July 31, 2013
Name: Virgil Harlan
Returned from: Afghanistan
Hometown: Tucson, AZ
Milblog: A Gift From Marghalara
The little girl went scurrying from one of the mud wall homes, running up the rocky hill, her colorful clothes contrasting with the hill tones of brown and black. The children of Afghanistan have very hard lives, and they move through the mountains with a speed that amazes American troops.
“Hey, Sarn’t! There’s your sweetheart!” my gunner called to me through the headset. He was a slow-talking kid from Oklahoma, prone to exaggerate his experiences. He came from a heavy weapons company, and was fine as long as you gave him a weapon in a fixed position with a set sector of fire. My driver was a young Cav Scout from Maryland on his first deployment, who carried the old air of the superiority of cavalry over infantry. Most of the rest of us were from light infantry companies, scattered from throughout the United States; that year we were together in D Company, 1-102nd Infantry, 86th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, Mountain. Fourth platoon, Blacksheep.
In the early Spring of 2010 we were at COP Bulldog, Nangarhar Province, between FOB Torkham and what would later become FOB Shinwar. Shinwar was being built on the ruins of a Soviet fort where the Soviets had been defeated during their war in Afghanistan. They had built their fort next to the ruins of a fort where the British had been defeated in one of their Anglo-Afghan Wars. The Afghans are known for their patience and memory. An Afghan who had been wronged by his neighbor waited 70 years before enacting revenge, a story goes. “Why was he in such a hurry?” the other villagers asked.
A couple of times each week, we would stop at a small post controlled by the Afghan Border Police. It wasn’t much; some Hescos, some connexes and plywood buildings, sandbagged fighting positions and C-wire, all emplaced on the top of a hill overlooking a wide valley surrounded by mountains. The Pakistan border was a couple of miles away, and the Taliban ran supplies through the valley.
It was the second time there that I saw her. I was checking the positions, joking with the gunners, ignoring a group of boys calling for pens, water, and biscuits. The boys were becoming demanding and beginning to annoy me, when behind them appeared a little girl with brown hair, light brown skin, and beautiful black eyes. She was brightly clothed in green and blue, her purple and silver scarf draped over her head and shoulders. A little princess of the desert. She looked at me, tilted her head to the side, and smiled. No matter how hard you think you are, no matter what you’ve seen or have done, there are some things that will always bring out the soft side in you.
A group of the guys started to call to the boys, and both sides heckled each other as I walked away. After moving about 50 meters I sat down on some rocks, when suddenly, there she was, standing about 15 feet away, looking at me.
“Singh yeayh?” I said to her. The little princess smiled to me, and at that moment I fell for her. She had become my little sweetheart. I reached into one of my pouches, pulled out a Cliff Bar and a pen, and handed them to her. Her smile widened, she scampered over, took them, and quickly hid the items under the folds of her jacket. She was not quick enough, though. One of the boys had seen what had happened, and they all came running over, demanding pens and other baksheesh. When they realized they were not going to receive these things, two of them went to the princess and tried to take them from her. One of the less admirable characteristics of Afghan culture. She tried to resist them, turning her body, trying to hold on to what was hers. A feeling of anger built up in me, as it did many times that year.
“Walarsha!” I yelled, walking towards the boys, motioning for them to leave. “Walarsha! Buro!” I yelled again. The boys looked at me and fled back 15 feet. The little girl, who had been caught in the middle of them, froze, and then ran too, a look of fear and confusion in her eyes. One of the boys threw a rock at me, narrowly missing. Afghans are very good at throwing rocks. I began to pick up rocks and throw them at the boys, my aim pathetic in comparison to theirs. My guys were laughing watching all this, and as the boys fled in one direction, the little girl fell back ten feet in another. She looked at me, scared. I stopped, and looked at her for what seemed a long moment. Slowly, I put my right hand over my heart.
“I’m sorry, sweetheart, I’m sorry.” I sat down and she continued to look at me. I reached into my pouch again, and found another Cliff Bar. Humbly smiling, I reached out, handing it to her. She cautiously approached. She quickly snatched it, and darted back ten feet. Suddenly the boys began to approach again. I pointed to them, looked at her, looked at the boys again and said “Neh! Neh hubus!” Through my motions and broken mixture of poorly pronounced Pashto and Dari, she understood. She stayed where she was, while I approached the boys yelling “Walarsha! Buro! Walarsha!” The boys backed off and I returned. She was still there, this time smiling. I sat down and she moved a bit closer. After awhile I pointed to her and said, “Nom?”
“Marghalara,” she replied. Marghalara. “Pearl” in Pashto.
From that point, every time we went there, I would always bring something for Marghalara. After making sure security and the guys were good, I’d sit down, and Marghalara would sit near me. We would smile at each other and talk, her in Pashto, me in English, never fully understanding each other, but we had become friends. Eventually, Marghalara started to throw rocks at the boys who came too close. The boys looked shocked, as this was something they had never considered: A girl throwing rocks at a boy?! Eventually, they left her alone, and she could hide Cliff Bars and Gatorade safely under her blouse. The guys all gave me a hard time about it, asking me if I was going to convert to Islam and come back when Marghalara was 14 so I could marry her. But their teasing was the humor of the infantry. They had fallen for the little princess as hard as I had.
One afternoon in the late spring, Marghalara and I were sitting on some sandbags when suddenly she said something to me. She reached under her scarf, behind her neck, and took off one of her necklaces. She handed it to me, motioning for me to put it on. It was a simple piece of G.I. dog tag chain, but it was the only time an Afghan child ever gave me something. I put it around my neck, smiled to her, and something sweet and very sad welled up in my chest. The two of us sat there without speaking for a long time.
The next day our company was moved to FOB Kala Gush, Nuristan Province. The summer of 2010 was very busy there. We had our share of firefights, ambushes, and wounded. Throughout it all, I continued to wear the necklace Marghalara had given me.
That winter I came home in one piece.