Take Me Down to the Gardez City, Where the Grass is Brown and the Girls are Gritty
11 January 2009
Hey baby Cougar!
I hope you’re well. My outlook is good right now: I survived a difficult Christmas season away from home, I now have my combat patch for serving in a combat zone for over 30 days, and I’ve completed 100 straight days of this deployment.
Over the Christmas season, we received a lot of cards from teachers and children in schools and churches, wishing us well and praying for safety. But there were a few humorous ones that jumped out at me. For instance, one kid sent us a card exclaiming “I hope you win!”, like we’re playing a game of capture-the-flag with the terrorists. Another child seemed to think that our success or failure would have a direct and immediate effect on his life, as he pleaded, “Save me! Save me!” Another person understood how difficult it would be for us to enjoy Christmas, writing “Hoping your holidays are filled with (some) fun.” Yet, my favorite card came from a young boy who was frank and right-to-the-point, packing all the important aspects of a Christmas card into six words: “Good luck. My name is Jared.”
I’ve got some good news: our ministry team has been given an additional chaplain assistant. His name is Sergeant (SGT) Nicholas Bandee, and he’ll be conducting the “operational” side of this duty; he’ll be the one going out on convoys and taking flights all over Afghanistan, and in fact has already treaded over the dangerous Khowst-Gardez (KG) Pass of Afghanistan just one day after a group of soldiers were ambushed on that route.
The KG is a mountain pass where you’re driving in a vehicle, literally just a few feet away from an edge that drops off at least 6,000 feet. I’ve heard the KG often referred to as the most dangerous mountain pass in all of Afghanistan, and it’s with good reason. Besides the possibility of veering over the edge (the room for error is a mere few feet), you also have to worry about getting choked out by the enemy there. One explosion could send a vehicle plummeting off the edge into oblivion, and your most basic firearms attack often puts soldiers into sticky situations. Oh, and the entire pass is unpaved – plenty of places to hide IEDs or for an edge to crumble at an untimely moment.
Construction has been ongoing throughout the KG; it’s taking an exceptionally long time to pave the entire mountain pass because contractors are constantly being shot at as they work on it; the terrorists want to do everything in their power to prevent it from being completed. Our base commander believes that once the KG is finished being paved, “the war will be won.” While I’m not sure that I agree with such a bold proclamation, I understand his rationale: many of our supplies come westward through Pakistan, up-and-down the KG Pass, and then are distributed throughout all the bases in Afghanistan. Unfortunately, the trucks transporting these supplies are often attacked and then torched because of the driver’s defenselessness while on the KG. Once the KG is paved, though, the ease of attacking will be substantially reduced: it’ll be much more difficult to hide IEDs, and trucks can speed through a lot quicker, especially when under attack. Terrorists will find much greater difficulty in garnering dominance over the KG Pass once its construction is finished.
But as it stands today, crossing over the KG Pass in a coalition vehicle is as risky as strutting through the inner-city projects while pimping rival gang colors. Of all the ways SGT Bandee could’ve kicked off a tour in Afghanistan, it seems he was tasked with a combat mission that required him to dive headlong.
Bandee encountered a different breed of gut-twisting on his second mission: less than an hour before his flight left for the city of Ghazni, Bandee began uncontrollably puking. During our training on Fort Bragg, we were told that Afghanistan has low health standards, and that their food is probably undercooked and full of bacteria; Bandee decided not to heed this warning. He puked four times in a five-minute period a day after eating an authentic Afghan meal. He knew he wasn’t going to abort his mission, so he packed his stuff and headed to the helicopter pad, spitting and wiping his mouth after each upchuck. Because I run the administrative side of our team, he reported back to me later about the rest of his trip:
To get to Ghazni, I had to stay overnight to wait for a flight at an air base that was somewhere between the Jalrez and Nerkh valleys in Wardak Province. Well, that next morning, I was sitting in one of the huts, just killing time before the chopper arrived. That’s when I heard the flapping sound of air being beat into submission: my Chinook had arrived 45 minutes early, and I was at least a 10-minute run away from the flightline.
