June

14 JUN 2008: Today Maywan finally proved himself.  A massive convoy was traveling through Andar when the Taliban (stupidly) decided to take them on.  A tremendously violent firefight ensued, during which Maywan shot a guy who was riding a motorcycle while firing an RPK (Russian machine gun).  I have to give the Taliban motorcyclist credit for attempting such a stupid maneuver.  At the end of the battle, two Afghan National Army soldiers required immediate medical care; one had shrapnel in his head, the other had taken a bullet through his shoulder.  Once again, we, the advisors to the Afghans, requested our injured comrades be evacuated to FOB Ghazni.  Once again, Dr. Smith refused to let the injured on the FOB.  Per his modus operandi, the injured ANA were ordered to seek treatment at Ghazni hospital.  The Afghan National Army mentors now share our hatred of Dr. Smith.

Later in the day our team in Waghez got attacked.  Our FOB reacted with lightning speed and in a manner of minutes we had a QRF (quick reaction force) spun up and out the gate, but they were called off, thanks to our artillery, who forced the enemy to retreat.  The attack in Waghez prompted us to engage in all night radio watches for the remainder of the Waghez mission.  A radio watch works as follows: every hour a new person on the FOB sits in the TOC and monitors the radios.  Should our guys call for help, they sound the alarm, waking everyone on the FOB, and we launch our QRF.  The only disadvantage to a radio watch is a constant lack of sleep.

I volunteered to stay with the radio watch from nine p.m. until two a.m.  As the FOB intelligence officer, I wanted to be awake during the prime hours of attack just in case the unthinkable occurred.

15 JUN 2008: After dinner, I traveled to FOB Ghazni to work on a humanitarian assistance (HA) aid order, part of my new role as our HA coordinator.  The knowledge that I’m doing something that will have a profound benefit on total strangers overwhelms me with pride.  My HA order placed, I sought out the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) representative.  The USDA rep is key to my plans to transform Andar.  Specifically, I hoped he could provide my team with fertilizer and much needed advice on how we can get the Andar dam back online.

The USDA rep informed me that current U.S. policy forbade him to give out fertilizer or small grain seed as part of HA missions.  He claimed doing such promotes graft.  For the next hour we had a very detail oriented discussion concerning grape prelacies, irrigation systems, crop yield, and the impact of micro finance loans to farmers.  I reveled in our erudite discussion, thrilled that once again my public administration degrees were proving extremely useful.

Back on my home FOB, I found Maywan sitting alone on a picnic table smoking a cigarette.  Sadly, I found the expression on his face all too familiar: the thousand yard stare.  Instantly, I knew Maywan must still be dealing with the emotional trauma that accompanies one’s first taste of combat.  That’s when it hit me: terps don’t get post-combat counseling like we do.  Sitting down next to Maywan, I put my arm around his shoulder, starred into his eyes, and said “Buddy, I’m really proud of you.  You did great.  You may not feel like it, but you’re a hero.  Do you know what a patriot is?”
“No, what is a patriot?”
“A patriot is someone who fights for their country, someone who stands up when the situation is at its most desperate and does the hardest of all jobs.  A patriot is a hero to his nation.  For the rest of your life, no matter what, you hold your head high. While so many others here choose to stay on the sidelines, you risk everything just by being our terp.  On top of that, you’ve now proved yourself a fearsome fighter.  You hold your head up high, with pride, for you are an Afghan patriot.”

Maywan turned, smiled, sighed, and said, “It’s the least I could do.  People have come from so far away to bring us peace, we should be standing shoulder to shoulder, hand in hand with them, helping any way we can.”  I wish Afghanistan had a nation of Maywans.

18 JUN 2008: Update on Shatara: Her family took her from the hospital (we believe they got kicked out due to lack of money) and returned to the clinic where we first found her.  Our rage against Dr. Smith only builds with this news; had he treated her, she’d likely be in Kabul by now.  Sadly, her move back to the clinic profoundly decreases her chance of survival.

19 JUN 2008: Around mid-morning I walked out of the TOC to find nearly 100 new people camped out on our “lawn” (aka our gravel parking lot).  Much to my great surprise and joy, Staff Sergeant Morrissey and Major Mcintire (of my team from Fort Riley) are a part of this group.  I spent the afternoon catching up with them, sharing war stories, and giving them our FOB’s dime tour.

 

Helpless Deaths

The sad truth is that the levels of violence and death in Afghanistan far exceed Iraq, and have for quite some time. Sadly, none of us were immune to the consequences of the Taliban Surge.  In two weeks, I lost three comrades to fighting and one to suicide; countless others suffered unspeakable injuries.

22 JUN 2008: “Law Dog TOC, Law Dog TOC, Law Dog TOC! This is Law DOG 3-5 via TACSAT requesting a medevac!”

Medevac.  The very mention of the word causes my heart to race.  “Law Dog 3-5, this is Law Dog TOC.  Roger.  I copy you’re making a request for medevac.  Send it.”

