Web Extras

Matt DuPre's "Where Do We Go from Here?"

All we found was sand and more sand. The sand covered the earth as far as our eyes could see. The sand was used to build the mud huts and compounds in the distance, most of them empty. Sand blasted our vehicles, covered our bodies, and billowed up in great clouds of dust that dissipated out into the ether.

I stared out the window at the Afghan landscape, taking in the overlapping shades of khaki, beige, and tan. The desert floor, the mud huts, the walled compounds, the distant dunes, and even the vehicles in which we rode were all painted from the palette of the desert. Afghanistan seemed to lack everything from vegetation to variety. Occasionally I would see a beat up car come from the opposite direction and the Afghans inside would stare at me staring at them, my eyes hidden behind black Oakley sunglasses, theirs squinting with a mixture of curiosity and contempt.

I turned my attention back to the desert ahead.

“Slow down some, give us more room between us and them,” I told my driver, Corporal Saunders, referring to the distance between the vehicle in which we rode and the next one ahead of us in our column. Saunders scowled, which I may have taken insultingly had I not known him well enough to know that he scowled at everything.

He was a short, 22 year old Marine, one of the fifty Marines and corpsman that I had in my platoon. I was a new first lieutenant and platoon commander on my first deployment to Afghanistan commanding a platoon of nine mine resistant, ambush protected vehicles. We rode in 9‐foot tall, 15‐ton rolling armored fortresses that could withstand the blast from an improvised explosive devise detonated from directly below.

“Try to keep on the same set of tire tracks as them,” I told Saunders, pointing to the tire marks in the sand from the vehicle ahead of us, and he scowled some more.

There was no road running through this section of desert, only an unmarked route that existed as a red line on a map, connecting a forward operating base and a small firebase that lay roughly 10 miles apart. Our orders for the next seven days were to provide security along the route. Few other military units had driven this area before and it had never been swept for mines or bombs buried beneath the ground.

Without a road to follow, we were free to roam the desert between the bases as we pleased. But the safest bet, I thought, was to follow the vehicle ahead, matching our tires to their tracks, like walking through a minefield in a single line, stepping on top of the footsteps of the person who walked ahead. Corporal Saunders and I rode the third vehicle in the column of six. In the lead vehicle rode Staff Sergeant Carter. He was better at navigating than anyone in the platoon. I needed Marines like him to account for my own lack of experience and expertise. When we met almost a year ago in North Carolina, the platoon was still being formed and he arrived with a cocky swagger from California. I wasn’t sure about him then, but over the months of training that followed, we came to know and trust one another. “Don’t worry sir, I won’t let you fail,” he had told me two months earlier on one of our first nights in Afghanistan. So far, he had lived up to his word and now, as we sped through the desert, I felt better having him up front in our lead vehicle.

“Dickinson, how’re you doing up there?” I called into the handset of the vehicle radio, talking to the lance corporal who was our gunner in the turret.

“Oorah, sir,” he said, sounding less enthusiastic than earlier that morning when we left the base to start this mission. None of us entertained any illusions of encountering fierce Taliban resistance, but that didn’t stop us from hoping for something to happen.

Staff Sergeant Carter’s voice crackled over the radio, breaking up my thoughts and the monotony of the desert landscape. “White One, this is White Six,” he said, using our call signs.

“This is White Six, send it,” I said back.

“We’re gonna stop to check out a pickup truck we passed, it had something in the back covered up with a tarp.”

“Roger that,” I said, and instructed all of the vehicles to stop and position themselves to provide security. Minutes later, Carter came back on the radio.

“Hey sir, you might want to see this,” he said.

Corporal Saunders drove us up to where his vehicle was stopped by the pickup truck and I dismounted when we came up alongside them. Carter and our interpreter were talking to the driver of the pickup truck, a calm and sad looking Afghan man who appeared to be explaining his destination.

I walked over and when their conversation finished Carter brought me over to the side of the truck bed and pulled back the tarp. Underneath was the bloody and mangled body of the man’s brother, limbs and body parts piled up in the corner, none of them in their proper place. His brother had driven over a mine buried somewhere out in this desert.

Three more days passed and we had been driving up and down the invisible route with nothing to report. I tried different tactics to keep the platoon from getting bored and complacent. We would walk to nearby villages during the day and talk to local Afghans, then return at night to watch for suspicious activity. We would separate into two sections of three vehicles each and drive in opposite directions, just in case someone were watching and reporting on our movements, that we might give the impression we were everywhere at once.

Into the fourth night we drove through darkness, the pale white beams of our headlights slicing through the black shroud just enough to let us see the tire tracks that lay immediately ahead and sometimes catch the reflection of the red taillight belonging to the next vehicle [ahead]. I was staring absently at the dust swirling in the beams of our headlights when my eye caught the bright red glow of two taillights in front of us, far enough away that I could only see the faintest outline of the vehicle’s silhouette, but close enough to see the red lights were glowing. That meant the vehicle in front of us was stopping, which meant the vehicle in front of them, where Staff Sergeant Carter rode, had also come to a halt. But nothing came over the radio to say why.

A feeling that something was off slowly began to creep over me, starting in my stomach that only moments ago had been growling for food but now began to ever so slightly turn up into itself. Corporal Saunders brought our vehicle to a rolling stop and we looked at each other, both wondering what was going on. It was quiet, only the hissing static of the radio, the whir of the air conditioning, and the hum of the engine idling broke the stillness of the desert night air. Despite this, my pulse quickened and my breathing grew shallow.

