Thursday, July 30, 2009
Friday, July 24, 2009
The rusted blue gate was open when we got there. It was 8:30 in the morning and already hot. A tall, leathery-skinned Pashtun man with deep hazel eyes and a long dark beard waited for us at the entrance. “The headmaster,” my interpreter whispered to me as we approached.
“As-salam alaikum,” the headmaster said, shaking my hand before covering his heart in the Muslim way. “Wa alaikum assalam,” I replied, trying clumsily to find my own heart beneath an armored plate. He smiled at this, then stepped aside. Like a pendulum, his long arm waved us into his sanctuary.
Three buildings and a tree-filled courtyard that made up the school were concealed from the barricaded street by an eight-foot-high crumbling concrete wall. Razor-sharp concertina wire spiraled along the top. On the opposite side of the school’s north wall the provincial police headquarters buzzed with activity. Caddy corner to the school gate, two armed, humorless Afghan soldiers guarded an equally fortified Army medical facility. The school’s enclosure in this military compound was intentional, and it sent a powerful message: Nobody is getting into this place.
For good reason, too. With 1,650 enrolled students, the Halima Khazan Girl’s School is the only institute of learning for girls in Gardez. Across Afghanistan, Taliban militants have been known to beat or kill the headmasters of such schools, chop off the heads of girls who dare attend them or splash acid into their faces, disfiguring them for life. As targets for violence go, the girls at this school are no exception. Such are the challenges facing a brave new Afghanistan, to say nothing of the decadent conditions under which the girls study.
As the headmaster continued to dictate, through my interpreter, the school’s litany of problems, I became distracted by significant activity in the schoolyard. Little girls darted gleefully about, laughing and chasing one another around trees and benches. After a few minutes, I couldn’t help but notice that the commotion was meant to draw our attention. How strange we must look to them, I thought. Here we were decked out in helmets, armored vests, sunglasses and automatic rifles in probably the safest place they know. As we continued to walk with the headmaster, I caught the eye of two girls no more than 10 years old sitting under a tree. In unison, they stood up and curtsied. “Salam,” they said with a giggle. It caught me off guard, and I blushed.
“Dey take final exam,” he said. “Tomorrow dey start vacation, 10 days.” I wondered why they should take a year-end exam outside in the heat like this.
When we finally entered the main schoolhouse, I understood. There was no electricity, the walls were badly damaged, windows were shattered and saucer-sized holes had been punched into doors. This was no place to study. And yet there they were, out in the yard, diligently scrawling answers to their exams as if this were the last thing they would ever get to learn.
I wasn’t supposed to, but as we wrapped up our inspection, I turned to the headmaster and looked him in the eye. “I promise we are going to fix this,” I said. Boeck and Raflik nodded in agreement.
The day before going to Halima Khazan, I’d read Thomas Friedman’s recent column in The New York Times about the importance of our efforts in providing education for Afghan girls. In it Friedman argues that this one good cause in a country mired in misery might just be worth America’s sticking it out a little longer. After seeing the hopefulness in the faces of these girls, I felt the same way.
But later that morning, less than half an hour after we’d left the school to head back to base, suicide bombers disguised as women wearing burqas detonated their vests in that very compound. More than 10 people were killed and several more wounded. When I found out, I trembled at what a close call my soldiers and I had had.
The attacks were soon all over the news. The mention of Gardez as the primary target for the bombings prompted me to shoot a quick e-mail to Molly. “I feel very grateful to be safe right now,” I wrote. “It really makes you think, you know? Anyway, I am OK, and I just wanted you to know. I love you so much.”
I don’t presume to understand the depths of fear the mothers of these girls must feel everyday as they send their children off to school, hoping that education will liberate them from the bondage they themselves have endured. And I cannot fathom the courage these children possess. But I like to think that one day their daring individual efforts to build a more just society will pay off. Because hatred, violence and grisly death have plagued this unfortunate little country for far too long.
They deserve a vacation from it all.
Photos by Master Sergeant Ronald J. Raflik
Tuesday, July 21, 2009
Matt and I talked on our computers over Skype one night last week. His Internet connection was moving unusually fast—fast enough to connect to video—and, as a result, we saw each other for the first time in a while.
It was late in Afghanistan, close to midnight. Matt sat in his office, which was empty but for a dim light and long gray shadows. He looked tired and unfamiliar in his uniform. I felt almost shy.
