Winter in Afghanistan is a funny thing. Even though most American soldiers, citizens, and politicians think of it as a Middle Eastern nation baking under the gulf sun, it isn’t. Afghanistan is a mostly mountainous country that covers both central and south Asia. What I am getting at is that its location makes winter fucking terrible. I had previously spent a winter in northeastern Afghanistan during which an avalanche wiped out the small village of Salang.

Though it does get cold, it’s not completely miserable. The main difference being that while the northeast was much colder, the base we lived in was much nicer. We did most of our patrols warmly packed into armored vehicles. Down in Kandahar, the city that was the birthplace of the Taliban, we had to go on constant foot patrols. We walked through its winding alleyways and markets regardless of the weather.

Winter in Kandahar wasn’t marked by driving snowstorms as it was in the north. It was characterized by constant rain and brutal winds that made us all completely hate our lives. The frigid wind easily ate through our cutting-edge winter clothes and burned our skin. Our operation’s tempo never once changed due to the weather.

The ironic part of all this is that the war is known to have two seasons. During the summer, the Taliban launch all-out attacks on the Afghan Security Forces and the NATO soldiers stationed there. In the winter, they vanish. The winter in Afghanistan is too brutal for the tribesmen in flip-flops to operate.

To start the worst season of the year, Second Squad, unfortunately, lost one of its best leaders. Grandpa was sent home for a chronic back problem that had all but crippled him. His back had been a constant issue ever since he was blown up in an IED attack years before while fighting in Iraq. He tried to stick it out for as long as he could. He did an incredibly good job at keeping it a secret.

Only Cali and I had any idea how bad it was. He could barely get out of bed in the morning by the time winter set in. One night while on Sergeant of the Guard duty, he couldn’t get out of the chair he was sitting in. Unfortunately this time, instead of one of us finding him stranded, Gunny did.

Gunny was a good man but didn’t bend his moral compass for any reason. He saw a person in pain that needed help. He didn’t see an incredibly effective combat leader whose soldiers absolutely loved him. It didn’t take long for Grandpa to be shoved into an outgoing convoy toward an airbase.

Before he left, Cali and I got to say our goodbyes. Cali and I were both nearly in tears watching him pack his things.

“You know I love you guys, right? I wouldn’t leave you if it were up to me,” Grandpa said, his voice slightly quivering. He didn’t mean that like we were best friends, he meant it because he saw us like family, just as we saw him. He always treated Cali and me as if we were his children. He was the closest thing I had to a father figure since I’d left home to join the army.

A few months after we had arrived in Afghanistan, my maternal grandfather died. He was one of the best men I’d ever known and someone I was very close to. He was one of the few people in my life who really supported my joining the military. When Gunny told me the news that my grandfather had died, I was shattered and ducked away behind a guard tower to cry to myself.

It didn’t take Grandpa long to find me. I thought he was going to give me the bullshit “He’s in a better place now” speech. He knew I was an atheist and hated that shit. Instead, he sat down next to me and put his arm around my shoulder. He didn’t say anything, and he didn’t have to.

Grandpa was generally a good and kind man, a great husband, and a model father. I wasn’t really sure how I would make it through the rest of the deployment without him.

My previous deployment to Afghanistan had resulted in us sitting on our asses in our patrol base during in the winter. We had been able to huddle around and enjoy a functioning heater that time. We weren’t so lucky this time around. Our operational tempo actually increased as the temperature plummeted.

Our unit managed to get its hands on an unmanned drone called a Raven that could be launched by throwing it into the air. It would beam back live video feed to a screen as it flew around in little circles. They tasked a soldier called Bama who had just joined our squad with controlling the little robot. It was a task he absolutely hated.

Bama was a die-hard Alabama Crimson Tide football fan. The guy even hung a massive flag from his bunk in the shower bay. Even though he came from the dirtiest of the dirty south, he was one of the most understanding and kind people I had ever met. He would routinely mock rednecks and other people from Alabama. He was married with children and had recently been shifted over from First Squad so he could be a team leader in Grandpa’s absence.

Soon a never-ending battle between Bama and the Raven started. Afghanistan in the winter is an incredibly windy place, and a Raven is nothing more than a small, remote-controlled plane with a camera attached. You can see why that would be a problem.

Bama needed about one hundred feet to get a running start and chuck the little bastard into the sky. The only place with enough room to launch the Raven was the motor pool.

The motor pool was also full of heavily armored trucks and surrounded by a twenty-foot-tall concrete wall. Bama would pick up the little plastic plane and take off at a sprint and launch it into the air. Because of the wall and all our trucks, he had to throw it nearly straight up, which resulted in it crashing down to earth like a goddamn meteor every single time.

Eventually, we received permission from the Afghan police (who lived next door) to use their roof as a launch pad. Of course, the biggest problem with that was we were in the middle of Kandahar City. We were surrounded by ten-story buildings that stood directly in the little Raven’s flight path.

