It was my first patrol. It wasn’t anything extraordinary — a presence patrol in the village — but for a lowly combat correspondent, it was something. My allies had helped secure my position on the CONOP; operators who I’d befriended or known prior, and also the MISO techs, who had broken more ground with the team than I.

One of them was an Army JTAC in a past life, which raised his standing on the totem pole. He had somehow convinced the team chief that I wanted to get outside the wire, which was apparently flabbergasting. As a career grunt who seldom dealt with pogues, the gunny couldn’t seem to imagine why I’d want to do anything other than sit behind a desk.

Greater than my own ambitions was the VSO mission itself, which could neglect IO no longer. The team had infiltrated Watan; now it was time to infiltrate the psyche of its people. Our IO cell was like some obscure tool dug out from the bottom of the bag, retrieved to fix the one problem in the war that could not be fixed with killing. Winning hearts and minds, as they say, was the next step.

Our patrol stretched out from the VSP, single file, into the village, the MISO techs armed with bags of handheld radios. Until now I had only seen places like this from afar, through MRAP windows or G-BOSS screens. Now I was immersed, stepping through narrow streets lined with mud dwellings, the wind whisking up dust from the rooftops and road, animating hanging blankets and curtains.