Michael's Dispatches

Bad Medicine


The British call guard towers “sangers” (a word the Brits picked up during a previous Afghan war).  At the bottom of the ladder, I announced my presence to the ANA soldier and he waved me up.

The EOD were blasting just a few hundred meters away, and after every explosion, the ANA soldier would imitate and laugh, “BOOM, BOOM, hahahahah BOOM, BOOM, hahahaha.”  He was like a big kid.  He begged to have his photo taken and then wanted to stare at his photo and begged for another photo and another.  Finally, he got behind the machine gun and acted like he was shooting.  He was saying “gugugugugugugugugugugugugugug” like he was firing the machine gun.  I walked over to make sure the gun was not aimed at any British EOD soldiers, who were in a different direction off to the left.  The ANA soldier kept making the gun rattle, “gugugugugugugugugugugugug,” while laughing like a six-year-old boy, “gugugugugugugugugug.” Where were the 3- to 5-round bursts?  He was wasting imaginary ammo.  I said “No!  It should be  gugug…..gugugugug…gugugug.  Not gugugugugugugugugugugug.” He wrapped his finger on the trigger and started to pull, but before doing so, a red LED seemed to flash inside his brain.  He stopped.  And there was a long pause, like on one of those old-timey calculators where you press “2” “+” “2” “=”  … and then wait five seconds for the answer “4.”  He checked the safety which, predictably, was on FIRE despite that a long belt of ammo was draped from the loaded gun.  He clicked the safety on and pulled the trigger and kept going, “gugugugugugugugugugug.”  Some men should not touch guns.  He made me nervous that he might accidentally shoot someone, especially a British soldier, and so I distracted him with the camera, and started taking notes.  Every time the pen hit the paper, he would lean over and stare at the writing, as if he were going to accidentally poke out his eye with the pen.


That’s when his buddy showed up with the dog.  In Afghanistan mostly only villagers keep dogs, but the ANA are copying the British and adopted their own guard dog.   Sometimes I wish all the readers could just come out here for a single day.  Readers would never forget it.  Look at that dog.  What’s he going to do against Taliban with RPGs?  He’s hardly got energy to bark.  The gugugugugugugug man insisted that I photograph his friend and the dog, and then Dog Boy sprinted to the base of the sanger, tied the breathless guard dog to the ladder, climbed up breathlessly and stared at his photo and laughed and smiled and started jabbering on and giving the thumbs up, crawled back down, untied the dog and ran away laughing while the dog tried to keep up and they both disappeared around that corner.

The British and American soldiers often like the Afghans they work with; most of the Iraq veterans (British and American) did not make friends in Iraq, but most soldiers who work closely with Afghans seem to like them.  The Afghans do some crazy, goofy things, but something about Afghans can be very likeable.  Practically none of us want to be here, but nobody seems to have malice for Afghans.  It’s difficult to explain.

Mud walls meet cinderblocks.  Locals fill the cinderblocks with mud.  If the people spent as much time building roads as they do building walls, this place would have more roads than California.

Sangin from the Sanger.  The town of Sangin is not exactly Jurassic Park like most of Afghanistan.  Despite that the British have been here since 2006, some people just a few miles from town still think the British are Russians, and the more enlightened ones seem to think the British are Americans.  Most people seem to know who Michael Jackson is, but few have heard of Canada.

A couple days before this photo, British soldiers on FOB Jackson were firing  large .50-caliber machine guns over my head, intermittantly, for about an hour.  I thought they must be shooting someone, but this dispatch was a work in progress and so eventually the .50 caliber noise started affecting my concentration while I sweated over the keyboard.  Finally, I pulled out the earplugs, walked outside and asked why the heck they keep shooting right over base?!  There was no return fire.  Turns out they were test-firing the machine guns, but every time the Fire Support Group launched bullets, villagers would see tracers and run toward the beaten zone where dust poofed up and rocks splintered through the air.  Each time the soldiers fired the machine guns, the British soldiers would have to wait for the villagers to clear out, then fire again and the villagers would run back to the impact zone.  The soldiers and I laughed at the absurdity.  Iraq was almost never funny.  Afghanistan can be like a war version of Comedy Central.

That man is walking on Pharmacy Road.  Most of the the walls are roughly fifteen feet tall, though the walls behind him are shorter.  There is no commanding ground—this is about as good as it gets—and the snipers cannot get long shots or observe far.  The enemy are aware and use the labyrinth of walls nearly as effectively as if they were tunnels.

Orientation Image #1      (Please Click on the Image for a Larger View)

FOB Jackson sits beside the Helmand River, south of the Kajaki Dam which bottles the lake at the top.  Kajaki Dam is currently protected by British soldiers from 2 Rifles.  They are completely surrounded by Taliban and fight every day.   (Please Click on the Image for a Larger View)

’The Green Zone’ is not made by rain, but by the Helmand River.  The Kajaki Dam was built by Americans decades ago.  We actually built much of the infrastructure now used to grow poppy.   (Please Click on the Image for a Larger View)

FOB Jackson, established in 2006, is the main base in Sangin.   (Please Click on the Image for a Larger View)

Scrap in front of PB Tangiers.

The mercury rose with the sun.  LtCol Rob Thomson gathered up some men and wanted to go see the EOD soldiers as they were clearing some of the most dangerous ground.  Though they had just cleared this stretch, there have been many instances where soldiers got blown to pieces by ground that was just cleared.  Cleared is more like “cleared.”

The EOD soldiers said this dog missed a big pressure-activated bomb and led his handler right over it.  Luckily the team didn’t step on the device.  The dog is better at finding shade than bombs, apparently.  Probably should be a drug dog.  I’m no expert on search dogs, but it is true that glaring sun can bake away scent.  I had the feeling that the soldier felt like he let people down, but nobody said any such thing.  Everybody knows it’s tough out here and sometimes you simply miss the bomb.

Viewed from north.  (Please Click on the Image for a Larger View)

The “Wishtan 5” were killed on the Wishtan market road on the top left.  Those five soldiers were killed in a similar attack wherein soldiers who survived the first attack were killed while rescuing their buddies.

We came into a compound that had been “cleared.”  Without EOD, our losses would be far higher in Afghanistan.  The EOD soldiers get special respect and earn every ounce of it.

LtCol Thomson checks progress.

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