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The Prettiest of Trees the Dogwood Now

April 22, 2012

In the northeast woods, the trees have been green for about two weeks.  Roughly one out of a thousand, maybe one out of two thousand, is a dogwood, a southern import–the state tree or flower of many states below the Mason-Dixon line, including my own Virginia, but rare here.  Dogwoods are now in the height of their bloom, their flowers a luminescent white sprinkle among the green leaves and dark tree trunks of the forest.  There aren’t enough dogwoods so that one is always visible.  Instead, they are spaced out far enough apart to generate a minor, secret thrill or chill whenever one appears, often buried 100 or more yards in the woods, standing silent sentinel from behind dozens of other trees.  But only for a week or two more, and then this ethereal presence fades back into the indistinguishable mass of woodland greenery.

I was looking for dogwoods and thinking about them as I drove around today.  The words above started forming in my mind, and I wondered how they might work in a blog about Afghanistan.

Later, I went to a lecture.  The speaker told of a philosopher who claimed that history wasn’t a record of things past, it was the conditions out of which the future emerged.  The future, as it unfolds in real time before our eyes, appears to us as does the landscape through the windshield of a speeding car, with the past from which we have just driven omnipresent, should we look, in the rearview mirror.  The future can’t be without everything that happened in the past; in essence, the future is history made tangible and material.

This evening, as I piddled about in the backyard, the wife of the new couple next door came out and we said hello.  I live in an attached house on an Army post where I work as a teacher.  The quarters next to us are designed to accommodate a handicapped family member.  They had been empty for some time, but this week the couple had moved in, and this was the first time I had met either of them.  Soon, the husband came out.  Wounded, he was a double amputee below the knees as a result of a mine blast in Afghanistan.

Still hearty, still true, not afraid to talk about what had happened, determined not to be a victim in peace as he had been in war.  And… not clear at first, but realized by the both of us soon enough, a former student of mine, a good one, and from not so long ago, either.

And so we reap, and others reap, too, what we sow.

The prettiest of trees the dogwood now.


NOTE:  I snagged the picture above from a blog called 1 Heck of a Guy, which celebrates, among other things, the music of Leonard Cohen.  Seems appropriate, somehow, and we should give credit where credit is due:


The Road That Dare Not Speak Its Name

April 16, 2012

On Route _____, in the KG Pass.

Some things about the war you don’t want to tell.  Some things people just don’t want to hear.  And other things you can’t speak of for reasons you don’t control.  For example, a history of my eight months in Khowst should mention the name of the road that ran east-west, west-east through the province, bisecting it in half, with Camp Clark located at the midpoint, and connecting Khowst to the outside world.  But by security rules, soldiers can’t state publicly the code names of specific Major Supply Routes, or MSRs.  The names are always innocuous enough—they’re meant to be easy to remember—but the idea is that if the enemy got wind of them, they could use them against us.  Locals might hear soldiers mention a route name in regard to an upcoming mission, say, and pass it on to the wrong people.

Prudent, but too bad for the story I am telling, for the name given the MSR that ran through Khowst resonated deeply with me for its biographical association.  Think old girlfriend.  The name of a place I used to live.  Maybe a favorite sports team.  Like that.

Even worse for the story I want to tell, a lot happened on that road.

Camp Clark sat about a mile north of it, so imagine a convoy departing Clark and trundling south down the access road on yet another mission.

To the left, going east, lay Khowst city and FOB Salerno.  Khowst was usually OK, and Salerno was home to a big PX, a Green Bean coffee shop, real barbers, and the airstrip for flights home.  To get there, though, you had to go through Mondozayi,  where a car bomb killed 14 children.  Mondozayi, where, later, two American advisors died in separate attacks.  To the right, or to the west, the road headed into the mountains of the Khowst-Gardez Pass.  It went through Doramunda, at the foot of the mountains, where another car bomb leveled a police station.  Then Sayed Kheyl bridge, where four ETTs lost their lives about a year before I arrived.  Past FOB Wilderness and on toward Gerde Serai, where an IED killed two more Americans.  Past FOB Dicey and over the “switchbacks”–a 12,000 foot high mountain pass that was the sight of an epic battle between Soviet paratroopers and Afghan mujadeen–and into Gardez.

So yea, that’s a road whose name means something to me.  It did before, anyway, but now it really does.  But if you ever meet me, you don’t need to be overly concerned about it.  As our conversation ranges over our interests and memories, you probably won’t even notice when a casual reference carries a little bit extra charge for me, because I can’t tell you about it.

