November 06, 2007

Name: Old Blue
Posting date: 11/06/07
Stationed in: Afghanistan
Hometown: Cincinnati, Ohio
Milblog url:

There was a change recently to how we are task organized for missions in The Valley. I can't describe why due to "keeping our cards close to our vest." It's more of an evolution of the operation than anything else. Operations are maturing, though they have not reached the state that they need to in the end. The change was at least a little bit welcome, as it offered us the ability to sleep at night without having to wake up and strap on the night observation device (NODS), to take a shower, and to have porcelain (or plastic...who cares) under my butt again.

We take a lot of things for granted as Americans.

We operated from the firebase, meeting up with our Afghan counterparts for the missions that we did with them. We did missions daily with them, many of them vehicle-borne. On some, we dismounted and patrolled areas as a presence, to gather any intelligence that might be available, or fight whoever wanted to fight.

One patrol took us down to the main town that The Valley is named after. It has the dirtiest bazaar I've ever seen, and until recently the bazaar itself and basically the whole town was under undisputed Taliban control. Major Stone Cold bought a goat, and the guy who sold him the goat came back to the district Police station and slaughtered it for us. It was really something else. We ate the goat that night. It was a special treat for the Afghans.

Every day, we patrolled the areas that had just a few weeks earlier been under such strong Taliban control that only the Special Forces went in. About a week later, we came back to Bagram for one night.

I could not post during that trip back, partially due to the finicky internet at Bagram. How irritating. We returned to our firebase the next day and settled back into our new field routine. It was almost strange to have so many guys from the team in one place again. It had been over a month since I had seen O and the Maniac on a daily basis, and all the SECFOR guys were clearly ecstatic to see each other again. They were like a bunch of puppies.

The next day I was doing something in my tent -- I can't even remember what it was -- when someone came in and asked if I was the mentor of a particular Afghan officer. I said yes, and he said, "Five of those guys got blown up by an IED down in the valley. The SF medics have one of them." I ran out, heart in my throat as I made my way over to their compound.

As I was on my way over, a medevac bird was taking off from the firebase with the fifth occupant of the truck. He would survive.

The SF were very understanding and very kind. They told me what they had tried to treat the man for, and allowed me to see his body. He had bled to death on the way to the camp. Even with immediate attention he might not have survived. He had some significant head injuries. I had a hard time recognizing him.

I had returned from the SF compound to our little compound when the others arrived, with three bodies in the back of a Ford Ranger, just like the one that they had been in when it was shredded by the IED. They were wrapped in blankets covered in dirt and dead grass. I didn't want to look, didn't want to do this; but I had to. These guys looked to us for leadership and to know what to do when they didn't. Now here they were with the bodies of our comrades, looking for something from us. It was my job to provide some leadership and some guidance.

My American comrades knew that I was bereft, and they began to help with some of the aspects of what had to be done. The bodies had to be identified, sorted out, each put in a more suitable container, and some order made of what was going on. One of the officers said he knew where some body bags were in the medical storage conex. O began to organize the body bags. One of the medics, Surferdude, went to get rubber gloves. We would need them.

O knew exactly what I needed; someone to be the hard guy who was unaffected by the carnage that lay before us in the bed of that truck. Those guys who had been full of life had been converted into things that you wouldn't want anyone you care about to see.

I set about trying to see who the casualties were. They were a mess. I will avoid being too descriptive, but there was a lot of unpleasant work to do. One of the dead had his ID card, a combination ID card and copy of his training certificate, in his shirt pocket. I looked at his face and had a hard time picturing him alive. When I saw the card, my heart sank.

He was a young man, just beginning to grow a beard really. He had obviously been killed instantly. As Surferdude put it, he had sustained "injuries incompatible with life." They all had.

I had eaten with these guys, had discussions about ethics and the future of Afghanistan with them, had trained them for the operation as best I could in the time available, had led them on missions nearly every day for over a month in the field. These were, in a sense, my men. I was responsible for them, and they had looked to me for guidance.

One of the others had also been very young. I recognized him immediately. His more horrible injuries hadn't affected his face as much. My heart sank again.

"Awwww, no!"

We carefully placed the remains of four Afghan heroes in the vinyl bags, tagged them in English and Dari, and the ANA loaned us their ambulance to carry the dead to the Police headquarters.

Some of the guys asked why the Afghans had brought the bodies to us. They seemed almost resentful. I explained to them that the Afghans looked to us for all kinds of help. When they weren't sure what to do, they looked to us. This was one of those times.

The next day the order came out that the Afghans were not to be given body bags anymore.

