play-house sized Okinawan family tombs stared us down.  Made mostly of grey-ish granite or marble, these tombs are where Okinawans deposit(and talk to) their dearly departed.

Photographing the tombs themselves is strictly verboten, instead picture this: a plot of land, roughly two meters by three meters, with a stone building about twice the size of a large-breed doghouse.  Often the land around the plot is covered with stone as well.  The refinement level and size of the tombs varies with the family’s wealth.  Many of them are highly polished, with vases and incense burners carved into the facade. Tombs are mostly placed in tight-knit clusters, due to the price of land, but occasionally, one can be found in random places in the jungle or in sea-side cliffs.

Since we live in the urban jungle, these graves are all clustered.  It’s kind of creepy walking down the road at night, even though there are no corpses there(Okinawans cremate their dead, again owing to the price of land).  I think granite just gives me the willies…

 

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Afghan Dispatch #17: Epilogue (Originally Sent on October 30th, 2012)

I’ve been told that I’ve forgotten how to cry.  Today, I remembered
how.  I’m in Hawaii for a memorial service honoring Scott, Richie, and
Buck.  My command recognized the need for me to attend the ceremony,
so they bought me plane tickets and paid for all my other expenses
involved in coming here. After being home in Okinawa for two months,
I’ve come to Kaneohe Bay for some closure.

I worried about what I was gonna say to Scott’s wife.  I worried about
what I would say to Buck and Richie’s parents.  I still don’t know if
what I said was right.  I do know it can never be enough.

The last night, as members of the team began arriving in Hawaii, we
met at one of the local Marine’s houses for a cook out.  I drove to
Waikiki and picked up Richie’s mom, aunt, and little brother so they
could participate.  For Richie’s family, having a good party and
remembering their son, nephew, and brother seemed to be what they
needed.

I didn’t see Scott’s wife until after the ceremony.  Dressed in black,
blond hair blowing in the bay breeze as she cried over her husband’s
boots, my heart broke as I watched her sob.  Waiting until she’d
walked back to the bleachers, I approached her, hugged her, and told
her the only thing I could think of: “My wife and I pray for you EVERY
DAY.”

Due to some complications, including Hurricane Sandy, Buck’s family
was unable to make it from New York.  I just got off the phone with
his mother.  I’ve been scared to call her for the last two months.  I
had told her I would bring her son home safely.  God had different
plans for the man.  I told Marina that despite what she’d read in his
letters about being scared, her son was one of the bravest men I knew.
 I told her it was important that she knew that I remembered him that
way.

Other than attending the ceremony, I was looking forward to see the
remaining members of the team, and how they’ve held up since we
returned.  Some are doing great, some not so great.  All of them were
happy us Oki guys were able to make it.  Instead of being greeted with
professionally formal greetings when I showed up, I was greeted with
hugs and smiles.  I much prefer the hugs and smiles.

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Afghan Dispatch #16: In Memoriam Continued… (Originally Sent on August 19th, 2012)

I don’t know what it is about flying.  It could be the empty seats, or
it could be the personal isolation induced by ambient noise. The
engine’s whine makes verbal communication nearly impossible.  Either
way, this is the time we are most vulnerable to contemplation of last
week’s events.

We’re sitting in the cargo hold of a C-130, on our way to Kandahar.
Underneath aquamarine lighting, I look over and see a Marine reaching
across the aisle to to give comfort to our Navy Corpsman, whose head
is bowed.  His shoulders move up and down, racked with sobs.  The
Marine next to him also places a hand on his back to show support.

He’s crying because he was in the gym that night. He was one of the
lucky ones.  He made it back inside, and instantly began to provide
treatment to a wounded Marine. That Marine gets to see his family
again.  He’s crying because he misses his friends.  He misses the
three that died.  In my previous dispatch, I didn’t talk about the
people that died because I needed some time to think.

Scott Dickinson was 29 years old when he died.  He smiled frequently
and was always eating candy.  Scott could eat whatever he wanted to
and never gain weight. We nicknamed him “Candy Man.”  He had a young
wife in Kaneohe Bay, HI.  He was a poster-boy for adult ADD.  He was
EXTREMELY east-going, and had a very particular gait.  We could spot
him in a crowd from several hundred meters away because of the way he
walked.  Because of his laid-back nature, he was universally loved,
and very easy to talk to.  As a member of our logistics section, Staff
Sergeant “Scottie-too-Hottie” Dickinson worked his ass off to make
things happen for us. His last big project was organizing our trip
home.

