A few weeks had passed, and we came around to Tooth as our squad leader. But he wasn’t the iron fist of Slim that we needed, and when given an inch, we took a mile. When we were given a mile, we sprinted off into the horizon. We all slowly but surely became depressed about our new lot in life. We were no longer the ultra-violent squad that everyone wanted on call. We were just another unit in the company.

Even though Slim was in charge of the entire platoon, he spent most of his time hanging around and going on patrol with us. He constantly undermined Tooth and retook command of his former squad. Eventually, Tooth realized he wasn’t really in charge of the squad.

We were still stewing over the fact that we hadn’t been able to get revenge for our wounded comrades. Since that rainy night we were mangled on that godforsaken road, the Taliban had completely left us alone. We hadn’t even found an IED waiting for us. It was as if they knew they’d won, claimed the prize, and gone home.

That didn’t stop us from lashing out at everyone and everything. Every single traffic control point we set up was an opportunity to ruthlessly search every passerby. Every car had every single occupant ripped out of it so it could be torn apart. We tore seats out and took knives to the insides of the floor and ceiling liners. We didn’t find a damn thing.

“I don’t get it,” Cali mumbled while shredding someone’s driver seat with a knife. “It’s fighting season, and we are in Kandahar. Where the hell are all the Taliban?”

“Who knows,” I said with a shrug. “Gathering their numbers, waiting to overrun us at Spartan?”

“Then where the hell are all the weapons?” he asked, kicking shreds of torn fabric around.

“You ever think we just suck at our jobs?” Perro laughed as he went through the car’s trunk.

“I know I suck at my job,” I said.

Our unforgiving searching methods made us no friends. Traditionally, if women were in the cars, we weren’t allowed to pull them out and search the car. That wasn’t a directive of ISAF, but of our local Afghan police. It made sense; there was really no faster way to make the populace hate you in Afghanistan than to mess with their women. But we stopped caring about their feelings when they started to blow our friends up.

We weren’t grabbing the women and yanking them out of the cars. We were just opening the doors for them to indicate they should step out. We would never touch them or search them personally, even though we wanted to. On several occasions, the men would try to physically stop us from opening their back doors. That never ended well for them.

As much as we wanted to search them, we were never allowed to. There were dozens of intelligence reports about Taliban hiding as women, only to jump out and take a shot at a soldier. Or for men to use their own wives and family as conduits for weapons smuggling, knowing we wouldn’t touch them. Higher Command thought the Afghans’ feelings were more important than our safety.

I opened up the back door of a little rusted Corolla and motioned for a woman who was clad head to toe in a blue burka to step out. An older man shoved me square in the chest as hard as he could. I was a well-built, two-hundred-and-thirty-five-pound man wearing about fifty pounds of combat gear. I didn’t budge. I cocked my arm back and punched him as hard as I could in the middle of his chest. He crumpled like a piece of paper.

“Kassabian!” Tooth yelled at me. His already red face was suddenly so flushed he could have passed as a tomato.

“What?” I yelled. His voice snapped me back to reality. I had blacked out and caved in the guy’s chest. I wanted to smash him across the skull with my rifle until his eyes went dark and he twitched. I wanted to stomp his face in with my size-thirteen combat boot. I wanted to kill him.

Nan put his hand on my shoulder, reassuring me. It calmed me back down.

“Asshole tried to grab his gun!” Nan yelled back at Tooth. It was a blatant lie, but it seemed to be enough for Tooth. He walked away and left us alone.

I had never lost it like that before. I stood there trying to gather my thoughts as the guy writhed around on the ground in front of me. I knelt down and grabbed him, pulled him to his feet, and shoved him back into his car. “Get the fuck out of here,” I growled at him. He motioned wildly with his hands. He screamed at me in words I didn’t understand. I noticed two streams of tears that had cut through the caked layers of dust he had on his face. It made me feel better about myself. Finally, he drove off, kicking dirt up as he went.

We were walking back to Spartan when Cali walked up next to me. “You all right man? I think you punched through that guy’s chest.”

