It was midway through the deployment, probably sometime in November. The weather was changing quickly, and it was that perfect fall evening where back home, you’d be wearing sweatshirts again and people would be talking about pumpkin flavored shit at Starbucks. We didn’t have anything pumpkin flavored to remind us of home at COP Eredvi, and some assholes from Motor T had taken the football from the recreation locker a few days prior and never returned it. Instead, Tony grabbed the baseball gloves and the lone ball on base and we popped down to the Landing Zone (LZ) for a catch.
The sun was starting to set over the rugged mountains to our west. I knew the peaks were a Taliban hotbed, but as orange light poured over the rocky summits and down across the expanse of dust and ancient compounds between the range and our base, I thought for a moment that I could stay there forever. The LZ was situated on the southern end of Eredvi, and for all the drama that could occur there on a daily basis, it was pretty much just a massive rectangle surrounded by fist sized rocks, dirt, and Hesco barriers. When supply helicopters, medevacs, and transports weren’t buzzing in and out, it was actually one of the most peaceful parts of the base. Other than us and the docs, no one lived around the area and HQ was well out of sight. So, in the middle of the most dangerous province in Afghanistan, at the north end of American military projection along a dirt road primarily used for trafficking opium and violence, Tony and I were tossing a baseball in peace and enjoying the scenery.
I hadn’t thrown a baseball in years, and it was showing. I could generally catch well enough, though the borrowed glove was several sizes too small and my palm was pouring out of the bottom. Tony, on the other hand, would probably have been cut from a tee ball team. We made it work for a few minutes until a fast toss sent the ball careening off Tony’s glove, into the piles of LZ rocks and out of sight. Tony says it was my fault, but I’m pretty sure he should have caught the thing…we’ll never know for sure…fog of war and all.
We hadn’t had much downtime yet, and as bad as we were, there was something uniquely gratifying and calming about exercising the American pastime in the far reaches of the empire, like making a home on Mars. We didn’t want to stop, but we couldn’t find the damn baseball anywhere. It couldn’t have gone far, and there wasn’t anyone else around to have taken it, but all the rocks started to blend together and we slowly realized it might be lost for good. Minutes turned into an hour, and with the last rays of light fading fast, our search turned desperate, as if the ball were a man left behind. We kicked at giant stones and overturned as many piles of rock as we could before finally admitting the mystical truth; the ball had just disappeared. Two guys who could easily range targets in an open desert by sight alone couldn’t find a white baseball on the ground at their feet, so it must have just vanished. We glumly abandoned our search for the night, but came back the next day for another long look. Nothing.
For the rest of the deployment, every moment I was on the LZ, I spent more time looking at my feet than looking up, hoping to catch a glimpse of the magic disappearing baseball before I was sent back to America without it. It wasn’t in the cards. We pulled out of Eredvi in January, deconstructing all the trappings of American military splendor and hauling them off along with any hope for the outpost’s continued success. Whatever remained was left to the small Afghan National Police contingent that had occupied a small patrol base to the north, with a few spurious reinforcements. The sunset on the day we pulled out was just as epic and mystical as it had been the day the ball vanished, deep orange and red and yellow, and I looked back at the peaks as they shrank in the distance behind the departing convoy. Still beautiful.
In our absence, the Taliban hastily retook the portion of Route Red we had occupied, and life continued on in Barghana and Garma Samali much as it had for hundreds of years prior to our arrival. We returned to our lives back in the states, signing up for college classes, paying taxes and mortgages, driving trucks, policing cities, making art, binging on Netflix, selling tshirts, and chasing the American dream. Still, I’ve often imagined what it must look like today on Route Red, peering West. I can picture small mounds of dirt forming a loose, sweeping rectangle, a shell of their former height and scope. Rickety trucks carry bales of poppy and fertilizer, passing families of four piled together on rusty dirtbikes. Wind kicks up and carries a cloud of dust and the Mullah’s call to prayer over bone-dry fields toward that imposing mountain range. And a white baseball sits, buried somewhere beneath all of it, the last remnant of American influence in a province lost to time.
Update: Since this was written, Marines have returned to Helmand Province to stem Taliban gains. I can’t say if they’ve returned to Garma Samali, or if there’s any point to being there at all, but if anyone finds that baseball, please let me know. I’ve been looking for it for a while.
Mike Gnoffo is a Marine Corps combat veteran, father, and aspiring writer. A Radio Operator by trade, he served more than half of his 12 year career with ANGLICO as an RO, JFO, and FCT and SALT Chief. In his spare time, he owns and edits the Talk On website (www.thetalk-on.com) aimed at bridging the gap between military and civilian culture through veteran generated creative content. He currently resides in San Diego but is actively trying to convince his wife that a move to Montana is a good idea. It’s not working.