By Marcello Iaia
BERNE — “I’m better now.”
Theodore Wiederhold clutched his green garrison cap and answered the family members who asked how he felt.
As he walked from the plane into the arms of his mother, they wrapped themselves together in a tight embrace.
Passengers waiting in line nearby on Dec. 13 smiled, looking on, as the returning Marine hugged friends and family with misted eyes, and others held a bright orange banner that read, “We are proud of you. Thank you for your service.”
During the six-month span away from his home in Berne, Lance Corporal Wiederhold was immersed in an Afghanistan war zone where, in Helmand province, the Taliban Islamic fundamentalist group is most heavily concentrated.
Fifteen days before his arrival in Berne, Wiederhold was leaving his temporary home, the forward operating base in Zeebrugge, near a “small and bizarre” town called Kajaki, with 1st Battalion, 1st Marine Division 3rd Platoon Alpha Company. Each squad would guard the base with eight-hour shifts rotated among three posts at the base. Patrols into the Kajaki district would go out every third day.
“It’s kind of like Berne in the sense that it’s just small groups of people here and there and they’re mostly all farmers,” said Wiederhold.
The 20-year-old Berne-Knox-
Westerlo graduate volunteered to be point man on patrols, sweeping a metal detector in front of his squad’s single-file line for any Improvised Explosive Devices buried in the ground.
With every 10 paces, Wiederhold would mark his path by leaving a 4-inch streak of Barbasol shaving cream. The aloe variety was preferred for its visibility through night vision goggles.
With his cargo pocket filled with candies, Wiederhold said, he enjoyed talking to the kids. By 6 years old, he said, many of the rural children are herding goats on their own.
“They’d steal anything,” said Wiederhold. “The children there were something else. Every patrol, they would just surround us, asking for pens or candy.”
He kept a small photograph of his 6-year-old sister, DonnaJo, in his flak jacket through the six months.
Wiederhold said he showed the picture to Abdul Wakeem, a friend he made in the Afghan National Civil Affairs Police on base. They would exchange Pashtun and English lessons, and Wakeem warned him of who in ANCAP shouldn’t be trusted. Wiederhold is convinced there was an Afghan traitor on base.
One of his greatest frustrations, Wiederhold said, was the Americans’ inability to fully trust local Afghans, because of the Taliban’s tactics. Though support for the Marines is common, said Wiederhold, it is not expressed openly.
“We had one guy approach us on a patrol and tell us his wife and daughter had both been kidnapped by Taliban, and he was told to fire at us or else he wasn’t going to give them back,” said Wiederhold.
Everyday life was a struggle in Kajaki. The smell of burning feces and trash hung in the dry air, Wiederhold said, with temperatures reaching over 120 degrees. For three months, his cot was six inches from the next. Baby wipes found in care packages and five-minute cold showers became treasured like oases.
When Wiederhold first arrived, the heat dampened local activities during the holy month of Ramadan.
“For a month, they don’t eat or drink at all during the day. And, when that ends, they have four days’ feasting,” said Wiederhold, interested by the Afghan culture.
To be back in Berne is a luxury, but he said he would still return to fight if called back. Wiederhold first wanted to enlist at age 15. He wanted to fight.
“I was actually going to join the Army, and then I met this guy who told me, if I wanted to be the best, I should join the Marines,” said Wiederhold. “I went on a youth trip with a youth pastor of mine and he was staying at the same campsite; just some random guy — don’t actually know his name. The summer between junior and senior year, I enlisted.”
Berne was a place to explore, when, at the age of 11, Wiederhold moved with his family to the Hilltowns from Troy. He and his friends shot guns and took their sleeping bags into the woods.
In high school, Wiederhold worked outside with his hands, on local farms, baling hay and landscaping. He spent all four years in track and field, and three on the wrestling team, where he initially lost 55 pounds.
“I just got used to getting slayed at practice,” Wiederhold said, referring to his time as a wrestler. “Which, when I was at boot camp, that was their whole thing. They would just physically slay you and try to break you down, but I had that mental attitude from wrestling — just, whatever you dish out, I can take it. That really helped out. I ended up leaving boot camp as a private first class.”
Wiederhold grew up hearing the stories from World War II, the Korean war, and Vietnam told by uncles, great uncles, and his mother’s cousins. Wiederhold, inspired by those family stories, says his reason for wanting to experience war was to serve his country.
“The thought of war never really scared me, because I grew up watching John Wayne with my grandfather and he’d always go to war and come out totally unscathed, so it didn’t look that difficult,” said Wiederhold. “The thought of exchanging fire with the enemy was actually motivating, until I was actually there.”
He hesitated and then went on, “It still is motivating.”
Military combat is not for everyone, Wiederhold said, noting that, mentally, it “takes a specific type of person.”
It wasn’t until he was stationed at Camp Pendleton, in southern California, ready to travel through the Pacific Ocean on an aircraft carrier, that Wiederhold was told “last minute” he would be deployed to Afghanistan. Canada was the only foreign country he’d seen.
When he got to Afghanistan, he was immediately immersed in warfare.
