It is a treasured privilege of “field” personnel to have opportunities to see Afghanistan in the flesh, and is the key reason I sought out such a posting.
It was hard to sleep well the night before as I was still reeling from the onslaught of information, equipment, and advice that had been poured on me. I mentally rehearsed the various safety training that seemed so divorced from reality, but was now a reassuring body of knowledge. I still checked my gear 5 times before turning in, and ended up overpacking, as I always do if I have too much time to prepare or get nervous. I was both and probably carried enough water for the whole company of soldiers that escorted us out. According to my shoulders I carried enough for the whole village we visited.
Sleep came soon enough – and I woke up with lots of nervous energy that I wisely (if I do say so myself) didn’t burn off on a morning run.
The team, a sizeable group of Korean soldiers, a handful of US soldiers with skills in “civil affairs”, a handful of Korean civilians, and I, assembled in front of one of the nicest murals that grace FOB Ashena – Forward Operating Base – Hope. (The faithful reader will now protest - you said it was FOB Tiger! to which I say, "tough luck", we use lots of names and acronyms ISO OpSec IOT keep you guessing)
The soldiers looked awesome, decked out in the full “battle rattle” (armor, “Kevlar” (helmet), weapon, lots of ammo, water and other extras)– but there is a price to pay for fashion, and that price is paid in pounds (kilos actually) and is steep. We civilians lacked the glitz of our brethren, but I was both happy to carry around my pen and notebook rather than a few dozen pounds of weaponry and grateful for those willing to carry a weapon and the far heavier responsibilities that come with it.
The convoy commander reviewed the mission (in Korean), and our translator (assigned on the spot as a soldier with solid English) – gave a clear, albeit far more concise translation. I must confess to some stereotyping as it made me think of the Black Belt Theater programs I watched as a young boy where the hero would get surrounded and the mouth of the evil blackbelt would run for twenty seconds while the voiceover gave a sinister “Now, you die!” - anyhow, until my Korean language skills improve markedly I’ll go with the short version. (which, did not have anything to do with dying)In fact, I think the truth is, that most of us could probably have somebody “translate” what we say and cut it by 1/2 or 3/4s .
Anyhow, the brief wrapped up soon enough, concluding with a short prayer, and we started out, stopping briefly to have the soldiers load their weapons and (if my Korean is any good) chamber a round.
Then we were off and running, well OK walking briskly, which still felt like a run with my body armor and portable village water supply. We left the road, and stepped back in time (having already taken a sizable jump before). We walked the edges of small fields, none more than two acres tended by hand or perhaps plowed by oxen, and laced with irrigation canals that looked timeless and framed by mud walls that may have stood there for two days or two millennia.
Staying largely in the shade, it was a wonderful hike dotted with vistas that would open up framing farmland under the backdrop of the stunning mountains of Afghanistan. I was even more pleased when we began to see farmers, along with their children and their animals – both because they were as visually stunning as the landscape, and because it was an indication of safety. They appeared to vary between nervous and friendly – although my assessment may simply be a reflection of my own feelings.
After a substantial hike we arrived at the outskirts of the village we were visiting, and the crowds began in earnest. The translator was up ahead, so I told the shy, quiet kid in me who usually keeps me from talking much to strangers to stuff it, and broke out my very best down home manners. I waved, greeted, and smiled until my mouth hurt, and unloading my horribly broken Dari on any Afghan that came within hailing distance. Reactions were mixed, but most seemed to respond positively. Unfortunately, I didn’t usually understand the actual response but it always came with a smile and some welcoming gesture, so I am putting the encounters in the plus side of the ledger.
Road Into Town
We ended up taking a pause at the edge of town, next to an incredibly muddy and fast moving canal that I only hoped they didn't use for drinking. As we have found in the other "third world" countries we have lived in, the locals defied the laws of physics and body chemistry and remain pressed and immaculately dressed (with spotless shoes) in environments that confound the efforts (when we make the effort) of us westerners not to look like pig pen by the time we have walked out our front gate. Luckily, my body armor is already brown, and can absorb a limitless amount of sweat without wrinkling (odor is another issue).
Soon, the village elders came to meet us and led us through the town to a thin rock and cement ditch that bisected the town. They proudly walked the length of the project expressing their thanks to the PRT who had funded the effort, and explaining how they had made some improvements of their own. It was a nice moment, and sobering reminder that the completion what might pass as an oversized Eagle Scout project was the biggest infrastructure improvement of the year. Like any worthwhile representative (elected or otherwise) the mayor invited us to make a tour of their next projects and stay for a lunch where we could discuss them. At that point I was willing to build them a school or anything else with my bare hands if I could sit down in the shade, have a bite to eat and distribute the village water supply which had gotten heavier despite having been depleted.
Alas, that was not to be, so we shook hands, parted ways and tried to retrace our steps through the maze of pathways. We didn't quite do so, but any crafty operator knows how to sell any late arrival or "irregular" route as a triumph of OpSec. This is just a fancy way of saying that if you don't know where you are or when you're coming, neither does the enemy, so you should be OK. Twisted, but oddly reassuring.
Turning Down a Free Lunch
We made it home without incident, with the scariest part of the trip being on a narrow path between high mud walls and squeezing past a number of donkeys and bulls. Then we were back at the base, the soldiers were removing their magazines and unused rounds, and trudging back up the hill to our mural. The mission closed with a quick huddle and team cheer, which didn't get translated, but didn't need translation.