13. NAN PLAYS CATCH
Every morning the general officer in charge of our area sent down a message to all the units under his command. That message was called the Significant Actions Report, or SIGACTS. Those messages would include all the enemy attacks that happened on allied soldiers in the last twenty-four hours.
That was important because the Taliban generally never changed their tactics unless we did—meaning attacks on our forces followed trends. It gave us something to look for rather than just looking at every bearded adult Afghan male with suspicion.
Our district in Kandahar had seemingly turned into Compton overnight. The Taliban had taken up the fine art of drive-by shootings. These drive-bys differed from the Crips or Bloods in one very significant way: They liked to use hand grenades.
Two men riding on a scooter—which was overwhelmingly common in our area—would drive through a U.S. or Afghan patrol, drop a few grenades, and keep on trucking down the road. It was also not unheard of for them to roll up and shoot an American soldier in the back of the head, execution style.
You might think that would be easy to see and jump off into a ditch, but you’d be wrong. In a busy market or village, cars, motorcycles, and scooters zip by every few seconds. People are yelling and screaming trying to hawk their wares in the street. It’s a loud and distracting environment to operate in. If someone simply drops a grenade into traffic, which you happen to be working in, you won’t see or hear it. You might feel it, though.
“Man, y’all are fucking pussies!” Nan argued with Thad. They were arguing about the enemy contact first squad almost had the night before. Most of the platoon was hanging out in the chow tent choking down some awful shit the cooks had put together for us. We tried to eat as fast as possible so we wouldn’t have to taste it.
“There is a difference between being pussies and being insane. You guys jump over that line and shoot at it,” Thad said, laughing. He was talking about Second Squad’s habit of starting shit while we were on a mission. He wasn’t wrong. We had a habit of overreacting to everything.
“You can call us crazy all you want, but we don’t run from a fight!” Cali mocked.
In Second Squad, we loved to say First Squad always ran from a fight. Of course, that wasn’t entirely accurate.
A few nights back, First Squad had been on a patrol at night, which was normally Second Squad’s job, and decided to set up an OP in a burnt-out farmhouse.
At some point during the night, all hell broke loose. Guns started cracking to life. Machine guns and rockets ripped through the air all over. Tracer rounds were tearing through the night from all sides about one hundred yards in front of them. They had no idea what was going on and no one was actually shooting at them. No one seemed to know that they were there. It was as if they’d stumbled upon some random turf war in the middle of nowhere.
Neither Olly—First Squad’s leader—nor Grizzly Base had any idea what was going on. Because he wasn’t insane, Olly ordered his squad to slowly pull away from the firefight. Turning that two-way cluster fuck into a three-way wouldn’t have made anything any better. They turned around and no one involved noticed.
The various militant groups that operated in our area—a strange mix of Islamic insurgents, smugglers, and gangs—routinely tried to kill each other. The Afghan security forces would shoot at anything that went bump in the night. It could have easily been two different Afghan police patrols shooting at each other. Olly was a smart leader for not getting his men involved in that firefight. That didn’t mean we weren’t going to fuck with them for it.
“So how was it? Holding the Taliban’s pocket, I mean,” Perro joked.
“Whatever, let’s see how you assholes react when it happens to you.” Thad waved off all the jokes. He was a smart guy, a promising young leader who just lacked a bit of experience. Before we could get another word in, Thad had to leave to suit up for their patrol that was coming up.
“Try not to run away from anymore enemies, dude!” Perro called after him.
“Fuck you!” Thad called back.
Dweebly decided one random day that because a village elder and Olly couldn’t iron out plans to build a school, he would send Slim in to talk to him.
I would like to think it was the occupation version of “good cop, bad cop,” and after a few hours of dealing with Slim, the elder would immediately agree with Olly. So Olly and his guys had to roll out at night instead of us. After hearing about their mystery firefight, I was glad we were stuck on day patrols.
Meanwhile, we headed out to the construction area that was slated to be a school with a few Army Corps of Engineers civilians. On the site a school already stood. It was built about ten years before and was already completely stripped of everything worth a shit. Even down to the toilets.
