Travis Kiser: Part 2
In Part 2 of Travis' interview, he discussed 2/7's deployment to Afghanistan in 2008. After returning from deployment, he spent a few months as an MP on base in Twentynine Palms before getting out and returning to College Station, Texas. He also discusses his transition back to civilian life.
Part 1 of Travis' interview can be found here.
Interview conducted on February 13, 2016 over the phone
Present: Richard Hayden and Travis Kiser
Transcribed by Richard Hayden
Richard Hayden: Let’s go ahead and let’s talk about the Afghanistan deployment. Leading up to the Afghanistan deployment, was the training different?
Travis Kiser: They tried to change it up a little bit using the mountains around the base, by making us climb up mountains. We now had classes on Russian-made weapons and how to use them – what an AK looks like, how to take it apart, what a machine gun looks like, what sort of things you might encounter over in Afghanistan weapons-wise. We had classes on Afghanistan. Stuff like that.
We only had one or two, maybe only one person in our whole unit that had been to Afghanistan. He shared stories with us but that was the mountains. He was up in the northeast. We didn’t realize we were going to the south which was basically just like Twentynine Palms. It was desert with mountains.
RH: Alright. Same question as before with Iraq. What was it like the day and night before you deployed to Afghanistan?
TK: It was a lot of uncertainty. What’s this going to be like? I remember we did the same thing. The girl I was dating was going to school in Arizona, Arizona State, and she came and we hung out. We did what couples do the night before you leave kind of thing. I remember sitting in the back of her Jeep right before we were going to go leave and then we were talking. People came up and were like, “Hey, you’re getting put on a working party. You’ve got to go.” So I had to leave earlier and it was just kind of like, “OK. We’re going to go. Bye. Love you. Bye.” My mom was sad because she came out, too, from Texas. It was really quick. It felt like after the bad things happened in Iraq, we realized that we can’t really do anything about it so you’ve got to just pick up your gear and go. You can’t dwell on it.
RH: Alright. What was it like when you stepped off the plane in Afghanistan?
TK: We stepped off in Bagram first and it was chilly. It was cold and it looked like it had rained a lot. It was very gray outside. There were puddles everywhere. You could see the mountains in the background. It was like, “Huh.” It was a lot different than Iraq. I don’t want to climb up those mountains. Then we got put on another plane and flew to another base and it was like, “This is just like Iraq but there’s still mountains.”
Marines at that time had not been to Afghanistan. I don’t know how familiar you are with the timeline of Afghanistan but Marines had not ever been to Helmand province. We were the first Marine battalion to go there and we were going to set up shop so we kind of felt special. We got told that, “Nobody’s going to replace you. It’s a one-time only thing. You’re going there to help train the police.” So you get there and you see all these Polish forces, the Estonians – I don’t remember too many Polish people. I just saw Italians and French and German and British soldiers and American soldiers. You saw Navy SEALs. You were like, “Oh man! This is cool.” Up until that time, the only people that were really still in Afghanistan were hardcore troops. You had the Rangers there, you had Delta Force – all those other Army jabronis out there – and we’re like, “Ah! We’re going to be the first ones to do this.” So you kind of felt more macho. You walked around with your chest pumped out a little bit because it was cool.
RH: Alright. Good to go. On the Afghanistan deployment, what was the mission of your unit?
TK: OK. Here’s where it gets really interesting. So our mission – you’ve probably already been told this – our mission was training police. I had never been told how to train a police officer but we were told that we were going to train the police. We were there pretty much to mentor them is what I got. There were some that trained them in Lashkar Gah because we were in Helmand province. Some of the people in my company, they didn’t have police at their outpost. So your job on paper according to the Pentagon was to train police and assist the Afghan National Police and the Afghan National Army with the counter-insurgency.
RH: Alright. What specifically was your job?
TK: I was an extra body. I got put with Second Platoon and my job was to help with logistics. I was supposed to keep rosters of things and to just be an extra person. I would switch squads. I would be with one squad for a little bit and I’d patrol with them and then I’d stand post. Then I’d patrol with this other squad and then I’d do this so I was just kind of like an extra body. It was very different because we got, like I said, in a Marine Corps company you have three line platoons which are the infantry guys and then you have a fourth weapons platoon which has the machine guns, the mortars and the Assaultmen.
We got spread out. You may have heard this before but 2/7 had the area of operations about the size of Vermont. That is massive for a battalion of Marines that have two thousand plus people in it – a little bit over two thousand. We were spread out. So we were in a base and there were seventy of us at this base. When I was in Fox Company in Iraq, there was over, probably, a hundred and fifty guys I want to say, give or take. Here we were seventy. We had beefed up platoons. We had the weapons platoon split apart. We had assets from Supply. We had assets from Radio Battalion. We were a self-sufficient platoon with attachments so that we were kind of like a mini, mini company. So I was just there as extra person.
RH: So then, I guess, obviously you didn’t end up training any police?
TK: We did a little bit. When I said we did a little bit, you had three guys that would try to, with an interpreter, try to go through reaction drills like, “OK. Suicide bomber. What do you do? If this guy gets shot, what do you do?” They had already been trained. When we got to our base in Musa Kela which was a town that we were in, it was a British base. It’s a very significant town in the British Army’s history of Afghanistan. They had swept it and cleared it in December but, before we got there, there was a big, massive operation to clear it out. It was their shining beacon of success. So we got put there and they were already training a lot of the police.
The police from Musa Kela had been sent to another city to train there so we had Kabul police – police officers from Kabul. One, those police officers didn’t care about the city so they were kind of a bunch of douchebags. We were working with them and we would tell them, “Hey, you need to go clean out your,” excuse the foul language, “shit pit.” They’re basically big pits in the ground where they would go number two and they wouldn’t go burn it. So I would tell the interpreter, “Hey, go tell the police to go burn their poop.” And they would get mad and say, “We’re not supposed to do that.” And I’m like, “You have to. It’s going to make this place sick. There’s sewage sticking out of the ground over there. You need to go burn it.” They’d try to get in fights with us and the ‘terps. Those Kabul police weren’t great but then when we got the Musa Kela police back, they were pretty good. We worked with them and they would go on patrols with us. We would take about six with us every day on a patrol and they would go on operations with us.
