LATE-WATCH DUTY |
November 14, 2006
Name: CAPT Matt Smenos
Posting date: 11/14/06
Stationed in: Afghanistan
Hometown: Santa Maria, CA
I couldn't see the gravel in front of me, but I could hear my boots crunch over the small stones as I strode briskly to the motor pool. My hands shoved deep into my pockets, my breath trailing over my stocking cap like smoke, I was all bundled up for my first night on late-watch duty. I flicked on my flashlight as I turned down the row of parked Humvees, and passed two or three before I heard a grunt of effort to my right. There was my gunner for the evening's duty, struggling to lift a heavy, automatic weapon up on top of our vehicle. We said hello and I helped him hoist the weapon to its mounted position.
"Thank you, Sir. Dang those things are heavy," he panted in the cold, and wiped a runny nose on his sleeve.
"No problem bud, that thing has to weigh as much as you do," I joked.
"Maybe so, but I'm still bigger than most of the Afghans," evidently I'd hit a Napoleon nerve.
I opened the driver-side door and turned over the engine. The Humvee roared to life before settling slowly into a chugging idle as I tested the lights and wipers. We prepped the truck in silence, counting water bottles, wiping the dip stick and scraping frost from the wind shield. As we finished up, my little partner uttered a curse and slapped his hip.
"Shoot, Sir, I forgot my nine," referring to his issued 9mm pistol.
"You won't need it," I blew into my freezing hands, wanting to get the night started. "We have our rifles. Besides, you can't shoot very far with a pistol at night."
"I don't need it to shoot far," he grinned at me. The straggling whiskers of his thin, adolescent stubble reflected in my lamplight.
As the sound of his foot-falls faded away, I reflected on that grin and the cocky message it was meant to send. I had worked a few shifts in the operations center with this young private and I knew he didn't trust our Afghan counterparts. In keeping with the mission of an embedded training team, every task accomplished by U.S. forces is matched or mirrored by an equal force of Afghan Army. Our guard duty tonight would be no exception. We would pull our "gun-truck" up beside a guarded position manned by Afghan infantry, and together we would stand guard as one team. Some people didn't trust the Afghans. Many soldiers feared they would turn on us or betray us. I think some of us were just afraid of what we didn't understand. I think my partner wanted his sidearm in defense against these fears.
I was shivering by the time he returned. We climbed into the Humvee and drove out of the motor pool, pulled around onto the gravel road and rolled slowly towards the south gate, our assignment for the night. The evening was pitch black and moonless. The only light came from the stars that peeked out from between gray, cloudy layers. As we neared the guard tower, a line of black silhouettes became visible against the brown mud bricks of the Afghan wall. Lumpy shapes, taller and shorter, shivered and scratched and shuffled in a ragged formation as the Afghan Sergeant Major inspected their uniforms and weapons. I parked the gun truck on the assault ramp and told my gunner to keep a sharp eye. I climbed out and walked down to the formation of guards. As I neared the element, a thin shadow detached from the wall and walked quickly to my side, falling into step with me.
"Singhay (a local greeting) Aresh, how are you my friend?" I extended my hand.
"I am well," came the faintly accented response spoken in perfect English. His cold, bony hand felt like a handful of twigs.
The tiny Afghan interpreter shivered violently in his trendy motorcycle jacket and white, silk scarf (interpreters do very well on the U.S. payroll). The very sight of him made me feel cold, though I was quite warm under layers of gortex and a thick coat of body armor.
The Sergeant Major called his guards to attention as I approached, and he and I shook hands. Aresh translated as I greeted each of the guards and asked them how they were. They seemed unmoved by the bitter cold. Though they shivered, they flashed bright smiles at me from dusky faces and black, bristling beards. They laughed and joked with me about my height (6'5"-ish, I tend to stand out) and blond hair. They poked fun at my shaved face and asked me why I couldn't grow a beard of my own. I laughed and had Aresh answer that my wife would kill me. As we finished up the meet and greet, I dismissed the guards to their stations and compared intelligence with the Sergeant Major. A short time later, well-informed and confident, Aresh and I returned to the truck.
Aresh curled up in his oversized jacket and dozed off within the first hour. Despite the intense cold, the cat-like little guy seemed to be able to nap anywhere. My gunner and I talked into the night. We began with the obligatory, military "Where ya from?" I told him about Chicago, the suburbs, swim team, high school girls and college women, journalism, news writing, roommates, friends, music and keg parties, the happiest days of my life, graduation, ROTC and commissioning, marriage and divorce. I shared some stories from my time as a nuclear missile operator and how the cold nights in Afghanistan reminded me of Wyoming. I showed him pictures of the woman I met while there, fell in love with and married. He listened intently. He impressed me with his understanding of things and his depth. He asked me flattering questions and, like a gentleman, restrained his adjectives when describing how attractive he thought my wife was.
He told me about his girlfriend and how they wanted to get married. He told me about step-dads and abuse, a homeless mom who cashes his paychecks for him. He told me about good friends and bad influences and trouble with the law. He beamed about his truck, paid for in full, and how it had been his home for the months prior to his enlistment. The stories of how he missed his brother, estranged, whereabouts unknown, brought a cold mist to my already frigid eyes. The Army had become his home. He didn't understand a lot of the controversy or political debate. He lived for the stability.
I was numb after he finished, but not from the cold. This young man had known so much pain. He had had so many trials by the age of twenty-one, while I struggled to remember what I ever complained about when I was that age. I tried to give him advice. My own words made me feel like an idiot. Hours later, I would realize that, in my desperate attempt to say something profound about marriage, I had quoted Howard Jones' "Everlasting Love." What a cheeseball. He rescued me from my awkwardness with a request to run to the bathroom.
I woke up Aresh to man the radio while I took over temporarily on the gun. Before long, Aresh and I were talking and again I was drawn in by a story of premature woe. Aresh came a rich family, but he had always been on his own. Fearing terrorism, the Taliban and fundamental values they did not share, Aresh's parents sent him to Pakistan, India and other nations to be educated. Though he lived among many secular, western and progressive cultures, he had never made many friends for fear of endangering his father and family. Any close relations he made had to be severed before he could return to Afghanistan, because the people he'd met had no place in his homeland. He wanted to see his country grow, but he had no faith in its leaders. He dreamed of moving away and getting married. He wanted a house and a car and a job away from war. But there was no escape. To leave he needed money, and the best job he could get was to be an interpreter. And once he'd joined with us, he'd made himself an enemy of the Taliban. So he made his home among the Afghan Army. A home beyond which there was nothing, or so he said. Having spent all of my 80s pop wisdom in my first conversation, I just sat and listened.
Our conversation ended abruptly as our gunner trotted back up and thanked me for watching his post. I nodded quietly and dropped down into the gravel. The three of us sat in silence looking out over the wall and up into the patchy, star-strewn sky. I couldn't get over the fact that, dark and light, foreign and domestic, American and Afghan, my two companions were basically a pair of skinny kids left out in the cold. They were so much alike.
Later on, after my watch, I dragged the heavy vest off of my numb body and rubbed my frozen muscles. I set my helmet on top of my locker, unlaced my boots and locked up my rifle. As I crawled into the welcome warmth of my sleeping bag, something hard and cold jabbed against my hip. It was my pistol. I had forgotten to take it off. As I unbuckled the holster, I realized that I had been right to say we wouldn't need our sidearms. As I drifted off to sleep, I decided I would never bring it out with me again.