He was there in preparation for his mandatory two weeks of vacation. Everyone is allotted fifteen days of leave for the twelve months that they’re in country, and John’s was finally due. He had been at Bagram for a while; he was a platoon leader in Wardak province, and in August one of his soldiers died from a roadside bomb. He had spent many days helping to package and ship the personal effects of the wounded and dead soldiers in his battalion as the summer wore on.
We spent a few hours drinking coffee at the Green Beans shop on the north side of the base, and we laughed and joked about the absurd things all around us—the ancient national guardsmen with immense M16’s and deer-hunting scopes attached, the seeming luxury, the traffic jams of Toyota Hiluxes that formed throughout the day on the one paved street. John’s experience had been horrific, and what was saddest and perhaps the most indicative of the situation in Afghanistan was this: the mortuary affairs section at Bagram had been built in an earlier era, during which the war had not escalated to its current pitch. As such, the facility couldn’t process human remains and personal effects at the same time—that is to say that if they were attending to a dead American soldier going home, they couldn’t handle the bags and baggage of another dead soldier at the same time. You would have to wait until there was a free day, which hadn’t happened in over two weeks. People were dying every day in September 2009, so John had to just wait on that sprawling camp and keep vigil over the black plastic foot lockers that we called “tough boxes” that carried the clothes once worn by the young sergeant in his platoon who had died so violently.
But if that was at the back of his mind, he didn’t mention it. We had both lived through hard times, and we talked about the war, its future, its current state, and what we wanted to do with our lives. I told him that by this point, seven months in, I was terrified at the thought of not being able to return to the regular world. It’s easy to adjust to the chaos of a combat zone. In combat, your life takes on a singularity of focus revolving around your mission. It’s only upon returning that you realize just how insignificant your experience has been in the face of the rest of the world, in the face of the time that has passed. And yet once it changes you, you’ll never feel comfortable again.
Regardless, it was a pleasant conversation. John and I hung out the next morning, but he had a flight to catch, and I had work to do. I was still looking for Abdul Barak.
Chief Meenaka had been calling my phone, but I couldn’t explain the details to him without an interpreter. I could speak Pashto well enough to tell him that I would call him when I found someone to translate, but interpreters were much harder to find on Bagram than at my compound, plus very few of the ones I could find spoke Pashto. Although it is the majority language of the country, it is primarily confined to the southern areas, and most educated Afghans will speak Dari instead. Comparatively few Afghans who are willing to work for the Coalition are native Pashto speakers.
I visited the hospital and explained my situation to the staff. I was able to talk to the Afghan military liaison and ask about Abdul Barak’s whereabouts. The doctor, a young man named Fahim, was friendly enough. He made a phone call the first time I visited indicating that Abdul Barak was at the ‘two hundred beds’ hospital in Kabul but would return to Bagram the next day for a follow-up appointment. It sounded like a positive development, so I called my commander that night and explained. I had a cot to sleep on in our battalion’s supply liaison office. Meals were free in the dining facilities. There was nothing but time.
I had the rest of the day to myself. I walked the long strip of Disney Drive and visited the Post Exchange, a moderate-sized military department store built in the drab, grey remains of an old Russian warehouse. The food court at Bagram had franchises like Burger King, Orange Julius and Dairy Queen; the exchange had energy drinks, American cigarettes, new magazines, televisions and bedroom supplies. The outdoor food court had picnic tables at which you could sit and smoke and watch people pass; I hadn’t seen girls in months, much less in deliberately-undersized Army physical fitness uniforms. I became suddenly and uncomfortably aware of how miserable I looked; my uniform was orange from dust and filthy wash water, I had a hole in the crotch of my pants and I smelled atrocious. I walked one end of the strip to the other, endlessly saluting the myriad senior officers I encountered or returning salutes of soldiers. I took a shower in a facility made of triple-stacked shipping containers and scaffolding, and was shocked at how much hot water and water pressure they had. It was hot in the day and frigid after dark. Nights on Bagram were a maze of orange streetlights and darkened alleys between neat rows of buildings.
