The explosion tore me from sleep. I scrambled up from bed and burst outside, assuming an air of indifference as soon as I saw the others. There were five or six of them, all looking over the Hesco barriers at a distant stain of black smoke. Pogues — engineers, corpsmen, attachments like myself, here to dismantle the VSP.

The move was upon us. I had been in Watan for two weeks now, and had yet to see any combat whatsoever. As soon as I’d arrived, it seemed the most volatile region in the country had suddenly quieted. The blasts of impending mortar strikes turned out to be nothing more than our own mortars, or controlled detonations, or on this particular morning, some other false alarm.

I joined the other pogues, hands in my pockets, hair matted up from sleep, following their gazes over the barbed wire.

“MCLICs,” said an engineer. “Shit’s on now.”

In the distance we heard a loud rush like a jet engine, roaring across the valley until it died away suddenly. Then came another pounding explosion, thunderous, so powerful it shook the dust from the Hesco walls. The engineers cheered half-heartedly, still subdued by the early morning.

The MCLICs pounded on for three days, like some immense drill burrowing into the Taliban heartland. Operators from the VSP had already begun to trickle out, leaving at night, quietly, to clear the area across the river. They were more surgical than the MCLICs, and less conspicuous.

I had cultivated friendships with some of them, at least enough to keep me from being an exile. The younger ones were the most receptive. It was the old timers who had no use for me.

The team leader was civil because he had to be, but underneath his officer’s decorum I suspected he wanted me to fuck off. His eyes screamed it; they had that same tired, no-fucks-given gaze that all salty operators share.