“Line 3: One-Alpha.”  One patient whose condition is Urgent (they will die within the next two hours if they don’t get to a hospital).

“Line 8: One-Delta.” (The patient is an Afghan Civilian).

“Line 9: None.” (There is no Nuclear, Biological, or Chemical threat at the medevac site).

“Roger Law Dog 3-5, I copy nine line medivac request.  Break.  Ghazni TOC, this is Law Dog TOC, do you copy our request for nine-line medivac?”

“Law Dog TOC this is Ghazni TOC, roger we copy.  Break.  Law Dog 3-5 this is Ghazni TOC.  Request more information on your medevac request.  What is the status of the patient?”

“Ghazni TOC, this is Law Dog 3-5.  Patient is bleeding out.  Has gunshot wound to his stomach.”

“Law Dog 3-5, this is Ghazni TOC.  I copy gunshot wound to the stomach.  Break.  Do you have a medic on scene?”

“Negative Ghazni TOC.  No medic on scene, but all U.S. personnel are CLS (Combat Life Saver) qualified.”

Silence.

Two minutes later.

“Law Dog 3-5, this is Ghazni TOC.  Medevac request denied.  Without a medic on scene you cannot properly diagnose the extent of this patient’s injuries.  You are to ground medevac the patient to Ghazni Hospital.”

“Ghazni TOC, this is Law Dog 3-5. Be advised, we have three vics (three vehicles) and fifteen PAX (fifteen passengers).  As a result we have no empty seats with which to transport this patient.  We request air medevac.”

“Law Dog 3-5, this is Ghazni TOC.  How was this patient injured?”

“Ghazni TOC, this is Law Dog 3-5.  Patient claims he was shot by Taliban when he stopped to take a piss on the side of the road.”

“Law Dog 3-5, this is Ghazni TOC.  Roger, I copy patient was injured while taking a piss.  Break. Law Dog 3-5, because the patient was not injured during a coalition operation we will not launch an air medevac.  We only medevac for local nationals injured during coalition operations.  You are to take the patient to Ghazni Hospital.”

For weeks now, the SOP to launch an air medevac for an injured Afghan civilian was potential loss of life, limb, or eyesight.  Now we’re adding a new condition: “and only if they were injured during a coalition operation.”  With these rules you think our objective is to purposely LOSE as many hearts and minds as possible.  What a great propaganda victory for the Taliban: “The Americans don’t care about you.  They won’t even medevac you when they find you shot and dying on the side of the road!”

“Law Dog TOC this is Law Dog 3-5. Do you copy our comms with Ghazni TOC?”
“Roger Law Dog 3-5.  Break.  We recommend you find a way to ground medevac the patient to Ghazni hospital.  We will arrange for the ANP to meet you along the way.  Once you link up with the ANP, recommend you transfer the patient to the ANP vehicle and escort them to the hospital.”

I turned to Captain Norris, my veins popping out of my forehead from anger, my brow furled and exclaimed: “This is ridiculous!  How in the hell are they going to move the guy with no open seats in their vehicles?”

“Good question Lieutenant.  I agree.  All we can do now is support our guys the best we can and make sure we get the ANP to link up with them.  I’ll call the terps and have them call the ANP.  You keep managing the situation.”

Almost an hour passed between the initial medevac request and the final refusal, precious time this dying man did not have.  In the end, our team strapped the man down on a litter and tied the litter to the hood of one of their vehicles and set out on a slow cautious movement to link up with the ANP.  The entire move took place in one of the most dangerous stretches of road in our area of operations during the time of day most likely for attacks.  Eventually, our team met up with the ANP.  As they transferred the litter from the hood of their vehicle to the back bed of the ANP pick-up truck the man took three shallow breaths and died.

 

Near Death Road Trip

24 JUN 2008: Being our resident intelligence officer, it’s my job to analyze the attack patterns of our enemy.  From these patterns I determine which times of the day the enemy is least and most likely to attack.  I then advise our teams when they should and should not move.  During my time here, I’ve found that the safest time to travel to Kabul is in the middle of the night.

A trip to Kabul is normally a welcome respite from the high level of activity in our AO.  We try to leave early each day so that we can maximize our time on the large bases up north, enjoying their significantly improved food and facilities (massage parlor, post-exchange, MWR facilities).  Today, however, our movement was anything but ordinary.  A police mentor team from closer to the Pakistan border traveled to our FOB to join our convoy north.

I woke to a beautiful Afghan day, the sun already sitting high upon its throne in the desert sky. Walking out of our dark b-hut,  I winced at the sudden change in light. I dropped my over-night backpack on our FOB’s rocky soil and bent at the knees. Mustering all my morning’s strength, I shifted my body armor to a comfortable position, shouldered the pack, and trudged off towards our FOB gate. A hot breeze smacked me in the face like a blast from an inferno. Dust devils spun widely around whipping shards of microscopic sand at my face. Another day in paradise.