At the hospital the next day, Doctor Fahim had no new information about Abdul Barak. My interpreter had left on vacation, so the doctor was my only source of information. He said that Abdul Barak might still be waiting to get through the main gate, so I walked down there again. It was about a twenty-minute walk, but the guards wouldn’t let me out to talk to the interpreters at the gate. It was a tense scene: an Air Force sergeant was screaming at privates who had tried to walk through the gate, threatening to detain them. I could see dozens of Afghans packed in holding cages waiting to be cleared through security. These were the shift workers who would clean the toilets and showers on Bagram, who would work construction or drive the service trucks. People were barking orders at them and herding them from place to place. In my mind, it seemed a small wonder they hadn’t risen up and burned the whole base to the ground.
I called Doctor Fahim to tell him that I hadn’t found anything. He said to check back in the afternoon, because it was possible that Abdul Barak just hadn’t made it to the gate in time for visiting hours and had been turned away. It was the same story over and over again. Meenaka kept calling me and I kept having having to say, “Sorry, I don’t have any new information.”
I checked back in at the hospital and expressed my frustrations to Doctor Fahim. Out of sympathy for me, he called a friend of his at the hospital and explained the situation, telling him that we had been looking since August 19, and it was now September 15. It was going nowhere. Suddenly, he looked up.
“You said he was shot in the back of the head, right?” Doctor Fahim asked me. “During the election?”
I said yes. He kept speaking in Dari to the man on the other line. I understood the word for “goodbye” and he hung up.
“They found him,” he said. “Unfortunately, he died on 28 August. His body is there at the hospital.” Doctor Fahim spoke Pashto, too. I called Meenaka and handed the phone to him. They talked for about ten minutes. Meenaka now had to call Abdul Barak’s mother.
Abdul Barak was from Nangarhar province, the same area as Meenaka. The Afghans refused to fly the body back, so Meenaka rented a truck in Kabul and drove him home to his family. He rode to Jalalabad with Abdul Barak wrapped in white sheets in the truck bed. It was the least he could do. Mercifully, the hospital had been storing his body in a refrigerated container, a rarity in Afghanistan. It was a sad end to a long search, but in my mind I derived some satisfaction from having found an answer, one way or another.
But still, I was frustrated. The creature comforts of Bagram only served as a blunt counterpoint to the things I had experienced so far, the desperate moments of fear and the intoxication of a near-death encounter. I thought about my conversation with John from earlier, about whether or not we were inexorably changed.
My flight back to Paktika wasn’t for another two days, and I had little to do. I helped out my battalion’s liaisons with some errands, which involved driving a truck that had one of our dead soldiers’ personal effects strapped to the bed in black tough boxes. I didn’t know the man who had died, but a friend had been there on the scene and had relayed its horror to me. After dropping off one of our liaisons, I turned and took the long way around Bagram, the road on the south side of the airfield. I could listen to the radio and relax in the pleasantly warm morning. In the distance were adobe qalats and deciduous green trees. I had the windows rolled down and the stereo tuned to AFN, laughing at the irony of it all.
I rounded a corner and drove past a graveyard of destroyed American military vehicles. There were hundreds of devastated wrecks: MRAP’s, Humvees, light trucks, fuel trucks and engineer vehicles. Some were burnt black; others were contorted into cruel shapes, their bodies twisted or flared from bomb blasts, their windows shattered, buckled or punctured. Some were coated in mud or hydraulic fluid. How many people had died in these trucks, I thought. How many soldiers’ lives had ended this way, in this desert country, driving on lonely paths for one reason or another? For the mission that had become their last act? How much more could this cost?
I felt myself choking up. A sudden attack of emotion had overcome me and then passed. The next song on the radio was Foghat’s “Slow Ride.” It was a beautiful day; to take a drive under a blue sky patched with thick white clouds was a luxury I had missed. As far as being changed: I didn’t have to ask the question anymore. There was satisfaction in having an answer for that, too.