Michael's Dispatches

Death in the Corn: Part III of III


British 2 Para snipers search for the local “sniper” taking potshots at FOB Gibraltar.

Published: 22 September 2008

Living with British troops of 2 Para at FOB Gibraltar and watching them fight, I witnessed one of the great paradoxes of Afghanistan. The troops are fighting hard and killing the enemy. They are professional and extremely competent. Their morale is high. They are doing a great job. And we are losing the war.

Their troubles with a local sniper demonstrate some of the complexities and frustrations of this war, which the British public don’t even call a “war.” The British soldiers know this is a real war, but the British at home characterize it as a “conflict.” Meanwhile, Americans at home seem to mostly have forgotten about Afghanistan, though luckily they are starting to wake up. Yet it’s obvious here on the ground that this situation could deteriorate into something far worse than we ever saw in Iraq.

On 02 September, the enemy sniper was at it again, and so five British snipers (in the photo above, one sniper was behind me) were searching for probable firing positions. At one point, there was credible information that the Taliban told the sniper that they could provide him an American scope. The sniper said he was happy with his iron sights. He was a terrible shot, but sooner or later he might get lucky.

The Brits know exactly who the sniper is. About half a dozen fruit trees occluded fields of fire, so the soldiers cut them down. The Brits offered to pay for the trees, but were bound by regulations on how much they could pay. Major Adam Dawson told me the amount was something like $20 per tree, which of course is tantamount to zero. Achmed, an Afghan neighbor, came to collect the money, but the owner of the fruit tress had told Achmed not to accept payment. The owner was livid, saying: “I can’t believe Achmed let them cut down my trees! I’m going to go @#%& his wife!” I don’t know if anything happened to Achmed’s wife, but I do know that the Brits said the owner of the fruit trees bought himself a sniper rifle. He’s been shooting at Gibraltar ever since.

The British go by a chart that details how much they are allowed to pay for certain items they destroy. A tree, a car, a house, even a life—everything has its price. In Iraq, the payments truly could assuage anger at times. Few transgressions inflame the passions more than a sincere feeling of being manhandled and treated unjustly. The perception of injustice—especially coming from Americans or British, who many people see as monetarily omnipotent—can earn a bomb in the road, or a bullet in the head.

During 2005, the 278th Tennessee National Guard spent considerable time one day in the boonies of Iraq’s Diyala Province trying to find a shepherd to pay after they accidentally ran over a sheep with a Humvee. I also saw shepherds in that same area, on numerous occasions, waving down the 278th to show them mines or ammo they found. Time and again the shepherds collected large amounts of ammo, and sorted it by type for easy accounting and destruction. The 278th paid the shepherds and blew up the caches out near the Iranian border. Everyone was happy. The Iraqis made money. We didn’t get blown up.

But at another American unit, I recall officers grumbling and haggling over how much they would pay Iraqis for ammo they were turning in. These weren’t the rich Iraqis who sent their kids to Sandhurst or Paris for school, but the poor, uneducated ones who worked in dirty places where they sometimes found explosives, or perhaps earned some money planting them. And I thought what a shame—those Iraqis might, after all, sell the same explosives to terrorists, or get paid more to just bury bombs in the roads. Such bombs killed or wounded literally tens of thousands of Americans and Iraqis. But there is a natural tendency among people the world over: few among us seem to like to pay poor people a fair price for anything. We think poor people should work for next to nothing and be happy for it. I have seen this kind of contempt for the poor throughout the world. Rich Iraqis do it to poor Iraqis. Rich Americans to poor Americans.

In Afghanistan, it’s probably only a matter of time before the man who lost the trees shoots a British soldier, or a British soldier shoots the man’s head off, all for a pittance. The British soldiers are extremely competent, professional, and treat the Afghans well. They are soldiers that the British public should be proud of, and Americans are always proud to call them friends and allies who can be relied upon when bullets start flying. But the accounting department at home is putting these British soldiers into a rough situation and creating lethal enemies.

Struggling with his heavy gear and Javelin missile, this soldier was stuck like a turtle, and needed help getting up.

That’s him, facing.  The soldier is very strong, but the Javelins and ammo are extremely heavy.  The soldiers in 2 Para might be the fittest I’ve seen anywhere.

