Life Away from the World

Image by Phillip Hickman via Flickr

In 2007, I signed a contract that would forever change my life: a four-year agreement with the United States Marine Corps. I soon learned the true meaning of honor, courage, and commitment. At 20 years old, I had responsibilities that not many young men my age would regularly have. I trained hard and gave my life to the corps. I prepared myself both mentally and physically for what would come. I deployed to several different countries and trained with some of the best men I know, and along the way, we all became brothers.

In 2010, there was a Marine unit that needed more manpower for their area of operations. My commander recommended me as one of the Marines to deploy, along with a few others. It was mainly a small group, consisting of four snipers, two machine gunners, and a mortar man. Some had already been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. I could tell the difference between a Marine that had been in combat and one who hadn’t. The seasoned Marine is cool, calm, and collected, but with a slight whiff of arrogance. I, myself, had only been in a Marine Expeditionary Unit and on a humanitarian mission in Haiti. I had yet to see combat.

The deployment opened my eyes: Afghanistan was a beautifully unforgivable country. She taught me how to face death—and more so, how to embrace life—with her striking mountains, 120-degree temperatures, endless miles of desert, and surprisingly humid “green zones,” where farmers would divert the flow of rivers to irrigate their crops. My area of operations consisted of traversing mountainsides and patrolling jungle-like environments and open desert.

We first arrived in the forward operating base, Camp Leatherneck, where we spent a few days acclimatizing to the blistering weather. I made my last few phone calls home, telling my family that I loved them and that they wouldn’t be hearing from me for a while. I remember one particular conversation with a sniper from our group. He asked me, “So this is your first combat deployment?” He already knew the answer and before I could reply, he began to explain that my life would be forever changed. I was going to see the world with new eyes; nothing would be the same again.

The night we flew out to our respective operating posts, it was cool and breezy, feeling much like the calm before the storm. We all got our gear ready for the Osprey helicopter to pick us up in the dead of night. I was told that this was the only way to avoid RPG fire from the Taliban, especially in the area we were heading, for it was the Spring Offensive in Afghanistan. Soon, it would be summer, which was known for its relentless barrage of complex attacks from the enemy. Once the helicopter arrived, kicking up dust and blowing over anything that wasn’t pinned down, we ran straight into the back of it. We secured our equipment, strapped ourselves in, and conducted a head count. Then we were off in the air. I looked out the back of the platform and watched as the lights of the base disappeared, as though darkness had swallowed it whole. I couldn’t stop thinking about what that sniper had said to me before.

Afghanistan was a beautifully unforgivable country. She taught me how to face death—and more so, how to embrace life.

Soon after what seemed to be an endless flight, we finally arrived at another base. We were met by the company gunnery sergeant, whose greeting not exactly heart-warming: “Welcome to Afghanistan, gents. If you do anything wrong, I will fuck-start your mother’s heart, and make you wish you had never been born.” On that note, we were briefed on our missions, the gunnery sergeant going on about the company’s policy, proper protective equipment, and where we would all be staying. It was late and all I could think about at the time was sleep. I had been up the previous night saying my goodbyes, just in case it was my last one. Once I got to my bed—really a sweat-stained cot that seemed to be used as a knife-throwing target—I crashed.

I woke in the morning, grabbed my hygiene kit (toothbrush, toothpaste, shaving cream, and razor), and a bottle of water. Since there really wasn’t any running water, we made due with what we had for keeping clean. For breakfast, lunch, and dinner, I ate mostly MREs (meals ready-to-eat). They came in many different varieties, but after eating them for several months, the redundancy would kick in and they would all basically taste the same in the end.

One day in particular, I was eating one of those famous MREs when a loud explosion went off. It shook the ground beneath me. A few seconds after the gunfire started, I grabbed my rifle and headed for the nearest post. When I was stopped by that sniper again, he asked me where was I going in such a hurry. “This happens all the time, and if we are not on QRF, there wasn’t much we could do.” I found out later that it was an improvised explosive device that some poor Afghani policeman stepped on. His squad was attacked shortly thereafter amid the chaos of the explosion. The Afghani police squad was too far away for us to get to them, and that made me feel helpless, knowing when a Marine base was only a few miles away.

A few days later, I was again on another helicopter heading to an even more remote location; this time, it was Patrol Base Griffin. The base had been named Griffin after a Marine who was killed in that area. Griffin was hastily built with plywood huts, barbed wire, sandbags, and a tent as living quarters. The men were tired of being there and, even worse, seemed have pain in their eyes. I was sent there shortly after they had taken another casualty to IEDs. They were in the thick of the action, with an average of about three fire fights every few weeks, and IED findings every other day. At this base, I couldn’t make a mistake, as it could cost me my life, or, worse, the life of another. We patrolled every day and kept a vigilant eye for suspicious activity. Even though I was new their platoon, they didn’t care. They were just glad to have another Marine at their side. I was taught exactly what I needed to know to survive. No matter what happened, they did not want another casualty, or worse. I learned where to step, how to spot muzzle flash from a distance, and how far away and from what direction enemy fire was, just by the sound of the bullet’s snap.

Every day felt as though it were my last. I had many brushes with death. My mortality was on a tightrope which I had to walk daily. I lost dear friends to this war, and saw things that I could never unsee. Some of them, to this day, are hard to speak of without having that sore, knotty feeling creeping at the back of my throat.

The sun rises and sets, and each moment that passes is one we will never get back. I have tasted the bitter apple and chewed its core of evil, but have awakened to the beauty of the world around me. I enjoy life to its fullest, for you can’t truly enjoy the sweet without the bitter.

By Carlos Herrera Rente

Carlos Herrera Rente is combat veteran from the Marine Corps and student nurse. A writer, outdoorsman, and travel enthusiast, he is usually found in Miami inside a CrossFit gym, doing clinical rotations, or studying for his next exam.