RH: OK. Good to go. What was a typical patrol like in Afghanistan?
TK: There are no roads. When I was there in 2008 there was one main highway – a ring road that went around the entire place of Afghanistan that was a paved road. We had wadis and a lot of dirt roads but we didn’t take vehicles so we walked around a lot. You’d walk all day. You had a patrol that would last all day or you’d have a day that was broken up into two segments. You’d go out and patrol for a couple of hours, come back during the hot part and then go back out towards the evening and then you’d have somebody patrolling during the late night and come back. So patrols was a lot of footwork and walking around. Just walking around, patrolling for hours and hours, trying to get the Taliban to attack you, basically.
RH: What were some of the operations like?
TK: We had operations to go clear out some areas. Two big ones that I was on – or three big ones where I was on – I can’t remember the events prior to but F-18s had dropped ordnance or some jets had dropped some ordnance and they didn’t explode. The Predator drones or UAV drones had seen people going to these bombs and starting to dismantle them. That was a no-no. We didn’t want them to have those so we had to launch operations down and basically get the big convoy in single file, twenty or thirty vehicles would go driving down to these sites. The Taliban would wait. They would ambush. They would use mortars, RPGs or IEDs to initiate the ambush and then they would shoot at you with small arms fire, stuff like that.
RH: Alright. Good to go. What were some of the notable events that occurred during the Afghanistan deployment?
TK: That event right there was pretty notable where we went down to assess the bombs. We never made it to the bombs. We got hit pretty hard with an ambush. We returned fire. Three of our guys got pretty badly injured. Stuff like that. Then we’d drive back off. We had air assets – an Apache on station – shooting. The other operations, we’d go sit in a place and drop off some Marines and they’d go walk around in the Green Zone. So basically the forest was just a bunch of trees and they’d go looking. We heard there was a Taliban hospital or field station so we went and dropped them off. They went looking around and didn’t find anything and as they came back, they came out a little bit further down the wadi than we expected so we turned around our vehicles and one of the vehicles got hit by an IED. As everybody was coming back to check on the people inside the MRAP, that’s when they started opening up with small arms fire. We returned fire. Things like that.
On another mission the same thing. We went on another operation where we were all in vehicles and we drive down an intersection. We go into some villages and they would drop mortars, shoot an RPG or two and try to draw us further in. They would try to suck us further in to set us up for IEDs and things like that. Those are notable events. Those were the big, main contacts that we were in.
Then you’d have other events where the police were trying to give Taliban troops a prisoner that we had taken. The Kabul police were trying to exchange money for prisoners so we would have to go try to stop that or prevent that from happening. We’d have an incident where a police officer let a Taliban guy go and then he didn’t tell his other friends in the police that he was letting him go so they were shooting at him as he’s running away so we had to react to those kinds of things.
There was one incident where I was on post and I saw a guy come over the wall. He was standing on the rooftop and he was going to jump back over the wall. Our base backed up into a couple houses so this guy got up onto the roof – it was the middle of the night, I saw him doing it – he got up on the roof and kind of straddled it. That’s when I shot a pyro up in the air, an illumination round up in the air, and called it in. Then he jumped back over and ran off. There was a lot of testing us. There were some characters but you knew when we were going to get into a fight. A lot of patrolling, hoping to get contact and not really attacking us.
I will tell you, I remember our first mission in Afghanistan was to go scrape body parts. When we got there the Afghan Police had run over an IED and they travelled heavily so they had like nine guys in the back of a pickup truck. There were pieces of people everywhere. You had to scoop them up, not literally, but there were little black flakes everywhere so you’d take a shovel and you’d scoop up a body part, put it in a bag, scoop up another piece of burnt flesh, put it in a bag. I remember doing that.
Same thing. They had a water truck that was driving and it hit an IED. The ANA guy – the Afghan National Army guy – goes up in the air and comes back down busted up pretty badly. I worked on a lot of guys doing casualty stuff.
RH: What was the enemy like in Afghanistan?
TK: The enemy was very intelligent. They were very intelligent, they had good communication, they knew how to fight. What I mean when they knew how to fight is they knew tactics. So they’re going to hit this IED, we’re going to wait for them all to figure out what they’re going to do with their vehicles, get close to the vehicle and then we’ll launch an attack. So it was like, if all of the Marines are standing around this car, we’re going to shoot an RPG at them or we’re going to shoot AK-47s at them. So they did a lot of that. They did a lot of shadowing us or what the British called “dicking.” That’s a term that they used called dicking where they’re just pretty much watching you and you knew that they were watching you. You could hear radio chatter and you could see people talking on radios. Sure, they didn’t do anything. They would be like, “The tanks are going this way.” We didn’t have tanks but they called our Humvees tanks. You could hear it on the radio and the ‘terp would say, “OK. He’s saying that there’s five Marines over here. Launch attack. Shoot this missile or whatever at them.” And that’s what would happen. We be on a patrol and you’d have guys on motorcycles paralleling us. They would be shadowing us, following us. It was the Wild West. We wouldn’t let men ride motorcycles together. You couldn’t let two guys ride a motorcycle around town because that’s how the Taliban liked to travel. I mean, the enemy was very well versed in their operations.
RH: Alright. I know it’s one in the same but can you talk about that Taliban a little bit? What were they like? What was their effect on the local Afghans? What kind of hold did they have in Afghanistan?
TK: Afghans have seen tons of invaders. Historically, they’re always in conflict and typical Afghans will sit on the fence on deciding who they’re going to support. They’ll watch for a little bit and then they’ll pick the side that look like it’s winning the most.
