The US Army's men in black ... turbans

Like many of the psychological operations personnel in the US Army, Sgt. Mike Dickinson is cut from a different cloth.

A half-Mexican, half-black American, he converted to Islam two years ago while on a US peacekeeping mission in Kosovo. He keeps a photograph of Jordan's Queen Rania plastered to the butt of his M-16 and swears that if the US ever goes to war alongside Israel against the Arabs, he will have to become a "conscientious objector."

For Sergeant Dickinson, leader of psy-ops team 913, Afghanistan is both an absorbing adventure and a coming-of-age story. "Some of my buddies would not want to hear me say this, but I hope I will be here indefinitely," he says. "I love these people."

When he is out trying to win hearts and minds, he wears a large, black, pinstriped turban, the same kind favored by deposed Taliban leaders. Dickinson travels with his two Humvee mates, Israel "Izzy" Miller, a Spaniard who became a US citizen and joined the military for "kicks and adventure," and David "Stoner" Stone, a mild-mannered Coloradan. Along with a Pashto interpreter, they move stealthily from village to village, chatting with elders, playing ball with children, and looking out for fresh signs that the Taliban trying to undermine the US-led fight against extremism. The US Army's psychological warfare campaign in Afghanistan, which eschews the military's usual rules requiring the wearing of combat helmets and traveling in large, heavily armed groups, keeps teams like 913 from Ft. Bragg, N.C. roving in the Afghan heartland where they can be most effective.

It is probably too early for the still small-scale psy-ops efforts in Afghanistan to be fully assessed, but the presence of a major from the US Army's Center for Army Lessons Learned (CALL) on a recent mission joined by the Monitor suggests that higher-ups are keen to learn more about their impact.

Back to Rawanday

A typical day for the 913 psy-ops team begins with a military police patrol leader's words of caution delivered at 9 a.m. as a convoy gathers near Kandahar airfield. "In an ambush, try to stay out of the fire zone as much as you can," warns Sgt. Billy Stallings. "If there is indirect fire, take cover and [get] back to camp."

Dickinson says he is keeping in mind the US Army psy-ops motto – "Win the mind, win the day!" – as his Humvee heads off down a dusty road with Izzy in the turret behind a 50-caliber machinegun.

"We've been to Rawanday village just about every week to try to understand the needs of the civilians there and gain their support," says Dickinson. "There is an awful drought here that has hit every town in my sector. There is a lack of food and jobs." In addition to delivering some needed supplies to villagers, the 913 team is also about to conduct a quiet, counter-intelligence mission. "We'll look for signs of foreign and outside influences in these villages. Has the Taliban or Al Qaeda paid them a visit recently? Sometimes we can determine this even without asking questions, just by observing torn up leaflets that we have handed out the week before."

But, most of all, it is being out there – "making our presence known" – in the sweltering, sand-blown villages of Afghanistan that is going to win this war for the US military, says Dickinson. On one recent occasion, the 913 was called on to try to save the life of an Afghan man who accidentally stepped on a stray US cluster bomblet. For over an hour, Dickinson, struggled to apply pressure to the wounds of the young Afghan before he expired in his arms. "I'm pretty good at first aid and the reason we lost him was probably because the medevac unit we called in showed up an hour too late," he says.

Despite the death of the man, the efforts of the 913 team in that instance endeared them to many of the locals south-west of the city of Kandahar, where they are fast becoming a legend.

Dickinson's "ace-in-the-hole" with the Afghan villagers, he is quick to admit, is his own faith. "I can share the fact that I'm a Muslim, and I am automatically a brother to these Afghans. They start to trust me and tell me almost anything." The 22-year-old sergeant, whose Mexican mother is a devout Catholic and whose father has been in prison for several years, discovered Islam in a roundabout way.

"I started reading about it from the age of 12, but there wasn't even a mosque for me to pray in there in Battle Creek," says the Michigan native. "I really started to get into Islam and dig deeper into the history with the help of the Albanian Muslims, who I met during my peacekeeping work in Kosovo." Afghans, he says, are just as keen as Albanians to keep him moving along the righteous path. "I've already been given five sets of prayer beads, several turbans and a whole bunch of prayer rugs since I arrived here," he says.

A bridge of faith

His superiors say that Dickinson's knowledge of Islam has helped his fellow US soldiers understand Afghan customs. Some Afghan villagers around Kandahar have complained that US soldiers ignore their traditions, sometimes surprising uncovered womenfolk in their homes and walking with army boots on holy ground.

When the US forces finally arrived in Rawanday village on Tuesday, after getting stuck in the sand on three different occasions, Ghulam Faroq, a gap-toothed village elder led shouting boys and girls in a cheer. He greeted Dickinson and several of his fellow US officers with open arms. The psy-ops team had, as a rare treat, brought hundreds of blankets, school supplies, and toys for children.

"Are you excited about the loya jirga?" Dickinson asked a group of Afghan men three times his age. He was referring to the national assembly due to be headed up by the country's former king in June.

"Yes, we are," they said all at once. The villagers of Rawanday had prepared a meal of dried bread crust and yogurt. It was all they had to offer.

Dickinson was beaming. "I'm just glad to be here and have the chance to bring you a little something to thank you for the kindness you have been showing to the US military," he said. "I'm also very happy for you. This is the first time in nearly three decades that you will have the opportunity to choose your own leaders, without someone choosing them for you."

"You haven't been to see us in so many days," one village elder complained with an inquisitive grin.

"I love Rawanday," said Dickinson, keen to reassure his hosts.

They shot back: "Rawanday loves you!"

Dickinson's 913 mates worry a little, maybe not without reason, that he is "going native." Before he leaves Afghanistan, the young Michigander says he wants to find an Afghan wife. He does not mind if she is covered in a head-to-toe blue burqa, just as long as he can talk to her before they walk down the isle.

So far, he hasn't had any offers, but he still has his hopes up.

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