It was mid-afternoon where I sat in Brooklyn. My apartment was sunny and bright. I was drinking iced coffee from the bakery down the block; NPR hummed low in the background.
On the computer, Matt showed me his rifle, which was sitting on a cabinet behind him. He took it apart, clicking metal on metal. He showed me an open cardboard box: the package my father and stepmother had sent him from Massachusetts a few weeks before. It had arrived that morning, full of magazines, of cinnamon Altoids, of Oat and Honey granola bars, of chocolate fudge.
It reminded me of summer camp.
When I was in elementary school I went to sleep-away camp every summer. Most years it was one up in Maine, at a bohemian-flavored establishment where I learned how to make pottery on a wheel and walked barefoot until my feet were crackly with calluses. I was shy and developed friendships slowly, often hiding behind either a book or my mane of frizzy hair. I loved when my mother sent me care packages, as they were always filled with fresh novels for distraction, and candy to eat and share with my bunkmates, a giddy reminder of home.
I’ve sent a few packages to Matt in the last month. The first one arrived late last week, after a 17-day voyage. The second left Brooklyn just a few days before. I haven’t really known what to send in these boxes. My only experience with care packages is at camp, when they were deposited into my sunburned arms battered and heavy, addressed in my mother’s spindly handwriting. For Matt, I am mainly working by request: Gillette deodorant, disinfectant hand wipes, reporters’ notebooks and mechanical pencils with point-5-sized lead. “Point-3 if you can find it,” Matt had asked, nicely. “I like to be precise!” (Duane Reed, alas, was out of stock.) I added some backlogged mail and magazines like The Atlantic, the New Yorker, and the Economist. I threw in some books—one on the history of Tabasco Sauce and a copy of Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov because, hey, why not. And, of course, I added candy.
Last year for a few days in the frigid weeks surrounding Christmas, Matt and I drove to North Carolina to visit his family. One afternoon we went to a general store near his grandmother's house in the college town of Boone and found ourselves in a room filled with candy. Candy of all kinds, filling dozens of wooden barrels to the brim. Feeling giddy and slightly child-like, the sugar fumes gone straight to our heads, Matt and I bought gummy frogs, Sugar Daddies, chocolate crème drops. We ate some before going to meet his family. We ate some on the drive back north. The remnants are actually still in my apartment today.
Two weekends ago I was in North Carolina again, but this time in Chapel Hill with some friends. On that Saturday afternoon I found myself yet again in a candy-heavy store. I bought gummy peaches, salt-water taffy and Sour Patch Kids, which were displayed in large glass bottles on a shelf. I bought little sugared raspberries and individually wrapped caramel. I paid $6.99 a pound and brought them home in a bag that smelled of childhood. I packed it next to the notebooks and mechanical pencils in the cardboard box heading to Afghanistan.
Sometimes I find it strange to be thinking so much of care packages, of deodorant brands, mechanical pencils and the emotional content of candy. In the newspaper every day I read about the violence and danger, the influx of troops and the Marines’ surge into Helmand Province, the pain of the soldiers and civilians on all sides of the conflict in Afghanistan. Just today six members of the Afghan security forces were killed in Gardez, the result of a coordinated attack by suicide bombers. I read the stories with fear, but I also read them intensely, almost greedily, hoping that perhaps they will give me some clue as to what it’s like to be there. Even though Matt and I regularly speak and I occasionally see him in the grainy pixels of my computer screen, it remains incomprehensible and obscure.
I find it much easier to concentrate on packages, on back issues of the Economist and on Saltwater Taffy than it is to think about the harsh click of metal on metal. It’s easier to write about Sour Patch Kids.
Saturday, July 18, 2009
A few weeks ago, Tom Ricks, a veteran journalist and author of the best-selling books Fiasco and The Gamble, asked me to contribute to his blog on foreignpolicy.com. The first installment -- of what I hope will be many more to follow -- deals with an experience I had upon beginning my journey to Afghanistan and one I have not been able to stop thinking about. Please take a look.
Thursday, July 9, 2009
A sandstorm rages outside my makeshift office on a U.S. military outpost in eastern Afghanistan. Soldiers lean into the wind, their noses pressed into the crooks of their elbows, squinting as they scan for shelter from the stinging wind. The rocky desert mountains surrounding the camp are now all but obscured by the enveloping haze. Eventually, the dust will subside and tonight’s full moon will emerge, casting a glow over our base that in any other setting would seem peaceful. Here, however, the illumination offers would-be attackers an opportunity, and it can be deadly.