These Javelins were fired in combat. Cost: over $2 million.  A Javelin costing about $130,000 might one day be used to kill the Afghan sniper, who is angry about not getting a fair price for his trees.

C-Company, 2 Para, has fired 17 Javelins in combat during this tour. The soldiers are very fond of the missile system, and are reticent to talk bad about Javelins for fear they will not get any more. But out of those 17 Javelins, one went errant, and another failed to launch. The other 15 struck their targets.

The 2 Para soldiers take pride that they assault through the Taliban ambushes. During one particularly fierce battle, the 2 Para men were closing in and ready to destroy the Taliban who had ambushed them, but a British Apache helicopter—apparently not realizing the soldiers could move so fast—accidentally fired on the soldiers. Nine were wounded, but luckily, none killed. The accident happened in July, but troops still mentioned the incident to me at least once a day while I was at FOB Gibraltar. They showed no anger toward the Apache crew, but in each case seemed disappointed that they hadn’t been able to continue the attack. The soldiers told me that the Taliban ambush had been well executed, and it took much effort for the Brits to maneuver into positions to pin the enemy, and prepare for a final assault to kill them. But that’s right when the Apache fired.

Losing the Good War

As in Iraq, the media battle in Afghanistan is of vital importance. Domestic and international opinion can affect—or even determine—the outcome of this war. Right now, in the United States, Afghanistan is seen as the “Good War,” the one that was forced upon us, while Iraq was a war of choice. We’ll see how long that feeling can be sustained in America and Britain, while casualties mount and the war drags on. The Taliban have embarked on a strategy to split off our allies. Forces from countries seen as weaker in their support of the war are being targeted. If the Taliban can succeed in getting, say, France to withdraw from Afghanistan, they will have landed a blow to our effort, with serious consequences to the war here, as well as the NATO alliance. I read a secret document detailing the deaths 10 French soldiers who were killed during a Taliban ambush. American “Green Berets,” and much airpower, were involved in helping to break the attack on the French. Yet from the secret document and other reports that ring credible, the French lacked the necessary tools – sufficient communications gear, for example – to mitigate the attack. Some of the French apparently had run out of ammunition and were captured, killed, and their uniforms stripped. Several showed signs of being killed at close range. One of them had his throat slit.

The Taliban is apparently actively trying to split off the Canadians, and may well succeed. Some serious military thinkers feel that Afghanistan is not of sufficient strategic consequence to continue fighting for, and it’s clear that much of the Canadian public is ready to quit. Enemy leadership is fully aware of this, and are trying to exploit the Canadian weakness.

So far, the British are hanging tough. While their troops’ morale is high, back home in the United Kingdom there seems to be a growing resentment that the Afghans do not appreciate the price the British are paying, in blood and treasure. Many of the British soldiers have served multiple combat tours. And Afghanistan is more dangerous than Iraq for British troops. There were very few suicide bombings in the areas where the British served in Iraq. Now they are faced with this threat in Afghanistan.

On FOB Gibraltar, some 2 Para soldiers told me about their own experience with a suicide bomber. They were on patrol when a man holding a bag over his shoulder walked toward them. (A suicide bombing that killed the three other soldiers from 2 Para at nearby FOB Inkerman had put them on alert.) A British soldier said that he told the man to stop. The man pulled the bag in front of him. “And disappeared,” said the soldier. I asked if his ears were okay, and the soldier said they were fine. It was amazing that he didn’t get fragged. A soldier further back in the file got fragged in the hand, but luckily the injury was minor. They told me they brought the bomber’s leg back to the FOB. Usually the dogs get what’s left of the suicide bombers, and the bombs in Iraq seemed to be like a dinner bell for stray dogs. The soldier who told the man to stop said the man looked confused just prior to exploding. Was he doped up on some opium derivative? This happened frequently in Iraq, as car bombers drove erratically before detonating (sometimes with their hands duct-taped or handcuffed to the steering wheel) or vest-bombers appeared disoriented or stoned, blowing up without engaging a target.