“Yeah,” I lied. “Asshole shouldn’t have touched me.” For all the things the Hooligans did as a group, we almost never straight-up assaulted people.

“Next time, you should just shoot ‘em,” Cali said spitting out a massive wad of dip spit.

“Noted,” I said curtly.

We made it back to Spartan where Tooth sent me to talk to Slim. Clearly he was upset with my random act of violence but was unable to speak with me himself. I sat down in Slim’s tiny room where I noticed he had George W. Bush’s autobiography cracked open on his bed. “Is everything okay, man?” Slim asked.

“I should ask you the same thing.” I motioned to the book on his bed.

“Hey, it’s a good read.”

“You know there’s no way he could ever actually write a whole book, right?”

Slim cracked a smile.

“Shit, he probably couldn’t even read one,” I added.

“I was kind of hoping it was a picture book.” Slim laughed. “Hey, man, I know how we used to run things, but try not to knock anyone out with Tooth around. He might actually report it,” he said with a small smile.

Slim not addressing how seriously messed up it was for me to randomly punch out a villager didn’t make me feel any better. I think the worst part was I didn’t even feel bad about doing it. As far as I was concerned, I was still trying to pay back Kandahar for fucking up my friends.

I wasn’t the only one welling up with anger, aggression, and uncontrollable violence. One day while out on patrol, a rare and beautiful thing happened: the Afghan police did their jobs. They came back into Spartan with a young man hogtied and blindfolded in the back of their pickup truck and walked into the TOC.

Hamid, our interpreter, told us they captured someone on a scooter and wanted to talk to us. Slim, Ginger, and I exchanged confused glances. It was rare they ever captured anyone. Typically, they just robbed them and sent them on their merry way. Either that or executed them on the side of the road.

Ginger went outside to talk to them. In a few seconds, he came back into the TOC. His red face looked like it was going to pop. “They captured someone on a scooter who had grenades on them,” he said, trying to keep himself calm and failing miserably.

The same thought immediately crossed all of our minds: this is one of the assholes who attacked us. We rushed out of the TOC and crossed into the Afghan police side of the base.

Word had spread to the rest of the Hooligans, and they were running out of the shower stalls half-dressed and armed. We came upon the Taliban fighter. He was frail and skinny and had the patchy beard of an awkward teenager. He was clearly terrified. Tears streamed down his dirty face and mixed with the blood from several wounds that were undoubtedly inflicted on him by the police during his capture.

“Hamid!” Ginger growled.

Hamid, who was clearly uncomfortable with the situation, pushed through the growing crowd of U.S. soldiers and Afghan police. “Yes, sir?” he asked.

“Ask this piece of shit if he was the one who ambushed us,” Ginger commanded.

Hamid dutifully and quickly translated Ginger’s words into Pashto. The young fighter suddenly looked petrified. He wildly shook his head and spouted off terrified Pashto so quickly he was stumbling over his own words.

Our translator turned to us. “He says he is no Taliban.” Hamid smiled. It was his little tell that let us know he thought the guy was lying.

“Then why the fuck did he have a bag of grenades?” Ginger grabbed the young fighter by his man-dress. He lifted the man to his feet so he could stare into his eyes.

Hamid translated.

Another hysterical outburst of words I couldn’t understand.

“He says they were not his,” Hamid said, once again with a smile on his face.

“Oh, right, he just went to get rice and ended up with a bag of explosives. I hate when that happens,” Ginger said. I could tell from the tone of his voice the civil part of this conversation was about to end.

Ginger grabbed the guy by his throat. Ginger’s knuckles were turning white with strain as he crushed the guy’s windpipe. The Afghan’s eyes bulged. He kicked and flailed. He thought that that was it—he was going to die. I hoped he was right.

Ginger let go, shaking his hand out. The Afghan slumped against the wall gasping for breath. Perro kicked him in the stomach and Cali slapped him. The Afghan tried protecting himself as I stepped behind him and grabbed him, pinning his arms behind his back. He struggled as hard as he could, but he didn’t have a chance to break away from my grip.

The surrounding soldiers closed in and rained blows on him. Eventually, they got tired and walked away. I dropped the man in the dirt, where he landed with a thud.

