Look, I'm not doing this for you, but for my own dark and twisted reasons. Oh, and because everyone else is doing it.


August 15, 2004

message from afghanistan - part 1

While I've generally used this forum as comedic relief, I feel a need to change gears a bit.

One of my friends landed in Afghanistan in July, and he has been keeping his friends and family up-to-date on his activities via email. Until recently, his messages have been rather light-hearted as well as informative. About a week ago, his guard unit experienced an awful day though. Yes, we all hear about war being hell but I really hate that my friend has to find this out first-hand. His message (sent through his lovely wife) is long but riveting. Can we ever hope to win the hearts and minds of a people in the face of religious fundamentalism and deep cultural differences? I don't know.

This is the official "Osama-Hunting Update Number 6.

I dreaded writing this update, but I suppose folks back home have a part in this fight and somewhat of a right to know what's going on even if that means learning some of the darker facets of human nature. I may not have my senses to judge if this is appropriate material for all. Please use your own discretion. This will probably push most beyond their comfort zone. Sorry for the bad language.

A week or so ago we embarked on a 2-day patrol. I usually don't get to go out on patrols, if you'd stick to doctrine, as my part of the clock work requires me to be in the "rear" and be pushing supplies forward. This time my commander asked me to come along with the primary purpose to get the lay of the land in order to be in a better position to do my job here.

We were to visit a number of Voter Registration Posts, do some village assessments on the way, and hunt down some information to corroborate previous intelligence finds. From our little battalion home away from home, we have to travel quite a ways to get into the area of operations of my company. After covering that initial distance, we just be-bop around the various settlements, meet and greet, snoop and poop. My boss was mostly doing the meet and greet part, while a senior sergeant and I would snoop and poop. We had two interpreters with us so we could divide and conquer.

As we hit the stop on our itinerary, we got out of the armored Hummvees and met the quick-to-appear locals, men and children. All were friendly enough. All insisted that security was not a problems of theirs, while they had plenty of economic troubles, with 22 months of drought. Some of the kids, however, said the Taliban had been there a month ago. Our first BS alarm was activated. We were offered tea, and accepted right in the middle of the plaza. After learing all kinds of things which did not jive with our previous intel, we figured we'd been had, so we decided to move to the other side of the village for a re-cock. Same effect. In addition to the 'we have no problems other than wanting your money' we were invited to the house of a "doctor" who spoke some English and had a car. Good manners and all. He employed all his wit to convince us to build a mosque for them, and a religious school which would have to be void of any of the sciences since those don't mix. OK, we're green but not that green.

So we went on back out of that holler, got ourselves some local food, and took up camp on the local police chief's mountain top which dominates the valley, is a safe haven 1000ft above the valley floor, and boasts a stunning view. Local food we enjoyed was awesome grapes (one of the alleged 76 species), some oblong cantaloup, tomatoes that were dense in flavor and consistency, as well as local bread. We didn't even touch the MRE boxes that night!

Next morning we head on over to the second village on our itinerary. Roads were getting bumpier and dustier. For dust, imagine a beige matter the consistency of flour about 8 inches deep. Now imagine a fat Hummvee tire plowing through that! Let it suffice to say that you don't need to have your vehicle painted in desert camouflage. It takes care of itself.

We get to our village and go through the same experience as the day before: no problems, but could you make it rain or truck in some water for us? No Taliban here. If we hadn't found out otherwise, it would have been a believable story. We found out on the way out of the village.

Our convoy snaked its way out of the village down into and over a river bed, and up again. I was in the very last vehicle. My vehicle was just leaving the last grape fields of the village when we heard and felt a loud explosion. Everybody got a sense of emergency and got out of the vehicles, scanning the area, looking for the source of the blast. It was about 300m from my position, up ahead. All I saw was a big smoke and dust cloud. Reports filtered in with varying degrees of confusion. I couldn't get a clear picture of what was going on so I headed up towards the source of the blast, just enough presence to arrest locals that were headed away with a sheepish look on their face (I'm just minding my own business). I get to the fourth vehicle from the front when I get a report that makes my skin crawl: "we need a medevac and we need it fast!!"

