You heard about the lieutenant, sir? Which one, I say. The dead one, sir.
We’re sitting outside the mess hall of Combat Outpost Tereyzai. The soldiers smoke, flick ashes into a trash barrel. They have been here since January. Heads shaved. Each wearing the same beige desert uniform, the same beige lace-up boots, the same beige caps. The one who asked me about the dead lieutenant stares at me for a long time without saying anything further. Is anything the matter? No, sir. What then? It’s just that it’s been a long time since I’ve seen a civilian, sir.
I ask some questions; how old was the dead lieutenant (26) what happened (he stepped on an IED) when did he die (two months ago). The soldiers never call the dead lieutenant by his name. As if he never had a name, as if taken from life death had consumed him totally and assumed his identity. The soldiers won’t tell me their names either. Worried maybe that they’d be jinxed if they said I’m Harry or Jim or Alan in the same breath as they spoke of the dead lieutenant. That their essence too would vanish beyond the disparate memories of soldiers they barely knew.
I’m sorry about the lieutenant, I say. The soldiers turn away from me. It doesn’t matter, one says. They all look the same. The dead lieutenant could have been any one of them.
I arrived at Combat Outpost Tereyzai in a convoy that had left Forward Operating Base Fort Salerno in Khost Province, southeastern Afghanistan earlier in the day. We had not driven far from the FOB when the convoy was forced to drive drove around an IED found earlier in the day. The armored vic I sat in smelled like puke. Anti-freeze leak sir, a soldier explained. Smells horrible. Yeah, take about a hundred bottles of water to wash this out, sir.
We put up with the funk until we jounced through the gates of COP Tereyzai two kilometers west of the Pakistan border. I got out of the foul smelling-vic and stood on gravel burned white from the sun. The gravel shifted underfoot like sand because the ground beneath it was wet from a previous night’s rain. Soldiers with the Afghan Uniformed Police share the base with the Americans. They stood in groups keeping their distance and watched us heft our gear from the vics. Hesko barriers and barbed wire encircled the base, cutting us off from the desert we had just driven through. The tops of distant hills disappeared into low hanging clouds and formed a fogged-in ridge line rising and falling toward Pakistan, where I’m told, the bad guys retreat after lobbing mortars. In the morning, I leave with a patrol for Cherkowtah, an Afghan district even closer to Pakistan to search for weapon caches.
About a dozen soldiers from the Army’s 1-26th Infantry Regiment’s first platoon gather around the LZ the next morning and wait for the 6:30 briefing before the four hour drive to Cherkowtah. They put their packs and guns and grenade belts on the ground, hang out in groups of twos and threes, smoking, chewing tobacco, pounding energy drinks. The day already pushing one hundred degrees. Afghanistan is fucking Biblical, man. Like those movies of Jesus and shit I’ve seen. I’m from San Bernardino. We go back home in November, December. No one knows. I had two weeks leave in April. Now I got all this time in front of me. The dead lieutenant died on the way to Cherkowtah, the San Bernardino soldier tells me. In a sun bleached wadi. A smile on his face. Like he was asleep. That was hard. We were crushed.
Gravel crunches underfoot. The soldiers look up, watch the acting sergeant approach.
“Listen up. Who’s here?”
The acting sergeant reads off three names, stops. No one answers.
“I guess we’re not ready to go yet,” the acting sergeant says. “I guess 6:30 meant fucking seven. Here’s the fucking word. I’m not the platoon sergeant but I see things the same. I been doing shit to get ready and all I see are two fucking team leaders doing their job. You feeling me? Your job is to make sure these mother fuckers are here and ready! He glares at us until we all look at the ground. I see bags full of trash. This is shit, he starts up again. Guys, when we leave the AO we leave it spotless. And God dammit, don’t advertise the energy drinks. We have a crazy first sergeant. He’ll scream about dehydration and crack on that shit. No ice coffee, no energy drinks. Guys will fall out behind that shit. Now I want a couple of guys to bag up the garbage and find the rest of you.”
A soldier nicknamed Pops jogs off.
“I want it to be someone other than Pops!”
Pops stops. A short wiry gung-ho trooper. Called Pops because at thirty-two he’s ancient. compared to the other grunts. Lives near the Grand Canyon. Built houses, the economy tanked, he joined the army. Married at eighteen two kids. Teenagers. Marriage got rocky behind money problems. Hasn’t killed any bad guys yet. Carried a dead baby once.
