It was a routine convoy from the 5th Zone to Camp Spann to Camp Marmal after a work day of mentoring my Afghan public affairs counterpart. Although I technically was stationed at Camp Spann, I wasn’t staying on post that day and was planning to return with the advising team to their post, Camp Marmal, because I had another mission with their team scheduled the next day. Our stop at Spann was only to drop off our interpreters and to catch a quick lunch before heading back to Marmal.
I had been on several convoys with this team by this point in my deployment. If the female engagement team (FET) was with us, we’d fill the back of a MaxxPro, an uparmored MRAP designed to carry multiple personnel. When the colonel was with us and the FET was not, it was normal for me to ride in his MATV.
We had just finished lunch and our group was slowly gathering back at the truck line. Despite the intense heat of the sun, a few Soldiers stood in the unshaded openness of the parking area near the front of the trucks smoking their cigarettes. Others were shuffling about getting their gear on or sitting up in the vehicles with the doors open for ventilation.
With just a couple of minutes before we would start out again, I returned to my truck to don my gear. I swung open the heavy door and looked up only to find that our gunner, Boo, had been resting in my seat.
Jokingly, I told the young Soldier to get his butt back up in the turret before I got up there instead.
Unbeknownst to me, the comment I had made had been overheard by our convoy and my truck commander, the colonel.
“Sergeant, you want to gun?” asked our leader.
“Yes, Sir!” I said firmly. Inside I didn’t know whether to be nervous that he had overheard me or giddy with the feeling that he might actually be entertaining the thought to allow me in the turret.
While it isn’t unheard of to have a female gunner, it’s not that common in theater. Additionally, I was on this mission in a public affairs capacity. Simply put, there were other Soldiers on this team that were more experienced in the turret and whose sole task on that mission was just that: to gun.
“Are you qualified on the .50 cal?” he continued.
“Yes, Sir.” I said swiftly.
“Get her in the harness, Boo,” he said without hesitation as he turned to put on his own gear.
With a new-found adrenaline boost, I quickly and easily pulled my heavy body armor out of the truck and dropped it over my head. After velcro-ing the straps in place and settling it around me as comfortably as I could get it, I looked back up in the truck at Boo with a look of, “Ok, let’s do this.”
The tall, skinny specialist jumped out of the truck, grabbed the 5-point harness from the floor of the turret and began to help me untwist the nylon straps. I flipped two of the straps over my shoulders, wrapped two around my waist and leaned forward so Boo could feed me the fifth strap between my legs. I clicked the five belts into their respective buckles and stood there draped in an over sized mass of black straps.
The harness was definitely not set up for a person of my size and the straps hung loosely on me. Boo and I laughingly took turns pulling and tugging on the belts to get the harness to fit me properly. Once cinched, I hoisted myself up into the truck and maneuvered my way into the turret. Boo didn’t seem to mind giving up his duty. Actually, I think he found it rather amusing.
Hearing the large door shut from beneath me, I looked down to see the face of the young man peering up at me to make sure I was alright with being in the new position on the truck. He clipped the large ring of my harness to the metal plate beneath my feet and threw me a quick smile of approval before he turned forward and started to belt himself in.
I leaned against the back of my small metal fortress and settled in to my new surroundings. I slid the ear pads of my headset around my large helmet and matched the Velcro straps at the top of my noggin, setting the headset in place. I could hear the radio check already being called up throughout the truck and the convoy.
The noises outside were muffled, the dull grind of the loud engine hummed, and I heard the colonel ask me through the light static of the headset if I was good to go.
“Roger that,” I responded.
I took a deep breath. It was at that point that the intrigue of my new position fully crossed my mind. I was excited to take on a new role within the team, even if it was only going to be this once, but I started to shift focus on what I was truly about to do. Once outside that entry control point (ECP), I was a target and, if need be, I was going to have to shoot back. I didn’t have time to dwell on the magnitude of it so I refocused on the tasks I had at hand.
As the truck began to roll toward the ECP, I began to load my weapon as I had been taught. Methodically, I went through each step carefully. Boo, sitting at my feet, was watching me as I loaded the belt-fed weapon. He nodded with every step that I completed giving me, and him, reassurance that I knew what I was doing. Just as we bounced through the gates of the ECP, I wrapped my palm around the retracting slide handle and pulled back. It went about four inches. Fearing the colonel would think I couldn’t handle the weapon, I re-gripped the handle and pulled HARD. The handle slid completely back and I felt everything lock into place. As I mumbled to myself something in regards to being weak and reassuring myself I could do this, I completed the remaining steps.
“I’m red,” I told the colonel, indicating that my weapon was loaded and ready to fire.
Because I was the last truck, I rotated my turret to face away from the convoy in order to provide rear security.