“You think this is going to work?” I asked Bama.

“It can’t be any worse than throwing it into the side of our trucks, can it?” he replied.

Bama picked up the Raven, started its pitiful little prop engine, and took off running. He heaved the contraption into the air. It buzzed, sputtered, and took glorious flight. It slammed right through a large, ornate window on the sixth floor of a neighboring building. The sound of broken glass filled the night.

“Fuck!” Bama cursed in his thick southern accent.

“Holy shit! You broke that guy’s window!” I cried.

“You think he’ll make me pay for it?” Bama joked.

The radio Bama carried crackled to life.

“What’s the situation with the Raven?” It was Gunny. He was constantly worried the Taliban were using the winter to prepare for some world-ending attack. So he kept sending the Raven out in futile attempts to catch them.

“It, umm…crashed,” Bama replied.

“Roger, where did it land?” Gunny asked. The Raven would give us exact grid coordinates for where it crashed so we could hunt it down.

“Um, you know that building with the big, red window to the east of Spartan Base?”


“I think it’s in that guy’s living room.”

“Are you serious?” Gunny said slowly in his gravelly voice.

“Well, to be fair, it could be some kind of breakfast nook or something. We can’t confirm it’s in his living room,” Bama said.

I couldn’t help myself anymore and started laughing. Bama was pissed. Not because it crashed, but because it always made him look bad. Everyone knew the Raven was a piece of shit, but they heaped the blame on him whenever it failed.

Gunny ran over to the Afghan police compound and told them what happened. The police ran to the man’s house and retrieved our Radio Shack reject.

That was the first of many times Bama would assault that same man’s house with a multi-million-dollar spy drone. It got so bad that eventually the man who lived in the house would just bring the drone back to our camp, laughing.

We all took turns attempting to throw the Raven into the air. Without fail, we were all terrible at it. I never hit the man’s house, but I did throw it as hard as I could into the concrete retaining wall and broke it in half. I wasn’t allowed to play with Bama’s toy after that one.

Winter made everyday activities absolutely terrible. Tower guard—usually just an annoying duty that would interrupt your sleep for the night—turned into an hours-long exercise of trying to stay warm. For obvious tactical reasons, the towers were built up and out of the way from everything else. That meant they were the most exposed to the wind. We were given small metal burners that we could use to stay warm, but that would conceal an open flame so we wouldn’t stick out like sore thumbs at night.

The large problem was that firewood is as rare as diamonds in a barren, mountainous country with no forests. We burned anything and everything at night to keep warm. Ration bags, garbage, you name it. Of course, breathing in burning waste fumes was the least of our worries when people began burning the very towers we were standing in. At some point, people started prying away pieces of the wooden tower frame and burning it for warmth. It left huge gaps in the very walls that were supposed to be protecting us.

Gunny lost his shit when he discovered large chunks of missing guard tower during one of his many inspections. But because the point had been made that we were dying out there, he ordered tons of wooden pallets for the express purpose of burning them. We didn’t think twice about the dangers of breathing in the toxic fumes.

Of all the things we did that winter, breaking U.S. Central Command’s rules and directives was probably the worst. Central Command is the one U.S. operation command center over the entire Global War on Terror. It was in control of the Iraq War and the Afghan War at the same time. It was in charge of coming up with all rules, policies, and overarching battle plans. Two of the biggest impact rules they laid out were complete bans on pornography and alcohol while in a war zone.

It goes without saying that everyone broke the first rule. Everyone traded porn like baseball cards. The weirder, the better. Most people used it more to freak each other out rather than for any erotic purpose. No one was ever punished for having porn.

The second rule—the total ban on any form of alcohol—was strictly enforced. It was so rigidly pressed that I can honestly say in almost seven years of service I never once saw anyone drinking while deployed. We were scared shitless of doing it because we knew we would be demoted in a heartbeat.

That would change one freezing night when Perro got a care package from home.

He cracked it open and pulled out several bottles of whiskey and Jaeger.

Slim and I stood next to him, speechless.

“It keeps you warm, man,” Perro smiled.

“They will seriously fuck us up if they catch us, dude!” Slim said. The fear was obvious in his voice. That scared me. Slim was a guy who had attempted to skip a live grenade across the ground, stolen a car while on a patrol, and was once in a Mexican standoff with an entire platoon of Afghan army commandos. Yet somehow drinking whiskey while in Afghanistan was an absolute no-no.

“We haven’t gotten in trouble for anything else we’ve done. Why would this be any different?” Perro replied. It was true; our squad was pretty much untouchable for reasons we didn’t understand.

“Fuck it,” I said.

“I can’t argue with that,” Slim responded.