Reporting the deaths of three British soldiers in June, the Independent newspaper called suicide bombing “a terrifying new phenomenon in this conflict.” The suicide attacks are hardly new. The first two suicide attacks that I was close to in Afghanistan happened in April 2006 at the Provincial Reconstruction Team in Lashkar Gah. Those were the first two in Lashkar Gah, but that was more than two years ago.

The Independent reported that “troops serving in Helmand had a one-in-36 chance of not surviving a six-month tour of duty. During the Korean War, the death rate stood at one in 58. In Vietnam, it was one in 46; during the Falklands War it was one in 45.”

We cannot win a war of attrition in Afghanistan.

Furthermore, the war is not just in Afghanistan, and should more appropriately be called the AfPak war. Al Qaeda got monkey-stomped Iraq, and their center of gravity is now back with its central leadership in the lawless Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) over the border in Pakistan. Insurgencies often rely on porous borders in lawless or friendly lands to support their efforts and give them safe haven when things get too hot in their target country. While many people argued that Iran was to blame for much of our problems in Iraq, that cross-border threat was vastly exaggerated. Yes, the Iranians supplied Explosively Formed Projectiles (EFPs) that killed our troops, and supported and trained some Shiite militia groups. Yet the main threat to Iraq’s stability was internal, and greatly exacerbated by al Qaeda. In Afghanistan, the situation is much worse, and more complicated.

“Although the insurgency has support in and draws strength from elements within the Afghan community, the support of foreign-based networks in providing leadership, planning, training, funding and equipment clearly remains crucial to its viability.” That’s what the UN Secretary General said on 06 March 2008. Pakistan is key to the immediate future of Afghanistan. Political turmoil in Pakistan has undermined its already inconsistent and mostly ineffective efforts against the Taliban, who continue to cross the border back and forth. We use that border too. Some 80 percent of the supplies to our troops pass through one of the most dangerous regions of Pakistan.

Meanwhile, let’s not forget India. If Pakistan tips from instability into chaos, it could feel more threatened by India than anyone else. The recent bombing of the Indian Embassy in Afghanistan killed more than 40 people, and was apparently an effort to stoke latent hostilities between these two enemies. Both India and Pakistan have nuclear weapons. Just this last Saturday, two days ago, a massive bomb destroyed the Marriot hotel in Islamabad, killing about 40 people.

All this, and much more, adds up to an extremely delicate political and strategic challenge. Of course we need more troops in Afghanistan. But along with an increase in troops, we need a coherent strategy, one that considers the unique circumstances in both Afghanistan and Pakistan and the larger region. We can win every engagement and still lose the war. That’s why we see continued tactical successes against the Taliban, and high morale among troops like 2 Para who are fighting them every day, while the overall situation grows worse. The soldiers are doing their job.

Back in 2003, General David Petraeus realized that the Iraq War was as much about politics and money than anything else. After he took command in early 2007, we saw victory in Iraq. (General Petraeus will not declare victory in Iraq, but I will do it for him.) General Petraeus also realizes that the AfPak war will largely be fought in the politosphere. Once General Petraeus has a chance to fully take the reigns at Centcom – which is exactly where America and our allies need him – a wise person will do well to listen closely to what he says.

General Petraeus has ordered a Joint Strategic Assessment Team (JSAT) to evaluate Centcom’s area of responsibility. He did this upon assuming command in Iraq, and that JSAT significantly contributed to the new strategy that proved successful beyond our wildest dreams. Heading the Centcom effort will be Colonel H.R. McMaster, a brilliant officer whose command of 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment in Tal Afar in 2005 was seen as a model for counterinsurgency in Iraq. The JSAT will be an opportunity for General Petraeus to develop a new strategy for AfPak, while not ignoring our responsibilities in Iraq, and elsewhere.

One of General Petraeus’ first challenges in AfPak will be organizational, creating at least unity of action, if not unity of command (which at this point is beyond his power), in order to better coordinate the strategic efforts of the different forces engaged in Afghanistan. More than forty nations are here to “fight” the Taliban in Afghanistan. While Centcom only controls the American contingent, General Petraeus’ political and diplomatic skills will be needed in order to keep the alliance together and make it more effective. His experience in mentoring the Iraqi Security Forces also should prove valuable in fielding a stronger Afghan counterpart.

