A soldier's life in Afghanistan
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.
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 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.
Green Beret A-teams are vulnerable to hosts with superior firepower, but in Afghanistan, alliances with warlords allow them to fight at battalion strength, at least in theory. In practice, however, nothing comes easily, and Afghan militiamen sometimes have divided loyalties. Firefights have reportedly broken out between American units and Afghan soldiers paid to be on their side.
In Kunduz, Green Berets suspect that militiamen loyal to Daud Khan, a commander nominally allied with the US military, are betraying American intentions and foiling operations to capture Taliban and Al Qaeda remnants. One man under Daud Khan's command has admitted to harboring the same Islamic militants the Americans are actively pursuing. Suspicions run so deep that Bones isn't sure whom to trust.
"You don't know who's a good guy and who's a bad guy," Bones says. "But if he's shooting at you, he's definitely a bad guy."
The 101st Airborne Division is a famed battering ram in the US Army's arsenal. But in an age of surgical strikes, the unit spends much of its time confined to base. Sometimes, however, with little warning, the 101st is called to action.
Headquarters platoon of 3rd Battalion's Alpha Company is housed in a capacious green canvas tent with a blue battle flag flying outside. The company is on Quick Reaction Force status and must be ready to fight at a moment's notice. In one corner of the tent, amid crates of ammunition, a few soldiers watch "Blow," starring Johnny Depp, on a laptop computer. It's 8 in the morning. "Gladiator" already screened at 6:30.
About noon, a soldier with a yellow mail sack plops a box in front of Pfc. Ronald "Doc" Bernier, a 22-year-old from Boston. Just before he left the States, his wife gave birth to a baby boy, who is just now taking his first steps. Private Bernier finds the box stuffed with holiday cards.
"I can't believe you got all that mail," says Pfc. Eric Jarvis, 20, who occupies a cot next to Bernier. "Is it, like, from a class? People you don't know?"
"It's Christmas cards from last year," Bernier says, knifing open an envelope with his finger. "I'm going to be busy today."
It is July 2002, and "Dear Soldier" letters written in the wake of the 9/11 attacks are just now finding their way to forward- deployed troops.
Suddenly, the tent becomes a welter of activity. Soldiers snap magazines into their rifles and pull on body armor. A Special Forces base near the Pakistani border has come under attack, and Alpha Company must be ready to assist. Bernier checks his backpack - morphine sticks, pressure bandages, plastic and gauze pads. Satisfied, he wolfs down the contents of an MRE (Meal Ready to Eat, the ubiquitous American ration packs), then straddles his cot, ready to go.
"I'm kind of pumped," he says. "We'll see what happens." So far, Bernier's experience of combat has been limited to DVDs of Hollywood war movies.
Two hours later, the company is taken off alert. Alpha Company will not be going out. Not today, anyway. In the command tent, "South Park II" screens for the third time in two days. Bernier lies back on his cot. "Always happens," Bernier says. "You're going out and then, oops, you're not."
Two days later, Alpha Company is again on alert. This time, they launch. Massive, two-prop Chinook helicopters ferry the soldiers to Hesarak, a village south of Kabul. In addition to their usual combat gear, the soldiers carry gas masks. Their primary objective is a suspected bioweapons laboratory.
As soon as the Chinooks touch ground, soldiers pour out of the back ramps and fan out in a defensive perimeter. The helicopters, like a fleet of drab green school buses, peel away and lumber up to the safety of higher altitudes. Overhead, Apache attack helicopters are ready to provide close air support. Children from Hesarak perch on mud walls, watching the US troops take up positions in their village.
One child approaches a heavy machine gun crew across an open field. The soldiers vehemently wave him off; he has walked into an interlocking field of fire. But the child continues to advance, in halting steps, with a book in his outstretched hands.
"There's a kid walking toward us," one of the soldiers reports over the radio. "He's making hand signals. He's got a book."
"Well, talk to him," a voice barks back. "But tell your guys not to touch the book."
The child makes his way slowly over to the machine gun crew. A pause, and then another radio transmission.
"He wanted us to know he passed his tests, that he studied hard in school," the machine gunner reports.
Assault teams, meanwhile, sweep the suspected weapons lab. Forensic specialists dust for fingerprints, while intelligence officials remove cassette tapes, documents, and blocks of a paste-like material. (Initial laboratory tests confirmed the presence of ricin, a highly toxic derivative of the castor bean. More accurate tests conducted later in the US came out negative.)
Hours later, Alpha Company collapses its positions. Bernier abandons his casualty collection point in an apple orchard and withdraws to a stubbly wheat field to wait for the helicopters. A soldier nearby mutters, "Another mission where I don't get to shoot anything."
Bernier doesn't seem to mind.
"Fine by me," he says.
The majority of American soldiers in Afghanistan serve support functions - laundry, logistics, accounting - on sprawling, city-like bases. For one American military police officer, the front line of the war on terror is the front gate.
American MPs at Checkpoint 5, a labyrinth of barbed wire and concrete barricades that is the main entrance to Bagram Air Base, have interpreters to help them talk with Afghan nationals. When "terps" are unavailable, the soldiers fall back on cheat sheets in Dari, with helpful phrases such as "stop," "keep moving," and "the dog will bite you."
Staff Sgt. Kirby West, an MP from Andrews, Texas, oversees security at the gate with the help of Sadou, an 80-pound German shepherd. Together, they inspect trucks for explosives and check day laborers for weapons. The safety of everyone on base depends on Sergeant West's vigilance and Sadou's phenomenally sensitive nose.