I dashed to reach the chopper before it lifted off, but the air is even thinner there than it is in Gardez. I was exponentially losing energy with every step I took, finding that I didn’t have the strength or the lung capacity to make it to the flightline. To make matters worse, there had been heavy snowfall; each step I took was met with several inches of snow. It wasn’t long before I collapsed, gasping out, “Help me,” but only the frost heard my cry; nobody was around. It had felt more like I was wading through a thick swamp with an ape on my back than trudging through snow with my gear.
I knew that if I was going to make this flight, I needed to get moving. I mustered all the strength I had and picked myself up, sloshing through the snow. I didn’t make it very far, collapsing again under the elements. But this time, I had shuffled far enough that some soldiers were within view of me. They ran over, and finding my face down in the snow, helped me to my feet and picked up my bags for me. That’s when a golf-kart-like vehicle called a “Gator” came by and picked me up. I crawled onto the front of the Gator and laid on its hood as it carted me down to the helicopter, like I was a dead body on a gurney. I barely made it to the bird in time, which had been getting ready to lift off. I arrived to Ghazni shortly after.
After his mission in Ghazni was complete, Bandee got on another helicopter the next day to return to Gardez. But during that flight, he got re-routed to Bagram Airfield in northern Afghanistan because of foggy weather conditions over the mountains between Ghazni and Gardez. Over the following days, no flights were able to get him back because of the ongoing harsh weather conditions between Bagram and Ghazni. He’s now gone well over a week without a shower and has been wearing the same clothes for three days and counting because his 3-day trip to Ghazni turned into a week-long excursion all over central Afghanistan. At this point, the weather is only expected to get worse as Bandee only gets grungier.
I’ve found that Bandee is a valuable asset to our ministry team, enabling me to focus on the logistical side of the mission; that is, maintaining the chapel, planning Bandee’s movements, overcoming administrative hurdles, meeting with the mullahs and locals, and taking part in humanitarian missions.
A humanitarian mission is a mission in which we gather a bunch of goods (specifically food, clothes, shoes, writing utensils, and toys) to hand out to the local Afghans. I’ve been privileged to have already gone out on one in the short time I’ve been here. A group of us traveled outside the FOB to a little village within Gardez to hand out the supplies we’ve collected over the past several months.
When we arrived to our destination, I hopped out of the humvee and saw children lining the village. The houses looked like they were made of adobe brick, and even though there were only about 50 houses, there were about 1,000 children sitting in the dirt, anxiously fidgeting for us to start handing out candy and other goods.
I approached some of the children to try to communicate with them, but my Dari is so limited, and for that matter, such is the case for the kids, who hadn’t spent a day in school yet. I tried using hand signals to communicate with them, which they seemed to respond to; they understood “thumbs-up,” and shot back the two-fingered peace sign as I waved to them. It broke my heart to see the children; many of them had tattered clothes and some didn’t even have shoes. The girls of the village are too young to be wearing burkas, which they customarily don when they become teenagers, but their faces were veiled with dirt in its stead. The girls seemed afraid of me, but the boys were more lax.
One of the officers told me to go grab a bag of candy from the truck. I whipped the bag over my shoulder like a natural Santa Claus and began strolling towards the gaggle of kids. Before I got there, I felt a tugging on my bag and turned around: a little boy was trying to poke a hole in the plastic bag to get its contents to pour out like it was a piñata. As I told the boy “Nay,” I felt more tugging and turned around to find two more boys trying to pull the bag off my shoulder. With command, I shouted “Nay! Nay, stop it! Nay!” The undisciplined children kept trying to get my bag to break open, and I started shuffling away like I was a wounded minnow in a tank of sharks. As I doddered towards the officer that requested the goods, I turned my head and found what had been just three or four kids chasing me before were now a couple dozen bloodthirsty ruffians. I began sprinting towards the officer, but the bag ripped and my hands were left with a few pieces of sweaty plastic. I turned around to find a kid had pulled the bag out of my hands as I’d started running. I tried my best to gather the bag and scamper away, but not before the dozens of children caught up to me and started digging into it. It was no use; I had failed my mission. I stumbled backwards and watched helplessly as candy flew everywhere. I felt like I was watching a pack of jackals tearing apart a poor innocent zebra. Within a matter of seconds, the pack dispersed and all that was left were pieces of the shredded zebra skin.