In Iraq, the money challenge was to rebuild the economy. In Afghanistan, the economic infrastructure is largely non-existent. Opium cultivation accounts for a great part of the Gross Domestic Product, and much of that money goes to the Taliban either through direct profits or tribute. Helmand Province, where FOB Gibraltar is situated, produces more than half of the opium in Afghanistan. According to some reports, the Taliban is present in all thirteen districts of Helmand Province, and controls six of them. In areas like Helmand where opium production is on the rise, security becomes much more precarious. During 2007 and the first few months of 2008, Helmand saw more direct fire, indirect fire and IEDs than any other province. There is a direct correlation between opium cultivation and security risk. Yet if we destroyed the opium crops, we would only be turning the locals into enemies.

We have been successful in killing many Taliban, and even taking out some of their leaders, yet the insurgency is splitting off into a distributed network that is learning how to survive and adapt. While the Taliban used to stage pitched battles which they would invariably lose, now they are fighting asymmetrically, mostly against the Afghan National Security Forces and civilians as part of a strategy of political attrition seeking to discredit the Afghan government. This strategy includes terrorist attacks, kidnapping for profit, murdering humanitarian aid workers, and developing criminal enterprises that intimidate the local populace and bring in needed revenue.

The enemy grows stronger with each season. Recently, I drove through a village between Kabul and Jalalabad with two very experienced expats, who pointed out Taliban as we drove through the village. The Taliban were close enough to hit with a rock. We were close enough to be hit with a rocket. They were in the open. We were in the open. We were in an unarmored, single vehicle, and so did not draw much attention. About two minutes down the road were Afghan soldiers. Along the road from Kabul to Jalalabad were charred places where, I was told, vehicles had been ambushed. Every single person I talk with in Helmand, Kandahar, Kabul and Jalalabad -- whether Afghan or expat -- can see that the Taliban are growing stronger, and nobody respects the government in Kabul. It’s patently obvious that we are losing this war.

03 September 2008

A patrol launched from FOB Gibraltar. The objective was to tempt Terry into a fight, which he gamely accepted. As mentioned in the Death in the Corn: Part I of III, the 2 Para have only a handful of major modes: fight, exercise, clean weapons, eat and sleep. Their gym is slap in the middle of three mortar pits, and one mortar is even set up inside the gym. (Several smaller mortars are not in pits, and were set up after the 81mm mortars started having “hung rounds,” which means the mortar bomb gets stuck in the tube and does not fire.)

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  • This commment is unpublished.
    Fred2 · 13 years ago
    "Yet if we destroyed the opium crops, we would only be turning the locals into enemies"

    I don't think prosperity is guaranteed to be the right answer. It's very much a western-liberal answer. The social situation could be that economic devastation is called for. Our western outlook would tend to blind us to this.

    Witness Iran, where prosperity in the form of oil money has made them more virulent. Compare Iran to Chad. It doesn't matter what Chad wants because they don't have the money to do it.

    Oil money isn't that different from opium money. It enables. We tend to assume it enables peace and harmony. Sometimes it enables war. What would it enable in Afghanistan?
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Pid · 13 years ago
    As a Brit, I'd like to clarify that the vast majority of us back home do know it's a war, call it just that, and watch, listen and think about the forces we have deployed over there.
    Hat tip to them, next time you're around them, please Michael.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Doug Santo · 13 years ago
    My prayers are with Private Rawstron and his family.

    The British are doing a good job in tough circumstances. I appreciate their service and sacrifice.

    Western media are a joke.

    Keep up your good reports.

    Doug Santo
    Pasadena, CA, USA
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Skysoldier LRS 101st · 13 years ago
    Until we hit the T-ban/AQ where they live, they will keep hitting us where WE live. P-stani "soveriegnty" is a joke. A couple strike packages with the heavy stuff included would obliterate thier camps, compounds, and madrosses. Hats off to 2 Para, they are true warriors. The US has its Paras and Air-Assault Regiments here also, and we ALL agree the next ride on a chopper we take should be the one into the tribal belt. They, the FC, or Frontier Corps, have been shooting at us, helping thier T-ban brothers...we are gonna lite them up when we get the chance.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Sue osborne · 13 years ago
    My son is in infantry training right now and will probably ship off to Afghanistan in January. Michael, my continuing to read your epistles feels a little masochistic to me, but I am SO glad you are on the ground and telling us the truth. My son is only 18 and I tell my friends I hope he lives long enough to become nice! I am proud of him and his desire to serve his country. I am English by birth (American by choice!) and am also proud of those great British soldiers. Thank you for telling their story.
    Sue Osborne
    Newberg OR
  • This commment is unpublished.
    The Thunder Run · 13 years ago
    The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the blog post From the Front: 09/22/2008 News and Personal dispatches from the front and the home front.

