Sunday, November 25, 2007


I met a patriot today. I met a man who is not in the military of any country, but he is most certainly a patriot. He is a manager for the company that manages our terps, or interpreters. He is an Afghan-American. He lived in the United States Since the early 80's.

Shortly after he arrived in the United States he became an activist for his native country, first as an opponent of the communists, and then as an opponent of the Taliban. He worked to raise awareness among the decision-makers of the events in Afghanistan and the threats to the security of not only his native land but to the rest of the world as well.

As he spoke, I realized that I was talking with someone whose patriotism rose to a level that most of us cannot understand. This man lived in the United States. He got a degree and worked as an accountant. He has a family in America. He has a life. Why in the hell is he here?

He is not just an Afghan patriot (or expatriot, if you will) but an American patriot. His understanding of how the events in Afghanistan over the past 30 years have been shaped, and how those events came back around to shape our present, is unparalleled.

He spoke of the struggle to bring to light information such as the use of chemical weapons by the Soviets. We all remember hearing of these abuses, but this man was one of the people who actually brought those facts to light. This man was one of a group of Afghan expatriots who were still patriots. Their weapons were information and awareness.

While we were busy providing Stinger missiles to the Afghan resistance against the Soviets, these men were bringing back information on how the missiles were being used and who was getting their hands on them.

He spoke of the events, and of the mistakes made by more than one administration, without rancor. He described how he and his compatriots had tried to warn of the involvement of Osama bin Laden's group before they had even taken the name Al Qaeda. He explained how, when the Soviets left, the Arabs influenced the Mujahideen to attack the Afghan Army, to execute its officers.

These men had tried to warn two administrations of the growing influence of Osama's group on what was to become the Taliban. They provided information on chemical weapons research and attempts to develop chemical terrorist weapons with the help of a prominent North Korean chemical weapons designer to the Clinton administration.

He spoke of how we (the United States) had been very interested in Afghanistan until the Soviets left. He spoke about how they had warned against leaving Afghanistan on its own in the days following the Soviet departure, and how their pleas had fallen on deaf ears.

He explained the results of this indifference, the twists and turns and sub-plots with amazing detail and clarity. He explained as only an Afghan could what had happened in those days of turmoil that had laid the groundwork for Afghanistan to become a hotbed of Islamic extremism and a training ground for terrorists.

Over the centuries, Afghanistan has rarely been the prize. Afghanistan has the misfortune of being at the crossroads of history. You could say that it is the crossroads of history. Nobody has fought for Afghanistan simply for the sake of Afghanistan itself, but to interfere with or stymie their opponent. They have fought to hold the crossroads or simply to pass through en route to whoever they really wanted to attack.

The Persians, the Macedonians, both Khans (Genghis and Kublai,) the British, the Russians... all wanted something other than Afghanistan, but found that in order to get what they truly wanted, they had to pass through Afghanistan.

We used Afghanistan to stymie the Soviets. It worked, and while we were at it we unwittingly watered the seeds of Islamic extremism. This man is a walking chronicle of the events that brought forth the birth of the Taliban and the emergence of Al Qaeda as the preeminent threat to security and peace in the post-Cold War world.

He also spoke hopefully of the future of Afghanistan. He spoke of economic opportunity, about education, about providing the tools for Afghans to become productive members of society. This man has seen how truly small this world is, and knows first-hand that what happens in the kheyls of Afghanistan impacts events all the way on the other side of the world.

There is no room for isolationism in the United States anymore. Those who wistfully dream of closing our borders and hiding within our North American enclave, safe from the world and protected by saltwater security systems at our front and back doors are so sadly mistaken as to be pronounced pathetic.

We are citizens in a global society, and what we do has ramifications far beyond our previous imaginings. Our little intrigues and games, twisting the knife in the side of our enemy of the time, fed an enemy more insidious than any specter the Soviet superpower could have generated. While we were busily interfering with their hoped-for conquests and influence, we fed a disease.

It's Orwellian, really. We are being tortured by a virus we fed while swatting at a bear. It helped kill the bear. Now it's threatening our health as well.

