Between February 2012 and September 2012, three big things happened to me around me, two weeks apart.
The first came when my father passed away two weeks after my deployment. My lieutenant and my squadron commander knocked at my “can” (containerized housing unit) door late one night and seeing their faces I knew he was dying. My father had battled cancer for three years, and when I volunteered for this deployment, I knew there was a risk that I would never see him again.
From Kandahar, Afghanistan, I called home. My mom passed the phone to my dad. He couldn’t speak at all, but when he heard my voice, he made this happy noise, a sort of muffled, strangled moan. It was the last time I spoke to him. I was somewhere between Kandahar and Kuwait on a big Air Force cargo plane when he died. At the tiny passenger terminal, I fired up my Kindle, connected to wifi, and discovered that on Facebook my uncle had posted the news. My father was dead. I didn’t get home in time to say goodbye.
The rest is just a haze of grief. I remember sobbing, almost screaming, in a bathroom. I cried and tripped during his funeral. I held my sisters hand as we threw his ashes off his favorite spot, Balboa Island, California, and the ashes of the golden retrievers we raised and lost along the way so he and the dogs could be together. Then I returned to my designated place of duty, a numb shell of myself.
With a few bereavement pamphlets and a generous prescription from Ambien, I resumed public affairs. Helmand Province, producing “news” and photos. It felt like a monumental effort for someone who could barely get out of bed in the morning, struggling to perform the basic functions of human life day in and day out.
The second thing happened two weeks after I returned to Leatherneck. A good friend of mine, a young man I had hugged and promised he would still be here when I got back, had been killed while taking a training course in Texas. A soldier had invited my friend to his house, then he decided it would be fun to point a gun at my friend’s chest and pull the trigger.
Three years of watching my dad slowly die, losing him on a deployment I volunteered for, and now this. My friend was the epitome of “too good for this world, too pure”. I was the one in a combat zone. It was I who was in danger, not him, not this young man who had just broken free from his restrictive religious upbringing to discover the whole world. It was not good.
I dragged myself from place to place, story to story, never more than half-committed to the work at hand. For the most part, my camera stayed by my side. I got what I needed and nothing more. I couldn’t see the pictures anymore. My camera was heavy, my interview questions were rote. Once I did the bare minimum, I withdrew into myself.
Shame swirled with my grief. Not all weakness is welcome in the Marines, and I sensed the frustration of my public affairs counterparts. Intellectually, I knew I was “sandbagging,” as they say, but the force well I was counting on was being tapped.
On July 7, 2012, like my deceased friend, I too was the victim of an uncontrollable soldier. While I was on sentry duty in the mess hall, I asked a soldier a question in the wrong tone of voice. We supported. It exploded. He beat me mercilessly before passers-by intervened. He was stopped; I was transported to Role 3 Multinational Medical Unit at Kandahar Airfield Trauma Hospital. The harassed doctor took no interest in my trivial injuries – a sprained shoulder, massive bruises, abrasions and a bloody gash on the back of my head from where my attacker had kicked me against the corner of an IDF concrete bunker (indirect fire). The fact that I had passed out and probably needed stitches was none of this doctor’s concern, so he discharged me with 72 hours. patients in quarters take a dump.
I called my mom that night and according to her I scrambled my words and said things out of order, so she asked me to get a second opinion. My squadron flight surgeon diagnosed my traumatic brain injury and took me to the Leatherneck Battalion of Wounded Warriors, where I was subjected to a battery of tests and health checks. I refused to stay in the battalion because “beaten defending freedom in the chow hall” doesn’t make sense.
The TBI demolished my ability to write a coherent sentence; headaches, vision problems and motion sickness undermined my ability to take pictures; and my whole sense of me was destroyed. I shot my attacker when he rushed at me, but I hesitated. I never even chambered a round because the situation was so incomprehensible – I just froze and he pushed my gun away like nothing was wrong with him.
I was a failed combat correspondent, a failed girl, and a failed marine.
My shop let me work at my own pace afterwards, they didn’t push me to produce more stories, although I tried to cover a few. I flew with a super stallion the squadron and took maybe three pictures before spending the rest of the flight throwing up into an empty ammo box. Luckily my combat camera friend was there to do the job I couldn’t. I carried that vomit-filled ammo box around for at least 45 minutes after the flight, unable to make the decision to throw it in a dumpster.
VMA-211 was moving its fighter attack squadron from Kandahar to the camp stronghold line of flight adjacent to Camp Leatherneck. I had worked with them and had a good point of contact. I didn’t have to fly anywhere or bounce around in an MRAP (Mine Resistant Armored Vehicle). A few photos, a few quotes, and that’s it. I could handle that.
I was to capture the squadron commander, Lt. Col. Chris Raible, landing and disembarking from his Harrier. I rushed over, took pictures and maybe got a good one. In it, he’s unattended, smiling at another Marine as he exits the plane. The focus is a little soft and my framing could have been better, but his expression is frank and joyful.
I asked him for a quick interview, maybe two or three questions. He was tired and surrounded by Marines who all wanted something from him. It was obvious that he had no desire to take care of me. Nonetheless, he gave me public affairs-approved answers and 90 seconds later we parted ways. I wrote the story, edited the photos and had them published.
The third thing happened after I returned home. About two weeks after I returned, news broke of an attack on Bastion. I had spent so much time with all these squads that it felt personal. There had to be something I could have done – after a full deployment of my half measures – that could have helped. The two pillars of my time there were solid: guilt and shame.
More news came in, featuring a name I knew. Chris Raible has passed away leading the Marines into the fray, armed only with a pistol, with Sgt. Bradley Atwell. Raible was 40, Atwell was 27.
As I scoured the news for more information, the photo I took kept coming up again and again. I had done so little in Afghanistan, yet my strange and heartbreaking course of events led me to take a photo now inextricably linked to the life and death of this man.
It’s only a split second that he smiles honestly at another Marine. I started wondering if I had been the unlikely person to take the last photo of Chris Raible.
Guilt and shame dogged me for years about everything I hadn’t done in Afghanistan, until I looked at this photo again. For the first time, I wondered if I had done anything worthwhile, no matter how small. I wondered if his family liked the photo, if it was something they were looking at and smiling with him, their lost husband, brother, father and friend.
As we abandon the war in Afghanistan, I think of her and him again. I contacted his memorial page on Facebook and told them about taking this photo and the patience he had with me when it was clearly the last thing he wanted to do. His sister, Lona, replied that it was indeed the last photo taken of Chris “Otis” Raible. She said they treasured this photo.
It means more to me than I can put into words.
Our paths crossed so briefly during this war. I never claimed to know him, but I’ve seen him enough to know he was good.
We all come to terms with the traumas of war in different ways. We all have different things that we have to adjust to. I may not have done much in Afghanistan, but I took the last photo of a good man.
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