I keyed the handset and spoke into the receiver to ask Corporal Dickinson if he could see anything from his vantage point in the turret.

“Nothing, sir,” came his reply, and from the tone of it I could practically see him straining to peer through the darkness, trying to make out the shape of something up ahead.

 “I heard something, though,” he said then, after a few moments. It would have been hard for him to hear anything over the noise from the engine of our vehicle. If he heard something, it would have had to be loud enough to carry over that sound.

I keyed the handset again, this time talking on the platoon net so the other vehicles in front of and behind us could hear me, the feeling in my gut getting tighter, the words starting to jam up in my throat.

“White One, this is White Six, over,” I said, calling to Staff Sergeant  Carter. Static hissed back at me.

Then a voice came on. “White Six, this is Vehicle Two. We got a few bits of shrapnel come at us and heard what sounded like an explosion, but we can’t see it from here still. Our gunner felt it too and the turret was peppered a bit with some flying debris, but we can’t see anything still, how copy?”

I pressed the button on the handset to talk again. “Roger three, I copy, break, Vehicle One, this is White Six, come in, over,” I said, trying to reach anyone in the first vehicle now.

I released the button and the burst of static returned. I had to do something; we couldn’t all just sit here like this. I had three more vehicles full of Marines behind me, and God knows what happened to the vehicle in –

“White Six, this is White One,” a voice in audible pain broke over the radio, coming through what sounded like gritted teeth and sore muscles.

“Send it, White One,” I answered. I had to consciously control my own voice to keep from stuttering, the feeling that had started in my stomach now gripping my entire body. My throat felt like it was closing and I focused on my breathing.

More static, and then Carter’s voice returned. “We just hit an IED.”

Hours later in the Afghan desert, after my Marines used metal detectors and glow sticks to clear a path up to his blown up vehicle, after I walked up to his vehicle myself, picking my way around green glow sticks where metal detectors had signaled more devices may be buried, after I circled the wreckage of his vehicle now canted to the left in a shallow crater with metal side compartments warped and twisted and wheels gone missing along with the hood and several other parts, after I came upon Carter sitting in the passenger seat facing out, looking humorless and dejected, back rounded, shoulders slumped, staring vacantly at the ground, after I asked him how he was doing and he spoke little but his face and posture told it all, after the medevac came to fly him and the other Marines to seek treatment and the sun rose on what was left of his vehicle, after another six days and nights spent driving through the desert but short two vehicles and their crews, we returned to base, haggard in the pre‐dawn hours.

I was awoken shortly after finally falling asleep on the first night after we returned to the base. Something about the Captain wanting to see me, but all I could think of was that the Marine waking me up was trying to tell me that we had hit another IED. The more I pressed him to tell me which vehicle it was that got hit, the more he laughed, until I fully awoke out of the dream and he explained in between laughter that the captain was asking for me.

I stumbled my way in the dark to the tent that served as our operations center. Inside, I found the captain and we spoke about our next upcoming mission. After, I sat at the folding table in the tent and turned on one of the laptops to start writing the after action report. I was still thinking about how to start when our company first sergeant entered the tent and sat down next to me. Staff Sergeant Carter was outside, having just been released by the Shock Trauma Platoon. He was given an initial diagnosis of acute anxiety disorder and would be sent home for further treatment, but he was outside now.

I followed the first sergeant outside and saw Carter standing in the dark, looking less demoralized than last I had seen him after the blast, but not by much.

“Hey sir,” he said. I noticed his eyes. They darted around in the dark, and every couple of seconds he would blink quickly, three or four times in a row.

“Hey, how are you?” I said.

“I’m doing alright. Got my cat scanned,” he said, referring to the MRI.

I breathed a laugh and asked him how he was doing really and he blinked a few more times. There was a pause during which I tensed, like he didn’t really want to tell the truth for knowing that when he did there would be no taking it back.

I’m scared,” he said, not looking at me now. “I think I’m going back. I don’t really want to leave the boys, but I think that IED fucked me up.”

I looked at him, I looked at the ground, I looked past him and then back at him again. I looked at his eyes blinking some more, a sort of nervous twitch I guessed, and the only physical change that seemed to have taken place since last I saw him. But the psychological change must have been far greater. When the bomb went off underneath him and his vehicle was lifted into the air and then slammed back down to earth, more was left broken than just the machine. In that moment his nerves were shattered.

After expressing my concern and empathy and support, there was no easy way to end our conversation. I wasn’t sure where to go from there, so we went back inside the tent, where I sat down again at the laptop. The first sergeant was in the back of the tent with the captain, and Carter walked back that way to talk to them. When he was done a few minutes later, he walked at first as if to leave, but then paused and came up next to me and leaned down over my shoulder. He brought his face close to mine, somber and serious looking, and in a voice low enough so that no one else could hear, asked me, “Are you disappointed in me?”

He remained bent over, waiting for my reply, scanning my face for an answer. “No,” I said, shaking my head, feeling woefully inadequate to be his platoon commander. I wished I had something better to say, something suitable that I could offer, but there was nothing else I could think of to tell him except that.

He stood up then and walked out of the tent, alone into the dark. He would go home and we would go on to the next mission, wherever it took us, driving through the open desert, the dust trails from our vehicles billowing up into the sun and dissipating into the ether.

Matt DuPre served for five years as a Marine aboard Camp Lejeune, NC. He deployed to Afghanistan twice in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.