This is Gardez, eastern headquarters of the Army’s task force charged with training the Afghan military and police to one day provide security for themselves. It will be my home for the next nine months. I arrived here 10 days ago on a three-and-a-half hour convoy that began in urban Kabul. A paved road—one of only a few in the entire country—winds south past towns and “qalats” that rise up out of the dry mud, through the impossibly beautiful Tera Pass, to this dusty mountain valley where the asphalt ends. It might as well be the end of the earth.
For years I’ve marveled at images I’ve seen and stories I’ve heard of this scorched land and its stunning remoteness. But it almost didn’t seem real until I saw it all for myself. Here in the heart of Pashtun country, women wearing burqas glide along in the markets like apparitions. Their robed torsos twist like soft taffy to face us as we rumble past in our armored vehicles. Men with black hair and fiery eyes gaze at us through the bulletproof glass with both curiousity and menace. It’s difficult for me to imagine the collective horrors those eyes have witnessed.
Gardez is a bewitching place, hardened, like its people, to the elements. It is steeped in a history of violence that has repeled the most determined of marauding armies. Only a few miles to the east and south lies the border with Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas, an inconsequential demarcation from a bygone age of empire to which the tribal Pashtuns here pay no mind. Indeed, it is in the infinite caves and canyons of this sliver of Pakistan that the Taliban now launch daily attacks against us.
Yet despite that constant threat, the scenery here inspires me. On clear days, the mountains all around are bathed in shadows cast by their own craggy walls. The elevation is 8,000 feet, high enough that a quick walk across our base leaves one panting. A small mud-brick citadel of indeterminate age sits atop one hill close by.
“That was one of Alexander the Great’s fortresses,” one soldier told me on the day I arrived.
“Really?” I said. I pictured the young warrior-king gazing down from the ramparts at his army, their helmets and spears shimmering in the sun.
“You can’t go up there now, though,” the soldier said. “The Soviets put mines all over it. Only goats go up there.”
I made a mental note to check the validity of his claim, then thought better of it. I guess I just want it to be true. With all the sandstorms and full moons yet to come, why not?
Last Saturday afternoon I sat on a blanket in Prospect Park with friends, not three blocks from my little Brooklyn apartment. We ate homemade bread with jam, noodles with peanut sauce, and a big salad with basil vinaigrette. There was wine and for dessert, a cake made with blackberries and plums. It was the fourth of July and the park was packed. The sun was shining and it smelled of smoke from the grills laden with burgers and hotdogs. A group of twenty-somethings played guitars nearby.
Before we began to eat, we lifted our plastic glasses and said cheers. We said cheers to Independence Day, and we said cheers to Matt, who was probably already asleep in Afghanistan.
Earlier that day he had written me an email. In it he said:
don't you find it ironic that soldiers at war are probably the americans most aware of the poignancy and significance of independence day, yet they are the only ones who don't really get to "celebrate" it? i thought about that all day. hundreds of millions of americans eating burgers and swimming and lighting sparklers. and here in our region today we lost one american killed in action and five wounded. it won't even make the news.
I ate and I drank and I felt guilty. I know that’s not what Matt intended. But I felt it all the same. And then I felt angry.
Lately I’ve been feeling a lot of emotions that I don’t want, emotions that I know Matt doesn’t want, and that my friends and family perhaps don’t understand. I feel guilty often. I feel angry a lot.
The anger doesn’t come because Matt left. He had no choice. This situation is entirely out his control. It’s out of my control. Sometimes I think it’s even out of our government’s control. I don’t feel angry because I’m alone. I’ve been alone before and I like to think that I’m independent enough to handle it. Perhaps I’m angry because this war is happening at all. I’ve long felt opposed to the action in Iraq and Afghanistan. But I know myself, and I know I’m not the type to feel such consuming anger about something general, about something as large as a country or as a war. I can feel disappointed and depressed, yes. But I think I’m angry because I’m afraid. Someone I love is somewhere quite dangerous, and I’m very afraid.
