I would be lying if I said I wasn’t nervous. We were standing in a small circle — the six of us, there in the darkness — going over the patrol one last time. The Afghans would lead us to a compound; we’d arrive at dawn. From there we would monitor a known Taliban hideout. We would probably take contact.
When the time came I threw on my flak, switched on my radio. I was also tasked with carrying “the ladder” — an antique fold-out that looked like it was a leftover from Vietnam. I struggled with the straps, cinched it up over my shoulders. The patrol leader came by and checked my load-out. Over the course of the deployment I would shed much of my kit, until it was no more than a few mag pouches, an IFAK and a couple tourniquets. Even now in the beginning months I never went overboard. Some of the engineers I saw were so strapped with SPEAR equipment they looked like they were jumping into Normandy. My status as a pogue was already glaringly obvious (I had a camera hanging off my belt in a drop pouch). No sense being a “gear queer,” too.
After radio checks, we waited. The Afghans were running late. I sat against the Hescos, managed to eat a few pinches of trail mix. The element’s SAW gunner was sitting across the way, his head bobbing, heavy metal blaring from his headphones. I checked my watch — 3:30 AM.
Twenty minutes later we were on the move, stepping out along the moonlit road, a line of silhouettes bound for the poppy fields. One eye saw the landscape in green, a convergence of darker and lighter masses, swimming in grainy phosphorescence. The other saw it as it was; dark, shapeless, a starless void.
We waded into the waist-high poppy and stopped. I knelt down, my knee sinking into mud. Someone crackled over the radio but I couldn’t hear them. Being equipped with an open trucker mic, I’d turned my volume down to the lowest possible decibel, rendering my radio — until we’d reach the compound — useless.
Five minutes later we still hadn’t moved. I whispered to the sniper in front of me.
“What’s going on?”
“There’s a danger area up ahead,” he said. “They’re figuring out how to cross it.”
“Danger areas,” the team’s intel specialist had told us. “Bridges, footpaths; watch out for a line of rocks. The shitheads are using them to warn civilians of IED’s.”
“We’re Oscar Mike,” said the sniper. I hauled myself up and continued on.
We stopped again just before a road. A creek was running along the other side, where most of the Afghans had gathered. The last of them was lowering himself down the embankment, preparing to cross, when suddenly he lost his footing and slipped into the reeds. A splash gave way to aggravated muttering. Reeds bobbed and shook on the opposite bank as he emerged, crawling on all fours, sopping wet.
More time passed as our own forces began to cross. A thread of light was seeping into the horizon, pulsing in my NVG’s like an advancing wildfire.
“Talk about a butt puckering moment,” said the sniper. I looked back at him; he was standing over the road, the next to go. “Walk in my footsteps,” he said.
I stood up, watched him cross, trying my best to follow his footing. I adjusted the focus of my NVG’s, and saw a line of rocks at my feet. When I looked back up, the sniper was disappearing below the creek bank.
I clenched my teeth with every step, waiting to land on the money spot. The ground drew below in murky green; a boot print here, tire treads near the shoulder. I placed my feet in every previously-trod patch of road, knowing that disturbed earth could in fact signal the opposite of what I was hoping. Either way I was fucked. It also didn’t help that I wrote press releases about IED’s. Eighty-percent of civilian casualties result from Taliban bombs. In Helmand, they probably planted more IED’s than they did poppy seeds.
When I reached the other side I felt as if I’d touched back on land. My heart was pounding in my ears, my adrenaline winding down. On the other side of the creek, the sniper was dragging himself up the bank, soaking wet. “Fuck,” he muttered.
Water was squishing out of my boots when we reached a dark green wheat field, the sky grey and the air grey in the pre-dawn light. I clicked off my NVG’s and flipped them up on my Kevlar as we waded into the field, the early-morning world like a black and white photograph. My foot slid in the mud and I landed on my knee, feeling like a beetle on its back as I struggled to get up in my flak and that goddamned backpack ladder. The sniper slipped in front of me, disappearing below the wheat stocks. “Goddamnit,” he said.
The horizon was turning a molten gold when we reached our compound, all of us covered in mud to the knees. We moved in through an enclosed garden that was brimming with fruit and flowers. They called me up to a wall where I unslung the backpack ladder, opened it, planted it. We climbed onto the compound roof, pulling the ladder up after us.
The courtyard inside was eerie. Empty, but with signs of inhabitance. A few emaciated cattle peered up at us from a clay trough, boredly returned to their cud. A pile of fresh hay amassed in the corner. The sweet smell of smoke, from here or elsewhere.
The team seemed unconcerned. The sniper moved to the edge of the roof, setting his rifle up between mounds of ivy. A sprawling poppy field lay beyond, stretching to a distant tree line on the horizon. Planted out there at the edge of the field lay the shithead compound.
“Let’s get this party started,” he said.
After the Afghans and the rest of the team had taken up their positions, I began to move about the compound — keeping to worn paths. A few portals stood ominously throughout the courtyard, dark within, leading back into God knows what. I crossed through a wide gate into an adjacent courtyard where an enormous dog leapt up barking, nearly tackling me save for its leash. I stumbled back, the dog pulling against its tether, its barks like roars, its teeth jagged and horrific. It was the biggest dog I had ever seen; a fighting dog painted and cropped in the Afghan tradition, with stubby ears and archaic symbols drawn in fading color on its face and flanks and legs and an eye that shone dead and blue from some long-ago battle. I crossed back through the gate and returned to the roof.
When I climbed back up the sniper was squinting into his scope, a spotter beside him. Two Afghan soldiers were chatting excitedly nearby, looking off into the fields.
“It’s a spotter,” said the spotter. “He’s got a radio. Looks like he’s calling in our coordinates.”
“Should I get him?” asked the sniper.
One of the shitheads had emerged from the Taliban compound. He was standing in the tree line, partially concealed, watching us, communicating into a radio.
“TOC says we’re getting ICOM chatter,” said the spotter. “He’s talking to a mortar team.”
“Should I get him?” asked the sniper. “I’m getting him.”
His rifle hissed, rattling the ivy leaves. The Afghans flinched.
“Got him,” said the spotter.
The rest of the morning went without incident, the Taliban apparently not wanting to go the way of their friend. As the sun climbed higher in the sky, we put down our ladder and slipped out of the compound as if we’d never been there.
I’d had my fill of IED encounters for the day, but the Afghans weren’t finished choosing terrible routes. We came to the ruins of a mud compound on the creek bank, climbed through a crumbling wall. The sniper stopped, looked over the courtyard within. Every square inch of the place screamed with warning signs: disturbed earth everywhere, piles of rocks and rubble, one way in and one way out.
“Shady, huh,” said the sniper.
He slid over the wall, landed inside and started across. I followed, chanting the combat om of “fuck it” in my head. We made it to the other side, crossed the creek, and bounded across the poppy fields back to base.
Combat had eluded me. I had been close, had made it to the edge of civilization’s veneer; but I had not experienced what waited on the other side. Soon after the patrol I was called back to the SOTF; “important things” were happening elsewhere. Two hours after my convoy departed Watan the Taliban launched a massive attack on the VSP. Everyone — even the cook — got their combat action ribbon. My combat would not come until the summer, when I would return to Helmand once again.