4. CORN FIELDS, BOMBS, AND ROBBING THE ICE CREAM GUY
Slim kicked me awake at some dark hour of the morning. It turned out that the soldiers who were on top of the temple had fallen asleep. Will hit them with rocks and screamed at them from the first floor to wake them up. We were fortunate the Taliban hadn’t stumbled across us.
I fished around in my backpack and pulled out my night vision goggles, clamped them onto my helmet, and turned them on.
Despite what Hollywood might have you believe, night vision goggles are nearly fucking useless. They turn everything a sickly shade of green and ruin your depth perception. You can’t effectively navigate a trail, let alone shoot well. They are only slightly better than blindly stumbling around in the dark.
We slowly started to make our way back down the uneven steps and toward Dealer Base. If climbing those stairs during the day had been hard, descending them while looking through my night vision goggles was damn near impossible. I tripped several times, and the only thing that stopped me from falling off the side of a mountain was sheer dumb luck.
And I wasn’t the only one. As I stumbled through the darkness, I could barely make out the soldiers in front of me. I picked someone out and started following them down a trail.
More than once I spun around in a panic because I had lost the person I was following. When that happened, I had to break into a run to catch up. If I got lost, I was as good as dead. I had no idea where I was, and I wasn’t exactly in friendly territory, but somehow—before long—we made it to Dealer Base.
Dealer Base was lit up like a Christmas tree. It was surrounded by high concrete walls and concertina wire. Guard towers lined its perimeter. It was a stark contrast from the Reserve.
At this point, my feet felt like bricks. It turned out sleeping on the ground for maybe three hours doesn’t make you all that well rested. Again, the group of us dropped to the floor and gathered around in a huddle.
“Good job, new guys. That was a long-ass patrol, and no one passed out. Try to get some sleep because we have to walk back in the morning,” Will said. He didn’t even look tired.
I was immediately deflated; I didn’t think we would have to walk all the way back.
“New guys are sleeping in the medical tent. Not to be morbid or anything, but we don’t have room anywhere else,” Will continued. He was right; Dealer Base had tents and plywood shacks built right on top of each other. There was barely enough room to park their trucks.
The medical tent had no beds, only stretchers. The air conditioning was cranked up and it was freezing. I was soaked in sweat and had no dry clothes with me other than a change of socks.
Thad, Tooth, and I dragged the stretchers outside onto the rocks to sleep in the night air. I stripped down to my underwear, hung my uniform up on one of the ropes holding the tent together, and went to sleep.
I rolled out of my makeshift bed when the sun came up. I slipped my now dry but stiff and salt-stained pants on and made my way to the chow tent. I was ravenously hungry and piled about eight servings of food onto my paper plate and went to town.
Slim stumbled into the tent after me, slamming back some horrible army coffee. “I don’t think I’ll survive another twenty-mile death march, man,” he rasped. He was so dehydrated his lips were cracked.
“Me either. These people are insane. I’m pretty sure my feet are bleeding,” I said between mouthfuls of waffles and ham. “Did you sleep much?”
“Nah,” he shook his head. “I was freezing my ass off in that tent, and one of their sick dudes in there kept puking all night. How about you?”
“I didn’t sleep, I slipped into a coma. But it was a refreshing coma.” I laughed and drank some of his coffee.
Slim and I made our way to the operations tent to meet with Will.
Dealer Base looked like a movie set meant to recreate a third-world disaster area. I was beginning to realize that the smell of feces in the air was part of everyday life in Kandahar. Shacks made out of every material you can think of were propped up between the concrete retaining walls, and soldiers slept in them side-by-side, almost touching each other.
Will met us in the tent. A huge map was pinned to a board, and our route was all set. Will pointed out a village right in our path called Madaraja that his guys had attacked in a massive offensive a few months before. It was some fruitless attempt to chase out the Taliban.
It failed miserably, and every casualty they had taken during the deployment had happened within the small village. This included his platoon leader having both his legs blown off and Will himself having an up-close and personal meeting with an exploding hand grenade.
“So…we’re going to walk right into that bitch and set up traffic control points all over the place. Stir some shit up. You guys cool with that?” Will asked us with a smile on his face.
“You picked the right boys,” Slim laughed. Slim had a reputation for always looking for a fight. I just had a reputation for always being in one. That might have been because I kept deploying with Slim.