Every two or three days, rounds were fired into the Zeebrugge base, located on a cliff next to the Helmand River. For a period, it was mortar fire.
Training before deployment had been limited. Wiederhold’s unit trained off of after-action reports from other units in the area and adapted its procedures as the Marines found flaws on patrols.
The concept of taking a life, Wiederhold said, did not feature in his training.
“We train to fight, and we train to kill, ’cause that’s our job. They don’t talk about what it’s like doing it, mentally. They don’t talk about what it’s like emotionally. They just say, ‘Do it.’ I understand where they’re coming from. And I understand even more now. You can’t let your emotions go crazy when you’re in a firefight.”
“Operation Deuces Wild” was Wiederhold’s first combat experience, and involved platoons from Alpha Company and Bravo Company, a squad of 13 snipers, and a platoon of Afghan National Civil Affairs Police.
“It was a serious operation,” said Wiederhold.
An area called “ant hill” and a nearby dried-up riverbed, or wadi, were points to clear and hold, where the Marines would remain before firing on a compound known to have been taken by the Taliban.
A squad first received small-arms’ fire on the hill, while Wiederhold was in the wadi, facing its south side and scanning the area in case the squad needed help.
A pressure plate was depressed by someone on the hill, detonating an IED inside the slope at waist level. The Marine’s injuries were minor, and other soldiers sat him behind a hill.
Two minutes later, another explosion came from the south side of the hill. The Marine who had stepped on the IED lost both of his legs.
Scanning his area to make sure no one flanked around, Wiederhold thought of his friend, Lance Corporal Washington, with whom he had trained at boot camp.
“My first thought was, one my best friends is in Bravo company. I was afraid it might have been him,” said Wiederhold.
A helicopter took the two injured Marines from the area, and their squad came down from the hill. Wiederhold’s squad moved into shelter with snipers, while the second squad and Bravo went back to the patrol base.
The Marines took two-man, two-hour shifts to keep guard, enduring sparse fire and building a defense of sand bags in between 20-minute naps.
The Marines, most in their early 20s, talked about where they came from, about high school parties, and how they would like to return. They ate “Meals Ready to Eat”: calorie-dense, prepackaged food containing a main meal, a side meal, snacks, and a portion of Gatorade or coffee. Wiederhold’s favorite MRE is beef ravioli, with a packet of rice and a bag of skittles.
On the third day camped outside of the Taliban compound, small-arms’ fire had become mortars and the Marines could see men locating their targets.
“I saw one guy. He was about 300 meters away. He had a pair of binoculars and a cell phone and he was just looking right at us,” said Wiederhold. “So I just took a couple of shots at him and he ducked away. He came back a few minutes later and he had lined up four kids in front of him, so obviously I couldn’t take that shot.”
Wiederhold suppressed oncoming fire with a light machine gun for snipers. Mortars were landing more accurately and he was told to go with his squad, waiting at the bottom of the hill.
Air support was called in and leveled the compound.
With 43 Taliban fighters killed, it was the most activity the area had seen in five years.
“There’s nothing actually attractive about war,” said Wiederhold. “But when you’re actually engaging the enemy, it’s just, the adrenaline rush is like nothing else. It’s almost habit forming, and war-fighting is what I’m good at.”
Afghanistan and back
On the night of his return home, Wiederhold went to the mall with friends and watched Skyfall, the new James Bond movie.
“Honestly, I fell asleep,” he said, deeming the action scenes unrealistic in light of his recent experiences.
Wiederhold is in Berne through the beginning of Janurary, after which he will return to Camp Pendleton and begin taking courses. When the three more years of his infantry contract are completed, Wiederhold can get a different job and re-enlist, or get his discharge and do other things. He says he’s 50-50 right now.
History and forensics were Wiederhold’s favorite classes in high school, and he said he could imagine himself teaching history at Berne-Knox-Westerlo, or working as a policeman.
Wiederhold’s mother, Evelyn Krimsky, said he carries himself more confidently now. He is more mature. She kept a second set of his dog tags around her neck while he was in Afghanistan and until he was at Camp Pendleton.
“Anytime they clinked or anything, I remembered to just shoot off a quick prayer for him,” said Krimsky. She avoided watching the news while he was overseas. “I figured, I know God’s taking care of him….Why should I watch the news and lose my peace?”
A sweet smell of butter bubbling over a layer of graham crackers and melting chocolate drifted from the oven in Wiederhold’s Berne home on Friday, as he spoke about his time overseas at the kitchen table. The thin snack is cooled until crackly, then slammed on a hard surface to create a toffee-like treat Krimsky calls “crack.”
“Well, in my head, I keep telling myself, ‘I’m home. Everything’s fine.’ But there’s things I’m just never going to forget,” said Wiederhold.
With short, simple sentences, and full “Yes’s,” Wiederhold speaks in a low and calm voice. His smile is a smirk, but sometimes it is wide and youthful. When speaking about his war experiences, his voice gets softer.
“Just the way he says that, I can tell that things have had an impact on him,” said Krimsky. “But, now that he’s home, his sense of humor is back.”