Initially, the remains of the truck were taken to the Police headquarters, but it was too upsetting to the Afghans to have it there, and the rats were picking through it for the pieces of the soldiers that had been trapped in the wreckage. The truck was moved to our firebase, where it sat beside two conexs burned by the Taliban; a daily reminder to me of the soldiers from my group who were so brutally killed.

The front half of the truck was gone. The engine was nowhere to be found. Everything forward of the backs of the rear seats was just gone. All that remained was the bed of the truck and the wheels. Scraps of sheet metal, most of the hood, the doors, and a portion of the roof lay in a heap next to the bed on two wheels.

I'm astounded that the bodies were as complete as they were.

I don't think I'll ever get the images of my Afghan friends' mutilated bodies out of my head completely. I know that I have no desire to watch horror movies for awhile.

It was a rough couple of days after that. The ANA lost a couple of soldiers during the same period, and while that was terrible to hear about, the deaths of my four guys was a huge blow to me. They had been on the return trip from the chow run. Each meal was prepared at the Police headquarters and then the group sent a truck to pick up the chow and take the pots and platters back up for the next meal. Every time you move in The Valley, something could happen. It usually doesn't, but there are four lives that prove that it could.

I am a believer in what I am doing over here. I have a personal philosophy and a rudimentary understanding of counterinsurgency and the nature of trying to mentor underdeveloped governmental military/paramilitary organizations to do basic things. I believe that the world will be a safer place when Afghanistan is a peaceful country under the rule of a freely elected government and free of the armed gangs who run the villages and countryside. I believe that the Police need to be the first line of contact that people have with the government in their neighborhoods, and that life with the police roaming armed in the streets must be better than life under the Taliban.

All of that is on a higher level. On a base level, I was/am pissed. I am hurt, and I am angry, and I want to solve this problem with my weapons. I want to find the cell that is responsible and I don't want for them to survive the encounter. I don't want a trial. I don't want any chance for corruption to set them free. I want to even the score.

Aggressive, ugly feelings.

Operations are continuing, but we are also getting back to the business of mentoring the Police at the Province and District levels in day-to-day operations. It's a two-sided sword. We split our time between The Valley and the Province headquarters and the more peaceful districts. And then there are the occasional trips to Bagram.

Soon I will get to go on leave. I will get to fly home to the U.S. and see my kids and be in a place where everything is "normal." It will be a stark contrast to the mud buildings and dirt/rock roads. This is a beautiful country, but I miss seeing familiar sights. I miss my family and my friends. I really miss my kids.


Thanks for sharing. Even with this horrific experience you are making a difference. Keep on with the struggle.


I am so sorry for the loss of your men. Your heart shows and it shows you will and have made a difference to everyone around you, no matter what their beliefs are. It is you, not the governments who will truly change the world first. Hang in there - enjoy your time with your kids.

Holy crap. You moved this old nurse to tears. Good for you for recognizing that the Afghans were your men. Good for you for hanging onto the images of your kids and home. Keep safe.

What they said.

And ... "the order came out that the Afghans were not to be given body bags anymore."

What? Why? Is someone deliberately trying to antagonize people by discriminating against the Afghan dead?

I hope writing about your experiences and sharing them with readers like myself is helping you deal with your daily reality. I know that reading this post brought that reality to me in a way no news report or military briefing could. My thanks go out to you and all your comrades; the rest of us can lead our normal lives because of you, and we should all be reminded of that on a regular basis.

You have a real respect for and understanding of the Afghan people. Who's the knucklehead who decided that we should not permit the small kindness of a body bag for fallen Afghan soldiers? It is little bits of consideration like these which raise you and by extension the U.S. in the hearts and minds of the people there. That is the object of what we're doing, right? Winning their hearts and minds.

You have a good heart and a caring disposition. Safe trip home and I hope you lose no more of you people, either Afghan or American.

good luck at home. i had a similar event right before leave, losing both ANA and an ETT partner. its tough going home- real tough. either way, keep doing good works. too many etts dont get the point of the mission, you seem to have it spot on. dont lose that focus...

Good job.
Good luck.
You are standing on the shoulders of those who came before, and they are damned proud.
I sincerelly hope you and your guys get the payback your fallen comrades deserve. No quarter.

You are a credit to us all. Your honor and compassion go farther than all the formal programs to helping the Afghans reclaim thier country. If there is anyone we can contact or lobby to reverse that stupid body bag order, please post it. What idiocy!

I think the Taliban are absolutely evil. I thank you for your efforts to make Afghanistan free of them forever.

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