I’ve noticed many people get awkwardly uncomfortable when I start talking about my combat deployment to Sangin, Afghanistan in 2011. They dare not interrupt me for fear of seeming disrespectful. When I’m finished, no one asks any questions. I hope it’s because they are intently listening, not that they are afraid to offend me.
Honestly, I’m not sure how I feel about telling people about that deployment. I find service members who haven’t truly been “in the shit” to be very misguided. I think simply being in the military doesn’t compare to being in the infantry, where people literally asked the government to show them how to live a life filled with death. I come from a family of retired sailors. My parents and two of my uncles are retired Navy Chief Petty Officers. In my eyes, they worked normal jobs in abnormal conditions. I once had a Platoon Sergeant tell me that Marine Corps infantrymen were professional athletes training to get ourselves in the best possible physical shape in order to hunt and kill people. Tell me an airplane mechanic or a computer technician and a mercenary are the same kind of people, and I’ll be happy to explain the difference.
When I came back from deployment in 2011, I had to wait about two months before I could go home. In that time I got accustomed to drinking every day. Alcohol was like the key to the floodgate on my mouth. All day long I would keep to myself, unless I was around my platoon of course. Then if I got some alcohol in me, you couldn’t shut me up. I found that I couldn’t have a conversation with my friends and family without relating it to the only thing I knew: combat. I would start talking around a fire with a bottle of Makers Mark in my hand and my eyes fixed on the fire. Halfway through my story I would realize everyone was listening to what I intended for only one person to hear. It made me extremely uncomfortable. I knew none of them would ever look at me the same way again. Maybe they’d even think I needed help.
Part of me agrees with something Phil Klay has said: He wrote that many civilians don’t want to try to understand because it makes them uncomfortable. What I don’t agree with is when he said it’s a veteran’s job to tell their stories. It isn’t our duty to talk about things that happen in combat. If someone who experienced combat feels it is their duty to share their or another’s story, that is entirely up to them. Not a single one of us can dictate who does or does not need to talk about it. Former Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell’s book Lone Survivor is literally the only book I’ve ever read that brought me to tears. I understood his message, and that is what Marcus wanted. But just because Marcus chose to tell his stories doesn’t mean that other vets have to do the same.
I started the fall semester at Austin Community College last fall, but for very unfortunate reasons I did not complete the semester. I was taking an English class; the first assignment was to write descriptive paper about a place. Easy enough. I wrote about the only thing I knew I could describe with enough passion to put the professor there: Patrol Base Fires. I had my friend who is a BUDS instructor proofread it for grammar and to make sure I didn’t say anything out of line. At the bottom of the page, he wrote “Excellent paper Chase. Fix your mistakes and hand it back in soon.” I felt on top of the world. I’ve never been a good writer, nor have I ever been a descriptive thinker. He didn’t say, “I’m sorry,” “I can’t imagine,” or “Thank you for your service.” What he said was the best response I could’ve gotten. I didn’t want to have him imagine what it was like. I wanted him to feel like he was watching it on a TV through my eyes, feeling the hair stand up on his back as mine would while walking through fields of IEDs.
This Is the Inferno
By Chase Vuchetich
Patrol Base (PB) Fires is located in the Northern Green Zone of the Sangin District, Helmand Province, and was the bloodiest place in Afghanistan in 2010 and 2011. Before US Marines took over the Sangin District in 2010, the British Royal Marines patrolled it. The Royal Marines took most of their casualties at that location. Operated by 20-50 Marines, it had more firefights than anywhere else in Helmand Province, which is exactly how it got its name.
Gun trucks and logistic convoys created a moon dust inside the patrol base that was so thick no one could see the tops of their boots while walking. The walls were made of sand bags and the sweat and blood of hundreds of US Marines. The air reeked of heartbreak from lost and mangled friends, lies from Afghan Soldiers, and deceit that became more prevalent every day spent there.
As it swarmed with flies, mosquitos, scorpions, and a bobcat commonly known as “Beast Cat,” sickness, malaria, and discomfort became inevitable. Each corner of the PB had a machine gun post manned by a Marine. The posts were filled with cigarette burns, sunflower seed shells, and tick marks for dead insects. The typical watch was eight hours in full gear, which weighed in at roughly 100lbs. The watch consisted of staring through binoculars at local kids trying to steal the barbed wire strands around the PB, all the way to continuous firefights.
The area of operation (AO) was almost a perfect four squared kilometers, small enough area to watch almost everything that went on. It could range from a firefight from any squad in the platoon, to seeing the smoke and dust clouds from Marines stepping on IEDs, or hearing the pain and agony in the screams of the wounded. At night those screams would ring in the ears of the men behind the walls. Death became reality, as the mud walls in the perimeter were painted red. As a unit’s tour went on, the looks on the men’s faces went from eager to enraged to blank. Always in that order.
Patrols were every day to ensure the enemy did not have freedom of movement. Marines walked in a line due to the prevalence of mines found in the farmlands surrounding the PB. The Marine in front picked the path and carried a metal detector in order to find IEDs. The Marine behind him marked the path to ensure no one took a stray step. If one did it could be his last.
Firefights with the enemy became like the high and addiction of a drug. Marines began to search for any excuse to kill, and most of the time it was not hard to find one. The reason for taking a shot could be as simple as, “There is a fighting age male (about 15-60 years old) watching us from a tree line 400m away.” “Does he have a weapon, optic, or radio?” “Yes, he is holding a rifle.” The Marines never regretted the decisions made because there was a simple proof of good judgment that one can only understand after time and experience in the situation. Despite what the media wants to portray, it becomes very easy to tell the difference between enemy and civilian.
Only a fighting man knows what it means to go numb to heartbreak, to seamlessly find that emotional cut off switch after seeing his closest friends ripped to shreds by a strategically and maliciously placed explosive device. Incoming units sent to replace the previous could not believe the appearance of the outgoing Marines. Ragged, beaten, and filthy are only a few words that could describe the Marines leaving after a six-month rotation in PB Fires.
Countless Marines that served at PB Fires willingly gave life and limb for each other. It was blood and sweat, day in and day out, just for the idea of a better life for people who didn’t really want it. The men that were there, some only 19 years old, witnessed God’s destruction of the mind, body, and soul for just two thousand tax-free dollars a month. Luckily, their story lives on, and they will never be forgotten.
After I finished that paper, I realized that someday, if I could find the right person to co-author it, I would probably consider writing a book about my deployment. I also realized that I would never waste my time telling stories around a drunken fire pit again. Nor would I ever expect a therapist, my parents, some girl I like, or anyone else to understand my experiences. It’s impossible. Period. I can put a message out for people to understand, but I will never be able to describe all my senses and have you perceive them as I did.
Editor’s Note: This essay was written by Afghanistan War veteran Chase Vuchetich, who deployed to Sangin, Afghanistan with 1st Battalion, 5th Marines from March to October 2011. During this deployment, 1/5 took part in two separate combat operations. Upon completing this rotation, they were awarded the Navy Meritorious Unit Citation award.