Wednesday – Letter From Afghanistan: Shaken to the Core

“I think I am becoming uncommonly tolerant of substandard coffee.”

My Platoon Sergeant is sitting at the wooden picnic table across from me sipping from a Styrofoam cup. He fixes me with a dull gaze and puts his cup down and chuckles. “Sir, why you gotta use all them big words? Nobody here is impressed. And this coffee is not substandard, it’s Army standard.”

I laugh. We make an odd couple, the two of us, and in many ways we have rubbed off on each other. Despite the fact that he is a diehard Yankees and Colts fan, I still think he is a decent guy. We stroll out of the small chow tent and walk to the motor pool where preparations have already been made for the day’s mission. I swallow the rest of the coffee and throw the cup in a burning pile of trash. I hoist my heavy awkward body armor and pull it on over my head. The collar is stained black from sweat, the chest a canvas abstract patchwork of motor oil and food stains mixed with red clay soils and other filth. I could clean it, but what is the point? It is only going to get dirty again.

We drive out the gate and into a brilliant blaze of morning sunlight. Metallic clicks echo inside the armored vehicle as we charge back the bolts on our weapons, releasing the catch to slide a small red-tipped bullet into the chamber. My weapon looks unclean. The ever-present dust in the air settles on every surface, turning it a smoky tint of its former color.

I seem to be on autopilot now; I don’t even have to think about what to say on the radio anymore. I see two small helicopters to the east and jump over to the aircraft radio network. They think they see some fresh dirt on the shoulder of a road parallel to us with some suspicious individuals in the tree line to the north. He asks what my route is for the day, I tell him, and the pair peel off and buzz low over us like fearsome insects. I hear chatter from another patrol which has a vehicle stuck in the mud on the banks of a canal.

We reach a main highway, one of the few paved roads in Afghanistan, and follow the lazy curves westward into a valley. We stop for a small herd of sheep crossing the road. They are followed by a band of children who whip and torment the sheep into movement with thin sticks. The sheep bleat in protest, their characteristic fluffy rumps bobbing as they trot across the asphalt, down the shoulder, and into the scrubby bushes. The children laugh and yell, turning to give us the peace sign and thumbs up. I grin and wave back. For these kids, large desert-tan armored vehicles driving through their neighborhood are a part of life. They know nothing else.

We continue down the road, slowing our pace as we close in on a particularly dangerous stretch. Our intent is to search out dangerous improvised explosive devices before they strike us. Sometimes we are successful. Sometimes not. Civilian traffic tends to bypass us, trailing behind us until there is a clear lane to drive around. Sometimes they pull off onto the unimproved dirt bypass on the shoulders of the highway. Like Americans, Afghans can be impatient.

We are cruising at a crawl. I have my right arm resting on the rigid armored sill of my window in the shotgun seat. I am looking through the thick ballistic glass as a minivan full of people is passing us. The van is white with a yellow stripe down the side, the front bumper decorated with bright pastel tassels and faded red writing. The van accelerates to get around my vehicle at a good distance and onto the highway.

There is a bright flash; the explosion comes so quickly and I am not prepared. Despite my racing harness that keeps me anchored into my seat, I am thrown into my driver, our Kevlar-encased heads cracking together like two ball bearings. Blood and body parts spatter against the right side of my vehicle. My window is streaked with dull red chunks, smeared entrails impacting like ground meat on the unforgiving armored hull. I am seeing stars. My brain does not make sense of the world. Debris falls around us. The body of a young girl lands a few meters in front of us. My driver regains enough composure to swerve to miss her. We emerge from the dust cloud, all of us yelling and yet saying nothing. My consciousness has hit the reset button, but soon the computer of my mind finishes its reboot.

“Scan them fuckin’ hills to the left!” I yell at my gunner. “Stay on the hardball!” (Army slang for pavement.) Fuck. What the hell just happened? “Everyone okay!?!” Everyone is fine. We are still moving, our vehicle is intact. I undo my seat belt and twist around as best I can to look out the window despite all the equipment I am wearing. Behind us is a smoldering crater on the shoulder of the road. Body parts and pieces of the van are scattered everywhere. Fuck. Holy fuck.

My radios are not working. It was explained to me once that an explosion sends out an electromagnetic shock wave that causes radios to reset. After a few seconds the voices of my platoon fill my ears. “Are you okay!?!” I key my mic and try to transmit out, but nobody can hear me. My gunner spins around in the turret waving a thumbs-up. Everyone gets the message.

We wheel my vehicle around and accelerate toward the wreckage. An arm on the ground here. A hand over there. Another small child, his skull crushed in. An old bearded man missing a leg and both arms, his head bent under him, the bones at the base of his neck exposed. Chunks of flesh. The acrid smell of explosives lingers. We pull up two vehicles. From every direction my Soldiers come running, sprinting despite the heavy load they carry. Olive-drab-green first-aid bags appear. My platoon medic, “Doc,” begins issuing orders. There are four men lying on the ground, eyes shut. They are alive, if but barely. I start to try and assess the situation. My mind still won’t work. I start to ask for reports on the radio, but my voice falters. I stop and stare at the dashboard and count to ten. I key the mic again, this time my voice calm and unwavering. “A civilian van has struck an IED. We have many KIA (killed in action) and WIA (wounded in action). Request immediate medical assistance.”

The next 20 minutes seem unreal to me. We do everything we can. Some of the van’s occupants are dying. Some are too far gone. One middle-aged man has a broken jaw and blood is pouring from his mouth. He has no teeth. His eyes are shut and he keeps moaning while the right side of his body twitches. There is one teenage boy. He does the characteristic Afghan squat as he stares at the ground, face expressionless. The blood coming from his ears traces down his temples, drying on his high cheekbones. There is a deep blast crater in the ground. The loose sand is charred from the explosives.

I keep being asked over the radio how many bodies we have. “I can’t tell. There are pieces everywhere.” I am asked for the description of the vehicle. I can provide an accurate depiction of the van, as I was looking right at it the moment the back right tire triggered the pressure device and was obliterated. I call for more help. A platoon of infantry arrive. Their own medic rushes in to render aid. I call for helicopters. Four Blackhawk MEDEVAC birds land like leviathans. Doc gives their flight surgeon the order of priority and information on the triage he has done. I am proud to have such a good medic with me. Afghan national police arrive on scene. They have three green pickup trucks and lots of body bags. They put on rubber gloves and use sheets to gather the body parts. There is the corpse of a young woman and her child on the other side of the road. The explosion hurled her over two hundred meters. Through all of this my radio won’t shut up. Every Colonel and Commander within miles wants a situation report. My radio still won’t work right. I make a mental note to have it checked out later.

I thought I was desensitized. I have seen bodies before this. I have seen flesh, ripped asunder from the skeleton. Pureed entrails. Those were the bodies of the players in this fucked up war. They were legitimate targets. Bodies of Americans. British. Afghan Army Soldiers. Taliban. They chose to put themselves in harm’s way. They chose to fight for the cause. This was a family that wanted no part of it all.

War has a way of making you think you know yourself, and then in an instant you are shaken to the core. I wish it was my vehicle that hit that IED. My vehicle is designed to take a massive blast and have everyone walk away without a scratch. In my mind I replay the scene, the van only a few meters from me. I see the dull eyes of the dead. The slack gaping jaw of the elderly armless man.

I thought I was becoming uncommonly tolerant of violence. I was wrong.

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