I had been in Afghanistan for eight months. After Watan I’d returned to the SOTF, where the timed dragged on and the excitement slumped. When the summer came they sent me back to Helmand, back to Nahr-e Saraj, to a place called Shurakay; just a stone’s throw from my old stomping ground at Watan. Things had gotten “sporty” with the summer thaw — I saw combat my very first day back in the valley.

That set the tone for the month to come. Like Watan, I had moved into Shurakay with the engineers, watched them build the place from the ground up. Our VSP was attacked regularly. Us pogues who’d been assigned to towers had mastered a sort of fireman’s drill; leaping out of bed, throwing on our kits, grabbing our weapons, rushing to the towers to repel the Taliban. By the time I left the place, one of our Afghan partners had been killed, and five Americans had been wounded.

Needless to say, I’d gotten my fill. So when the news came that I was moving to Zombalay — an outpost just down the road from Shurakay — for the very last month of my deployment, I wasn’t as enthused as I might have been as a fresh-faced boot. My end-of-deployment paranoia was at its height; all I wanted to do was get home.

The MISO team from Watan had also migrated to Zombalay, having seen it as a sort of Promised Land for pogues. “They even take the cook out on patrols,” they’d told me back at Watan, where getting on a CONOP was about as easy as winning the Medal of Honor. Zombalay (or “Zombieland”) was run by Green Berets, and this particular team was supposedly “laid back” when it came to support elements. If you wanted combat, they’d give it to you, provided you weren’t a liability. My combat camera predecessor had apparently been a liability. I would have to rebuild a bridge.