The Sandbox

GWOT hot wash, straight from the wire

Welcome to The Sandbox, a forum for service members who have served or are currently serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, returned vets, spouses and caregivers. The Sandbox's focus is not on policy and partisanship (go to our Blowback page for that), but on the unclassified details of deployment -- the everyday, the extraordinary, the wonderful, the messed-up, the absurd. All correspondence is read, and as much as possible is posted, lightly edited. If you know someone who is deployed who might have something to say, please tell them about us. To submit a post click here.


October 20, 2007

Name: Old Blue
Posting date: 10/20/07
Stationed in: Afghanistan
Hometown: Cincinnati, Ohio
Milblog url:

We got an unexpected break from The Valley today. We have been in one of the valleys that have been in the news lately, hunting the Taliban and their accoutrements with some small degree of success. We have been there for a month today, and we got a sudden break to go to Bagram for a day of rest and refit.

My humvee is in the shop as I type this, getting an oil change and some other important work done. I am going to get a haircut for the first time in over a month. The back of my neck looks like a heavily worn carpet. I ate cooked food that wasn't cooked by Afghans and eaten out of a communal plate with my fingers for the first time in weeks last night when we got here. I didn't even want breakfast this morning -- but I did want hot, brewed coffee. Man, was that GOOD! Drinking lukewarm instant coffee out of a water bottle was getting old. Chai is good, and the Afghans can't give you enough of it, served in whatever cup someone just finished with and rinsed out with chai. But it's not coffee.

I've only got a little while. There's lots of work to be done, the haircut to be had, etc. But I wanted to post real quick and give some idea of some of the experiences of the past month.

I am a Police mentor. We have been out with the Afghan National Police searching the countryside and the houses for Taliban, weapons, and as it turned out, drugs. We have confiscated caches of weapons, explosives, and a few kilos of raw opium. We have also cut down a few hundred marijuana plants that would make a pothead cry like a baby. The "hashish" (that's what they call marijuana in all its forms) is grown literally everywhere in The Valley and all of its sub-valleys. It's like the local pastime there. I can smell it when I'm close to it now. It smells like springtime when the skunks are out seeking mates. Smell a skunk, look around -- there it is, hashish. Sometimes  you've got the time to take some action. Sometimes, you are busy looking for more dangerous things, and you mark the grid coordinates and go about your business. There's lots to see and do.

B-Mo O and the Maniac have their own teams elsewhere in The Valley, doing much the same thing. Some of us have had altercations with the enemy, some of us haven't. We have all been looking for them with ardor. The ANP are where the ANA were five years ago; they need a lot of work, and there are a lot of problems to be solved, but for the most part they try pretty hard. They have actually done better than I have expected them to. Sometimes, though, my frustration level peaks. More on that another time.

O and I have had to laugh at having the same thought; we have both had experiences that made us think, "Wow, I feel like I'm in a National Geographic Magazine article!"

Counterinsurgency is a strange game. I've had chai, nan (flat bread) and cheese with Taliban members, everyone acting like we actually are civil to each other. I've had chai with minor officials who were trying to talk me out of sending a guy who had senior Taliban leaders in his house within an hour of our raid to detention so he could be questioned. "Tea with the Taliban and chai with the bad guy." I've sneaked through the night, with people who don't know how to sneak at night, to wake a man up and arrest him before he can leave to hide in the mountains for the day, found deadly explosives and rockets buried three feet from his house, and had him tell me that another villager who wanted to get him in trouble had buried the stuff there. He left with us, wearing hand cuffs. He was an affable man, chatting up the ANP until I explained in detail to them that all that stuff laying out as if on display before them was meant to kill them.

I've sat in Shuras as the village elders pled their case, insisting that they hadn't seen any Taliban in months, only to have a citizen on the outer reaches of the circle stand up and throw the "bullshit flag," recounting a recent event. That changed the song, which became, "What are we to do? They will kill us if we tell you anything about them."

Lying is an art form in Afghanistan. At times it seems as if everyone is lying about at least some part of what they are telling you. Even the estimates of enemy strength are basically lies. There are always "200 Taliban" in whatever village or valley, lurking with their weapons, demanding food from the local populace and demanding immediate attention. The more accurate number would be fifteen or so. They rarely congregate in large groups.

I have been alone in the middle of the night, miles from any other American, a hundred and fifty Afghans and my "terp" (interpreter) as my only company. I've been told by hard-core paratroopers of the 82nd Airborne that I'm insane. O has had the same treatment. We tell them that it's our job, and it is.

I've been the only American to ever be in a certain place. It was absolutely beautiful; green, terraced fields climbing the mountainside to above 8,000 feet, water from mountain springs channeled to small canals that wind alongside the mud-walled houses around the valley's sides, Afghan engineering at its finest. The houses were as immaculate as houses made of dirt could be. We stood on a rock outcropping 200 feet (GPS is so cool!) above the house that our ANP truck (I'm not sure that a humvee could make it up there -- too wide) was parked next to and noticed that the mud roof had been swept.

That valley was like a separate Afghanistan. Everything was clean, the people were friendly, their clothing was immaculate, their children on the way to school in the morning, the fields well-ordered in their stair-step climb up the mountainside towards the 12,000 foot peak towering above. Shangri-La in the Hindu Kush. The two burned-out Russian armored vehicles a mile or so down the rocky road belied the apparent perpetual tranquility of this valley, hidden from time by huge fingers of ridgeline barely cracked open at the western end.

