I had a very good friend comment to me about this blog, asking me to share more about myself. Personally, I am not a shy guy; but I come from many generations of upper Midwestern Germans, where you apologize a lot, just in case you’ve offended someone.
And you DEFINITELY do not tell stories about something amazing and awesome that has happened to you, or things you’ve accomplished, because that is boasting, and no-one likes a braggart.
Well, I am prepared to take a deep breath, and explain about why I am doing this and how I got here.
Over the last three+ years, I’ve been living and working in Afghanistan. Since the US Military and other government agencies have been active there since 2001, that’s really not that big of a story. What is different about what I’ve done, is that most of that time, I haven’t lived on a Forward Operating Base (FOB) or traveled in convoys of large armored vehicles, armed with heavy weapons and wearing body armor.
Because I haven’t been dressed like the Michelin Man in body armor, festooned with weapons, travelled in 20 vehicle convoys of Jawa-tracks like in Star Wars, I’ve had the opportunity to actually speak to, live with, and make friends with real Afghans, who aren’t just there to beg for goodies from the unending pockets of Uncle Sam.
In fact, I’ve been shot at and run off the road by US and British soldiers because, as a bearded man driving a car on the road, I must deserve to be shot at and/or run off the road. That perspective changes your attitude in a hurry.
I started this journey for unusual reasons, though. Despite 26 years of military experience, and some farting around as a military historian, I had yet to have “seen the elephant”, despite enduring Saddam Hussein’s incompetent missileers and one half-hearted ambush during the opening days of the 2003 Iraqi invasion, I had yet to engage in one single engagement with “the enemy”. Some part of me wanted to correct this deficiency. So, when I heard from a friend that there was a private security contract that would hire me, pay a reasonable amount of money and would absolutely guarantee that I would “see the elephant” in as many gunfights as I could stand, I jumped at it. So, I joined the US Department of State’s Poppy Eradication Force, and travelled to Afghanistan in early 2009.
After a short stop in Kabul, they flew me down to Helmand Province, where poppy eradication was already underway. And my wishes to face the enemy and exchange rounds was satisfied immediately. Moments after landing, several rockets impacted in our immediate area and over the next 6 months, our eradication efforts resulted in almost two gunfights a day and several near misses with both IEDs and bullets.
It seems the Poppy producers don’t care to lose their valuable crop, so they would shoot at us coming in, and shoot at us going out, and try to blow us up with IEDs any time they could in between.
Two things stick with me from that. First, I learned that not only did I do well during combat, but I found, shockingly, that I enjoyed it. I liked the risk taking, the sounds, and the incredible feeling of exultation when sharp bits go zooming past your head and you are still alive.
Detaining and interrogating suspicious guys near Gereshk
The second thing that I remember is what happened on March 11th, 2009, that would change my path. On March 10th, we sat on a series of hills north of Gereshk, a town in Helmand, where we observed eradication operations. During that time, we detained five individuals that we thought were acting suspiciously. After searching and questioning them, we decided to let them go. The next day, our Afghan National Army escort decided to go back to that same place to give away some leftover food from our mess, and they parked in the same place where we had parked the day before.
After the explosion that obliterated their truck, we found the same five guys from the day before in a nearby building, and after a short, sharp firefight, we captured them. Thinking about sitting on that IED for several hours the day before, and about letting go the guys who set it off, started me thinking about why I came there and what I was hoping to accomplish.
After a lot of soul-searching, I decided to sign up for one of the cultural programs that were currently going on. And that is how I found myself wandering around Afghanistan, hanging out, talking to people and learning as much as I could and making friends with several Afghans and a few fellow traveller Westerners, including Afghan-Americans, Americans, and various Europeans of an assorted flavor.
One thing I noticed, is the disbelief that most people we ran into about what we did and how we did it. Soldiers looked at us with disbelief, and I was called a liar several times because “no-one goes out there without a convoy/security/etc.”. Talking to Americans who’ve never been to Afghanistan, I get nothing but Lassie looks from people when I try to explain what I do there, and I have finally given up and just tell people “I supported the Army”.
The truth is, there are very few Americans who have the slightest clue about how Afghans live their lives. Especially the Americans who are stationed there, who only see Afghans in extremis, or in non-Afghan situations like on the FOBs. It is even more difficult to explain to my fellow countrymen about how much fun I had there, and what a lovely place Afghanistan is. The purpose of this blog is to try to give people who cannot go there a picture of what Afghanistan is like.
Afghan kids are like kids anywhere, and Afghan parents love their children, and want their country to modernize, and want industry and the freedom to travel, so that they can see the rest of the world. Afghans tend to like America, and its freedoms, but are annoyed at the heavy handed and inconsistent manner in which American non-policy is carried out. But my point here is not to become a political pundit or to give lectures on American policy. Other people (who are mainly dilettantes and wholly unqualified to run their ignorant yaps) have assumed that mantle.
And now, back to my entertaining and (hopefully) informing about my Afghan adventures.