Name: The Afghan Battle Fox
Returned from: Afghanistan
Hometown: Clyde, Ohio
On an early morning in late February 2012, I had to pull a security
shift known as tower guard. Every Soldier stationed on post, save a
select few, had to provide security at either the entry control point
(ECP), one of the towers that surrounded the post, or at the gym or
dining facility (Guardian Angel Duty) on a rotating schedule as part of
base defense operations. Donned in full body armor, helmet, gloves, and
eye protection, Soldiers would rally at the BDOC office prior to their
shift to get a briefing on the potential threats on the BOLO (Be On the Look Out) list and other pertinent information to their upcoming duties.
I woke up only 20 minutes before my shift and ran through my
abbreviated morning regime. Unlike office or mission mornings, there was
no need for making my hair look professional or putting on much of a
fresh face, I was going to be sitting in a tower in my gear by myself
for six hours. I dressed myself in several layers before even putting on
any of my gear. Only in the mid-20s that morning, the cold Afghan
air wasn’t going to warm up much without the help of the sun and I still
had a couple of hours of darkness ahead of me.
I finished dressing, put on my heavy body armor and protective gear,
grabbed my assault pack, and headed out the back flap of my tent. The
little jaunt across post wasn’t very long but it was enough time to let
my body embrace the outside temperature and begin to settle in to the
daunting thought that I was just going to be cold until this shift was
Once reaching the BDOC office, I stood in a semi-circle with several
other heavily padded Soldiers to receive our briefing. The briefings
usually didn’t last more than just a few minutes and the information
didn’t change much at that time. It was too early for fighting season in
Afghanistan so there wasn’t much activity to be expected. Still, like
being spoon fed bad tasting medicine, we were dosed with the day’s intel
and ingested it into our constant state of awareness.
The group disbursed in different directions as each Soldier left to
go to his or her respective positions around post. A few Soldiers, like
myself, made a short pit stop at the DFAC to grab coffee, breakfast, or
snack foods. I grabbed a tall Styrofoam cup and filled it nearly full
with coffee then secured my morning treasure with a lid. It wasn’t the
flavor of the coffee I was excited about by any means -- this DFAC’s
coffee was horrible tasting -- it was the warmth I was seeking.
I carried my coffee, with my assault pack strapped to my back,
through the dark, slumbering post. The rocks crunched loudly under my
boots as I made my way to the tower, passing under one light as it faded
into the next. Other than the humming of generators, there was no
I reached Tower 2 and began my ascent up the metal steps, each step
echoing in the silence. My footsteps did not go undetected. Two Soldiers
finishing their night shift swung the tower’s large metal door open
and greeted me when I reached the top of the three tiers of stairs.
Eager to be properly relieved of their duties so they could go to bed,
we quickly chitchatted through the events that happened to them through
the night: radio checks and trying to stay warm. Other than that, all
had been quiet.
The Soldiers gathered their belongings and weapons and disappeared
down the steps as I closed the bulky door behind them. Like four
methodical hoof beats of a horse trotting off into the distance, the two
men’s footsteps became quieter and quieter as they exited the tower
area. Again, all became silent.
I set my assault pack on the high wooden counter to my left and
surveyed my area of operation. Three sides of the tower had sliding
windows. Half of each window was covered in a rusty iron cage of sorts.
The battered wooden counter in front of me traced the walls under these
three windows. A high 2×4 and plywood stool sat in the middle of the
cubicle tower. There was very little room to move and everything was
within arm’s reach by just turning my upper torso. On the counter were
various pieces of Army equipment: night vision goggles, batteries, and a
radio. In the middle of the u-shaped counter was a very powerful U.S.
weapon loaded with ammunition and at the ready.
I began to look past my silhouetted surroundings inside the tower to
focus on the darkness outside. The tower I guarded that morning was in
the southwest corner of the American-side of post. To my south, and just
over the fence below me, was a camp of Afghan National Army. They slept
in the same Alaskan-style tents that the American Solders did and the
first row of tents looked like a mirror of the first row of American
tents on my side of the wall. Anything past the first row of tents was
too dark to see but, occasionally, there was a small dotting of light
from a building or two in the distance. To my west, there was nothing
visible close by -- simply nothing. In the distance and slightly to the
southwest, a kilometer or so out, was a construction site that had some
lighting; however, beyond the wall beneath me was an eerie and complete
blackness. The remainder of my view from the tower, to my north and
east, was the still-slumbering German and American sides of my post.
