During my time in Helmand Province, one of the deadliest areas in Afghanistan, my battalion of over 800 highly-trained Marines was tasked with a full-scale counter-insurgency operation. Our work was to be the largest Marine Corps-led helicopter raid since the Vietnam War.
There were many ideas on the table about how to do this, including plans and tactics from past wars. These were solid ideas with a proven history of success. However, we chose otherwise. We wanted to catch the Taliban off guard.
Our plans were complete, and the mission was a go. Unfortunately for us, we landed right in the middle of an ambush. Although our clever new plan had failed, we were able to move to a compound close by and establish defensive positions. We were in our element.
This compound was an old abandoned school built by a past governmental agency that builds schools in under-developed countries. Unfortunately, this school had been abandoned because the Taliban would cut off the hands of the kids if they attended. Over the next ten days, we conducted multiple patrols while also defending our position against the enemy. The suffocating and oppressive heat, combined with the loss of our brothers, stacked the odds against us. Still, despite these long odds, we were in our element.
Ammunition was running low from our engagement with the enemy, and food was soon to follow. We remained calm. We were still in our element. Yet a more serious threat loomed: running out of water. While we knew that the school had a well, we were understandably wary of using it. Given the absence of sanitation systems, the surrounding fields had been used for defecation. The rudimentary irrigation systems and seasonal rains soaked the pathogens from this waste into the ground, where it found its way into the groundwater. The same groundwater that fed into the well.
We started rationing water and contemplated drinking out of the well for days, but kept deciding against it because of the likelihood of contamination. At some point, it became our only choice. Just when it seemed like combat could not get any worse, my platoon and I contracted dysentery from drinking the contaminated well water. Our bouts of sickness were random, sudden, and violent. Like a baby’s bowels. Nevertheless, we were in our element.
Still suffering from dysentery, our platoon was tasked with pushing forward to establish a new outpost. The timing couldn’t’ve been better. With the help of our fellow Marines in the sky, we cleared the path ahead and completed our objective. That night, our dysentery faded away, a distant but comical memory. And yet, our mission continued. Over the next three months, our battalion achieved its purpose.
Even though the water gave me and my men dysentery, and in that way aided the enemy as they tried to eradicate us, I appreciated it for what it was. I recognized its importance to the people of Afghanistan. It watered their farms. It provided them with sustenance. It was a source of entertainment and energy. It was beautiful, even if tainted.
Looking back, I realized the infrastructure was unsustainable and contaminated. These experiences motivated me to pursue my doctorate in engineering, focusing in particular on establishing sustainable infrastructure and implementing systems that address the needs of individual communities, thereby allowing for a higher standard of living.
Gregory Zaborski served four years in the United States Marine Corps (1st Battalion 5th Marines) as an infantry team leader. He has two deployments overseas, one with the 11th MEU and one to Helmand Province, Afghanistan. Greg was raised in upstate New York and currently attends UC Berkeley as a Mechanical Engineering major. He also conducts research at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab with the Joint Center for Artificial Photosynthesis (JCAP), the nation’s largest research program dedicated to the development of artificial solar-fuels.