The man I met today, whose name will remain a hidden piece of history, saw and understood the development of that virus. He spoke into uninterested ears as the virus mutated and replicated. He saw the direction that it was taking, and how we were unwittingly assisting in the genetic testing of the strain.

He also understands the cure. It is not giving the Afghans anything, but enabling them to get it for themselves. The cure for the disease is bringing these people opportunities to do something other than carry a weapon and fight.

Or, we can kill them all.

I'll take Option A for a thousand, Alex.

It's difficult to truly understand the gratitude so many Afghans have expressed to me for being here. It's difficult because, in some small way, the insanity of our own twisted reflection in the funhouse mirror of our media has left its mark on my mind. Like some rhetorical narcotic, it dulls the true perception of what and who we are.

I have been thanked many times for being here. I have been thanked many times for leaving my family behind to come here and help. One of our soldiers said recently that Americans could learn a few things about family values from the Afghans. Afghans have a tremendous amount of loyalty to their families. They truly understand the sacrifice of not seeing your children for months on end.

Yet still I've wondered at times if they weren't just being polite. Afghans are incredibly polite people, by and large.

This man thanked me for coming here and doing what I am doing. He meant it.

I had to thank him. This man was perfectly safe at home in America. He gave up his job to come here and make sure that we could communicate with our Afghan counterparts. He doesn't have a huge, important job. He is not a mover or a shaker. He is a worker, a part of the machine. He doesn't wear a uniform. I won't use his name for his own safety. He is doing what he can to be useful.

For the past 30 years, he's been doing what he can to be useful.

The man I met this morning, quiet and unassuming, finding a way to contribute in any way that he can for a span of approximately 30 years... now he's a patriot.
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Thursday, November 22, 2007

Thanksgiving In The Land Of Sandcastles

Happy Thanksgiving!

(From left to right) Cookie Monster (in the helmet,) Burt Schtickem, Old Blue (myself,) Coopage (removing the .50 from the turret,) The Colonel, and Gonzo.

We thought we were going to eat Thanksgiving dinner at the most dangerous firebase in the province, but that plan changed before breakfast due to a late night email barrage between two Colonels. It's not important what it was about to anyone but us. The end result was that we took a nice long drive in the land of sandcastles, policed up some Joe's, and returned to Bagram for our Thanksgiving dinner.

Thanksgiving dinner with the Fobbits. Nice and safe. It's amazing how we can go from potentially having Thanksgiving in a place that was rocketed yesterday to dining as guests of the Fobalonians.

This morning before we rolled out was for our moment of thanks. I looked at the small group of soldiers gathered around for our now perfunctory convoy brief and thanked all of them for the privilege of serving with them. We gave thanks for the fact that none of us has died. We gave thanks for the brotherhood that we have found in our tiny group. We gave thanks that our families are safe at home.

Then we said our prayer, which we always have before we roll out. The Reverend Cookie Monster said it for us, as he does most mornings. He's very good at it, and he nearly always thanks God for the talents and abilities that each of us brings to the table.

I thank God for the presence of these men. I look around and I see some of the best men that I have ever known. They are not supermen. They are a slice of America, and they cheerfully serve under what may not be the most uncomfortable of conditions, but certainly under difficult conditions.

I thank God for the humor that they bring to their jobs. We laugh a lot. We make fun of ourselves, our foibles, each other, the Afghans, our officers, our terps, and the weapons that have been shot at us.

I thank God for the privilege of serving my country. I thank God for being blessed with these soldiers that are grouped here.

We thanked God together for each other.

Then we went out and did our jobs.

I lost my brakes today and found out that I could navigate the mountain switchbacks by using the transmission and the transfer case. I was grateful for not smearing my humvee down a mountainside.

We toasted our families at dinner. All of us miss our families, and we would much rather be having dinner with them. We all reminisced about what Thanksgiving is like at home. It could have gotten maudlin, but it didn't. It was bittersweet to share, each in his turn, about how this day usually goes when we are home.

Instead of getting weepy, we shared our experiences and gave thanks for what we do have. We have each other, and we feel damned lucky and truly blessed.