The Taliban – well, they’re not really Taliban. They may not have any affiliation with Mullah Omar. It was more likely the ones we fought were people that were against the government of Afghanistan, people that were warlords – I mean drug lords. Stuff like that. Drugs are a huge problem in Afghanistan. Eighty percent of the world’s opium comes from Afghanistan so it could have been drug lords. We didn’t really get to talk to them, [laughs] you know? They had their reasons for fighting and you couldn’t tell them apart. You could not tell them apart from a civilian at all. And, yeah. I don’t know if I answered that well.
RH: Actually, that’s a great answer. That’s perfect. What were some of your interactions with the local Afghans like?
TK: It was very, very, very different. One, we didn’t go into a lot of houses. Unlike Iraq, we did not go into houses unless there were police with us. In Iraq, we could just walk into anybody’s house any time. We didn’t have to knock. Just walk in. We kicked the door in. The door was locked? We took the lock off for you. So that sort of thing. In Afghanistan we were really wanting to win the population over but we wouldn’t go into people’s houses unless the police were with us. It was very different.
They always watched you. The watch that they would give us, the look that they would give us, was like they were picking you apart. They were just analyzing. They were wanting to see what you would do. Some of them looked at us like they just plain hated us so that was very different. You would be just walking down the market and you’d have these guys just what could be called call mean mugging, basically. They just had these very hateful looks directed at you and that was very different. We didn’t interact with females. Kids would throw rocks at us and stuff like that, sometimes. But it was very, very different from Iraq.
RH: What are some of the other big differences between Iraq and Afghanistan that you haven’t discussed already?
TK: Well, Iraq we had to wear everything that the Marine Corps gave us. You always had to have gloves on. You always had to have eye protection. You always had to have your boots bloused. You always had to have your sleeves rolled down. You had to have all of your body armor on at all times. If you went outside in Iraq to the smoke pit then you were pretty safe but if you went out past the smoke pit into the main area of the FOB, the grounds where all the vehicles were, basically outside, you had to have every piece of gear on. They would scare us and say, “Oh well. If you get blown up in Iraq and they find out you didn’t have your eye protection on, regardless of the fact that your lower half is missing, your family’s not going to get that five hundred thousand dollar SGLI bonus or whatnot.” When we went to Afghanistan, boots were unbloused. It felt like I had normal pants on. I didn’t have to blouse my boots. I could have my sleeves rolled up. They had guys not wearing eyepro. When I would get done with the mission or get done standing post, I could walk around in just silkies which are these little soft running shorts. I could walk around in those and flip flops and no t-shirt, no other pants on and just walk around and chill outside, sunbathing, on the tops of the roofs of some of the FOBs. Seriously. [laughs] There wasn’t a sniper threat. There were not really snipers in Afghanistan at the time we were there.
The big difference was in Iraq, it was built up. The American presence was definitely built up. We would have convoys running by our base every day. You could see it. You could see air assets all over the place. You’d be standing post in Iraq and you’d see Apaches fly over or the next day you’d see Marine Corps Cobras flying over. Where we were in Afghanistan, we didn’t have Marine helicopter support. We didn’t have our own stuff. We were there. Once you were at the FOB, you might get resupplied once a month. You had this big long logistics convoy. We called it combat train. Basically, a big convoy full of trucks come in with supplies and, hopefully, mail out to your base. And then an IED might delay them. When we were in Iraq, you would get mail almost every other day. Afghanistan, once a month, you know? It was the Wild West. I keep saying it but it was just so different. There were not as many rules and regulations when it came to what you have to be doing, what you have to be wearing. We didn’t constantly have to patrol. We would patrol and then when we got done with the patrol you would come back we would have maybe eight hours, eight or nine hours, to relax, rest, refit and get ready. We could work out every day. The food sucked. We ate the same damn MREs every single day. We didn’t get to take showers. In Iraq we had shower trailers that we really didn’t even get to use. We took showers with solar showers – those little things you fill up with the little bladders with the hose on it that you’d have to set out in the sun so you could take a warm shower. We pooped in bags instead of port-o-potties like we did in Iraq. It was very, very primitive in Afghanistan. We slept on cots. We slept in tents outside, even.
RH: Again on this deployment too, what was the most challenging period: the beginning, the middle or the end?
TK: Towards the end because we didn’t know when we were coming home. We were told it was going to be a seven month deployment and then things really got hot for the other companies. I guess the Pentagon and everybody realized that this isn’t just going to have to be a one-time only thing. They were trying to figure out, “How long do we need to keep these guys here?” Then somebody would call home and their wife would say that they were told this and we wouldn’t hear about it until the Pentagon would come and tell us three days later. Some General would send us a message saying, “OK. You guys are going home here.” We just had no idea when we were going home and that was really difficult.
Then the middle is when things really got bad. Like I said, we were isolated. In Iraq I could see other people. I would go back to Camp Fallujah for re-training every month to re-BZO our rifles but in Afghanistan we didn’t have to go anywhere. We just did it there and you would never see people from any other platoons. You never saw your friends from Golf Company. You didn’t see the rest of your Fox guys when you got home so it sucked.
We lost twenty-one people and you would sit there on the radio and you hear it. They would just say a name. They would say the first four letters of their last name. So you’d have to piece it together and be like, “OK. They just said ‘Robles.’ R-O-B-L. OK. How many people do we know with that last name? There are three different Robles’es. Is it this one is dead? Is it this one that’s dead?” That got really tough and not being able to see each other was really tough and not knowing how this person is doing. You’d hear, “So-and-so stepped on an IED.” And then you were just stuck with that and you were like, “OK. Is he OK? What happened?” That sort of thing. While when I was in Iraq, you know about it really quickly.