Pops returns to the group and two other soldiers break off and jog to the mess hall shouting names. By 7:30 a.m., soldiers crowd the LZ. The sergeant begins roll call again. Everyone answers. He turns the briefing over to the first lieutenant in charge of the mission.
“Hopefully on the way to Cherkowtah, IEDs won’t be an issue,” the lieutenant says. “Gunner same shit as always. Be aware. If there’s a threat, know where the fuck it is. Use secondary weapons. M-4s. Don’t need to level a whole fucking village. Scan ridge lines. Look for shit mine sweepers might have missed. Don’t relax on the IED threat. Keep heads below fucking shields. That’s what they are for. Don’t get sloppy. Tuck shirts in. Whole fucking uniform. It’s the standard. Do the little things right. Let’s mount up.”
Four of us sit cramped in the back of the rear armored vic. The ramp closes sealing off the outside. Bars limit the view from two windows not much bigger than port holes. Netting stitched with small metal balls hangs over the vic to stop rocket propelled grenades. We follow three mine sweepers. The mine sweepers move inches at a time dragging out the drive to four hours.
A medic sitting across from me says, This is where the dead lieutenant died. I look out the window at the dry, rock-filled wadi the vic lurches through. We’ve been driving for about an hour and a half. The bright sky spreads low over the wadi and a solitary bird soars dipping and rising on the whims of air.
The medic says he was talking to a buddy when the dead lieutenant stepped on the IED. How for to Cherkowtah? About a klick away, his buddy said. Then a boom. Lead vic’s been hit, the soldier driving said. Anyone down? Dunno. Finally the medic heard the order to dismount and the ramp lowered. He remembers jumping out of the vic and running toward the dead lieutenant. He knelt beside the body. He didn’t recognize the lieutenant. With all the dust on him, the medic thought the dead lieutenant was an Afghan soldier. Right forearm severed. A sergeant was screaming. There was nothing the medic could do. Every time he comes to Cherkowtah he sees the dead lieutenant. No matter how many movies he watches. He hasn’t told his family, he says lowering his voice. His commanding officer suggested counseling but the medic doesn’t want that on his record.
Maybe because the vic is driving over the dead lieutenant’s deathbed, I am struck by the difference between Afghanistan 2011 and Afghanistan 2001. In those days, you drive from Kabul to the southern city of Kandahar. It took fifteen hours bouncing along war-shattered roads and when you finally made it into the city, you could buy cans of vodka for about fifteen dollars. You stopped at villages and drank tea and the villagers thanked you for visiting them. Girls attended schools again. Songs by Madonna played in the streets. Movie theaters reopened and mine removal projects allowed farmers to return to their land. You could drive east to Jalalabad and go through the border at Torkam and drive into Pakistan. You’d see the Hindu Kush and old trains abandoned on railroad tracks that date back to the days of the British Empire. Really. You could go anywhere then and not worry about a thing.
The combat outpost in Cherkowtah stands on a barren scrap of rocky land. One building serves as the HQ and hooch. It reminds me of a shed on an abandoned farm somewhere off Interstate 80 in the middle of Iowa. Inside, bare bulbs hang from wires and bob from the ceiling in a narrow hall. A porch holds a refrigerator for bottled water. A generator pumps water for showers. We shit in plastic bags, tie them off and throw them away in trash dump. Bags of Meals Ready to Eat lay strewn on one side of the porch. The food tastes of the plastic encasing it. The soldiers like the meals that include cheese whiz. You put the whiz on and it kills the plastic taste.
Night descends, revealing a sky so empty that the moonlight casts a blue hue across the ground. No cities, no towns for miles around. Not even the lantern light from a farm. Dark. This must have been what it was like back in the day, the soldiers tell me. The day of cavemen and shit. This is as close as we will come to earth’s creation. Embarrassed by their own profundity they move on to things they understand.
“Six-thirty’s usually hit time.”
“Oh, the hajis haven’t hit here in two weeks since that time we fired back at them.”
“Remember that time they fired a mortar and blew themselves up?”
“Then there was an IED that blew up two of them. The mine sweeper driver carried a head under his arm.”
“A bird was eating a foot.”
