And this is how it went. Up one side, through the village, and then back down again. Set up, take down, wake the drowsy men. Squint into the mountains for movement, radio checks, get a grid, VS17 panels, a quick barber brush to your weapon, squeeze of peanut butter, water, water, cigarettes, check your magazine, check on the Afghans, some more water, pissing from a knee at a security halt and over and over again. Then back to base, clear your weapons, after action review, fuel the trucks, fix the trucks, cover the guns, smoke and joke, watch a movie and wait for chow, wait for the best outhouse, shower every ten days. Meetings for the sergeants and the LT: planning, manning, more grids, routes, water and holy smokes; for the soldiers it was dinner chow, Halo, talking shit, more Halo, beat off, beat off, beat off, talk to sergeant about tomorrow, clean your weapons, smoke, get chow and equipment for the morning, should get rest but more Halo and shit-talking until your guard shift, finish, pass out, and get woken up by CPL Kurt or the sergeant. And so it went: monotonous, exciting, exhausting dreams in a mountain paradise fighting bronze age warriors armed with Russian gear that thought you were the devil.
The shura in Uluk ended and it was on to the third village. We packed up and moved down, through the town, past our friends, nodded to the LT, and moved across the road. We passed the trucks and the willow tree and the women farming with hoes. Their children played amongst the farming tiers that led down from the road into the valley floor. The kids always asked for our pens and pencils. Once we passed they shot slingshots at birds and each other and us.
The women spoke with one another as they farmed and seemed to ignore the twenty armed Americans as we wound, one after another, through the tall grass, over the tiny stone walls, along the irrigation ditches, and over ground we could not see until it broke to the open riverbed, and stone, and the bridge. The structure was only a plank of wood over the river, balanced on piles of rocks on one side and the muddy bank on the other. The water rushed beneath us as we crossed. Mostly no one spoke, only sweated, and swore, and stared, blinking through the sweat to see all around them. Sergeants counted their men from one side of the river to the other, placing them safely on the other side. The men behind them would then cross and push through them and take the lead up the next hill, to the next town. It was a smooth and practiced movement, the men passing one another and fanning out when terrain would allow. Sometimes a sergeant would whistle at a soldier and point and the man would correct his movement and the dance continued like water being poured from one shape to another until it halted and then disappeared, sinking into the terrain in front of the next town.
Kurt and I set the men in and moved amongst them keeping them awake and watchful. When they were ready, I would look at the lieutenant and he’d nod or say “roger” into the radio and we’d wait for the word to move in through the town.
Everything was fluid and the men wouldn’t remember much of what they did that day but they were aware of that moment and how it was much cooler at the river than here, in the dirt. They would remember how the grass smelled and how it mixed with the shit from the animal pens. They were there completely and also miles away, in dream. At home they’d gotten podium speeches by their company commanders about how they were sheepdogs, protecting the flock, but here, in Afghanistan, they were reptiles, moving only when necessary, tongues flickering, seemingly asleep, measuring the world, ready with fangs.
The word came. It was time for the next shura. LT gave the nod and we raised the men up with our hands. We were shaman, in control of the earth, levitating the dead back to life. They moved up through a stone ditch. It was all sharp rocks and overhanging trees and must have been there the last time the British were there, with Kipling and the Game. Water trickled down through the slough as we moved up through it and fanned out around the town.
The LT, his entourage, and half the men stayed in the town for the meeting with the village elders. Kurt and I took the men through the town and up, above the village to a hut overlooking the meeting. We cleared the hut and set up shop all over again. Chris scanned the crowd of locals around the shura for weapons. He watched our Lieutenant and his retainers talk with sixty-year-old Afghans. He saw kohl-lined eyes and dyed-red beards listen to our truths and pleas for compliance. He watched our soldiers pass out human assistance packages while the Afghans served tea.
From above the village Kurt and I looked over the surrounding area, marking the routes from which the enemy could best approach and pointed men and weapons at them. I pulled out the map and we again, as if from memory, from a dream, plotted out those points with a protractor, measuring the angles and distances from us to what bothered us and writing it all down on paper. We checked the radios, flashed our panels, and told the trucks where we were, prepping our fire missions with the mortars in case someone tried to intervene with the Great-Bean-Giveaway that was happening down below in the village. It was rehearsal after rehearsal and done with the least amount of consciousness. These drills came from somewhere in our spines. It was the third one that day.