RH: Alright. So the same question that I asked with the Iraq deployment, did you have any transformative or significant events that occurred? Maybe aside from some of the ones you already talked about.
TK: It was when we were picking up the bomb, basically. Going over to the bomb. That was the first time I’d ever gotten to fire my gun in the Marine Corps. It was exhilarating. It was fun. But at the same time it was scary and it just changes you. You knew also that at that time, you were the only Marines in the entire Marine Corps that were getting into combat. Iraq had been boiling down. When we got back there were still units going over there but they didn’t come back with combat ribbons. We did. And you hear all these stories that Iraq’s boiling down, nothing’s happening. You’re having more troops die in an eight-month deployment than Marines would be dying in a whole year, know what I’m saying? So it was very different. It was very transformative to the effect that you realized that what you joined the Marines for and were supposed to be doing, you were doing. It made me feel special. It made me feel like this is what I signed up to do.
RH: Alright. Good to go. Before we move on from Afghanistan, is there anything we left out?
TK: Not to my knowledge. There’s so many different stories. Hopefully I answered all of your questions in the way that you wanted.
RH: Sure. Is there any story in particular that we left out that you want to address?
TK: Hmm. I mean, not really. Our interactions with the police were a lot better than they were in Iraq. We worked with them. I could go sit on the rooftops and drink tea with them. We would have dance parties with them.
We worked with a lot of Afghans in the base that were there. We had one. His name is Abdul Lateef. He had his teeth knocked out, apparently, by the Taliban and he had these big dentures. One day he didn’t come in and the next day he had a big, long cut on his arm – some injury. I asked what happened and he told us that when he had left work – he worked on the FOB and he would leave to go back home – he got attacked. He stabbed and killed a man with an icepick. And that was true! There was a body and everything. Those kind of interactions really stood out. It was a rough and tumble life for them. You’re talking poverty? These people had mud walls and they used rocks to wipe their butts with. It was very, very primitive compared to Iraq.
That’s pretty much it.
RH: Can you talk a little bit about your post-deployment experiences from Afghanistan?
TK: When I got home it was very different. Our unit was trying to pick itself back up. We had a high casualty rate. We had a hundred and some odd people that were wounded. We had lost twenty-one. When we got back we finally got to see people that we hadn’t see in eight months. You have to remember, I was with First Platoon when I went to Iraq so the people like Lanford that I went to boot camp with, I didn’t see him for eight months while he was over in Now Zad. Getting to talk to them and hear all these stories it was like we lived two different lives. They were miles away from us doing different things. At some points you just felt like – I felt different than they did. I felt like I’m not like what they were. When we got back from Iraq we were all cohesive. We had all had a shared experience in the company whereas in Afghanistan, the company had been split in two. Two-thirds of the company went to one place and my one-third went to another place. We had two different deployments. They were in heavy contact almost any time they stepped outside the wire. We were not so much but we had the very tedious job of counter-insurgency and you almost felt like you weren’t equals. And I still don’t. I still don’t feel equal to those guys that were in Now Zad. That’s very tough to hang out with them because they did some stuff that changed their lives – I did too – but theirs was on a much higher level. They experienced death almost on a daily basis. I don’t feel like I can sit in the same room and tell war stories if we were to do that. They’re my friends, I just feel disconnected from them. The people I was with, I’m close with them and we still talk about, “Man, we wish we were over there. We wish that we had been with our buddies.” So that was hard. You heard about somebody. For example, one of our guys died in Afghanistan that was at Now Zad. You knew him from before the deployment. I knew him from boot camp all the way until that deployment so you wanted to know. I wanted to know, how did he die? What was it like? All we knew was he stepped on an IED so I felt bad for asking, for being curious. Does that make sense?
RH: Definitely. It definitely does.
TK: Even to this day some of the guys will tell you stories. Every time I talk to some of my buddies who were in a different company, they’ll tell me a different story. They’ll tell me something that I never knew before. “This is what happened to us this day.” You see differences and you’re like, “Well shit. They had it harder than I did.” I was complaining about not getting to call home every day, you know? Here I am complaining about not getting to take a shower. These guys are complaining that they’re stuck out there with a dead body for a while. Some of the guys – this is morbid – saw dead Taliban. We saw them from a distance. We shot at people, we saw people fall but we didn’t get to go up and put our foot on the body and say, “We killed this person.” I know that’s morbid but the other companies, the rest of the companies, they got to do that. One of my buddies had a wounded Taliban guy with his arm missing that he had to help evacuate. They captured a guy that was trying to kill them. They got an actual prisoner of war fighting. It just made me feel inferior at times but proud to be able to be in the same space as them, to say that I knew that guy. Do you know what I’m saying? So it was very different. It was very touchy days for us.
A lot of us were getting out so that kind of helped the transition, focusing on other things. We got back in December. I was getting out that next August so I had about nine months until I got out. I was kind of winding down, focusing on other things, so I didn’t think a lot about those differences then but now I think about them all the time.
RH: Alright. Good to go. Before we move onto civilian life, is there anything else about your time in the military, any other stories in particular, that we left out? Maybe about either deployment?
TK: When I was getting out, when they realize you’re not going to deploy again, in Twentynine Palms they put you in other base positions. Like base working party where you go pick up trash for a couple of hours a day or base lifeguard which is what everybody wanted. Me, I got put as base police so I worked with MPs that were Marine MPs. It was very different to see how they are towards people. Their Marine life is very different. They have a nine to five job. In the infantry, I could be a Lance Corporal but have more respect for me because I had two deployments rather than a Corporal who just got out of Security Forces that has never deployed. In the infantry unit, somebody would take my word over that Corporal’s but if you were in the POG world – the people that are not grunts, not infantry – rank meant everything. I had a Corporal ask why I wasn’t standing at parade rest when I was talking to him. I said, “Because I don’t do that.” I didn’t feel like I had to do that, you know? I felt like I only had to do that to Staff Sergeants and people that were really high up but they were Marine Corps all the time. The infantry realizes that some of these rules are friggin’ stupid but the non-infantry world sticks to them and that’s what the Marine Corps is going through now. They’re returning to a garrison lifestyle where you no longer need these warfighters. These guys have gone out and fought. So what that his cammies are dirty when he’s back in the barracks? When he’s out in the field, that guy can run with a .50 cal above his head. Do you know what I’m saying? But getting to the other side of the Marine Corps further affirmed me not wanting to be a Marine anymore.
