“Pete, my vehicle commander, was sitting in the passenger, bitching about the positions of the trucks. One of them, our Saber truck, was positioned next to trees, where its powerful optics could distinguish every detail on a leaf but nothing else. It was useless.”
All the dismounts got out of the trucks. Tom stayed behind with the dog. Single-file, the dismounts headed into the grove, then stopped. They called Tom out of the truck.
“We had higher-ups with us. My lieutenant thought it would be a good idea to have the dog, possibly to make the higher-ups feel more comfortable. I had to walk all the way by myself. I made my way to the front, and we started moving.”
Tom’s dog was happy to be out of the truck. It ran around and ignored commands. The men had moved forward 100 meters or so, when they heard gunshots.
“Our section leader’s reaction was, ‘Those trucks are armored. They have big guns. They can take care of themselves.’ At the time, he didn’t realize that our Saber truck was stuck in a ditch and that Pete was dismounted, trying to help. A few seconds later word came over the radio that someone was hit.”
According to Tom, they took off running in a dead sprint through the grove, which was clearly covered in IEDs.
“When there’s a Marine that is hit, other Marines will do crazy shit. A reinforced squad from Kilo Company even ran over a mile in full battle gear when they heard someone was shot, and it was over 100 degrees out.”
When Tom ran out of the grove, shots were being fired in his direction. He put the dog back in the truck. His lieutenant yelled that their .50-cal truck was low on ammo.
“While I was passing ammo up to the gunner, my lieutenant jumped into the truck. Over the gunfire, I heard him say that Pete was a fallen angel. That was the first I had heard who it was, and that he was already dead.”
Pete was 23. He was married and had a young son. If he had survived, he would’ve gotten out of the Marines a few months after returning from that deployment. Pete died after ordering the Saber truck to switch positions with another truck, but the Saber got stuck in a ditch. He’d walked over to help. That’s when a sniper got him in the face.
“Even though we were in the middle of a firefight, our corpsman ran out to try to save him. That’s why Marines love their corpsmen so much. It was no use, though, because he was probably dead before he hit the ground. The bullet went in under his eye and out through his brain stem. The guys that were trying to keep him alive carried him to our truck. I reached down, grabbed him by his shoulders, and pulled him into the truck.”
When Tom retells the story his voice is steady, but there is frustration in his tone.
“At least that time we had people to shoot back at. When Carl stepped on the IED, we didn’t have anyone to shoot at. That was worse.”
When they took Pete back to base, the medical officer pronounced him dead. All the guys got into formation. They put an American flag over Pete. His body was carried past the men in formation, and they all saluted him. When the Marines on the chopper took the stretcher with Pete’s body, they also saluted. Tom tells me this in a voice heavy with pride.
After Pete’s death, Tom was asked to replace the gunner in the fourth truck. The other guys mentioned that the previous gunner had been keeping his head down while shots were being fired at Pete.
“The other guys were pissed,” says Tom. “I don’t know if the gunner ever figured out the reason why I replaced him, [but] I loved that job. Being a gunner was the best part of my deployment.”
Tom called home and told his dad that Pete had died. “Your mother doesn’t need to know yet,” said Jim. Rita didn’t find out until weeks later.
Even after hearing that Tom had lost a friend, Jim remained calm. But he admits that if something had happened to his son, he would not have handled it well.
“I am just so glad that nothing happened to Tom, because I think it’s a wasted effort over there now. It would be one thing if your son got killed during World War II, but to be killed in Afghanistan, where in maybe a year we’ll pull out and have really accomplished nothing, you would feel like it’s a waste of a life. We shouldn’t even be there.”
Rita wrote President Obama what she terms an angry letter during Tom’s first deployment. “It was after the president agreed to release photos of our guys torturing Iraqi soldiers. He’s our commander-in-chief, and he is going to do something to lower morale amongst the troops and anger the enemy. I was ticked off! I wanted to let him know that as a Marine mom I was angry.”
Don’t ask, don’t tell was repealed while Tom was deployed.
“It didn’t really have an effect on us,” Tom says.
However, Tom does mention that, after it was repealed, a gay Marine was accused of filming another Marine in the shower.
“It was a big deal,” Tom says. “He had to have an NCO [noncommissioned officer] escort with him at all times after that. The reason for this is because people wanted to kick his ass. When the guy figured out he was being filmed, the gay guy hid in a bathroom stall and locked the door. The other Marines were trying to beat him up. He was shunned afterward. He is getting an NJP [non-judicial punishment].”
Tom admits that the rules of engagement while in Afghanistan frustrated him.
“Since they invited us in, the rules are different than they were in Iraq. We have to see them holding a weapon before we are allowed to shoot. We have to be certain that there are no civilians around. If Taliban go into a house with weapons, we can’t go in unless we are invited in. It’s crazy.”