NOTE:  Video footage of the car bomb attack in Mondozayi is here:

Not for the faint-hearted.

Tea Party with Helmets

March 30, 2012

April 2009, deep in the KG Pass, Shwak district, Paktya province.

I’ve always liked this picture and have been thinking about reasons to post it for a while.  It shows me in consultation with ANA and American leaders in a pleasant grove in springtime in Shwak district, Paktya province.  Shwak was in the heart of the heart of the Khowst-Gardez Pass, a good five hours from Camp Clark by vehicle over treacherous, war-torn mountain roads.  A rationale to post came about a week ago when I met a young Army officer who had spent a year in Shwak district as the commander of COP Dicey,  a small US Army installation located about a mile from where this photograph was taken.

The officer served at Dicey after I was there, and so we didn’t know each other before, but when you meet another American who’s been to Schwak, you don’t miss a chance to compare notes.  And so we did, into the night, all his stories, all mine, all his questions, all mine.


March 28, 2012

Brian Turner opened his reading at the 92nd Street YMCA in New York City with “To Sand,” the last poem in his collection Here, Bullet.  No explanation up front, just….

“To sand go tracers and ball ammunition. / To sand the green smoke goes….”

Later, he wrote in my copy of Here, Bullet, “Let’s keep doing what we can to make sure the sand doesn’t wash over.” Poised between need to remember and need to let go, he searches for new poetic subjects even as the old ones remain vital and compelling.  The problems the old poems speak to have only intensified.

He mentioned that 18 veterans commit suicide daily.

He informed us that the SSG Bales, accused of murdering 17 Afghan civilians, served in the exact same Fort Lewis platoon that he himself had served in some seven years ago.

Imagine that:  the war’s most sensitive poet and its most psychotic killer from the same platoon.   They didn’t know each other or overlap, but still.  Make sense of it if and as you can.

Next to read was Kevin Young, a young African-American poet.  I know his work from a few years back when I studied at Indiana-Bloomington, where Young was a creative writing professor.  But this was the first time to hear him live.  His poems are not about war, they are about connection, spirituality, and resistance. Transcendent black survival tactics. Pain, despair, and outrage are there, but so too are resilience, determination, forgivingness, and humor and joy.

After the reading, I purchased The Grey Album:  On the Blackness of Blackness, Young’s new collection of essays about the great African-American musical tradition that has always been so central to our culture.  We spoke for a few minutes and then I asked him to sign my copy.  His inscription was pitch-perfect:

“For Pete.  Peace and Music.  -Kevin.”


Afghanistan Combat Medic

March 12, 2012

Medics and soldiers, including an augmentee from the British Army, in action, Khowst City, 12 May 2009. The casualty is an Afghan civilian wounded by the insurgent attackers.

Everytime Restrepo shows on TV, my blog post titled Red Beard gets a lot of hits.  The film features an Afghan village elder with a hideously dyed scarlet beard.  The image sends viewers to the Internet seeking information about this practice, which is very common among older Afghans.

The second most popular search terms bringing readers to my site are “Afghanistan combat medic.”  I don’t know why, since until now I didn’t have a post by that name.  But let me make amends.

All the Camp Clark medics were heroes in my book, but two stood out.  Neither of them were Army.

Petty Officer First Class Garcia was a Navy corpsman.  He was famous among us for spending rotation after rotation at Spera Combat Outpost.  Never at Camp Clark for more than a few days at a time, PO1 Garcia was like the character Bulkington in Melville’s Moby-Dick, who returns to sea within days after arriving at port after a four-years’ journey.  Melville writes of Bulkington’s “intrepid effort of the soul to keep the open independence of her sea.” That’s a mouthful, but it might help explain PO1 Garcia’s willingness to forgo “the best post in Afghanistan” for Spera COP’s hardships and dangers.

In any case, PO1 Garcia spent so little time at Clark that he became something of a man of mystery.  Some said he had been with the Marines during the initial invasion of Iraq.  Others said he was a veteran of the hard fighting in Fallujah.  When I finally met him, I noted how he combined extreme competence with a sunny, happy-go-lucky, nothing-bothers-me attitude.  Perfect, actually–just the kind of guy you’d want to spend weeks on end with on a seriously dangerous mountaintop on the Pakistan border.