As I walked out our inner gate I heard a familiar voice calling out in a heavy New York accent.  “Guys, guys, gather round.  Ok, basically, here’s what we’re going to do.  Ok? Captain Goodman here will be in charge of the overall movement to Phoenix, ok?  In say about five minutes or so, he’s going to give us our convoy brief.  Alright?”

I jogged up to Major Finnell (from my team at FT Riley) with a wide grin on my face.

“Sean! (He’s told me on numerous occasions to call him by his first name) Great to see you!”

“Hey Matty-Boy, good to see you too.  You doin’ well?”

“Sure am.  Will be even better once we get this move done.”

After a few minutes of pleasantries and story swapping we parted ways and headed towards our respective vehicles.

As I sat in the backseat of my hummer I should have known just from the other team’s radio traffic that today was a disaster in the making.  Efficient teams keep the “external chatter” (radio traffic) to a minimum; this team operated in a manner akin to drive-time-radio.  At one point, their chatter got so annoying that everyone in my vehicle yelled “Shut the hell up!”

To make matters even more amusing, a Marine unit traveling through our AO decided to use our radio frequency for their own internal communications.  Thus, interspersed with Major Finnell’s teams’ non-stop moving commentary, one would hear the following:

“All Vics this is One.  Passing over a speed bump time now.” (The first vehicle in the Marine’s convoy reporting their movement to the rest of the convoy)  Followed by:

“Two.” (Indicating vehicle two of the Marine convoy had just traveled over the same speed bump).

“Three.”

“Five.”

Wait, what happened to four?  For the entire hour we heard them, we never heard from vehicle four.

What made this completely confusing is that Major Finnell’s team used the same call-sign procedure to communicate (his first vehicle titled itself “one” and so forth).  Our teams use call signs generic to our position.  I am Law Dog-2 (as in S2, intelligence).  Captain Goodman is Law Dog 1-6 (as in Team One Chief; the number six is traditionally reserved for persons in command).

At first, we found this Marine traffic quite hysterical – especially the confusion it caused Major Finnell’s team.  But, given that we pass over at least eight speed bumps on our way out of Ghazni, and the fact that the Marines started to call out “suspicious people” (“farmer 300 meters away on a hill top”), the Marine chatter (and the confusion it caused) got very old very fast.

I should also mention we share our frequency with all the other teams on our FOB.  Normally, this does not cause confusion as the teams’ areas of operation are so far apart that they do not walk all over each other’s comms.  Today, however, Team Two left for Andar just around the same time as our convoy left for Kabul.  We had four teams using the same radio frequency to communicate.

Team Two quickly got annoyed with the whole fiasco began to mock the Marines over the radio, imitating Sesame Street’s Count. Someone said, “One passing a mountain five kilometers away,” and before any Marine could answer in confusion, he continued: “One, ha ha ha!” “Two, ha ha ha!”  “Three,ha ha ha!” “Five; I don’t know what happened to four, but five, five kilometers away, ha ha ha!”

All Marine chatter inexplicably ceased.

Sadly, we only made it about an hour outside of Ghazni before one of Major Finnell’s vehicles’ engine overheated , forcing our entire ten vehicle convoy to halt.

Reaching down with my Kevlar-knuckled and Nomex-gloved right hand, in one full motion I unfastened my safety harness, pulled back on my M4’s charging handle (loading a round into the chamber of my weapon), and rotated my M4’s selector switch from safe to semi-automatic fire.  I took a deep breath, said a quick, silent prayer, leaned my left shoulder into the door, and climbed out as it slowly swung open.  My index finger patiently resting just above the trigger, I scanned for targets.

In unison, Sergeant Koog and I turned towards the front of our vehicle.  Slowly, weapons still raised and at the ready, we walked forward in careful steps, our scan jumping back and forth between the plain, the hills on the horizon, and the ground immediately around us.  Fifteen feet in front of our vehicle we stopped.  A culvert, five feet in front of our position, ran underneath the road carving a pathway for a wadi.  Culverts are an IED bomber’s dream, especially where culverts are unsecured, pass right underneath the road, and are left open to the entire world.  The onus is on each convoy to be extra aware of possible culvert locations when traveling.  The only safe way to pass over a culvert is to stop before it, dismount soldiers, and have the dismounts visually check to ensure it’s clear of IEDs.  Given the angle of the road and the depth of some culverts, the best way to check one is to walk away from it, and approach it from the side using a large arching loop.  That task fell to me.

“Koog, I’m going to check the culvert.  Cover me.”

“Roger, sir.”

