Another Day in the ’Dab

August 2010 View All Stories


Third Platoon's small kill team, or SKT, overlooking Nur Muhammad Kalache in the pre-dawn hours of 30 August from a roof in the northern part of the village.

The mud sucks at our boots as we slosh across a flooded field in the direction of a Taliban stronghold called Nur Muhammad Kalache. It’s just after 2 a.m., and the night is cool and still. A pack of jackals detects the patrol and erupts in a mournful wail. When the howling stops, the silence seeps back in, punctuated by the clank of weapons and a chorus of crickets and frogs. Moonlight silhouettes the soldiers on the footpaths, where every step is a gamble—the orchards of the Arghandab are sown with anti-personnel IEDs. The men press on swiftly despite the risk. Dawn is coming fast, and the Taliban’s spotters will wake soon for prayer.

Four days before, Taliban fighters shelled battalion headquarters with 82mm mortars from the vicinity of NMK, injuring seven US troops. Alpha Battery got tasked with raiding NMK to find the mortar tube and suspected weapons caches. Finding the mortar tube in the sprawling maze of adobe qalats would be like finding a needle in a haystack—finding IEDs with our feet, the soldiers assured me, would be a lot easier.

As the crow flies, NMK lies only 700 meters southwest of Combat Outpost (COP) Nolen, home of Alpha Battery, 1-320th Field Artillery Regiment. This morning’s walk will take two hours and cover twice that distance. Sergeant Josh Strickland, 24, an infantryman on his fifth combat tour, walks a snaking trail through grape vineyards and pomegranate orchards, over irrigation creeks and six-foot walls. A stuffed bulldog named Ghanistan—Strickland’s “bomb sniffing dog”—pokes out of his cargo pocket, a gift from his 3 year-old daughter. “I’m going to walk the worst possible route,” he told me before we left, meaning the most physically difficult. He was trying to calm my nerves. “We’ve never hit an IED when I was walking point.” A soldier with a metal detector sweeps close behind Strickland. He drops infrared glow sticks to mark potential IEDs for the long column following in his footsteps. We skirt them heel-to-toe like tightrope walkers, five in all before we reach NMK.

It’s close to four when the platoon fans out around the temporary helicopter landing zone. We can see NMK’s rooftops through the trees, just a hundred meters to the south. A sound like a twig snapping stops a soldier in his tracks, ankle deep in mud. “Sergeant, I think I stepped on something!” he rasps.

Lucky moment number one: the soldier stepped on a “toe-popper,” an anti-personnel IED designed to blow off limbs. But the mud had fried the ignition circuit, and the soldier got off without a scratch.

Third squad breaks off from the rest of third platoon and slips into the treeline south of the HLZ, on the way to set up an ambush from the roof of an abandoned compound. Captain Jeffrey Aebischer, third platoon’s commander, a tall, blue-eyed West Point graduate with one Iraq tour behind him, leads the six-man small kill team (SKT). I am two paces behind him when I hear that awful snapping sound again. “I just stepped on a fucking toe-popper,” he whispers. Before I can muse on the luck, Aebischer steps off again into the shadows. I swallow the lump in my throat and try to keep up.

The SKT creeps into position on the designated rooftop, codenamed Objective Celtics, and begins scanning the mist-covered village through night-vision optics. I recall Aebischer’s chilling warning to his men: “I don’t want to see one of your buddies lying wounded next to you because you decided to have a moment of morality. If you see a threat, take him out.” Battalion intelligence said this part of the village would be deserted—anyone sleeping here would have to be Taliban, they said. The men are surging on adrenaline and fear, alone in what they’re sure is a hornet’s nest of Taliban fighters.

But the sleeping village looks more lived in than a Taliban bed-down spot. There’s a cow hunkered in the courtyard below and fresh-picked grapes spread on this very rooftop. Bales of hay are stacked against the compound walls, and the qalats are in good repair. Patterns of normal agrarian life abound.

Suddenly, Strickland sees a man peep over a wall to the south. He fires a 40mm grenade, and the detonation shatters the pre-dawn stillness. A flash like lightning illuminates the impact.

“Shit! I missed him.”

“Well, they know we’re here now,” Aebischer says.

Whoever was there must have already known; recon helicopters had been cutting tight circles overhead for an hour. Aebischer radios the battery commander: “We’re compromised. You need to move the rest of the element in here now.” Minutes later, the rooftops are crawling. The sun is beginning to peak over the jagged mountains on the southern horizon—the start of a long, punishing day.

Cpt. Jimmy Thomasson, 32, the slim Georgian in command of Alpha Battery, expected to catch a Taliban cell with its pants down in what they thought were abandoned qalats on the western edge of NMK. He thought the Blackhawk dropping off dogs at the HLZ before sunrise would be a mouth-watering target to Taliban grenadiers. Aebsicher’s team would spot the enemy muzzle flashes in the pre-dawn gloam and rain grenades down on the groggy Talibs while they were still rubbing the sleep from their eyes.

Instead, the lavender dawn reveals Afghan villagers huddled in their doorways, peering up at the soldiers who materialized out of the night. Their fear morphs into anger when they realize Alpha Battery’s boots have mashed the summer’s grape harvest into jam.

