Stepping off the loading ramp into the cold moist air, our feet sink into the quagmire of wet soil and newly planted crops. The sky above our heads is aglow with infrared light which we witness through the single green eye of our night vision goggles.
For all the high-tech advancements of the US military and all of our neat toys, the developers and masterminds always seem to forget key elements. Like the importance of maintaining depth perception when designing optical equipment.
You could see well enough with the five pound paperweight attached to your helmet, but if you took just one step you'd fall and break an ankle, and several of us nearly do. That black patch on the ground that looks like a bush, sorry son, that's a six foot chasm that you've just pitched head over heel in to. Call a medevac, we've got another.
So often the most well laid plans of mice and men can be easily summed up in just one or two words. In this case, the word is gaggle-fuck.
And what a gaggle-fuck it was.
What was supposed to be a swift and hard helo-insertion into a Taliban held city, was not.
The Taliban were supposed to go to bed the night prior, and awake in the early morning on the following day to see hundreds of pissed off Marine Corps grunts in their backyard, and none the wiser until it was too late.
This was not the case.
By the time the last bird gave birth to its cargo and tore off into the night, a steady stream of red spurted skyward like some volcanic cumshot.
The red lines multiply as the other AA Guns come to life, spewing their rounds at the receding transports, tracing a tic-tac-toe board in the sky. It's like some deadly cosmic etcha-sketch.
The attempt at stealth which was abandoned early on, due to the irony of whispering over the sound of whirling rotor-blades, is reinstated. Like a half blind albeit heavily armed herd of cattle we struggle towards our destination within the city.
I used to think I was just along for the roller coaster ride, but am beginning to realize that I'm part of the theme park, and not a patron. No, not a theme park, a goddamn carnival, a fucking circus.
Come one, come all to the Cirque Du Corps! See the amazing dead men - the tan-clad zombies. Watch as they stumble, as they kill, as they laugh and cry. See them die! See them tightrope across trip wire, juggle hand grenades and swallow 500 lb bombs. Just $3.50 for adults! Free admission for the kids! Bring your whole family and join the fun - just grab a complementary AK at the ticket stand, and join the turkey shoot.
Yeah, the Great Zambini ain't got shit on this circus.
As we trudge through the mud, we cross deep, dark canals and perform balancing acts with full body armor as we tip-toe over planks eight inches wide, in the dark.
We walk, and then walk some more. No one speaks, not even when the column of Marines grinds to a halt and we start taking positions along mounds of dirt. We're completely exposed in every direction save one, so we naturally decide to choose this as an ideal place to wait for contact.
That's when it starts to hit me. For the first time in my life, I truly feel it. Inescapable, undeniable and all consuming fear.
It creeps in slowly, like a virus.
It starts as a nagging frustration. I'm trying to take off my gloves which have become sopping wet and ice cold. Frost collects on the frayed edges. It covers my fingertips. It gets under my nails. I can't make my fingers move. I start ripping at them in earnest. I need to piss and I can't unbutton my pants. I can't take off my gloves. I can't stand it. I can't. I JUST CAN'T!
It's like broken glass in my mind. That rising hopelessness. It aches and multiplies with each thought. My heart is pounding. I'm shaking. I need a dip. I can't open the can. My hands, they're so cold.
My mind jumps from frustration over cold hands to a sudden sense of powerlessness over the whole situation. The realization that I don't know what we're up against, what we're going into, what will happen. It's not a new thought, but for the first time it's not exciting. It's terrifying.
Irrational thoughts come crashing in like so many waves. I need to get out. I need to go, I won't do this. I don't want to. No, fuck this, I'm done playing Marine.
I feel like I'm trembling. A wreck, a quivering, jabbering wreck.
Then at that moment, when it all seems lost. When I feel like I'm about to become that cautionary tale of the spineless fuck who ran away before the fight. I see them.
Just sitting there. Smoking, chewing gum, talking.
Nothing shows. They appear to all the world to be completely at peace.
They're serene and natural. For the first time I really see them. Some of them are kids. Big, goofy and innocent children. Just boys playing war with their friends. Other's are seasoned from years of hardship, stoic and resolute.
There are several Marines openly flaunting the facial hair they've just sprouted after not shaving for a few days. For several it's probably the most chin hair they've ever had.
As I watch them, the weight begins to lift and I feel something warm on my face.
The sun is rising, casting us all in an orange hue. It paints reddish pink and yellow halos above our heads. It pushes back the crushing darkness of night.
It makes them look divine, these grunts. Not like angels, nothing of the sort. More like God's burly bouncers. The brutish ogre blocking the sinners' entry into Heaven's night club.
I pull my can of dip back out, crack the lid and put a large pinch in my lip.
A nearby machine-gunner asks if I have some to spare.
I pass the can.
My hand is still. It was never trembling to start with. That fear, it was all inside. All in my head.
It always is.
And I realize that it's the same for all of us. We all feel it. We just don't show it, and that resolve, that knowledge that the fear is all encompassing and consuming, but completely unseen - it strengthens me, it bolsters my will. It does this for each and every Marine.
It's empowering to know that it can be controlled, it can be masked and hidden. That you can manage it instead of letting it unman you.
I've never been more afraid than I was at that moment, and afterward, I've never felt more safe. More hopeful. When you accept that it's beyond your control and stop struggling against the current you can just float along. You can let go.
You can laugh and smile.
You can enjoy the sunrise.
And I do.
I do a great deal.