On Friday afternoon, our convoy encountered a rough, bearded man with a motorcycle standing alone in the middle of the desert. In Afghanistan, this can be cause for consternation. On that day, however, the lone biker spelled fortune for three children in a nearby isolated village in Paktika Province.
I was along for the ride as we escorted Afghan National Army soldiers to a faraway outpost. The plan was simple. We’d provide security to one platoon of Afghan soldiers headed to the base and return with an artillery unit they were meant to relieve. The road – which in Afghanistan means a dirt path – had seen some significant IED activity in recent days. Since the Afghan Army’s flimsy tactical Toyota pickups with a six-seater bench in the bed are no match to that kind of threat, our 11-ton armored behemoths were necessary to take the lead.
Luckily we made it through the mission without being attacked. The only surprise, as it happened, was the appearance of the motorcycle man.
“Stop!” said the convoy commander, Captain James Morrow, a policeman back in Georgia with a clean-shaven head, deep blue eyes and a constant scowl that says I’m gonna kick your ass. “I want to see what this guy wants.”
“Cartwright, get down out of there and pull security,” Morrow told his 22-year old vehicle gunner, who snapped his harness loose and marched down the hood of the vehicle. The team’s interpreter and I also went along.
I was wearing more than 60 pounds of armor and ammunition, cabled radio headphones, and was strapped in by a seatbelt harness designed for a race car. It took me a few moments to disentangle myself and climb out the backside of the vehicle. It’s no wonder so many soldiers burn up in these things, I thought.
By the time I joined the rest of the group, the motorcycle man was jabbering away in Pashto and seemed to be bordering on hysteria. Earlier that day, the man said, five boys in his village had been injured by a bomb about a kilometer away, one of them seriously. The old man was impatient, almost frantic, as we tried to determine the exact circumstances of the explosion.
“Where did the bomb come from?” Morrow asked, since enemy might still have been lurking somewhere beyond a dune. “Was it Taliban? Or was it American?”
What did it matter where the bomb came from, the motorcycle man’s eyes seemed to say. Children had been hurt. They were in desperate need of a doctor. And now his village was counting on him to seek help. Approaching a heavily armed column of American armor had been risky enough for a guy with a beard on a bike. “Just help us!” he said.
Morrow radioed his platoon sergeant in the rear of the convoy. “We’re gonna head over to the village to see what happened to these kids,” Morrow said, “see if we can help.” Roger, came the muffled reply.
The village was a small cluster of qalats couched behind a row of shady trees at the end of a dirt path. No sooner had our vehicles shuddered to a halt than a flood of men and filthy children poured out of a break in the tree line. Two men who seemed to be the village elders calmly scolded Morrow while younger, more virile, men held back the angriest in the crowd.
Moments later, grown men with boys riding piggy-back shuffled out of the village toward us. The victims, four boys – the fifth and most badly wounded had already been taken to the hospital in the village’s communal car – were between the ages of eight and 10. Their arms, legs and faces had been punctured, presumably from shrapnel.
The worst off of the four appeared to be in shock. As noise and commotion from the incensed crowd raged all around him, the boy stood there wide-eyed and speechless. He held his dusty, blood-caked little hand out like a zombie, and dark blood ran down his skinny legs.
“Tell Nef to get over here,” Morrow barked at someone, requesting his medic, 28-year-old Senior Airman Andrey Nefsky, who showed up minutes later primed for action.
Nef – as his American comrades call him – dropped his medic’s bag in the dirt and drew out a pair of light blue latex gloves, slapping them on in an exaggerated manner that left no doubt among the Americans and Afghans about who was now in charge. Immediately, he went to work on the boy in shock.
A tall, no-nonsense Russian from Novorossiysk, a Black Sea town founded by Peter the Great near the resort city of Sochi, Nefsky came to the United States in high school as part of an exchange program through Columbia University, before moving to Florida and joining the U.S. Air Force. His muscle-bound frame, strong Russian accent and hardened Slavic demeanor belie the gentleness with which his fellow soldiers and airmen credit him.
To witness the skill with which Nef worked was like watching an expertly choreographed ballet. In a performance marked by precision and speed, his interaction with the wounded boy was firm yet delicate. As the boy quietly looked on, Nef scrubbed away clumps of dried blood and dirt from his wrist with a sterile saline solution. At one point, dark streams of blood shot five feet out of the boy’s wrist in spurts, causing the crowd to jump back in surprise. But Nef kept it cool and continued to work.
Despite the macabre setting, I couldn’t help but smile at the irony: Among Afghans, Russians are almost universally hated, blamed for plunging their country into a brutal war, the lingering violence from which has crushed the will of the people these 30 years. Although it was impossible for the Afghan villagers to make the distinction, I wondered what they might do if they found out Nef was from Russia. I doubt he saw it this way, but I like to think Nef’s actions were a small, if inconsequential, attempt at reconciliation.
Calmly sealing the severed artery with pressure and gauze, Nef went to work on the boy’s legs, where shrapnel had pierced his inner thighs. Then he patched up the other victims with the same skillfulness and care. While Nef worked, Morrow made plans for an Afghan doctor to make follow-up visits.
Hours later, as the sun set below the horizon, it was the first time that day I’d had time to process all that happened. We waited in our vehicles for an Explosive Ordnance Disposal team to come and blow up what was left of the artillery rounds the children had found – and tampered with. According to one of the boys with a deep, gash over his right eye, the friends had found the bombs that morning. He reluctantly admitted to us and the elders present that the boys had decided to make the bombs targets in a rock-throwing competition.
I wondered where the munitions had come from. Could they have been duds fired from the nearby U.S. Airbase? There were no impact holes; they lay on flat ground. Maybe they’d been discarded or “lost” by the Taliban who had stolen them from the Americans. Judging by their conspicuously missing fuses, that seemed plausible. The Taliban would have used the explosive material inside to make an IED.
I thought about the boys. It appeared all of them were going to survive their injuries. I was grateful for that. Yet something didn’t sit right. My mind returned to the chaotic events of that afternoon – the yelling, the anger, the tension and fear. Something just seemed off.
Then it hit me. The children, I thought. The boys were what was wrong. As I replayed the events in my head, I realized that not a single one of them had cried. Their bloody little bodies were riddled with shrapnel, yet not one had shed a tear. They simply stood there in line, obediently waiting for Nef to patch them up, like an American grade-schooler waiting for the lunch lady to serve him his beans.
It was a display of courage and toughness I have rarely witnessed. It helped me to understand a little better our adversaries. What does it take to produce such a people? No wonder these guys are so hard to beat, I thought.
The names of the soldiers in this post have been changed out of respect for their privacy.