An Afghan woman responds to questions from Afghan National Army soldiers during a search of her family's compound. She told the ANA and US troops that all the fighting age men left Nur Muhammad Kalache for the nearby desert town of Jelawur to find work, since the grape harvest had finished and there was no work in the village.

Thomasson and his Afghan National Army counterpart talk to a wizened woman in one courtyard while Afghan soldiers search her home. She pleads for money to compensate for the ruined grapes. Her family doesn’t own the harvest, she complains. They’re only tenant farmers working the land for the harvest season, and she’s worried the landowner will make them pay for the damaged produce.

Thomasson tries to reassure her, promising to pay the equivalent of the whole crop. “We’ll make it worth her while,” he tells me. A gaggle of kids gapes at the Afghan troops as they move from room to room. They find a rusty AK-47 bayonet, but nothing incriminating. Wherever the Taliban are, they’re not here. There are no men here. They’re all off in Jelawur, the woman says, a nearby desert town of some five thousand that has become a refuge for poor villagers displaced by the fighting in the valley.

Aebischer gazes down from the roof. “We need to get the fuck out of here. We’re pissing these people off, and now if we take fire near here . . . we’re putting them in danger.”

Captain Jeffrey Aebischer became frustrated early on the first morning of the operation to Nur Muhammad Kalache because battalion intelligence misled his men to believe the village would be abandoned and inhabited only by Taliban; once he realized that the village was teeming with civilian families, he feared that Alpha Battery's presence would put them in danger by drawing Taliban fire. Several hours from the moment this photo was taken, his fears proved true.

The Arghandab River Valley is a rare piece of terrain in the Afghan War, in the sense that there is a clear battle line delineated by a double-line of wide irrigation canals, beyond which lies a lush agricultural region on the flanks of the river—the “green zone,” in US Army parlance. North of the canals, on the fringe of the desert, US convoys travel with relative freedom. Inside the green zone, only the Taliban moves freely. US forces hardly move there at all.

The overgrown watershed conceals southern Afghanistan’s equivalent to the Ho Chi Minh trail, offering cover for Taliban smugglers carrying ammunition, equipment, and narcotics along a corridor that stretches northeast to southwest across Kandahar Province and all the way into Helmand. 1-320, composed of about four hundred soldiers on five COPs and one Forward Operating Base (FOB), controls a twenty-five kilometer-long swath of the valley in northeastern Arghandab District; the green zone marks their southern limit.

A view of the green zone—the lush agricultural region on the flanks of the Arghandab River in southern Afghanistan's Kandahar Province. The Arghandab River is one of Afghansitan's main watersheds, and a main route for insurgent smugglers.

1-320 was originally slated to deploy to Iraq, but in January they found out their brigade—2nd Brigade of the 101st Airborne Division—would be going to Kandahar instead, as part of the 30,000-strong Afghan surge that brought US troop numbers up to about 100,000. They were assigned a leading role in Operation Hamkari, the combined NATO and Afghan effort to oust the Taliban from strongholds in Kandahar Province. 1-320 also found out they’d be operating as a Provisional Infantry Regiment, meaning they’d be pounding the Arghandab’s footpaths and patrolling its villages rather than firing Howitzers from the relative safety of a desert FOB.

The reassignment came as a shock to many soldiers in the unit, many of whom enlisted in the artillery because they wanted a combat arms job but didn’t want an infantryman’s backbreaking lifestyle, or the amplified risk to life, limb, and eyesight.

One soldier I spoke with joked that he plans to file a breach of contract suit against the Army when he gets home. “I didn’t sign up for this shit,” he said. “It would be great if they just kept us on one path,” said Sgt. Rolando Zavala, a scrappy team leader from Chicago, whose voice seems too deep for his body. “We were doing artillery all the way up until January, then four months before we deployed we had to start from square one going through the infantry book.”

Sgt. Hunter Wilke, who chain-smokes Marlboros and makes no secret of his instinct for self-preservation, agreed with Zavala: “We took over from an elite infantry unit, and we’re an artillery unit, and we’re the main effort in the Arghandab. It just doesn’t make much sense.”

Sergeant Rolando Zavala hides in a tree overlooking a pathway leading out of Nur Muhammad Kalache.

1-320 took over Arghandab District from a lone company of the 82nd Airborne Division’s 2-508th Parachute Infantry Regiment. Undermanned and surrounded, 2-508 had a ferocious fight on their hands just to hold their ground. By the time 1-320 arrived, 2-508’s companies had bled so much and lost so many men to IEDs that the idea of counterinsurgency operations—getting out and meeting village elders, kick-starting small development projects, and supporting local governance initiatives—was something only generals in Kabul could discuss with a straight face.

1-320 trooped into Arghandab District in July with orders to re-secure the area of operations and—as soon as security permitted—to get the counterinsurgency train rolling. Their presence more than doubled the number of US troops in the district. 1st Kandak, 205th Corps, a battle-tested ANA unit with six years of experience in the southern provinces, rode into Arghandab alongside 1-320, re-doubling pro-government forces once more. Prior to 1st Kandak’s insertion, there had not been a consistent ANA presence in Arghandab for two years. Compared to last year, Arghandab District is teeming with coalition forces. Still—two months after 1-320 surged in—the green zone remains untamed, as lethal and impenetrable as the day they arrived.