That was pretty much the other significant event, being in the MPs and seeing what the other side of the Marine Corps is like – what it’s like to have a nine to five job and not go to the field every other day. You weren’t miserable. You had a normal job. But then at the same time, I’m glad I wasn’t a POG. I’m glad I was not. I’m glad I was infantry. It made me enjoy life more and come to love the little things. I love being able to have a cup of coffee in the morning as opposed to when you walk into a POG’s office, they expect the coffee to be there and they don’t enjoy it. I came to love and cherish little things and take a step back and, you can say, quote/unquote, smell the roses. Whereas these other guys, every day it’s the same thing over and over again. Nine to five jobs.
RH: Alright. Good to go. Let’s talk about your transition to civilian life. was your immediate transition out of the Marine Corps like?
TK: When my contract ended, I got a U Haul and I took all of my stuff and drove from Twentynine Palms back to College Station, Texas. I had a plan when I got out and that was to go back to school and finish what I started and earn my degree. So I had planned for that. Right before getting out of the Marine Corps I made sure that I had been accepted. The GI Bill had just come out. I made sure everything else was in order and I drove home two weeks after. I EAS’ed August 8th of 2009 – End of Active Service – and I was in classes, in freshman classes, two weeks later. My transition was really quick and it was back into school.
College was easy. It was just do what the teacher tells you. It was very frustrating to see people that weren’t my age that had not gone through the military. It was very frustrating to see them take for granted what they had. It still is right now. I had to work to get my college paid for. I had to work to get it paid for. And a lot of these kids – and you can’t fault them, it’s not their fault – their parents care about them. It’s a great thing. It’s a great thing that you have somebody that will pay for your college. Everybody in school right now has somebody that has helped them get to where they are. And I had that when I first went to college but now that I had learned the hard way what it’s like when you don’t do well, I kind of was bitter towards those that were not taking it seriously. I mean, college was so easy at first. It was just do what the teacher says, do all your homework. I would rather be sitting in my room for two or three hours reading a book and doing what I’m supposed to do as opposed to being out in the field for four weeks – I’m sorry, not four weeks – four days straight being a Marine. I saw where I came from and I realized I don’t want to go back to that. This is what I want to do. This is what I enjoy. I’d rather be here and doing what I’m supposed to be doing. That was my transition and it was tough interacting with kids that were eighteen years old and here I am a twenty-two year-old quote/unquote “man,” you know? That was very, very different. And I didn’t know how to talk to them. I curse a lot. I still do. I’m a very abrupt person. I’m blunt and civilians – especially eighteen, nineteen year-olds – aren’t used to that. So it’s a transition but do you know what? It was a transition that I had to make. You can’t make everybody change, you have to be your point of change. But that was what it was like transitioning into college life.
RH: Alright. Good to go. Let me ask you this. We’re going to move on a little bit to Iraq’s current state but but before that, you said that you were a history major in college. Is that correct?
TK: Yes sir.
RH: What period or what areas did you focus on?
TK: I focused on everything. I am still in school right now. I have been out since 2009 and I’ve been in school since then. I have a bachelor’s in history from Texas A&M. I have a master’s in education and curriculum from Texas A&M. At the end of this semester I’m going to have a certificate in advanced international affairs from the Bush School of Government and Public Service of Texas A&M and I am working on a second master’s, a master’s in health education from Texas A&M. I have a lot of degrees. My history degree is specialized in just history. I minored in geography and military studies so I took courses that I found interesting. I took courses from Nazi Germany to World War II history to American military history so I guess you could say that I did study a lot of military stuff and I still am.
RH: If this is too big of a question I can narrow it down. In the scope of US history and looking at it now from 2016 so maybe in twenty, thirty years this might change, how do you see Iraq and Afghanistan fitting into US history at the moment?
TK: Well, it depends on who’s going to write the textbook. I’m having to teach those things now with my geography students, my ninth graders, and I had to do it last year with eleventh and twelfth graders.
RH: How did you teach it?
TK: I told them the truth. I just told them what I experienced and what they needed to know, that there were suspected weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. That’s why we went there. And then in 2001, the World Trade Center launched us into Afghanistan. I just tell it how it is.
I think where Afghanistan will fit into it is some I guess I have alluded to throughout this interview is that Afghanistan is the perfect example of what happens when you don’t – as Ron Swanson from Parks and Recreation would say, “This is what happens when you half-ass something instead of whole-ass it.” There’s a great quote where he says, “Never half-ass two things, whole-ass one.” I know that’s inappropriate but whatever. Afghanistan was not the focus. Afghanistan was the focus for a couple years and then Iraq happened and all of the focus shifted to Iraq. We’ve been in Afghanistan for years. At the time that I had gone to Afghanistan, we had been in there for seven plus years and we still didn’t have enough infrastructure built up. We were going into villages where they said they had never seen a westerner since the Russian invasion. That shows something. And then when I’m in Iraq three years after the invasion – three or four years after the initial invasion – you can’t go even outside and not hear an American convoy go by or flying overhead. That tells you a lot. The focus was shifted onto Iraq during the invasion and then once they realized that Iraq was simmering down and realized how bad Afghanistan was, they tried to fix it. Then we had a new President and he tried to fix it yet still tried to keep promises of pulling troops out. And you’re seeing that today. The Marines had closed down bases in Helmand province. They were sending in the Tenth Mountain Division to Helmand province this week. I think that’s what happens when you don’t dedicate yourself to a cause. In American history from a historical standpoint, you have to focus on the real problem and get to the bottom of it and how to deal with it. You can’t just sit there and say it’s just another example of counter insurgency because we dealt with that in Vietnam. I hope that I answered your question.