This evening I took the subway home from Manhattan. I was reading a book by Diane Ackerman called “An Alchemy of Mind,” which is about the magic and the mystery of the human brain. She has a chapter dedicated to emotion and how our feelings have developed throughout evolution. She writes:
We evolved to feel anger in familiar arenas, where we could act to make changes and defend ourselves. What we didn’t evolve resources for was long-distance anger, fury at potential danger half a world away, and at a level of such complexity and sheer size one can’t resolve it single-handedly or even with the help of one’s kin. We can feel the requisite anger, we just can’t discharge it in useful ways. It’s both our privilege and peril to have the brain our hunter-gatherer-scavenger ancestors did, one suited to their equally emotional but simpler world.
I hardly noticed as my train passed over the sunlit Manhattan Bridge. I almost forgot to get off at the 7th Avenue stop. I like the idea that I can blame my anger, which feels both helpless and useless, on evolution. My brain just isn’t made to feel this terror for a danger that resides half a world away. I’m not programmed to think of such opaque realities, of such theoretical monstrosities.
Instead I sit in the park and think of how much I hate the way my fork sounds as it scrapes against the plastic of my plate. I think about the way my sandal is rubbing against my heel and how it hurts and how that makes me seethe. I think of my credit card bill and, oh man, I’m furious.
Sometimes I have to remember to breathe.
And I have to remember to be aware. I need to be aware of my anger, and of my fear. I don’t often know where these feelings come from, but I am prepared to look them in the eye and deal with their presence. I will take it one day at a time, and I will think about Matt, who doesn’t have the distraction of holidays and picnics to shield him from unwanted emotion. And I will think about my friends, who feed me cake and keep me busy and watch fireworks on the street in front of my apartment after the sun goes down.
Friday, July 3, 2009
It’s often said that the Army is about people. Ask any veteran, and he’ll tell you: his time in the service is indelibly marked by the men with whom he served, trained and fought. There is simply no stronger personal bond than that which is forged through military service.
During my two ensuing years as a civilian, most of my nostalgia for the Army sprang from the relationships I’d formed with fellow soldiers. In five years on active duty, it was during periods of great adversity – be it extreme discomfort, exhaustion, fear or homesickness – that I made my very best friends. I’ve often lamented to Molly that I would never again enjoy that sort of camaraderie. I think a lot of veterans would say the same.
So for all the strife this recent call-up has caused in my life, I’m grateful for the soldiers I’ve met since donning the uniform again. Many of them find themselves in the same situation as mine, ripped from their new lives to return to a virtually forgotten battlefield. Somehow that makes it all much easier for me to bear.
During these last few weeks in transit, there are several soldiers who I have come to know well and of whom I have become quite fond. We first banded together at Camp Shelby, Mississippi, just before deploying, the only eight soldiers of 50 in our initial troupe who were bound for the desert city of Gardez in Afghanistan’s eastern mountains.
Our motley assortment included a construction contractor, a paralegal, mechanics, technicians, and me, a journalist. I’ve spent hours getting to know them over meals, in barracks or at the gym. All of us, with one exception, were call-ups from the individual ready reserves. In other words, all of them were involuntarily recalled to duty for a fresh tour in Afghanistan.
Corporal Tim Blankenship of Portland, Oregon, was working as a telecommunications technician and edging toward his Bachelor’s degree when the call came. His wife of six years is holding down their brand new house in Vancouver, Washington. Despite it all, Blankenship, 25, maintains an impossibly cheery disposition that has kept our group moving through the blazing inferno of Kuwait and the mind-numbing, days-long transportation out of Kabul. Now in Gardez, he has accepted his indefinite and thankless assignment as a gate guard with humility. Still, he is eager to “get outside the wire” and to see some action before the year is out. I admire his enthusiasm, but I caution him to be careful what he asks for.
Specialist Leo Hendrick is a tall, slim 34-year-old motorcycle mechanic who sports a clean-shaven head and a tapestry of tattoos. Serious and eccentric, he smokes a pipe each night outside, under the moonlight, and boasts of his extensive domestic gun collection. Yet Hendrick’s one weakness is his young family back home in Iowa: a wife and an infant son, who he refers to as “my little guy.” It’s the only time I’ve witnessed his carefully cultivated veneer of intimidation melt away to reveal the softer man inside. Hendrick worships his wife, who holds a Masters degree and works for Kaplan Publishing. “Compared to her, I’m just a knuckle-dragger,” he says playfully. “My wife just keeps me around to open jars and fix things around the house when they break.” He is impossible not to like.
