CAMP LEATHERNECK, Afghanistan --
The young Marine checked his gear for the last time just a few hours before he was to depart friendly lines. The plan was to leave under the cloak of darkness, bound for yet another remote outpost in need of resupply deep in the heart of Helmand province. Regardless of the somewhat safer guise of night, the Marine knew the enemy would be watching … waiting for the perfect opportunity to strike, as they had so many other times during his last few combat logistics patrols.
He wasn’t nervous though.
In addition to the hundreds of other well-trained Marines equipped with an arsenal of some of the world’s most advanced weapons systems, he had a couple more personal items to include. Perhaps even more powerful than any rifle or rocket, he made certain these items accompanied him on every mission outside the wire – reminders of home.
Wrapping a brown leather-strapped watch around his wrist and stuffing a tattered letter into the right cargo pocket of his desert Marine Pattern Utility Uniform – both gifts from a loved one back home – were always the final actions the Marine performed before heading out. As far as he was concerned, these simple reminders of life beyond the combat zones of the Middle East were all he needed to keep mission accomplishment in his sights. Upon a closer look, it appeared he was not the only one who carried such items so close to the heart.
Warriors have carried personal tokens into battle since wars have been waged, and the practice continues among the Marines deployed in support of Operation Enduring Freedom.
Dangling from a piece of lightly “moon-dusted” trim within a Mine Resistant Ambush Protected All-Terrain Vehicle (M-ATV), a set of dog tags accompanied by a small silver and green cross and a photographic metal tag with an inscription that reads “Semper Fidelis – I will always love you” is found.
The items belong to Lance Cpl. Zech Stimson, a motor transportation operator with Combat Logistics Battalion 6, 1st Marine Logistics Group (Forward), who figures it never hurts to have a piece of home around for good luck.
“My wife got it made for me right before I left,” said the 19-year-old native of Lapeer, Mich. “I told her I would keep it with me at all times and so far it hasn’t left my sight. I also keep a photo of her with me too.”
When asked why troops carry such things with them, Stimson noted memories of friends and family as a strong motivation to press through the hardships common throughout combat tours.
“I think it’s a comfort thing,” he said. “When things get hard, or you get a little scared, it’s good to have something familiar with you to put things into perspective; reminders of good times.”
Fellow CLB-6, 1st MLG (FWD) Marine Lance Cpl. Nicholas Randolph, a logistics vehicle system operator, wears a pendant given to him by his mother for good luck.
“When I was home on pre-deployment leave, my mom noticed that I had two dog tags on the same chain and she asked why,” said the 21-year-old native of Wayne, W.Va.
Randolph proceeded to explain the somewhat prolific yarn which details how the first tag is left attached to the primary chain around the neck, and the second “bag tag” is placed within a fallen troop’s jaw for recovery at a later point in time. Naturally, his mother wasn’t too thrilled to hear this, so she made him a deal.
“She offered to trade a pendant that she had always kept for good luck for my second dog tag, and when I get home, if all goes well, we will trade back,” said Randolph. “I haven’t taken it off since. We’ve always been really close and by keeping it with me, it feels like she is watching over me in some way. It makes me feel more secure out here doing what we need to do.”
In addition to luck, some Marines, like Lance Cpl. James Vanvalkenburg, a motor transportation operator with Bravo Co., CLB-6, 1st MLG (FWD), look no further than their own faith to safely guide them through the valley of the shadow of death.
Two religious challenge coins, which he received during pre-deployment training at Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center Twentynine Palms, Calif., have accompanied him on each of the dozen missions he has participated in since touching down in country in late January.
“I’ve always been pretty religious. I attend church often back home, and as often as I am able to out here depending on operational requirements,” said the 28-year-old native of Athens, Ga. “This is an easy way for me to always carry the Lord’s blessing with me.”
“It’s easy to lose touch with your faith out here and this is a durable, tangible reminder for me.”
To Lance Cpl. Mark Malarkey, a heavy equipment mechanic with Alpha Co., CLB-6, 1st MLG (FWD), trusty pieces of gear in the form of haggard boots and recruit training-issued dog tags provide him with more peace of mind than any higher power or gift of good luck.
“I wore these boots during a deployment to Iraq last year which included being mortared [several] times in one month, so I make sure I wear them every time I head out here,” said the native of Brooklyn Park, Minn., as he kicked his visibly worn boots against his truck. “So far, so good...”
The variations of these precious items found here are endless, but they all seem to represent one common theme. Whether it’s a symbol of a higher power from the Heavens or something a little more worldly in the form of well-worn combat boots, it appears nothing is ruled out when it comes to a safe passage through Helmand province and beyond.