LETTERS FROM AROUND THE WORLD
Camp Delhi, Helmand Province
It’s such a simple thing. After fifty plus years you’d think I’d have a handle on it, but I don’t. I can’t tell my right hand from my left. I have to physically make the writing motion to cue myself. I can add another bit of brain malfunctioning to an ever growing list of idiosyncrasies, the word Delhi, or is it Dehli?
While out here I had occasion to meet an Indian Buddhist German documentary film maker, Ashwin Raman. Ash, as he asks to be called, started his documentary film career with the Marines in Vietnam, and now, days away from his 66th birthday, is marking his retirement with a final trip covering them in Afghanistan. I shared my sketches with him and immediately he chided me for my mis-spelling of Delhi on a couple. I got a few right, but on most I didn’t. Even now I have to write it both ways before my brain picks the correct one.
I arrived at Camp Delhi around midnight the night of June 1st on a CH-53 ride from Camp Bastion (or should I say the morning of June 2nd?…no matter). My hosts billeted me in a cave like room with a smokehouse smell and giant cotton candy spider webs in all the corners. Black Widow and Brown Recluse spiders are everywhere here. I got a broom first thing in the morning and reduced the webs to a tangle of fuzz on the bristle ends. Written in the soot covered walls and ceilings are graffiti from both American and British units. Judging by the bullet marks, both inside and out, this place saw heavy fighting. The Brits left a memorial to a bunch of their mates.
Delhi has a shower and I treat myself to one. These are Navy Showers-get wet, turn off water, lather up, turn water back on, rinse. Anything more than a minute’s worth of water is a crime. The weak lukewarm stream of water hardly seems worth the effort. Most Marines use the hygiene pit, a matted area with an open square with football size river rocks at the center, and bordered on two sides by makeshift wash stations. At one corner of the pit is a metal brace with a large flare gun-like spigot attached to an oversize hose running to a large rubber bladder containing non-potable water. Each wash station has a mirror and a circular hole cut in the waist high plywood table that accommodates a stainless steel bowl. Each table has spots for six. The bowls are stacked up at the angle where the tables meet. You’re expected to rinse yours out when finished. Even in this arachnophobes’ worst nightmare of a place there are etiquettes to be followed.
At 0900, after breakfast and some sketching, I meet with the battalion’s adjutant and arrange to get manifested on a convoy down to their Weapons Company at FOB Gorgak. Weapons is the furthest south unit in the hotly contested Helmand River Valley.
The poppy harvest is over and the Taliban is flush with cash. I’m eventually heading to the where the sidewalk ends, Patrol Base Karma. Beyond Karma there is nothing but bad guys. Just last week they lost two Marines to an IED along a canal path. In another incident just days before another guy, though he survived, lost all four limbs to a pressure plate bomb.
I have until 1030, when the convoy brief will be held and my vehicle assignment made. I pack up my gear and stage it by a row of huge tan MTAVs and MRAPs. Other Marines waiting for a ride south mill about while convoy drivers and embark guys with a fork lift fill the back of trucks with supply laden palettes.
A closer look at the vehicles reveals a riot of scrapes, dings, bent bumpers and an undercoating of rock hard mud splatter. They’re as worn and dirty as the Marines sitting against underinflated tires in the shadows, and trying to catch forty winks in crew cabs stuffed with weapons, body armor, bottles of water and cases of MREs. This place is brutal on man and machine.
Off by the main ECP (entry control point) a patrol is forming up to leave the wire. This is a patrol party that virtually no Hollywood film has yet to capture. This is a FET (female engagement team) mission. Four of the Marines adjusting their gear and weapons are female.
There’s a minor statistic that doesn’t get a whole lot of play in the coverage of Afghanistan. In fact, based on my own observations, I would classify this bit of information as little more than a rumor. But the Marine Corps, being what it is, has decided to take this data and run with it. This is the unsubstantiated claim I’m referring to; half the population of Afghanistan is women. The mission of the FET Marines is to reach out to them. Those of us here can tell you there’s a better chance of encountering a Yeti than an Afghan woman. Be that as it may, the Marines have organized and deployed groups of female jarheads to actively meet with and engage them in the political process.
Sergeant Melissa Hernandez is an MP (military police) by trade. Today she commands a FET. She’s as geared up as any Marine I’ve ever seen, along with a team of two other female Marines and a female Navy corpsman. They’re on their way outside the wire to meet with local women. In my humble opinion these women are doing more than the entire National Organization of Women put together.
Michael D. Fay served as combat artist for the United States Marine Corps in multiple campaigns to Iraq and Afghanistan from 2000 to January 2010. His battlefield-inspired art is displayed in the James A Michener Art Museum and in Leatherneck Magazine, the official Marine Corps magazine. His war correspondence has been featured in the New York Times: Times Select and on his blog, Fire and Ice. He is currently embedded with Marines in Afghanistan.