Richard Rivera was forever known as “Rivera Junior,” or “Richie.” He
was a supply guy, also from Kaneohe Bay. When he volunteered for this
deployment, he was so valued by his supply section that they did not
want to let him go.  I would say that he was a quiet professional, but
the quiet part would only be true if you weren’t one of his peers.  If
you knew him well, he wouldn’t stop talking.  Despite his proclivity
to pontificate, he did everything asked of him without complaint.  As
an emerging leader, he could best be described as motivated. Cpl
Rivera had been promoted to his current rank during this deployment
and had quickly established himself as a “Go-to” guy for tactical
operations.

Gregory Buckley preferred to be called “Buck.” As a matter of fact, I
had to sit him down and explain to him that he couldn’t sign rosters
that way.  Buck has been described as the “pulse” of the junior
Marines.  If Buckley was happy, then we knew that all the younger guys
were happy.  It’s of note that Buck was rarely sad.  The life of a
junior Marine can be kind of depressing, with all the work details and
fire-watch, etc, but he handled it with a peculiar kind of grace. When
Buck was up for promotion to Lance Corporal, we were in the middle of
the Mojave Desert, without away to print the warrant.  Scottie and I
hand-wrote one on the side of a cardboard box, and the Captain pinned
him right there in the desert. He was so proud of it, he mailed it to
his mother.  Buck had mentioned to his mother that he was scared to
come to Afghanistan. He might have been, but not once did he ever
shirk his duty. not once did he ever ask to stay back from a patrol,
or try to keep himself from harms’ way.  He not only did his duty, he
did it in spite of his qualms. This is true courage, and it is what
I’ll remember about Buck.

These men will forever be with me. Everytime I see a pack of Skittles,
I’ll think of my friend Scottie.  Everytime I give an order and hear a
motivated yell in response, I’ll think of Buck and Richie.  I can’t
read the news without seeing something about a “green-on-blue”
incident, and it kills me because I know that Marines and their
families are suffering as a result of trying to lift Afghanistan out
of the Third World.

When you read this, say a prayer for all the Adviser Teams that are
still embedded among the Afghans. Pray too, for the Afghans.  They
don’t get to go back to the States after a few months.  Their world is
shit, and they have to live in it.  Pray that their developing
competence and professionalism send the Taliban criminals running for
their lives.

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Buck is the one making the “aloha” gesture. Scottie is to the right of him, and Richie is kneeling.

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Afghan Dispatch #15: In Memoriam (Originally Sent on August 13th, 2012)

Note: This particular dispatch is very important to me.  It tells the story of how I lost three of my friends, days before we were scheduled to return home.  I’ve omitted some details that haven’t been released to the public, and I’ve tried to focus on my own observations and feelings during the event.  I still miss my friends, and I always will.

 

We tried to tell jokes. We tried to be light-hearted.  It wasn’t
working.  No one was in the mood to hear jokes, and everyone’s heart
was heavy.  As I watched the group of Marines, MY Marines, I could see
the ends of cigarettes flaring up in the darkness like twinkling
stars.  In the back ground, the blades of a CH-53 could be heard
beating air towards the ground.

As the big helicopter landed, I took cover from all the flying debris
behind a rifle case, only raising my eyes up as the pilot slowed the
rotor.  It was time to begin the journey home.  We loaded all of our
gear underneath the still-spinning blades, amid the hot exhaust.  No
one mentioned it, but I know that the four open seats were noticed.
That’s all we can think about.

On August 10th, an Afghan Local Police officer armed with an AK-47,
emerged from a guard tower, moved to our outdoor gym, and opened
fire at close range on the Marines working out there.  

I was just sitting down at a computer to review our flight information
for the trip home.  I heard some loud noises, and it sounded like
someone hammering nearby.  It took a second to realize that at this
time of day, the Afghans wouldn’t be hammering anything.  Right then
a Marine burst in, bleeding, but coherent. At his warning I sprinted
for my gear.

When I got outside I passed another guy who gave me a description of
the shooter.  A pair of Marines and I moved to an adjacent tower to
begin the hunt.  Navy Corpsmen and other Marines sprinted to the gym
to begin emergency care to the victims.

We approached the tower and I yelled in Pastho for the occupants to
come outside. I had my weapon pointed at the door, and another Marine
had my back.  After receiving no response, I had the other Marine
cover the door and I moved to open it.  This tower was empty.  I
looked across the courtyard to the gym and the tower above it. Some
Marines had just descended from that tower with the shooter.

He was young. And smiling. Fucking cocksucker. I wanted to kill him so
bad.  No one would’ve stopped me.  We took him into custody and this
will do more for us than taking our vengeance.  It could save a life
down the road.

