Saturday, July 5, 2008

Mountain hiking, two perspectives

I love the mountains so as life would have is I live close to the ocean where the land is as flat as a silver dollar for as far as the eye can see. There is nothing better than a spectacular mountain vista. When I discovered skiing out west I quickly learned riding the chair-lift up the mountain was the fastest and easiest way to enjoy the view from several peaks in one day. The beauty and recreational opportunities in the mountains are endless.

I read a story in the paper today about some guys who went hiking in the mountains. They started early, packed their gear, brought plenty of water, maps, navigational aids and some other stuff. This was kind of a bonus hike because their trip had been unexpectedly extended. But they were making the best of it and being extra careful not to get hurt this close to the end of the trip. There had been only one injury so far and that member was able to rejoin the team.

Starting before sunrise they were climbing some new terrain hiking up the first ridge they expected to see a settlement below but found only a valley and another ridge before them. They climbed the second, third and fourth incline as well with the same result. Fortunately, the fifth assent was the charm and when they rose above the ridge the village came into view nestled into the dusty and rocky terrain. The men determined either their maps were wrong or they had been given incorrect GPS coordinates for the trip. They saw some fellow mountain adventurers on the road below as had been planned and heard objects flying overhead. They heard a few popping sounds at a distance but their concern passed quickly. Eight hours later they were back at their camp safe, hot, tired, dirty and dusty. They all hoped this was the last hike for a while, they were anxious and more than ready to get home. Unfortunately, word came later there would be time for one more walk in the mountains.

These hikers weren't in the Rockies. They weren't a bunch of young studs out for a week of fun in the wilderness soon to head home to cushy professional jobs. It was a Marine patrol of 12 men serving in Afghanistan. They were on what they hoped was their last mission sprung on them while they were cleaning their weapons and packing there gear getting ready for their chopper ride out on their first leg of the long ride home. I get upset when I can't get a tee time within 30 minutes of my desired time. These Marines have been doing this for 14 months each time facing the risk of death or life altering injury. They were carrying 30 to 50 pounds of gear, including weapons, ammunition, communication equipment, explosives, medical supplies, food and water. Rather than wearing the latest in high performance outdoor apparel they were wearing Marine fatigues and body armor or maybe better described as mobile sauna suites. It's hot there.

The impressive part of this is the commitment and professionalism these young men bring to their duty. If we saw these "kids" mostly in their late teens and early twenties, at the mall we would think they were disruptive twerps. In Afghanistan they are focused, disciplined, obedient, committed, respectful and oh yea incredibly courageous professional young men. Each trusting the other to watch their back, to help them stay alive. This awareness helps me better understand the military culture and why so many of our finest citizens are so deeply committed to our military services. It doesn't get anymore noble or personal than this.

These young men have earned my respect and admiration and I don't think I'll ever look at a mountain in quite the same way now.

Hats off to Michael M. Phillips, and his front page story, The Last Patrol, in the Wall Street Journal, Saturday, July 5-6, 2008 this was a wonderful piece of writing from the front lines. This story reminded me of what the Journal used to be but that's another story.

Thanks for reading.

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