  • This commment is unpublished.
    Don Kautz · 13 years ago
    Being retired military, I know what it is like to be out in the weeds looking for something other than MRE's or even worse LRPS. I was stationed in the British sector in Germany and worked with them on many exercises.....good guys. If you have a mailing address please send it to me so I cand send them some goodies.

    Keep up the good work. I have trouble keeping your book as I keep giving it to friends. Need to order another one again.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Matthew Gonzalez · 13 years ago
    Chris Hitchens from MSN's Slate Magazine brought up an interesting point, and while I'm not sure I agree with his stance saying Obama would be better than McCain for winning the war in Afghanistan (ugh American politics), I can say that I didn't understand the imperialistic history behind Pakistan.

    "The very name Pakistan inscribes the nature of the problem. It is not a real country or nation but an acronym devised in the 19 0s by a Muslim propagandist for partition named Chaudhary Rahmat Ali. It stands for Punjab, Afghania, Kashmir, and Indus-Sind. The stan suffix merely means "land." In the Urdu language, the resulting acronym means "land of the pure." It can be easily seen that this very name expresses expansionist tendencies and also conceals discriminatory ones."

    As much as we can try to deny it, we're going to have to expand combat operations in Afghanistan if we want to win this thing. How we'll do that without the MSM jumping on it like its Cambodia and Laos all over again, I don't know. I only hope that Petraeus somehow creates an outcome better than anyone could have ever hoped, again.

    If we lose this war, we'll have more than just debt to worry about....

    http://www.slate.com/id/22001 4/
  • This commment is unpublished.
    D Williams · 13 years ago
    "new strategy that proved successful beyond our wildest dreams. " ... surge ...... ????

    It didn't surprise me that it worked. From what i read from you this is all we needed all along .... to fight and have enough men to stay behind to keep the peace. Why did it surprise you .... you sound like Obama.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    _Rob · 13 years ago
    Mr. Yon,

    One small correction: he is at least COL McMaster (P); his promotion to Brigadier General, I believe, awaits Congressional approval.

    Thank you for your outstanding and candid reporting. Bravo Zulu!
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Barry Sheridan · 13 years ago
    Michael, Thank you for providing this independent insight into the activities of our troops in Afghanistan.

    My thoughts are always with them.

  • This commment is unpublished.
    JackA · 13 years ago
    Michael - Thanks for all you're doing in covering the war(s). I've read your book and each time I check your blog, I spend lots of time learning more about what's going on. I'm glad we have folks like you reporting the truth of what's happening. I wish our mainstream media did the same. Keep up the excellent reporting.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Randall Hannaway · 13 years ago

    Many thanks for your continued reporting and of course to are brothers in arms. We are fighting the good fight and I sincerely believe good will prevail over evil.

    In my thoughts and prayers,

  • This commment is unpublished.
    Garett · 13 years ago
    Did 2 Para mortars bring their dresses? I'm sure the Afghans would like them cross dressing on man love Thursdays.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    howell clark · 13 years ago
    the rifles appear to be henry martini rifle of the 1870-1900 that british troops and their allies in india and elsewhere used a great many of these were captured from the british and thier indin partners from a terrible defeat in afganistan in the last century.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    rwilkins · 13 years ago
    "The Taliban is apparently actively trying to split off the Canadians, and may well succeed. Some serious military thinkers feel that Afghanistan is not of sufficient strategic consequence to continue fighting for, and itƒ??s clear that much of the Canadian public is ready to quit. Enemy leadership is fully aware of this, and are trying to exploit the Canadian weakness."

    maybe you should mosey on over to see our 'weakness' for yourself eh?

    some of us don't think ideas and discussion is a weakness; nor misguided propaganda helpful
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Dan K · 13 years ago
    "Heading the Centcom effort will be Colonel H.R. McMaster"

    huh? I thought he was going to ARCIC/TRADOC??? Are you sure about this?
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Bob Reynolds · 13 years ago
    Micheal My son is one of the 2 Para C Coy who you were with. It is with great pride that I read about their exploits and respect people like yourself who bring us back the stories. It is sad that our boys are out there but this crack regiment are doing what they do best. I await their return to buy them all a beer or two.

