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.”