United States : an Afghanistan veteran tells us about his experience (1/2)
December 31 2014, after 13 years of clashes, NATO put an end to its involvement in Afghanistan, and handed over the reins to the Afghan army. Less publicized than the conflicts in Iraq, but also part of the “War on Terror” of the Bush Administration, the Afghanistan war caused around 90,000 deaths, of which 2,356 were American soldiers. Originally, it was a response to the September 11 attacks. While we often hear from opponents or victims bearing witness to the war, soldiers rarely express their views on the subject. At 31 years of age, Sean is in the final year of his Bachelor’s Degree in Geography at the University of Oregon. A veteran of the war in Afghanistan, where he served between 2006 and 2007, he recounts his experience. Interview.
What was your role in the army?
I was an infantry man, just an E-4, nothing terribly special. I was a team leader for a little bit but mostly I was just a member of a fire team, the guy with the gun. You perform a lot different roles in that context, so for example one guy carries the breaching tools, which is what you use to break into doors, one guy carries extra explosives, one guy carries an extra medical pack, that kind of thing. And I was the Grenadier so I just had a bunch of grenade launchers ammunition on me. I operated by radio for a while, I drove trucks, all that kind of stuff.
Why did you decide to go there?
Well, my family have a military tradition that goes all the way back to the Revolution. Actually, even prior to the revolution. So I always intended to join at some point. But then, you know, 9/11 happened, and a bunch of my friends signed and went to fight. I promised my mother that I would do a year of college, so I did my year, and as soon as that was over I signed up as fast as I could and headed on over. By the time I had signed up, both for Iraq and Afghanistan, you know, I was going for sure. I felt I had to do it. I protested the Iraq war before I enlisted, but you know, it didn’t matter, it didn’t matter what I thought. I’m just some a stupid guy with a sign. And sitting back and saying “we shouldn’t do that” is pointless. It doesn’t accomplish anything. Whereas if I were to pick up a rifle and go over there, and do the best that I could to be a good American soldier, and do a good job, I could insure that something that I didn’t like was being done to my standard, at my level. And I ultimately ended up going to Afghanistan, instead of Iraq, which worked just fine for me because I would prefer that anyway. I volunteered to go to Iraq twice, I didn’t get to go at that time.
Why didn’t you get to go to Iraq?
When I volunteered they were only looking for Airborne infantrymen -guys who jump out of planes- and I didn’t have that particular school.
About your experience in Afghanistan, what was your everyday life as an American soldier over there ?
Well, every day is hard because no two days are really the same. In the late winter of 2006, when we first got there we would only do certain kind of missions, because we were just getting to know the area then. And then when Spring came around, that was what we call “the fighting season”, and during the fighting season, you can do a lot more stuff. So we would get up, have some breakfast, take a shower, shave -you have to shave everyday, it’s silliness but it’s a rule that they like- and it makes some sense. Anyway, then you would go on a mission usually. Go deliver some humanitarian aid somewhere -or what we call MEDCAPs, which stands for Medical Civilian Assistance Programs- where you go and basically set up a little field hospital, and the villagers would come. And all that is great and well and good, and I’m glad that we had to do that… But the reason we were doing that was to go try and start a fight. Because at any time you leave the base, you are a target for an ambush. And that’s what we were trying to do. Withdraw them out so that they would shoot at us and we could shoot them. So the humanitarian stuff, while it was the objective to complete for the day, you also have this larger scale thing of trying to start a fight. So we did that through Spring and Summer, and then the Fall… and then once the snow hit, we just couldn’t do much again. And it’s different time. When you’re stuck in on the FOB (Forward Operating Base), you just try to entertain yourself in any way you can. Like I’ve kept this great video of -somebody sent us a Nerf gun- and we took turns shooting these two guys in the face, at like trying to stick it on the lens of their glasses, it’s pretty entertaining. We set some stuff on fire… you know just silly stuff. And we had satellite internet so we could talk to our loved ones back home, so we would do that, sleep… So that’s when you’re running missions from the base and then, every couple of weeks you would rotate out to the observation posts. Any observation posts were just sandbag bunkers on a hill, and you’re sleeping on the dirt or in a car… And that’s a whole other thing, because they would come and attack those pretty regularly. And so you’d have to fight off, you know, however many were there, that got pretty intense a few times, almost got overrun a couple of times. And, you know, that could be scary. It could be cold, so cold!
Really? We would think Afghanistan is a hot country.
Yeah, well the thing about desert… Do you ever spend much time in the desert?
Never? You should try it sometime. It is really warm during the day, but the temperature differential between the daytime and the nighttime plummets! Like as much as 50 degrees (10 degrees Celsius) sometimes, and then in the wintertime, you’re at six thousand feet of elevation (approximately 1800 meters), there are days you don’t get above freezing, there’s snow everywhere. There was one time I was in a snowstorm, looking through this telescopic sight thing that we have and my gloves actually froze to the handles on the sight. So I had to leave the gloves there, and people just would go in put their hands in my gloves, when they went to use it. And then, I had to melt them off the next day. It’s fucking cold. Cold, cold.
Did the Taliban often attacked you?
Yeah, at the OPs (Operation Posts), they would come about once a month or so. And, you know, they’d bring as many people as they could get at the time. Because this is 2006, back when the Taliban was trying to make a comeback, and they were trying to establish that they could beat an American unit in stand-up face to face gunfight. So they would come at us, a hundred, two hundred dudes at a time. Well, I think we had two hundred once. Anyway, we would just push them back and then usually the commander of that attack gets killed, and then they have to wait for another one to come up, and says: “We can beat the Americans I know how, let me show you, pick up your guns and follow me!” And, ok, come on back… So, we would beat them again. It was every couple of months I think.