Sergeant First Class Brian Mauro has been my closest companion on this deployment. A confident, thoughtful man who had a rough upbringing in rural Massachusetts, Mauro found paradise in his adopted home of Georgia in the 1990s. Despite serving his third deployment in as many years, he spends lots of time on the phone directing the completion of his dream house near Macon, where he works as a mechanic at Freightliner. Mauro is a sort of working man’s intellectual, drawn to political arguments and convinced he is a better man for the hardships he’s endured. A National Guardsman who has seen intense action in some of the worst areas of Iraq and Afghanistan, he is tortured by long separations from his 4-year-old son, A.J. “I didn’t get to see him take his first steps,” Mauro told me one night over dinner in a crowded mess hall in Kabul, his eyes glistening with tears. “It’s hard for me to talk about, you know? My wife put up pictures of me all around the house so he’d know who I was when I got home. And you know what? It worked.”
The rest of the guys in our crew are no less wistful about the homes and families they’ve been forced to leave behind.
Sergeant Raul Gonzales, 28, who is respectful and quiet, leaves a wife and two children back in Austin, Texas. I’ve watched him lie countless hours, fingers interlocked across his stomach, staring up at the underside of a crude top bunk. During these episodes, I like to think that Gonzales is not among us, that he possesses some special power to transport himself from this dreadful place.
Gonzales’ buddy, Corporal Felix Lopez, is the one habitual grump in our group. (In any group of soldiers, there is always at least one.) But Lopez, who is 35 and comes from Orlando, is rarely seen without his cell phone in hand – a portable, digital photo album chock full of photos of his curly-haired young daughter.
Staff Sergeant Justin Boeck, a meaty, blonde-haired 24-year-old from Lincoln, Nebraska, works out in the gym twice a day – under orders, he says, from his fiancée, who was alarmed at his weight-loss on a previous Iraq tour. He plans to marry her when he gets home.
I count men like these, and the loved ones who miss them, among the finest Americans I have ever known. They are people who care deeply about their country and complain little though their burden is great. I have no doubt that each man will serve out his tour with honor.
Personally, I feel privileged to have traveled as one of “The Afghan Eight,” as Mauro warmly coined us when we finally arrived in Gardez. I look forward to following their experiences from this little desert outpost of ours.
I took a bus from New York City to Boston on a Friday in mid-June. I planned to spend the weekend with my mother, who lives in Brookline with her boyfriend, and then join my father and my stepmother for a few days on Martha’s Vineyard, where they had rented a house for a week of vacation.
I stood outside the Tick Tock Diner on the loud intersection of 34th Street and 8th Avenue around noon. Cabs honked and double-deckers filled with tourists passed by. Vendors manned metal carts that poured steam and the scent of grilled meat onto the street. Women in heels talked on cell phones and, one after another, travelers bearing suitcases lined up down the far edge of the sidewalk to wait for the bus. It was hot and noisy. The driver, we were told, was running late.
As I waited, I watched as a man in uniform walk slowly down the block. He wore cargo pants and a loose-buttoned shirt, all the same shade of pale earth camouflage. It was an Army uniform, the same uniform I had last seen on Matt a few weeks earlier, when he had greeted me at baggage claim in the New Orleans airport. I had flown down to visit him on his last 5 days free before deployment. He had looked quite handsome.
This man, however, looked old and ragged. He had long dark hair, which was mangled and tattered. Scruff covered his face. His eyes were bloodshot and his teeth, yellow. He walked with a hunch, swinging his arms awkwardly around as he spoke in a garbled tongue. I couldn’t tell if he was drunk or delirious. He paused towards the intersection and looked at all of us waiting in line for the bus.
“What’r you doing here?” he cried.
No one said anything. After a glance at the source of noise, everyone looked away. I averted my eyes, too.
“C’mon, give me something,” he yelled. “Why can’t y’all gimme something?”
He voice was loud and grating. I felt embarrassed, and I wasn’t sure why. After a moment he grew quiet. He walked away slowly, heading east.
Later, as I sat in the back of the bus reading a book, I couldn’t get the image of that man out of my head. I wondered if he was a veteran. I wondered if anyone ever gave him something. I wondered if everyone’s first reaction was to look away.