    Bob Reynolds
    Proud Father
  • This commment is unpublished.
    bdcochran · 13 years ago
    In the 1970s, I watched as Spetnaz troops tested the one paved road (the highway running from the Iranian border to Kabul) at a location east of Herat to learn if it would support troop transports for the upcoming Soviet invasion. Now, I see by your pictures that there is more than one paved road in the country. It is an improvement that I never thought would happen.

    I have always wondered whether the mud fort built by Alexander the Great remains standing after the fighting of the 1980s.

    It used to be a fascinating sight to see the blue eyed, red haired nomads traveling with their camel caravans.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    orpheus · 13 years ago
    i'm not so sure it's a woman begging
    look at the size of that meat hook
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Naomi · 13 years ago
    Michael, I support you and what you are doing and bought your book; however, I disagree with you as to your opinion on the Presidential candidates. I personally think "who would do what" should be left out of your reports and just stay with the facts and realities of the war. We know you risk your life to report the truth. God Bless our troops and you!
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Joshua Jones · 13 years ago
    Hi Michael, its Capt Josh Jones from C (Brun) Coy, 2 PARA. I just want to extend a massive thanks for your piece on C (Brun) Coy who have now returned to the UK. Its great to read a part of our story on your site. I hope that you are well and I am looking foward to keeping a track on you via your web site. God bless and thanks again
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Michaela walsh · 13 years ago
    I am the gilfriend of the late Pte Jason Lee Rawston and if anyone else has any photos of Jason please could you let me Know thanks x
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Charles Matthews-Bel · 12 years ago
    Michael-Thanks for some excellent stuff.I was in the Dhofar war in the 70's and see a lot of that,in your reporting on Afghanistan.The scale in Afghan is larger!

    With regard to heroin cultivation,why do we not purchase the stuff at market price(whatever that may be),and then try to move forward? Perhaps the Kabul Government would not find thus in their interests?

    Fine reporting-Keep your head down!
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Jesse · 12 years ago
    I've read the 'Death in the Corn' series several times now, and I always find something new. This time around I was struck with just how different your reporting is from what I read from the big guys. I have read some good narratives from embedded journos at the NYT, but I especially appreciate the analytical expertise that you bring into the mix. Your breadth of knowledge in the region is nothing short of rare, and it makes you a far more impacting when you offer up an opinion.

    Reading the comments of girlfriends, fathers, mothers, brothers and sisters who have family fighting in Afghanistan and their reaction to your reporting is priceless and touching. Every one of your dispatches gets the same result: gratitude and thanks. Keep up the good work
  • This commment is unpublished.
    John S. · 12 years ago
    "This time around I was struck with just how different your reporting is from what I read from the big guys. I have read some good narratives from embedded journos at the NYT..." from Jesse on 4/2 /09

    Jesse, the "big guys" aren't "reporting," as traditonal (i.e. WWII & Korea) reporting implies there is an element of truth in the narratives. Without Michael and people like him, we simply wouldn't know what happens in the war zones. And, incredibly, you credit the NYT with some accurate reporting? Maybe a couple of pieces slipped by the editors, but the NYT by any definition is anti-war AND anti-military as evidenced by their giving critical information to the enemy. I'm not going to detail it here, but I could easily. Just Google it..."NYT+antiwar+traitorous+aid & comfort to the enemy." If the NYT had been reporting during WII like they are doing now, the June 5, 1944 headline would be "ALLIES PLAN TO LAND AT NORMANDY TOMORROW MORNING!"

    But, everyone has an opinion...this is mine. Great job, Michael...God be with you.

    Master Chief, U.S. Navy (Ret.)
  • This commment is unpublished.
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