“Fucking poetic justice.”
The voices of the soldiers penetrate the thin plywood walls of the HQ and drift in muffled tones in the empty hall outside a closed door where the medic sits on his bunk watching Transformers 3 on DVD. The film was just released. The DVD is a bootleg of the movie someone shot in a theater. The medic laughs when in the middle of a scene where everything is blowing up, a guy in the audience stands and leaves his seat. The quality is fuzzy but what the hell, he doesn’t have to wait until he goes home to see it, does he? Despite the noise and mayhem on screen, his attention wanders. He has dreams. Vivid. Blood on rocks. Blood everywhere. The dead lieutenant was his first field trauma. The medic fights back tears. His face wrinkles into a dozen cracks. Other medics have seen a lot worse, he says. But the first trauma in the field stays with you.
The next morning, the sun stains the sky a gauzy pink. Guys stumble from their cots into the dank hall of the hooch, hair askew, faces puffy with sleep. Morning. Morning sir. Slumped and yawning, they wander to the porch and grab bottles of water, rinse their mouths, spit. A few consider eating an MRE I’ll regret it later if I don’t. They sit, squint at the reddening sky and all the empty space beyond the Hesko walls and bum cigarettes. You getting a tattoo? When I get back. What of? Marine helmet. I had a friend get a tat. Said God’s forgotten children. He got kicked out later. Look at how the retreating shadows reveal little other than sand and sage brush and a burgeoning heat that seems to rise out of the ground. Shit.
“Here’s the deal,” the acting sergeant says at the morning brief. “Weapons cash clearance today. Fucking soon as we get there, understand we will be only five hundred meters from Pakistan. Here’s what’s going to happen. The road bends east then west. Leave the vics behind a hill so they can’t be seen from Pakistan. Rear truck has rear security. Gunners need to be fucking scanning. Be aware of the country—east is Pakistan. Anything on the Afghan side happens, light the fuck up and kill it. But if we take fire from Pakistan, we break contact and get the fuck out of there. We’re not firing rounds at their combat outposts on the border. If the only way out is to shoot, we drop some bad news on them and get the fuck out as fast as we can. But if it’s coming from one of their outposts do not shoot at that fucking thing. If it’s random ass holes in the hills fire back. Ok? Mount up.”
“Can’t shoot at Pakistan, fuck that.”
“Oooeee, I’m up for some fucking killing today!”
“Hey pimp daddy let’s fucking roll!”
An hour later, I follow Pops up hills along donkey trails into mountains, thorny branches cutting into our pants leg. An empty road below us twists toward Pakistan. Truck from Pakistan. How many? Four in the back. They see us. They’re turning around back to Pakistan. Don’t follow. We look under trees, under rocks, continue following the donkey trails higher. I found this. Looks like one of our mortar canisters. You think? Where’d you find it? On the fucking ground, sir. The trails wend higher and higher and some of the soldiers stop, squat and rest, suck water from their camel packs. Their expressions hidden behind goggles. A sense of discouragement in their stoic solitude. We won’t find anything, Pops tells me. I hate coming up empty handed, sir. The loose ground crumbles under foot and cries of shit and fuck follow a rush of gravel and cascading rocks as soldiers slip and slide feet at a time down the mountain before they jam the butt of their AKs in the ground and stop. Look at this rock, those lines, the lieutenant says. Yeah, these lines could be from shrapnel. They lean a mortar tube against the rock, fire it and it scratches the rock. Yeah, ok, we got something. Take a picture. No one moves. They stare at the rock. A rock. Breathing hard, sweating. Tip their helmets back, rub their foreheads. Turn away. Fuck. The sky seared white, the burning sun. I came here to kill, sir, Pops says.
We drive back to the COP. Some of the guys go inside to watch DVDs. Others lounge on the porch, hang their shirts to dry off the sweat. How was it. Nothing. We found nothing. A US civilian law enforcement contractor training Afghan Border Patrol teams sits in a chair and rolls his eyes. A soldier leaning on the railing nods. Another soldier sits on the steps and nods too. Two soldiers stand by the fridge and offer no reaction.