I met 1-320’s commander, Lieutenant Colonel Dave Flynn, in his office at battalion headquarters on COP Terra Nova. Flynn, built like a bulldog, with a thick New England accent and friendly, wide-set eyes, tossed me a cold Rip-It energy drink from the fridge behind his desk. He laid out 1-320’s progress so far: the battalion has constructed two new COPs on the fringe of the green zone, one near the northeastern village of Babur, and another at a strategic bridge codenamed Objective Bakersfield One. COP Stout, overlooking the bridge, is the battalion’s deepest foothold in the green zone, and they won it the hard way. Two soldiers died seizing the position in mid-July. Sgt. Kyle Stout, the COP’s namesake, bled to death when an IED blew off both of his legs during the fighting.

In the weeks since, COP Stout has quickly become another Alamo in the Arghandab, like COP Nolen, where soldiers fend off daily attacks from the orchards outside the walls, where southward movement means IEDs, ambushes, and guaranteed casualties. “We found fifteen IEDs in the area around Stout within the first one or two days after we went in there,” Lt. Col. Flynn told me. “The whole place is only about fifty meters square.” Flynn said he won’t try to seize more green zone territory during the summer months, while the orchard foliage plays to the enemy’s advantage. He’ll wait until winter, when the leaves on the grape vines and pomegranate trees will wither and fall off, when the local Taliban will go into hiding and the foreign fighters will return to Pakistan to rest and regroup.

Flynn traced the green zone with his finger on a satellite map on the wall. “The most sophisticated imagery in the world can’t penetrate these orchards,” he said, a hint of fascination in his voice. “You have to get out there and see it for yourself.”

IEDs make Arghandab’s orchards as impenetrable as the Amazon. The gauntlet of trees and vines between the desert and the river has several nicknames: “the jungle,” “the green monster,” “Vietnam.” Most of the green zone’s dirt roads are too narrow for the Americans’ giant mine-resistant vehicles. On the passable roads, high walls make it impossible for gunners to see into the adjacent fields, and impossible for drivers to turn around in the event of an ambush. Helicopter assaults—the 101st Airborne Division’s specialty—are out of the question too, because the helicopters attract rockets like magnets. If an RPG took down a Blackhawk carrying a dozen soldiers, it would be a devastating loss; less twelve men, a unit like Alpha Battery would have a difficulty manning the guard towers at COP Nolen, let alone patrolling outside the wire.

Tall grasses in a muddy field immediately on the outside of COP Nolen's walls make visibility very poor; on this patrol, Alpha Battery soldiers found three improvised explosive devices just meters from their base.

And so, in Arghandab, the multi-million dollar machinery of war is good for logistics convoys, medevacs, and little else. When Alpha Battery soldiers head into the green monster, they walk.

The Taliban understand the Americans’ mobility limitations well. They defend the green zone with a net of sophisticated anti-personnel IEDs buried in the footpaths and hidden behind compound walls. Bomb makers load plastic jugs with explosives made from ammonium nitrate fertilizer, motorcycle parts, and chopped up re-bar. They link the charges to metal plates separated by a spacer and hooked to a battery. Then they bury the pressure plates inches below the dirt and conceal the main charge nearby. When a soldier’s footstep compresses the plates, he completes the ignition circuit. The main charge detonates a nanosecond later, blasting flesh-shredding shrapnel in all directions. Armor vests and Kevlar helmets offer some protection against AK-47 bullets and fragmentation, but they're no good against buried bombs. In their first two months on the ground, IEDs have cost Alpha Battery more than a dozen limbs, rendering one of the battery’s four platoons combat ineffective.

The day before we left for NMK, I caught up with Wilke, Zavala, and Strickland at COP Nolen. The mission had been delayed three times because Cpt. Thomasson couldn’t get the ANA commander to commit to a start date. The delay had given the American soldiers’ apprehensions three days to brew. Last time they went to NMK, six weeks before, Zavala told me, “Within the hour of being there, we tooks RPGs, mortars, AK-47, and an IED.” Strickland nodded, “It’s gonna be more hostile this time because they know we’re coming.” He pulled on his Camel, looking askance at Wilke and Zavala. “I got a feeling my team is gonna take casualties. I just got that feeling, you know?”

“I’m gonna take my plates out and strap them to the bottom of my boots,” Aebischer had said back at COP Nolen. “Otherwise they’re gonna be useless.” Another soldier suggested sending Mama Girl on point, a mongrel adopted by the battery who looks part greyhound, part lab—mostly ribs and fleas. She follows third platoon everywhere, and she’ll make the trip to NMK too.

Afghan National Army soldiers play cards at COP Nolen, in Arghandab District.

I stick close to third platoon after they settle into their security positions. The main element of the company is crammed like livestock in a nearby courtyard—begging, it seems, for a catastrophic Taliban mortar strike—but third platoon is spread out on the rooftops, tucked into the vaulted archways and ground level rooms of an abandoned qalat fifty meters away. I feel safer with them.

I’m leaning against a wall, thankful for the shade, when I catch the eyes of two middle-aged villagers who’ve been chatting with an ANA soldier. I say salaam aleykum, and the villagers take my greeting as an invitation. Soon we’re sharing the little splotch of shade behind the wall, fumbling to understand each other. Lt. Col. Flynn walks up and sits next to us, dangling his legs in a drainage ditch. He takes off his helmet and sunglasses, shakes hands, and busts out in impressive, Boston-accented Pashto. He listens to the villagers. “Owwa, owwa,” he nods—Pashto for, “Yeah, yeah.”

