We had just completed a patrol through the town walking the main dirt road. It was a warm day, with a hint of a cool breeze coming from the Helmand River. Our left was a desert cliff that opened onto an endless expanse of sand and a jagged mountainside reaching to the horizon. On our right were patches of vegetation, green from waters of the river. The villagers made their living from this river, channeling the water to their fields. As I walked behind Bradley, my team leader, I turned my head from side to side, watching for any potential threat. For the most part the town was quiet, but children had thrown rocks at the patrol earlier in the day. Once we reached the end of the road leading to the town center, Bradley stopped the patrol due to a mound of dirt in the middle of the dirt road.
“Halt!” Bradley ordered and motioned with his hand. We had walked that same path earlier in the day and there had been no mound of dirt. It was new. Someone had put it there on purpose. My immediate thought was that it could be an IED or hoax IED, placed in order for the enemy to learn our standard operating procedure. I moved from the center of the road to the side, taking cover behind an old wall next to the canal. I had my M4 in the ready, observing the cliff, houses, fields, bushes, and the villagers. I was ready to shoot any potential threat. An old man with a shovel began walking towards us. “Who put this here?” Bradley asked old man angrily. It was clear that whoever put this mound of dirt in the middle of the road was seeking a response from the patrol. It angered Bradley that someone had done this. Unfortunately, he took it out on the old man.
The old man had a full head of gray hair. His blouse and pants were gray and white. His skin was wrinkled and beaten from a lifetime of work. “Use your shovel and dig this up!” ordered Bradley. The old man was quiet. He did not protest. He simply started digging, slowly digging, not saying word. I could see the pain in our interpreter’s eyes. He was upset that Bradley was using the old man to dig up dirt. I saw the interpreter’s sadness and disappointment. He asked Bradley to please stop and let the old man go on his way. I could see the interpreter’s eagerness to reach out and tell the old man to stop. Placing myself in the interpreter’s shoes, I saw the abuse of authority. I wanted to tell Bradley that this was going nowhere, but didn’t. I simply stayed in my position watching the situation play out. Eventually Bradley told the old man to stop. “The children may have done this,” the old man said calmly, breaking his silence. Bradley simply said ok and moved on. In the end, there was nothing we could do to find who placed this mound of dirt in the middle of the road. I got up from my position and the patrol continued.
Steven Martinez served in the U.S. Marine Corps for four years as a scout rifleman. My military service tours include Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan and a Marine Corps Expeditionary Unit deployment to the Pacific theater. I grew up in Santa Barbara, CA. I’m currently a UCLA student veteran in my fourth year, majoring in sociology and conducting research as a departmental honors student on social media practices used on line by college students. I’m also the historian for the veterans office on campus. My goals are to become a Marine Corps Officer in the reserves and attend law school.