3. THE DEALER DEATH MARCH
I rolled out of my cot some time in the early morning covered in sweat and with my tongue stuck to the side of my mouth. I was so dehydrated I had to immediately roll over and take a pull from my hydration pack. A hydration pack is a kind of backpack filled with water with a hose-like straw attached. It always made the water taste like old plastic and rubber.
We were packed in with various boxes and bags of supplies. I hadn’t noticed the night before, but the tent they had stuck us in was their supply tent and had no kind of air conditioning or fans. Afghanistan’s temperature had quickly hit over one hundred degrees before six in the morning. Even though it had been freezing the night before, it felt like I had woken up in an oven.
I put my boots on my bare feet and walked outside. I found all the other non-commissioned officers from my squad sitting on a bench smoking. About twenty soldiers in full combat gear and soaked through with sweat sat across from them in the dirt. They all looked tired and angry as hell.
“Perfect timing,” Slim rasped. He was clearly still dehydrated from the long hot night in the tent.
“Why’s that?” I asked. The smoke from my cigarette burned my parched throat. “Who are these guys?”
“These guys are from Dealer’s Bravo Company, and they are going to show us our battle space.” It turned out Alpha Company was living in the Reserve, and Bravo Company lived about twenty miles away in a place called Dealer Base.
For some reason, they had a squad from Bravo Company walk all the way over from Dealer Base to take us around their area. As in, not the area we were going to be in charge of or have anything remotely to do with. The soldiers who walked all the way the hell over to the Reserve seemed to understand how dumb all of it was. You could tell by the pure hatred they wore on their faces.
“That doesn’t make any sense, Slim,” I said. “Why would we need to tour their battle space?”
One of the Bravo leaders, Sergeant Will, walked over to Slim and me. “You don’t. It doesn’t make any sense, and before you say anything, we know our commander is a fucking idiot.” Will shook his head. “Pick a few of your guys to go with us, and we’ll head out.”
Slim had already made his mind up about who was going with us. “Kassabian, Grandpa, Cali, Thad, Tooth, and I’ll be going.” Slim read the names from a list. “Go ahead and gear up, be back out here in fifteen minutes.”
Thad and Tooth were both team leaders from First Squad. Thad was a highly animated joker and also the best karaoke singer I’ve ever heard. Tooth used to be a tank mechanic and was a huge redneck. He had earned his nickname by getting a few teeth blown out of his head by an exploding fire extinguisher. Something I wasn’t even aware could happen.
I was gearing up and loading myself down with ammo—most of which I had to steal from Dealer. Our company had deemed the small detail of arming us an afterthought. Dealer had built a sketchy-looking wooden shack to throw all their surplus ammo in. They never thought to put a lock on it, so Slim and I pilfered it when no one was looking.
They had so many penises spray-painted across the shed you could barely make out the particle board it was built from. For some reason, wherever soldiers go, they cover everything in dicks. If you pointed out how weird that was, they would probably accuse you of being gay. Kind of like all of the homoerotic shit frat boys do but insist it’s totally straight because it’s about “brotherhood.”
Loaded down with stolen ammo and explosives, I walked back out to meet the Dealer soldiers. I noticed a few of the Dealer guys were loaded down with something that looked like a backpack made of metal with about six antennas coming out of it.
“What the hell is that thing?” I asked a bored-looking soldier leaning against a wall.
“It’s a Thor system. It jams cell phone and radio signals so they can’t set off bombs,” he explained. Most of the improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, are remotely detonated using cell phones or radios so the little bastards can hide while they blow us up. We had jammers like that on all our trucks, but this portable thing was new to me.
“Sweet, does it work?” I asked.
The guy didn’t give me a verbal response. He just pointed to an Afghan police officer, who was chatting on his cell phone. Right next to one of the soldiers carrying the Thor.
“Commander says we have to carry two on every patrol even though they’re completely useless. The stupid mine detector too.” He pointed to a long, gangly piece of equipment that was folded up on his back. “It doesn’t detect shit.”
“Wonderful,” I said, lighting another cigarette.
As if to underscore his point, he unslung the mine detector, unfolded it, and turned it on. He held it to the ground and it beeped a few times.
“It just detects metal then?” I asked. Clearly, there were no mines in our compound.
He pointed the mine detector straight up above our heads and it beeped again.
“So it just detects everything?” I was pretty confused.
“We have no idea what this piece of shit detects. We’ve been trying to figure it out all year.” He laughed and folded the detector back up.
Before I could ask any more questions about the faulty equipment my life depended on, my radio crackled to life.
“This is Dealer one-Alpha.” The voice was Sergeant Will’s. “Prepare to move out.” The soldiers all fell into a file with a few feet of distance between them. We left gaps in between each soldier so if the Taliban started shooting at us with a machine gun, they wouldn’t be able to take us all out in one burst. Or if a bomb went off, it wouldn’t kill us all at once.
I was up at the front of the formation next to the guy who had shown me the mine detector.