Kurt and I didn’t think much of home at times like this. We were working. But the men, lying amongst the rocks with rifles pointed at nothing but stone and wood would flicker in and out of reality. When one turned off the others turned on and we sat there in the center, he and I, watching them, waking them, pulling them from the molasses sleep of the exhausted with endless thoughts of Chicago and the El and the weekend festivals that they were missing. A soldier remembered the way a girl had spoken to him and how, even in the summer, she seemed cool and somehow like the river that glided through the valley below him, carving a deeper path in the mountains themselves. We pulled them from this and back to the mountain, to a path or a rocky outcrop at which to point a gun.
The shura ended, the aid passed out, pictures taken, and we prepared to go; folding the laminated map back into my pocket and checking weapons and equipment to make sure we left nothing, not even a peanut butter packet, for the assholes that were sure to come and see where we were now laying. They would come and see what we were seeing and try to figure out how to get around us next time. We picked up everything and moved back down through the town to the shura and, with a look to the LT, passed through everyone and kept walking back down, through the slough; we were the water, pouring again from a basin to a jar and then back again.
We crossed the plank bridge and spread out on the other side of the river, folding into stonewalls and boulders and looking back into the town and the hillside as our friends pushed across the plank. They moved silently through us, a noise here or there as rifle barrel clanged against a rock or boot crunched something underfoot. We moved past the riverbed, through the tall grass that covered the ground, and over the ditches and small stonewalls.
It took us a long time to cross the valley floor. The men were tired and not as fast as they had been that morning. They knew we were heading back to base and under the watchful eyes of the gun trucks and their heavy weapons. The men had checked out. They glided from obstacle to obstacle, slithering on their rear ends over the three-foot stonewalls that separated the farm plots in the valley floor. Heads down along little berms that shored the irrigation ditches; if one man stopped suddenly he would run into the man in front of him. They sweated and their helmet’s chinstraps, soaking, cut into their chins and their cheeks. They reached the women farmers and their kids. The women spoke with each other as they worked the hoes. The kids still played and ran around their mothers. The trucks and their weapons scanned the ridgeline over our heads as we climbed our way out of the valley to the willow tree and the road in front of Uluk. The men reached the road and laughed with their friends on the trucks. We drank water and lit cigarettes. The men climbed into the gun trucks and we got radio checks with all the vehicles. The lieutenant called the outpost and told them we were coming home. Return To Base. Perfect. We sank into the uncomfortable, green, gun truck seats.
I would’ve done it while we were stumbling through the riverbed, but for some reason they waited until we made it back to the trucks before they started trying to kill us.
A rocket slammed into the tier to the right of my truck. It exploded with a loud, two-syllable sound. Only a puff of white smoke was visible, a cloud the size of a man, floating just above the grass. The grass was a deep green and the cloud looked like cotton. If you are aware of the launch, if you hear it fire, then there’s a second or two when every breath eats itself and every muscle in your body is clenched, assholes puckered, as they say. And then the rocket explodes and you’re either safe or you’re not. This time it was only the cracking of the air and then the ghost. I stared at it out of my gun truck window.
Another rocket slammed into to the tier near us. Machine gun fire landed in the tier just below our trucks, too. The radio had come to life with the first rocket. Everyone spoke at once. Our machine guns started firing, too. The enemy was firing at us but was coming short, plunging their fire into the women and children farmers. I watched one of the Afghan women, her robes were purple and yellow and red, dash through the tall plants and gunfire to grab her children and hide behind a low stonewall that marked the end of her property, ten feet away. This all played out outside of my window.
Our gunner, Tristan, was firing the .50 cal., shooting across the valley floor to the ridgeline four hundred meters away. The sound of the .50 was comforting and masculine and hammered away from above and behind my seat. Tristan raked the ground with the large, armor-piercing, rounds. They were incendiary and terrifying, and sparks flashed every time one of them drove into a rock or a tree. Fear and anger hurtled across the valley from the road to the ridgeline and back again. Tristan kept firing until he burned through a can of ammo.
Everyone spoke at once on the radio. People cut each other off. The LT cut through, “Break Break Break! All vehicles push out of the kill zone. Move! Now!”
LT’s truck, in the lead, started pulling forward. We had six trucks on the patrol and I was in the rear. The other four trucks, the ones in between the LT and my vehicle stayed in place.
I keyed the mic, “Move forward!” I tried to stay calm on the net but it came out like a shout.
Another rocket landed somewhere I couldn’t see. The smoke from the first two rockets hovered over where they’d landed; more clouds the size of men. They were ghosts, placeholders for the lives they’d tried to steal.