I took a quick scan of the horizon through my telegraphic scope ensuring no one was about to take a pop-shot at me.  Confident I wasn’t about to be sniped, I lowered my weapon enough so that I could perform a meticulous visual scan of the path I would take towards the culvert.  I stepped off the pavement onto the dirt floor of the barren desert plain.  Dead brush crunched beneath my feet.  I chose each step with the utmost care, ensuring that each new foot placement was free of landmines.  My movement toward the culvert’s entrance seemed to an eternity but probably only took the better part of two minutes. I walked to within five paces of the culvert entrance and for the first time since I exited the vehicle lowered my weapon from my shoulder.  The noon-day sun illuminated the entire length of the culvert, for which I was quite thankful, as it meant Koog didn’t need to repeat the same process on the other side of the road once I finished up.

The culvert was clear.

I flashed Koog a thumbs up, turned around, and retraced my steps back to the road.

Our dismounted IED check complete, we walked back to the vehicle and its welcome air conditioning.

For the next forty-five minutes we sat waiting as Major Finnell’s team attempted to fix their overheating vehicle.  Eventually, the word came down over the radio that the vehicle would likely not make it all the way to Kabul and that Major Finnell’s team did not want to attempt to tow it the whole way.  Normally, a team would head to the closest FOB and fix the vehicle.  For Major Finnell, that would mean turning around and heading back to FOB Ghazni for maintenance, but instead of turning back, they decided to push on and see if the vehicle would make it under its own power.  Two minutes after we started to move, the vehicle broke down, the engine strained so much that the thermostat was destroyed.  After this second break-down, Major Finnell decided to turn the whole convoy around and head back to Ghazni and have his vehicle repaired.

As Major Finnell and his crew headed over to FOB Ghazni, our team broke off and returned to our FOB for a quick lunch.  As I walked to the chow hall Captain Goodman asked when I thought we should leave.  I told him we should wait a few hours, let the prime attack time pass, and then make a run for it, and that we should not let Major Finnell’s repair schedule influence our departure time.  Captain Goodman agreed.

Two hours later we headed back out, one more attempt to make Kabul.  Our trip passed without any significant incident, until we hit Salar. I hate Salar and in turn, I have no doubt that the people of Salar hate me and every other American here in Afghanistan.

As we approached Salar we saw plumes of dark black smoke billowing into the sky.  Suddenly, we came to an abrupt halt behind another stopped U.S. military convoy.  Crowds of glaring Afghan men with thick black beards and dark turbans lined the road and smiled wickedly at the mayhem ahead.  A quick radio recon revealed that we had driven right into a massive ambush on an Afghan civilian cargo truck convoy.  Word was that over forty trucks had been attacked, many drivers had been killed, and that the road was impassable for at least two miles due to the raging inferno caused by the burning trucks.

Captain Goodman only needed two minutes of sitting around to make one of the boldest decisions I’ve ever seen.  “All Law Dog elements, this is Law Dog 1-6.  Screw waiting here to get attacked with the rest of these guys.  We’re going back about a quarter mile where we’ll turn off the hardball and take a dirt road around this mess.  Follow my move.  Law Dog 1-6 out.”

I silently cursed Major Finnell’s team for not heeding our advice and traveling at night.  Thanks to their insistence that we travel during the day, not only were we sitting in Salar during prime attack hours, but now we were going off road, around a massive ambush.  Off-road travel profoundly raises the threat that one will strike an IED.  As we turned off the hardball I crossed myself and said yet another silent prayer.

“Holy shit!  All Law Dog elements, this is Law Dog 1-6. I just had a guy sprint away from my vehicle as we drove up this dirt road.  Be extra vigilant as we travel through here.”  Everyone started looking out the windows as every Afghan in sight rapidly moved away from our vehicles.  Either we were driving into an ambush or these people had just attacked the jingle trucks and thought we were coming to get them.

“Hey sir, do you have a frag? (fragmentary grenade),” SGT Koog said to me with a mischievous grin.

“Negative. I can’t throw worth shit. That’s why they gave me a 203 (M203 grenade launcher).”

“No, no sir. I don’t mean to throw at the enemy…I mean if we’re about to get overrun and…well…you know…” Koog said, his voice trailing off at the thought of the unthinkable.

“…Oh…no…I’ve got my nine (M9 pistol)…if it comes to that…”

We’ve all vowed never to appear on Al Jazeera seated before some militant flag…

As we drove through the village the vehicles ahead of us kicked up such a cloud of dust that at times the road completely disappeared. Fear kicked in.  I resolved not to let fear win.

“Hey guys, I bet these assholes never saw this coming.  Every single person in this village must wonder what we’re doing,” I chuckled over our vehicle’s internal comms.

“Yeah sir, I don’t think they know what to make of it.  They all walk away pretty quickly, but their faces betray their complete confusion,” said Private First Class Rivera, our driver.