“All right, get your guys together. Let’s roll.” Will walked out of the tent.
Before long we were walking out of the cramped confines of Dealer Base and back into the mountains. As we crested the mountain, we saw vast fields of corn as far as the eye could see.
Sergeant Will called all the non-commissioned officers over to where he was kneeling, gathering everyone into a huddle. “This is where they like to fuck us up, guys.” He gestured out to the cornfields. “The shit is so high we can’t see in it. Plant bombs all over, that’s how they blew the legs off of our platoon leader.”
I looked out at the field. The thick corn stalks were so close together it was a hypnotic sea of green and yellow. There could be any number of people in there staring back at us.
“All right. So how do we get across it?” Grandpa asked.
“We spread out into a line and move across slowly. You see anything, yell so we all stop,” Will motioned with his hands how he wanted us all to line up. “Let’s move, boys!” he yelled back at everyone.
We fell into a line, side-by-side, stretching out across the edge of the field and slowly began making our way into the field. I could barely see more than a few feet in front of me and could just make out Cali off to my left.
They always tell you in training that any upturned dirt, loose soil, or holes in the ground can be signs of hidden bombs.
As I walked slowly, staring down at my feet, I realized every single inch of that damn field looked like every indicator I had ever been taught. I came to the conclusion that unless it had an ACME-style sign sticking out of the ground telling me where it was, I was most likely going to find a bomb about the same time it was going to find me.
“Stop!” Slim’s voice came over the radio. “Back up! Back up!” he screamed.
I knew Slim was the next guy to my right. I turned around and ran. Stalks of corn slapped me in the face as I sprinted through them.
I came out of the field and back onto the mountain trail. The rest of the patrol busted out of the fields and back out with me. Slim took off his helmet and sat down, his eyes the size of saucers.
“What the fuck did you see?” Will asked between gulps of air.
“A goddamn bomb was on the wall! Stopped right next to it!” Slim tripped over his words. “I panicked, ripped the fucking wires out, and ran.”
“You what?” I screamed at him.
“I don’t know, man! I didn’t know what else to do!” Slim yelled back.
“Calm down, guys; team leaders, make sure your soldiers are all here,” Will said calmly.
The team leaders—not including me because none of my soldiers came along—walked around to ensure all of their men made it back. They all gave him the thumbs up.
“Good. I’ll call it up to Dealer Base. Spread out and get some security for the area. We probably aren’t going anywhere for a while,” Will said as he sat down on a rock.
When you find a bomb, you have to call it up to your superiors who will then call in an Explosive Ordinance Disposal team, or EOD. They come riding out to save us by blowing up the bombs we find using multi-million-dollar robots. The only problem is they take hours to get out to where you are waiting for them because of the massive demand for their services.
We settled into the rocks of the mountainous trail and watched over the huge field in front of us.
I lit a cigarette and leaned against a rock next to Slim. “I can’t believe you ripped the damn wires out.” I shook my head.
“Hey, it worked, didn’t it? I’m still standing here.”
“Only because the rookie manning the bomb was sleeping at the wheel. You got lucky.”
“You say luck, I say skill.” Slim laughed.
I was starting to think the locals knew about the little gift waiting for us in the field as absolutely no one came out to work the fields in the middle of harvest season. It wasn’t surprising. The Taliban would always give the locals a heads-up so they wouldn’t step on traps meant for us. Not because they cared about the civilians, but because it was a waste of resources to blow up some farmer.
When entire villages of people disappeared in the middle of the day, it was generally a good sign we were about to be attacked. It wasn’t typical for the locals to completely abandon their livelihood to wilt in the oppressive midday sun.
After a few hours, several bearded EOD technicians appeared over the horizon. EOD techs were easy to distinguish: they carried tons of gear strapped to their chests, never wore helmets, and always had beards.
They walked up to Will and shook his hand.
“Which one of you guys found the bomb?” the tech with the biggest, bushiest beard asked. I assumed—based on his mighty beard—that he was in charge.
“I did,” Slim said.
Slim sighed, nodded at me to go with him, and we walked back out into the cornfield with the EOD guy following us.
