There were many explosions from IEDs but far less enemy fire on his first deployment.
“We got used to the explosions. As soon as one went off, we’d say, ‘There goes another one.’”
In October 2011, Tom returned from his final deployment. That time, he was gone just over seven months.
He says that one of the worst aspects of his last deployment was being responsible for a dog. He had been volun-told (military-speak for being ordered to do something) to be a dog handler. Prior to leaving for Afghanistan, he was flown from his base at Twentynine Palms to South Carolina to train with a black Labrador for five weeks.
“At first, I thought it would be cool.”
He’d been told that, while in Afghanistan, all the dog handlers would be on foot. This meant Tom would see more combat, a prospect he welcomed.
“I’m an action junkie,” Tom admits. “Imagine you have a pit bull in a cage, and you’re poking it over and over again with sticks. All of a sudden you let it out, and it’s all pissed off. That’s like a Marine on deployment. You join the Marines because you’re slightly crazy. We want to see action. That’s what we are trained for.”
The dog’s job would be to detect IEDs. A week before Tom left on his deployment, the higher-ups told him he might be mounted instead. This meant that Tom would remain in a truck with his dog.
“We had no idea what was going on, which is normal for the military,” Tom says.
Once in Afghanistan, Tom’s dog proved to be a nuisance, mostly due to the heat, and to the fact that they were always in a truck. In total, the dog only went on five dismounted presence patrols.
It was difficult to get the animals to work. Temperatures registered over 100 degrees, and the dogs would cover (lie down), indicating that there was something there, such as an IED, when there wasn’t. They did this so they could stop working and rest.
Some of the guys in Tom’s section were happy to have the dog as a morale-booster, but the Labrador was useless as a bomb dog.
his section leaders requested a few times that the dog be taken away, and it was assigned to another handler whose dog had been sent back to the U.S. because it freaked out during combat situations.
“It just wasn’t a good environment for the dog,” Tom says. “For the first half of my deployment, I was stuck in the back of the truck with it. I barely got to see any action.”
Still stuffed in Tom’s wallet is the laminated card his battalion commander gave to each man in his unit. It lists 11 codes of conduct.
Tom hands it to me. He points out the ones he finds the most ridiculous.
Be prepared to win the gun fight every time
Do no harm
Treat others as you would want to be treated
It’s going to be frustrating, don’t get frustrated
Get comfortable being uncomfortable
“It’s stupid,” he laughs. “Most of it doesn’t even make sense. It’s stuff you would say to a kindergartner, not a Marine.”
Tom admits he wishes his battalion had been more proactive. “A lot of things could’ve been different, but politics got in the way. I hate politics.”
Tom talks about a building from which they frequently received heavy fire. “We asked to blow it up. It took the higher-ups several months to give us the okay. Who knows what’s going on in their minds?”
He recalls the day his friend Carl stepped on an IED. Carl’s section was occupying a position known to be covered with them. The Marines had asked for a bulldozer to clear the area. They were told it was occupied elsewhere. Carl was walking between trucks to get a battery when the IED went off. Other guys had walked the same path dozens of times, and nothing had happened to them. But Carl lost his legs.
“Either he stepped off the path a few inches, or he was just unlucky. Of course, magically” — Tom’s voice is heavy with sarcasm — “the bulldozer showed up the next day!”
Carl was stable when he was placed in the medevac chopper, but his condition worsened after he was flown to a hospital in Germany. “They flew his parents out to Germany, so they could see him before he died. I think that’s the least they could do.”
Tom admits that, for the first two months of his deployment, the closest he got to a shower was a scrubdown using baby wipes. For toilets, they used wag bag waste bags. You can Google the term. Campers and backpackers use them in the wilderness — enough said.
“If we were lucky, we got one that had a few pieces of toilet paper in it. That’s how grunts have it on deployments. The POGs [people other than grunts] have a makeshift bathroom, better chow, access to a gym. They get to sleep on cots in tents, and some even have air-conditioning. They had access to the internet, and most of them don’t do foot patrols.”
When he first arrived in Afghanistan, Tom’s CAAT (Combined Anti-Armor Team) set up an overwatch position on a plateau. The outer four trucks provided security for the inner four trucks, which is where the guys could relax a little and take off their gear. Every couple of days, they would rotate positions. The guys on the outer perimeter dug out sleeping areas and covered them with cammie (camouflage) netting. They reinforced the sides with sand bags for protection against enemy fire. Tom says his two months on the plateau was the easiest part of his deployment.
“There were no injuries while we were there, and we were far from any higher-ups.”
A few months into his deployment, Tom lost a really good friend.
The death took place during a BDA (Battle Damage Assessment). Tom’s section was sent out to a grove to check for weapons and bodies from a morning firefight. Tom was in the first truck. They were traveling in a group of four trucks.