After all was said and done, 3 Marines had been killed, and one
wounded.  The wounded one is doing fine. I don’t know what the hell
I’m gonna say to the guys’ families.  I don’t know if I’ll get the
chance to meet them.

It was a long, shitty night.  The homecoming trip that was supposed to
be filled with camaraderie and pride at a job well done has turned
into something else. Not sinister, but somber.  We need to laugh, but
no one wants to.  Fuck this place.

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Afghan Dispatch #14: Shura (Originally Sent on July 27th, 2012)

It’s about 2230. I’ve been riding in the back of an Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle, or M-RAP, for about an hour. Due to the five-point safety harness and my body armor, shifting positions is difficult, and my left ass-cheek went to sleep twenty minutes ago.  My turgimon smells like shit because he hasn’t showered in a few days, but I recently ate some very piquant food, so I’m retaliating.
 
The roads here are bumpy, and very few of them are paved, so I’m glad for my helmet.  It bangs into something above me often enough that I’d probably have cerebral hemorrhaging without it.  We pull to a stop, and the patrol leader signals us that we’ve reached our destination. For operational security’s sake, we’ll call it Patrol Base X.  Once we get out, the PL organizes his men into a formation, and after we move inside, he and his men set up fixed site security.  They are my support for this meeting.  They keep an eye out for threats so I can focus on what’s in front of me.
 
What’s in front of me is a semi-powerful local figure; a village elder. We’ll name him Mr. X Khan.  All the old important guys have some type of honorific attached to their given names, and Khan is one of the more common ones. Mr. X is in charge of most of the Afghan Local Police manning PB X. He’s agreed to meet with me at this time of night because during Ramadan, or Ramazan as the locals refer to it, most folks try to sleep during the day.  Their religious beliefs require fasting and prayer. No water or food allowed during daylight hours.
 
As we greet each other and sit down, I take note of the fact that no chai is offered.  This is significant, because hospitality is one of the five pillars of Islam.  This is the first shura(meeting) I’ve been to that did not have refreshments provided by the host. After the requisite getting-acquainted-with-each-other BS, I get down to business.  I want to know how many men he has, and where they’re all at. He obliges. During this, I’m keenly aware of a few folks lurking in the shadows, no doubt with AK-47s.  I’m not worried about them. They are the PL’s problem. 
 
In the soft glow produced by a shop light hanging from a vehicle hood, Mr. X then proceeds to fill me in with all his bitches, gripes, and moans.  I make no promises save that I will ask my superiors about a solution.  It’s always the same with these guys. I always reply the same.  After about thirty minutes of playing the gracious guest, I’ve had my fill and rise to depart.  Between his nattering and the steady stream of ants crawling up my back, I’ve decided to call it a night. 
 
Then the guy hugs me. Not a one-armed man-hug like back in the States, but a full-on Afghan-cheek-pressed-to-mine hug. He smells worse than my interpreter, if that’s possible.  After the short walk back to the rolling box of incredible nasal sensations, we leave.  Two hours later, I’m still picking ants out of my shorts…
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Afghan Dispatch #13: Gifts (Originally Sent on July 18th, 2012)

Any one that has a cat knows that on occasion, the cat will bring you
“gifts.” Sometimes it’s a dead mouse, sometimes a scrap of food, etc.
Afghans are like cats in this regard.  They seem to be incredibly
dependent on our approval. They are always striving to earn that
coveted “double good.”

Among the Afghan’s common “gifts” are live improvised explosive
devices(IED), the ubiquitous road-side bomb. Instead of waiting on
trained personnel to disarm the device, the Afghan security personnel
often dig them up and bring them to our doorstep.  Every time they do,
we tell them to leave the device well outside the compound, and we
call the trained guys. You’d think that after earning an emphatic “NO
GOOD!” that they’d get the hint.

The other day must’ve been somebody’s birthday, because the Afghans
brought us a bomb AND a dead Talib fighter.  The Talib had apparently
attacked a police checkpoint, and was dealt with in short order.
After being forensically processed, the fighter was put in a bag and
carted away.  The bomb guys showed up and dealt with the bomb.

I had a chance to meet the man that had destroyed the enemy, and he
was being given the hero treatment by his fellows.  Apparently, no one
hates the Taliban more than the Afghans being terrorized by them.

This reason more than any other is what will lift Afghanistan up by
its bootstraps. Like the Iraqis, they are just tired of dealing with
these guys’ shit.  They are tired of the threats, they are tired of
the random mutilations. They are tired of worrying if their next trip
to the bazaar will be their last. If the Awakening Councils of Al
Anbar are any indication, the Afghans might just be on the verge of
securing their own future.

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