CAMP LEATHERNECK, Afghanistan -- A small sun canopy rippled violently over his head. The Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle jostled him between the walls of his gun turret.
It was his first mission in Afghanistan, and Cpl. Kenneth Benton, a technical controller with Combat Logistics Regiment 2, Regional Command (Southwest), found himself in the solitary position as the gunner covering the rear of a more than 20 vehicle convoy.
Cramped in the claustrophobia inducing walls of his turret, the Greensboro, N.C., native hunkered behind his M-240 machine gun and scanned the menagerie of Afghan vehicles milling behind his truck.
A haze of “moon dust” sand filtered through the small gap at his waste, clouding Benton as he scanned the exposed rear of the convoy. Anything and everything could be a threat - or simply people carrying out the menial chores of life.
“It was something different that I never expected before,” said Benton. “You have to calm yourself down, remain level headed, and stay vigilant.”
He grimaced through the welder’s mask he used to shield his face from the pelting desert sand, his solitary machine gun pivoting – left and right, left and right.
“We are in their country, and we can’t just take over their roads,” said Benton, who admitted the traffic gave him a case of the nerves. “You learn to deal with it … You really have to keep an eye open for anything that doesn’t look right, but at the same time you have to understand that they’re here. They’re going to stay here. This is they’re country.”
The entire convoy pressed forward as Benton stared back into the cloud of dust kicked up by the line of vehicles. Infants balanced on bicycle handles while their parents moved from one Afghan village to the next. Small cars darted between the looming American trucks as Benton called down possible threats to the crew inside.
“It can get hot and dusty sometimes, but it’s not too bad,” he said with a smirk. “It’s manageable.”
The constant exposure to the arid climate and dust blistered Benton’s skin, and the thick armored hull nearly deafened him to the voices of Marines inside his vehicle. The crew bellow passed up a steady stream of water bottles to keep him hydrated and alert.
They trusted him. He relied on them.
“You just have to hold on and hopefully your driver can tell you when he’s going to come on a pretty good bump,” he said. “We pretty much have to yell at each other back and forth. If I see anything, I yell it down. If there’s anything I need to know, they’ll yell it up to me.”
The convoy pushed through the desert, making it to Forward Operating Base Shukvani without encountering any improvised explosive devices or gunfire. Approximately three hours later, Benton climbed back into his sunbaked turret, the convoy’s vehicles reformed, and they pushed back toward Camp Leatherneck and toward the looming darkness of night.
Any vehicle that posed a threat on the way to Shukvani during the day could just as easily wait in the growing shadows on the way back. Without the glow of modern city lighting, the desert descended into a nerve-racking black wall. Benton turned on his night-vision equipment and continued to scan the convoy’s flank.
“Our job in the convoy is pretty much to provide security for the assets and the Marines,” said Benton. “The training we’ve had before definitely helps now. I would not be in the same sense that I am now [without it].”
Nearly a full day after setting out for FOB Shukvani, Benton’s convoy finally approached Camp Leatherneck, where the Marines could clear out their vehicles, prepare for their next operation, and relax.
The appeal of rest and warm food was palpable with the base in sight. For Benton, it was also fleeting.
Nearly two miles from safety, a vehicle dropped out of the convoy with a broken mine roller. A moment of silence over the radio gave voice to the unspoken groan that went through the convoy. Someone needed to remain behind and provide security for the recovery crews, some vehicle at the rear of the convoy with a turret gunner … Benton.
His armored vehicle pulled a wide turn and blocked the road leading to the downed vehicle. Several other trucks followed suit and formed a 360 degree perimeter around the recovery crew working on the mine roller.
More than an hour passed with no sign of activity along the road. However, by 3 a.m., the road had come to life with a line of vehicles approaching Benton’s position. Identifying individual threats on the lightless road was nearly impossible.
Unable to verbally communicate with the oncoming traffic, Benton turned to his training in an effort to defuse the situation. He used light signals to redirect cars and cargo laden trucks. His beam of light formed a line in the sand. Benton directed the beam into vehicles that failed to change course, halted them, and waved them off the road.
Aware he may need to use his weapon in self-defense at any moment, the lonely turret gunner continued to halt and redirect traffic for more than five hours.
The sun rose over the desert and the line of traffic vanished almost as suddenly as it appeared. The Marines managed to remove and hoist the damaged equipment onto a truck before more traffic appeared.
More than a day after mounting their vehicles for the logistics patrol, the remaining Marines returned to the relative safety of Camp Leatherneck.