The stool in the center of the tower was slightly higher than my
waist so I had to give myself an extra little push to get up on top of
it to sit. I took the radio in my hand and proceeded to radio back and
forth with BDOC letting them know I was checking the radio as I was
instructed. Like a child with a new toy, I fidgeted around with the
night vision equipment first. I raised and lowered it to my eyes several
times and in various directions to see my surroundings in a different
light, so to speak. After realizing that not much was really happening, I
put the device down and fidgeted with papers that were left on the
counter from a previous shift.
Everything remained quiet for another hour or so with the exception
of radio checks and my occasional mumbling. I just sat there sipping my
nasty-tasting coffee and mentally thought out what the rest of my day
might entail. Once in a while I would think of a question and speak the
answer out loud, as if there was someone there to agree with my
answers. The sun began to turn the dark sky a hazy shade of grey-orange
behind the mountains. I figured that was my cue to retrieve my camera
from my assault pack.
There still wasn’t any activity happening anywhere in the area yet so
I thought I would shoot the sunrise coming up over the mountain. I
unbolted the large door and let it swing open then leaned myself in the
doorway for stability. Capturing a sunrise or sunset can be a
heart-warming and uplifting thrill some days. They are usually over
within a few minutes so the enthusiasm peaks but then slightly
diminishes leaving behind a fuzzy feeling and, hopefully, great photos.
On other days, if the sky is one large sheet of cloud or there are no
clouds at all, there isn’t much change in the sky other than the color
turns from the hazy grey-orange to a brighter shade of hazy
grey-orange so there’s little excitement to get all gushy about.
I stood in that doorway for nearly twenty minutes snapping a photo
from time to time and feeling slightly disappointed that all I was
seeing was the Earth getting brighter with no spectacular
Hallelujah-filled, angel-singing array of colors. I would occasionally
turn to look out the other windows to make sure I was still covering my
guard duties but, once I realized I wasn’t going to get my majestic
“photo of the day," I returned my camera to my bag and my butt back to
Another radio check, another hour done. By now, Soldiers were
starting to roam around. Most stepped outside their tents, realized how
cold it was, turned around and went back in their tents. Others came out
fully dressed and on the move to wherever they needed to be. My coffee
was gone and my fingers and toes were feeling the cold, I decided to
stand up for a bit in an attempt that movement might warm me up. I bent
back slightly to counteract the forward arching that I had been slumping
myself into while sitting on that stool. I readjusted my body armor and
fidgeted with the papers some more.
The post’s silence was ending as the voices of Soldiers, vehicle
engines, and machinery started to filter in over the constant hum of the
generators I had been hearing since I had woke up a few hours earlier.
It was then that I heard a very different sound that didn’t seem to
be natural on a military post -- cowbells.
I turned my attention to the western area below me that was not
long ago an abyss of darkness. The sunlight now revealed the
area’s secret. At the bottom of the tower on the outside of the
tall concrete wall with a concertina wire fringe was a large grassy area
with dozens of shallow rounded dirt mounds. Some of the sandy
shell-shaped hills had holes in them while others were fully intact.
Remembering back to my Afghanistan culture classes from pre-mobilization training, I realized these were graves. I was over
watching a graveyard. There were no headstones or grave markers like in our
American cemeteries, nor were there any wreaths or flowers honoring the
Moseying over and around the rows of uneven graves
were fifteen or twenty sheep and a dozen or so cows. The sheeps' wool
was extremely matted, ragged, and dirty and the cows didn’t look
much better. In shades of black, brown, and dingy white, these
mangy-looking creatures walked wherever they pleased looking for some
patch of grass to chew on. About a half of dozen of the cows had bells
tied around their necks which signaled to me that they belonged to
Saundering slowly behind the gathering of sheep and cows were four
young Afghan boys. Two had thin wooden sticks that were taller than they
were, and they used the sticks to knock against the stray sheep that
weren’t going where they wanted them. As the boys walked toward my
tower, I noticed each was wearing the traditional Afghan clothing that I
had only seen in pictures before. They wore loose-legged pants and a
long shirt. One in royal purple, one in aqua, one in navy blue, and one
in tan. Each of the boys also wore a winter coat and all but the
smallest boy had a hat on. The boys didn’t seem to be bothered by the
cold as they wandered around with their coats unzipped and no gloves on
The sheep and cows continued to graze as the boys wandered around the
burial site with no sense of purpose and with no regard for the ground
they were walking on. They walked up and over some of the graves and,
eventually, plopped themselves down on one near the wall below me. I had
not seen any Afghan children yet since I arrived in country and, in
actuality, I hadn’t seen any children in nearly six weeks since
I left home, so I was captivated. I gazed at them while they threw
small pebbles at the ground and drew lines in the sand with the sticks
they were carrying. I watched them carry on an inaudible conversation
and laugh silently to each other.
