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.

Packs of children appeared, bounding alongside us but keeping their distance, all timid and fascinated. A few civilians watched from doorways, aloof, unwelcoming. We might as well have arrived in a time machine. These people didn’t even have running water, and here we came through their front yards, strapped with wires and antennas and every modern piece of technology on the books.

A motorcycle poked its nose out from an alley ahead, the engine gurgling. The driver shut it off and sat there, watching us approach, his black robe flapping in the wind. The wall drew back as we advanced, revealing two stuffed saddlebags hanging from his vehicle.

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Everything is a threat.

We are taught to scrutinize every stray piece of trash on the roadside, every military-aged male. Yet the patrol carried on, right past him, the driver watching all the while, until he was behind us. I learned through time that this sort of “threat assessment” amounts to little more than worrying; it induces anxiety and achieves nothing. You will encounter a million threats on patrol. If you stopped to analyze each one you wouldn’t get ten feet away from the FOB. After a while you just keep an eye out and hope for the best. But on my first patrol, every pebble was an IED waiting to explode.

We came to a sort of town square, a gathering of village elders waiting for us. We all exchanged greetings — Salaam, salaam — and sat down for a shura.

The team chief did the talking. His terp relayed his messages and the complaints of the elders; complaints I would hear at every shura. Not enough money. Not enough police. Too many Taliban. The MISO techs took notes; I took pictures, none depicting the excitement I’d hoped for. Elders drinking tea, bloviating with impassioned gestures. Some of these would go back to the SOTF for appeasement; most would be used for the team’s intel board or CONOP slides. Such was the extent of my usefulness.

After the shura we continued our patrol, moving along the outskirts of the village. On a low hill we encountered a swarm of children, rushing us in a frenzy with outstretched hands. The rest of the village, it seemed, was watching from beyond, standing before their mud dwellings in a colorful array.

Perhaps by the assuaging word of the elders, the mood had shifted from apprehension to fascination; the villagers smiling now, talking excitedly amongst themselves as if we were some long-anticipated attraction that had finally arrived. The MISO techs handed out radios, the children snatching them away and scurrying, eager to explore their new toys.

ANSF presence patrol

We continued up the hill, leaving the villagers to babble about their encounter with the Americans.

When we reached the top it was clear that something was amiss. The village that only moments ago had been teeming with life was suddenly empty, the wind moaning hollowly through its dusty streets. To our left lay a cemetery, strung with flags, the once-bright colors faded and frayed and snapping in the wind. A mosque was squatted at the end of the road, pale white, leaning out from behind a line of trees. It was quiet, eerie. A Wild West town before a shootout.

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My radio crackled.

“Patrol this is TOC.”

“Go ahead,” said the team chief.

“Be advised, we’re picking up ICOM chatter. They’re saying they can see the Americans, and they’re going to open fire.”

This took a moment to process. Cover. The road was flat and wide. When they do it, lay down. I put my thumb on my selector switch.

“Roger that,” said the team chief.

We stood there in the open, all eyes scanning every inch of terrain: the labyrinthine side streets and alleys to our right, to our left the cemetery, a golden stretch of fields beyond. The mosque down the road; looming, quiet.

“It’s a weird feeling.”

I turned around. The MISO tech behind me was smiling.

“Knowing you’re being watched,” he said.

Our radios crackled again.

“Patrol, TOC.”

“Go ahead,” said the team chief.

“Be advised, we’re getting more ICOM chatter. They’re saying there’s a bomb in the mosque. When you reach the mosque, they’re going to open fire.”

A dog limped out across the road, sniffed at us, limped away.

“Copy that,” said the team chief.

It seemed like we stood there for an hour, washed by the wind, coils of dust skittering across the road. Then like some train heaving into motion, the patrol lurched forward, slowly, apprehensive, knowing what waited ahead. As the mosque drew closer I tried to ready myself for the impending blast, something I would do on nearly every patrol. There is always a moment of dread — crossing a danger area, stepping over disturbed earth, passing a vehicle. These were called “butt-puckering moments.”

To my relief we cut down a side street, the mosque waiting there in the distance. Soon it diminished behind a row of houses as we slipped out of the kill zone. We returned to the VSP without incident.

That night I wrote a press release. Command messages were proclaimed. After the team leader gave his approval I handed it over to a terp for translation, the MISO techs recorded his narration, and the piece was broadcast out into the village, where pools of firelight pulsed dimly and villagers slept and lay listening to their new radios. The IO campaign had begun.

I returned to the bunker and began sifting through the day’s photos. I had images of a patrol — none breathtaking — but if all else failed, my time in Watan had at least yielded something. I’d vocalized my intentions of getting outside the wire in a real combat capacity, with MISO techs, operators, even the team leadership. I was beginning to sound like one of my press releases, broadcast over and over and over again. Any more asking would be a waste of breath, and asking was all I could do.

Later that week the team chief and team leader hopped in a convoy back to the SOTF for some sort of briefing, leaving the element leaders in charge. I was sitting in the TOC at a redline, sending some photos back to the SOTF (after the team’s intel chief had approved them; not a ball cap, face or quarter sleeve could be seen).

“Hey, snapshot.”

The first element leader was sitting across the TOC, writing a CONOP.

“Get your gear ready. You’re going on an ambush patrol.”