WASHINGTON, April 5, 2013 - It was an unusual Christmas Day in Musa Qal’eh, Afghanistan, the last stop of a historic tour. Everyone in 2nd Battalion 7th Fox Company (2/7) was excited for the arrival of Marine Corps Commandant James Amos and his wife, and travel partner, Mrs. Bonnie Amos.
On Dec 21st 2012, the couple left the U.S. , flying in military aircraft across seas and continents to a series of 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’.
Once in camp, with General Amos and Sergeant Major Barrett engaging with their troops, Bonnie was greeted with cold nose sniffs and doft licks by Corporal Dunn, an IED chocolate Labrador, who allowed her to sit on his bench.
“I’m loving this dog,” Bonnie says, “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 for the troops, and their visitors, only to find a prior commitment would make their guests miss his dinner. Cookie was not going to let them leave without a bit of the treat he prepared saying “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 ever put in my mouth,” Bonnie reflects.
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,” adding, “My mom is going to be so thrilled we got to hug. I can’t believe you are here.”
At first Gen Amos wasn’t keen on Bonnie going. However, Bonnie won the support of 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) as well as long-time 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 23rd 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 that not even married couples can 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,” Bonnie says. “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 the Female Engagement Teams, are based there reaching out to village women Their task, Bonnie explains is “teaching everything from hygiene to education - getting to know the villagers and establishing pathways of trust.”
The travelers flew into three more Forward Operating Bases (FOBs) that day.
“We’re not in very strong kinetics,” Bonnie says. “We’re doing more recruiting and training along with adapting and implementing the Afghan Army and Police Force.” Bonnie did note that the they met, “… 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.”
Traveling in country is hazerdous. 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 the clear and present danger Bonnies says, “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 recalls a poignant scene upon enterting the Bagram hospital:
“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 that, if they can open their eyes, the soldiers can see it.”
Bonnie and the Generals were warmly welcomed at the bases, a memory she carries with her.
“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,” Bonnie says. “He thrills those kids and gets them fired up.”
Bonnie reminded them to call home, saying, “We miss you being under our Christmas trees.”
For these Marines even Christmas Eve is still another day of their deployment and there are so many more days remaining. This day, 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 band,” chimes Bonnie, “[and they] 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,” Bonnie recalls.
Two Marines would like her to know that they appreciated Mrs. Amos visit.
“It was great to be able to spend Christmas Eve with both General Amos and Mrs. Amos,” said one. “It was nice knowing that Mrs. Amos wanted to spend her holidays overseas in Afghanistan with the deployed Marines,” said another.
Following her Christmas with the Marines, The First Lady of the Marine Corps speaks out saying:
“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 [the troops] 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 them, 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 where they were going.
“One woman, whose CIA husband had been severely injured, was moved to tears when I showed [images of] the hospitals he had been to. Every audience I speak to walks a piece of that ground they’ve never been [to], seeing it through my eyes and living it through my experience.”
Now, months later it is “mission accomplished.”
Gen Amos and Bonnie traveled through 9 ½ time zones, three continents and six countries, where they physically landed and spent time.
Bonnie earned the name ‘Warrior Princess’ from her travelling partner, who beamed when she stood out there in front of their Marines. A name that fits.
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