Patriot Profiles: ‘I was embarking on the adventure of a lifetime’
This column presents “Patriot Profiles” to provide readers insight into the lives of our country’s heroes.By Jeanne McKinney
It was an unusual Christmas Day in Musa Qal’eh, Afghanistan, the last stop of an historic tour. Everyone in 2nd Battalion 7th Fox Company (2/7) was excited for the arrival of Marine Corps Commandant James Amos and his travel partner, Mrs. Bonnie Amos. On Dec 21, 2012, the Amos’ left the U.S. and flew in military aircraft across seas and continents to their destination: Forward Operating Bases (FOBs) in the wilds of the country. On their hearts and minds were thousands of troops working hard in a war-torn land. As a V-22 Osprey flew them in, Bonnie was elated and anxious to wrap a Merry Christmas hug around Marines she calls her “kids.”
While General Amos and Sergeant Major Barrett were engaging with their troops, Bonnie was sniffed and licked by Corporal Dunn, an IED chocolate Labrador, who allowed her to sit on his bench. “I’m loving on this dog,” she says, telling it, “I’m a girl – that’s why I smell different,” making the guys who had gathered around laugh. Camp cook, Lance Corporal “Cookie” Haynes, had prepared a sumptuous Christmas dinner. When Cookie found out a prior commitment would make the special guests miss his dinner he said, “I spent all evening making homemade apple pies for the company. Would you please have an apple pie with us?” “It was the best apple pie I have ever put in my mouth,” Bonnie said.
Captain Thomas Harris, 2/7 Company Commander, had to set Bonnie straight when she said, “When we leave, you might not have Cookie or your dog.” Harris took her by the shoulders and replied, “Ma’am, you can have any of us in the company, but you can’t take Cookie or the dog.” He added, “My mom is going to be so thrilled you got to hug me…I can’t believe you are here.”
At first Gen. Amos wasn’t keen on Bonnie going. She got in cahoots with Major General Charles Gurganus, in charge on the ground side over there, along with General John Allen, Commanding General of International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), and longtime friend General James Mattis, Central Command. All of them agreed that Bonnie would be the perfect person for the Marines right now and one to bring good news about their successes back home.
“I was embarking on the adventure of a lifetime,” remembers Bonnie. Their first stop on Dec. 23 was Camp Bastion, a camp held by the British, then by jeep they traveled over sand and gravel roads to Camp Leatherneck, a main operating base in the Helmund Province originally set up for 20,000 Marines, but now houses about 7,000 still in support of Operation Enduring Freedom.
Bonnie describes Camp Leatherneck as a massive maze of tarped buildings which form a framework for living, working, planning, staging, and all military operation duties. She slept in one of the cans, a big white container strung with electricity that has a bed, small desk and locker. She and Gen. Amos followed the camp rules; including General Order #1 which states married couples cannot cohabitate.
At every stop, standard protocol was to meet with Commanding officers for briefings and map out visits. Christmas Eve, they started early, “I got on my battle rattle, my flak jacket and boots. We got in the Osprey and flew to Puzeh. We have some special operating forces that are doing village stability. As we approached the Marines, the children came out touching me, talking. I said hello and shook their hands.” Two female Marines, part of our Female Engagement Teams, are based there reaching out to village women, Bonnie states, “teaching everything from hygiene to education — getting to know the villagers and establishing pathways of trust.”
They flew into three more Forward Operating Bases (FOBs) that day. Bonnie reminds, “We’re not in very strong kinetics. We’re doing more recruiting and training along with adapting and implementing the Afghan Army and Police Force,” yet adds, “Marines are on their A game and very alert. They’re always armed with an M-4 rifle.”
“As a Marine Corps, we’re very optimistic that we are setting them [the Afghans] up for the best they can be. They’re stepping up to the mission. They want their region to be successful and live in peace.”
Bonnie and Gen. Amos received clear orders for their MRAP armored convoy trip to various camps in Kajaki. “There’s a machine gunner [lookout] in the turret above us. If he were to be injured, Jim was to pull his body out of the way and take the gun turret and begin firing. I was to open the packet in the gunner’s jacket with tourniquets and blood coagulation material and address the wound. We were to never lose our cool and continue with the convoy to a place of safety.”
Asked about clear and present danger she said, “I stayed in my little world of the unknown and trusted [the gunner]. He’s somebody’s son, about 22, taking this very seriously and being enormously professional.”
Bonnie was thrilled there were no combat-injured Marines or service members in any of the three hospital treatment facilities they visited, including one in Bagram, where severely wounded are flown in. Bonnie presents a poignant scene, “It’s a big covered receiving area that can handle a lot of patients at once. On the ceiling, is the American flag, with hope if they can open their eyes, they can see it.”
“When we would land, everybody would come in a school circle — could be a 100 or 500. My husband would talk to them about their process, progress, and successes in where we are today.” Sgt. Maj Barrett would speak. He’s an energizer bunny. He thrills those kids and gets them fired up.” Bonnie reminded them not to forget to call home, saying, “We miss you being under our Christmas trees.”
For Marines on their serious A game, even Christmas Eve is still day X of their deployment with X days remaining. Bonnie got a kick out seeing 2/9 Company relax and enjoy the festivities. The night started with words and a prayer from the Chaplain followed by a Gospel choir. There were drawings and giveaways and the U.S. Air Force Central Command Band from Qatar started up. “They were the BEST rock and roll music,” chimes Bonnie, “got those kids dancing in the aisles.”
Christmas day, four-star Generals Mattis, Allen, and Amos, and Bonnie helped serve dinner. This was the commitment that had kept them from Cookie’s sumptuous meal. “The night was just fun and foolishness.”
Two Marines would like her to know, “It was great to be able to spend Christmas Eve with both General Amos and Mrs. Amos” and “It was nice knowing that Mrs. Amos wanted to spend her holidays overseas in Afghanistan with the deployed Marines.”
The First Lady of the Marine Corps speaks out, “The nation ought to hear about the goodness their military members are doing for them – the sacrifices they make every single day. It was my privilege to walk this country – where they have lived and deployed so many times for the Marine Corps and a nation since 911. We’ve left blood in this land and body parts. We’ve lost our Marines and other service members.” “For me,” she continues, “It was being able to hug on them and thank them and take their stories back home.”
At Command and Staff College, Quantico, VA, she helped family members visualize where their loved one had been or was going. “One woman, whose CIA husband had been severely injured, was moved to tears when I showed the hospitals he had been to. Every audience I speak to walks a piece of that ground they’ve never been, seeing it through my eyes and living it through my experience.”
Mission completed — Gen. Amos and Bonnie had done nine-and-a-half time zones, three continents and six countries, where they physically landed and walked around. Bonnie earned the name “Warrior Princess” from her travelling partner, who had beamed when she stood out there in front of the Marines.