Next year, we will have our families, and a small part of us will miss the other men who sat around the table today. We will, in a small way, miss the comraderie and the familiarity that comes with pain shared. Not enough, though, to give up the time we will have with our loved ones. We will have already paid that price.
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Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Afghanistan and Afghans; Random Observations

I know that I've talked about Afghanistan and how beautiful it is. I've also talked about Afghans. Forgive me if I repeat myself on any of these observations. I'm just kind of going through things that I notice about both.

There are more rocks in Afghanistan than anywhere else on earth. In places, you would swear that they are actually farming them. This is the easiest place on Earth to roll an ankle.

I can't speak for the rest of the country, but there seems to be plenty of water in the area where I work. The local farmers manage it really well; they direct and divert the water to where they need it. Afghans are more likely to kill each other over water than any other single reason. We have seen a group of men rush up to a man who was hacking into a small ditch with running water in it and beat the tar out of him with shovels because he was apparently violating local water policy.

Wow... what if your neighbors came over and beat you with garden implements because your toilet was running all night or you had a sprinkler on?

In Afghanistan, hacking is not a computer crime. It is a water crime.

Where farmers manage the water, things grow. Where they do not, it is rocky and barren. It's a fluid situation.

The soil does not readily soak up water. It rarely rains, but when it does, it puddles quickly and the puddles last for days.

The fields are mostly fairly small, perhaps an acre or two, many are smaller. Many are bordered with three to four foot tall mud walls, and all of the vineyards are surrounded by five to six foot high mud walls. Every field is bordered with irrigation ditches that are most often dry except when in use.

Afghans let their livestock roam free a lot. It is not uncommon for a cow, or a small group of cows, to be walking unattended down the road.

Afghans use a lot of donkeys. Not mules; donkeys. The little ones. Our guys consider the gray donkeys to be lucky and the black ones unlucky.

That's a joke. When there is nothing else to do on a convoy, someone will call out lucky and unlucky donkey sightings. The gray donkey of good fortune is always greeted with enthusiasm.

This is only among our small group. I don't think most guys give them a second thought.

Donkeys carry everything from very heavy looking loads to Afghans. Today we saw a guy riding a donkey full-out. It was hilarious. He looked like Icabod Crane on a pony. Mostly, the donkeys never look like they are in a hurry, and they seem to trudge.

The only enthusiasm you ever get from a full-grown donkey is a sudden raucous braying display that occurs early in the morning like a rooster crowing and then again at irregular intervals during the day. We still do not understand what sets them off. The rest of the time, they look like they wish someone would shoot them.

Eeyore was an Afghan donkey. I never understood that until I saw Afghan donkeys. I wondered after seeing the Afghan donkeys if A. A. Milne was an Afghan veteran of the British Army. He wasn't. He did serve in the British Army, but that was in WW-I. He surely spoke with veterans of the last British campaign in Afghanistan, who surely spoke of the mopey donkeys of Afghanistan. Eeyore was born of these conversations, I'm sure.

That's my story, and I'm sticking with it. Eeyore is an Afghan. The makers of the cartoon simply left out his heavy accent. Imagine, if you will, Eeyore with a heavy Afghan accent. See? It makes the character all the more comic.

Even the tail makes sense. If you had ever seen an Afghan ladder, or the wiring jobs they do between houses, the nailed-on tail would make perfect sense. Again, my point; Eeyore is... you guessed it... an Afghan.

All manner of domestic animals can be encountered on the plains, hillsides, and roads of Afghanistan. It is not uncommon to brake wildly to avoid sheep, cattle, and even chickens. How they keep the animals straight is beyond me. Who knows who owns that chicken we just slammed on the brakes for?

Does anyone? Or is it a community chicken? It certainly can't be a wild chicken. What would a feral chicken look like?

Here you must share the right of way with herds of sheep and goats. While in the United States we have to run public service messages to remind motorists that bicyclists are also permitted to use the road system, it is not uncommon to come around a bend in the road to find the road clogged with a massive herd of sheep or goats... or both.

We slow to a crawl and honk our horns, trying to make our way through the mass of animals.

