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.

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.