Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Operation Mr. Coffee: A Military Memoir

A mission of capital importance

(Flickr via
(Flickr via


By Sebastian Bae


By Sebastian Bae
Best Defense directorate of military memories

In 2009, my infantry platoon was one of the few units left in forward operating bases (FOBs) across Iraq — largely forgotten by higher command and insurgents alike. Days often proved indistinguishable, a kaleidoscope of patrols and standing post in a small machine gun nest. The joke was that the junior enlisted Marines ran on chewing tobacco and the Command Operations Center (COC), inhabited by senior enlisted and officers, ran on coffee — the life blood of the Marine Corps fighting machine.

One night, I distinctively remember being jarred awake as a hazy figure barked that the COC needed me ASAP. When I arrived, I was greeted by both my platoon commander and platoon sergeant, grim faced and crossed armed. My sleep-deprived enlisted brain instantly cycled through various scenarios: Was I supposed to be on radio watch? Did I forget to file the daily report? Where was my rifle? However, before I could confess to anything, my lieutenant (LT) leaned in and said, “Bae, we need you to fix the coffee machine.” Patting me on the back, he reassured me that I had all the skills and tools necessary for the job, gesturing towards the table where the defunct Mr. Coffee sat accompanied by a switchblade knife, a roll of duct tape, 6 feet of 550 cord, used coffee filters, and other miscellaneous objects best characterized as “junk the LT kept in his desk.” Before leaving, the LT added, “Oh, we also need coffee filters, Bae.” My platoon sergeant, a bear in human form, simply nodded and grumbled, “Get it done.”

Every Marine has experienced being saddled with an impossible task by a superior. But this task was legitimately the most bizarre of my Marine career. Using random objects gathered up in the COC, I was expected to fix a coffee maker that was most likely issued back in the first Gulf War. And there was no doubt in my mind that both the LT and the platoon sergeant fully expected a hot, steaming cup of coffee in eight hours when their shift started.

So, like any good Marine, I improvised. Using the switchblade knife, I bribed my way onto a supply convoy to Camp Ramadi. From there, I traded a can of Copenhagen Straight chewing tobacco, a rare commodity in Iraq, with a civilian contractor for a ride over to the Army side of the base. For roughly two hours, I wandered around aimlessly, peering through windows looking for a coffee machine. After a great deal of effort, I finally spotted a pristine Mr. Coffee in the backroom of the Army supply shop. Sneaking through the window, I quickly exchanged our decrepit coffee machine with the Army’s, while shoving as many coffee filters in my cargo pockets as they could handle. And like a bandit, I ran for my life. Now, imagine a young Marine, cargo pockets bursting at the seams, coffee machine cradled in his arms, frantically running off into the distance.

By the time LT was back on duty, my squad was preparing for our daily patrol into the city. The “fixed” Mr. Coffee was humming away in the COC. All was right in the world, proving true the old Marine Corps adage: Gear adrift is a gift.

Sebastian Bae is now completely legit.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1

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