poppies

22.APR.12; Combat Outpost Zaher

My first combat patrol. I wish I could describe the beauty of a seemingly endless field of Afghan poppies. Or the tension of not knowing if, on your next step, you will trigger a victim operated device.

Lose a leg. Or both. And your cock. Maybe an arm.

That is a level of alertness . . . a high . . . a focus . . . zen on steroids . . . 

That most people will never understand.

Your Monochromatic Friend,

Max; VXX


We stepped off as everyone else was coming on duty for the morning. I worked all night, ate breakfast, and kitted up. The trucks were lined up in the motorpool along a row of T-walls. I walked up to a group of Joes standing in the shade and nodded. Their team leader came walking around the truck.

“Hey, sir.”

“I’m tagging along. Where do you need me?”

“We could use you up in the hatch . . . “

I added myself to the trip ticket the night before. They were short on bodies. I was just another rifle. The vehicle’s driver, a young specialist, handed me the gunner harness. The straps look like a five point racing harness. I pulled the contraption over my shoulders and fastened myself in.

The sun beat down on my face. The air was muggy, and filled with diesel exhaust fumes. I popped open the feed tray cover, verified that the weapon had been properly cleaned and lubricated, and fed in linked 7.62.

My headset crackled.

“Hey, LT . . . you read me?”

“Yeah, I’m good.”

I was in the last truck, facing to the rear. I heard the patrol leader over the radio. We started to roll. We wound our way through the concrete maze to the entry control point. Unlicensed Afghans wove their way back and forth on the highway. We lurched out into traffic.

I reached for the charging handle, cocked the bolt to the rear, and shoved the handle forward.  I put the weapon on safe.

Drivers barreled at us from the rear. Compact wagons and hatch backs. White vans covered in circus paint. Little Toyotas with “ALLAH” decals. Small-displacement bikes and scooters swarmed all around us. They wedged themselves into our convoy, swerving in and out of traffic, trying to pass.  An errant driver clipped our truck and kept on driving.

At one point the congestion was bad enough to stop us in our tracks.  Motorcycle carts full of children and old men weaved dangerously around us.

“Two on the left,” I called as a pair of motorcycles buzzed by.

On the shoulder of the road a small boy towed an elderly Afghan man on a wheelchair. A rope was tied around the foot-rest and the boy dragged the man along. Another boy looked up at me from the opposite side of the road.

The boy couldn’t have been more than five or six.  He waved a sling-shot menacingly and aimed it at me, drawing back the band. I reached up and rubbed the barrel of the 240, my face expressionless. He lowered the sling shot. He scowled at me as he walked out into traffic behind the truck, motioning toward his mouth in a dick-sucking motion.

Fucking seriously!? I thought.

We turned off onto a dirt road. Bits of concertina wire were tangled up in bundles on the roadsides. More laid at the mouths of culverts, half in and half out of the water overflowing from them. Water spilled over at every wadi crossing, pouring out onto the dirt and gravel beneath our wheels.

Children were everywhere. Most were between the ages of four and six. They all waved at the trucks as we passed. They motioned with their hands, gesturing toward their mouths in a “feed me” motion. I leaned on the gun, scanning my sector. After the trucks had passed, the childrens’ waving hands often turned into little middle fingers.

More children bathed in the muddy overflow that pooled on the roadsides. Afghan men gargoyled on the roadsides, smoking cigarettes and watching us pass.  Afghan National Army soldiers posted up at checkpoints. One of them, hardly more than a boy, crouched behind a berm with an M24, staring calmly out over the poppy fields.

I looked left and right as we passed compounds and fields. My eyes ranged out from the roadsides over the acres of blooming flowers, pink and white, on either side of the road. Sheep wandered on the roadsides, drinking out of the ditches, or clustered in compounds, unattended.

In the distance, the mountains stabbed upward at impossibly steep angles. Ghar is Pashtun for mountain. It reflects in the names of their villages. Everything is named “Hajji” something, or something “ghar”.

Every man here is named Mohammed.

We reached our dismount point, a combat outpost on the other end of our AO. I’d never been there, but I knew the ground well. I’d been staring at it from imagery and surveillance assets for weeks. Everything is supposed to look different “on the ground”, but it didn’t.

It looked exactly how I’d imagined it.

We fastened our “kevlar underwear” between our legs and marched toward the ECP. I chambered a round as we strode out of the wire. We were near the wadi. The air grew thicker. Afghan soldiers were posted, at random intervals, on road-sides and in the corners of fields. They crouched behind their weapons, looking up at us as we passed.