People had just started throwing their trash over the walls of the abandoned compound afterward. Due to the incredibly shoddy construction work, or just plain fraud, the walls of the school had actually melted in the rain. The Afghan contracting company that had built it hadn’t used any cement whatsoever. They just piled mud and hay together into something resembling a building. It held until the first rainstorm.
About the only thing not stolen was the nice big sign on the outside of the school that said: Provided to the People of Afghanistan by the People of the United States of America. It had a painting of an Afghan flag next to an American one. It looked as if we had donated a landfill to them.
We sat down with the elder only to find out he objected to the school because he wouldn’t be in charge of it. By the looks of this guy, the only thing he could teach people was how to cultivate incredible body odor. We laughed at the old man and told him that would never happen. He explained that Olly told him he would be in charge of everything in the village, including the school.
Of course, that wasn’t true at all. Village or tribal elders were notorious for lying and saying they were promised things by other U.S. soldiers, even when they were totally ridiculous.
The next day, First Squad went back and managed to get the elder to agree with the school project. They probably told him that if he didn’t, the other soldiers would come by again.
We sat around Grizzly Base trying to kill time until nightfall and it was our turn to go outside the wire. Around the time night started to fall, Slim burst into the soldiers’ tent. “Hey, get the fuck up. First Squad found an IED and we are going out to help them secure the area,” he yelled.
We all lazily rolled out of our cots, put our gear on, and trudged to the trucks to get them ready.
Before every mission, the trucks had to be prepared for combat. That meant radios were checked, weapons were mounted and loaded, and we did a quick check over the vehicle to ensure everything still worked. Military vehicles had an uncanny ability to break while parked. Every time we climbed inside and cranked it up there was a good chance the piece of crap wouldn’t start. When you first deploy, this process can take anywhere from twenty to thirty minutes. By that time, though, we were up and ready to go within five.
We rushed out of the gate to First Squad’s location. How they found the IED just went to show just how much of a different group of people they really were.
While out on a normal patrol through a village, the point man on their patrol had found a small dugout with puppies inside. He called to the rest of his squad and they came forward to see the puppies.
It was around this time they saw half of an artillery shell sticking out of the ground and wires leading into a house. They quickly backed up and tried to secure the area. The puppies were left depressingly unsecure in the blast zone. The guys were laughing at First Squad for rushing to see the puppies. I was laughing because I probably would have done the same thing.
We showed up on the scene and blocked off traffic with our trucks. A few people dismounted to join in on the securing effort. Grandpa and Cali got out of the truck, leaving me alone to man the gunner’s position. I settled in for a long stay. Grandpa’s iPod was blaring some awful bubblegum pop music at me. I think that time it was Kesha.
I unstrapped my body armor and took my helmet off to get comfortable. I stared down the incredibly busy market street, scanning rooftops and alleyways.
My truck shook, and I heard the dull thump of an explosion behind me. My radio hissed to life. At first, I couldn’t understand what was being said because the sheer amount of panic in the person’s voice made it completely incomprehensible.
“I’m hit!” screamed the voice. It was Nan. He was the gunner in the truck behind me.
I ripped my headset off and put my helmet back on, grabbed my rifle, and jumped out of my truck. When I landed on the ground, I noticed there was no traffic at all anymore.
Every living thing in the village had vanished as if it had never been there. I rushed to Nan’s truck. It was totally obscured by smoke and I could barely see.
Sal, our medic, was already climbing into the truck. He turned to me and pushed me back. “Get back to your fucking truck!” he yelled at me. He was right. I had totally abandoned my position to run over to my friend. I quickly ran back to my truck before Slim or Grandpa noticed.
I climbed back behind my gun. I wasn’t focused on it. My mind was racing, Nan said he was hit. Was he dying? The geeky, chubby guy who I always debated politics with. He could be dying, and I wasn’t doing anything to help him.
Slim immediately pulled everyone back to the trucks. Everyone jumped in, and we screamed off down the road. We drove as fast as we could to Camp Nathan Smith, the nearest base with a medical center. The Afghan security guards barely got the base’s gates open in time for us to blast through. Cali had no intention of stopping the truck to wait for them.