Foreboding and unreal at the same time. "Call it up", I respond. It's the RTO with the TACSAT radio. He is the only one who can reach out far enough. I press on. Passing by the next two vehicles, I only notice the big eyes of the turret gunners. It's this squad's first time out, like mine. They are freaked out! I keep on running uphill. I can look ahead now. I see and understand. Like an ugly beast roaring and bearing its teeth towards me, there lies the wreckage of an armored Hummvee turned sideways, ripped open. Jagged edges. Debris strewn everywhere. A tire 100m off the the left, its rim another 50m. The dry rice paddy colored greenish in what I suppose is diesel from the cans on the outside of the vehicle. No bodies. Thank God. There's the hole in the ground. Fuck. Now I get it. We got struck by an IED. Still not real.

LT P comes up from around the vehicle wreck. He is screaming: "I need another jack. I've got a man under the vehicle." He looks mad, crazy, or in emotional pain. I can't tell, but I take his request serious. I make the next two Humvees move up and cough up a jack, along with the soldiers to help LT P. The first crew can't find theirs fast enough so I have the second dig up theirs and rush them forward. I get a report. We've got three critically wounded. That's two soldiers and one interpreter. The TERP is looking real bad, they call out. Some of the men from the first three vehicles had already begun to assist LT P in rescueing the casualties but that portion of the action takes place on the other side of the vehicle, shielded from my view. I've got my facts. The wheels are in motion. Time to act.

I've got to get back to my CO so he can report to higher and make them understand to ship us an air medevac without delay. I run back. The heat and the weight of the IBA is kicking my butt. So is the altitude. It's all still unreal. I head back over the bridge and find CPT G. He is on the horn with higher. I tell him IED. Serious. Three down. I don't know their names, but one is the Terp. LT P was in the vehicle, he is fine. One tire is 100m away. The three casualties are critical - urgent. That's a classification we use when requesting air medevac. There is no higher.

We've got local security covered, we are searching the site for more mines, booby traps, IEDs. We see some people on a roof in the next village. They seem to be doing a jiggy-dance of joy. We kick out a foot patrol to grab those fuckers. Those must be the ones! Our senior sergeant takes the lead on that. I head back to the IED site. This time I have to check on the rescue efforts. I go all the way up front. The turret gunner was ejected. Looking at the vehicle, that sounds like a good thing. Turns out it's not. We can't find a pulse. We work on him anyway. Sometimes it comes back. The interpreter has changed color. Probably had from the very beginning. We understand what it means. Focus on the others. We've got the vehicle jacked up enough to get the driver out from underneath. He's got a pulse. Faint, but it's there. We're working them both. We're smoking ourselves doing so. We take turns. Everywhere you look, crazy eyes. Not sure what's more taxing, the physical act or the emotional drain. We stop in horror: right next to where we're working on the driver we see an anti-personnel mine, touching the knee of the interpreter. Everybody FREEZE! It's a secondary IED. LOOK around! We pick up the driver and carry him out of the danger zone, keep on working on him. Meanwhile, we give up on the turret gunner. His pulse never came back. We pull his T-shirt over his face. It's a sign but it's also for dignity. Focus on the driver now. He's the only one left. We must save him!

Taking turns again. It gets harder. We cracked ribs, but that's what you do when you do it right. He's got bigger problems. We yell at him to hang tough. He is. Some of us get to the end of the emotional capacity for rescue work. We rotate new people in. I'm in and out. I also gather up a bunch of locals our soldiers have gathered up from the surrounding fields. I question them. I'm not making friends. I try every trick I know to make them spill their guts. They hold fast. We need the information fast so it's still actionable. 'I know nothing.' 'I'm just a farmer.' 'Allah has brought this day upon me.' Lies. They know. I know they know. It's just as taxing emotionally as CPR on a guy you've known for years. It makes me furious, and I am bound by the rules. All I want to do now is against the rules. The hatred has spawned new hatred. I can't even touch them. I don't but I try to get to them otherwise. One starts to crack. He shakes like a leaf. Good. I tell him he shakes. It must be because he has guilt. I'm mean. Not mean enough. He doesn't break. He holds his ground. I go to the next guy. He's tougher than the last guy and I am spent. I stop. I don't have it in me any longer. I cuss and walk off.

