Army Sergeant Misha Pemble-Belkin, 24, grew up in Hillboro, Oregon, and joined the Army out of high school. His experience in the Korengal Valley was chronicled as part of the documentary, Restrepo, and book, WAR, by Sebastian Junger. While the U.S. military no longer has service members stationed there, the film and book tell the story of the men of Battle Company, 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment, 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team’s 15-month deployment.
Pemble-Belkin was one of those soldiers.
What was your first thought when you found out you were deploying to Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley?
I just thought “Afghanistan: Big mountains with desert.”
How did reality compare to your expectations?
It was a lot more intense than I expected.
I didn’t expect it [Afghanistan] to have trees. That was a shock. Then the mountains were a lot steeper and higher.
Aside from being away from home, what was the hardest thing about being deployed to the Korengal?
Losing everything. Once you have nothing, the simplest things in life become the most important.
The worst thing for me there was I didn’t have ice cubes. I would have given my left arm for ice cubes. All we had was warm water… I would have given anything for ice cubes.
If you were talking to a buddy who hadn’t been over there and he asked you to describe a typical day during the deployment, how would you describe that to him?
The days were very long. But you see interesting things there, stuff you’d never see in the States -- like a cow living in someone’s living room -- with them inside the house. Or a monkey coming up and stealing your tobacco. They’d steal people’s tobacco, smoke cigarettes, and put dip in their mouths and eat it.
When you were not engaged in a firefight, what was the daily routine at OP Restrepo?
You pulled about two to six hours of guard daily, and you would go on daily patrols.
But most of the time, when we didn’t have anything else to do, we just talked to our buddies -- that’s all you did was talk and learn everything about each other.
One thing we used to do was break boulders loose and let them roll down the side of the mountain. It sounds weird, but it was something to do.
When you got to the Korengal what went through your mind when you stepped off of the Helo on Day One?
We were up in the air for quite awhile just circling around the [Combat Outpost] looking down at it and was like, “This place is in the middle of nowhere.”
All the sudden you land, get off, and you try running off the helicopter to [take] cover and you’re just out of breath because we were at between 5,000- and 6,000-feet elevation and none of us were used to that yet.
We realized we were really high up and we were going to be miserable for a little bit.
How long did it take to adjust?
Oh, you never adjust to it. You just get used to the suck.
How much weight were you carrying?
The average weight we carried per guy on patrol was between 70 and 120 pounds. The average weight loss out there was about 40 pounds per guy. One guy lost 80 pounds. Another guy lost 100-and-something.
Anywhere we’d walk was a 1,000 vertical feet down or 1,000 vertical feet up. Then you’ve got to go back up or down the same way you just came. That’s every single day.
Aside from the elevation, did you look around and wonder, “What did I get myself into?”
No, not really. It’s kind of a lot to take in at once, flying out into that valley and all you see are mountain tops spurting up everywhere around you.
If there hadn’t been any fighting there, it would have been a beautiful place.
Things got tough, obviously, and they stayed tough for most of the deployment. What got you through day to day?
The guys to my left and right.
Everybody’s going through the same thing and everybody’s staying out there and doing what we had to do. You don’t want to let any of them down, so that’s pretty much what got me through.
Were you able to communicate with family and friends back home?
I wasn’t able to call home very much. I wrote more letters than anything else, and I would send them down with the guys that were rotating out.
Were there any good memories?
It was the most life-changing experience I’ve ever had.
It was 15 months of combat. You lose everything you possibly could have -- your cell phone, your electricity, cold food. Everything. You don’t have anything, but a blanket and your buddies.
I learned to appreciate all the small things in life, and it’s made me enjoy my life a lot more, made me get out there and do more than I thought I would have done before I deployed.
What was the worst memory or experience?
Every single time one of my buddies would get shot or killed.
I think the battalion lost 20-something [men], and I believe we lost seven in the valley.
What kind of impact do you feel you had in the valley while you were there?
If you watch from the beginning of the movie, at the very first shura there was just a handful of village elders there. By the end of the movie with Captain [Dan] Kearney, there’s probably 40 village elders all giving their ideas and explaining how they can improve the valley.
They were more open to Americans. They were actually trying to help us. You could definitely see a change in the way that they were acting toward us.
By us pushing the Taliban back, the villagers were actually able to move around and start doing more with their lives instead of just staying hidden in their villages.
What was it like to have a member of the media with you almost the whole deployment?
It all depends on how they interact with soldiers.
Sebastian [Junger] and Tim [Hetherington] fit in very well with us, and actually tried to help. They didn’t push for interviews. They didn’t push for anything. They were just there.
What did you take away from that year, beside an appreciation of the smaller things in life?
A better [idea] of how the world actually works. Everything is not pretty and nice out there, which is what I think a lot of Americans think.
What do you hope the viewers of Restrepo will walk away with?
I hope they’ll have an understanding that there’s actually a war going on and they need to support the soldiers as much as they can in any way they can.
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