I could feel my kevlar cock-blocker rubbing between my thighs. We strolled along as if we’d just dismounted from horses, legs bowed out, weapons at the low ready. I scanned from right to left, my eyes fixing on berms and doorways. We walked in file along a baked mud wall, on the slippery edge of a poppy field.

Ninety percent of the world’s opium and heroin come from Afghanistan. I plucked an open blossom. The stem was too fat to fit down the barrel of my weapon. I balled it up and discarded it.

The air smelled of piss and mud and rain. The farm smell of animals. I could have closed my eyes and been in any town in rural, upstate New York. Lone Afghans walked through the fields, off in the distance.

Our objective was a Key Leader Engagement, of sorts. A platoon out in the field had traded out its “shonas” for a different group of Afghans. The two platoons were not working well together. When we arrived at the compound, the reasons were obvious.

I spotted the American platoon leader from across the compound and walked over to him. I furrowed my brow at him. He did the same. A look of mutual recognition shot between us. He was from another unit, attached to us as a temporary augment. I hadn’t seen him in a year. We shook hands.

His boys were posted up on the walls of a compound they were renting from a local mullah. Their snipers owned a commanding field of view out over the river. Sappers had emplaced claymores outside the walls of the compound. I stepped gingerly over the wires on my way in.

The American side of the compound was orderly and neat. MRE boxes and cases of bottled water were stacked in the middle of the compound. The boys had dug a little trench to produce run-off and stop the flooding inside the compound that the mullah had been living with.

The PL took me and a few others over to the Afghan side of the compound. The difference was obvious. Trash was strewn everywhere. The air was heavy with the acrid smell of burning plastic. Ash flaked out of the make-shift burn pit.

The Afghan platoon leader came out and introduced himself to our party. He began complaining in earnest. I was already familiar with some of the logistical issues the two partnered units had been dealing with. As I watched the Afghan PL communicating through the ‘terp, I got the impression that he was full of shit.

Some of his men walked around in the background, half in uniform. The rest were laid up inside a building. The ‘terp relayed everything the Afghan PL was saying, but the ‘terp’s body language communicated more than his words. The Afghan PL was full of shit.

The Afghan platoon sergeant attempted to relay information to us about food, water, and ammunition. He was asked several times for round-counts for each of his platoon’s weapon systems. The counts changed each time, sometimes more, sometimes less.

We lingered at the compound. The patrol’s medic was posted up on a berm, watching the compound. I sat down next to him.

“You smoke?” I asked him.

“No, sir. Thanks, though.”

I reached into my lower leg pocket and pulled out a pack of cigarettes.

“Lucky Strikes?” he asked, surprised.

“’Merica,” I replied.

I carry them as social currency. They go stale much faster than I can even give them away. The smell of the Afghan side of the compound was overwhelming. I trimmed the filter off, put the packed end between my lips, and sparked my Zippo. I took a long drag and exhaled through my nose. I repeated the process. After a moment I could breathe freely, my sense of smell muted.

I flicked the half-smoked cigarette into the fire pit.

It was a hot walk back to the trucks. Some of the children we saw on our walk out to the compound had retreated inside the curtains that functioned as doors on their mud huts. There was less traffic on the way back to base. The poppy fields retreated behind me, spreading out vast and colorful into the tree lines.

The driver hammered it on the highway, slowing only as we approached the bazaar. A jingle truck came on fast, swerving into the left lane.

“One on the left,” I called. “Coming up fast.”

The Afghan couldn’t maintain his lane. He caught the side of our vehicle. The side of his truck scraped down the side of ours, setting my teeth on edge. Our patrol came to a halt. The driver stopped in front of us and clambered down out of his truck. One of our sergeants got out as well. The man saw him and immediately turned around. He jumped back into his truck and took off.

As we sat there, I spotted a group of little kids on the side of the road in the bazaar. All of them were between four and six. They all waved at me, faces bright and smiling. I broke down and waved back.

One of them cocked back his arm and hurled a rock at me. It bounced harmlessly off the truck’s armor. A second came sailing right behind it, hitting me on the hand. I grabbed the stone off the truck and hurled it back. It bounced harmlessly on the road as they scurried behind a wall.

“Motherfucker!” I shouted into the mouthpiece on my headphones. “Hey, these little bastards just hit me with a rock. That’s hostile intent. . .”

I wasn’t serious, but I leaned on the gun, staring at them. They peeked out from behind a wall. The patrol began to move and they rushed out behind us, waving their middle fingers.

 

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