RH: It definitely does. Good to go. Next question is, how do you feel about the rise of ISIS and the current direction that Iraq is taking?
TK: The rise of ISIS I feel like was bound to happen. It’s what happens when your country and the people in your country do not care enough about it. Afghans don’t give a crap about what happens to their nation. They care about their family so anybody can come in and take over. Iraqis didn’t do enough. They have really weak government so of course it is a breeding ground for terrorist organizations and groups.
Now the rise of ISIS, I don’t know whether to believe the media or what I see on the videos. There are Iraqi units that are destroying ISIS. There are Syrian units that are destroying ISIS but I don’t know who’s winning. Honestly, it doesn’t bother me anymore. It doesn’t. It’s not my war. It won’t – I hope it doesn’t come to America but it’s not my war. I don’t think we should send soldiers over there to fight somebody else’s thing. That is their country. Iraq needs to take a step forward and say, “OK. Either we want ISIS or we don’t.” ISIS has to keep taking ground in order for it to stay relevant. It is wanting to become a Caliphate. It is wanting to become an actual nation. Well, it has to maintain these grounds and if the Iraqis are going to fight them off, they’re there just to kill them. That’s it. Afghanistan? Yeah, sure. There might be ISIS there but they’ve always had conflict. It’s just like the people don’t care. They don’t see the national level at all. They are caring about their community and their family and their tribe. So that’s where it is. They’re probably going to have civil wars. They’re going to have more conflicts but I don’t really see ISIS really being able to maintain its stranglehold on Iraq. Yeah, it can produce these little terror videos where they kill four or five people but on the grand scale of things, that’s not a lot. Joseph Stalin used to say that a single death is a tragedy but a million is a statistic. That’s because if you watch the video of the kid that’s getting run over by the tank, automatically you’ve got a face to it. You’re seeing him die whereas if ISIS was really killing thousands and thousands and thousands of people, it would be more of a concern. People see the onesies and twosies in videos and think that ISIS is really rampant. I don’t really believe that but they are something to watch out for. Sorry for rambling. I feel like I went off on some tangent there.
RH: [laughs] That’s alright. No problem. We’re going to shift it up a little bit and ask you some spiritual questions. Has deploying affected you spiritually and, if so, how?
TK: Yes, it did. Before I went to Iraq I got baptized, actually. I got baptized in a hotel spa by the chaplain of our unit in Palm Springs. All my buddies gave me crap about that but my mom also gave me this little bandana that has the armor of God prayer on it, the psalm, and I said that psalm every day. I say every day, twenty-four hours, I would have to say it. I would wake up, read it, put it on my head and then go about my day every day in Iraq and Afghanistan. It has made me more spiritual. I would say that I thank God a lot for allowing me to come home and this is me opening up as a Christian. I asked for protection a lot while I was there and I have unfortunately been negligent in my appreciation now reflecting on that. I haven’t lived as good of a life as I should. Since then. I still sin a lot. I don’t think I’m showing the Lord that I’m as thankful. I don’t think I could ever be as thankful for being allowed to live, you know? I’m still spiritual, I need to be more spiritual.
But definitely the war and everything opened up my mind and brought me closer to God. Once I got out of danger, it was like, “Oh, OK. Thank you God. I’m just going to keep doing what I’m doing.” And I shouldn’t be doing that, you know?
RH: Good to go. Has deploying changed your perception of life and death and, if so, how?
TK: Oh yeah. Definitely. It makes you see that life really is fleeting. It is. At one moment you could be sitting there hanging out having a good time and the next you’re dead. Life changes real quick. It’s also told me that life will go on and that’s something that I’ve had to deal with since I’ve been out because when people die, I still have the same mentality as when I was in the Marines. OK, they’re dead, I’m sad, it sucks but I have to move on. I can’t dwell on it. Whereas when my cousin lost her mother and her sister, my aunt and my cousin when they died, I got over it within a couple of hours. I mean, honestly, it didn’t slow me down but she was devastated. I told her, “It sucks, I know, but you’ve got to move forward.” I feel like if my mom died today, I would be sad but I would still get up and go to the gym tomorrow and work out. I mean, that’s just honestly how the military made me. You cannot dwell on things you cannot change. Later on, yes, I think about them. I reflect on them. It makes me sad but I don’t let it slow me down because it can’t.
RH: Alright. I’m sure you’ve been keeping up lately. 2/7 has been in the news because of the large number of suicides that have occurred among Marines from 2/7. Did you know any of these Marines? Do you have any feelings about it? [slight background noise]
TK: I didn’t hear that last part. I heard that there has been a lot of news about suicides. Did I know any of the Marines?
RH: Did you know any Marines and do you have any thoughts or feelings about the situation?
TK: I knew some of them, yes, and it comes as a shock that it happens. It really sucks. One time when one of the guys, Rocha – he got in trouble and it made the news that he had a speeding ticket or he got arrested. In hindsight maybe I should have done it but a lot of us got on our little facebook group and we called him out. We called him names and made fun of him for getting arrested and then he died. So that kind of made me feel bad.
But a lot of it has been shock. It’s shock that, wow, they’ve taken their life. Now my thoughts on it, I don’t like how the word “veteran” has been associated with PTSD. I don’t like that. Look, rape victims have PTSD. Car crash victims have PTSD. Everybody has some sort of post-traumatic stress in their life and I don’t think that when a person takes their life and they’re a veteran that it’s automatically PTSD. To me, I can’t wrap my head around it and I’ve dealt with suicide myself. I fought that battle. But looking back with hindsight I can say that suicide is a quick fix. It is a long-term solution for a short-term problem. You’re taking your life because you lost your kid, your kid got taken away from you, you lost custody of your son. For me it is a life-altering change for a short-term problem. Like Rocha – he got arrested. Yeah, he was on pills. He was on medicine that the VA gave him or whatnot but he chose to end his life like that.
