Michael's Dispatches

The villagers assembled under shade near the dry riverbed.

Captain Max Hanlin, from San Francisco, on his sixth combat tour, sat down with interpreter Daoud, or “Popeye.”   Soldiers call him Popeye because Daoud Khan says he is part owner of some Popeye restaurants back in several New England states.  Interpreters remain a significant weakness for U.S. forces here.  We hire Dari-speaking intepreters from places like Kabul to translate down here, in an area where they understand neither the language nor the culture.   (Language and cultural translation being separate issues.)  Captain Hanlin explained that he has suffered his share of bad interpreters, but Daoud is gold.  His English fluency and  understanding of American culture, and local culture and language are what is needed.  He was born just south of here in the Arghandab.

The men assembled and Captain Hanlin must have spoken with them for a couple hours.  The villagers said they could not defend against the Taliban because President Karzai had taken their weapons.  Captain Hanlin would be hard to pick out as a killer who is on his sixth tour, four of which were with the Rangers who are not known for dropping in to have tea.  A graduate of Duke, his seemingly lighthearted personality didn’t indicate what came next.  Captain Hanlin asked how many Taliban usually come to the village and the men answered just a couple or a few.  And so Captain Hanlin said they have shovels and tools, and look at all these rocks.  Just bash ’em in the head.  Kill them.  Keep their bodies.  Get on a motorbike and come tell us, and we’ll pay you for killing them and there will be no further recourse.  Just kill them.  You have them outnumbered.  The men didn’t seem to bite. 
Cell phone coverage does not exist in Baghtu Valley.  They are on their own.  They might kill the first group, but the one that followed would come for vengence.  Neither we nor the Afghan government can protect them.  Meanwhile, information came in that the Taliban also contacted the village via radio, asking if the villagers attacked us, but a villager responded that they had not attacked us because they “didn’t have anything.”

Meanwhile, just nearby, other soldiers were collecting biometric information with the HIIDE gear.  (Handheld Interagency Identity Detection Equipment.)  The HIIDE takes fingerprint, photo and retinal photo of each fighting-aged male.  In the interest of political correctness for the home audience—which means nothing here—the kids are not entered into the system.

We moved from Shah Tut village to Padah.   Two soldiers counted everyone as we departed.  It’s easy to lose someone even in broad daylight, and so the soldiers often do a head count.  Sergeant First Class Olaf Munch tapped each soldier as they passed through and counted aloud.  It’s probably no exaggeration to say that Olaf and I did a hundred missions together in Iraq.  He’s a well respected soldier and good at his profession.  I was saddened to get the news that Olaf was sent home shortly after this mission for more medical work related to the previous bombs.  Godspeed to Olaf.

We walked  through the farmer’s fields, some of which were growing poppy for opium.  Popeye the interpreter picked some poppy and stopped a young soldier and told him this is where the cocaine, crack, and heroin comes from.  The soldier cracked up as it became apparent that Popeye, though a smart man, had never been in the drug business.

A radio transmission came in.  A bomb had exploded and a soldier had disappeared.  He was “DUSTWUN” (Duty Status Whereabouts Unknown), or missing in action.  MIAs are relatively common in Afghanistan.  Bombs detonate and people disappear.  Sometimes they fly into rivers or off cliffs or simply disintegrate.

Veteran SSG Jose Rivera was recently in a Stryker that was hit with an IED.  He came out fine and continues to work hard.

The experienced soldiers kept giving me tips on how to not get blown up, and I was listening with both ears.  When going on missions, it’s important to identify the most experienced soldiers and stay close to them during any potential rough spots.  The soldiers also thought something might happen here, so I stayed close to experience.

After the DUSTWUN report, the soldiers counted again and called up that we are all accounted for.  The DUSTWUN occurred in their old Area of Operations, the Arghandab, which was being covered by 2nd Battalion, 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division.  Staff Sergeant Scott Brunkhorst, 25 years old, was killed in action.

Padah: N32'03.213' E066'02.576'  Elev 4,438ft

Snipers and Air Force JTACs (who can call airstrikes) were watching our route from vantage points.

The riverbed doubled as a road and the ANPs took the easy route while we stayed in the fields.  An ANP saw something suspicious and started hacking into the ground with his weapon as if it were a pick axe.  Speaks highly of Russian designs, but not so much for ANP training.  After he finished hacking, he banged the barrel against the rock to get out the gunk.

The mortar team consists of three soldiers.  One carries that 60mm tube with a round inside ready to fire.  The morale of that three-man crew had to be high; during any chance they were cutting up about something.  They had the boys in Shah Tut in hysterics by passing gas.  It was challenging at times moving with that mortar.  The soldiers go over the walls because the enemy places bombs on the sides and in openings.

Charlie Company came into Padah.  The men were praying at the mosque so we waited under some fig trees until they finished, and they then invited us to meet outside at the mosque.  It’s common knowledge that Muslims don’t like us in their mosques—but this seems to be common knowledge that is untrue.  Muslims in various countries don’t seem to mind.  They didn’t mind in Iraq, here, Kashmir or other places I’ve been.  They don’t like soldiers coming in with combat in their eyes—that’s a fact.  Many enemies in Iraq and here used that against us and would use mosques as fighting platforms or warehouses.  (If the enemy shoots from a mosque, they will get shot at.)  The Islamic world is vast and so it’s not good to make generalizations.  It can be said that Muslims in many countries do not mind if you come into their mosque any more than Christians mind if you come into their church.  It’s okay so long as you respect their territory.

Captain Hanlin talked about various subjects and drifted over to asking them to use their shovels and rocks to whack any Taliban who came in.  He asked if I had any questions, which turned out to be a mistake.  I asked the villagers about opium production and prices which started an argument between the village elders.  I had no idea what they were arguing about, but it went on for an impressive fifteen minutes, and finally, it was said, that they had settled.  What do they want?  Opium production, or Karzai as President.  An elder said he wanted both.  I smiled at Captain Hanlin, rather sheepishly, and said there are no further questions.

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