“If I stop, you stop, all right?” he said with a cigarette dangling from his lips, the mine detector still slung across his back. “It means I saw some shit. If I start running, try to keep up.” He nodded at the combat patch I wore on my shoulder. “It isn’t your first rodeo, but Kandahar is a different monster… cool, Corporal?” Because of his thick New York accent, I decided to name him Brooklyn. He was tall and lanky; his skinny figure made it look as if all of his combat gear was just a little too big for him.
“Got it,” I said. We passed by the Afghan police guard shack on the way out. Several of the police joined our patrol. All their uniforms were mismatched, and a few of them were wearing sandals. “Are they going with us?” I asked Brooklyn.
“Oh yeah. Those douches have to come with us on every patrol we go on. Not that they’re worth a shit or anything.”
“Then why do you bring them?”
“We have to. Part of that whole hearts-and-minds thing the government keeps talking about.” He shrugged. “Making it look like the Afghans are taking charge of the war or something.”
I laughed and pointed at one of the Afghans who wasn’t even armed. “He isn’t even in charge of his weapon.”
“Oh yeah, their commanders sold half their weapons to the Taliban months ago,” Brooklyn explained. That was pretty much par for the course for the Afghan security forces. “It’s probably better they’re unarmed. Any shit pops off, they just book it into the mountains anyway.”
Our patrol stretched into the fields surrounding the Reserve. In most fields there was some kind of grape growing I’d never seen before. Tired old women with faces like well-worn leather worked the fields and children orbited around their feet playing with sticks and screaming at each other. They paid no attention to the twenty-odd heavily armed American soldiers marching past them.
“You gotta watch out for those little fuckers,” Brooklyn sneered, pointing at the kids.
“Those kids in particular?” I asked.
“Any of ‘em. All of ‘em. They’ll get right up close to you and throw a grenade at your ass.”
“How lovely.” I had never heard of anything like that. In Iraq, it was pretty common, but not in Afghanistan. I tried not to let anything shock me anymore, though.
“Oh yeah. Sergeant Will has a piece of metal in his ass from one of those kids.” He gestured back at Sergeant Will, who was meandering around at the back of the file. The only thing I could think was, Who would give a hand grenade to a child?
Brooklyn wasn’t kidding, Kandahar really was a different monster.
The trail we were walking on turned and passed through a small, ramshackle village. Large ditches were dug on both sides of the little path. They were filled with garbage and human waste. Afghanistan doesn’t have a sewer system of any kind and people just throw it all out into the street. Sometimes people dug ditches to throw the shit in, other times it was just out on the street. The smell was not of this world.
Amid that acrid, nose-scorching stench, children were running around playing barefooted. I tried not to let it surprise me. I’d seen abject poverty before, but nothing like this. It made Northern Afghanistan look like Beverly Hills.
I had to stop watching when I saw a little girl not more than a few years old do a face-plant into one of the ditches while all the other children giggled. She popped up to her feet and spat out a mouthful of mysterious black liquid and kept playing with her friends.
“Fucking heathens,” Brooklyn spat at the kids. “Who the fuck just plays in garbage and shit?”
“Maybe no one taught them better. Do you see any parents around?”
“Are you telling me someone had to teach you not to play around in your own shit?” he retorted. He had a point. Sure, every kid will stick their hand down their pants and fling crap around when they’re a toddler. The majority of these children were probably closer to ten years old.
“That’s some Lord of the Flies shit, man.” I shook my head.
“Lord of the what?” he asked.
The kids in this village were obviously more interested in us than whatever game they were playing. They came running over. I didn’t really mind the kids, even with the recent threat of murder via preschooler-launched hand grenade. The Dealer guys clearly had other feelings toward them. They hurled swear words in English and Pashto at them. The kids gave us the finger in return and I thought it was hilarious.
“Fuck you!” a tiny eight-year-old voice squeaked at us.
Brooklyn reached down, picked up a rock, and side armed it at a kid. Thankfully he missed. The kid’s return shot did not, though. A stone thumped off of my body armor and fell at my feet.
I chucked an energy drink I had in my cargo pocket as hard as I could in return. The tiny can smacked into the chest of the child who had thrown the rock at me. He fell down in a pile of trash, sending bits of wrappers and paper flying into the air. The can exploded with grape flavored liquid.
“Nice aim, Corporal!” one of the Dealer soldiers called up to me.
The kid got up and scurried away. His little feet sent pieces of trash flying up behind him as he ran.
We moved on from the village and came to a small road surrounded by pomegranate orchards. It was walled off by badly built mud walls with broken glass and metal spikes sticking out of the top. Sergeant Will decided this was a good place for a traffic control point.
A traffic control point was when we set up a roadblock and searched any passing cars for weapons or the random Taliban fighter who might wander on by. We dispersed down the road with Cali, Brooklyn, and me picking up the front of the control point. We lazily walked down the sun-scorched road and tried in vain to set up the front of the control point in the shade.