It’s not like veterans are sitting there every day – this is how I feel, it may not be everybody’s opinion, I don’t care if they agree with me – but I don’t think there are veterans sitting there contemplating killing themselves in two weeks. I think that something happens to them and they don’t know how to recover from it so they go to drinking or pills or then they just commit suicide. It is what it is. People do that a lot in general anyways. They react really quickly because Marines were always taught to do that. We were always taught to react without hesitating. Yeah, think but react real quick to it and so when something bad happens they don’t feel like they can recover from it. Then you take your life. Some other people, they’re just in dark places but, bottom line, it sucks but I’m tired of hearing about it. I’m tired of my friends killing themselves. It’s friggin’ stupid. You fight wars and I’m being hypocritical because I’ve thought about killing myself too. But it’s friggin’ stupid when they kill themselves when they had so much more to offer in life.
All they have to do is if you’re hurt, reach out for help. And I know coming from that experience that it is hard to want to reach out but if you can’t reach out and you don’t feel like you want to reach out to somebody you need to realize that life will go on without you but you’re going to hurt people with what you’re doing. You need to find something to live for. There’s always something. If you don’t have family, if you don’t have kids or a girlfriend live for your dog. [laughs] Who’s going to take care of my dog if I die? Who’s going to take care of my son. I’m just ranting right now.
RH: Good to go.
TK: You’ve just got to find something. Huh?
RH: No, good to go. We’re going to switch it up a little bit but do you still talk with Marines from 2/7?
TK: Do I still talk with them? Yeah. I have friends that are in this town that I used to work for that still live here. They were 2/7. We’re planning to go on a kayaking trip with the outward bound veteran organization in June with 2/7 Marines. I talk to Marines thanks to facebook and text messaging every week. I know I don’t sit there and say, “Hey. How are you doing?,” to every guy all the time. We talk, we comment on each other’s stuff, we like the posts on instaface and Myspace and stuff like that. That kind of stuff. I talk to them, I stay in touch. I try to be curious about how my guys are doing, how my friends are. They’re the closest friends I’ll ever have. I’ve been out of the Marine Corps longer than I was in it but I still find my friends that I went to Iraq and Afghanistan with as my best friends. Nobody in my life since will ever be like that. They’ll never be, except my dog. They will not be as close. Nobody else will ever be as close as those guys were.
RH: Alright. Good to go. We’re going to switch it up a little bit. What is your happiest memory of the entire time you served?
TK: The happiest memory? [laughs] Well, making it home from Afghanistan was happy because I knew I wasn’t going to die. Finding out that I was getting out of the Marine Corps and getting out. That was happy. Never seeing Twentynine Palms again or being forced to go back was happy. Those are the happy moments now. If you had asked me four or five years ago, I would have told you something different, I guess. But right now, those are the happy memories of getting out and just being with my friends and being with those guys. Those were happy.
But the times, the collective times together. Sitting in the barracks talking, smoking and joking with my buddies for the period of four years that I was in were probably the best times of my life. Those were the closest friends that I will ever have and I can’t pinpoint one particular moment that was happier than all the others. I don’t have those experiences in my life now so the collective just hanging out with my friends in the Marines was my best time.
RH: Alright. Good to go. This sort of piggybacks on that but what, if anything, do you miss about the military?
TK: I miss my friends. I miss that constant ability to walk outside your door and you have seventy to eighty of the closest people you will ever meet in your life right there. I miss that. I don’t miss being in the field, I don’t miss shooting guns, I don’t miss deploying. People that talk about missing deployments, they miss being with their friends and having good times. They don’t miss the misery of walking around with eighty pounds of gear on, sweating, wearing the same underwear for a week on end, that sort of misery. They don’t miss that. Nobody does. They miss the friendships.
RH: Alright. Good to go. What was the best MRE?
TK: Ooh. [laughs] Chicken cavatelli. Chicken cavatelli was my favorite because I could eat it cold and what I would do is I would take the crackers and I would crunch them up in their little bag and I would take the chicken cavatelli which is, basically, chicken breast with some noodles in it and I would crunch up the chicken breast so I had pieces while it was in this bag and then I’d pour the crackers in there. I’d stir it up and I’d eat it. That was my favorite. Those two things combined were my favorite.
RH: Chicken cavatelli was actually my favorite too so that’s cool.
TK: The worst MRE – veggie omelet. Whoever made that god-awful MRE, I hope they’re miserable right now. I hope they have nothing else to eat for the rest of their life but that. [RH laughs] It’s the worst thing ever.
RH: Good to go. Alright, this is a three part question. What was the best chow hall stateside, the best chow hall in Iraq and the best chow hall in Afghanistan?
TK: Stateside, we didn’t really get to eat at the chow hall all the time. To be honest, for three years that I was at Twentynine Palms – that’s three hundred and sixty-five times three – I can probably count to a hundred the amount of times that I had been to a chow hall, if that. That’s being liberal with it. The best one was the tank chow hall. There were only two chow halls. There was the grunt chow hall and then there was the POG chow hall. The grunt chow hall was on the grunt side, the POG chow hall was right down the hill from the Comm barracks. You could go over there to the POG one and in the morning you could get sausage, egg and cheese biscuits to go so that’s what made it the best. You could just drive over there with your friends, hopefully get in line and not get yelled at by some Staff Sergeant because your cammies were dirty and you would get some chow.