Were average Afghans, non Taliban Afghans, hostile or friendly with you?
Well, see, this is where it gets complicated. So the average Afghan is just trying to get through the god damn day. The Americans come through their village and make some demands on them,”if you support us, tell us where the Taliban are or whatever, then we’ll give you stuff” , and they’re like”OK, I’ll tell you a little bit but not everything I know” . Because as soon as the Americans leave, the Taliban comes around and be like “the fuck did you say to those Americans?” And, they would kill, burn villages if they were informants. So, the average Afghan is playing a double game, like, they have to try and cooperate with us, but they also have to cooperate with these guys a little bit. So, the average Afghan is I think in a very tough spot, as regards Americans versus Taliban.
Did you befriended some of them ? Were you told not to? Because you could lose someone everyday.
You don’t really get that much of an opportunity. Because, you know, the language barrier. And there’s one interpreter for a village, and fifty of us. So not a lot of chatting opportunities. But the kids, man, the kids you could play with, and they were usually pretty great. They definitely know the word for pen, they definitely know the word for candy, and they would just ask you for it over and over again “candy candy whatever ”. So I mean, that’s usually what we did. The platoon leader, our leader, whoever we were going out there with, would go on chat with the village elders and we would just stand around, watch out for bad guys and play with the damn kids. And some of them we got along pretty well. Like I told you that story about the deaf girl. I wasn’t as friendly with the kids as a lot of other people were. Not that I am not a kid person, I’m actually great with kids, I just, I don’t know… My uncle was in Vietnam, he did like three tours as an infantryman in Vietnam. And the Viet Congs used to use kids. They would give a kid a grenade, pulled the pin on it and say “hold on to this and give it to an American”. And then they’d walk up and be like “hey American check this out !” And then the spoon flies off and kills everybody. So I always had -I grew up with those stories- that on the back of my mind every time we were playing soccer or some shit. So, I don’t know, I was a little wary. The guys that we worked with day-to-day were the Afghan security guards, which were trained by the American special forces that were there before us and they were great. We got to know a lot of them really well, most of them spoke English. Great guys. I was really affected whenever any one of them would die because, close working relationship.
Could you tell me about that deaf girl story again?
Yeah, sure. So, there was a girl in a village, she was just in the village that was on the way. All their little villages and towns and stuff are mostly off of riverbeds. So, you just drive through and you stop say hello you know “here’s some rice or whatever”. And we got to know this particular village pretty well because the village elder was very friendly to us and it wasn’t that far from where we were at. And the little girl was unlike any other ones cause she was deaf and just ran around do whatever she wanted, and she was tons of fun to play with. I had a Frisbee and would throw the Frisbee to kids sometimes and they would throw it back or whatever. She would play with the Frisbee sometimes, but she never really got it. She could catch it, and I tried to get her throw it back, and she would just drop it and runaway. And at that period of time -I think she was about 10 when we were there- and the Taliban, or whoever, had come through and said you know, “she needs to start wearing the veil”. And she just couldn’t process that, she didn’t understand it, nobody really knew how to communicate with her, you know, there’s no Afghan sign language or anything. So they eventually beheaded her because she just wouldn’t comply with Islamic law. Which I think, is just amazingly coward, what a lack of compassion to put your silly little book ahead of a human fucking life. And don’t get me wrong, I’m not sitting here judging or harping on the Koran in favor of the Bible or whatever. I’m a pretty strong identified atheist, like I think it’s all a bit of silliness. But I just can’t imagine killing somebody over what a book says.
Do you think this deaf girl really understood what was going on?
I don’t know how much those kids understand. I would assume not. And especially, like I said before, Taliban doesn’t like to start fights in villages, because that looks bad for them. We’re here handing out food, and they shoot at us, that that’s not good PR (Public Relations) for the Taliban. So very rarely I think that those kids get to see the direct impact of the war. There was an incident once, where someone tried to bury an IED (Improvised Explosive Device). And it blew up on him. (laughs) I shouldn’t laugh but it is funny… He was trying to bury it and it went off, and that was right inside of a village. I mean, that’s dumb, why would you want to do that? But what are you gonna do? I’d have to say no, I doubt she had an understanding at what was going on. I mean, hell, you and I are adults or semi adults and we are having a hard enough time figuring out what it is.
Did the children in those villages have the opportunity to go to school?
We built a school for them, it was the second time that school had been built, because it had been blown up the first time. And I don’t know if it got blown up again, but it was functioning when I left. And that was only in one space. You know what I mean, that was in one village that was the biggest population center in our area. And you’ve got, hundreds of kids if not thousands of kids, outside that area that don’t have those opportunities. Or if they did, it’s Koranic learning, not terribly kids stuff. But at the same time, most of this kids are gonna be corn farmers like their dad before them, so I don’t know, it’s hard to say. This is where the development stuff comes in. Because you would like to see better opportunities but better opportunities brought about? by what? for what? to where? There’s a chicken and an egg debate between education and economics, and which one feeds which one? And I think that a certain level of education absolutely engender some economic development. But I think you’ll also have to have a certain level of economic development before education does you any amount of god damn good.
Ex-rédactrice en chef, étudiante en Science politique à La Sorbonne, féministe et fan de Rihanna.