We get a call from the foot patrol. They come up empty-handed from searching a few compounds but they just spotted a motorcycle driver trying hard to get out of view. That's enough for suspiscion. The patrol wants re-inforcement and is almost out of water. I ask my boss to go lead the patrol. He agrees. We get two Humvees ready and move out. First vehicle movement since the blast. We have to guide them around the blast site. Everybody is jumpy, wide eyed.

Everybody is saved by the action. Doing something-other than CPR or interrogations-is welcome. We're fixing now. Let's go! We link up with the foot patrol and decide to go into the center of the bigger village and talk to the village elder. We move in. We own the village now. We dominate all ways in and out, as well as the little plaza in front of the mosque. All males hang out there. They know we don't go into mosques, but the mosque is too small for everybody. It's a gathering outside as much as it is inside.

At first we take the approach usually take when we get into a village. We ask for the elder. 'We have no elder.' It's a Jedi mind trick, but we're clued in. It goes back and forth a few times, until I am fed up. I'm fairly laid back but when I'm mad I'm mad. Some of you know. I'm madder than I've been before. We came in peace. We came to figure what help they need. I'm doing civil projects, for crying out loud. So I thought. They owe us and they know it. They must change. We must make them change. I burst.

I yell at them, pushing a mix of official message and personal gusto. They are riveted. I'm performing. Their eyes are trained on my every step. My interpeter catches my fire. He lost his buddy, too. They look at me and listen to him. They see the change of the tide now. "We're not here to punish. We're not the Russians. But we will find the ones who did this, and you can choose to be on our side or on our enemy's." They come up with all sorts of excuses. I have enough again. Call them liars. I tell them I know they know. I will no longer listen to their excuses. Either you tell us what you know or we make this an unpleseant neighborhood. Blank stares. But their eyes tell me thay understand how this dance goes. They understand where we are coming from. They actually appreciate the clear talk. No fake politeness, no weakness.

I stop talking and start walking among them. I'm the one with the rifle, the gun trucks, and the attitude. They watch. I'm still on fire but I'm more collected inside than it seems. I'm performing. I give the middle aged men a hard stare with my uncovered eyes. The 'look' times ten. I look for something that tells me that behind those eyes lies a reasonably honorable being. I pick out my first victim. "You! Come with me." I say and make myself understood by gesture. They don't know what's in form them. I pull him aside. Around the corner, out of sight and out of earshot. They remember the Russians. They may think I'm crazy. I turn on my guy, "asalaam aleikum"- peace be with you, have a seat. I talk through our position, I indirectly appeal to his sense of justice and honor. There's no honor in silence. I tell him I understand it's difficult for him to speak up in front of his village. He starts over with excuses again. I cut him off. No more excuses. Listen to me. I know you know something and you're not telling me. I recognize your position. I offer you to come see me at my compound. Nobody has to find out. You come tell me. If nobody from your village tells us, we'll come in and find out ourselves, but the innocent will pay a price. You choose. Expressions changed. Understanding was there, or maybe just the sensation of getting off the hook. We'll have to see.

My boss calls me back to the site. We roll up our positions and move out. We're not giving friendly waves. We're as stern as we feel inside. We pushed them, we made them glimps our rage, we played them our prelude. They and us are on the same sheet of music now. The stage is set for the big play.

We return to our guys. The medevac had come and gone. Two birds: one for KIAs and one for WIAs. We don't mix them. Guilt sets in immediately regardless. I ask about the driver. He didn't make it after all. He put up a fight and lost in the end. He went on the KIA chopper. LT P went on the WIA chopper. I'm glad he left. He was in a poor shape mentally and needed to be removed from the scene. He also had a cracked rib and from the looks of it a concussion. We wait for EOD to analyze the techniques used against us. We adjust our perimeter and coordinate for the wreckage to be hauled away. We are not leaving a token of triumph for the punks. We gather up every piece from the vehicle. Everything. We settle in for the night.

Cross your fingers that all future updates will be less troubling. All the best to you back home!!!

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