Flynn asks the men about the harvest season, about their kids, whether they go to a real school or just learn Koran in the mosque. “There is no school,” the older man says. Flynn tries to warm them up. “You know the Karzai brothers have a restaurant in Baltimore, in America? So one day when you go visit the US there will be an Afghan restaurant for you to go eat in.” The older man tugs at his beard, looking confused. “Owwa,” he says.

Flynn is trying to build common ground, but the whole conversation strikes me as absurd. It’s hard for me to imagine these men have ever been farther than Kandahar City. They have probably lived on fire-cooked rice and mutton their entire lives, just steps away from the Arghandab River. What could they know or care about restaurants, let alone Baltimore?

“Have you ever seen the warriors from the Afghan National Army before today?” Flynn asks. “Yes,” the older man says, scratching his head, retrieving the memory. He pauses. “Last year they were coming here during winter, but we haven’t seen them since.”

“Have you heard the bad guys shooting their mortar at us from here?” Flynn wants to know. “I have heard it, but they don’t shoot it from here,” the older man answers. “They shoot it from the other side of the village.” Flynn’s intelligence officer, a husky captain named Motupalli, jots notes on index cards. The older man says there are seven families living in this part of NMK. Motupalli had briefed Alpha that there were no families here—any living thing here would be Taliban, he’d said. I remember how hopped-up Aebischer and his men were when they crept into the sleeping village, sure they were looking down on the enemy’s bunkhouse. They would’ve killed anything that moved—Strickland even tried.

“Our mission here is to protect you,” Flynn says. “What’s it going to take to bring more people back?” Villagers will return once the fighting stops, the old man says, “and when the weather gets cold, when the Taliban will run away for the winter.” Long gaps of heavy silence elapse. The villagers look anxious to get away.

Finally the old man decides to speak his mind. He waves an arm above his head, gesturing at the rooftops. “What are you going to do about the grapes your soldiers destroyed?”

At about 9:30, an informant leads us back up the slim path I took into NMK behind Aebischer’s team before dawn. The informant has agreed to point out several IEDs buried along the route. After that, he promises he’ll show Thomasson a cache of anti-personnel IEDs ready to be seeded. He wears a set of plastic flexicuffs to give other villagers the impression that he’s been forced to help the Americans. But he hasn’t been forced—he’s doing this for money.

This is not the first time the man has given information to the Americans; he’s been coming to COP Nolen for months, covering himself by claiming to have a chronically ill kid in need of medical attention. Thomasson tells me he’s amazed the man’s head hasn’t rolled up on COP Nolen’s doorstep yet. There is only one possible explanation, Thomasson says: the man has been double-dealing, feeding the Taliban juicy bits about COP Nolen in exchange for his lease on life. It's a risk Thomasson has little choice but to accept. He’s painfully short on contacts in the green zone—it’s this guy or bust.

The man leads the Americans to the spot where Aebischer’s footstep produced that bloodcurdling pop. He walks calmly over and brushes the earth from the pressure plate, revealing the ignition battery, which he removes, holding it up and flashing a grin to Thomasson. “Yep, you’re gonna get paid today,” the captain says.

The EOD sergeant tells us to take cover in the deep furrows of the grape vineyards while his team sets up a C-4 charge on the IED. We hear him yell, “Fire in the hole!” Then the ground lurches, and chunks of dirt and rock zing over our heads.

An Afghan National Army soldier jumping a wall in a grape vineyard in Arghandab District, Kandahar Province.

The informant leads two of the EOD soldiers through waist high beanstalks to the site of a second IED, which they blow in similarly short order. A neon billboard could not have marked our position more clearly than the plume of smoke rising over the trees. “We’re gonna start taking contact any second now,” the EOD sergeant says. Sure enough, the familiar crack of overhead small arms fire follows seconds later. The ricochets whistle by like songbirds on crystal meth.

Then we hear a thud, followed instantly by a boom. A clot of dust blooms fifty meters away in the middle of a fallow field. “The ANA are firing .203s!” someone yells. “Do they know we’re here?”

But the ANA radio to confirm they aren’t firing any 40mm grenades—it must be the Taliban, they say, firing 37mm Russian grenades. A second grenade impacts to the north, then another behind us in the grape furrows. “They’re gonna start walking them in on us,” the EOD sergeant says. “We stayed too long. We broke the rule.”

The Americans return fire, but we’re indefensible here, strung out along a narrow footpath with no cover to our front and only a tangle of orchards behind. Shots sound like they're coming from everywhere at once—because they are coming from everywhere at once. An Afghan translator intercepting Taliban radio chatter at COP Nolen relays a fresh transmission to Cpt. Thomasson: “We have them surrounded on three sides. They can't move.”

We do move, and fast. The patrol breaks contact and files back along the path to the temporary patrol base, where there are now at least sixty US and ANA soldiers slumped against the high walls of the courtyard, milling around, looking confused, anxious, or some mixture of both.

It’s Ramadan, and the ANA troops were bitching about coming on this mission in the first place. They were the primary cause of the 3-day delay (one of the ANA platoons that was slated for the mission disappeared to Jelawur without explanation), and they were an hour late this morning. Now that the sun is up, the ANA refuse to drink water or eat. They’re sapped of energy, looking wasted in the late morning heat, slouched in piles and sprawled out among the goat shit and rotting fodder in the compound’s musty rooms.

