I had promised my parents that I would call them on Thanksgiving, which I could do on the American side of the compound in which I lived. I crossed over from the Afghan side, my head still spinning from the events of the day, wondering what I was going to say to them.
Half a company’s worth of Georgia National Guard soldiers lived there, as did six of my eight soldiers. It was a neat grid of plywood shacks with corrugated metal roofs. The ground was lined with gravel in places but was typically just bare mud. Multi-colored shipping containers lay across the open spaces in which huge, tan armored vehicles were parked. Thanksgiving lunch had seemed opulent, and my soldiers and I had all eaten together, a means of rendering concrete the level of intimacy and familiarity that we had as a party of eight guys trying to shoestring a functioning 911 call center in a dust-blown provincial capital in eastern Afghanistan.
From the moment that I had returned from leave on the first of the month, November had been a month of marked highs and lows, of seeming success, of dread and fear. As I unpacked my bags after returning from vacation, across the busy main road of our neighboring city, a building exploded. We immediately grabbed our armor and weapons and ran to the tower of the National Directorate of Security compound. The third floor of the tower could only be reached by climbing rickety wooden ladders and taking hold of exposed concrete rebar. Once atop the roof, we could see the entire city stretching out in the distance, the painted, two-storey concrete shops and guesthouses of downtown, and the endless cross-stitching of mud castle qalats on the horizon. A hotel directly across the street from where we stood had blown up. The stairwell facing us had collapsed and crashed through the stores beneath it. Garbage, debris and broken glass was strewn in the road in a blooming pattern from the point of detonation. All of the neighboring shops’ windows were shattered. Crowds of angry men were already gathering, and some had taken to sweeping up the refuse themselves.
The damaged side of the building had caved in completely, but—miraculously—no one had been killed. A few people had been seriously injured and taken to the nearby hospital. The post-blast analysis revealed little besides that the bomb had been composed of urea nitrate. Apparently, the owner of the hotel had discovered a bomb inside of a pressure cooker that had been delivered to him by a restaurant. He evacuated everyone from the block before the detonation took place.
My senior sergeant and I entered the building and took photos—aside from a burnt smell and the utter destruction of the stairwell, everything else was intact. The sleep quarters of the hotel were full of stolen American sleeping bags—good ones, too. At the base of building, a canary in a cage hopped about nonchalantly, having survived the blast without his cage so much as falling. We were still looking for casualties when the building’s owner, a heavyset man with rhinestone cuff links and buttons on his shalwar kameez, explained to us that he was a poor man and that the US needed to pay for the repairs of this structure. You could look at his clothing and guess that he was probably not a poor man.
A few days after the explosion, we received notice that our call center needed to be present for a planning conference on Adobe Meeting Room, the preferred software for literally all mission planning briefs and operations orders in the Afghan theater of war. This wasn’t an uncommon thing—often times it was so that we could explain (in general terms) the nature of the mission to our Afghan partners. We wouldn’t tell them exactly where things would take place, but we had to keep them in the loop.
This mission was different, though. I was assigned to control a platoon of Afghan soldiers on a search of a village known to be a Taliban gathering site. The town was called Gombad, and surveillance aircraft had regularly watched men digging in the nearby road that ran between our city and the much larger and safer city of Gardez. The road was dangerous enough that even local businessmen with no connection to the Afghan government would not drive it, and there was a truck graveyard of legendary proportions in which insurgents had seized vehicles hauling American equipment and burned them to the ground, sometimes with the drivers included. We were looking for any military-age males, any bomb-making equipment, and any weapons behind the individual AK-47’s that each family was allowed for home defense. We would report to the nearby airfield about a week after that conference date for preparation and rehearsal, and the next morning we would fly by helicopter and arrive at sunrise.
We coordinated with the Afghan police to assign a platoon of the Civil Order police, who were by and large better trained and trustworthy. We talked to their platoon leader and explained the plan, but we didn’t tell the location (aside from the district in which it would happen) as to prevent word from getting out. We prepared our packs and equipment, briefed the soldiers staying behind on how to handle the daily events and any emergencies, and before long we were inside a huge concrete hangar (fitted as a basketball court) on the airfield, conducting a walkthrough as a group. We briefed our mission; the Afghans briefed theirs, and there was a pause as the multitude of interpreters passed along the word. It was bitterly cold.
I had sent an email to my dad about the mission. He had also been an infantry officer years before the war. I told him we had a large mission going out, and that we were going to lead a platoon of Afghans. “This is the job you’ve been wanting to do the whole time you’ve been there,” he said. “Just do your job, do the right thing, and don’t worry about it.” It provided the calm that I needed in the hours of what-ifs before departure. In truth, I had a terrible feeling of foreboding.
