Friday, November 9, 2007

Day One: Part Two

With no further adieu, part two...

Part Two

We emerged from the riverbed into classic Afghan farmland; fields surrounded by low walls like paddy dikes with sandy dirt trails on top from five inches to a foot wide. Generally, they separated a field from an irrigation ditch that may or may not have water in it. These low walls have sandy patches in them where the farmer will open or close them to the irrigation ditch, either flooding the field or keeping it drier. The walls themselves keep the water in quite well when they flood a field.

The Afghan soldiers will not usually walk through the middle of a field. They walk on the paddy walls. This keeps the crop damage down, but it also canalizes their forces into single file; a potentially disastrous habit.

Looking from afar, Our Valley appeared flat, but sometimes the elevation changed by up to seven to ten feet between fields in a terraced effect. Walking along these paddy dikes was a challenge. They were narrow, and at the points where the farmer was used to cutting through to the canal it was quite soft. There were lots of opportunities for twisted ankles and moistened feet.

With all the weight I was carrying, I was not the most graceful ballerina on the dike. As the day wore on, I became accustomed to occasionally losing my footing as the soft edge of the dike gave way. I didn’t fall… that would come another day… but I provided a little light entertainment for the ANP soldiers behind me.

Colonel Jhala and I were usually close to each other as we moved. His radio operator was nearly always within arm’s reach of him. I was amazed when his cell phone rang. It played a vaguely martial tune that sounded like it could have been from a Russian patriotic documentary.

It would get to the point that I would hear that tune in my sleep. I can still hear it when I think of it. I came to hate that little electronic tune.

I was more amazed when he stopped and answered it. “Bali, salaam aleikum.”

“What in the hell,” I thought. Taking a phone call from anyone but my commander in the middle of a clearing operation never occurred to me. To him, it was as natural as breathing.

This was to happen many times as we moved through Our Valley. I came to accept it as one of the peculiarities of working with Colonel Jhala.

Colonel Jhala’s normally hoarse-sounding voice would raise several dozen decibels when he spoke on the phone, making him sound angry, as if he were shouting in exasperation with the caller. I got used to that, too.

The Colonel is one of the good guys in a world where it is truly difficult to tell who the good guys are. Even some of the guys in uniforms are not good guys. We would catch one of these guys during the operation, but that’s another story, one that can’t be told for a long time to protect sources.

We trudged across the dikes, slipping occasionally as the soft shoulders of the dikes would suddenly give way, threatening to drop me into the clear water that ran through the irrigation ditches. It was hot, and the body armor made an excellent incubator with its inch-thick ceramic ballistic plates in the front and back. We walked about a mile and a half before we found the ANA unit we were following taking a break in a copse of trees surrounded by a three and a half foot mud wall, the dirt floor of the little grove dotted with animal feces.

I depressed the “easy button” on my chest and spoke into the microphone suspended next to my mouth by the headband assembly. I heard the squelch break in the speaker next to my ear.

“One five, this is Dogbite seven, I’ve linked up with the ANA at grid blah blah blah, over.”

“Roger, seven. Proceed northeast to Phase Line Grinch, over.”

“Willco, one five. Seven out.”

After the Afghans finished their cigarettes and resting, we moved out. We entered an area where there were not many trees along the dikes. We could see the team to our left moving about 500 meters to our north. I reported this to Deerslayer also.

We walked past a number of khalats, taking only a cursory look around the various complexes and exchanging quick greetings with the residents. Most of the residents of this area spoke Pashto as their first language. I recalled the admonition to study Dari instead of Pashto with regret.

After a number of these encounters we skirted a khalat nestled among small fruit trees and spotted two men and a very small boy relaxing in another mud-walled courtyard centered on a large walnut tree. I saw nothing unusual, but Colonel Jhala, who appeared to be exchanging pleasantries as in the earlier encounters, beckoned one of the men to come out and speak more closely.

The stopped column of soldiers stood guard over the area as the Colonel spoke amicably with the man. The Colonel spoke to one of the soldiers who began to remove his handcuffs from his belt.

“We are taking him with us,” the Colonel explained through my terp.

“Really. Why?” I asked.

The Colonel explained that the man’s brother had committed a murder the previous week. The accused murderer was on the lam, it seems. Colonel Jhala knew that bringing his brother in would bear fruit.

“Well,” I thought, “that’s not how we would do it in the U.S., but we’re not IN the U.S.”

Sometimes, perhaps, it seems that we might want to think about how other people do things. Think about it; if you committed a crime and your brother got arrested for it, your whole family would beat you until you turned yourself in.

It worked. A few days later the accused murderer turned himself in, and his brother was freed. The brother had known where the accused was, but he didn’t talk.