After the ambush, I headed over to another group of kids in hopes that I could slip some suckers to a few of them without getting mugged again. As I walked among the children, one boy jumped up on a pile of bricks, and establishing himself as king of the village children, yelled to me.
“Chocolate!” the boy cried.
“Chocolate?” I asked. “Nay, no chocolate. I have no chocolate.”
“Chocolate!” the child king yelled louder.
“Chocolate! Choc-oh-lat!” The king had become crazed, irate that I wasn’t giving into his demands to magically make his chocolate appear.
“Boy! I have no chocolate!”
The king settled down and shrugged his shoulders. “Give me money!”
“Money? You want money?”
“Give me money.”
“I got no money.”
“ ‘I got no money,’ ” the king mocked me.
Just then, an ANA soldier zipped over to us. The king’s eyes filled with fear, and he jumped down from the bricks to outrun the Afghan soldier, whom was smacking the king’s shins with his baton. The crowd of children moved away from the soldier, knowing they’d get hit if they were in his way.
A little girl stood her ground against the soldier, crying into her hands as the soldier raised his baton. The soldier whipped his baton towards the girl, and with impressive dexterity, halted his hand just before the baton clonked her. The girl, realizing she hadn’t gotten hit, glanced up and saw that the soldier was only trying to scare her into moving away. Her sister emerged from the crowd, took her hand, and the two of them disappeared into the crowd.
I hung around the crowd awhile longer, loving every minute I got to spend with the kids. Despite the language barrier, it was as if we understood each other. At one point, while I tried talking with one of the kids, I rotated 360° and found I had gotten surrounded by a mass of children, all of my escape routes now blocked. Afraid some child would try to grab at it, I hugged my rifle and just hoped that none of the kids went for my pouches that had loads of ammo. It was a good thing that I had been warned before the mission to button up all my pouches and tie them down to prevent the children from taking my stuff.
I squeezed through the sea of children to return to the main group of soldiers, whom were still tossing bags of rice off the truck to give to the parents of the children. I heard a small voice behind me, so I turned around and found a child tugging on my pant leg. I got on my knees and tried talking with him. He couldn’t have been older than five years.
“Please,” he said.
“Is there something you need?” I asked, as if he could understand me. “Something you need?”
“Please,” he repeated. “For me.”
He pointed to the ground. I didn’t understand.
“Please. See. For me.”
I shook my head, frustrated with the language barrier.
“Give me, please.”
He bent down and touched his feet. He was wearing flip-flops that had a hole in its sole; he would’ve almost been better off walking around barefoot.
I bit my lips, remorseful that I was unable to help him. We didn’t have any more shoes to give away.
“Sorry,” I said. “No shoes today. I’m sorry.”
“Please,” he repeated. “Shoe? Please shoe. For me.”
“No shoe. All out. Next time, give shoe. Okay?”
“No shoe?” he inquired.
“No shoe,” I confirmed.
The boy nodded his head in acceptance, and ambled away in disappointment as the rocks scratched his calloused feet.
The child had seen me as a symbol of provision; he had approached me in the hopes that I would be able to provide him with something that my country’s children have tons of. When I was a kid, I must’ve had a half-dozen different shoes. For this poor child, I couldn’t even provide one pair.
