'I had this sinking feeling'
Rebecca Turpin graduated from the University of Washington in 2007 with a degree in “Law, Societies and Justice,” a major she described with a laugh as “very unique to U-Dub.” She minored in human rights.
Today, five years later, she’s a married homemaker living in suburban Seattle, raising a 16-month-old daughter and expecting a second child in October.
That’s not an unusual trajectory in the life of a 20-something American woman. But unlike many of her peers, Turpin didn’t move in a straight line from point A to point B.
In between university and motherhood, Turpin was a Marine Corps combat logistics specialist, spending six months in Afghanistan in 2008 and 2009 leading supply convoys as part of Combat Logistics Battalion 3. The terrain was wild and unpredictable, the closest thing to roads being dried riverbeds called wadis.
Working a job that’s all about moving things from here to there, Turpin and her platoon coped with broken-down equipment, steep cliffs, muddy quagmires, gunfire and improvised explosives. Success and survival in logistics can depend on the art of detour.
"It was quaint, alarmingly quaint. Why is everybody else dirt poor, but in this area everyone is nicely dressed?”
- Rebecca Turpin
And in December 2008, Turpin, then a second lieutenant, and her convoy faced most of those obstacles in a 56-hour odyssey in Helmand province.
“They were shot at with machine gun fire and rockets, ambushed, and fought a running engagement with a determined enemy, and her platoon gave better than it got,” recalled Lt. Col. Michael Jernigan, commander of the battalion. “She returned with all the Marines that American mothers and taxpayers entrusted her with, despite the great risk and grave danger.”
Turpin wasn’t too familiar with the province when she set out on Dec. 13 as commander of the convoy — only the second she’d led — moving from Camp Bastion to a forward operating base in the village of Musa Qala. The roughly 80 miles in between was little more than desert.
The convoy of 18 vehicles departed around 4 a.m. for what should have been a one-day trip. It took more than twice that time. Comprising the column were Cougars, which are heavily armored vehicles that can withstand improvised roadside bombs, seven-ton cargo trucks, two wreckers and a refueling truck.
“It’s a very slow and obvious target,” Turpin said of such convoys. “Maybe that’s why logistics convoys are hit with [improvised explosive devices] and attacked because they make for prime targets.
“You leave your base, and there’s more and more distance between you and where you’re coming from. You get farther away and start encountering problems. I always thought, ‘I don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow.’ ”
For a short while, the convoy traveled on an actual road, but then turned off onto ground covered with gravel or a powdery layer nicknamed “moon dust.” It passed beside gigantic boulders, beneath sheer rock cliffs and along dried riverbeds.
Convoys like this made it a point to not travel the same path twice because the enemy would quickly mine a well-worn path. Each journey would be over new territory.
If they suspected an area ahead might be mined, the lead vehicles would sweep for IEDs, and the other trucks would carefully follow their tracks.
It doesn’t always work.
The convoy was moving single-file when the ninth truck hit an IED and its front wheel was damaged. By chance, the convoy was transporting an IED cleanup team, which Turpin used to sweep the area. They found two more IEDs and disarmed them.
One of the wreckers hoisted up the front end of the disabled truck, and the convoy moved on — but at a slower pace.
Night fell, and as the drivers edged ahead with limited depth perception due to night-vision goggles, the mine-roller leading the column hit a particularly powerful IED. The explosion mangled the roller and flipped it over.
They couldn’t proceed without a roller, so Turpin contacted Camp Bastion to have a replacement helicoptered in, and the platoon cleared an area of IEDs for the delivery. It was dawn by the time they resumed.
With its jutting outcroppings, steep cliffs and sharply slanted wadis, the terrain of Helmand province produced a funneling effect for convoys, Turpin said. Villages, with their small farming plots, are frequently found at the base of a narrow pass, forcing the convoys to go through them.
Populated areas left Turpin with creeping sense of paranoia.
“I always felt better when we were in an area that looked like it had been untouched by man,” she said. “I remember one time I saw a tree that was growing out of a wadi, and it made me feel bad. I thought, ‘Why is there a tree there? Someone comes here and waters this tree.’”
That sense of danger kicked in when the convoy reached a small hamlet she described as “the Norman Rockwell Afghan village. It was quaint, alarmingly quaint. Why is everybody else dirt poor, but in this area everyone is nicely dressed?”
The convoy had begun serpentining through the village — there were no actual roads — when she noticed that men were rushing women indoors.
“I had this sinking feeling,” she said. “I’m sure the gunners and everybody in the convoy were feeling that.”
There was plenty of time for trouble: moving slowly with about 100 meters between each vehicle, it would take about an hour to pass through the town.
That’s about the time she heard one of the gunners yell, “RPG!”
Within seconds, a rocket-propelled grenade slammed into the refueling truck’s engine. The repercussion set off a barrage of small-arms fire and more grenades into the convoy. Another vehicle was hit and disabled.
The convoy was in a perilous position, uncoiled in the hamlet and unable to move until the damaged vehicles could be tended to. Turpin ordered trucks to surround the disabled vehicles to shield Marines as they hooked the wrecker to the refueler. Others worked some magic on the second vehicle, improvising repair with a soda can to seal damage to a compressor for the air brakes.
Meanwhile, she notified the base of the attack, which sent a pair of Cobra attack helicopters. Once the enemy fire stopped, the Cobras flew to the surrounding area to search for further threats.
“It got very quiet,” she recalled.
Near dusk, the convoy became mobile, and Turpin moved to the head vehicle to lead the way back out of town the way they came.
Perhaps because the attackers believed the Cobras had returned to base, Turpin said, they opened fire on the convoy once again while making its U-turn. The Cobras were called back, joining the convoy’s machine gunners to suppress the enemy fire long enough to exit.
Two and a half days after setting out, the convoy reached the forward operating base by a different route and immediately began unloading the trucks. Although exhausted, the Marines had passed through the desert valley without serious injury.
Turpin was awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal with “V” for her leadership, a decoration that to this day leaves her somewhat perplexed.
“What I did was my job,” said Turpin, who left the Marine Corps as a captain in 2011. “I mean, can you imagine if I’d said, ‘No, I’m not going to do this today?’ ”
But Jernigan said that the way Turpin anticipated variables went beyond simply getting the job done.
“She could have made bad decisions, and perhaps Marines would have died,” he said. “But she didn’t and they didn’t.”