So Perro brewed a pot of coffee, and we poured probably a bit too much whiskey into it. We sat around and had a drink on the cold tile floor of his shower stall. The warmth of the cheap dime-store whiskey flooded my system. I no longer cared that I lived in a freezing bathhouse with thirteen other men. That plastic jug of booze made the world feel like a better place for about five seconds.

“We should have a drink at the top of OP Townhouse,” Perro joked.

Townhouse was the name of one of the observation points we had in the city. It was the tallest building in the area. We had command of our little slice of the city while we were up there.

“Let’s do it,” I laughed. “How fun would a fire fight be when you’re shit-house drunk?”

“Y’all mother fuckers are insane.” Slim shook his head.

If your idea was so crazy that Slim shot it down, you knew you were out of line. We all crawled back to our shower stalls to put on a few layers of clothes before we went out on our night patrol. The mercury had dipped into the low single digits, but Gunny was insistent that we keep patrolling the frozen nothingness of Kandahar City: a place so fucking miserable in winter that even the Taliban wanted nothing to do with it.

We trudged out of Spartan Base and into the driving, freezing, and unrelenting wind. Even though I was wearing three different layers, it cut right through me. Somewhere along the line, Cali and Nan joined up with us. The five of us hiked down the eerily abandoned streets to OP Townhouse.

Townhouse was actually an Afghan police base. They never bothered to go outside anymore. A few weeks beforehand someone on a scooter had driven by and shot one of their men while they were standing on the corner. Ever since then they stayed their asses securely inside. We walked up three flights of stairs and came out on the roof.

The roof was littered with garbage and scattered pieces of wood. It was the perfect vantage point to stand watch over everything in sight. So, of course, the Afghans used it as a place to throw their trash. We knocked a few holes in the partition wall to use as gun ports to over-watch the city. The Afghans were only curious about why we happened to be so on guard, not why we were destroying their building.

Cali piled up the wooden debris and some of the garbage in the middle of the roof and lit it on fire.

“Dude, everyone in the city is going to know we’re here,” Nan said fairly pissed off.

“They already know we’re here.” Cali shrugged and basked in the fire’s warm glow.

“He has a point,” Slim laughed. “And honestly, I kind of wish someone would attack us. I’m bored as hell.”

Perro slid up next to Slim and pulled the bottle of Jaeger out of his backpack. “Did someone say ‘bored?’” he smiled.

“Oh shit, this just turned into a party.” Cali smiled.

“This looks like a supremely bad idea.” Nan shook his head.

I looked at him, slightly shocked.

“Whoa, that doesn’t mean I don’t want any,” Nan clarified.

We all sat down around the fire and placed our weapons on the ground. No one was on guard anymore. Even a few of the Afghans joined us.

Slim sat down at the head of the fire and cracked the little green bottle. “Fuck it,” he said, taking a drink.

We all laughed and passed it around. I absolutely hated Jaeger but took a swig anyway. It tasted like black licorice that someone else had already chewed up and spit out. I gagged and passed it down the line.

Before long we were all pretty drunk, even though we barely had anything to drink. You would be surprised how quickly your tolerance vanishes when you don’t get to drink for months at a time.

It didn’t take long for the bottle to be emptied. Slim stood up and flung it off the roof. We heard a distant shattering sound when it connected with something.

We all took off our armor and relaxed. Warm, with a belly full of liquor, and the glow of a shitty, choking garbage fire.

Cali giggled and fired off a flare into the night sky, lighting up the darkness with a green hue.

“I love you mother fuckers,” Slim said. “Best fucking squad on earth.”

“I just wish we had someone to kill,” Nan sighed. “This no-war winter is getting old.”

“And no one to play catch with, you must be bummed.” I laughed.

“Oh, fuck you, man,” Nan said.

Before long we got bored and started chucking burning wood and garbage off the roof onto the streets below until there was no more bonfire left. We all laughed to ourselves, strapped our body armor back on, and walked home.

It would hardly be the last time we would do something stupid on top of Townhouse. We would routinely take naps on the floor surrounded by Afghan garbage. We made a huge mistake in doing all of that. Writing off the Taliban as gone for the winter was single-handedly the worst thing we could have done. There was a good chance that at least one of the Afghan police were Taliban members or sympathizers, and they were watching us make complete idiots of ourselves.

As a squad, we weren’t exactly the most professional or morally strong characters on Earth, but we were certainly the most violent and hard-bitten in the area. There was an excellent reason we called ourselves the Hooligans. Our operations taught the Taliban that we weren’t to be fucked with and gave us room to operate without any problems.

There is a saying in the army: “Don’t be a soft target.” It means that if you make yourself look like a badass, people generally won’t want to mess with you. If you act like a pushover, you’ll find yourself in someone’s crosshairs sooner rather than later.

That was Slim’s whole philosophy. To make ourselves look like the last squad you would want to engage in combat. Though it turns out if you act like a raging asshole all the time, someone will eventually come along and punch you in the mouth. It doesn’t matter how big of a badass you think you are.