Friday, February 1, 2008

Nighttime In Shades Of Green

I stand on the metal roof of a district center in a small town in eastern Afghanistan. The sun has just gone down, and the chill in the January air is cutting. I am warm, though. The Army-issue cold weather system components that I am wearing are doing their job. I'm glad that I changed my socks just prior to climbing the 2x4 homemade ladder to the exposed metal roof.

The sky has darkened, but there is a faint residual glow in the southwest where the sun has only recently fled behind the mountains, bound for my favorite side of the world. The moon has not risen yet. The fields are dark. The dim lights of the gas station across the road barely light the area around the single pump.

Shadowy figures move about the bazaar; men in man-jammies and thin wool blankets that provide the traditional "coat" perform their final evening checks and securing of personal property and store fronts by flashlight. A dog barks. Another down the street answers.

I reach up and pull the AN/PVS-14 monocular night vision device, or NOD (Night Observation Device) into place. It is mounted to a plate screwed into the front of my helmet on a metal device that allows it to be lowered into position directly in front of my eye. I rotate the switch and my right eye is instantly bathed in green light. Suddenly the shadowy figures are distinct as men, clearly visible as they make their evening rounds. The ANP guard on the road in front of the ANP khalat headquarters walks slowly around in a circle to keep warm. The primitive gas station is bathed in light.

A dog canters up the street, meets its neighbor, and they are joined by a third.

The dogs of Afghanistan live short, brutal lives. They are often mistreated by Afghans, who do not appear to treat any animals with affection. During daylight, they skulk about and appear skittish; but at night they come into their own. Suddenly the sprightly step that we are accustomed to seeing from dogs is in evidence. They now own the town, and their changed attitude displays their comfort.

A few men are making their way home, walking along the newly paved main road towards their homes down the road. Two men drive a pair of cows along in the traditional way; with a long switch with which they transmit their intent to the tethered beast. The cows, resigned, plod along unconcernedly.

My NODs detect a faint glow in the distance. I know that a vehicle is coming long before any light is visible or any sound is heard. I can see the headlights playing across the mountainside as the vehicle twists along the road a couple of miles away. My left eye, naked to the darkness, detects none of this, but the enhanced right eye is fully aware.

As it approaches, the car illuminates the two men and their cattle briefly, then passes them and pulls into the tiny gas station, honking its Toyota horn for the old man who runs the station. He comes out the door, and I hear Pashtu as the man asks for fuel. The station owner agrees and bends to start the gasoline engine that powers the lone pump. I direct my attention back to the two men with their cattle. In the distance, I see two dark shapes apparently stationary about 600 meters down the road across the fields. I reach for my M-4/M-203 and turn the power on the PEQ-2 laser sight. I double-tap the button and the laser flood light with the bright aiming dot in the center lights the field in front of me. I train it on the two dark shapes and see the two cows. I wonder what's going on. Where are the two men?

Moments later the cows begin moving again, and the men are again in evidence. One was probably answering the call of nature, unaware that his cows were spotlit in the glow of an invisible laser and observed by a curious American hundreds of meters away in the darkness.

I note that the driver of the car and the gas station owner have concluded their business. The station owner has shut down the generator and locked his pump. The driver is paying him, probably in rupees, and getting back into his car to continue up the valley. I scan the fields and the distant khalats.

Two of the khalats in this part of my sector of responsibility have some sort of power, possibly solar arrays like the district center, storing the electricity generated in what appear to be a series of car batteries. I note that one of them is not showing lights tonight, then notice that the tree in the center is lit from beneath. Ahhh… so they are home.

I can see several hundred meters at this point, but I glance at the mountains to the west and note that the mountaintops are lit. Not noticeable to the naked eye, the moon is beginning to rise, and it lights the mountaintops first. Just the reflected light from the distant mountains makes the fields in front of me easier to see. The NODs sparkle in the dim starlight, an indication that there is not enough light for a crystal clear image. I can still see very well.

The three dogs bark a challenge from the road in front of the gas station. I look to see the orientation of the dogs, then follow that line to the object of their attention; a single dog is intently sniffing something out in the fields, two hundred and fifty meters from the dogs on the road. I begin to have an appreciation for the night vision of dogs. I cannot see the lone dog in the field with my naked eye. I note that the wind probably did not carry the scent in that direction. They have seen the lone dog, not smelled it.

The dogs trot up into the fields, giving short barks of challenge. The lone interloper breaks for home, and the chase is on. The three dogs from the road are in full pursuit. It appears that one may catch him, but the chase is called off, and the victorious three trot back in obvious triumph, tails erect and bobbing slightly to and fro, heads held high; the light trot of the victor.

The gas station owner comes from the front door and calls quietly to one of the dogs. The other two, obviously interested, keep their distance. The man is feeding the darker colored collie-like dog that nearly caught the interloper moments before. Ahh… his dog. This dog is his early warning device. The man shoos the other two from his dog's food and goes inside. As soon as the door shuts, the two emerge from the darkness to feed alongside their friend.

Movement in the foreground; between the district center and the road there is a mosque. In the yard around the mosque a man is moving slowly, as if picking a spot. He is. Once he has chosen, he assumes a squat, head bowed. I know the posture instantly; he is urinating. Afghan men assume a squat when they perform this task, opening the enormous top of their man-jammie trousers, which have no fly. The long tails of the tops provide a certain level of privacy. As long as they have their back to the world, they are unobserved.

The two dogs that do not belong to the gas station owner are frolicking while the owned dog eats. It is a mating dance. I scan to the right and note that the moonlight is making its way down to the base of the mountains to the west, the reflected moon glare from the mountains lighting the fields more and more. Movement; the eye is drawn… a golden jackal is beginning its nightly foray. The dogs, distracted by other instincts, do not notice. The jackal moves about the fields unmolested, working his way northwest.