The other medic was Staff Sergeant Farris, of the US Air Force.  SSG Farris, like the other Air Force personnel at Clark, was governed by a protocol established before Khowst became the hostile place it was when I arrived.  The Air Force was willing to provide personnel to Operation Enduring Freedom, but only if their duties did not bring them directly into enemy contact.

That plan went to hell on 12 May 2009, when insurgents attacked a number of federal buildings in downtown Khowst city.  I was on a routine mission that day, along with SSG Farris, but once the battle began we raced to the sounds of the guns.  There, we joined US Special Forces, regular US Army units, and other Afghan army units already in action.  SSG Farris was the senior medic present.

In the day-long battle that ensued, US Special Forces and the ANA launched multiple assaults upon a five story building occupied by the insurgents.  Each assault was accompanied by a roar of small arms fire, punctuated by the explosions of US bunker buster missiles and grenades dropped out of windows and down stairwells by the insurgents.

As the battle unfolded, I watched SSG Farris and the other medics treat a dozen or more US and Afghan casualties.  It was an impressive and interesting experience.  For example, the first-aid for a sucking chest wound is to tape a piece of cellophane over the entry wound.  Untreated, the victim’s lungs lose pressure, the same as a football might when punctured.  I had always figured that such a wound would be debilitating, but one such casualty treated by SSG Farris stood up and climbed unassisted into the back of a pickup truck for further evacuation.  His cellophane bandage heaved with the swell of his breathing, but otherwise he seemed unaffected.

And so it went throughout the afternoon.  At the end of the day, eleven insurgents were dead, while no US or Afghan forces were killed-in-action. After the battle, I submitted SSG Farris for an ARCOM with a V for Valor device.  It didn’t seem like too much to ask. I soon left the unit, though, and so too did the higher echelon chain-of-command responsible for approving the award.  Honestly, I don’t know what happened; maybe the award came through eventually.  I doubt it, but maybe.  I hope.

Things like this happened all the time in Afghanistan.  If nothing else, let this post be SSG Farris’s tribute.

SSG Farris, center of frame, Khowst City, 12 May 2009.

See How We Are

March 6, 2012

Our Afghan allies. Khowst Province, May 2009.

An Air Force officer who served a tour as a physical education advisor at the Afghanistan military academy writes in a military journal that the Afghan mission is doomed.  The evidence, he says, begins with the failure of the Afghans to keep their US-supplied volleyballs filled with air.  They just don’t care, he says.  They don’t have it in them.  We’re wasting our time trying to help them.

An Army officer with a better base of experience in combat units writes a long article that also castigates Afghan inefficiency and commitment.  In another recent case, a two-star general is fired for publicly criticizing President Karzai.  And now, an American unit generates a crisis by burning a number of Korans, one result of which is that ANA soldiers have turned their guns on American partners.

Not good, clearly.

Against this recent dismal record I submit the following.  It’s taken from a message board query that asks US soldiers if they met anybody downrange that they’d like to see again.  One officer replied with a vignette from his Iraq deployment, and I think his claims are relevant to Afghanistan, too:

“Over the course of 15 months spent during the surge in Iraq 2007-2008 my entire company came to develop a relationship with those who we worked with daily… the Sons of Iraq. There is no question that in the early months of the deployment we called some of them insurgents; in fact we had detained several key individuals who would later become leaders of the movement. It is difficult to characterize the friendship shared.

“When the SoI movement first started, we trusted them the same way you would trust a man holding a pistol with a hood over his head. Over time, however, we conducted clearing operations in which they played a critical role. Often they would fight along side us. Several of the Iraqis were wounded in the attempt to protect us. We began to spend more and more time with our “partners.” Toward the end of the tour, it was not uncommon for us to go to the leader’s house (Sheik Ali) and have lunch with him and the others. It was clear that what had initially started as a mutual hatred for Al Qaeda, turned into concern for each other.

“One day a group of over 100 SoI leaders came rushing to our Combat Out Post because they had been deceived by a rumor that our Company Commander had been kidnapped by the insurgents. They wanted to get let in on the plan to lock down the city and rescue him and they were looking for direction for their 2000+ followers.

“They took ownership over the security of their town and they felt proud of their ability to lay stake in its success. Instead of resenting us, they appreciated us for assisting them in protecting the community.

