Diesel fuel doesn’t explode the way gasoline does. I learned this in Afghanistan, and it was of some reassurance to me when we would make supply runs back to the nearby U.S. airfield. Our only authorized vehicle—after a spate of IED deaths in Humvees during the summer, they were banned from use—was an open-backed two-and-a-half-ton cargo truck with two 600-gallon diesel tanks and a pump system attached. We affectionately referred to it as “the Bomb.”
The truck was barely running, and its fragmentation armor was actually thinner than the final build of armored Humvees. It simply sat higher, and its cab was shaped like a trapezoidal Chinese take-out box, which would presumably deflect more of any bomb blast we experienced. There was no armored turret—there was literally just a manhole-cover hatch, and whoever was riding in the middle seat would be tasked to stand up and hold their assault rifle as a rudimentary up-gunner. We could never have taken it on a dangerous route, but then again, the route between our compound and the airfield was probably the safest in our entire sector. We managed to make it work; it was all we had, and the mobile fuel tanks made it far easier to keep all of our generators running.
There was a post exchange on the airfield that had an intermittent supply of basic necessities. While refueling, we’d often stop to pick up things our soldiers needed: soap, toothpaste, deodorant, snacks, energy drinks and cigarettes. In retrospect, I visualize the comic absurdity of three plucky soldiers—a lieutenant, a sergeant and a private—stomping around this high desert base in body armor, weapons slung, carrying eight cases of Red Bull that we had managed to score. The Bomb had drop-down side doors on its cab that allowed us to stash necessities around and underneath the fuel tanks. It must have looked like a militarized Gypsy caravan from afar.
In December, I had lost an argument to keep our small satellite terminal in place. We had become close to the terminal operator, an Air Force sergeant, but he had to go wherever his gear went. The replacement terminal gave us the same amount of bandwidth, but was basically a huge, hulking satellite trailer that required a constant supply of fuel and had a crew of four handlers that went along with. The resulting arrival of the new terminal swelled the ranks of our compound to twelve Americans. One of them was an Army staff sergeant, which was a great help to us in the sense that we could leave more often for supply runs and other coordinations and know that at least there was adult supervision taking place.
Late one night in January, I returned from a meeting with our command team at the airfield and walked through the frigid dark. The fact that I was wearing an illuminated headlamp didn’t impede the view of the brilliant explosion of stars in the cloudless sky. Walking towards the Bomb, waiting for the chance to depart, my light flashed on an unfamiliar and yet thrillingly welcome sight: about twenty men with duffel bags and rucksacks standing outside near the vehicle parking area. All of them were wearing 101st Airborne Division unit patches and had an odd-seeming battalion insignia stitched on their helmets. It looked like an East Asian arch or a Pi symbol. I then recognized it: it was a Torii, a relic taken from the Japanese occupation and appropriated as an emblem of the 187th Infantry Regiment, also known as the “Rakkasans.” These men were the advance party for our replacements.
They began to arrive in earnest towards the middle of February. It was a huge relief to see them. Like us, only a small percentage of their soldiers would stay in the Paktika capital area—most would instead depart for distant outposts in the south. In our last few months, we had expanded our presence into remote sectors, to the point that most of these new platoons would travel straight from Bagram to us and then, within a few days, arrive at their final destination: small, thirty- to fifty-man combat outposts and checkpoints in flyblown villages and crossroads. The roads were still dangerous for convoys; most of the traffic in both men and materiel went via Chinook helicopter, the same workhorses that had helped us so much. Most of the newly arrived units didn’t know where they would be staying until they touched down, so there was an inevitable shuffling of personnel to fit these new, odd jobs. For example: it wasn’t until they arrived that they realized the need for a lieutenant to go run some joint operations center in the middle of the provincial headquarters.
I was supposed to return to the United States on January 20. My original logistical job had required me to deploy early, and the new Army policy to seriously curb extended deployments (that is to say anything over 365 days) mandated that everyone who arrived early depart early as well. The only problem: I didn’t have a replacement. The new battalion had someone in mind, but he wasn’t set to arrive until February 20. I would hit 365 days in country on February 17. It seemed foolish to go home early and force this new lieutenant to learn everything the hard way, no matter how much I wanted to go home (very badly). I made a phone call to my company commander, a younger captain who had taken over for the nightmarishly incompetent headquarters company commander in November, and explained my intent to stay. I thought I’d have to argue.
“Brigade mandated that we can’t have more than ten percent of people in the battalion stay over 365 days,” he said. “They basically let it rest on us. If you want to stay, you can swap out one of your soldiers and have him go instead. I’ll send you home on Februrary 28th.”