The Afghan police continued the beating where we left off. We didn’t stick around to watch. The Afghan police’s reputation for brutality was well known.

I sat on a small bench across from the TOC and fumbled with a cigarette pack. My hands were shaking so violently, I could hardly light it. I knew what we’d done was wrong, but I didn’t care. I would have shot him on the spot if I thought I could have gotten away with it.

I wanted that guy to hurt. I wanted him to feel the pain that our friends felt. I wanted him to bleed for what he did. The fact that he probably had nothing to do with the attack didn’t matter to me anymore.

I shook so intensely, I dropped my cigarette into the dirt. I didn’t bother to try to pick it up. I just dropped my head into my hands. I felt someone sit down next to me. In my periphery, I saw that it was Nan. He didn’t say a word, he just sat there.

None of us were coping with the stresses of our circumstances well. Everyone had taken up smoking, dipping, and drinking bootleg liquor.

My main addiction was the gym. Before Sal left us for hospital life on KAF, we would spend what few free hours we had in the gym. Sometimes going several times a day. We accrued massive stockpiles of supplements through shady online dealers. As far as we knew, they were all legal. We became massive, hulking beasts that everyone else literally sat back and watched.

More than once between sets of whatever it was we were lifting, we would have a gathering of people watching us. Afghan police and other U.S. soldiers would sit back and watch as we punished ourselves in our tiny, mostly handmade outdoor gym. Every single barbell was bent at an insane angle, mostly due to Sal.

After he was sent away, I had no one else who could hang with the horrible torture I would put myself through. After he left, I would just put my headphones on, listen to the angriest music I could find, and wreck myself under the burning Afghan sun. Eventually, I got so big none of my uniforms fit, and my body armor started making it hard to breathe.

It was one of the few non-violent and non-drug-fueled releases I had. It was more cathartic than spending quality time with the massive squad-wide porn collection, which was where most other people spent their time. At night, you could see an eerie glow coming from the port-o-potties. They were lit up like disgusting candles by everyone’s laptop screens. Most people didn’t even bother plugging in headphones anymore. It became routine when you went to go take a shit to be surrounded by that flat, meat-packing sound of male self-love.

No matter the release, we were all boiling cauldrons of uncontained rage and violence waiting to explode. Whether it was from the stress of the constant threat of a quick and violent death, or the unfinished business of paying the Taliban back for what they had done to the men who were very much our family, once that time bomb went off it would be hard to contain. We could only hope to direct it in the right direction.

One night, our squad was sitting around our trucks on a standard QRF rotation. Normally this just meant we fell asleep in our trucks waiting for the radio to scream to life and give us something to do. Almost nothing ever happened when we were on QRF.

I was just dozing off when the radio crackled. I was hovering in that halfway point between being asleep and being awake so I didn’t immediately understand what was being said.

Oldies reached over and slapped me on the shoulder. “Third Platoon got hit!” His speech problem meant he couldn’t pronounce the R in “third.”

“What?” I said, still not entirely conscious.

“They threw a grenade at Danny!” Oldies yelled.

“Second Squad, we are rolling out!” Tooth screamed over the radio.

I rubbed the sleep from my eyes and put a dip in my lip.

The truck rumbled to life as Slim jumped into the front passenger seat. “You fuckers ain’t leaving without me.” He smiled, looking back at me.

“Think it’s the same boys that fucked us up?” I asked him.

“Who knows, man? I’m looking to peel some scalps back regardless,” Slim said.

The Taliban in our area knew which squad, platoon, and company were which. They knew who to hit and who not to hit. Deep down inside I hoped this was the same group that hit us. Anyone who ever said the Taliban were stupid never had to fight them.

“Let’s fucking do this,” I said.

Our convoy stopped in a small, nondescript village. The tiny dirt-track road we were parked on was centered between two open-air sewer ditches. Third Platoon was already spread out and searching the area for their attackers. I couldn’t see the truck that had the grenade thrown at it. I hoped Danny was okay.