We stay awake at night, taking turns overwatching the security of our sleeping brethren with our night vision until day dawns and the Afghans begin moving about. On the mornings that we don't have an early mission we grab some extra sleep, awakening to find Afghan children watching us the way American children watch Saturday morning cartoons. We give them lollipops (thanks, Rosemary) and packets from our MRE's. They still sort through our MRE pouches full of the detritus of our meals, keeping whatever it is that they find interesting and strewing the rest about like a campground raccoon. Afghans are inveterate litterbugs. It is just as natural as breathing for them to drop whatever they are done with wherever they are.

The bazaars offer ample evidence of the Afghan litterbug at work; whatever wrappers or packaging on anything that is opened and consumed in the bazaar is strewn wherever the item was unwrapped. No thought about it at all. They have no idea what a trash bag or barrel is. Cardboard, on the other hand, is never discarded unless it has been soaked with some type of fluid. It is fuel for fires. The children will fight each other over our empty MRE cases.

I have two medics on my crew. Doc has office hours every morning and evening. He has performed minor surgery, stitched up wounds, and lanced the most incredible ingrown hair I have ever seen or heard of. The hairball he pulled out of that guy would have made a cat blanch. Afghan medical oddities are truly something else. I could write more, but the details would make the hairball story seem like dinner conversation.

Afghan soldiers and American medics have a chemical affinity that is triggered by the sight of an open medical bag. The average Afghan soldier is drawn to a medic with an open medical bag like the backdraft from a fire seeking oxygen. They go together like peas and carrots... like peanutbutter and ladies... like waffles and cocaine (thank you, Forrest Gump and Talladega Nights.) Upon the opening of an American medical bag, Afghan soldiers begin a movement towards the aforementioned bag and its attendant medic that astronomers would liken to the behavior of stellar gases being drawn into a black hole. Suddenly, everything hurts. Mysterious ailments arise phoenix-like from the ashes of their health. While some merit serious attention, most are miraculously cured by Motrin and a few moments of attention from Doc. Doc is seriously considering the medical applications of Skittles for the stimulation of the placebo effect.

Doc has performed simple medical services that have implications beyond his treatment of a simple wound or headache. His least efforts have resulted in the opening of the eyes of dozens of Afghan villagers to the fact that American soldiers have a heart. It is the beginning of a new world for them. For those villagers, for the parents of the sick child who were given a pass to see the Special Forces medics, for the 70 year old man who fell from twelve feet up a tree and now is home and alive, we are no longer space aliens in a humvee. We are people who care.

I must keep my stories anecdotal for now; our operation is still in progress. But I have dozens of stories and hundreds of pictures from the past month and from the weeks preceding the operation. In time, I will be able to share these stories. Some of them are funny, some of them are unusual, and some of them are sad. Some of them are stories of quiet courage, like my new assistant, SGT Surferdude, who said to me, after a long mission in the middle of the night into an area that even the Special Forces had never gone, "I have to admit it, I was scared." I would never have known from his actions that night. He did his job and did it well. That is courage. Courage is not the absence of fear, but the ability to keep going in the presence of fear.

This American soldier, asked to do something with only one other American and forty Afghans in the middle of the night, going into an area where there was no hope of help within hours, and no communication to ask for help if it was needed, followed me and did his job without hesitation. I never knew that he was scared until he told me the next day, after we returned. We finally made it back to our little patrol base after noon. The mission had started at one am. Nobody except me knows just how courageous that man is.


What a fantastic post. I hope you will keep telling your stories about Afghanistan here. Instead of seeing "ragheads", "terrorists", and "Islamofascists" you see people who can be reached and befriended and encouraged to think in a different way. You've really humanized the average Afghan in your writing. Please keep it up. And I'd say that Sgt. Surferdude isn't the only American with courage in those hills you walk.

I am moved by your stories; please, please, keep writing them. If you can post pictures, what powerful additions they would be.
I think my service in Viet Nam would have been a much better tour had it been similar.
My thoughts are with you.

Indeed, more posts please. And, not to encourage you to go elsewhere, seek a broader audience. Americans need to know more about the people of Afghanistan. You seem to have the ability to really see them. Please tell us what you have learned, including what your experience has taught you about how the actions of our government and military personnel are or are not helping to make friends of the Afghan people.

Indeed, more posts please. And, not to encourage you to go elsewhere, seek a broader audience. Americans need to know more about the people of Afghanistan. You seem to have the ability to really see them. Please tell us what you have learned, including what your experience has taught you about how the actions of our government and military personnel are or are not helping to make friends of the Afghan people.

Is this the Kerry plan? Working within the Afghans? Either it's working, or you're working it, well. Mebbe both. Right, lets send 40,000 more special forces in among the Afghans with doctors and supplies.

If we had improved the lives of the Iraquis there wouldn't be an insurgency.

Great job, Thank you for your service.

wow. awesome post. great writing. take care of yourself. thanks.

What fascinating tales! It's sad that the reason you know such a place is because of war. And it does sound like Surferdude has a heck of a skipper. Keep up the good work and keep 5 yards.
Greg Wemhoff

You made me laugh with your stories about the afgans and your "doc". I was a medic in Desert Stom and clearly remember how opening my bag would cause everyone within sight to flock closer to have me tend to their ailments. Your post is very well written and moving, thank you.

Great word pictures! Please tell us more about the Afghans you work with. You see them as people and that is very comforting all around. At least tell us about the old man who fell from a tree.

Great article on the people and interactions. Sorry to hear about your coffee experience but chai and the local food sounds good. Stay positive! Cheers from indy-anna.

Great article on the people and interactions. Sorry to hear about your coffee experience but chai and the local food sounds good. Stay positive! Cheers from indy-anna.

You're such a good writer, capturing the Afghani people with humor and tolerance. Thank you for that, and thanks for what you do everyday. I'll keep looking for you -- please keep writing!

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