Not long after, our group of soldiers packed up and returned to our humvees. As we sat in the vehicles waiting for clearance to start moving back to base, children started banging their hands against our windows, mischievously smiling all-the-while. They even tried opening the doors (to no avail, as they were combat-locked). When we started driving away, the children backed up and waved goodbye to us.
Alright, I wanted to save what I’m about to say for last, but I’m bursting at the seams with this great news: I will be coming home early from Afghanistan.
At the beginning of the year, the Army told us that we would be back in our homes by midnight of September 29, 2009. Now, it’s been cut down even shorter than that. I don’t know how “early” I’ll be leaving, I just know that it’s earlier than previously thought. Yet, the funny thing is, the Army hasn’t told me this at all. In fact, quite the opposite! I’ve heard rumors that we were being extended from day one, and some even said we’d be extended through January 2010. The Army is confidently telling me that I won’t be going home early.
So how can I be so sure about this?
Well, I was lying in bed a few days after Christmas, trying to get to sleep when I was startled to full alertness. No, there wasn’t a rocket or an alarm that roused me; my heart just started racing on its own, as if I could sense someone had slipped into my room.
I scanned the dark room and saw nothing. But I did hear something.
That silent voice was back.
“You will be home early…”
Early? I’ll be home early? From Afghanistan?
“You will be home early…”
What? No, not again. I can’t go through that again. I was so hurt last time. Don’t make me do it.
I don’t want to do this. Please don’t make me do this! I believe You, but don’t make me tell everyone again.
I can’t do that. I can’t. Don’t put me in this position again.
I’ll tell Joanna. And I’ll tell my parents. But that’s it this time. Nobody else needs to know.
Please, no. Please.
Fine! You know what? Just… fine. I’ll do it.
I listened for a minute more, and when I didn’t hear anything else, I closed my eyes and tried to settle my heart. The joke was on the voice; I wasn’t actually planning on telling anyone, I just said I would so I could get some peace and quiet.
And I did feel peace – for a brief moment. That is, until my eyes shot open when I remembered a verse I had read an hour earlier. Grabbing my Bible and my flashlight, I returned to the passage I just finished reading.
“When you make a vow to God, do not delay in fulfilling it. He has no pleasure in fools; fulfill your vow. It is better not to make a vow than to make a vow and not fulfill it. Do not let your mouth lead you into sin. And do not protest to the temple messenger, ‘My vow was a mistake’ (Ecclesiastes 5:4-6).”
Ohh, nooo… I’m screwed!
I threw the Bible across my bed and smacked my head. I was so frustrated; I felt like I had been tricked!
But despite my feelings, I can’t ignore the facts: God commanded me to do something, and I promised I’d follow through.
When I tell others about this, I know they’re gonna groan, “here he goes again with his God ramblings.” But then I think about when God told me to tell everyone that I would marry you (even though I hadn’t met you yet), and I think about how accurate that’s looking, despite residing in a country choked by separation and death. And then I think about the recent episode where God told me I’d be home early for Thanksgiving pass, and what came of that.
So, my hands are tied. I hastily promised I would tell everyone, and so I must. But, I do find comfort in one thing: I actually believe what I’m saying. I find no excitement in announcing it, but I do believe I’ll be home early.
I wouldn’t blame you if you didn’t, though. It’s not an easy thing to swallow (even CH Fardpot tells me I’m a boob for believing this). But, consider this my way of giving you advance notice that you’ll see me before you thought you would, and you can expect me to be back in school with you next semester. I’ve already gone ahead and registered for classes and am in the process of securing a room on campus. Our anthem used to be “Wake Me Up When September Ends,” but not anymore.
I have one prayer request right now: please pray for George Bush as he leaves office in a few days, and meanwhile please pray for Barack Obama as he takes on one of the most stressful duties anyone could fathom. Whether we like Bush or Obama is beside the point; please pray for them to be given wisdom regardless. “I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone – for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness” (1 Timothy 2:1-2).
Thank you, God bless, and have faith in what I’m saying!
A Boy Named Danger