In Iraq, Camp Fallujah’s was great. Well, no. I did go to Balad for a little bit. The chow hall in Balad was good and the chow hall in Camp Fallujah was good. They both had the same food but Camp Fallujah, what was great about it was you could have midrats and I miss midrats the most. You could eat dinner, go to the gym, go eat another dinner and then go to sleep. They had omelets, they had surf and turf night. The problem with the Camp Fallujah one was that sometimes the cooks wouldn’t serve you if you didn’t shave and that sucked because you would come in from a mission and you had no time to shave and you wanted to get there before the chow hall closes, and they would kick you out because you were dirty.
And then Afghanistan, Bagram’s was good because it was just like Camp Fallujah’s. Bagram had a nice chow hall but I will say that we did have a mess tent in our FOB in Musa Kela and the British cooked food. It was freshly cooked like chicken and curry on rice, stuff like that. So that was different and it was freshly made. It wasn’t an MRE. So that one was good.
RH: Alright. Good to go. What are some of the funny stories you have?
TK: Funny stories? There was that time in Afghanistan. We didn’t get supplied a lot of things. My Gunny told myself and this other guy to go steal traffic cones from Kandahar Air Base because we had to use them for the ECP, entry control points, and the cones were utilized for multiple things. You could use a cone to pour JP8 into the Humvees. But we had to drive around Kandahar Air Force Base in the middle of the night and steal traffic cones from all sorts of areas on base. [RH laughs] The Gunny probably picked two of the best people for the job. That was a fun memory.
In Afghanistan I got revenge on some kids that were throwing rocks at us while we were on post. We had this static posts on top of this building. These kids were throwing rocks at us and we got tired of it because they would beg for candy. So I made an MRE bomb. You put the heater in the water bottle, put a little bit of water in it, and I threw it out in the field where they were at. They saw it and they were like, “Whatever. He’s just throwing another bottle out.” But then I threw a pound cake, a lemon and poppy seed pound cake or something like that, in front of it. They were like, “He’s throwing us food!,” and they go running over after they were throwing rocks at us. This kid jumps over the MRE bomb as it goes off. He gets so scared and runs off. They never threw rocks at us again [RH laughs] but that was fun.
Iraq, [laughs] there was this naked kid. He never wore clothes. He was fat. He was a fat little Iraqi kid that would always go on his doorstep butt naked and waved at us as we drove by. One time we stopped the patrol and we were going to throw him some candy and he started dancing for us and it hilarious to watch this kid that did not want to wear clothes dance for us for a piece of chocolate. [RH laughs]
RH: Alright. Good to go. Last couple of questions. What are some of the misconceptions that the average American might have about the conflict?
TK: That you’re not in contact every day. Ninety percent of the time is sitting around and waiting. It’s not every day getting into firefights. It really isn’t. Some places there may be extended times but a good majority of the time is not spent fighting. It’s spent trying to prevent those fights or sleeping, working out and getting ready for the next patrol. That’s a big misconception.
Another misconception is people don’t believe our battalion was there. We don’t get enough credit for being in Afghanistan. People remember 3/5. They remember the Marjah Marines. The Marjah Marines were in boot camp when I was in Afghanistan. There were some of them that were in boot camp while I was in Afghanistan and that was Obama’s big thing. We got out of Afghanistan right before Obama took office so the big misconception is that we were there. People don’t realize 2/7 was there. 2/7 kicked the proverbial hornet’s nest and destroyed the enemy. There are towns that are a lot better off now in Afghanistan because of us than they would have been if we weren’t there. 2/7 was hand-picked to go there. We had been successful in Iraq and the military geniuses saw that and they wanted to see if it would work in Afghanistan. Now, we learned the hard way that there are some things that work in Iraq that don’t work in Afghanistan but people do not realize but 2/7 is probably the most pivotal – and I’m slight biased – the most pivotal battalion that went to Afghanistan.
RH: Alright. Good to go. Actually, I’m sorry. There’s one question that I left out that I have to ask that’s very near and dear to my heart. What were your Corpsmen like?
TK: The Corpsmen were, you know, the Corpsmen were just the greatest people on earth. They really are. Anybody that joins the police, the military, paramedics or even teachers, our jobs are to help people. Corpsmen are there to help people out when they’re in their worst way. When you would go out on liberty, on libbo, with Corpsmen, you were there with someone you know would end up taking care of you and that felt good. They were just guardian angels when you would go on a patrol. Even if they were dirt bags, and we had a couple of dirt bag Corpsmen, but still, if something happened, you knew that guy was going to be right there. At least in my experience, they were going to be right there for you. Corpsmen are great people. I love Corpsmen. They’re just – they’re good people.
RH: Alright. Good to go. If you could communicate something young Marines who will be fighting the wars of the future, what would it be?
TK: Bring baby wipes. [both laugh] Yeah, bring baby wipes.
RH: If any of your students were considering joining the Marine Corps or the military in general and they came up to you asking for advice, what would you tell them?
TK: Start doing pull-ups. I do have a lot of kids that come talk to me that are joining the military. Get physically fit, keep your nose clean and pick a job that you can see yourself doing outside of the military. That’s my advice. I don’t tell my kids to go to the infantry. I don’t. I don’t tell them not to. I went into the military because I wanted adventure. You should probably go into the military to find a job when you get out. Of course, when you get out as an infantryman, you can’t really do anything other than be a police officer. I tell my kids, “Go do something that when you get out, you can go right into the civilian world and do.” Stay out of trouble, do your pull-ups, work out.
RH: Before I ask my final question, is there anything I left out that you would like to address?
TK: No. I think we covered it, a lot.
RH: Alright. Good to go. My last question is, what specific accomplishment are you most proud of during your service?
TK: Accomplishment? I’m now most proud of the fact that I became a United States Marine and earning the title of being a Marine. That is my proudest moment in life, other than being a father, is being a US Marine. I mean just saying that gives me goose bumps. I know that’s corny as shit but it is what it is.
RH: Good to go. Before we wrap it up, anything else?
TK: No, sir.