My first morning in Forward Operating Base Lightning, Maj. Vance Trenkel, the Third Cavalry’s public affairs officer, asked me to create a little good feeling and sketch someone wearing the Third Cav’s Stetson. Of course I agreed, and made one plaintive request: it had to be some Clint Eastwood-looking crusty veteran of multiple conflicts. “I need to see the grit in the corners of his eyes,” I said.
Regimental Command Sgt. Maj. Roger Heinze, a proud Texan and 25-year Army man, had that deep blue-eyed calculating gaze that made me feel like he could snap my neck like a twig using no other weapon than foul language. His personality, however, was warm and friendly. I did a quick recon of his features, Ka-Bar-like nose, bulldozer chin, those prairie-windswept eye creases and decided that a profile was the way to go.
We sat together in the still-blinding shade outside of the regimental command post. We chatted about this and that while I drew; growing up in the countryside, who was mowing our lawns while we were away, and our vastly different association for public firearm ownership (me growing up in a country where even the police didn’t carry, and him growing up in a state where almost 40 percent of the citizens do).
“We lost a man today,” he said at one point.
Suddenly the drawing seemed to be a bit of a daft thing to be doing. Heinze said there was going to be a ramp ceremony that night, the airfield memorial service held for each soldier killed in war prior to the departure of the plane bearing the remains home. I asked if I could accompany the delegation heading to Bagram Airfield for this one. Forty minutes later we were aboard a pair of Blackhawks heading first for FOB Ghazni, before jumping off for BAF.
On the flight I did this second sketch of the sergeant major as he looked out the helicopter window. I didn’t intend to create any kind of a pensive mood; I just drew what I saw. But it does have a slightly melancholy feel to it.
At Ghazni, Heinze and Col. Cameron Cantlon, the 75th commander of the Third Cavalry, got a quick briefing on what was known from the battalion commander, Lt. Col. Chris Hockenberry.
Spec. Brian Arsenault of the 1st Battalion, 504th Regiment, attached to the Third Cavalry had been part of a helicopter-inserted search mission looking for insurgents in villages nearby FOB Ghazni. (U.S. soldiers, even as they have disengaged from actively battling the Taliban, continue to do sweep and secure around their own bases.) At the end of the mission, as the soldiers left the area on foot, they were engaged by small-arms fire; Arsenault was struck and killed. A paratrooper for the famed 82nd airborne, he was 28; his tour was scheduled to end in November.
Cantlon and Heinze went to talk to Arsenault’s squad mates, but finding them all asleep opted not to wake them and committed to drop in again on the return leg. Over the noise of the choppers, Heinze shouted a message to Sgt. Maj. Ray Lewis at Ghazni: “Just harden up like a Texas armadillo, and be ready for a damned fight.”
Below is a drawing of Staff Sgt. Brian Arbuckle. I didn’t realize it at the time, but Arbuckle is the regimental flag bearer. I had noticed him carrying a long camouflaged bag to the chopper and assumed it to be a sniper rifle; it was actually the regimental colors.
There is a point on the trip north to Kabul where the helicopters have reached close to their maximum altitude. It is only a shade above the height of the highest saddles that need to be crossed. The air temperature drops and the ground is suddenly very close and ragged before the choppers skim through to the next valley.
As we made one final stop at FOB Shank, the lead bird made a sudden turn to one side to avoid an unmanned aerial vehicle in its path. Many heads shook when they realized what had almost happened.
We were in Shank to pick up a few unrelated passengers. As the drawdown continues, every air asset that moves is utilized to the maximum amount possible. Even a colonel has to share. When we finally got to Bagram it was after dark.
Ramp ceremonies are almost always held at night, and at different times during the night as a precaution. They are attended by hundreds of soldiers and there is nothing the Taliban would like more than an opportunity to target such a large visible gathering.
We had a couple of hours to wait, and I spent it with the regimental flag bearer. I asked Arbuckle what it is like to stand up there at a point of such emotional intensity. “I feel it is a pretty important thing to do, especially when it is one of our own … I really don’t want to mess it up … it can be pretty nerve-racking,” he said. “But when it is someone closer to home, someone in our formation … we are kind of like a family.” He added, “Other than that, it is like everything else in the Army, you are told to do it and you go do it.”
No cameras are allowed at ramp ceremonies, so I left the runway with the image of Arbuckle frozen in my mind. When the ceremony was over and everyone else from my group hit the sack, I got to work and created a sketch. In it, Arbuckle is silhouetted against the black Afghan night with regimental colors held aloft, lit only by the glow from inside the rear doors of the C-17 Globemaster, where the flag-draped casket of Spec. Brian Arsenault is lying. Arbuckle stands with the flag moving slightly in the breeze as a pair of F-16s on afterburner scream up the runway, while a formation of at least 400 soldiers stands with heads bowed in respect to a fallen comrade.
On our way back to FOB Lightning the next day, I finished the sketch of Arbuckle. He is a great bloke and really looked after me so I wanted him to have something. He pronounced himself delighted.
Everything vibrates and bounces when you are drawing on a chopper. I have to feel for a smooth spot in travel to draw the longer lines, then take the pen off the page when it rattles again. I recorded my first sketch, of Capt. Josh Gorczynski, on my helmet cam while on board the chopper with the side doors open. The new element of cross wind made hanging on to both paper and pen an additional challenge.
When we touched down again at Ghazni, Cantlon and Heinze fulfilled their promise of the previous day and spent an hour talking to Arsenault’s squadmates. The colonel spoke first, reassuring them of how it was ok to mourn the loss of their friend and compatriot. How he hoped it would be the last loss. And of the value of what they were doing, the importance of the mission, and the essential nature of clearance operations — like the one last night — in maintaining everyone’s safety on the FOB and the safety of the eventual withdrawal from Ghazni in the coming months.
“You have to do what you are doing so you don’t have a catastrophic case here, where there is a VBED [vehicle-borne explosive device], then guys get inside this wire” wearing suicide vests, “then you have a hell of a situation on your hands,” said Cantlon.
As they sat and listened I wandered the edges sketching. There were some tired-looking bodies in the room. The sketches are not very good individually because I felt a bit like an intruder here. But taken together like this, I hope they capture a little of the atmosphere for you.
Heinze, the command’s sergeant major, spoke last.
“I am not a psychiatrist, I am not a chaplain, I am just a guy that has lived through 46 years, I have been through what you have been through,” he said. “I have lost a lot of troopers, and I have held that life in my hands and I have watched it slip away. But there are bad people out there that want us all dead. And you have to do what you were trained to do, you got to pick up the damned rifle and attack the freaking enemy…
“Then we can all go home.”
Got a question for me while I am in Afghanistan? Ask me at firstname.lastname@example.org.