We started to move when the right, rear, passenger door, the one facing the ridgeline and the violence, swung open. The doors on an 1151 are armored and heavy; a couple hundred pounds. It swung open and then bounced back. Al, who was sitting in that seat, grabbed the handle and slammed it shut but it bounced open again. The door wouldn’t close. The trucks were weathered and battered and the door needed to be tied shut with cord to stay in place, but Al didn’t like the idea of being trapped in case we got in a fight so he had cut it and had held it shut during the beginning of the patrol, holding it in place with the cut cord. Now it flapped open and shut like a kid’s cape getting blown about as he ran down the road.
Tristan was yelling down through the turret hatch. “Ammo!” The interpreter in the back behind the driver was fumbling with the straps holding the ammo cans.
A higher pitched firing, very rapid, blasted out from behind my seat. I didn’t know where it came from but I knew it had to be the enemy in the Uluk, firing down from the village behind us.
“There’s someone firing behind us. From the village.” I shouted into the radio.
We would laugh about this later in the tents. Not only was it panicked, but it wasn’t the enemy hidden behind those short, wooden doors in Uluk. It was Tristan, again. He had become the shaman. He was awake and in tune with the mountain, he knew where the enemy was. He kept an automatic rifle in the turret with him and when the .50 ran out of ammunition he had transitioned to his other weapon almost immediately, spraying the smaller, lighter rounds across the valley into the ridgeline. I could see puffs of smoke from all of our trucks’ weapons arising all along the ridgeline as bullets slammed into the side of the mountain. It looked like a child throwing handfuls of sand into a pond, over and over and over, hitting everything. If the enemy was still there he was dead. It was more likely he’d crested the ridgeline and lie hidden behind a rock formation with his partners, smoking and praying before starting to shoot again.
Al fumbled with the door, grabbing the cut 550 cord with both hands-
The SAW stopped firing and Tristan’s hands reached down through the turret.
The interpreter, in the back behind the driver, had finally wrenched loose the ammo can straps. He freed a case of ammo.
“I’ve got it. Here. Here. Fucking bullets!” The interpreter said this in his thick accent.
He passed the ammo to Tristan who began reloading the .50. We started moving forward. Kurt was driving and could only see the truck in front of him. He was leaned forward, staring through the windshield, both hands on the steering wheel. The guns kept firing. The men were awake. I was aware of everything. My entire body was there, sitting in the front seat of the gun truck. The only thing one can do from the front of a Humvee is talk on the radio and look out the window or at the computer map screen next to you. It’s a tight fit. It’s difficult to even slide the tiny, thick window open. And so I sat, staring at the ridgeline and at the trucks in front of us, cheering as Tristan fired into the mountain. We all cheered and cursed and yelled. Kurt smacked Tristan’s legs with his right hand, egging him on as he hammered away with the big machine gun.
The radio was silent except for the LT.
“Push. Push. Push.”
It must have only been two or three minutes since the fight began and now the column was moving forward, still firing into the ridgeline. Everyone was awake and aware of his body again. Al realized the 550 cord was cutting off the circulation to his hand as he pulled on the door. All I could do from my seat was monitor the radio and look through my bulletproof window at the ridgeline getting beaten by thousands of tiny bullets. The mountain wouldn’t notice any of it.
Our truck passed out of the kill zone and we were no longer in the ambush. Tristan stopped firing as we rolled. We passed the rock wall where the women and their boys were hiding, shrunken but alive, and one with the place where the stone touched the earth, pouring themselves into the base of the thing becoming as small as the rest of the human life that battled the mountain for existence. The interpreter asked for a cigarette. There was a pack behind the computer screen. I passed some to Kurt and the interpreter and lit one, handing it up though the turret to Tristan.
And that’s how it ended. A flurry of violence and awareness that disemboweled the day’s numb dream; the fights always erased the patrols, or the 3 AM guard shifts at the OP, or whatever else you’d been doing that day. An exchange of steel, and emotion, and “just wanting to kill those motherfuckers” that lasted for two minutes, or two days. It was time travel and separate from the laudanum of a hot spring day or a midnight barrage. It was a flurry and then there was nothing but the mountain and the river and reptiles. After a fight it was always like that, there was always a return to the quiet, eternal sounds. The men were tired but now they were exhilarated, and still alive, and by the time we returned to base were bickering about pulling guard that night and teasing one another. We were back to the routine, back to the dance, and it began again.
(Copyright 2015 Military Experience & the Arts, Inc.)