We spread out and walked slowly. The EOD guy didn’t seem to have a care in the world. His rifle was slung on his back and he was strolling behind Slim as if it was a walk in the park.
I should have been paying attention to where I was walking. Suddenly, right in front of me, I came across a metal box half sticking out of the ground. Strung from the box and toward the perimeter wall was a wire. I stopped dead in my tracks, my heart in my throat. I could feel my heartbeat slamming in my temples.
“IED!” I screamed. Slim and the EOD guy rushed past me at a dead sprint and I was right on their heels. We gathered back together at the edge of the cornfield.
“What did you see?” The EOD guy asked between breaths.
“Metal box—wire going back toward the wall, toward the first bomb,” I gasped.
When several bombs are wired together, it’s called a “daisy chain.” If someone trips one, several others go off, increasing casualties. Apparently, the two we found were strung out in a line going from the wall toward the middle of the field, meaning they had figured out Dealer’s tactics for clearing large open fields.
“Take your people back to the trail,” the EOD guy told Slim. “I’ll get my guys into the field and handle this.” He waved over to the other six EOD technicians who were sitting with our soldiers on the rocks.
They all stood, picked up their bags, and started walking toward the cornfield.
The rest of us sat on the outskirts of the cornfield. It was too thick for us to see the EOD guys at work. Before long the bearded gang of bombers emerged from the cornfield and walked over to where we were watching.
“We’re gonna blow them, so we should probably back up,” the lead EOD guy said. He had a small box with a ton of wires attached to it in his hand: a detonator.
We all knelt down behind a small crumbling retaining wall.
Thad sat down next to Slim and me, giggling and holding a camera. This is the first time he was ever going to see something like this and he didn’t want to miss it.
“Fire in the hole!” the EOD guy yelled.
A fountain of dirt shot up into the air. A blast wave knocked us off our knees. The ground shook. We all cheered and laughed as we got up and brushed ourselves off. The EOD guys slung their backpacks back on, waved their goodbyes, and headed back up the trail they’d come in on. They were gone as fast as they’d appeared.
We finally made our way through the corn field, which was made much easier by the fact nearly all the corn had been blown over by the explosion set off by EOD. Sure, we totally destroyed an entire village’s food and income source, but our day was made marginally easier by it.
The field looked like a moonscape; you could clearly see two massive craters punched into the earth.
“Popcorn, mother fuckers,” Cali laughed as he stomped through piles of charred stalks of corn.
The village of Madaraja lay on the other side of the devastated cornfield. I could tell it had seen some major combat.
Every building was damaged in some way. Bullet holes, blast marks, and a burned-up Afghan National Army pickup truck still on the side of the road.
“Wow, you guys weren’t kidding,” Grandpa said as he surveyed the damage.
“Yeah, it was a rough couple of days,” Will sighed.
“We fucked those bastards up!” Brooklyn laughed, wildly pointing his weapon at one of the buildings.
The denizens of the village had come out of hiding, pouring out into the streets as we walked down them. They were no doubt a bit curious who was wandering through their neck of the woods blowing up their food supply and local economy.
“You think they came out to tell us how much they like democracy?” I joked.
Slim laughed and waved at the people who were gawking. “Vote Republican!” he yelled cheerfully. I shook my head at him, and he laughed some more. “What? They’re all inbred, backward farm people. Seems like the right demographic.”
Our interpreter, an older guy they called Reggie, walked over to Will and they exchanged some words.
“Stop, guys,” Will instructed. “Some shop owner wants to talk to us about something. Spread out, set up security,” he ordered over the radio. “Slim and Kassabian, you’re going in with me.” He wanted to keep us close so we could see what we would be dealing with shortly.
Will, Slim, Reggie, and I walked into a small dirty shop to meet an ancient-looking old man who was sitting on the floor. He was seated on a small brown rug surrounded by bags of various kinds of beans or rice. Everything he sold was covered in bright Chinese lettering. Reggie crouched down next to him and shook the man’s hand. I noticed that even though no one could see us inside that little shop, Reggie never took the scarf off his face. He didn’t trust the old man.
Most interpreters working for U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan kept their faces covered when out on patrol with us. They were normally from the same areas we were patrolling, and it would be bad news if someone recognized them. Not only would they be killed, but so would their family and friends. If they were lucky they would just be shot, but the Taliban was capable of terrible cruelty.