“My job is to train Afghans with the Border Security Patrol in law enforcement techniques. When I arrived in Afghanistan, I was told about corruption in the BSP. A General Gul Dad Kahn who commanded all the BSPs extorted jingle trunks coming from Pakistan but no one could prove it. Finally, he was removed and replaced by a Lt. Col. Atiq Ullah. Dirty as shit. Ullha liked gifts, put on big meals. He wanted to be adored. He had seven body guards. He took caffeine pills to stay up at night. Paranoid as shit. He fled after the Americans came down on him. Now I deal with Taj Mohammad, the second in command under Atiq. Dirty as shit but he’s in charge now of all the BSPs. His second in command was caught running an illegal checkpoint and extorting money. When I talk to Taj, I watch his body language. He twitches, sweats. His foot shakes. He asks if anyone has been arrested for corruption and would he be arrested if he was corrupt. Why would he ask if he wasn’t dirty as shit. I hate it here. Think of the lieutenant. What happened to him. He died for guys who shake down jingle trucks. Even the fucking camels growl. I hate it here.”
(the soldier leaning on the porch railing)
“We had a kid burned real bad brought here one time. Chemical burns all over his body, hair gone. We wanted to medivac him out but the brass shot that down. Not enough birds to spare. Just three for this area. Fucking kid died. That sucked. We sent him home. Nothing we could do. He had stopped crying by then. His dad looked like a Taliban. Black beard, turban and shit. Maybe he burned the kid just so he could look around the COP? I don’t know.”
(the soldiers by the fridge)
“My mom sent me some cigs?”
“Yeah? That’s a good mom.”
“It’s nothing. I smoke weed with my step dad.”
“I smoke dope with my dad. He’s sixty-eight.”
“That’s a good dad.”
(the soldier sitting on the steps)
“I’m from LA. I joined the Army to give back to my country. I’ll do my three years so I can say I did something. I worked at a Budweiser plant. Stocking. Things weren’t going so good because of the economy. Budweiser just got bought by some European country. I joined in 09. From our drill sergeant we were told we would take a lot of contact. We haven’t seen a fire fight yet. We found five IEDs counting the one that killed the lieutenant. He stepped on it. He was a good guy. One of those guys you felt like you knew your whole life. He died by going up front. He was supposed to stay in his vehicle and send a small team to clear the wadi. It was just him and my squad leader. I was in the front vic. Me and another guy got to him. I could tell he was dead. Like a genie in a bottle. Poof and he’s gone. First few weeks I had images of his body in my head. I thought of other things to remind me of him when he was alive. He was always in the gym. When he got here on his first day he greeted everybody even the guys in the guard towers. A whole lot of guys don’t trust the Afghans because they figure it was an Afghan that laid that IED and that doesn’t say much for them if you know what I mean.”
I do know because that trust died before it could be built. When I first arrived in Kabul, barber shops had reopened and everyone was getting their beard shorn off as a way to show they were free of the Taliban. You would go to press conferences and listen to a UN spokesman rattle off how much money such and such country was committing to aid. It was billions and billions. You’d leave and tell your translator and he would tell his family and everyone expected jobs. You’d go out and celebrate by buying CDs and DVDs which had been banned under the Taliban. Everyone would crowd around you in the bazaar because they had never seen Westerners before. You were a curiosity, someone they had only heard about. You were a herald of great things to come. Later, at other press conferences you began to notice fewer and fewer announcements of aid. Instead the talk was of how little money was coming through. And then the Iraq war started. But there were still insurgents fighting outside Kandhar although your editors no longer cared. But by then there were no more press conferences. By then you felt you were the only reporter in Afghanistan and you watched the Iraq war on TV and you noticed that unlike Kabul, Baghdad had real roads all paved and shit and that made you envious as hell. In those days, how old would the dead lieutenant have been? About sixteen or seventeen, right?
In the morning, a private and I catch a supply chopper to COP Tereyzai. The private has a two week leave coming up. I skip the morning brief. The private can’t wait for his leave to begin. Wants to know how long pot stays in your system. He’ll be piss tested when he comes back. Three days, I tell him. Three days, really? Three days, I say. No problem, he says. The briefing is done, and Pops is shouting. Let’s get some killing done today, boys! I tell the private that tomorrow I’ll leave Tereyzai for Border Security Patrol 6 on the Pakistan border not far from Cherkowtah. A real shit hole, the private says. Really? Yeah. Oh well. Three days? Yeah. You sure? Yeah, I tell him.
