There and Back Again – Part II

Convoy

When you are in a combat situation, you mustn’t let your mind be polluted by emotions like fear and anger. Simply accept the situation and react, even if you are facing impossible odds. Keep your head clear and you will be one step ahead of your attackers. – Aaron B. Powell

My unit decides to break from our routine and head back to MF during the day. As we repeat the process of preparing our convoy to go back, the skies are sunny and I am almost giddy from the absorption of a few rays of warmth. Deep ravines and steep mountain roads don’t hold the same menace in the day as they did on that nightmare ride three nights ago. We have just about reached the summit of the mountain when we roll up on a firefight. It quickly becomes clear we should have stuck with our routine.

I can see French soldiers hunkered down behind dirt berms on the side of the road firing 50-caliber guns down into the ravine where insurgents are firing back. The rat-a-tat-tat of gunfire is a constant background noise as I listen to the chatter over the earphones. “Hold up! Hold up!” Our convoy comes to a stop and I can see the gunner’s legs tighten with tension as he rotates the turret rapidly back and forth, trying to see everything at once.  I have a strange sense of resignation although a frisson of fear is making my limbs tremble like a taut wire being strummed by the wind.

“Are you okay, Miss Kathy?” our driver asks.

“I am fine. Don’t worry about me.” I don’t want them to focus on anything but their jobs at this point in time.

Rat-a-tat-tat! Rat-a-tat-tat! Continuous, near at hand from the French and far away as the insurgents return fire from the valley. I know we are relatively safe from gunfire in the thickly armored MRAP. Again I am praying for our gunners. Then I hear over the earphones, “There are two guys on the mountain with an RPG (Rocket Propelled Grenade).” Okay, I think, if this is armor piercing, it can take us out. My heartbeat speeds up and the tension can be felt in the silence that permeates the radio. Finally, someone says, “It’s a French guy and an ANA (Afghan National Army).” You can feel the collective sigh of relief over the radio.

Rat-a-tat-tat! Rat-a-tat-tat!  An F-16 roars through the canyon overriding the sound of gunfire. A French helicopter swoops over, dropping canisters that burst into red and green smoke upon impact to mark the location of the insurgents. Another helicopter fires rockets into the area. Clouds of grayish dust mingle with the colored smoke in a bizarre, surrealistic display of dancing plumes. The loud explosions of the rockets shake the ground, and I can feel the concussion under my feet. My civilian companion in the MRAP is excited. “That’s right. Light ‘em up!” he shouts.

Rat-a-tat-tat! Rat-a-tat-tat! “They’re still coming!” I hear over the radio. I can’t believe anyone could be living after all this fire power has been thrown at them, but still the guns keep firing. After about 20 minutes we get the word to move on past the firefight. There is a huge IED hole in the road that wasn’t there a few nights ago. It is deep and wide, and I hope the sides don’t cave in as we inch around it and plunge us down into the ravine below. Finally, we are on solid road again and we head away from the firefight. We are close to MF and as we near the FOB I look over to my right. A French armored vehicle responding to the firefight has gone off the road and tumbled down a ravine. I see soldiers removing bodies from the wreck. They are covered with blood and their limbs are broken, some are obviously dead, and I wonder if these are men or women I know on the base.

We pull into MF, our nerves raw. I get out of the MRAP, my legs threatening to give way as I step down on the ground. We are parked next to the big 107mm guns. They are being fired in support of the troops engaged in the firefight, and the booms of their mortars as they discharge are deafening. Every time one goes off I flinch and cover my ears as the earth shakes underneath my feet.

We are told that the mess hall has stayed open for us and after I drop my gear off at my tent, I head on over. Up until now I have been relatively calm, considering the circumstances, but when I lift up a forkful of peas and carrots I notice they are falling off because my hand is shaking so badly.

I find that the day of a hostile action I have an afterglow of excitement fueled by adrenaline. It is all anyone can talk about, and each moment is relived again and again. The day after is marked by a massive headache from the release of adrenaline into my body, and I am sleepy and lethargic all day. This seems to be the norm for most of the people around me.

Before I came to Afghanistan, I spent many sleepless nights wondering how I would react in such a situation. I hoped I would behave honorably and not be a coward. Looking back, I feel like I equated myself well. I was scared, no doubt about that, but I didn’t give in to my fear. The sobering and enduring emotion for me is a deep sadness for the loss of young lives, friend and foe, for there is sadness at the core of every death.  Many of the Taliban are not hardline fanatics. They are day laborers hired for five dollars a day. They can feed their families for weeks on that. I can see no gain in the firefight I experienced, and this was just one of many taking place every day in Afghanistan. This is what war is. Taking this valley, that hill, only to lose it and gain it back again – bodies piling up along the way like cordwood. Families irrevocably shattered by loss and grief.

It doesn’t make any sense to me. No sense at all. But I am a civilian, not a soldier. The grim reality is that I am in a war zone and this is the gig I signed up for. I have to accept conflict as a part of my life or I need to go home. I still have hope that I can find a window of peace to help the Afghan agricultural sector and I can make some small contribution that will make a difference in a farmer’s life who is just trying to make a living in the midst of all this madness.

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