November 23, 2006
Name: CAPT Matt Smenos
Posting date: 11/23/06
Stationed in: Afghanistan
Hometown: Santa Maria, CA
Sun-dried brick ramparts and soaring, silver parapets signaled a neck-craning, awe-striking terminus to our dusty, rattling convoy as we rumbled through the gated arches of Kayer Khot castle. A relic of the 19th-century British occupation, this megalithic fortification is actually very simple in design; a few mighty walls and towers lined with gangways and stairs, weather-beaten fighting positions and airy look-out posts, facing defiantly over the seemingly infinite leagues of barren hills and plains. As we passed into a large courtyard, a few gray-clad envoys from the local garrison jogged up to meet us. My breath caught in my throat as I noticed the burnished amber-golds and rich autumn reds of the leaves on trees, the like of which I’d been sorely missing for months on end. The vegetation and fall colors reminded me so much of home that I soon found myself sitting alone in a cold, parked humvee, stunned, mouth agape.
I was hardly unhappy to find myself alone, as my companion on the two-hour ride from our base had been one particularly gregarious guardsman. He had been, according to his story, to every special-forces school, every kind of combat training and fought in so many battles that it would take far longer than a two-hour humvee ride to relate. But he did his best, to the accompaniment of a bored-silly Air Force Captain banging his helmet against the window in misery.
Left alone with my trees in the blowhard-less silence, I stepped out of the cramped gun-truck and walked toward a low-hanging tree branch. Eyes fixed on the spectacular sight of sunlight diffused through a natural pallet of color, I reverently approached the stand of trees, tripped…and fell on my face. As I threw around in the soft dirt to find the culprit of my calamity, I locked stares with the small, round face of a boy in the dirt beside me. Skinny, with dark hair and eyes, this little guy tried to gather his simple brown shift and straighten his cap while he beamed at me with a huge smile, too rich for such a poor nation. I think I smiled back at him, some stupid grin like a half-drawn squiggle on a dirty piece of paper.
As I dragged myself back up, checking my various pouches and clips, his eyes darted around at the scraps of paper and trash he’d no doubt dropped when the huge, tan man had stepped on him. I tried to kneel down and help, but he was too quick. In a flash, he was on his feet again. With a trained eye and a sure foot he bolted around, retrieving the bits caught by the breeze, scooping and jamming the mess back into a torn plastic bag. As he completed his rapid retrieval, he stopped dead, looked up at me -- there was that smile again -- and snapped me a heroic little salute. I was about to return it when we were interrupted.
“Hey! Wee-Mahn…Get back to work!" I was startled by the close proximity of the sudden shout. The boy jumped and his smile faded from his face. “Welcome to ‘KK', Cap. I see you ‘found’ the help.” I turned to see an old comrade walking quickly toward us. I looked back to the where the boy had stood, but he'd vanished. This young sergeant had worked with me for a few months at another base before being relocated to Kayer Khot as an instructor. He is a good man, in my opinion, and had impressed me. We had spoken frequently, and he really seemed to care about the mission and our responsibility to help the Afghans help themselves. He had a gruff manner, and shared a certain rustic, “old-school” attitude about foreign cultures. Unlike others, who might let that attitude affect their behavior, he had a kind-hearted and surprisingly patient keel when dealing with our counterparts.
We shook hands and exchanged pleasantries, and he led me towards the local garrison’s operations center, a worn but well-appointed white structure. It was simple, square, reminiscent of an old-fashioned, one-room school house. He told me how much happier he was at KK, and that he really felt good about the progress he’d seen in his troops. Ever bored with shop-talk, I asked about the boy.
“He’s a good kid," he said, holding the door for me as we entered the ops center.
“Is he Pashtoun? From a local tribe?” I asked as I gulped a bottle of water.
“Who knows? I don’t even try to tell them apart. He and his brother came with their father, who helps us with carpentry and odd-jobs.”
“What’s the boy’s name? Or do you just call him ‘Wee-Mahn’ all the time, like the movie,” I joked, recognizing the Austin Powers reference.
“Kind of, his name actually is Mahn.” The door squeaked on its hinges and the room was suddenly filled with voices as the survey party filed in. Civilian engineers and self-important senior officer types faked gusty laughter and patted each other's backs and began dragging chairs around tables. They were discussing grid locations, elevation, local water supply, access routes and personnel housing facilities. Apparently some high-toned and fancy to-do would be on its way to this poor, innocent castle in the coming months. I liked it the way it was. I took a seat by the window and waited for an opportunity to sneak out. The young sergeant was called away to answer some "critical planning question" about colonels’ parking spaces and whether there was room for a water fridge and a soda fridge. Could we improve upon the volleyball court? It all sounded way above my pay-grade. And my tolerance. After about an hour, I mumbled something about a toilet and slipped out of the door.
It was somewhat warmer this far south of my usual base. I caught a glimpse of Mahn, tirelessly hauling plastic bags of trash around the camp. I could still make out the big grin on his grimy face. I wondered if he’d been working like this the entire time since we’d arrived.
The presence of trees combined with the absence of Colonels made the day even more inviting. I took a walk along the inside of one of the huge castle walls. I knew I was wrong to judge my companions so harshly. They had the best intentions, and really did strive to accomplish what they considered great undertakings to improve this nation. I just never agreed with the priorities. Unfortunately, middle-management doesn’t come with consular veto authority or anything like that, so I frequently wandered off rather than lose another debate. They just seemed so singularly focused on improving the surface phenomena, like worrying about the paint job on a car that doesn’t run. I always felt we should start smaller, focus on fundamentals.
My dramatic reflection was interrupted by an echo of laughter. Behind me, Mahn and another boy, whom I took to be his brother, were following me. Hands shoved in imaginary pockets, heads leaning forward -- a perfect mimic of my "melancholy musings" pose. They were so amused with themselves that they couldn’t help laughing at one another. The laughter turned to playful pushing and eventually they were rolling on the ground in one of the most entertaining battles this ancient fortress had likely ever seen. Their faux-mockery was very funny. It was as if they were telling me not to worry about them. They knew what needed to be done, and although they were just "the help", their voice would count for something someday. I waved to them, and they saluted me again before scooping up their trash bags and running off.
Another hour found me back in the humvee (thankfully, with a new driving companion). My driver and I tested our radios with each other and with our gunner before giving the thumbs-up to the lead vehicle. As we rolled out through the giant walls one last time, all of our gazes lingered on the colorful trees in the court-yard. I looked around for Mahn or his brother but they were nowhere to be seen. As we turned back onto the main road, my driver commented that it was nice to see that the seasons still change in this country. I kept thinking that I couldn’t agree more.