CAMP LEATHERNECK, Afghanistan – It should come as no surprise that the selection of stuffed animals available in Afghanistan is limited -- dolls aren’t exactly a hot commodity for Marines here.
Missing loved ones, however, is pretty much a universal sentiment.
The thought of being absent for yet another milestone in his daughter’s life led Marine Corps Sgt. Anthony Ortiz, a California native, to track down one such rare fluffy item and make a little extra space in his pack.
“Basically, I haven’t been there for a lot of her life,” said Ortiz, a combat cameraman with Combat Logistics Regiment 2, Regional Command Southwest. “This is the second deployment I’ve been on, and this is a yearlong one for my daughter, who has only been alive for three years. She’s coming up on her third birthday.”
More than eight months after leaving home, he slipped the floppy-eared teddy bear into his pack before heading on patrol. The brown-and-white doll accompanied Ortiz from then on as he moved throughout Helmand province.
“It’s giving her a little bit of myself and all my travels,” said Ortiz, who posed for a picture with the bear at each installation he visited. “I’m giving her the experience of where I’ve been through this teddy bear. … It can represent all the different landmarks we hit together. Then I’ll send it to my daughter, because at every place I’ve been, all around Afghanistan, up and down, she was always on my mind.”
The traveling duo bounced from base to base. They endured inclement weather, dangerous routes through the desert, and the inquisitive gaze of other Marines.
“I definitely got some looks and some comments,” said Ortiz, who admitted he’s a bit eccentric. “I loved it. As soon as I told them why I was doing it, everybody else’s eyes just flared up. They wanted to do the exact same thing.”
The doll was a welcome distraction for Ortiz as he neared the last third of his deployment. There are no off days in Afghanistan, and he already had seen many of his peers return home.
“You just have to take it one day at a time,” said Ortiz, who also served in Iraq. “You can talk about it. You can read about it. But unless you live it, you can’t really tell somebody passionately what it’s going to entail, how they’re going to feel, or what’s going to go on in their head.
“You’re busted down to the exact bare minimum of what you need to survive, and you march on,” he continued. “You’re all away from your families. You all experience it together, and you’ll never have closer friends. … You just do the mission and come home together.”
As a combat camera Marine, Ortiz’s mission took him from one end of Helmand province to the other. He’s accompanied infantry units on patrol through villages and rode with extensive convoys moving through desert trails. During his nine months in Afghanistan, he compiled an extensive collection of photographs for Marine commanders in the field and families back home.
“You just have to go with your gut,” he said. “It’s a great feeling, because you come back from a mission and you’re dirty and you’re tired. You look at all the images you have. You have life. You have history captured.”
As a cameraman, however, it isn’t often Ortiz finds himself on the opposite side of the lens.
“Most photographers don’t like to get their picture taken,” Ortiz said. “I’m actually that photographer who loves to get his picture taken. For once I get to be the person in the photo. It feels good knowing these pictures are intended for my daughter.”
Ortiz also designed a card for his daughter. It’s nothing fancy, he admitted, but it’s the best he could manage under the circumstances.
His collection complete, Ortiz bid farewell to his traveling companion and bundled the doll, photos and card into an ordinary postal box. He mailed it back to his daughter in Manassas, Va., Sept. 5.
“The [bear] is ready to go see my daughter,” Ortiz said just before sending the package. “I know it’s not a nicely wrapped gift for her birthday, but … you know … next year.”