Lieutenant Jamshit, commander of one of the ANA platoons partnered with Alpha Battery, at midday on 30 August; by midday, firefights had been going on for several hours around Nur Muhammad Kalache, and the ANA troops were growing tired. The operation to NMK took place during Ramadan, and most of the ANA troops refused to eat or drink water, despite the fact that temperatures reached well over 100 degrees.

“They’re pretty tapped out already,” Thomasson says. He’s visibly annoyed. The American soldiers knew this would happen. This is what always happens.

Meanwhile, the Taliban are cranking it up. Accurate enemy fire is slapping into the wall of the patrol base, and the gunners on the roof are laying down belts of ammunition in return. A volley of Taliban machine gun fire pins down the soldiers who’ve been pulling watch since morning when they stand up to change out with a fresh team. They make a break for it, sprinting toward the stairs, nearly tripping and flying headfirst into the courtyard below.

By now there is a full-fledged battle raging between the patrol base on the western end of NMK and the Taliban positions across an open field to the east. A few of the ANA are up and about, itching to get into the fight. One of them, a short Tajik named Meshaal, runs up the staircase with his M-16 and starts sweeping the field in a 180-degree arc, firing from the hip, making a face like Rambo under his scraggly beard. The rounds land somewhere on the other side of the Arghandab River. Meshaal burns through an entire magazine, then scrambles back down the stairs into a cluster of ANA troops. They pat him on the back as he struts among them, puffing out his chest.

Suddenly, a squad of ANA soldiers knocks through the rear wall with their rifle butts and starts rolling over into the courtyard commando style. The American soldiers crack up at the spectacle, but the Afghans are frantic—one of their men has been shot. A bullet grazed his forehead, opening the skin to the skull. Blood the color of ketchup coats his face. An American medic staples the wound closed while soldiers hold the man steady, but he doesn’t flinch. He’s in shock—it’s not every day you get shot in the face and walk away.

“That’s a lucky motherfucker,” one of the American soldiers says. Lots of lucky motherfuckers today.

Minutes later, another ANA troop takes a bullet to the face. This time, the round passes through the fleshy part of his chin. He should be dead, but instead he’s able to clutch his own pressure bandage. Lucky motherfucker number four.

There’s hardly an inch of bare earth visible under the carpet of camouflaged bodies in the courtyard. Almost the entire US-Afghan element is crammed into this one compound; if they stay inside these four walls, one 37mm grenade could take out half the unit.

“We got mass chaos here right now,” Thomasson shouts. He instructs his leaders to disperse their platoons and squads into the adjoining compounds. As they move out, the soldiers book it past a notch in the outer wall. The accuracy of incoming fire has everyone jumpy. Sherullah, a square-jawed, bearded Pashtun from Logar Province, jogs over with his RPG to the notch where Thomasson is directing fire at the Taliban position. “RPG?” he asks, looking expectantly at Thomasson.

Sherullah braces himself for the shot. A boom, then a cloud of dust swallows him whole. When the dust clears, Thomasson rushes in to assess the impact. “A little high, fire another one!” This time the Sherullah finds his mark. Thomasson slaps him a high-five in the cloud.

A massive dust cloud kicks up as Sherullah, and Afghan National Army soldier from Logar Province, fires his rocket-propelled grenade at an insurgent position through the notch in the wall outside the temporary patrol base in Nur Muhammad Kalache.

The compound on the other side of the open field is silent. Sherullah and his RPG bought a few moments of calm. It would be the most significant contribution the ANA would make to the entire mission.

Thomasson seizes the calm to search a nearby compound, labeled Building 23 on the map. He kicks in the door himself (Thomasson’s men often complain that he should leave the basic soldiering to them). Building 23 is empty—a preliminary search turns up nothing of interest, other than a sack full of sticky green stuff. “Spices,” according to the interpreter.

One of the doors of the compound has a padlock on it. Thomasson attempts to kick in that door too, but it’s steel and it doesn’t budge. He backs up a few paces and shoots the lock off. Inside, there is a tarp spread on the floor, a butane stove, several bars of rebar, a pile of slim metal plates, a jumble of plastic jugs, and five sacks of ammonium nitrate—enough bomb making ingredients, Thomasson thinks, to blow COP Nolen over like a sand castle. Thomasson calls EOD to come out and inspect the find. I sense a collective sigh of relief in all the backslapping and cheering, a feeling that the mission has been saved.

While we wait for EOD, an Alabaman sergeant dumps a handful of the “spices” into his gloved palm. He sets a lighter to the clump, and it smolders slowly, putting off thick, pungent smoke. The fumes waft over to a group of soldiers kicked back in the shade of a thatch hut. The men gaze up with hungry eyes, salivating from the odor of high-grade hashish.

Captain Jimmy Thomasson inspects what he believes to be a cache of bomb-making materials in an empty compound in Nur Muhammad Kalache. Thomasson's team found a half-dozen bags of ammonium nitrate fertilizer—a key bomb-making material—as well as cookstoves, bits of metal used to make pressure plates, and plastic jugs used to pack explosives.