An hour later we land on the Tereyzai LZ. The sergeant splits to his hooch making up a little ditty with “three days” as the chorus line. I wander to the terps hooch. They live below the watch tower across from a make-shift gym. The terps boil water, offer me tea. They left Afghanistan after the Russians invaded and moved to the U.S. via Pakistan, Asia and Australia. One of them lives in New Mexico. Another in New York. Still another in D.C. They tell me they work for the Army to be a part of history. To tell their kids, they were a part of freeing Afghanistan from the Taliban. The New York terp tells me he had worked with the dead lieutenant, and was sad for two days after the lieutenant died. The dead lieutenant hadn’t been here but four, five months maybe, the New York terp says. Yeah, his death was bad but its war. After he died, things went back to normal, a new normal but it became a regular normal after a while.
Border Security Patrol Six stands at the top of a desolate muddy hill. The gray sky presses down and we follow a slick mud road, slip and slide careening toward the edge until we round a curve and drive onto a flattened plain ringed by Hesko bags. We wait at a check point while an Afghan guard calls someone on a walky-talky. Taj Mohammad appears minutes later, gives a hard stare and then waves us through. The lieutenant in charge of this mission didn’t expect Taj Mohammad to be here. Be careful. The Afghans don’t want us on their base. Weeks earlier, American troops had busted Afghans at Border Security Patrol 7 for shaking down truck drivers entering Afghanistan from Pakistan for about 3,000 rupees. The lieutenant heard that the Afghans at BSP 6 were also extorting jingle trucks. We want to check them out and show them some love, the lieutenant says.
The soldiers call the terp on this mission James Dean. No one knows how the name originated. James Dean has thick black hair that hangs loosely around his shoulders, and he wears dark sun glasses that conceal his eyes, and when he stands and faces the wind, his hair trails behind him and his sunglasses reflect the sky and the soldiers unpacking the vics. Afghan soldiers will do what their commanders tell them, James Dean tells me. If they are told to take money they will take it. They want to make money. They’ll stay up here and make money when we leave.
Taj Mohammad tells the lieutenant he is here to inspect the base. He swears he is cracking down on corruption. He wants to go on patrol in Tereyzai to get a Taliban guy he says drives into the district every night. Is he saying this to kiss the lieutenant’s ass? Does he really want to get bad guys? It doesn’t matter. Tereyzai is under the jurisdiction of the Afghan Uniformed Police not the Border Security Patrol. Taj Mohammad would need at least one AUP officer to accompany him and avoid a turf battle, but only thirty-five AUP patrol all of Tereyzai District. There are none to spare for Taj Mohammad. Besides, the AUP never leaves its barracks without U.S. forces. And the US forces don’t patrol with them because the IED threat in Tereyzai is too high. So whatever his motives, Mohammad will not get his man.
Taj Mohammad asks if the Americans will continuing bring BSP 6 supplies; water, food, ammunition and money to pay his soldiers. The lieutenant suggests that supplies should be brought in by the Afghan government on jingle trucks. But they would be stopped by the Taliban, Taj Mohammad says. Well, we have to try something, the lieutenant says. We won’t be here forever.
After lunch, the lieutenant tells the soldiers to set up a perimeter. Taj Mohammad told us that the bad guys typically mortar BSP 6 in the afternoon around two. The Afghans never engage them. Instead, they stay inside a bunker. It’s unlikely they will attack with us here, but you never know, the lieutenant says. Can always hope. Don’t fire into Pakistan.
I sit with the lieutenant beneath a tarp overlooking a valley. Wind blows pushing empty plastic water bottles across the rocky ground. No other sound other than the static on the lieutenant’s radio. Did I just hear a boom? the lieutenant asks. Negative, a voice says through the static. Ok. I guess I’m just going crazy, the lieutenant says.
The lieutenant tells me he was a friend of the dead lieutenant. They attended officer training school together at Fort Benning. The dead lieutenant had died near a village. People were questioned. Said they didn’t know anything. But you know what? the lieutenant says, for people who didn’t know anything you didn’t hear about any of them dying from an IED just six hundred meters outside their village did you?
The bad guys don’t shoot at BSP 6. After two hours, the lieutenant radios the soldiers to stand down. One of the soldiers wishes he had fought in Vietnam. We don’t get direct fire, he says. Just IEDs. How do you fight people like that? Can’t spend time wishing for the war you want, the lieutenant tells him.
