Today, we are excited to welcome James Walley’s “The Front Line” to our New Voices catalog. Between deployments, a young corporal learns it’s not as easy as he expected to leave Afghanistan behind. “The Front Line” explores the loss of individual identity that can come with leading a squad. How far is too far, Walley invites us all to wonder, as the NCO works for his squad’s approval. Read on.
“Look, I got a year and a half left on my contract,” I said. “I’ll do whatever they say to until then.” “You mean, whatever you tell your squad to do?” she said. “Those guys are in it for their own deals,” I said. “They don’t hardly listen to me anyway.”
Between deployments the battalion flew to California. The Department of Defense converted a square mile of condemned suburban housing outside of Riverside into a mock war zone so we could practice controlling an occupied urban area. The Marine Corps called this Security and Stability Operations training. Our own little slice of the war, right here at home. We called the place Sasoland. My platoon lived in a four-bedroom house fortified with sandbags in the corner of the training square. The back side of our yard ended at a chain-link fence and on the other side civilians in bright clothes walked down a road in front of an elementary school. We all wore the same camouflage uniforms, carried M-16s and squad automatic weapons with full flak jackets and Kevlars. None of us ever showered or cleaned ourselves, except every morning the whole platoon shaved together in the backyard. Sometimes the children across the road stared at us.
We had classes during the day on over-watch techniques and urban warfare procedures. In the afternoons, our platoon had training objectives that we carried out while other Marines playing “insurgents” tried to disrupt us. These Marines didn’t have enough time left to redeploy so the Corps attached them to the training unit. They lived out in the square in dilapidated houses, wore dishdashas and carried AKs with blanks in them. The DoD also paid local people of Arab descent to act as civilians for us to interact with.
A week after we arrived, I got promoted to Corporal and took over the responsibility of third squad. About that same time our platoon got tasked with providing security around the “mayor’s house” while the insurgents tried to assassinate him and his family. My squad pulled the late shift from midnight to zero six. The mayor, his wife, and daughter, got paid extra to stay all night, but after midnight they stopped acting and came out to sit around the fire pit. Each night I posted my squad around the perimeter of the house and roved between them making sure they stayed awake.