We turned left and headed north, driving parallel to the paved highway.  Thick black smoke curled into the afternoon sky.  Flames licked at the charred hulls of what just an hour before had been cargo trucks.  In the sky, just where the smoke thinned to a grey haze, Apache attack helicopters flew in wide circles, providing over watch to the coalition forces massing on either ends of the inferno.

Captain Goodman had chosen our current path when he saw civilian taxis and private cars using it to bypass the “road block.”  In another moment of sheer brilliance, he ended up using these vehicles as our own personal route clearance package.  Normally, Afghan civilians get the hell out of our way when we drive down a road.  And, as we first drove the bypass, the two taxis directly in front of us moved to our right and waved us by in accordance with the unwritten rules of Afghan driving.  Captain Goodman was having nothing of the sort, however, and had his gunner wave them back in front of us.  With the taxis leading, they would hit any pressure plate initiated IEDs meant for us.

For the next twenty torturous minutes we drove up and down over sand dunes, wadi ditches, and rolling desert brush.  Eventually we drove past the jingle truck inferno and yet, we kept going off road, continuously passing perfectly good roads on our left that led back to the safety of the paved highway.  Every single logical urge in my body screamed out, pleading with me to question Captain Goodman’ tactics over the radio and recommend we head back to the highway.  I resisted.  Sure enough, my faith paid off.

Being the last vehicle, the cloud of dust created by the two vehicles in front of us completely blocked our forward line of site.  Captain Goodman, however, was in the lead vehicle and could see everything, including a SECOND jingle truck inferno about 500 meters ahead of us.  Our off-road adventure continued.

As we passed the second inferno, I noticed that one of the Apache attack helicopters flying parallel to our convoy: we had just picked up our own personal air escort.  I let out a very audible sigh of relief.  Should any Taliban be foolish enough to mess with us on our dust bowl journey, the Apache pilot would quickly and violently end their pathetic life.

The taxi ahead of us turned left and headed back towards the paved highway, and so did we.  Very quickly, we found ourselves driving into a rather large wadi with twenty-foot high walls like a mini valley.  “All Law Dog elements stop.  This is Law Dog 1-6.  I think this taxi driver is leading us the wrong way on purpose.  We’ve got to turn back and find another way back to the highway.  Follow my move.”

If there’s one thing more dangerous than traveling on a dirt road in Afghanistan, it’s turning around on that dirt road and going back the same way you came; insurgents often wait for us to pass by and then plant an IED hoping we take the same road back.

Eventually, we found another route back to the highway.  As we drove back onto pavement you could literally hear the tension leave our vehicle as everyone loudly sighed in relief.  Our trip to Kabul continued with several more “security halts” caused by overheating vehicles.  Ironically, we actually passed over a culvert IED and never knew it.  When we got back on the paved highway, Captain Goodman’ gunner saw red detonation cord running across the road.  Thinking it was merely trash, he never mentioned it until we arrived at Camp Phoenix in Kabul.  What’s even more ironic is the fact that Major Finnell’s crew eventually came across the same cord, dismounted, and found an IED (the command detonated variety).  We think the insurgents didn’t use it against our convoy because of all the attack helicopters that were still flying overhead.  Major Finnell’s team ended up blowing up the IED with a few well placed MK-19 grenade launcher rounds.

Camp Phoenix…a once vibrant and well Fobbitted base, had turned into a Ghost Town, as the senior leadership sent many of its residents “forward” to more remote bases.  I had hoped to spend my few days at Phoenix hanging out with Specialist Issacson and Sergeant Rozyscko, but Issacson was away on leave.  Thankfully, Rozyscko was still around and insisted that I use Issacson’s bunk as my temporary home during my stay in Kabul.  I easily accepted Issacson’s cable-TV, soft mattress, and private quarters over an empty transient housing tent.

As I settled in for the evening with a little late-night TV, I reflected on just how lucky we’d been today.  Had Major Finnell’s vehicle not broke down when it did, we likely would have ended up being the targets (and casualties) of the ambush the jingle trucks had hit.

Friends Die In War

26 JUN 2008: Some days are so horrible that merely recalling their events induces nausea. Today was such a day.

Continuing my respite at Camp Phoenix, I slept in for the first time in weeks.  Rising just in time to enjoy an early lunch, I decided I’d run a few errands at the base PX and pick up some much needed hygiene items.  My items purchased, I decided to treat myself to an espresso at the base coffee shop (modeled after a Starbucks kiosk).  As I walked up to purchase my caffeine infusion I bumped into First Lieutenant Jason Pulley (of my team from Fort Riley).

Pulley told me that Major Malok had been injured hours earlier in a horrific attack; he had taken shrapnel to his neck and arm was medevac’d to Baghram Air Force base for further treatment.  Even worse, three soldiers and one interpreter had died in the attack; our unit’s second combat deaths since we arrived in country.