EOD arrives and makes a quick inspection of the supposed cache of bomb-making materials. “I don’t think it’s anything,” the EOD sergeant says. He says there should be a stockpile of batteries and wires, and a hand-operated machine used for churning yogurt that bomb makers use to mix homemade explosive. The EOD guys split without blowing anything, leaving five sacks of ammonium nitrate and a dozen potential pressure plates sitting in the courtyard. I can almost feel the wind rush out of Thomasson’s sails.

Second platoon dumps what materials they can carry in the irrigation creek outside the compound. On the way out, Sgt. First Class Allen Manley stops at the door and looks up. “What the fuck is this?” He delicately removes a white plastic bag from the thatch latticework above the doorframe—it’s full of shorn human hair.

I leave second platoon and Thomasson at the still crowded patrol base and make my way back over to third platoon, still hunkered down in the shady spots of the compound they’ve taken over. The battalion commander’s security detachment is there too, and the two platoons are catching up on battalion gossip, trading stories like old ladies in a beauty shop.

I listen for awhile, but I’m exhausted. I slump down inside of the corridor where a dozen soldiers are hiding from the ample sun and fragmentation outside. I belt down half an MRE and refill my Camelback with water I carried out in my rucksack. I would’ve filled it with water the helicopter dropped this morning, but the ANA used it all to wash for afternoon prayer.

I drop off into a sweaty, dreamless sleep, strangled by my armor vest. Too soon, I’m woken by ground-shaking booms and chunks of dirt raining on my head. A soldier scrambles down from the roof and bursts through the doorway. “We’re taking 37mm again! That shit was fucking close!”

A Talib with an AK-47 pops around the corner and fires a burst into the courtyard. He’s gone before the gun team lying in the dirt beside the door can respond. Grenades are coming in every few seconds, and the air is thick with dust and the odor of cordite.

Strickland, smoking a cigarette, his face half in shadow, just laughs. “We’re like rats. I’ve never been in a situation like this before.” I can’t decide whether I should be comforted or terrified.

Time, seemingly frozen, moves with amazing speed. The battle rages between the American positions and the Taliban, wherever they are. Dusk is coming on when I decide to return to my vaulted corridor. I take off my armor and my sweat-soaked shirt. I drop to the dirt and prop my head on my backpack. Neither the shots crackling in the distance nor the swarm of flies feeding on my salty skin can keep me awake.

At nine in the morning the following day, third platoon heads south to search for the elusive mortar tube. We wend through narrow alleys, past pens of sheep and closed steel doors. Strickland walks point, like always. He steps off a footbridge leading into a flooded pomegranate orchard, and a pop accompanies his footfall. Another toe-popper, another failed detonation. Lucky moment number five.

We emerge from under the shady pomegranate canopy into an open field. Strickland spots three men on the other side of a hedge of tall grass. Aebischer whispers into the radio, “Detain them!” One of the men tries to run, and Strickland takes off, chasing him around the corner of a compound. When the rest of the patrol catches up, Strickland’s panting, cursing himself. “He jumped that wall and threw a fucking grenade at us!” Strickland gasps. “I got stuck in the mud and couldn’t get a shot off.”

The patrol moves deep into the compounds along the path that Strickland ran. We look in wonder at the Soviet pineapple grenade lying in the grass next to an irrigation channel. “If that had gone off we would’ve been fucked,” Strickland says.

At what point do you stop counting lucky moments?

“Where the fuck are we?” Aebischer asks, looking at his map. “This place isn’t even on here.” The soldiers stop a middle-aged man walking with his son behind a wheelbarrow loaded high with fodder. The man tells Aebischer that he’s in Laden Tabin, south of NMK. Laden Tabin is another suspected Taliban stronghold, and the morning’s events confirm their presence. Aebischer asks the man if the two men they detained in the field are bad, but the man won’t say. All he’ll say is that he’s worried about his son’s safety.

“We’re happy you’re here, but you’ve made a mistake,” the man says, apparently fearing that he too has become a detainee. Aebsicher asks him if he has seen Taliban recently. “Yes, the Taliban have been moving in and out of the village for months,” the man says.

“I’m sorry I bothered you,” Aebischer tells the man. “In the future, come and tell us when the Taliban are here, and we’ll come get them. You won’t have to worry about the Taliban anymore, and we’ll go home.”

The man looks pained. His young son clings to his hand, shaking. “The Taliban come,” the man says, “but they only stay for ten minutes at a time. What can I do?”

Sergeant Hunter Wilke, a team leader in Captain Aebischer's platoon, directs a villager elder in Laden Taben and his son to go home after they had been temporarily detained and questioned. Alpha Battery troops identified the man in the background, center, as related to a key Taliban sub-commander; he was detained, but later released.

Thomasson comes over and recognizes one of the detainees immediately as the brother of a local Taliban sub-commander. He’s a large man, tall for an Afghan, with a black beard, closely buzzed hair, a bald spot in back, high cheekbones. He wears an off-white shalwar kamees and a brown vest with vertical stripes. Up to now, his confidence has marked him as a surefire Talib to Aebischer and his men. They have learned from experience that people who don’t show fear are usually guilty of something. Thomasson congratulates Aebischer’s men on a big find.