Many of the animals roam so unconcernedly that they simply do not seem to care if they are hit by a humvee or not. On the way to a mission at the very end of July, my crew and I had an encounter with a herd of sheep. A single young ram detached itself from the herd and wandered out in front of my humvee. It actually walked straight towards my humvee. We slowed to less than walking speed, barely edging forward.

The ram was apparently an extremist. He sacrificed himself, vainly attempting to disable my 6-ton vehicle with his body. It was a valiant effort, but his sacrifice went for naught. How can any animal be killed by a vehicle moving less than a mile an hour? Jihadist ram.

It is a fairly common practice to send the cows out in the morning with a donkey for a leader. Apparently cattle will follow a donkey. Perhaps the donkey has some method of maintaining bovine discipline. They must use these methods out of sight of humans. Perhaps they only practice their cattle mind-control techniques out of sight of Americans.

The wily Afghan cattle herding donkey. I wonder if Eeyore had that talent. The world may never know; there were no cows in any of the Winnie the Pooh stories. Bother.

Afghans are fairly brutal in the methods they use to guide their animals through this world. They often sling rocks at their animals to let them know that they are in the wrong place or to speed them along. They are also fond of sticks. As we pass a herd of whatever the animal du jour is, there is always at least one person swatting enthusiastically with a long stick, urging his animals out of our path.

Most Afghans do not like dogs. I don't know why. Perhaps it's because dogs do things like eat fecal matter and sniff each other's posteriors. Most of the dogs of Afghanistan live short, brutal lives. Dogs that actually live with a family are kept for protection or for work.

The exception seems to be the Cuchies (pronounced "Koo-cheez.") Cuchies are nomads. At certain times of year you can see families of Cuchies moving along the roads with their herds of goats and all of their worldly possessions strapped to the backs of camels.

Camels can carry a lot. It's amazing.

The Cuchies keep enormous dogs, and the dogs seem to be treated better than the average Afghan dog.

As for your average Afghan dog, I haven't seen many of them that didn't have some kind of physical problem, probably caused by human beings who think nothing of winging a rock at a dog for no apparent reason.

The Cuchi migration south this year was the first migration that I had witnessed up close and personal. That means that we drove past them as they headed south along the road with their entire family, herd of goats, super-sized dogs, and a few donkeys. The people walked, the camels hauled amazing loads, the donkeys moped along with their medium-sized-but-big-for-a-donkey loads. Something was missing.

There, among the massed tentage, twelve feet off the ground, would be a Cuchi baby peering out at the world.

Just as an aside, you just know a Cuchi baby has to be cute. They are. Cute little Cuchi babies peering at you from their perch atop loaded camels. It's too cute for words. The less well-to-do Cuchi babies are tucked amid the family riches atop a donkey. They are cute, too.

Afghan babies lead adventurous lives. Afghans are doting parents, but they do things that would make Britney Spears seem overly cautious. A few days ago I saw what appeared to be an eighteen month old sitting between the gas tank of a Chinese motorcycle and her daddy's lap, cruising down the road.

Try that in your neighborhood and you will likely end up in court and in the newspaper.

The next day I saw another dad on another Chinese motorcycle with his family. Mom, burqa-clad, was on the back with a sleeping baby dangling like a rag doll, sliding off her lap. This is normal.

Cuchies, the gypsies of Afghanistan, may sound really cute, but there is a reason why they are still nomadic. Nobody messes with them. I think they all act like they're lucky when the Cuchies decide to squat on their property for the summer. "Oh, you're so lucky! You got Cuchies this year!"

Some bizarre form of Afghan denial.

Perhaps they view it like some kind of ailment. "Poor Achmed."

"What's wrong?"

"They got the Cuchies this year."

"What a shame. They should have gotten the vaccination."

They have to deal with it somehow. Cuchies are apparently meaner than hell when aroused. Last year, the Taliban in our valley killed a Cuchi. The Cuchi retaliated by killing over twenty people.

Don't mess with the Cuchi.

I realize that these thoughts are disjointed and seemingly random. How do you describe a place and a people like this? There are so many little things that I notice and find interesting or odd.

It will take another writing or two to get out all of these observations. Perhaps I never will. I just wanted to document and share a few of these.