My hands are cold. I place them into my body armor at the arm holes, thrusting my hands in behind the twenty pound ceramic ballistic front plate; an excellent insulator, as I discovered in the Afghan summer. It still works just as well, but the effect is now appreciated.

More vehicle traffic; a couple of trucks. Their headlights cause a halo in my NODs, but I can see into the beds before they are clear. The ANP at the checkpoint on the road stops them and gives a cursory check. The trucks move on. Badly tuned Russian diesels clatter through the bazaar, heading north. Quiet settles in again.

"Whoa! Oh whoa batcha!" the ANP calls out into the darkness.

"Whoa!" comes the response, fainter, from up the road.

"Whoa!" a third, further up the road.

Satisfied, the ANP resumes his small patrol around the few shops in his sector. He will repeat this call at irregular intervals throughout his time on guard, as will the man who succeeds him. It is their communications check.

The moonlit area is edging towards the district center across the fields. The mountains to the west, miles away, are lit in brilliant green relief. The folds and contours of the mountains appear almost animated in the green glow of the NODs. Drawn in shades of green, the texture altered subtly by the black and white contrast effect of the image intensifier, the mountains appear more distinct. The snow on the angular surfaces increases this effect. The overall impression is one of stark majesty, as if the mountain were newly thrust skyward, cutting like a shark's tooth through the earth's crust; all viewed through an emerald lens.

As the moon clears the mountain, it seems to accelerate. I can actually see the motion of the moon progressing over the mountain. In the NODs it is as bright as a car headlight, creating an aura around it in the image intensifier. I glance back at the fields, now aglow.

The clarity of the image is fantastic. I can see for hundreds of meters in the distance, and motion is especially obvious. Any dim light is magnified hundreds of times, so that the glow of a flashlight is evident far off in the distance. Someone is moving in the ANP checkpoint, half a mile distant. Car headlights up a small sub valley a few miles away carom off of the mountainsides, giving advance notice of its approach.

Glancing further right, I see another glow; a flare, followed by a pinpoint of light. Someone has taken a drag off of a cigarette, bathing the area around him in infrared light, which I can see.

I quickly scan the entire area again and turn my gaze upwards. The Milky Way is unbelievable when viewed through a PVS-14. There are easily a hundred times more stars visible, densely packed into the sky like salt spilled on a backlit green tablecloth. While the NODs destroy depth perception, I can still see the incredible depth of the universe. I consciously remind myself that I am seeing stars that I have never seen before, looking so deeply into space that I have never been able to perceive before.

The enormity of creation is mind boggling. Here I sit in the Afghan night, watching on the off chance that some lunatic might try to carry harm our way, pondering the imponderable. I am so small, in this little valley in the backcountry of Afghanistan, somewhere in Asia on this planet whizzing through space as part of a solar system that is so impossibly tiny in comparison to this galaxy; which is one among God knows how many thousands or millions more. I stand amazed in the darkness, allowing myself to feel the awesome power of creation; a luxury in the crisp night air. I bring myself back into the near reality.

The dogs have consummated their dance, and are lolling in the frigid dust a hundred and fifty meters away while the collie-like alarm dog stands and stares at them. The jackal is five hundred meters west, detectable only because of its motion. It disappears behind a khalat wall. Dogs in the distance, becoming aware of the jackal, bark in the nighttime chorus of Afghanistan.


  1. So glad you are able to find wonder and joy in your surroundings. Afghanistan sounds so beautiful--it would be wonderful to be able to see it as a tourist some day. Beautiful writing.

  2. Hi
    I dont know who you are Bill or Bob. I have been reading your blog for a while, I was getting worried about you as you did not write for couple of weeks, I am glad you are safe, good luck to you, be safe.


  3. Too cool. Thanks for the fascinating glimpse into your life. Thanks for your sacrifice and service for me, my family, my friends and this country. God Bless you and your loved ones._Joe

  4. My God, that was beautiful! You are so poetic. I really felt as though I was there seeing what you saw, only jealous that I am not. Sort of. :)

    You take good care of yourself, and may you walk with our Lord always.

  5. Thank you for your view through the NOD -- majesty over the mundane.

  6. What a great narrative... enjoyed the descriptions very much. Felt like I was there standing next to you. Thanks!

  7. Thank you for your service, and the wonderful description of your experiences. I have not encountered such thoughtful and evocative prose since "365 and a Wakeup".

    We all can sleep secure knowing that men such as you guard our safety, even that of the "free riders" who deride your service.

    Because of you and your brothers-in-arms, we can do more than wonder at the stars---we have the opportunity to strive to reach them.

    My wishes for your safety and success in all you set your heart to accomplish. May you see your children succeed in their lives more than you could ever dream or wish for.

  8. Thank you for your service, and the wonderful description of your experiences. I have not encountered such thoughtful and evocative prose since "365 and a Wakeup".

    We all can sleep secure knowing that men such as you guard our safety, even that of the "free riders" who deride your service.

    Because of you and your brothers-in-arms, we can do more than wonder at the stars---we have the opportunity to strive to reach them.

    My wishes for your safety and success in all you set your heart to accomplish. May you see your children succeed in their lives more than you could ever dream or wish for.

  9. Wonderful imagery! I've always wondered what the night vision goggles were like and you just allowed me to wear them, using your eyes! Thank you.

  10. You definitely have a gift when it comes to writing. It's not often that my senses are hightened to the point of thinking I can see or hear, etc what the writer is describing. Thank you for taking the time to share your experiences with us.

  11. The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the - Web Reconnaissance for 02/04/2008 A short recon of what’s out there that might draw your attention, updated throughout the check back often.

  12. Thank you for allowing me to walk where you stand. I have breathed your air.


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