Later, at COP Nolen, Thomasson would tell me the man’s name was one “we’ve been tracking for a long time through our intelligence channels.” The man was reputedly affiliated with the cell that had mounted daily attacks on COP Nolen and turned the area’s orchards into minefields. “What third platoon accomplished in capturing those detainees in Laden Tabin will probably be this battery’s biggest success in this deployment. Pulling these big guys off the battlefield is a huge achievement,” Thomasson would say.

I’m sitting with Strickland, Chavez, and Jones in a room of an empty qalat while Aebischer, Thomasson, and the ANA commander question the detainees. Strickland pulls off his right boot and sock and calls for the medic. He says the thud from the ignition charge split open a cut from an ingrown toenail. “Do you think I can I get a purple heart for this?” he asks the medic. Technically, the re-injury was enemy-inflicted. The medic says yes, Strickland probably could get a purple heart. That would give him two so far on this tour; his first came from a concussion.

Sergeant Josh Strickland inspects his damaged feet during a pause in patrolling on the second day of the operation to Nur Muhammad Kalache, 31 August. Strickland stepped on a "toe-popper," a small IED designed to maim but not kill, moments before; however, only the ignition charge went off, not the main charge. The result was that Strickland's toe was severely bruised, but remained on his foot.

“One more purple heart and I’m goin’ home boys,” Strickland says. Three wounds from hostile fire earns a one-way ticket home. Chavez scoffs. “If you did that, I swear to god I’ll kick your ass myself.”

Chavez, Strickland, and Jones are all infantrymen. They were assigned to Alpha Battery to smooth the artillerymen’s transition to infantry operations. The three of them are always out front, and not always by choice. Usually it’s because they’re the best soldiers in the unit and Thomasson counts on them to take the lead. All three say the fighting in the Arghandab is the most intense they’ve ever seen, and that’s saying a lot—they each have multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan under their belts.

In the late morning heat, the flooded orchards are carpeted in a bank of stifling, humid air. I walk a few steps ahead of Sgt. Jones as we move north along the footpaths through the trees and narrow alleyways toward NMK, two detainees in tow. The grenades start thumping around Alpha Battery’s positions as soon as we get back, accompanied by the snap, crackle and pop of incoming small arms fire.

Word comes over the radio that Sgt. First Class Manley, second platoon’s platoon sergeant, has taken the brunt of a grenade blast that landed dead center in the patrol base. The explosion smashed one of Manley’s arms and one leg, peppering his body with shrapnel and knocking him unconscious. His leg was bleeding badly enough to require a tourniquet—a bad sign. The ANA casualties the previous afternoon rattled the American troops, but not much. News of Manley’s injuries is harder to swallow.

A squad from third platoon runs out under heavy fire to secure a landing zone for the medevac helicopter, but it takes an hour and a half for the bird to land. The first time the Blackhawk swoops in to attempt a landing, a burst of yellow and black smoke erupts a few meters from its tail, followed by a boom—a Taliban RPG had tried to bring the bird down. Fortunately, he missed.

I watch soldiers run belts of machine gun ammo up to third platoon’s rooftop positons. Suddenly the ground shudders and seems to drop several feet. Banks of dust roll off the compound walls. I shake off the debris and wipe my eyes—for the first time, I’m seriously worried. The Taliban must have dropped an 82mm mortar on us, and more will be coming soon. At this point, Alpha’s heavy weapons would not have enough ammo left to fend off a mass assault. Not for the first time, I wonder what the fuck I am doing here.

Then I notice the lack of cracks and pops outside—people are running around, but no one is shooting. Word comes in that an American jet dropped a laser-guided bomb on the building where the Taliban were holed up. But the bomb came at a cost: Strickland and Chavez were firing from a rooftop inside the danger zone, and the shockwave knocked them into lala-land. Chavez is coughing blood and Strickland is babbling jibberish, Ghanistan’s dingy head still poking from his cargo pocket.

3rd Platoon soldiers help Sergeant Josh Strickland and Staff Sergeant David Chavez, both severely concussed by a US airstrike that landed too close to their positions, to a medevac helicopter that will take them to a trauma facility at Kandahar Airfield.

The mission to NMK was supposed to last two full days. Alpha Battery was supposed to conduct a thorough search for the Taliban mortar tube in the qalats in western NMK and confirm or deny Taliban activity in the area. They were supposed to hold their ground until the early morning of September first, when they would walk back to COP Nolen under cover of darkness.

Instead, Thomasson makes the decision to send third platoon back to COP Nolen early, at about one o’clock in the afternoon on day two. The possession of detainees and the loss of Strickland and Chavez are serious hindrances to third platoon’s maneuverability. To make matters worse, most of the battery’s machine gun teams are running dangerously low on ammo.

When the high profile detainee finds out that the platoon will leave soon for COP Nolen, and that he’ll be going along, he drops like a felled tree and starts convulsing. “I think he’s faking it,” the medic says. Wilke says, “I don’t think so man, he fell and hit his head pretty fucking hard.” The soldiers take off the man’s blindfold and he begins to calm down. One of the soldiers tries to offer him water, but he waves it off. It’s still Ramadan.

Aebischer rounds up a squad to take Chavez and Strickland to the HLZ to wait for a medevac bird. “I don’t need a fucking stretcher. Fuck you all,” Chavez mumbles. On the way out, he hunches over and pukes.

