7. GONG’S FIRST PATIENT
One of the most common things we had to do was check on the Afghan National Police. We would go out to their police stations and double check to ensure they were actually doing their jobs. We learned too long ago that if you left them to their own devices, they would sell all their equipment, sit back, and collect a paycheck that was generously donated to the Afghan government by various NATO nations. And that’s when they weren’t openly helping the Taliban.
We only had one police station in our patrol area, but it was the district headquarters commanded by Colonel Ashraf. It was evident that the other Americans Ashraf had worked with overlooked all his illegal doings for the sake of the mission. Slim was not one of those people. He wouldn’t look the other way when Ashraf sold a whole shipment of gasoline or when we gave him thirty pairs of boots to make sure his policemen all had shoes, and every pair mysteriously went missing.
Slim might have been insane, but he wasn’t a bad soldier. Ashraf even had a cop under his employ whose sole job was to torture and abuse people. The dude was massive, even by American standards. Standing over six feet tall, his beard and long hair joined together into one huge tangled mess that made him look like some kind of missing link. His feet were so big he didn’t even bother wearing anything on them anymore. We named him Mongo.
Mongo carried a club around and beat anyone who displeased Ashraf. This included civilians, other cops, and prisoners. Gong and I checked in on a group of inmates who were locked up in the police station’s storage closet after Mongo made his rounds one day.
The three men were lying on the ground moaning in pain. So much blood was spattered everywhere I couldn’t tell if it was fresh or old. One of the men wasn’t moving or making any sound.
I entered the room and rolled the man over. His face was a mess, and it looked as if one of his eyeballs had ruptured. White fluid mixed with blood streamed from his eye socket like a water faucet. There wasn’t anything we could do for the men, so we left them where they were.
Slim reported Ashraf for every single violation of the law. Nothing was ever done about it. Eventually, our ability to work with Ashraf eroded away to nothing. Afterward, we still patrolled the district headquarters, but it was purely for show.
Instead of going on patrols with Ashraf’s men or training them, we went to an entirely separate part of the headquarters and shut ourselves into a room full of discarded beds. Half of us would get to sleep while the other half stood guard outside.
We had been patrolling the area long enough without getting shot or blown up that soldiers started getting complacent. Complacency is a soldier’s worst enemy while at war. Instead of always keeping your head up for the enemy while patrolling, you start to think that they aren’t there. Your mind drifts to the home you miss so much. You start thinking about how fucking hot it is, and you kind of just drag your feet from Point A to Point B. This is generally when people start getting killed.
I was just as guilty of complacency as any of my soldiers, even though I knew better.
One day, during a typical mission to the district headquarters, I was sleeping on one of the many torn-up and discarded beds in our little corner room with the rest of Second Squad when a long burst of machine gunfire jolted me awake.
I fell out of bed and grabbed my rifle, and we all shoved our way out through the door and into the compound’s expansive courtyard. Machine guns and rifles were popping off all around us.
We took cover in the courtyard. Our policy was that in case of attack we let the police handle the perimeter wall and we just tried to defend our side of the compound.
Police scampered across the walls from one guard position to another randomly firing wild bursts into the surrounding village.
The firing died down after a short while and Slim, Grandpa, and I slowly made our way to Ashraf’s office on the other side of the building, leaving Kitty in charge of the rest of the soldiers. We walked into his office to see him and a few of his officers sitting on the ground drinking tea having seemingly no knowledge of the headquarters-wide gunfight unfolding a few feet away.
Hamid rushed in on our tails loading his shotgun.
“Hamid, ask this asshole what the hell that was all about,” Slim said, annoyed.
Hamid did, but Ashraf acted as if he couldn’t be bothered to answer any questions. Hamid translated: “He says some terrorists started shooting from the village, so we suppressed them.”
“So they fired indiscriminately at a village full of people in the middle of the day?” Slim yelled. At this, the little tea party finally stopped. Ashraf looked annoyed that Slim dared raise his voice when informed of a war crime.
“He says all of his men are accomplished snipers,” Hamid said, stifling a laugh.
Slim gave up and walked out of the office. Grandpa and I followed. As we walked by the gate of the police department—whose guards were already back to taking naps and not doing their jobs—a car roared up to the gate laying on its horn. The windshield had several bullet holes in it.
Hamid ran up to the driver’s side window to see what was going on. “Hey, Slim!” Hamid yelled back at us. “We need Doc!”
“Medic!” Slim yelled as loud as he could. He directed the car to pull into the compound even though every single policeman was trying to get them to turn around.
Gong came sprinting through the compound. His massive aid bag bounced around on his small frame. He had left his rifle behind in the sleeping room in his urgency to get over to us. “Who’s hit?” he half-yelled, half-gasped after his run over.
The family that was sitting in the car climbed out. They were covered in blood. By the amount of gore, it looked as if someone had exploded in the car rather than been shot. They opened up the battered old hatchback and inside lay the limp form of a man wearing a once-white gown, now stained red. His beard and hair were matted with blood. The area that was once his face was now mostly blown away.
Gong recoiled in horror at the gruesome scene. He quickly unzipped his aid bag and fished around for something before Slim started laughing at him.
“That dude is dead,” Slim laughed.
Gong reached around his patient’s head and his hand found an open skull with gray matter pooling onto the car’s upholstery.
“Way to save that mother fucker, Gong,” Slim managed to get out in between cackles.
“Well, fuck.” Gong sighed. The guy was a new soldier, and this was his first deployment. That was definitely his first time sticking his hand into another man’s skull.
“Go wash that shit off, man,” I said trying to be reassuring. Seeing someone’s violent end for the first time can be pretty jarring, and Gong’s eyes were wide. “Hey, Dirty!” I yelled to the soldier guarding the main gate. “Go with him and keep an eye on him.”
Dirty wordlessly followed my order and trailed after Gong. I shut the car’s hatchback.
“Who did this?” Grandpa asked quietly.
Hamid quickly translated to the grieving family.
A young man I assumed was the dead man’s son answered Hamid.
“They say they were just driving down the road and got shot at,” Hamid said, motioning to the road that the car had come on.
“Slim, these assholes were shooting down that way,” Grandpa said, meaning the police. A restrained anger coated his words.
“I know,” Slim shook his head. “I’ll report it, but I don’t know what else we can do.”
“I’d like to give these guys my rifle and a shot at Ashraf,” I said.
Slim reported Ashraf and his men to our commander when we got back to the Reserve. Our commander quickly reported the incident to Scream, who totally blew it off.
His explanation was that because Taliban activity was so low in the areas that Ashraf was in charge of, whatever he was doing was working and shouldn’t be interfered with. He said this with full knowledge that Ashraf was probably a member of the Taliban.
Unfortunately, no matter how many times we brought forth examples and proof of Ashraf’s complete corruption, nothing was ever done. The idea of “the lesser of two evils” was apparently a part of our operations and procedures now. Though thankfully someone out there did have the power to dethrone the little tyrant of district six.
One day, while Ashraf was driving home from the district headquarters, a group of people ambushed him and left him to die on the side of the road. We never figured out who it was, not that we cared to catch them. It was probably some faction he pissed off, maybe even his own men.
It was a fitting end to such a corrupt warlord. Unfortunately, he hadn’t officially been one of our enemies. He had been trained, employed, and paid by the U.S. government. To make matters worse, we had been ordered to let him continue his reign of terror over his tiny fiefdom of District Six. And we hadn’t been the first ones.