Through their eyes: Armored vehicle driver in Afghanistan
By Cpl. Paul Peterson
| | September 07, 2013
CAMP LEATHERNECK, Afghanistan --
Like many areas of Afghanistan, the shifting desert surrounding the town of Now Zad in northern Helmand province is deceptive. The parched surroundings stand in stark contrast to the village’s tree-lined streets and the emergent green of nearby fields.
Austere walled compounds in the desert give way to mud-brick houses on the road into town. Boxed in by a series of mountains, the village and vegetation sprout like a magician’s trick out of unfruitful bad lands.
“It’s a whole new world,” said Lance Cpl. Morgan Almazan, an Arvada, Col., native and motor vehicle operator with Combat Logistics Regiment 2, Regional Command (Southwest).
Afghanistan has surprised her. Her front-row seat as an armored vehicle driver, conducting missions to and from various forward operating bases, revealed a much more diverse picture of the country than she anticipated before she arrived in July.
The view through her thick, cracked ballistic window turns the world outside a glassy shade of blue as she pushes through stretches of continuous driving that can last more than ten hours. It’s exhausting.
“There are forward operating bases that are actually in the middle of valleys where it’s nothing but green and water and villages,” said Almazan. “I keep my head on a swivel looking for [improvised explosive devices] and staying alert and aware of everything happening around us. Staying awake is a challenge. You have to know yourself.”
Each of the Marines has their own tricks: sweet treats, friendly banter, or the memory of a close call.
“You’re separated from the actual world by this huge piece of metal,” said Almazan. “You get a feeling of safety from it, but at the same time you know there are people out there trying to hurt you, and they know what they’re doing.”
That fact was hammered home when an improvised explosive device damaged her team’s vehicle during a recent patrol. The team escaped unscathed and tighter than ever. The risks and the cramped existence forged a powerful rapport between the servicemembers.
“It’s definitely a team effort,” said Almazan. “[My gunner] is like a brother to me. Once you get comfortable in a truck, moving out is like the worst thing that can happen to you. You feel that bond, and you spend so much time together it’s impossible not to know them like family.”
It’s a young, unconventional family to be sure. The Marines in Almazan’s vehicle are all in their early twenties or younger.
They go for days eating every meal between claustrophobic walls and reinforced glass. At night, they bolt down the doors, cut power to the engine, kill the internal lights, and stretch out on their seats like sardines. The vehicle overflows with gear, backpacks, rations and boxes of bottled water.
It’s a tight fit as the Marines fight off the instinct to sleep so they can tease each other about whose boots smell worst or tell jokes. The only real luxury inside the armor they call home is their companionship and an ineffective red air freshener.
“Not only do we work hard and get along great, but it’s also a reminder,” said Almazan. “If you miss something, it could be that one mistake that affects someone inside.”
By the end of her mission to Now Zad, Almazan’s uniform had white lines of salt where sweat dried along the edges of her body armor. The same was true for the rest of the crew, who unanimously agreed it was one of their more scenic, enjoyable runs.