Imagine yourself in the middle of nowhere in Afghanistan. Maybe the sun is high in the sky, blasting relentlessly at the heavily armed soldiers below, or maybe the moon is high, gently illuminating the shivering bodies across the Afghan, semi-arid desert. It’s been a long mission, and the dirt below your tired feet is tilled up farmland — not only is the dirt loose, but it’s been specifically tilled by farmers to get even looser. Rocks and other debris litter the surrounding areas, hungry to become projectiles when the helicopter arrives.

The sound of incoming helicopters is one intimately tied to a feeling of relief, but you also have to keep your wits about you. Nothing signals your position more than a giant metal box screaming into an otherwise quiet patch of land, kicking up any and all terrain around it. Not only do you have to keep an eye on your surroundings, but you have to do so when the dirt starts to fly.

Anyone who’s been in what we called a “brown-out” is going to know exactly what I’m talking about, and the official term is allegedly “downwash.” Due to the security of the situation, it’s best if you can get out of there as fast as possible — even if you’re not exfilling under fire. You never know who might take the opportunity to fire a few fatal shots at the large cloud of dust in the middle of their neighbor’s farm. So you run like hell.

AP Photo/Ariel Schalit

You find yourself barreling through the thick cloud of dust that seems to be exploding all around you. Smaller rocks are shooting across the ground, dust hammers you from every direction, and you all scramble through the chaos to make it safe and sound in the back of the bird. Of course, they’re not all that bad — but they can really suck sometimes.

Worse (in my opinion) than brown-outs would be white-outs. As brown is to dirt, white is to snow. It’s not as rough, but it has a way of dissolving the snow into its finest, smallest particulate possible, replacing the air and making it difficult to breathe. It pins and pokes that cutting cold onto your skin in a strange, volatile sort of way.

I remember one particular extraction, running toward the bird — well, running toward the guy in front of me, who was running toward the guy in front of him, who was running toward the bird — and I couldn’t quite breathe. Snow had replaced the very air around us, and I swung gasping into the helicopter alongside several of my friends.

It was quite the feeling. The next deployment had its fair share of both brown and white-outs, but by the time my last deployment rolled around, I was happy to just stick with the brown-outs. It’s the little things that get you through.

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Featured image courtesy of the Associated Press.