“Our last two days in theatre were suppose to be left confidential, but as with everything, they seemed to already know. The leaders came to our COP to send us off with genuine tears in their eyes. They recounted stories of the past year and our first encounters with each other. They did not want to leave, we shared some old photos with each other, and they thanked us for what we had mutually accomplished in the area. Lastly, they wanted to give us gifts as tokens of their appreciation.

“It would be difficult, but I dream of someday going back there to recount and relive the good and the bad.”

Screwing up is always possible, but so too is getting it right.

Afghan security force leaders putting their heads together.

Big Tent

February 24, 2012

Camp Parsa, Khowst, Afghanistan, March 2009

In a year in Afghanistan I met and heard speak exactly one Afghan woman.  We held a big shura to discuss progress on the KG Pass Road and invited leaders from across Khowst and Paktya.  The woman I speak of, whose name I don’t remember, was something of a celebrity—a politician of some stature from Paktya.  How she rose to power, I don’t know, but she spoke under the big tent to the big crowd, and then gathered with the other leaders and speakers in a private room while they waited for helicopters to return them to their home districts.

For over an hour, I observed her interact with the 15 or so males in the room, me being the only American.  It was a rare glimpse behind the veil, a view of what life must be like within the family circles deep inside the thick kalat walls.  It was obvious the men in the room adored her.  She bantered, held forth, smiled, laughed, cajoled, and conversed with perfect integrity and ease.  Not a hint of tension, condescension, or attitude whatsoever from anyone present except to suggest that all were extremely happy to be there, talking freely and safely for as long as they could get away with it.

Other than that, nothing.  We never ventured inside the kalats, and the burqua-ed up women we saw on the roads turned their backs on us and crouched into little balls until we passed.  This behavior made our interpreters furious.  “Do you think they want to act like that?” they asked.  “Do you think their family wants it to be like that? Do you think it was always like this?”

In Our Time

February 13, 2012

He made his way through the exhibits on the first floor and took the elevator up to the third floor.  There were so many people there that he could not see the photos on the walls.  He had to squeeze people aside just to look at them.

But the pictures were good.  Some were of soldiers in action, like one of a Marine pulling another Marine to safety.  Another showed a soldier staring through the window of a Humvee that had just been attacked. The windshield is splattered with blood and gore, and an M4 rifle lies on the hood of the Humvee.

The picture was intense, but it was the casually placed or abandoned rifle on the hood of the Humvee that got him.  He remembered using that platform all the time for quick meetings, and how soldiers would often spread their weapons and gear across the flat surface. They did that to free their hands to take notes or look at their maps.

Now, in the picture, the M4 looked forlorn as it lay separated from the soldier inside the vehicle.  But also sinister, the jet black weapon and its equally black sling sprawled on the yellow-brown Humvee hood like a tangled nest of vipers on the desert floor.

Other pictures showed soldiers in calmer moments.  Many were of Iraqis and Afghans.  Some were taken during moments of fear, pain, and loss, others in the midst of daily life.  These pictures were good, too.

He looked at every picture twice.  Then he stood outside on the sidewalk and thought about going back in to see them again.  He watched the crowd come and go, and decided to head home.  The cab driver was a Sikh who seemed willing to talk.  But he let the cab roll on quietly, up the Avenue of Americas and then Park Avenue to Grand Central.

Four Hispanic men were clowning around in the line at McDonald’s. One of the men began singing a song in English, a time-tested radio tune:  “Open Arms” by Journey.   The guy could really sing.  He sounded like Steve Perry.  He was really good.  Then he stopped, and he and his friends started cackling and cracking up again in Spanish.

On the train, he read Hemingway’s In Our Time.  The stories were really good.  The best was “The Battler,” but the one that really made him wonder was “Soldier Home.” The protagonist, a WWI vet, goes to see his sister play “indoor baseball.”  What the hell was indoor baseball?

He was thinking about that when he noticed the woman across the aisle.  She had been fiddling with her iPhone and iPad and drinking a 24-oz. can of Budweiser.  Now, though, she was upset.  At first he tried to ignore her, but it was impossible.  She had a bloody nose that would not stop.

“Can you watch my stuff for a minute?” she asked.

She hurried to the bathroom.  He moved across the aisle to stake a better claim on her things.  After a while, she returned, and he went back to his side of the train.

When the train arrived at his station, he got off and went home.