I picked a young specialist who had three kids and gave him the good news. He departed with the advance party, and we were down to eleven.
In the span of less than a month, the Army would expect us to transition perfectly with this new unit. We would literally swap out a whole 700-man battalion; in less than thirty days, the stated goal would be that operations would continue as if nothing had changed. We’d hand off our Afghan partners to them, and the only appreciable difference would be new names and faces. It is, for better or worse, an ambitious goal.
One night, a random private from the replacement signal company arrived at our compound to help receive the satellite trailer that would replace ours. It is typically a terrible idea in the Army to send a junior soldier by himself to do anything, and we were as confused as he was. We received about a foot of snow the night that he arrived, and as he kept making phone calls back to his supervisors, we rotated in shifts to stand atop the satellite trailer and brush the snow from the dish with a push broom. The sky seemed to glow orange; the wood-smoke city of Sharana had ground to a standstill in the distance.
The replacement dish soon arrived, and with it a crew of operators. Our four signal company soldiers and their satellite trailer went home. On February 15, two more of my soldiers went home. We were down to five.
On the 22nd, I met my replacement. Mercifully, they had chosen the right guy for the job. For one, he was a lot older, and had deployed to Afghanistan during the initial invasion as an enlisted soldier. He returned to the Army after a few years working in IT, and I felt like there was realism and maturity in his perspective. For another, he didn’t hate Afghans or Muslims, whereas most of the guys in his unit were Iraq vets and possessed a rancor towards them that I had never seen. Also: he loved coffee as much as I did, and in the series of introductions, welcome tours and walks around the U.S. and Afghan sides of the compound, we found a closet in the National Guard unit’s recreation room in which they had stashed about 200 donated bags of whole-bean Starbucks coffee. I guess no one had owned a grinder, and as a result they just set it aside. It was still good, and it gave us an added fuel for the days and nights of explanations and meetings required of us.
I remember a frantic series of writing. I made an enormous flowchart and Power Point presentation explaining exactly how the facility worked and how we delineated responsibility. I also made an acronym dictionary—my replacement had deployed in 2001, a completely different period of the war, and recognized none of the new terms. Almost two years later, I wish I still had it. I wrote it in Microsoft Excel with alphabetized terms and a landscape orientation; it wound up totaling fifty-four pages. It contained some brutal commentary on KBR, defense contractor support, the endless circle of Pakistani support for the insurgency. It would be a trip to read now.
On Februrary 22nd, I received word that I would be on the last flight out for the brigade. We would depart Kyrgyzstan for America on March 8th. My parents were disappointed, but they understood.
On the 28th, two more of my soldiers departed. My sergeant, myself and one specialist remained. We packed up and said goodbyes. Everyone wanted an afternoon to drink tea with us. We had a farewell ceremony that day; we would finally depart the next morning. We exchanged gifts and speeches (plus breaks for translation, with our Afghan counterparts). I told the Afghans how proud I was of everything we had done together, and that the new team would continue the same way. My soldiers then called the room to attention to present me with an award. I thought it was serious until they awarded me the Purple Heart—in this case, a piece of construction paper with a purple heart childishly drawn in crayon. It was an elaborate joke, and everyone laughed (although our interpreters had to explain the context to our Afghan counterparts); I still have the award in my personnel file.
The Purple Heart is an award established by George Washington to recognize soldiers wounded in combat. I had recently been hurt, but it was not a combat injury by any means.
A few days prior, we had made a trip to the airfield in the Bomb, and as we were waiting for our escorts to radio in for departure, I had tried to seat myself better in the middle seat. I grabbed what looked like a handle on the turret hatch and attempted to prop myself up. It wasn’t a handle; it was a prop bar meant to help lock the hatch in place, and it was only attached on one end. Pulling caused it to swing free and hit me in the forehead, which immediately swelled up and began spurting blood all over my face and neck. It was equally stupid and painful.
My sergeant and my replacement were in the cab with me. Just like in training, they pulled the dressing out of the medical kit attached to my gear and patched me up. I had a huge gauze wrap and a field dressing attached to my head when I dismounted the truck; I looked like a figure representing some distant conflict, like a Vietnam photo or some forgotten snapshot of war violence. There was blood all over my armor. The actual wound was miniscule—it only required one suture. Head wounds just bleed a lot.
I remember feeling stupid for not having had someone take a picture. If they had, I would have immediately (and unthinkingly) sent it to my parents. “You’ll definitely get a laugh out of this,” I would have said. In retrospect, it’s far better that I didn’t. I would later realize just how terrified they were that I was in Afghanistan. To them, it was this distant, foreign land of pain and misery. To me, it was a place that I lived for a year. But that year was almost over.