The corpsmen warned me the air would be thin up there, but I didnt notice. This was my first combat patrol and like a child trapped in the dark, I was petrified.
The shoestring-narrow roads around the 6,000-foot mountains of Torkhem, Afghanistan make the battle-hardened Marines I was embedded with something the Taliban doesnt nervous.
The drivers, behaving more like tightrope walkers than desert warriors, eased their Humvees along the trails with one eye on the path and the other pragmatically scanning the limitless caves and nomad populations for the enemy.
I didnt move not a millimeter while we climbed along paths so narrow that I honestly thought if I breathed too hard Id tip us over the side, plummeting us more than a mile down to certain death.
I didnt breathe. I didnt blink. I waited for Taliban to ambush us from behind every rock, and there were a lot of rocks.
HN Doc Joseph Nededog, noticed my white knuckles.
You know, Ive been waiting for months for one of those goats to fall off the side of these mountains, Nededog quipped. They never do, he said with a grin. I smiled, and finally breathed.
That's what Docs do. They make everyone comfortable, a when youre a corpsman for Marines in the heart of insurgent country, helping a photojournalist keep his lunch down and his lungs working is an easy day.
Nededog has seen worse.
After all, it wasnt the enemy that made these combat veterans slow their pace, and rightfully so. It was Afghanistan itself, not the besieged Taliban, that claimed 3rd Platoons first soul in a Humvee rollover less than a month before this patrol.
Doc Nededog rolled that day too; still, he managed to treat his turret gunner who lay motionless, crushed between his weapon and the callous Afghanistan desert floor. It wasnt enough. Third Platoon lost a Marine that day. Losing any Marine is terrible, but to these Marines, all Marines, the thought of losing a corpsman was unimaginable.
Thats how much Marines love their corpsmen.
Were a brotherhood out here. To lose a corpsman would be a huge blow, said Marine SSgt. Matthew Morse, 3rd Platoon Commander, maybe more than losing a Marine, because our corpsmen are our security blankets.
And when youre actively seeking to eradicate some of the worlds most dangerous guerrilla warfare fighters, you bring one hell of a security blanket.
Corpsmen have the trauma training to react to any situation, said Morse. The corpsman who was in the vehicle that rolled and killed one Marine had enough awareness to recover from his injuries and still treat the Marine.
And thats what Marines expect corpsmen to do because history says they will. No single rating in the Navy is more decorated for valor than the hospital corpsman. The Marines dont wonder if he will save their lives. They just wonder when.
Being a Marine is hard enough, and we are their corpsmen, said HMC Claude English, 1/3 Marines battalion medical chief. Were the ones who get them home to mom and dad. If they get hurt they come to you, and thats why they cherish you.
Rollovers are the least of Doc Nededogs worries today. Just a few miles away from their convoy, black smoke billowed into the desert sky. Too far away to harm these Marines, it garnered no more than a passing glance. The sights and sounds of war dont impress them any more.
But the smells do.
The burning trash and raw sewage odors linger like cheap perfume, giving some areas of Afghanistan an unforgettable stench.
The smell always reminds me that something isnt right here, said Nededog.
Hours later, back at Firebase Torkhem, officially called Forward Operating Base (FOB) Torkhem, the Marines found out that the smoke, caused by a fuel truck explosion from an improvised explosive device (IED), may have been meant for them.
The Taliban know were here helping the Afghan border police, said Morse. It could have been ugly, but the border police did their job. They found the bomb in enough time to get everyone away. Nobody was hurt, not even the driver.
Just a year ago, according to the international police mentors, that bomb would have made it through to its destination. The training is working.
And that was why Doc Nededog and his Marines climb and drive Afghanistans mountains and cross its deserts. They play big brother to the developing Afghan border police, helping them stand on their own. The idea being few bullies would pick a fight with a little brother with such a ferocious sibling. So far the plan worked, making 3rd platoons corpsmen combat-wise very bored.