NOTE:  This post recounts my visit to the Conflict Zone combat photography exhibit opening on 10 February in New York City.   Link to Conflict Zone:!__conflict-zone-home

Link to Conflict Zone New York Times notice, with a great gallery of Conflict Zone photographs:

Link to Conflict Zone Facebook page:

Link to Conflict Zone in New York Facebook page:

Link to YouTube video of Conflict Zone NYC opening:

Conflict Zone opening night. NYC, February 2012.

Afghanistan Spring?

February 5, 2012

From a Tunisian friend, February 2011.

Some Tunisian friends invited me to a celebration of last year’s spring uprising in their country.  That revolution, at least in Tunisia, seems to have gone as well as anyone could possibly imagine, with democracy decisively triumphing over tyranny.  My friends were enormously proud of their country, as well they should be.  They were also proud that the Tunisian army, during the initial uprising and after, seemed thoroughly aligned with the will and mood of the people.  And my friends were proud of their country’s alliance with the United States, which they told me dated to 1789.

Do such sentiments exist in Afghanistan?  I like to think they do.

One place I locate potential for progressive change, first cultural, then political, is in the forward-leaning members of the Afghan military.  The common conception is that the ANA are a backwards army and corrupt at every level.  I’m well aware of the horrible incidents where supposed ANA allies turned their weapons on US soldiers.  And I know first-hand the difficulty of day-in, day-out collaboration with soldiers with vastly different backgrounds, perspectives, motivations, and allegiances.

Call me a fool then, but my take is still that there are many Afghan officers and soldiers, mostly but not all the young and the educated, who heavily invest in an ideal of pan-Afghan unity, are dedicated to the principle of rule of law, and are ideologically inclined to Western notions of representative government and free expression of ideas.  That’s based on 100s of hours of conversations, dozens and dozens of meals, and countless missions spent with the ANA.

I don’t know enough about all of Afghanistan to assert that such ideas are representative.  And Afghanistan isn’t Tunisia, or even Arabic, and all that has gone well in Tunisia has not been easily replicated elsewhere.  But I am sure those sentiments exist in the minds of at least some Afghans, waiting for nourishment and outlet.

Just saying.

Also from a Tunisian friend, February 2011.

Me Time

January 30, 2012

Life on a FOB is as public as it gets. Few have rooms to themselves. Even fewer have private latrines. Everyone eats together at the Dining Facility. We worked all the time anyway, and when we were off we went to the gym, or the Morale, Welfare, and Recreation Center, or—if you were on a big enough FOB—the Green Bean coffee shop and hung out with the same people we’d already been with all day.

The smokers went to the smoke shack and stayed there for hours.

Most of us didn’t care much about the lack of privacy. Hell, we liked it. Soldiers are sociable to begin with, and especially now that we were deployed we were eager to share our views about whatever was going on. The last thing anyone wanted was to be left out, or left alone.

When I was with the Rough Riders, if anyone seemed out of sorts, we’d ask if he or she needed a “Rough Rider hug.” We were kidding, kind of. Really we meant, “Snap out of it, and stop being a baby.” The only time we might take it seriously was if we knew there were issues back home. For the guys, that meant they had been dumped, or found out their wife or girlfriend was seeing someone else. For the women, it probably meant there were problems with their kids’ childcare plans.

That stuff needed to get sorted out before the soldiers were any good again.

In the barracks, which we called B-huts, our bunks were partitioned off from one another by half-walls that didn’t extend to the ceiling. You could hear everything in the next hootch over and could easily carry on a conversation.  One officer in a hootch next to mine had memorized W.H. Auden’s “September 1, 1939,” a 99-line long poem. He used to recite it to me, almost nightly. Then he would ask me questions about it and Auden’s life.  I didn’t know that much about Auden, but thanks to our Internet connection I could look him up on Wikipedia while we chatted. It was kind of sneaky, but at least then I could hold up my end of the conversation.

If we wanted privacy, we retreated into a book, a movie, or the Internet. Or we slept.  That was our “me time.”

But young soldiers who had early missions or flights that required them to get up at, say, four in the morning, just wouldn’t go to sleep the night prior. They didn’t see the point. Instead, they’d stay up playing cards or watching movies until it was time to go. Older guys, officers and NCOs, would try to go to sleep a couple of hours early because they needed their full rest.

The only clothes we had were our duty uniforms or our Army physical training stuff, which we slept in. When rocket and mortar attacks came in the middle of the night, we would throw on armored vests and helmets along with our gym shorts and flip-flops and then wait out the attacks in the bunkers.

After a few minutes, we would get the “all-clear” and head back to our hootches.