January 5, 2012

Unfinished Business in Afghanistan

Two Marines walk the dusty streets at Camp Leatherneck, Afghanistan, Dec. 18. As the final U.S. forces departed Iraq, nearly 100,000 American troops continued counterinsurgency efforts in Afghanistan.
Photo by Cpl. Brian Adam Jones

By Brian Adam Jones

I have a rather polite alarm clock next to my bed.

At night, it douses my room in a cool, blue light. In the morning, it gently nudges me awake with soft tones that gradually increase in severity. The clock offers a welcome contrast to the lonely and gritty discomfort of Afghanistan, to the very concept of War.

But at 5 a.m. on Christmas morning, I was not happy to hear it.

Grumpy and bleary-eyed, I pulled on my desert camouflage uniform and laced up my boots. I’m sure my sentiment was echoed by the other American military men and women spending Christmas away from home.

As a combat journalist and communications specialist with 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing (Forward) in Helmand province, Afghanistan, my Christmas morning was spent facilitating a live interview between a Detroit television station and two hometown heroes.

Not far away, on adjacent Camp Bastion, Marine Corps UH-1Y Hueys lifted off into the cold morning air.

Marine Light Attack Helicopter Squadron 369 launched Operation Noel, an effort to deliver care packages and Christmas cheer to Marines in remote outposts that don’t regularly receive mail and don’t enjoy the relative safety I have here at Camp Leatherneck.

While most of the remaining American forces in Iraq were able to make it home in time for Christmas, nearly 100,000 other U.S. troops spent Christmas morning in Afghanistan, quietly working as a part of an international coalition to create an increasingly peaceful and independent infrastructure here.

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December 15, 2011

A Marine's Christmas Song

Master Sgt. Robert Allen, a native of Pawnee, Okla., serves as the aircraft rescue firefighting chief for Marine Wing Support Squadron 371 in Camp Leatherneck, Afghanistan. An avid musician, Allen wrote a Christmas song for his wife, Carla, as he spends the holidays away from her and their three children.
- Photo by Cpl. Brian Adam Jones

By Brian Adam Jones

Afghanistan’s getting cold. My Marines and I have hung our Christmas stockings from a table with care, and strung lights along the top of the plywood wall in our office on the 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing (Forward) compound on Camp Leatherneck.

As public affairs Marines, Thanksgiving was spent linking Marines with their hometown television, radio and newspaper outlets, with Christmas promising much of the same.

My favorite part of my job as a combat journalist is meeting and interacting with all the great men and women in uniform, proud Americans who leave their friends and loved ones in the spirit of defense.

But there’s one Marine I’ve met here who certainly stands out.

Master Sgt. Robert Allen, an aircraft rescue firefighter with Marine Wing Support Squadron 371, loves playing the guitar. The first time I met the bald-headed Oklahoman with a big smile, it was to take his photo for articles by the Tulsa World and Stillwater News Press.

“Hey,” he said to me anxiously, “Can you listen to this song I wrote, let me know if you think it’s any good?”

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November 11, 2011

Leadership in the Afghan Sky

Sgt Maj. Steven Lunsford mans the .50-caliber machine gun on a CH-53E Super Stallion during a recent mission in the Afghan sky. Lunsford is the sergeant major of Marine Heavy Helicopter Squadron 464.
-- Photo by Cpl. Brian Adam Jones

By Brian Adam Jones

Boarding a CH-53E Super Stallion at Camp Bastion, Afghanistan, recently, I thought a member of the helicopter’s crew looked familiar.

For a recent project I was working in the Helmand River valley, I flew on a Super Stallion from Camp Bastion, a major aviation port in Afghanistan, to a small landing zone attached to a patrol base.

As one of the first passengers on the aircraft at Camp Bastion, I attentively watched a Marine in a flight suit as he attended to cargo being loaded onto the massive aircraft.

Crew chiefs or aerial observers aid with the operations of the helicopter, manning .50-caliber machine guns and managing passengers and cargo. This post is frequently stood by young, junior Marines and noncommissioned officers, but from what I could see of him from under the visor on his helmet, this Marine was older, and I knew him from somewhere.

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October 28, 2011

A Glimpse at the Future of Afghanistan

Capt. Michael Gagnon teaches Afghan children how to fist bump in the Helmand River Valley of southwestern Afghanistan, Oct. 21. Gagnon, a native of Oxford, Mass., commands a team of roughly 20 men dubbed “Task Force Nomad.” Over the next several weeks, the task force, a subset of Marine Wing Support Squadron 371, will construct or improve helicopter landing zones along the valley.
-- Photo by Cpl. Brian Adam Jones

By Brian Adam Jones

Last week, I like to think I had the opportunity to glimpse at the future of Afghanistan.

“Yo, Gimme some chocolate,” said the Pashtun boy.

Four English words and a spirited request for candy demonstrated the effects of a decade of American presence in the region.

“Yo,” answered Capt. Michael Gagnon, a logistics officer with Marine Wing Support Squadron 371. He responded in Pashto that he didn’t have any.

As of last week, I had been in Afghanistan roughly two and a half months and I’d hardly seen any Afghans.

My role as a combat journalist with 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing (Forward) means I don’t have the opportunity to interact with the population the way other forces do, but nonetheless, I was eager to be on the ground.

I traveled to the Helmand River Valley to spend a few days with Gagnon, who is on his third Afghan deployment in two years, and his small team, operating out of Patrol Base Alcatraz to construct helicopter landing zones for the small outposts here.

Having spent the last two months in the desert, I found the Helmand River Valley weird. I hadn’t seen a tree since July when I left North Carolina for Afghanistan. The thin strip of lush vegetation surrounding either side of the Helmand River was surreal to me, and I was eager to explore it.

In the midst of constructing a helicopter landing zone for one of the countless patrol bases that dot the heavily-populated valley, Gagnon, myself and the rest of the team encountered a group of curious Afghan children.

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October 19, 2011

My Path to Afghanistan

1st Lt. Austin Skinner, the platoon commander of 2nd Platoon, Company B, 1st Battalion, 23rd Marine Regiment, searches a vehicle during drug interdiction operations in southwestern Afghanistan, Aug. 18.
-- Photo by Cpl. Brian Adam Jones

By Brian Adam Jones

My path to Afghanistan was as unpredictable as America’s.

I didn’t deserve a single opportunity afforded to me, and I had several. I grew up in an upper-middle-class family in Maryland and New York City. I graduated from Phillips Exeter Academy, an elite boarding school in New Hampshire before starting college at Hofstra University on Long Island.

My biggest issue as a teenager was that my laziness exceeded my intelligence. I had no work ethic, no discipline and a frail, selective concept of morality.

The older I got, the more I realized I needed to tear things down and rebuild them the way I wanted them.

At 20, I enlisted in the Marine Corps.

Two years later, an Air Force C-17 Globemaster carried me from Manas Air Transit Center in Kyrgyzstan to Camp Bastion, Afghanistan. I looked out the small window on the door of the plane as the landscape below gradually shifted from snow-capped mountains to barren desert.

I landed in that desert late one summer morning, blasted by hot air as the back ramp of the Globemaster opened.

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