In a state of shock and deep concern, I politely excused myself and ran for the Camp Phoenix TOC (Tactical Operations Center).  In times of crisis I cannot stand to sit around and be useless.   For the remainder of the day I spent my time running back and forth between the Camp Phoenix S2 (Intel) and S3 (Operations) offices assisting in our brigade’s response to the attack and providing what I hoped was useful insight on the area where the attack took place.  I figured that since I was the only person in the TOC who had actually been to the attack site, my information might be helpful.

The Convoy From Hell

27 JUN 2008: I spent today continuing to help out in Phoenix TOC.  We were originally supposed to go back to Ghazni today, but yesterday’s attack delayed all movements throughout the country as everyone reassessed our standard operating procedures and refined tactics to prevent similar attacks in the future.

In the afternoon, I attended another military memorial service; this one for our unit’s fallen.  We’ve lost eight people in the past week.  Not even a massive sandstorm could prevent us from seeing the ceremony through to its conclusion.

At night Janis joined me at Camp Phoenix, which was a welcome reunion.  I treated him to a late dinner of Pizza Hut, over which he recalled the events of his recent helicopter flight to BAF.  While at BAF, the military police detained him at the base gate and accused him of being a Taliban suicide bomber.  Janis had actually been trying to leave the base, and was carrying his U.S.-issued ID declaring he’s a terp and cleared to be there.  I was appalled to hear that the MPs threw his Koran on the ground and denied him the ability to call us so that we could prove he’s our terp and not a terrorist; intolerable ignorance from a disgraceful group of American soldiers.

28 JUN 2008: Janis and I spent the next few hours waiting at the gate to Camp Phoenix for the arrival of our team and their newly trained Afghan National Police: our ride home.  Originally, I was supposed to be assigned to a unit based solely at Camp Phoenix. I found the thought of spending a year at Camp Phoenix unbearable. I wanted to see action because I wholeheartedly believe that the only way to effect real, significant, and beneficial change is to serve on the front lines.  To say I was nervous waiting for our ride home is an understatement; I’d been dreading this move ever since the deaths of our fellow comrades.  There are moments in war where the fear becomes so strong it can totally overpower you.  Fear is endemic.  It spreads like wildfire. You have to take control of it, turn your fear into strengthening anger.  Channel a controlled and determined rage, and then let your training take over.

At 1:30 a.m. a massive convoy of ANP and U.S. hummers pulled in the gate.  The newly-trained ANP looked incredibly professional and just itching for a fight.  Vehicle after vehicle streamed through the gate, filled to the brim with ANP wearing new body armor and brandishing brand new weapons.

“Janis, see how your police look once trained!  I’d love to see the Taliban mess with us on this trip.”  Indeed, we would ultimately travel with over 200 ANP (in about fifty vehicles) as well as over fifty U.S. soldiers (in ten hummers); our convoy stretched over a mile.

As I walked to inspect the massive assembly of vehicles I bumped into a few of my barracks mates from Fort Riley.  After a brief reunion I turned to head towards the chow hall to get some water for the trip.  That’s when I bumped into Sergeant Sizemore (from my team at Fort Riley).

“Sergeant Sizemore!  How in the hell are you?!?”

“Great sir, just looking forward to FINALLY getting into the fight.  Two months of training these guys at Jalalabad was far too long,” Sergeant Sizemore said in his thick Brooklyn accent.

“Hey, that reminds me you owe me a punch in the chest.  I got into combat within the first two weeks of getting down to Ghazni.” (There’s a tradition in the military of punching a person in the chest on the left side after their first combat experience.  It’s the left side because that’s where one wears their combat infantryman’s badge or combat action badge).

“That’s awesome!” Sergeant Sizemore exclaimed as he wound up and delivered a powerful blow to my chest.

For the next hour, I swapped stories and drank coffee with my teammates while the ANP fueled their vehicles.  By 0330 we were ready to leave and headed towards our vehicles.  “Captain Goodman! The jingle truck drivers who are hauling all the ANP’s personal gear are refusing to make the trip.  They say it’s too dangerous,” a very exasperated Sergeant Koog exclaimed.

Captain Goodman smiled.  “You have a terp tell them that if they don’t get in their trucks right now, I’m going to have the ANP confiscate their vehicles and we’ll leave without them.  They can find their own way home and explain to their bosses why they lost the vehicles!”

“You should also make them pay for the fuel we just gave them,” I chimed in.

“Great idea.  Tell them that as well,” Captain Goodman coolly said.

Within five minutes the drivers reconsidered their decision, mounted up, and fell in line with our ridiculously large convoy.  My vehicle was towards the front of the convoy along with Captain Goodman.  Major Finnell’s team took up the rear with our jingle trucks and ANP interspersed.