Seeing them laugh made me snicker which, in turn, took me out of my
trance. Like a knee-jerk reaction, I grabbed my bag and reached for my
camera. I didn’t have a very good angle from where I was in the tower
because the wide counter was in my way and I was not about to dangle my
camera or myself out a window. Instead, I pushed open the door of the
tower and walked out on the platform at the top of the steps.
The squeaking noise from the door drew the children’s attention up to
As soon as the boys looked up at me, I raised my camera to see
through the viewer. Without any hesitation, one of the boys curled up
his knees and pulled his brown tweed coat up over his shoulders tucked his head in like a turtle. The other three boys looked curiously
at each other instead of me and then stood up quickly. I managed to
shoot a couple of pictures before they got out of their little grouping.
The photo at the top of this post shows the moment right after the boy spotted me and
tucked his head away to avoid getting his picture taken.
The three boys walked closer to the base of my tower and, as I
noticed this through my camera, I stopped taking pictures. One of the
boys yelled something back to the turtle, which prompted the young man
to peek his head up and get up to join the rest of his group. It was
hard to tell how tall they were but one of the boys was much younger and
smaller than the rest. He lagged a bit behind the others until he
caught up with them just a few feet away from the wall.
“Ma’am! Ma’am!” one of the boys cried up to me as I looked back down at his little tan face and dark eyes.
“Water! Water!” he continued as he fashioned his small bare hand to
the shape of a cup and tapped his lower lip like he was drinking.
My heart sank as I stood there motionless. I didn’t know what to do. My first encounter with someone from this foreign country and it’s a child begging me for water? My mind raced as I battled with what to do. I had been
instructed not to throw anything over the fence and not to give anything
to the children. It sounds cruel but there really are reasons I have
been told and that’s another topic in itself to explain at another time.
Anyways, I simply could not throw bottles of water down to them over
the fence and I couldn’t tell them that. It was at this moment that I
kicked myself for not taking the Dari language courses more
seriously during pre-mobilization training. Albeit, it was a very brief
online course that maybe could have given me only fifty words and ten
phrases or so, but it would have been something.
I felt so bad as they stood there looking up at me. The little guy
continued to call out “Ma’am!” and “Water!” and there was nothing I
could do. The boy in the tweed jacket, who had just minutes before hid
his face from my camera, half-heartedly smacked the boy on the arm while
saying something to him. The pursuer dropped his little hand and was
quiet. All four boys looked at each other, turned around and walked back
past where they had been sitting and continued until they disappeared
around another corner of the post. The animals trailed behind them,
vanishing one by one behind the wall. Their bells now faintly being
heard as they moved way. Deflated, I stepped back inside the tower and
bolted the door shut.
I don’t recall the rest of that tower guard shift now. I know I went
through the motions of watching my surroundings and calling up radio
checks as required but the exact details of those last couple of
hours are moot. The feelings of helplessness and guilt had made me more
numb than the cold had. I had exactly what these young boys were asking
for yet I could not give it to them. I had four bottles of water right
there at my feet! I felt so selfish. Moreover, I was frustrated and felt
ashamed that I could not even communicate with them. I was in their country, for Chrissake!
Later that night when I was back in my area, I managed to grab enough
bandwidth to download a Dari application on my iPod. In time and with
the help of that app, a good friend of mine who knew some of the
language because of his previous deployments, and a few interpreters, I
learned enough Dari to carry on a small conversation. Learning one word
at a time and not always pronouncing the words correctly, I spoke to the
Afghans in their language as often and as much as I could.
As for the water issue, the feelings of guilt never went away. I did,
however, figure out that if you toss a water bottle from inside a
tower out an open window instead of from the back steps overlooking the
post, you are less likely to be seen.