Justice was served in the end, it seems.

I called one five and told him that we had a detainee that we were sending an escort with to the road and to look for them. The element to my left chipped in, asking for the escort to swing past their position and pick up a detainee there. I briefed the Colonel, and he briefed his escort team as we stood in the shade of the walnut tree. The sun was fierce.

It turned out that the other detainee was a named high value target. Bonanza.

We moved out again, the terrain becoming less and less even. We came to a river bed with a very steep twenty foot bank and I basically slid down the near side, my boots digging a trail down the side. Sandy soil cascaded down around me as I ran out the momentum at the bottom with my weapon held across my chest. I was pleasantly surprised with my own grace.

Other times would not work out quite so smoothly. It would all even out. Humility would be served.

We worked our way across the stony river bottom strewn with boulders the size of overstuffed chairs. I peered upwards at the top of the opposing bank from under the brim of my helmet, feeling every pound strapped to my sweating body.


There was no easy way up, but at least there was a trail. Afghans are like mountain goats, so there is no reason to improve any trail. I, on the other hand, am a middle-aged American from the Midwest with nearly seventy pounds of extra weight artificially affixed to his body and a bad nicotine and caffeine habit. I cursed the locals for their laziness in not building a carefully constructed staircase out of the riverbed.

The body armor seriously alters one's center of gravity as well as putting (obviously) more strain on the back and legs. The climb out of the riverbed, an action to be repeated many times in the coming weeks, was laborious and not graceful-looking.

We moved more towards the southern wall of the valley, where the farmland abruptly stopped and the barren, rocky mountainside rose sharply. The Afghans have a peculiar sense of where to look for things. My eyes scanned everywhere for the expected burst of gunfire or twin booms of an RPG being fired at us. The blazing sun cast sharp contrast where shade could conceal an opposing group.

I was thoroughly soaked under my body armor, that most excellent insulator. The legs of my ACU trousers began to soak through as well, windblown dust clinging to the slight moisture. The wind, nearly constant, felt cool because of the evaporation it provided. I still had to wipe my face every once in a while with the shemagh draped around my neck. Until you started sweating, the wind felt like a hairdryer on a low heat setting, blowing the heat through you.

We walked along, single file, near the lead of the ANP atop the low field dike walls, and emerged through a line of trees. I could see a group of ANP talking to a farmer who looked to be in his 70’s, shovel in hand. Curious, I worked my way over to the field in which they stood. Three khalats stood in a semi-circle around us, the furthest about 250 meters away, the closest about 75.

As I stood trying to make out what I could of the conversation, catching Dari words I could understand, an ANP soldier whooped from a cluster of trees about 50 meters to my right.

I turned to see an ANP burst from the copse of trees at a dead run, a bundle clutched in his hands as his AK banged against his body. He ran straight across the field to us and proudly laid out his find at our feet.

I had no idea what I was looking at.

Laying on the spread shemagh was a plastic-wrapped brick-sized hunk of something black. The ANP began to cluster around us, nudging me proudly.

"Tarak! Tarak!" they said.

I had no idea what they were saying. A second ANP sprinted up and laid out a second bundle of ammunition.

Okay, I knew what THAT was; but what was the black stuff in the plastic?

“Sam,” I asked Combat Terp, “what the hell is THAT?”

“Opium, sir.”

“THAT’s opium?” I asked, incredulous.

“Yes, sir, that is opium. It comes from the poppy, the flowers that grow.”

“Yeah, I know what plant it comes from. Are you sure it’s opium?”

“Yes, sir. That is opium. Just he gonna sell it to the Taliban,” he stated matter of factly.

I poked the black mass curiously with my finger. It had the consistency of cold tar, giving way slowly under the pressure of my finger.

The farmer looked abashed. I took a picture of him with the opium and the ammunition on the ground in front of him and a cluster of ANP. They looked proud, he looked resigned.

COL Jhala strode up, having just finished a call to his commander. He was visibly proud of his men.

"Ahhhh, tarak," he said to me, indicating the black tar brick and nodding knowingly.

He spoke amiably with the old farmer and indicated we should move into the shade of the trees by the nearest khalat, which apparently belonged to the old man.

As COL Jhala chatted with the old man, a younger man came up and was also engaged in the discussion. I watched carefully as I reported our find to Deerslayer 15.

Diesel’s voice was clearly pleased coming through my headset. I heard other traffic indicating that one of the other teams was trying to detonate an RPG warhead they had found by firing M203 grenades at it. They had not met with success yet.

COL Jhala’s men fanned out and did a more thorough search of the area as the Colonel spoke with the men. He alternated between a casual, neighborly tone and a more authoritarian sound when he felt they were being evasive, which was about every third response.