The last observation I will make is that Afghans are beautiful people. There are variations in their appearance, but many of them have striking facial features. I would have to say that a disproportionate number of them are very good looking.

A lot of people remember the beautiful Afghan girl with the amazing eyes from National Geographic Magazine. There are lots of girls here who are that striking. Of course, once they reach the age of twelve to fourteen they are covered in burqas for the rest of their lives, and so I rarely see the faces of adult females, but there have been occasions. Today was one of them.

We surprised a family as we rolled down the road in our humvees on a conop. The woman, who was following her husband, had her burqa thrown back. She heard us suddenly and turned her head. For a split second, before she could turn away, I saw what anyone would consider to be an amazingly beautiful face. Then she turned away, and it was over.

Many of the young girls who we see along the roads are amazingly pretty. It's just something you see a lot of in Afghanistan. I don't know why, you just do. Perhaps it's just the region that we're in.

I thought perhaps it was just me, but I showed my pictures to a few friends when I was home and a couple of them remarked how good-looking Afghans are.

Now, if we could just get them to behave as a nation instead of a loose confederation of tribes, we'd be in business.

I'll part with that. There are more observations to record, but I'm tired of typing right now. It's been another long day, and there is another one tomorrow.

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving. We are going to the most dangerous place in our province to have Thanksgiving dinner at the firebase. I'm grateful for a lot of things this year, including the priveledge of being here to serve my country. I'm also thankful for the health and safety of my family. I'm grateful for the fine people I serve with. I'm grateful to be an American.

The Afghans don't have Thanksgiving. They call it Thursday.

That's Panj-shambey in Dari.

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Friday, November 9, 2007

A Marathon: The Wounded Warrior Project

I ran into a team member of my original team from Ft Riley today. As you may have figured out from reading this blog, I do not use anyone's name, not even my own. It's my way of keeping OPSEC for my family and myself and for my cohorts.

Now, I'm going to break OPSEC. >GASP<

With his permission, I would like to reveal to you CPT Mike Keilty.

CPT Keilty is a West Pointer, a veteran of Iraq, who did his initial active commitment and was transferred to the IRR (Inactive Ready Reserve.) He began law school last fall. He is a Bronze Star recipient.

Scant months before his time in the IRR ran out, CPT Keilty was notified that he was being activated to fill out a team to go to Afghanistan. You can imagine his joy at this new opportunity to interrupt his life and serve his country. Many who receive the same news avoid their responsibility, but CPT Keilty heeded the call without question.

He is now in Afghanistan, stationed just outside of Kabul.

CPT Keilty decided that he was going to train for a marathon. He has been training for this for months now; since just before we came to Afghanistan.

I ran into CPT Keilty today at Bagram, where I had brought the team to take care of some maintenance issues on one of the vehicles. It was good to see him. He explained that he is going home on leave. He shared that he is going to run the Philadelphia Marathon on November 18th, while he is home on leave.

He is running to benefit the Wounded Warrior Project. CPT Keilty has managed to raise over $60,000.00 for the project. Isn't that amazing? From Afghanistan, he has raised that kind of money to help severely wounded warriors.

Well, I'm amazed, anyway.

The first Marathon was run to bring news of a battle. Now it is being run to care for the wounded of this one.

I break OPSEC because I would like to ask you to consider helping CPT Keilty in supporting this project. Please go to and go to the Special Edition section. There you will find pictures of CPT Keilty and how to make a donation and receive a special T-shirt.

CPT Keilty stated that 100% of the proceeds from the T-shirts goes to the Wounded Warrior Project and programs that are selected by the families of three warriors from CPT Keilty's high school who gave their lives for us in Iraq. Pictures and biographical stories of these three men are also on the page.

So, please stop by and read about four American heroes from the same small high school and what one of them is doing to honor the other three. Consider helping CPT Keilty to help severely wounded warriors.

Before we came into this country, we were told to bear in mind that this is a marathon and not a sprint. Caring for our wounded warriors is a marathon, and not a sprint.

Thanks, CPT Keilty. Good luck in the Philadelphia Marathon, and good luck with the project.

Now, if you go to the next post in line, you will find part two of the story of Day One in Our Valley. Please consider reading it as well.
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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.
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