“He’s asking who blew up the corn field,” Reggie said, fighting back a laugh.
“Tell him we did it because it’s obvious his village is still harboring Taliban,” Will said, his voice tinged with anger.
Reggie translated the words into Pashto, and the old man gestured wildly with his hands. “He says there is Taliban in the village,” Reggie said.
“No shit,” Slim laughed.
“Who are they, then?” Will demanded. “Show us their houses.”
Reggie said a few words to the old man who quickly shook his head “no” and said something to Reggie. “He says they will kill his whole family if he helps us,” Reggie replied. It was clear from his tone that he felt sorry for the old man.
“Not if we kill the Taliban first,” Slim sneered. “Tell him that.”
Reggie dutifully related the message. “He says you could never kill them all. Eventually, you will leave and go back to America, but they will not. They will slaughter me.” Reggie’s voice trembled as he translated. He clearly understood where the man was coming from.
The old man was right. We wouldn’t be there to protect him forever. We would leave his war-torn country and return to the comfort of our homes in America. And the Taliban would roam through his town with knives looking for collaborators.
Sick of this back and forth, I stood up and walked out of the shop into the street. Compared to the cramped, dirty confines of the man’s shop, the open air sewers in the streets of Madaraja felt like a breath of fresh air. As I stood in the sweltering mid-afternoon sun, I glanced down the street to see Brooklyn robbing the local ice cream guy.
Brooklyn was shoulder deep into a tiny freezer on wheels trying to grab some ice cream bars while an angry old man attempted to push him away. The old man didn’t have the strength to fight off the American soldier pilfering his goods and resorted to screaming and waving his arms around.
Brooklyn laughed it off and walked back to me, several ice cream bars in hand. “Hey, Corporal, you want some ice cream?” he asked, jamming a bar into his mouth.
I was utterly speechless. I had seen soldiers do plenty of illegal, immoral, and unethical things during my career, but I had never seen a strongarm robbery before.
“God dammit, Brooklyn! Give that man a few dollars!” Will yelled out from the shop’s entrance. The way he said it made me think Brooklyn did this sort of thing often.
Brooklyn stomped over to the merchant, pulled out his wallet, and handed him a few tattered Afghani bills. It ended up being less than one dollar. I walked over to the irate old man and gave him a five-dollar bill—all the money I had in my pocket at the time.
“Damn, Corporal, I already paid him,” Brooklyn called out to me.
“Shut your fucking mouth!” I snarled at him.
Thankfully, after our little run-in with the shop owner and the robbery, we left the town.
The heat was like something I had never felt before in my life. I was so dehydrated it was a chore just to blink, but I wasn’t as bad off as Grandpa. Grandpa was tired and stumbling, showing all the symptoms of heat exhaustion. Dealer’s medic was walking alongside Grandpa trying to get him to drink water, but I was pretty sure he was past the point of helping.
“All right guys, we might be having a heat casualty so we’re gonna bring the patrol down to the river. Once we get down there, spread out and pull security,” Will’s voice crackled over the radio.
Slim and I walked next to Grandpa to help guide him down to a river that crossed through a nearby village. Pomegranate trees grew all around the river covering it in a refreshing level of shade. The field we were in was the greenest piece of land I had seen in Afghanistan, like an oasis. The ripe pomegranate trees hung heavy with purple fruit.
We plopped down in a lush green field as our soldiers secured the area around us. Grandpa fell on his back gasping for air and stripping off his body armor in an attempt to cool off. His skin was bright red and his lips were painfully cracked.
Dealer’s medic crouched down next to Grandpa and started an IV line in his arm.
“Man, he looks like shit.” Will stifled a laugh. “I think we might have to evacuate him.”
“Grandpa?” Slim said. “Hell no. He’ll recover. He’s a tough old bastard,” he said, waving Will off.
“All right, I’ll give him ten minutes. We have to get out of here.” Will sat down next to us. “Down that road—” Will pointed to the dirt path that curved next to the walled-off compound that enclosed the pomegranate field “—that’s where our platoon leader got fucked up.”
I could see a massive crater in the road where a young lieutenant triggered a tripwire and was torn apart and maimed forever in a massive explosion.