Danny was a short, energetic Mexican kid whom I’d known for years. He was actually one of my soldiers when I was first stationed at Fort Hood and he had deployed with me before. I couldn’t wait to get my hands on someone—anyone—who had anything to do with the attack.

“IED!” Tooth screamed.

Slim, Oldies, and I froze in place. Tooth ran back up to the narrow road our trucks were parked on.

“Where?” Slim asked.

“Down in that guy’s front yard.” Tooth pointed to a small compound that had a perfect view of the road.

“Joe, Nan, go check it out,” Slim ordered.

I nodded. Nan and I were frequently picked for that sort of duty. Not because Slim didn’t like us, but because we didn’t much care for our own safety.

We climbed down into a small sewer ditch and up and over to the other side to the compound where Tooth had seen the IED.

Almost squarely in some guy’s front yard, maybe twenty feet from his front door, was a pile of dirt with wires running over to a junked-out car.

“That certainly looks like an IED to me,” I said, fighting with a lighter in the night breeze.

“Maybe that’s what they want us to think,” Nan responded, looking at the dirt pile sideways. He advanced on the dirt pile and gave it a stiff kick. He turned around and walked back to where I was still standing. “Yep, it’s an IED.”

“What makes you so sure now?” I smiled a little.

“Car is full of jugs of yellow shit.” He shrugged.

“Shouldn’t you be dead or something?” I asked.

“Yeah, probably. Maybe we got the IED B squad today.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out a pack of disgusting menthol-flavored cigarettes. We slowly made our way back to the trucks and met up with Slim.

“So?” Slim asked.

“If it’s not an IED, they certainly went to a lot of trouble building a fake one,” Nan pointed out. “Probably tried to lure us all out here with that bullshit grenade attack and were planning on fucking us up with that big bastard down there.”

“You’re probably right,” Slim said, nodding.

“I don’t think we have anything to worry about. I kicked the shit out of it, and it didn’t explode.” Nan blew out a cloud of smoke.

“You what?” Tooth gasped in shock.

“Don’t worry, it’s standard procedure.” I laughed, but I was only half-joking.

“Thanks, boys, I’ll call EOD and we can finish up clearing out this village.” Slim turned and grabbed his radio. “You’re going to have to take Hamid and clean out those houses in case EOD blows the thing in place.”

“Roger,” I nodded. Nan and I walked back down toward the bomb. “Isn’t this a good way to die? Keep wandering down the same road to a known explosive?”

“Yes. Joe, you forget EOD is worth much more than you or I. A year-long school where they learn to take apart the most complicated bombs…any idea how much that costs?”

“Good point.”

“What did they teach you to do? Fire a rifle and listen to commands?”

“They taught me how to drive a tank once,” I pointed out. I walked up to the ramshackle door of the compound and pounded on it with my fist. The whole thing rattled and shook. The door struggled to stay on its hinges.

A man with a patchy beard answered the door, looking confused.

“Have you heard about our Savior Lord Jesus Christ?” Nan asked, a cigarette dangling from his lips.

“Or about the benefits of washing yourself daily?” I smiled broadly.

Hamid shrugged and translated what we were saying. The man smiled and shook his head. He was still confused as to why we were standing at his door.

“Tell him his family needs to pack their shit because we found a bomb in their front yard,” Nan told Hamid, who quickly translated to the man. The man’s eyes widened, and he shook his head at us, spouting off words I couldn’t understand.

Hamid smiled and turned to us. “He says there is no bomb.”

“Then what the fuck is going on with his car over there?” I asked.

“Fuck this guy. Do you still have that contact paper?” Nan asked me. We carried pieces of paper with us that we could wipe on people’s hands and then spray a chemical on it. If they had been in contact with any explosive material or gunpowder residue the paper and chemical mixture would change color.

We almost never used it, and I wasn’t really sure why. I fished it out of my bag and handed it to Nan. Without a word, Nan grabbed the man’s hand and rubbed the paper all over it.

Nan pulled out a small spray bottle and sprayed a liquid on the paper. By that point, another old man and a younger man had gathered in the doorway to see what all the ruckus was about. The first old man was trying to wave us off. He was attempting to be in control of the situation in the way old men in Afghanistan do. He yelled in Pashto and pointed at me.