The drive out of Kabul turned into an exercise in extreme patience and logistics management.  Our rules state we don’t allow any “outside” vehicle to get into our convoy.  Kabul is a city of millions and even at 0400 there is an abundance of traffic.  Normally, it’s relatively easy to keep vehicles out of our regular convoys; the task is far more difficult with a convoy of over sixty vehicles.  My vehicle constantly sped ahead to block intersections and forcefully move non-compliant civilian vehicles out of our way.  We wanted to get out of traffic-clogged Kabul as quickly as possible; we hoped to get back to Ghazni before sunrise.

Immediately after we passed through the outskirts of Kabul, one of the jingle trucks stopped without any warning.  The driver decided he needed no permission to take a smoke break.  His sudden halt caused ANP to scatter from their vehicles and take up defensive positions in an impromptu perimeter around the entirety of our mile-long convoy.  Getting the ANP back on their vehicles took twice as long as it did for the driver to finish his cigarette and cost us precious hours of night travel.

Once moving again, the jingle truck driver refused to drive his vehicle faster than forty mph, causing a huge gap to develop.  I had my hummer speed ahead to get parallel with the non-compliant jingle truck driver.

“Wilford (my gunner), I want you to get that asshole moving faster.  Do whatever you have to do to get the point across.  If he continues to drive like this we’re going to leave his ass,” I instructed over our hummer’s internal comms.

I don’t know what Wilford did, but whatever it was, it worked as the jingle truck driver sped ahead.

“Sir, man, you should have seen this guy’s face.  He looks terrified,” Private First Class Wilford chuckled.

For the next hour our movement went without incident. At the halfway point, Captain Goodman announced over the radio that he planned to take a ten minute security halt, allowing all of us to go to the bathroom and stretch our legs.

We stopped and instantly the ANP streamed off their trucks, running to take security positions around our convoy.  They aggressively took the high ground and set up machine gun positions.  Their commanding officers and sergeants controlled the movement with impressive precision.

BOOM!

“HOLY SHIT!” Wilford yelled.

“What, what’s going on?” I asked.

Before anyone could answer the radio crackled to life.  “Be advised, at this time we’re taking contact,” an unknown voice called out.

“Roger. This is Law Dog 1-6, what’s the distance and direction of the enemy fire?” Captain Goodman responded.

I looked out my front window to see the ANP pointing at a position behind and to the left of our vehicle.

“Wilford, what’s going on up there?” I inquired.  “Sir, I think an ANP truck and some jingle truck just collided and now the jingle truck is flipped over off the side of the road,” Wilford responded.

“All U.S. elements.  I say again.  This is Law Dog 1-6.  What is the distance and direction of enemy fire?” an annoyed Captain Goodman demanded over the radio.

“Uh…Law Dog 1-6 this is Gravedigger-6.  Be advised at this time we’ve got an ANP who’s shot, ok?  Basically, I’m going to get out of my vehicle and check out the situation.  But, at this time,  we’re not taking fire; I think it was just one ANP taking a round.  I’ll get back to you in a few minutes,” Major Finnell calmly said over the radio.

A few minutes later Major Finnell reported that a jingle truck tried to enter the convoy and ended up flipping off the side of the road in a failed aggressive driving maneuver.  The ANP driver of the vehicle closest to this renegade jingle truck got spooked and slammed on his breaks.  When the vehicle stopped short, an ANP weapon accidentally discharged and struck one of the passengers who was now bleeding out on the side of the road.

“Law Dog 1-6, this is Gravedigger-6.  This guy’s bleeding pretty badly.  My medic says we’re going to need to launch a medevac,” said Major Finnell over the radio.

“Roger.  I’m moving to your position now.  Break.  Law Dog-2, get on a BFT and get a medevac request up.  Also, see if you can’t establish comms with FOB Airborne and FOB Ghazni just in case we do get into contact and need to call in air support,” Captain Goodman instructed me.

For the next thirty minutes I endeavored to raise the requisite units.  Unfortunately, we had stopped in the Bermuda triangle of Afghanistan and none of our equipment worked properly.  Finally, our comms started working, a medevac launched, and we waited for its arrival.  An hour after the ANP was shot, the thump-thump-thump of two Blackhawk helicopters announced his salvation.  The birds came in and did a quick circle around our convoy to assess the situation and acquire visual confirmation of the landing site we requested.  The landing is the most dangerous moment in a medevac as that is when the helicopter is most vulnerable.  The ANP needed to be watching outside the perimeter, scanning their firing sectors, and looking for the enemy.  Instead, like all curious people, they fixed their gaze on the landing helicopter.

“HEY! THAT WAY! LOOK THAT WAY!” I yelled at all the ANP around me, gesturing for them to transfer their attention from the helicopter and to our security perimeter.  Surprisingly, despite our language barrier and the deafening noise of the rotors, the Afghans complied instantly.

