River City, more than a state of mind / By Mark Ball


Editor’s note: Mark Ball’s son Nathan was deployed to Afghanistan earlier this year.

River City sounds inviting but it is not a place you want to be as a U.S. Marine in Now Zad, Afghanistan. You will not find it in a world atlas, you will not find it in a travel guide, but you will find it deeply etched in the conscience of every U.S. Marine. River City is not a place in the physical sense but a state of mind when the solemn words are uttered as a command in Now Zad . At its mention, River City is like an octopus with its long tentacles that wrap around its prey, slowly crushing it, sucking life’s energy from its victim. The tentacles of River City ensnare not only the Marines within its grasp but also their families.

The pall of war hangs over every Marine in Afghanistan, the fear of the unknown bearing down on the shoulders of each and every soldier like an ominous black storm cloud. The call of River City is like a lightning strike to the heart of every Marine who hears it. For a Marine, there is no escaping the weight of dread when the command is called out for it signifies the harsh truth of war-another Marine brother has been killed or grievously wounded in combat.

I first heard the term River City during one of Nathan’s first calls home from Now Zad. I have learned to accept these calls as precious and dear for Nathan’s ability to access a base phone is very infrequent and limited at best. We have gone through periods of weeks of silence since he has been deployed. It was during this rare call that Nathan was making from the base’s plywood communications shed that I heard someone in the background yell River City! I was in the midst of updating Nathan with family and local news when Nathan curtly said, “Dad, I have to go,” and said goodbye. At that moment I did not realize the connection and I was not to hear from Nathan for three weeks.

I finally discovered the significance of River City while browsing the web one day when I came across a blog by CNN’s Chris Lawrence. Lawrence had just visited Nathan’s company in Now Zad and was in fact at the plywood communications shack, observing Marines calling their families when Nathan’s Sergeant stormed in and barked the order “River City.” Within two minutes, the communications shed was vacated, locked and secured. River City is a simple but solemn command to cease communications with the outside world because another brother from the battalion has fallen.

Since that day, it seems Nathan’s calls home have become more infrequent. River City is becoming more of a place than a state of mind. War is a greedy beast for it engorges with a ravenous consumption the lives of soldiers, their families and the innocent civilians. Like the ravages of a Malibu brush fire, war extinguishes the flicker of life and forever changes its landscape.

Memorial Day is nearly upon us and Nathan asks that his Malibu friends and neighbors take a moment to reflect and honor the fallen brothers from his battalion in service to our country and our community. His fellow Marines killed in combat: Lance Corporal Tyler O. Griffin, age 19, April 1, 2010; Lance Corporal Thomas O. Rivers, age 22, April 28, 2010; and Lance Corporal Richard Penny, age 21, May 6, 2010. Sadly for these heroes and their families, River City is now a place on the map.