We all slept in the guest reception area of the airfield, inside massive tents shaped like Quonset huts. I was thankful that the heaters worked. We rose at four in the morning, put on our armor and gear, woke our Afghan soldiers, loaded into two-and-a-half-ton trucks and drove to the helicopter flight line. Two CH-47 Chinooks landed; we boarded, took off and turned north. The back ramp was open and a gunner was manning the fixed machine gun; the wind chill and cold were brutal.
It was November 18. We landed in farm fields surrounded by low mud walls and, in the distance, orchards of hardwood trees. We would sweep the town from south to north. Once the helicopters left and the storms of brown dust cleared, I marveled at how utterly silent it was. People began watching us from the rooftops of massive qalats. This would be the moment that they would start shooting. No one did.
The mission was utterly serene. All of the village’s military-age males were gone. “They’re out working in the fields in another town,” people told us. People were cautiously receptive, and only Afghan police searched the homes. We asked the homeowners to follow them and make sure nothing was stolen, and after each house we would ask them if they were willing to sign a statement saying that a legal search was conducted. They all agreed, but on condition that we’d read the agreement to them and they would sign with a fingerprint in ink. I did not encounter a single person on my half of the village who could read. It took about eight hours to move from one extreme to another. The only moment of fear came when a cow charged me and almost knocked me over. We gave out solar-powered radios to each family after the search was complete.
We found nothing. The poverty was staggering and tragic. I met a little boy with severe conjunctivitis that was likely going to lose his vision. The Afghans conducted a formal sit-down, or shura, with the village elders. When it was complete, they parted with hugs and kisses. The helicopters picked us up just before sunset. It was sheer luck—most of our air assaults turned into marathon waiting sessions in which it could take literally days to return. It had been a good mission, albeit fruitless. Had we made enemies by merely being there? At least we hadn’t broken anything and the Afghans hadn’t stolen anything, something that happened very often with other units. I was just happy to get home.
The night of November 21, they attacked us. This time, the rounds were close enough to pepper our building with shrapnel. I had been meeting with a government official. I came running back to my room to grab my gear when the first rounds impacted. Suddenly, I froze in my tracks. I heard a violent and terrifying sound above my head—it sounded like a jet engine, but moving on the trajectory of a balloon that was quickly deflating. It passed over me and then, about two hundred feet from me, it exploded in a puff of sparks like an oversize firecracker.
I started running again. My senior sergeant was staring at me through his night vision. “Did you see that, sir?” He asked, his eyes wide. I replied that I hadn’t.
“Sir, an RPG round went right over your head. It literally almost hit you in the face.” But it didn’t. That was it.
We manned our towers and guarded the gates. We took fourteen mortar hits inside the sprawling government compound. None of them landed on us, but some landed close enough to startle. We frantically made radio calls when we got a very clear indication that an American patrol was about to shoot a convoy of Afghan police that, for whatever reason, were tearing through the city streets with their lights off. We were the only ones who could talk to both elements. It was incredibly tense, but thankfully they stood down. The attack waned and ceased.
On Thanksgiving day, four days after the attack, I was asked to help take care of a recent arrival. An American convoy had been attacked by mortarmen, and the attack came at a time when an American bomber aircraft was on station in our area. They dropped a five-hundred-pound bomb directly atop the attackers. Only one body was still intact enough to identify, and I was asked to help a team from the American compound with documenting it. We had to run biometric scans to see if this man had ever been documented before and could be identified.
He was wrapped up in white cloth in the back of an Afghan police truck. We took iris scans on the clouded eyes, white now as if covered with cataracts. We took fingerprint scans of the hands with all but three fingers blown off, the flesh frigid to the touch and the joints immobile. The man was probably about thirty or forty. He had a thick beard and was held together by blankets below the waist. His legs were gone, his innards blown open and his body spotted with deep punctures from shrapnel. He had lain out in the cold for at least twelve hours. It wasn’t the first time I had assisted this process, but this time I felt as though my ability to empathize as a human being had taken an irrevocable turn.
An hour later, I made the call. My mom and dad were fine. They were at my grandparents’ house with the rest of my family. There was some scandal about my aunt trying to host the dinner at her house versus at my grandparents’, and my mom recounted it to me in detail. I didn’t feel like telling them about things on my end. Of course they asked, though, and I told them that it was no big deal. It was almost winter, I said. Things were calming down.