“Hey, Old Man River, shut the fuck up or I’ll break your jaw,” I said, sticking my finger in his face. The younger man slapped my hand away, and I shoved him to the ground. “Hamid! Tell that asshole if he touches me again, I’ll fucking kill him.”

Hamid nodded and screamed at the group of people; they quickly settled down.

Nan tapped me on the shoulder and showed me the paper. It had changed from a light tan to a deep blue. The fucker had been handling explosives. Nan dropped the paper and grabbed the man out of the doorway and threw him to the ground. He pinned him there with his boot. For someone who looked more like a book nerd than a warrior, Nan could handle himself.

“You lying fucker!” Nan kicked him in the ribs. The man screamed out. He yelled unknown words at us.

Hamid translated. “He says he’s not Taliban.” He smiled, stifling a laugh with his sleeve.

“Maybe he has a bomb in his yard for self-defense,” I joked.

Nan bent down and ripped the guy back up to his feet and slammed him against the house. Slim, Cali, and Tooth made their way over to the man’s compound; they were obviously surprised to see us assaulting people.

“What’s going on?” Slim asked.

“Piece of shit has explosive materials all over his hands!” Nan cursed.

“Oh, yeah?” Slim’s attitude immediately changed from jovial to furious. He advanced on the man. “You want to kill Americans, you piece of shit?” Slim grabbed the man from Nan’s hands and got in his face.

The second old man and the younger man from inside the house tried to rush out, screaming and yelling.

I stepped forward raising my rifle and slammed the barrel of it into the younger man’s chest, sending him collapsing to the ground holding himself. I cross-checked the old man with my rifle, slamming him into the wall and making him slump down to the ground. Confronted by the level of brutality we were using on these people, Tooth turned and walked back to the trucks without another word.

“Stay the fuck down!” I screamed at them pointing my rifle at them both. Slim pulled out a pair of plastic zip cuffs and roughly secured the man’s arms behind his back. The man sat up and spat a loogie at Slim. It sailed wide left, and I kicked the man in the back and slammed his face into the dirt. I kept him pinned there with my boot.

“Where’s EOD?” Nan asked.

“Just got here,” Slim answered. “They’re going to disconnect it and bring it with them.” He motioned to the squirming man pinned under my boot. “Good catch, by the way, boys.”

“You think these assholes had something to do with the attack on Danny?” I asked.

“Probably,” Slim nodded. “We’re going to hand him over to the Afghans and let them handle this shit.”

“Good,” I said. As we reached down to grab our new prisoner, two men with massive beards and baseball caps entered the compound.

“Where’s the IED?” one of the bearded EOD guys asked.

“Attached to the car right there,” I pointed. “Wires go into the ground.”

“Thanks,” the bearded guy responded. He said something hushed into his headset, and he and his partner walked past us without another word.

I dragged the kicking, cursing prisoner out of the compound by his zip-cuffed wrists and tossed him on the ground in front of an Afghan police truck that was waiting next to our own.

An amused-looking Afghan police captain climbed out of the truck and looked down at the cuffed man writhing around in the dirt.

Hamid translated something to him, and the captain shook his head.

“Tell him he can take the gas can off the back of our truck,” Slim answered.

Hamid translated to the Afghan captain. The captain smiled and ran off to grab the can that was strapped to the back of Slim’s truck. It had become so commonplace to bribe the Afghans that we didn’t even wait for the bribe request anymore. We would just give them shit and hope they would do their jobs.

As with most attacks on U.S. forces, we left the scene without capturing who was responsible. In a country full of people who wanted to see your blood spilled, it was hard to single any one person out. Thankfully, Danny turned out to be mostly fine with only a slight concussion—same as Nan back when he was hit.

Even though we captured someone who probably had something to do with the attack, it didn’t feel like we actually accomplished anything. It never really did. Unless we captured Mullah Omar himself, nothing we did on the ground would ever really matter. There would always be some other inbred, bomb-making asshole to take the last one’s place. Our only hope was to make it home before one of those guys found his mark.