It was clear that a lot of the Dealer soldiers were getting overheated. We were all soaked through with sweat. Our hydration packs were already running low. When we stopped to give Grandpa a chance to rest everyone else had stripped off their gear as well.
I followed suit. I dropped my backpack and body armor in a pile on the grass. Feeling the breeze on my body was probably the best thing I’d felt in days.
Some of the Dealer boys sat next to me near the water’s edge.
“I bet that water feels amazing,” mused a soldier named Dexter. I saw the distorted water coursing over the lens of his coke-bottle glasses.
“And full of human waste,” I said.
Afghans usually disposed of waste and garbage by throwing it outside or into a water source. There was usually an accumulation of trash alongside riverbeds or the smell of feces. This river appeared oddly clean.
“Looks fine to me,” Cali murmured.
“Yeah,” Dexter said.
Before anything else was said, several of the Dealer soldiers jumped into the river. A splash of water landed on Dexter, Cali, and me. The chilly water made me recoil. Dexter was the next one in, and then Will ran past me and splashed into the stream.
The spontaneous bathing drew several villagers out of their homes to watch. Before long, the villagers and their children were jumping in.
I got up and jumped into the river. The water was so cold it knocked the wind out of me. It felt like falling through ice in the middle of winter.
Before I could brush my overgrown hair out of my eyes, an Afghan kid splashed water at me and laughed. I laughed and splashed him back.
“Y’all are going to get AIDS from that river!” Slim called out from the bank.
The Afghan kid and I splashed at Slim and laughed. I hoisted the kid up on my shoulders and tossed him into the air, he landed with a splash and all the villagers watching laughed and clapped.
“Oh! Gross!” Dexter screamed. “I just saw a turd!”
The Afghans didn’t seem to mind, but Dexter ran for shore.
“Ah!” Will screamed. “A damn wipe just floated by!” A small white rag with an unmistakable smear of brown drifted by.
We all booked it for the shore. We climbed out of the river while most of the soldiers on the banks laughed at us.
Brooklyn came out from behind a tree carrying a bag of baby wipes and buckling his belt.
“You mother fucker!” Will screamed.
Brooklyn turned on his heels and ran. Sergeant Will following close behind.
“You know, I think that Brooklyn guy isn’t right in the head,” Cali said.
“Really?” I laughed. “Just catching onto that, are you?”
As we moved away from the river, Afghan kids ran alongside our patrol. For the first time since I had arrived in Kandahar, I felt like I had made a connection with the locals.
That was until Cali kicked one of the kids in the chest, King Leonidas-in-300-style. After that, the kids went back to throwing rocks at us until we put some distance between ourselves and the village.
Several hours passed as we made our way through the heat and back to the Reserve. I could tell by my map that we were getting closer as the day wore on. Soon our death march would be over.
We crested a small hill and walked down a road that was partially melting because of the heat. Regular blacktop has no place in a country whose temperatures run close to those on the surface of the sun. Sticky black tar stuck to my boots and trailed behind me in strings as we plodded on.
The outskirts of the small farming village that surrounded the Reserve came into view. It felt comforting to see that massive castle in the distance, even if it could perfectly conceal about one hundred different snipers at any given time.
Will called for us to stop and set up positions around the village. He apparently had something to do that couldn’t wait. I knelt down behind a small crumbling wall with Slim and waited for us to move on.
I peered over my shoulder to see Will, pants around his ankles, toilet paper in hand, and his ass pressed up against an old mud brick house. He was taking a shit on someone’s house, in broad daylight, in the middle of a busy village.
Slim and I just glanced at each other and kept staring off into the field we were guarding. Somehow after only two days with Dealer, I was already completely desensitized. It didn’t even get weird until an old man, who was obviously the owner of the house Will was shitting on, came outside and witnessed what was going on. Will gave him a friendly thumbs-up in between grunts and farts.
Finally, we turned back down the trail that led to the Reserve. Alexander’s castle loomed over us as we passed through the gates of our newly adopted home. Will and the Dealer soldiers waved their goodbyes and walked back out of our gates.
Slim and I plopped down on a bench near the front gate, taking off our helmets and brushing the sweat from our eyes. I lit a cigarette and leaned back against the retaining wall, Slim shook his head and said:
“What the fuck have we gotten ourselves into?”