The squad occupies an abandoned compound next to the HLZ. “Has this building been cleared?” Strickland asks, over and over again. Lt. Allen Babcock, second platoon leader, a former combat medic, tries to assess the concussions. “What month is it?” he asks Strickland. “June,” Strickland answers. “Close enough,” Lt. Babcock says. “What squad are you in?” he asks. “Infantry,” Strickland replies. Then, “Does anyone have a cigarette?”

Staff Sergeant David Chavez, resting on the morning of the second day of operations in Nur Muhammad Kalache.

The bird comes in for Strickland and Chavez with no resistance except for a few pop shots. Once they’re gone, Aebischer is anxious to move his platoon back to COP Nolen. Thomasson will keep a detachment in NMK to blow up Sgt. First Class Manley’s gear, then return after dark. We start gearing up to go, smoking final cigarettes, tossing food to the guys who will stay so that we don’t have to carry it back. The high-value detainee sees a soldier next to him light up a cigarette and looks at him, as if to say, “Can I have one?” The soldier passes him one, and the guy smokes it down to the filter. So much for Ramadan.

When I returned to battalion headquarters at COP Terra Nova two days later, I would find out that the interrogation team decided to let all of the detainees go. The man Thomasson labeled as a high-value target tested positive for ammonium nitrate tracings on his hands—meaning he had probably been building IEDs—but the Americans didn’t find any weapons near him, and they didn’t catch him in the act. In the end, they could not hold the man responsible for his brother’s actions.

A dozen village elders from Laden Tabin and NMK showed up at the gates of COP Terra Nova on September 3 and asked for a shura with Lt. Col. Flynn. They swore up and down that the high-value detainee was innocent and begged for his release. Battalion headquarters had already decided to turn him loose. Looking on the bright side, Flynn figured handing the man over to the elders would build trust between the US and the local elders. Maybe some of the elders would be more likely to supply coalition forces with operable intelligence henceforth, he hoped. Probably not.

What would Thomasson’s and Aebischer’s men think, I wondered?

As we move out from the HLZ, Sgt. Wilke leads us across open fields on a straight course to COP Nolen. He has reluctantly assumed point in Strickland’s absence. My bag feels light on my back, emptied of a two-day supply of water and food. I imagine how the soldiers must feel, lugging their weapons, radios, and remaining ammunition. We climb a few walls and wade across a few creeks. We crawl through a hole in a high wall left by an IED and tiptoe across a road. Nothing happens. We make it back to Nolen in about thirty minutes. It’s hard to believe we were this close the whole time.

The sun is sinking in the dusty sky when we walk through the gate. A soldier counts us with pats on the back as we walk in. I’ve hardly had time to drop my body armor when a 107mm rocket slams into one of Nolen’s guard towers. Luckily, that guard tower was abandoned a few days before because Cpt. Thomasson decided it was too exposed. Men sprint to the mortar pit and soon I listen to the familiar boom after boom of outgoing rounds.

I stand with Wilke outside his room in the back half of COP Nolen. Wilke has been friendly to me since the moment I arrived at COP Nolen. He gives me a Marlboro and we start talking about all the crazy shit that happened out there in NMK. All the lucky moments, all the legs that should’ve been blown off and men who should’ve died.

Wilke looks burned out. He’s 27 already. He joined the Army in his mid-twenties after a run of bad decisions left him broke and divorced. The Army got him on his feet again—his wife even took him back, and now he has a little girl counting on him to come home in one piece. There’s no shred of swagger in him; he’s scared, and he makes no secret of it. But he cracks jokes as often as he lights up cigarettes, and his permanent grin convinces me that his heart and mind are far stronger than he lets on. We’ve only known each other for two weeks, but friendships take deep roots quickly in these circumstances. “Listen Wilke,” I say, “don’t volunteer for anything, okay?”

I find out that an ANA soldier died today defending the patrol base in Charqabaolya from a Taliban attack. He was shot through the neck by a sniper—probably the same sniper who shot the two ANA troops in NMK. I remember something Chavez said earlier in the day—“It’s just another day in the ’dab.” He said it with a humorless smile, shaking his head, looking the part of an actor in a war movie. An hour later he was on his way to Kandahar Airfield in the back of a medevac chopper.

I imagine him sucking down fruit smoothies at KAF now, talking shit to Strickland on the boardwalk in front of TGI Fridays, watching the Air Force girls go by.

“We never leave the COP without our Eagle Cash cards,” I remember Strickland telling me. “Just in case we get medevaced.”



on March 28, 2012

Very impressive story!

1/320th Soldier

on December 25, 2011

TOP GUNS! Kickin ass and takin names, Air Assault.


on April 24, 2011

Thank you for a real life account of what is going on over there. As the mother of a soldier who is serving there, I was enlightened by this story of true bravery. We don't hear enough about what our heroes are going through in the media.


on February 27, 2011

I just traced this story down. Gives a mom the chills. The thing with Joshua (Strickland) is when he's home ...he doesn't share the fear....However he shares some stories...all with anamusing spin...When he got blown off a roof..."Thank God the Hum-V broke my fall!" He's my baby gotten old and still has such a good heart and soul.
Thanks for caring enough to write such an enlightening story!...MamaT


on January 14, 2011

Take care of yourself guys, I'm keeping my friends in the 101st Airborne Division in my prayers.

Skip and Cora

on January 9, 2011

Hunter Wilke, you are in our thoughts daily. Please be safe.

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