When we stopped, I jumped out of my truck and ran back to Nan’s. Sal was helping him out of the truck. Nan’s eyes were wild, and he was breathing heavily. He wasn’t bleeding.
“I’m pretty sure he has a concussion,” Sal said. “Besides that he’s okay.”
I breathed a sigh of relief and walked with them to the aid station.
Once Sal sat him down on a bed and stripped off his gear, Nan started to calm down. He was coming down off his adrenaline high. He began replaying the events for us.
“I thought they had just thrown a rock at me.” He shook his head. “They do that shit all the time.” He put a massive handful of dip in his mouth. “Two fuckers on a scooter drove by and chucked it at me. It hit me square on the side of the head, bounced off, and landed on the outside of the gunner’s shield. When it exploded, I was thrown back into the truck.” The gunner’s shield is a shield of metal and ballistic glass that surrounds the truck’s turret. It could stop most bullets and, as Nan discovered, hand grenade blasts.
Slim put Perro and me in charge of changing out the passenger side tire of Nan’s truck because the explosion had shredded it. The entire side of the vehicle was peppered with shrapnel and burn marks. Chunks of metal had lodged themselves into the truck’s armor plating and taken deep gouges out of the gunner’s shield. All the windows on the passenger side were spider-cracked.
A mechanic let us use his forklift to pick up our truck so we could change out the tire. It was incredibly unsafe, and I was pretty sure the truck was going to fall over at any second, but Perro worked fast, and soon the tire was switched out.
Perro reached into his backpack and pulled out a package of pink tiger-striped Band-Aids and started placing them over the gashes the shrapnel had taken out of the truck. “That should work, right?” he laughed.
“Good enough for government work,” I said. I grabbed a few of the little pink Band-Aids and stuck them over the gashes on the front passenger door.
Perro lit a cigarette, hitting it so hard the burning end sparked.
“So what happened out on the patrol after Nan got blown up?” I asked him. Perro had been out with Slim and the group of people attempting to secure the IED.
“Dude, everyone froze except Grandpa and Slim. They took off running to see what happened,” he explained. “Why didn’t y’all shoot the fucker that threw the grenade?”
“I didn’t see it. He said it was two people on a scooter.” I shrugged.
“So in other words, pretty much anyone,” Perro said. About half the vehicles on the road were scooters packed full of people, even during the winter. “Should have started shooting anyway. Just waste the fucking city, bro.” The thought had crossed my mind more than once.
We walked back to where the rest of our squad was hanging around outside the aid station. Nan wasn’t there.
“Where’s Nan?” I asked no one in particular.
“They’re keeping him overnight,” Cali said. “To make sure he doesn’t die or some shit.”
“It’s because he has a concussion. They have to keep him for observation,” Sal said, his professionalism showing.
“Is he going to be okay?” I asked. Nan was one of my best friends. We couldn’t have come from more different backgrounds in life, but in the army that didn’t really matter. Hating your life while serving in uniform tends to bring people together.
“Should be,” Sal said. “Concussions aren’t usually serious.” Sal had recently quit smoking, though you wouldn’t be able to tell from the cigarette dangling from his lips. That was his first time ever having to treat someone he knew and who was a friend.
Slim appeared from within the aid station looking upset. “They aren’t letting us bring him home with us tonight, and they won’t let us stay with him.” It turned out Slim wasn’t keen on leaving one of his men behind. He decided we would all be staying, too.
We were told that there were no cots for us. That didn’t matter. We would sleep on the floor. We don’t leave anyone behind, not ever.
It took a direct order from Dweebly for Slim to admit defeat. “We’ll come get him in the morning as soon as they let us,” Slim said, relenting.
We climbed into our trucks and headed back to Grizzly Base. Sal took Nan’s spot behind the gun of Kitty’s truck.
At first light, we were in our trucks and driving back to get Nan. We each exchanged a hug with him when we saw him again. The doctors said he was perfectly fine, though he still had a headache that refused to go away and an endless ringing in his ears.
Once we found out he was fine, we started giving him shit.
“What’s wrong man, never played catch before?” Cali and Perro laughed at him.
He laughed with us, clearly just happy to be alive.