Michael's Dispatches



23 September 2011
Zhari District, Kandahar Province, Afghanistan
Task Force Spartan, 4-4 Cav

Many Americans have died in these vineyards.  Canadian blood has fertilized this ground, and we kill Taliban in these fields daily.  We watch them through UAVs, such as Predators, as they hide their weapons among the rows, or attack us, and often they move undetected.  When the Russians came through this area, the Afghans said they would hide under the vines until the enemy was very close, and shoot them point blank.  After all, many of the local kids grew up right here, picking grapes and playing in the vineyards.  They know every bump and divot.  The rows are not made of wire or wood as in the United States or Europe. The rows are mounds of packed mud that can stop 30mm cannon fire.  The enemy plants bombs along the rows and paths, and so our troops often cross perpendicular across the grape rows which sometimes are over chest high.  Even without the heavy gear, the obstacle course is grueling and sometimes we take fire, or someone gets blown to pieces.  The out-of-town enemies also don’t know where the bombs are hidden and so they often are killed.  Every day we hear detonations that remain unexplained.  Could have been anything.  Normally we know the causes, but many will never be known to us.  I’ve probably never written a full dispatch in this tent without hearing an explosion. Sometimes it’s a distant rumble and you only hear it.  Other times the shockwave pops the tent walls and your body feels it.  We usually hear many each day.  Fighter jets are roaring overhead as this sentence is formed.

This morning, my tentmates taped a photo of Chazray Clark to our door.  Chazray had just moved to our tent to be with his platoon.  His buddies are steps away as these words are put down.  They are sitting on their cots.  We just had a rocket strike on base and heard an explosion.  Sergeant Wooden asked me yesterday to read something he had written for Chazray.  It was very good and written by a man who was also wounded recently, and who nearly died with Chazray.  The men in this tent are moving forward, preparing for more combat but they have been noticeably saddened since the bomb took Chazray on Sunday.  Some nearly died with him.  One Soldier was so deaf that another Soldier had to grab him by the shoulder whenever he was needed.  I was farther away and could hear as the rocks rained down around us in the dark.  Chazray was terribly wounded and had been thrown and landed on his face.  The platoon was staggered yet kept their bearing.  There was no light, and the nightvision devices were useless in the thick dust.  Sergeant Wooden called out the names of his men in the darkness.  Near the detonation, nobody could see each other.  Sergeant Wooden called the names, and he called, “Clark!” Chazray was facedown.  One arm was gone and his legs were gone, and yet this man had the strength and presence to call out from the dust and darkness saying he was okay.  Chazray could still hear.  Chazray answered, “I’m okay,” and Sergeant Wooden said his voice sounded completely normal.  Just normal Chazray.  But everyone here knows that when someone calls out and says they are okay, the sound of their voice only means they are still alive.  They found Chazray and put on tourniquets and unfolded a stretcher.   I was not in the dust and could see brave men carrying him back over dangerous ground and Chazray said his arm tourniquet was too tight.  He was in great pain.  Through nightvision I could see an Afghan Soldier rush in to help carry Chazray.

Rest in Peace, Chazray Clark.  You faced death as a true warrior.  Your strength will be remembered and it will grow among the living.

Chazray was hit inside a deserted village.  When our people are wounded in the vineyards, it’s hard to get them out because it’s dangerous to walk down the rows – especially dangerous if you already hit a bomb there.  Our people take the litters perpendicular across the tops.  Some litters bow under the weight, some are more rigid, depending on the type, and the grape rows are just far enough apart to make it extremely difficult.  Evacuation is especially difficult with the litters that bow under the weight.  There are no straight answers about what is best because you can’t carry every sort of litter, and as soon as you leave the grape rows the terrain changes.

The building of mud and wood in the above image is called a kishmesh khana, which means raisin hut in Dari and Pashto languages.  The grapes are harvested and taken into the kishmesh khana and hung from poles to dry.  We often are attacked from the raisin huts.  There must be a thousand of these kishmesh khana within 20 miles of our tent, and though many Coalition forces and contractors will have seen them from the outside, few will ever step foot inside.

The mission in which these grape photos were made was days before the attack during which Chazray was lost.  This day, there had been plenty of gunshots, but only one bomb resulting in a slightly wounded Afghan Soldier.

We entered a kishmesh khana.


Moving from the hot, dusty outside into the raisin hut is like stepping from dusty Arizona into Oregon.  In two steps your senses are transported a thousand miles.  The temperature drop was probably twenty degrees.  Outside the air was hot and gritty, and unremarkable to the nose.  You might catch a bullet any second.  Inside, the air was cool, fragrant, nearly sweet-tasting, and in all ways pleasing.  If your eyes were closed and there was no shooting outside, it would be easy to imagine being in a remarkable restaurant.


Men and boys were busy with their work.


They offered us tea and kept smiling and shoving grapes at us.  The kids liked the camera but seemed more interested in making sure I tried a bunch of grapes.


The kishmesh khana can make nice ambush positions, and the enemy will even fire RPGs from inside, which must be rough on Taliban ears.  At night, using thermals, we can sometimes see Afghans sleeping atop the huts.  You cannot walk on the weak branches in the middle of a roof of a kishmesh khana, but you can walk on the edges, and so they will sleep on the edges.


Connie the bomb dog knows she’s a star because everyone likes her and says hello to her.  Later in the day, Connie’s handler actually gave her an IV, which she seemed to enjoy.  It seems inevitable that someone will opine that we are being rude to bring dogs around Afghans, but then many of the Afghans here have dogs.  The compound where we slept the night before had a kuchi dog far larger than Connie.


The Afghan sergeant major is kneeling closest to the camera on the right, with his back against the wall.  He’s been a beam of light during these missions.  His English is okay, but through his broken English and his actions you can sense this is a smart man, and when things get tense he’s on his job.  Some hours before this photo, there had been a small IED strike and later a short ambush with small arms.  Both those times, and others, he’s shown leadership.  During the mission we lost Chazray, he also lost a Soldier in the same way but on the next day.  It was a horrible scene.


I’ve traveled to about sixty countries and 48 states, and eaten a ton of grapes along the way.  Not a single grape from Sonoma to France to Italy can match the grapes in this area.  These are, by far, without comparison, the best grapes I’ve had in the world.  The texture of the skins and the fruit of the grape are just right and perfect.  The sweetness is harmonic and no seeds spoil the moment.  These are not just great grapes but fine fruit.  The experience of eating grapes has never been memorable other than in Afghanistan and the imminent combat makes a perplexing juxtaposition of complimentary bitterness that can rarely be found in normal supermarkets.

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