In dealing with Afghan laborers, West, clean-cut, with a linebacker's build, is courteous but quietly forceful. In some cases, Sadou helps him keep order.
"People start to listen a little more, because the dog is barking," West says.
Conflicts at the gate arise between American soldiers, who see the need for security as paramount, and Afghans civilians and military, who say they feel bullied. With the help of interpreters, West has learned that Americans are considered rude and overly aggressive. Militiamen provided by a local warlord to help police the gate resent having to ask permission to enter a base that was a free-fire zone before the Taliban fell. An especially helpful point of cross-cultural sensitivity regards a notion common among Afghans pertaining to dogs and the afterlife.
"They believe that if they have been bit by a dog, they will not go on to see God," West says.
With inspections at the gate going smoothly, West decides to make a run by the garbage dump. To people from nearby villages, the dump is a rich source of construction materials and discarded MREs, but it is strictly off limits to Afghans. Earlier that morning, a trash truck was swarmed by scavengers, forcing an American soldier to fire her weapon into the air. Villagers sometimes fend off American soldiers with rocks and "MRE bombs" (each MRE container can also be rigged into a crude explosive device). The last time that happened, one of West's colleagues released his dog for what's ominously known as "bite work." An Afghan stone thrower was hospitalized with deep puncture wounds.
West pulls up to the dump in his pickup truck and releases Sadou from a kennel in back. Sadou strains at the leash.
"He smells all that food," West says. West and Sadou patrol around mounds of garbage and trucks offloading still more rubbish. About a dozen Afghans sort through a mountain of trash, even as it is consumed by flames. At the sight of West, they scatter. Two men shuffle away with a box brimming with metal envelopes of food rations. A straggler hides behind a mountain of dirt that has been pushed up by bulldozers. West whistles, and points to the gate.
As an MP, West interacts with Afghans more than most US soldiers do, but he doesn't expect to make many friends.
"When they curse at you in English, it's a real friendly type deal," West says. "When they revert back to their own language, that's how we know they're angry."
Special Forces units occupy "safe houses" - unfortified bases - in every corner of Afghanistan, but the term may be misleading. Some soldiers fear that even their homes back in the US aren't necessarily safe.
The Special Forces safe house in Kunduz is a boxy two-story building on a dusty side street in a residential neighborhood. A gravel lot in front is crowded with all-terrain vehicles and pickup trucks that have been converted into gunships. Indoors, the walls are stacked to the ceiling with cases of cereal, MREs, and water. The livingroom is carpeted with Afghan rugs and lined with pillows. In keeping with local customs, combat boots, sandals, and running shoes are left in a pile by the door.
Chief Warrant Officer John, a medic, a demolition expert, and a sniper, occupies a corner room on the ground floor. He has jet-black hair and arched, inquisitive eyebrows, and often wears a United Airlines cap while on operations, a reminder of the 9/11 attacks. A handmade wooden cabinet houses his fishing magazines (John brought a rod and reel with him, not knowing that fishing in Afghanistan would be as simple as tossing a hand grenade into a river in the company of a local warlord), along with letters from home and a diary, which he keeps meti-culously. Pinned to the wall are photographs of John's family and a "death letter" he has written to his wife.
"That's a letter I hope she never reads," John says.
Special Forces bases, especially in eastern Afghanistan, come under rocket and mortar fire so often that the shelling, inaccurate as it may be, has become routine. The safe house in Kunduz has yet to come under attack, but in the event it does, John's room doubles as an excellent fighting position. Tear down the West Virginia flag in one window, and John has a clear shot to the front gate. Behind an American flag, another window doubles as a shooting port over the front door. The window sills are stacked with sandbags and lined with hand grenades and cartons of ammunition. In case of evacuation, John will burn his diary, the letters from his wife, and his store of plastic explosives and pull the pin on a thermite grenade he has placed on his cabinet. "If it gets to that point, they're probably killing me anyways, so I wouldn't want them to get any benefit out of it," John says.
While a stick of C-4 could easily be used to rig a booby trap, and the diary of a soldier with a high security clearance could yield useful information to an enemy combatant, it's not immediately clear how letters from home could have any strategic value. But in a fight against terrorist organizations, with their predilection for soft targets, many Special Forces soldiers worry that spouses and children back home could become unwitting actors in the war on terror.
"Worst-case scenario, somebody goes to your house and kills your family," John says. Such attacks have never materialized, though US military officials say they were threatened by Saddam Hussein during the Gulf War.
Nonetheless, information security has become institutionalized in the US military. Garbage dumps like the one at Bagram are strictly off limits. At the US Army post office in Uzbekistan, return addresses are routinely cut out of pieces of mail before they are forwarded to soldiers in the field. Even so, forward-deployed troops are encouraged to burn their mail after it has been read.
Because of the sensitive nature of their missions, and because they are often collocated with even more covert groups, such as the CIA and the Army's Delta Force, Special Forces soldiers are drilled in "operational security."
But the average Special Forces soldier isn't much of a blab. Like most Green Berets, John describes himself as a private person. Back in the States, most of his friends are fellow soldiers. His wife socializes with "Special Forces wives." Even when he goes to a restaurant, he takes care to sit in the back corner, so he can cover the door.
Some of John's precautions seem excessive even to members of his unit, but other Green Berets are even more circumspect. For them, the 9/11 attacks produced a world where everything is potentially dangerous. Even as he is searching out Al Qaeda remnants in remote corners of northern Afghanistan, John is forced to consider the possibility that Al Qaeda will come to the US and find him and his family instead.
"You're hunting them, they're hunting you," John says. "I don't want to be the first to find out how serious this war is going to get."