The lieutenant allows the soldiers to fire into a hill near the Pakistan border. The soldiers fire their AKs, and .50 cals, mortar guns and M240s at once and the air fills with jolting bursts of boom, boom, boom. Piercing whistling noises spiral out of the booms and curve around the hill like boom-a-rangs and race back toward us to abruptly dissipate into silence, a trailing wind rushing against our faces. Even without holding a weapon and despite cringing at the noise, I feel a rush in the convulsing power reverberating through my body, a rush that leaves me drained during moments of silence and yearning for more.
Later, I sit with James Dean on a rock overlooking the valley below us. A few figures shrunken in shadow walk toward a mud hut. Taj Mohammad’s men. Behind us, soldiers sprawl on the hoods of their vics and try to sleep. Fog hovers all around and assumes the color of ink as evening merges into night. We’re all going to die, James Dean tells me. He doesn’t care about death anymore. He did before but now he doesn’t. As a boy it was easy for him to take his father’s gun and go into the mountains and kill as many as twenty birds. Today, the Taliban kill people like birds. James Dean tells me about a time when the bad guys dialed a cell phone and blew up an IED in Tereyzai District. Two Afghans were killed and two were blinded. You know about the dead lieutenant? I nod. Better to die than be blind, James Dean says.
We leave BSP 6 in the morning. The lieutenant won’t wait for the mine sweepers. Audacity is a word I’m bringing back into vogue, the lieutenant says. He charts an off road route he thinks the bad guys would not mine because they would never suspect we’d use it. We drive down the hill and at the lieutenant’s command turn off a bridge into a wadi. Rocks and mounds of dirt tear up the vics. One of the vics stalls. At the lieutenant’s instructions, we leave the wadi for a road. He knows roads are mined. Shit. He radios in for mine sweepers.
Halfway to Tereyzai, the mine sweepers discover a one hundred pound IED. While we wait for it to be detonated, we turn off the road to inspect a vacant village of stone huts shaped like igloos. The walls of some of the huts have crumbled to the ground in an avalanche of disuse. The lieutenant squints at the cloudless sky as if he is trying to read it. Two graves covered with rocks lie behind the lieutenant. We need to verify these are graves and someone’s not hiding weapons, he says. Can I piss on them, sir? a soldier asks. Don’t desecrate them, the lieutenant says. The soldier begins tossing rocks off the larger of the two graves revealing nothing but dirt and bits of cloth. It’s an adult grave and a child’s grave, James Dean says. I think it’s a mother and a baby. The mother probably died giving birth and the baby died too. James Dean begins piling the rocks back onto the grave. You know, that one hundred pound IED we found? the soldier says watching James Dean. If we had hit it, all of us would have been fucking dead.
Standing beside the soldier, I think that if the dead lieutenant was with us, I would tell him that his fellow soldiers worry they might die as innocuously as he had. That they won’t go out in a blaze of glory in some defining battle, but in some anonymous burst of bad luck that leaves no impression other than one man’s obituary. That everything they know about weapons and fighting and manhood would lose the chance to be tested. That they would die incomplete.
I would tell the dead lieutenant that I thought the war was over in 2002 when you were still a teenager and had not yet enlisted, but I was wrong. I’m not sure when I realized I was wrong. Maybe in 2003 when the people in the bazaar’s greeted me with silent sullen stares instead of joyful curiosity. Or maybe it was later when I was told I could not drive the newly paved road from Kabul to Kandahar because insurgents controlled it. Or it might have been even later, when the town of Wardak, forty minutes outside Kabul, was overtaken by the Taliban. Or maybe it was on this trip just before I left for Fort Salerno, when insurgents killed nine people in the Kabul hotel where the 2001 press conferences promising massive aid had been held. I thought I knew what U.S. soldiers had died for in the years before your enlistment. I don’t know now.
Back at COP Tereyzai, I sit beside a soldier at a picnic table outside the mess hall. The soldier rolls up his sleeves and shows me a tattoo of blue veins and red muscles extending down both arms. Frowning theatrical masks are falling through the veins. He asks what I’m doing here. I’m a reporter. Yeah? You hear about the lieutenant, sir? Which one? The dead one, sir. Yes, I say. Yes I have.