By Dustin Jones

I’m walking. It’s hot—somewhere around 120 degrees, but may very well be hotter. The sweat races from my forehead down into my eyes. The salt stings, and I can taste rogue streams that make it to my lips.

My torso is steeped in sweat. One might think we’d jumped into a pond, a safe bet based not just on our appearance, but on our smell.

Stalker One in Helmand Province, Afghanistan. 2009.Courtesy of Dustin Jones

Stalker One in Helmand Province, Afghanistan. 2009.Courtesy of Dustin Jones

We walk, one heavy footstep in front of the other. Myself and two other Marines from Stalker 1, our eight-man sniper team, accompany a squad of another 16 or so Marines on patrol. Although we change our patrol routes, the fear of stepping on an IED is always present. As I walk, my eyes scan the ground for minor items out of place—discolored earth, rocks in piles, and markers of sorts. In the few short months we’ve been in country, several Marines have already died from IEDs; not one Marine has been shot. I think about the times I may have stepped on a pressure plate, but was lucky enough it didn’t detonate for one reason or another. I push these thoughts to the back of my mind and focus on the mission at hand.

I am on rear security, trailing at the end of the patrol. I look toward the west: kilometers of farm fields. The enemy may or may not occupy small one-story mud huts in the fields; we can never tell until it’s too late. I scan the horizon, occasionally looking through my 3-12 variable power scope. I look for things out of the ordinary—a family hurrying indoors when they should be working outside, aware of something we are not. A group of military-aged males are staring at us from just over 100 yards away. We watch them; they watch us—a Mexican standoff of sorts. We continue on our patrol.

As we walk, we leave the safety of our patrol base and march deeper into territory that’s not our own. The baseline—the normal conditions of the area: the people and atmosphere—seems off. Children who’d been playing outside as we’d approached have disappeared, along with their parents who’d been toiling in the fields. My situational awareness is heightened as the probability of attack increases by the minute; the farther we are from our patrol base, the further we are from help. The enemy knows this. We continue to walk and observe.

We hear a snap overhead. Bursts of machine gun fire begin incoming from hundreds of yards away to the west, and we dive to the dirt. The Marines return fire. All of a sudden fire comes from our left flank to the south. We’re being enveloped.

The rate of fire increases, forcing us to keep our heads down. Then I hear screaming. Someone’s been hit. A Navy corpsman rushes over to treat a Marine who’s kicking and screaming as his trousers turn red. If he’s been hit in the leg, I think to myself, it’ll take about 90 seconds for him to bleed out.

I’m in the prone as I scan for targets to engage. Nothing. Another Marine is hit, and his screams cut through the firefight. He pleads for help as his brothers treat him and attempt to stop the bleeding. The rate of fire continues to increase, and the firing of machine guns becomes almost deafening.

I continue to scan through the tree line some 600 yards away for the shooters.

Stalker One observes movement from a tree line. Helmand Province, Afghanistan. 2009.Courtesy of Dustin Jones

Stalker One observes movement from a tree line. Helmand Province, Afghanistan. 2009.Courtesy of Dustin Jones

Eyes on target: three men in the tree line, 625 yards away. I adjust the scope on my rifle to place the round center mass of the shooter’s torso. No wind right now. I control my breathing—in and out, nice and smooth. I relax my muscles as I take aim. The reticle slowly rises and falls with each breath. When the reticle reaches the lowest point I should be at my natural respiratory pause, that pause between exhale and inhale. The thumb on my right hand switches the weapon from safe to fire. My index finger slowly makes its way from the side of the weapon’s lower receiver to a comfortable resting position on the trigger. I continue to breathe—in and out, slow and steady.

The two men are still firing in our direction while a third observes. A sniper's wet dream—a leisurely 600-yard shot at a stationary target with zero wind. I use the tip of my index finger to slowly pull back on the trigger. I know the shot’s supposed to surprise me if I apply the proper shooting fundamentals of trigger pull.

Click. Misfire. Shocked, I pull back the charging handle on the rifle, ejecting the useless round and chambering another. Another Marine is hit near me. He’s caught a round through his neck that’s cut through his carotid artery. It won’t take long for him to die.

Other Marines begin to scream as more are hit by accurate machine gun fire from the west, southwest, and south. I go to reengage as I apply the fundamentals again. Click. Another misfire. I tap the bottom of my magazine and pull the charging handle back another time, the immediate action drill for a misfire. Another Marine goes down and begins crying for help. Again, I attempt to engage. Click. Another misfire. My weapon is fucked.

Dustin and his dog Swayze in Colorado. 2015. Courtesy of Dustin Jones

Dustin and his dog Swayze in Colorado. 2015. Courtesy of Dustin Jones

I cannot return fire. All around me friends and brothers are dying, calling out for help as they bleed out. Some watch as their friends die by their sides.

The sound of machine gun fire is overwhelming. The heat is still beating down on me, sweat beading down my face. I struggle to keep my eyes open; the sweat stings. Click. Misfire.

I eject the magazine and throw in a new one. Surely this will work. I chamber another round and sight in hastily. A miss at this point in time is better than nothing. Click. Misfire.

The screams and machine guns are roaring. My heart rate is skyrocketing. My friends are dying. And I can't save them. Others try hard to help by providing aid or returning fire while I fail to engage. Useless.

I chamber another round. Misfire. Misfire. Misfire. Marines continue to die. The screams turn to cries. The ground turns from a dusty brown to a damp crimson.

I wake up. Sit up straight in my bed, heart racing, mind scrambling to separate dream from reality. I’m in Colorado. My dog, who lies at the foot of my bed, is startled and stares at me, concern in her eyes. Only she knows about the frequency of these nightmares, and only she sees the anguish they bring. It’s 3:30 a.m., and my day is set to begin shortly. I love sleep, but nightmares and wandering thoughts get in the way. I know how to keep operating though; my time in service taught me to function on three to five hours. I step outside for a cigarette. It’s the first week of January in Colorado and temperatures have dipped into the single digits. The sky is jet black. I look up at the light snowfall. The flakes are small and barely accumulate. In country we used to lie on berms of sand; we would stare up at the sky. We would lay there and talk about home. Sometimes, when I look up, it takes me back to my time spent overseas. I light up a cigarette, take a drag; I’m transported thousands of miles away back to Iraq and Afghanistan.

A starry evening in Colorado, 2012. Often times Dustin goes out, looks up, and thinks about my time overseas. Courtesy of Dustin Jones

A starry evening in Colorado, 2012. Often times Dustin goes out, looks up, and thinks about my time overseas. Courtesy of Dustin Jones

•••

After serving in Iraq and Afghanistan during his four years in the Marine Corps infantry, Dustin Jones attended the University of Colorado Boulder, where he studied journalism. His interest in journalism developed during his deployment to Afghanistan in 2009/10, where New York Times journalist C.J. Chivers and photographer Tyler Hicks were embedded with his unit. Several months passed before Dustin was able to read the articles and see the photos that the team produced. A story about his comrade’s funeral service by Chivers, accompanied by photos from Hicks, had him hooked.

He is currently a reporter in the small Montana town of West Yellowstone, and he is working on a book that focuses on the transition from military to civilian life. He has a dog named after Patrick Swayze.