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A soldier's life in Afghanistan

By David BuchbinderSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / February 27, 2003

The more than 9,000 US troops in Afghanistan are Americans whose lives were changed more than most by Sept. 11. They have been airlifted to a country wracked by war for 30 years, with the weighty responsibility of ensuring it cannot again become a base of operations for radical Islamic terrorists.

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But the work is dangerous. Forty American soldiers have died in Afghanistan, and hundreds more have been injured. In recent weeks, US forces have engaged in the fiercest battles in more than a year.

Highly trained Special Operations troops, who can identify themselves by first name only, have borne the brunt of the combat in Afghanistan, displacing many of the conventional foot soldiers. Now, as the Afghanistan campaign approaches the 1-1/2-year mark, the dangers of war persist, but they are buffered by long periods of boredom.

For those whose duties bring them in contact with Afghans, the challenge of developing rapport is complicated by cultural differences that can easily lead to explosive misunderstandings.

A series of snapshots of the American military in Afghanistan, taken at various stages over the past eight months, offers a glimpse into the lives of Americans fighting overseas.

A ride with bones

Kunduz, Afghanistan

A Green Beret A-team operates out of a mud-walled compound in Kunduz, a former Taliban stronghold in northern Afghanistan. With the nearest American base hundreds of miles away, the 12-man Special Forces unit is alone in a dangerous neighborhood.

Staff Sgt. Dick, a barrel-chested Green Beret with a thick mane of curly gray hair, rides horseback through the dusty streets of Kunduz. He has torn the arms off his fatigues to beat the August heat, but still wears a bulky flak jacket. Children run from their homes and shout in English at the rough-riding soldier.

"Thank you," one boy calls out.

"You're welcome, buddy," Dick says. "You're plumb welcome."

"Friend, friend," another child shouts.

"You better believe it," Dick says, and rides on, down the sinuous alleyways of the adobe-walled neighborhood. Dick is a member of the 2nd Battalion of the 19th Special Forces group, an Army National Guard unit based at Kenova, W.Va. Though he doesn't speak Dari, the local language ("my second language is vulgarity," he quips), he makes friends on his rides through town.

"I was out this morning, saw a guy on a great big horse," Dick recalls. "He looked at me, puffed up his chest. I was like, 'Yeah, let's go.' We raced for about a mile, then he reared up his horse on its back legs like Gene Autry."

Dick is known to his cohorts as Bones, a nickname that dates back to when he was growing up skinny in a coal camp in West Virginia. As a teenager he did a tour of duty in Vietnam, and fought in the Tet offensive. Now 54, Bones is the oldest man in his unit, but he keeps fit. He passed the grueling combat diver course when he was 49. In the words of an officer in Bones's unit, "He's as hard as woodpecker lips."

For Bones, a ride through town is much more than a day at the races. Special Forces soldiers try to mesh with local communities, developing relationships, learning customs, and establishing a "ground truth" to pass on to superiors.

Horse patrols may or may not yield useful intelligence, but they remind friend and foe alike of the presence of the US military. Nonetheless, American soldiers have been targets of hit-and-run attacks, and Bones is ready for trouble. He wears a 9-mm pistol strapped to his leg and keeps an M-4 rifle in a holster slung from his saddle. His pockets are stuffed with hand grenades, and he carries 120 rounds of rifle ammunition and 75 bullets for his pistol.

"If somebody hits me, unless they hit me pretty quick, they're going to have a problem," he says.

Bones is yet to be involved in a firefight, but four members of his battalion have been seriously wounded in Afghanistan. Two have died. One man was killed while disposing of a captured rocket. Another, Gene Arden Vance Jr., of Morgantown, W.Va., died in an ambush in eastern Afghanistan. Vance was recently married, and had canceled his honeymoon when his unit was called up.

"If you didn't think this was real, you do when people die," Bones says.