A journey to war isn’t like the movies. You don’t swoop down in a blaze of glory, Goose and Maverick, taking on the bad guys. I boarded a commercial airline from the United States and hopscotched around the globe. I touched down in the back of a blacked-out airplane in the middle of the night, oblivious to my surroundings. I woke up my buddy drooling on my shoulder, scrambled to get my backpack, counted to make sure my Marines were all there, and listened as an over-caffeinated Marine belted out the camp rules. We had arrived in Afghanistan.
I was serving with the Female Engagement Team (FET), an all-women unit of 47 Marines and sailors tasked with supporting the First Marine Division in Helmand province. It was September 2010, and the FET was still a relatively new concept: females specially assigned to engage with the local men and women to support counterinsurgency operations in one of the most remote and dangerous provinces in the Afghanistan. We didn’t know exactly what we were getting into, but I knew I needed to figure it out quickly and get going with the mission.
A few days later we were back on our way, preparing to leave the huge base at Camp Leatherneck and head downrange to the battalion and company positions where we would spend the majority of our deployment. My team of six women and I were headed to Third Battalion, First Marines, or “the Balls of the Corps,” as they called themselves, in Garmsir district. Arriving at the flight deck to catch our helicopter, we were greeted by Oliver North, of all people, and learned he was traveling with us to cover the progress in the area for a news program. Colonel North was excited to see women embracing a new mission and took the time to pose for photos with us. But he was soon reminded of how his beloved Corps sometimes operates: his luggage and gear were misplaced. He ended up waiting for the next flight, but that left an open seat in the helicopter’s cockpit for me.
My girls and I would spend the next six months patrolling, negotiating with locals, distributing aid, and sometimes fighting.
I was excited to fly through the night on a Marine Corps “bird.” It was blacked out so we couldn’t be easily spotted, but as we approached Marjeh district—a highly “kinetic” area that Marines were still battling to pacify—the pilot swerved sharply as we took fire from the ground. I glanced at the crew chief behind me, clinging to his machine gun and firing into the night. In the cockpit, the pilots vigorously punched buttons and maneuvered the aircraft. I could only think about my girls sitting behind me.
When we finally landed, we disembarked in a field of gravel and were welcomed by a tired female Marine who was ready to go home and see her husband and kids. I could see and feel the excitement in her team members’ eyes that their replacements had arrived.
The next morning, I woke up early, eager and pumped to do something. Will “leaving the wire” be all it is cracked up to be? What am I going to see? Is my team going to be focused? Will we be welcomed by our brother Marines? I was jarred when I discovered that the first item on the day’s schedule was a memorial service for Marines our new battalion had just lost in combat.
At the service, I stood in the back of the formation. Male Marines and sailors studied our faces—some, perhaps, checking to see if we were going to break down. I stood silent, proud, and humbled by the sacrifice made by my brothers that I had never met. Sets of boots, Kevlar helmets, rifles, and dog tags commemorating each of the fallen were displayed in front of the formation. I could hear several of my brothers weeping. That was the moment the war became real for me.
My girls and I would spend the next six months patrolling, negotiating with locals, distributing aid, and sometimes fighting. Often I would look at the photos of those brothers whose sacrifice I learned about my first day of war. Sometimes during our deployment, when I felt most tired, frustrated, and burnt out, I would go outside the wire again for another mission—because that is what they would have done.
My team and I would eventually come home safely. Every day, I remember those young men who didn’t, and I am so proud of them. When I was growing up in our sleepy town in central Illinois, my father would sometimes tell me, “Heroes aren’t born; they are made.” I’ve been blessed to serve alongside heroes as a United States Marine. On Memorial Day, I celebrate their sacrifice and their legacy.
Natalie R. Jones is a staff sergeant serving with Echo Company, Fourth Reconnaissance Battalion, in Joliet, Illinois.