The drive already felt different to me. From my usual seat inside the trucks, the view was usually blurred by dirty, slightly tinted windows and constricted by the size of the small window opening. Any photos I had taken from inside the truck always revealed the RPG-netting that encompassed our vehicle. None of these factors made for a scenic view and even uglier photos. Now, I felt like a parade queen riding high above the crowds below me.
The vehicle maneuvered differently, too. No longer was my bottom end bouncing off a flat, overly used cushion seat. Instead, I stood with both boots firmly planted shoulder-width apart on the flat metal console between the two back seats so that I could maintain my balance. With every movement of the big boxy truck, I swayed from side to side. I used each muscle in my legs and hips to keep from falling over.
We turned down a road to the left and passed the helicopter landing zone (HLZ) on the right. At that time, two squads of our personal security detail were posted near the HLZ waiting an incoming flight. It was strange to see them working from a distance. Usually, these were the guys that I was on mission with. I felt taller than life riding past them and seeing the other two gunners at the same level I was.
Our convoy had started rolling over the speed bumps and swerving in between the serpentine barriers at the Afghan ECP. I could see the gunner of the first truck. It was my friend Mellohn and I had wished there was some way to let him know that it was me working his equivalent position at the rear of the convoy. The colonel’s decision had been made swiftly that no one knew other than the Soldiers in our truck knew that it was me in that turret, not Boo. I was antsy to share this new experience with Mellohn, a man who gunned hundreds of times and got a kick out of seeing me giddy like a school-girl with every new Afghanistan experience I was having. He would understand and share in my excitement, but letting him know I was the rear gunner would have to wait.
Our truck began to speed up as it cleared the check point. This was it. I was gunning outside the wire.
The smell of the Afghan air reminded me of small animal farms back home. There were, however, no animals in sight. It wasn’t crudely foul but it wasn’t a pleasant odor either. The sun was bright and it was extremely hot. I could feel it singe the base of my neck. To add to the irritation on my neck was the slight stinging of sand that was blowing on me, kicked up from the vehicles to our front.
My eyes canvassed the area around us as I slowly rotated the turret handle with one hand and maintained control of my weapon with the other. I looked out into the vast dirt field to my left, eyeballing as many Afghans as I could see. They weren’t doing anything aside from their usual: men standing around talking, boys chasing after each other playing. To my right was a row of mud houses. I examined the tops of the buildings and the doorways as we rode past. Again, nothing unusual. Nonetheless, I continued monitoring the area, slowly rotating my turret from the left to the right and back.
There was a section of the main road that was being repaired so our convoy had to venture off-road in the nearest part of that vast dirt field. Slowly, the top-heavy vehicles veered down into the bumpy parcel, careful not to roll over as its tires left the flat road. I braced myself instead the turret. At one point, I yelped out a quick squeal as I was surprised by the sudden jostling of the truck from side to side. The colonel, a jovial man with a light-hearted spirit, joked that he had never heard a scream like that through a headset. The young men in the truck, immaturely put a perverted twist to the comment and began to joke with the colonel about what kinds of screams he had heard before. I giggled a bit myself.
A few miles down the road, we were back on flat road and headed into Mazar-e-Sharif. Once again, I felt the newness of this experience. For as many trips as I had taken on this road, never once did I have any idea of what was over the tall mud walls. Now, I was looking over the walls instead of directly into the brown obstacle. Peculiar looking buildings, probably once factories of some sort, had been erected away from the road. They looked much like the falling down, dilapidated buildings near the road but, to me, they were new buildings that had mysteriously grown there from the last time I ventured down that avenue.
Deeper into the city we went as I rotated my turret and scanned my sector. The Afghan men, women, and children continued about their business, most not noticing the monstrous vehicles that drove past them. I did notice one or two that would glance up at me as if they were checking that I was the last truck. They knew that the rear facing turret signaled the end of the convoy. With that, the people began to cross back and forth across the street hesitating from moment to moment to avoid getting hit by the other cars and motorcycles on the road.
To the few that would look up at me, I waved and smiled. Part of me that thinks a few of those Afghans might have questioned that I was a female gunner. My hair, wrapped in a bun, clearly stuck out under the back of my helmet. Maybe they thought it, maybe they didn’t, but I wondered if it was new for them so see that. Part of me wondered what they thought about our convoys, in general, rolling through their everyday lives. Were they used to it? Were they bothered by it?
We continued to roll through the city and, eventually, through the serpentine of Marmal’s ECP. I cleared my weapon, tossed the belt of ammo back in its can, and looked down at Boo. He had snagged my camera from my bag and took a picture of me. We gave each other a genuine brother-sister fist bump and laughed lightly as we rolled through the last gate coming back on post.
We refueled the trucks and drove them back to the staging area. I gathered my gear and dropped down out of the turret then slid out of the truck. Other than my own excitement, nothing significantly eventful happened on that convoy.
I was grateful that the colonel had given me a new experience. It was an honor to be afforded the opportunity to defend my brothers, the same as they had done for me.