Back in the summer of 2010, my unit, Bravo Company 1-66 TF, was deployed to the Charbaugh region of the Arghendab River Valley, Kandahar province — the very birthplace of the Taliban and a stronghold at the time. It was a beautiful patch of hell called Combat Outpost (COP) Ware and it was our home for the next year, in the middle of a literal minefield.
Even in this most volatile of places, there was still beauty to be seen, and things I find myself missing.
A shura is a gathering of a region’s elders and tribal malaks. The objective of a shura is to negotiate terms and conditions for helping them overcome Taliban influence, as well as to understand their issues and worries. These periodic shuras are an anthropologist’s El Dorado — an entire region’s most influential tribal leaders and warlords gathered in one setting enjoying a friendly ritual of chai tea and Pine cigarettes.
Having an innate curiosity for foreign cultures, and having studied anthropology in college, this was something I took full appreciation of. The overall atmosphere of the shura determined the mood of the locals and the situation. You didn’t need a translator to understand it. Tense, wide-eyed words and fidgeting would signal a Taliban threat, squinched eyebrows and heated words would usually mean we fucked up, light conversation and laughing would mean all is well.
A Street Level Engagement is basically a friend-making mission conducted in surrounding villages and farms. Mission details included: bull-shitting, joking, playing with kids, handing out candy, having tea with families, hanging out with that one crazy-ass villager, and/or helping with small mundane tasks. All the while paying attention to precious intel on the Taliban situation. So it wasn’t purely friend-making, but inevitably that’s what happened. I made good pals with a kid from the Jelerand community several kilometers east of our base who greeted me with a running hug every time he saw me. Then he’d proceed to tease the shit out of me, calling me coony (gay) in Pashto. We’d usually hang out if I was on security detail.
SLEs remind me of the typical RPG video game, when you have to talk to all the villagers in a town in order to progress the storyline. We made some interesting friends during those missions. But some villages weren’t partial to us, even if they were less than a few kilometers away from a friendly community.
The kids were a huge diplomatic telegraph, too. It’s almost comical because we’d know if there was Taliban influence or presence if the kids stuck their thumbs up, basically saying: “Taliban Gooood,” or vice-versa. Either way, they were always a joy to play with, happily lost in their innocence despite the war-torn nature of it all.
Being part Native American, my dark-brown skin and patchy-haired face blended well among Afghans. I became the brother of Ezetowa, an Afghan soldier my age and very professional. During mealtimes we learned about our different cultures through hundreds of questions over gallons of orange Fanta. At this time, I was trying to learn Pashto as well and frequented the ANA spaces, where I’d trade things like sunglasses and gloves for massive blocks of hash. Or candy from the MREs (Meals Ready to Eat) for some delicious goat-and-rice stew with naan.
Eventually, Ezetowa invited me to dinner with the ANA commander, an ex-Mujahideen with a face bearing a lifetime of war. He was a truly intimidating man to look in the eye. Through these dinners, I became something of a mitigator between the ANA and the US soldiers.
I had many jobs in Afhganistan — machine gunner, minesweeper (we lived in a minefield), rifleman, team leader — particularly due to our isolation and lack of personnel. My favorite was being the patrol scribe. As the scribe, I operated a military-issued Lumix camera and a pen and paper to continuously log the patrol. It felt good to trade the weight of a 240B machine gun and the constant stroke of the minesweeper for just an M4 and small detainee kit.
As a scribe, I had the most involvement aside from being a team leader toward the end. Since my main mission was logging the patrol, I had a slightly relaxed responsibility for security. So I took pictures of everybody and got awesome photos of the villages and elders, malaks, scenery, and, of course, the boys.
Most people associate Afghanistan with a barren desert, which is all but nearly true. In the valleys where the rivers flow, there are jungles amidst the whirling dry sands. Where we operated, the vegetation was so lush our patrols would take hours to move a few kilometers. There were farms, orchards, and forests, and canals and waterways shooting off from the Arghendab River.
Farms spat out all sorts of fresh vegetables like potatoes, cucumbers, carrots, tomatoes — you name it, they had it. Countless orchards of pomegranates checkered the farms as the most prevalent crop, next to cannabis and poppy fields. Our favorite to harvest, though, were the berries from the sporadic mulberry trees. Once, we made a legit mission for fruit to make fruit shakes with. Such flora gave much needed liberation from military rations.
My favorite outings in Afghanistan were the five-day rotations I did manning an observation post atop the high saddle of jagged and steep Pyr-e-Pamal Mountain. It was a vacation from the war below, not for lack of danger, but for the days not worrying about the explosive ghosts hiding underground. I took free rein of the entire mountain range because of the relative protection provided by the inaccessible cliffs surrounding us. During the day, the team didn’t mind idling around the radio, pulling watch during the sizzling summer, or huddling around the same radio during the bone-cold winter, while I went off exploring and rock climbing with a grappling hook I somehow acquired from the supply gods.
There was a special spot on the southern peak where I’d stare at the sunset alone in peace, watching those alien mountains sprawl into the hazy beyond, and scouring the clay villages in the green valley below. Behind to the east, while scoping out with the binoculars one day, I spotted a tall entrance to a temple on the face of a steep mountainside across a western suburb of Kandahar. A long, stone-carved staircase spiraled to the temple’s feet. The entrance was guarded 24/7 by ANA soldiers. I still don’t know what the hell it was. At night we’d watch endless battles raging all around the mountain, feeling curiously safe in our high tower of defense.
War is hell. No two ways about it. But ask any combat veteran soldier what the highlight of his life was, and he’ll probably tell you some war stories about the shit he got into “over there.”
Frightening situations and hellish images and sounds plague some memories, but war in my eyes will always be the ultimate experience. No extreme sport, hobby, or skill can compare. It’s the ultimate form of expression — tearing out of you that which you really are and what you’re capable of. Because of that, war is something to be longed for after the fact, even if we may dread hearing the crack of a bullet or just the explosion of a firework. There’s a resonating satisfaction of such an intense experience — knowing that few people actually witness such chaos and even fewer can persevere in it. This danger amplifies the feeling of being alive.