The first bird looped around, flew right by my position, and landed about 1000 yards away, in between two Hummers, right on the road, right on top of the smoke canister marking the landing site.

Within two minutes of their arrival, the medevac helicopters left, we mounted up our forces, and continued on our way.  By now the sun had fully risen and we were heading into Salar at one of the worst hours of the day.  With daylight eroding our element of surprise, Captain Goodman opted to drive right through Salar, rather than taunt the enemy.  As we drove through the outskirts of the village we maneuvered around massive craters in the road, remnants of recent IED strikes.  With each crater we’d slow down to a crawl; insurgents often reuse the craters, planting new IEDs. The front of the hummer would dip into the massive hole and our wheels would tumble over debris, rocking the vehicle violently.  Many of these craters span the entire width of the road.  Thankfully, the enemy decided not to tempt fate and left us alone.

The descent to Ghazni city follows an old caravan trading route, passing through a magnificent mountain range.  A flat plain of desert brush cascades off into oblivion before the road climbs a final pass, rounds a bend, passes a reservoir empty of water, and rapidly drops to the Ghazni plateau.  As we rounded the bend our convoy came screeching to a yet another unannounced halt.  Once again ANP streamed out of their vehicles.  Unlike our previous stops, a large portion failed to run to their security positions, opting to crowd around an object on the side of the road.  My first thought was someone had spotted an IED.

“Law Dog elements this is Law Dog 1-6.  Be advised at there’s a dead body on the side of the road.  The ANP and I are going to check it out.  I’ll report back shortly.  Law Dog 1-6 out,” Captain Goodman excitedly said over the radio.

At first I couldn’t see any signs of a body, but as the ANP hurriedly backed away, the indistinguishable form of a man’s body came into view.  Being so late in the morning, we postulated the body had only recently arrived at this spot.  Perhaps the enemy had planted it knowing we’d stop.  Looking around I realized we were in a perfect kill zone.  High rocky mountain walls stood to our right, with a precipitous cliff to our left.  I looked up to see Captain Goodman debating with the ANP commander.  They feared the body might be booby trapped.  One of the U.S. sergeants walking up to the scene threw a rock at the body to see if it moved.  The rock landed square on the man’s side but caused no visible reaction.  Captain Goodman decided to escalate force and fired a warning shot into the ground (well away from the body) to see if the noise caused any reaction.  Again, nothing happened.  The sergeant picked up and threw another rock, striking the man in the face.  Instinctively, the man raised his arm to check for injuries to his head.  The man was alive! Rapidly, the ANP brought the man some water, loaded him into one of their trucks, and sped off for Ghazni hospital.  Throughout the whole ordeal, I had to once again remind the ANP pulling security to focus their attention on our perimeter and not the “dead” man.

Finally, we reached the outskirts of Deh Yak district, and the final leg of our journey.  As we made the turn off the main highway, a crowd of local dignitaries (including the sub-Governor) literally showered us with candy.  The ANP seemed quite humbled to receive a hero’s welcome home after two months of intense training in Jalalabad.  A crowd of men spontaneously emerged before me, hugging, crying, kissing each other’s cheeks, and wildly shaking each other’s hands.  Almost as quickly as the mob appeared, it dissolved and we continued to the Deh Yak district center.

An eternity later, we arrived at the district center and the ANP’s main base in Deh Yak.  I felt as if an eternity had passed since we left Kabul.  For the next hour, despite the oppressive heat compounded by the layers of body armor, most of my team and I napped while Captain Goodman attended a welcome home ceremony in the ANP’s honor.  Finally the ceremony ended and we got ready to leave.  Just when it looked like we could escape back to our FOB, the jingle truck drivers blocked our exit.  My gunner reported that the drivers were demanding more pay.  A fuming Sergeant First Class Rucker negotiated with the drivers, came to some unknown agreement, and we went on our way, cursing the truck drivers the whole ride “home.”

As we drove past our FOB my heart sank as I realized we still had to go to FOB Ghazni and refuel.  For the remainder of the trip I drifted in and out of sleep.  Once back on the FOB, I dropped my gear off in my room and headed to the TOC to get a quick update on current events.  First Sergeant Rock briefed me on an attack that occurred in Salar fifteen minutes after we drove through; another American convoy had hit an IED, an IED likely meant for us.

Staring out in the hazy, grey Afghan afternoon, the city of Kabul awash in a mild sandstorm, I found myself relieved to be unharmed and alive.  I’ve never been happier to be back on our FOB. Something about the deaths a few days earlier really stuck a nerve.  I could no longer numb myself to the blatantly obvious: I was really homesick.

I walked into my b-hut, entered my room, and fell on my bunk.  Within moments of hitting the mattress I fell into a deep sleep, relieved to be alive.  One day closer to coming home.

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