A group of ANP shepherded another man towards us. One of the ANP had another bundle of stuff in his arms. The third man came up to our little gathering as calmly as if he were being brought to us for driving directions to the nearest gas station. The ANP dumped another pile of booty at my feet. Hands reached in to examine the find.

Three ammunition vests for AK-47 magazines lay at my feet along with a field jacket. The vests were brand new. One of the ANP tried one on. It was clearly better than the one he had on. He wanted to keep it.

The young man joined our discussion, insisting that his mother had found the vests laying beside the trail on her way back from the bazaar and he had kept them because he thought they were cool.

COL Jhala’s voice indicated when he threw the bullshit flag. He grasped the young man by the back of the neck in an almost friendly manner, the way a father might grab an unruly teenager who lied about where he went with the car the night before. He slapped the back of the man’s neck just hard enough to convey menace as he exhorted the man not to lie to him.

The man who appeared to be the man of the house, the second man we had met, sent his children to bring pitchers of water and grapes. Someone handed me a bunch of grapes which I munched as I watched the unfolding drama. The ANP continued to search the area around the khalat as I wished we had dogs to help.

This went on for nearly an hour. I reported in dutifully every twenty minutes or so, relating our static position and describing what was going on to one five or one five golf, the gunner on his vehicle.

Colonel Jhala finally decided that the youngest man, the one with the ammo vests, would be accompanying us back to the road. His mother appeared, protesting wildly. Her societal need for modesty completely overridden by her desperation to prevent the arrest of her son, she besought the Colonel not to take him.

It was to no avail. The man was cuffed and a guard detail assigned to care for him.

Diesel was calling for the troops to rally at a specific grid coordinate. I eyeballed my map and indicated a direction, and off we went. It still felt like early afternoon, but we had a mile and a half of map distance, nearly two and a half miles on the ground to cover to get there.

The Afghans moved out with a purpose, never looking back as they scooted towards the rendezvous point. Now they were challenging me to keep up. I felt as if we were running. I struggled to maintain my situational awareness as my legs and feet began to complain to my nervous system, taking up valuable bandwidth.

We moved through areas that had mostly been cleared by the other teams. Some of the villagers paused to watch in curiosity. Others seemed to want to believe we weren’t really there.

Well-disciplined Taliban? I wondered.

We arrived at the road to find ourselves spot-on to the rendezvous point, a cluster of humvees and LTV’s clogged the uneven dirt road. The ANA and ANP descended upon the food that had arrived for them in their absence as I tried to identify my vehicle along the road.

I was smoked.

I grabbed a couple of bottles of water and lit a cigarette as I observed the scene around me. My helmet was so wet that the outer camouflage cover was wet. An MRE sounded like heaven, and I tore into the meat loaf like a wolf.

“All leaders report to grid blah blah blah,” the radio crackled in my left ear.


Dreading another up and down twisting and turning hump across the valley, I remounted all of my equipment and moved towards the indicated point. Thankfully, the day was mostly over. The meeting revealed the selected bivouac site for the evening, about a quarter of a mile up the road. It would be our patrol base for the night.

I slogged back to my vehicle, the expected misery in my legs and feet coming right on time. Nothing you can do, and it’ll be better tomorrow. I knew that from years and years of being suddenly thrown into the field.

When you go from only riding in vehicles when you leave the wire in body armor, walking on more or less level ground for the better part of two months, to the kind of patrolling we were doing, you learn that no amount of exercise can prepare you for the difference.

Feet have to become toughened by friction and experience, and all the little muscles that make up the larger muscle groups get strained in ways you can’t simulate without the trails, dikes, riverbeds and hillsides. There’s really no way to prevent some of that.

Even the hands need the abuse to thicken up.

My feet would, within a few days, begin to toughen to the point that my heels and soles would be covered in a thick layer of leather-like callous, nearly numb to light pressure. The skin on my hands would thicken to the point that an eighth-inch deep nick would not bleed. My legs would quit complaining shortly.

Evening was a welcomed break. My legs felt like springs uncoiling.

The ANP were clearly proud of themselves, staying up late into the evening, their loud voices and bursts of laughter inspiring SFC White, the platoon sergeant for the platoon from the 82nd, to yell at them angrily to be quiet. The ANP, who couldn’t understand a thing he said, looked at him with the obvious thought that he had clearly lost his mind.

A few minutes later they were back at it again.

SFC White came to me in exasperation, explaining how this simply wouldn’t do. His men were tired and trying to sleep, and all the noise was tactically wrong and just plain rude to his men. I explained to him that the Afghans were like cats, and they were caterwauling, happy in their successes of the day. There really wasn’t much I could do.

He looked at me with the obvious thought that I had clearly lost my mind.

1 comment:

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