I was quickly briefed on Dealer’s rules on operating these control points. They mostly boiled down to: If a car comes down the road too fast, we shoot it. The threat of getting blown up by a suicide bomber was too high to risk it. At least that’s what they said. I decided it wasn’t worth not taking their word for it.
“Have you been hit by a suicide bomber?” Cali asked as we stared off down the empty stretch of road we were watching.
“Nope,” Brooklyn answered, shoving a handful of chewing tobacco in his mouth.
“You ever think the people coming down the road just don’t know you’re there until you start shooting?” I asked.
“Nope,” he said again. Brown spit dribbled down his chin.
The heat was starting to get unbearable as the sun crawled its way overhead. The water in my pack had gone from a somewhat refreshingly cool to nearly burning my mouth with each sip. I didn’t want to drink it anymore, but it was the only thing I had. I looked down at my boots and saw they were soaked. I had managed to sweat through my boots. I didn’t even know that was possible.
A dust cloud appeared over the horizon. The rumble of a poorly maintained engine rattled. A beat-up old Toyota Corolla came into view, and it was hauling ass. It sent dark black smoke into the air behind it. Brooklyn quickly rose to his feet, rifle up and pointing down the road.
I suddenly felt energized, my heart leaping to life in my chest. I raised my rifle to my shoulder and flicked off the safety switch. It clicked to the semi-auto position. I felt the trigger tension in my finger as I brought it to bear.
“Wadrega!” Brooklyn screamed. It meant “stop” in Pashto, or at least that’s what people had told me. It was pretty clear no one in the car heard him. It wasn’t surprising since the little Corolla sounded like a damn school bus. The car was still flying down the road at us. Brooklyn’s rifle banged to life as he fired one round at the ground in front of him.
It was a warning shot, letting the assholes in the car know that we meant business. The car kept coming. I held back on pulling my trigger. Instead, I sighted my rifle onto the driver’s face, which I could clearly see through the dusty, cracked windshield. The tension in my trigger finger tightened as I pulled the minuscule slack out of my trigger.
“Fuck! Cali, get ready!” I yelled. Brooklyn fired again, this time the bullet landed right in front of the oncoming car. The car screeched to a stop. We quickly moved forward on the car, rifles still raised, fingers on the triggers. There was a family of five crammed into the small car. They looked terrified and were exchanging glances with each other. Brooklyn tore open the driver’s side door and ripped the driver out of the car. He pinned him to the ground and started searching him.
“Why didn’t you fucking stop, you goddamn retard?” Brooklyn screamed at the confused, scared old man. His kids in the backseat started crying.
I looked into the car because it wasn’t unheard of for the Taliban to use human shields to run weapons or bombs past our checkpoints. There was nothing in the car. It was pretty clear the guy just didn’t hear us over his shitty old car and his radio blaring Indian pop music.
“Shit almost got real,” Cali said excitedly.
“No,” I said, shaking my head. “No, it didn’t.”
Sergeant Will and Slim walked up behind us and watched with me as Brooklyn tore the car apart and pulled the entire family out as he searched, screaming various insults as he went.
“The fuck is he doing?” Slim asked, confused. “I’m pretty sure Father Time and his thirteen-year-old bride aren’t rolling for the Taliban.”
“Yeah, Brooklyn does that sometimes.” Will shrugged. “It’s pretty clear no one’s going to be smuggling anything this way since he started shooting at mother fuckers. Let’s pack it up and move on.”
“Yes, Sergeant,” I responded. “Hey, Brooklyn! Pack it up!” I yelled at the angry man. I’m pretty sure he’d managed to rip about half the car out and throw it on the street by then. We slung our backpacks back over our shoulders, and our parade of tired soldiers crawled on into the mountains leaving the village behind us.
Hours passed, and the sun thankfully started to set, but our patrol didn’t end. Will explained an old Buddhist temple was on the side of a mountain that overlooked the biggest village in the district. We were going to hold up there for the night and finish the walk to Dealer Base early in the morning. The temple was up a sheer cliff face and was accessed by ancient stairs carved out of the mountainside. After such a long day, the last thing any of us wanted to do was to climb a thousand-year-old rocky staircase.
I finally summited the small mountain and sat down on the ledge of the temple.
Once upon a time, this temple was probably very elegant. I could see some outline of the intricate carvings and pictures that lined the walls. Heavily decorated pillars rose into the sky to hold up a second floor that was no longer there. Each tile of the floor had a different hand-painted image. The whole place was truly a work of art. And at some point in the late 1990s, the Taliban blew most of it up only because it wasn’t dedicated to the god of their choosing.
Several soldiers crawled up onto what remained of the temple’s second floor to set up a guard position. The rest of us sat down inside the main room. We sat our bags down and finally got the chance to take off our sweat-soaked body armor. It felt like a million pounds had been lifted off of my back.
“All right guys, guard rotations are set up. If you aren’t on watch, get some sleep,” Will said as he stood in the middle of our small huddle. “No one goes wandering off to take a piss alone. We’ll be heading toward Dealer Base in a few hours.”
I put my head down on my pack and instantly fell asleep.