CAMP HANSON, Helmand province, Afghanistan --
Life, for the most part, is gray. The passing moments are not unpleasant, nor are they particularly remarkable -- just a colorless blur of regularity and routine.
Then comes the crimson stroke that shakes the very foundation of belief – a stroke that spurs change, revelation, or simply put, delivers an emphatic kick in the rear.
“Just being me, I always had this whole thing where nothing could touch me," said Lance Cpl. Ernest Prempeh, an M249 squad automatic weapon gunner with Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment. "It was between me, and God. I had never been put in the situation where my life could end in the blink of an eye, or had to see someone get hit. I had always been a strong person.”
The words linger as the drone of air conditioners and power generators hangs heavy in the air at Camp Hanson, a forward operating base in the Marjah District, Helmand province, where 1st Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment spent its last deployment. There, they took part in Operation Moshtarak, a push to remove insurgents from one of their last strongholds in the province.
Prempeh, then on his first deployment, took part in the offensive. His experiences shaped his overall perspective on life, he explained.
Prempeh remembers the initial days of the push into Marjah, when the compound he occupied came under attack, and an incoming rocket-propelled grenade narrowly missed him and one of his squad members.
“I stared at [the RPG] as it hit the top of the guard post and bounced right back down,” he recalled. “I remember, I just stopped and thought ‘find cover.' Then I saw a buddy running, and I just grabbed him, threw him down and laid on top of him. Then from there it was like my head was playing games with me. I realized I was vulnerable, but still I grabbed somebody else and covered them.”
Several months later, Prempeh was forced to come closer to the grim reality that life is fleeting, when his close friend was injured by an improvised explosive device. Prempeh helped get him get cover, patched him up, and got him on the medevac, but the feeling of vulnerability lingered.
“Growing up through life, every good thing gets taken away from me,” Prempeh said. “But, being able to help him, so I can ensure it doesn’t get taken [again], it was something I could actually control for the first time. After I got him on the bird, I just busted out crying. It felt like everything was just slowly creeping away from me. That day marked the point when I was like ‘hey, you are touchable.’ Emotionally you got hit hard; physically you got hit hard, so where’s this super man mentality? It’s gone.”
“Ever since we came here last year, it’s been a totally different mindset,” he continued. “Now I think about things before I do them. Last year wasn’t like that for me. Even life in general, I did things on the fly, never thought about it, but after going through the deployment last year, I think about everything before I do it.”
Realizing how fragile life really is, how it can be taken or lost in a moment, changes you, Prempeh explained, adding that there is a struggle between accepting what you now know, and futilely trying to keep the old ‘you’ alive.
“I’ve learned how to open myself to people,” Prempeh said. “It’s kind of good to me personally; other times, I have to step back and ask what’s going on. I never used to be this person at all. Actually going through it, it kind of hits you, like, ‘you know what can happen if you do this.’ It makes you think, ‘It could be me.’ It just dawns on you that you can’t take life for granted. Whatever comes your way, you’ve always got to realize why you’re here and what you’re doing. If you lose focus of everything, your emotions can get the best of you. I went through that. I know.”
In addition to realizing the changes he’s gone through, Prempeh also acknowledges the change in Marjah compared to last year.
“Since I’ve been here, I haven’t heard one bullet, no cracks, nothing,” he said. “I’ve told a buddy this doesn’t feel like I’m in Afghanistan. You need to step back and realize it’s a lot safer than it was last year.”
“We can’t give it to the [Afghan National Security Forces] yet. Before I left, my family asked, ‘If we’re pulling people out, why am I going?’ Because there’s still a job to do - The change is there. If anyone tells you there isn’t, it’s a lie. The job we did here, we see the progress…but there’s still more to do.”
This is the first installment in an ongoing series which will highlight the lives and growth of junior servicemen within 1st Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment, during their deployment to Afghanistan.