Michael's Dispatches

Edvard Munch in the Marijuana Patch


2011-08-18-161959-Web-1000My heavily armed tent mates hours before the mission.

24 August 2011
Zhari District, Kandahar Province, Afghanistan
Task Force Spartan, 4-4Cav

We live in tents.  Nice tents with air conditioning.  But not now; the electricity and air conditioning are out again and I’m sweating in a boiling tent to write this quickly before the laptop battery dies.  Please excuse this dispatch if it’s rough.  Batteries only last so long.  The local mess hall is a tent.  There are washers and dryers in a tent.  There is the medical tent and comms tent, and supply.  Is their electricity out?  Headquarters has a wooden building.  There are tent showers with water so hot that the shower tents are like a sauna.  The water nearly burns you.   All of this sure beats what I often get in the Himalaya.  On base, the outhouses may seem rough to passersby, but they are like five-star accommodation compared to conditions during some of the missions, when troops are forced to use a collective corner in some compound that is already used by an Afghan family.  In one compound, the family used a scythe for toilet paper for their feet.  When the kids pooped in the corner, they came out with poop on their bare feet. They used the scythe to scrape off the people-puddy, and then the kids were ready to play the high-five game we taught them, slapping high-five with little hands whose only washing occurs accidentally while they collect water from the deep wells.

On the night of the latest mission, the Soldiers had checked their gear over and over, and they were prepared to head into combat.


The Soldiers gathered their combat gear and walked in the darkness to the helicopters waiting nearby.  Roll call was taken several times, and then the engines started and the helicopters were ready and we loaded up and flew away.


The helicopters flew in black out through the night.  Inside the cabin was dark.  The only light was an infrared firefly on someone’s helmet, and it was flashing invisibly, but apparently it was enough light for my full-spectrum camera.


The helicopters landed in a marijuana patch.  The light was very dim.  The dust from the rotors and movement of Soldiers along with the splash from the moon permitted moments for using the lens as a paintbrush.  The aperture and shutter and sensitivity are the brushstrokes, while the sensor is the canvas.  The uncommon moment changes everything with the camera.  In such opportunities, the camera should not be viewed as an objective recording device, but as a paintbrush to express what can never be objectively captured.  An enemy rocket into a helicopter would dramatically change the moment and that would be real.  A bullet in the chest.  A bomb underfoot.  Other than those realities, there were some moments for art.


We moved away from our helicopter which roared away, and then another helicopter roared away, its rotors sparkling with the Kopp-Etchells Effect, while its hot engines were captured on the tiny canvas inside the camera.


The Soldier points; there is a pistol on his side.  The helicopters disappear, and now only the sounds of breathing and the crunching of parched soil under boot can be heard.  There is also the pungent smell of growing marijuana, outlawed in America but as normal here as okra.  Alcohol is forbidden here, while marijuana and opium-poppy grow by the thousands of tons.  A sentence for alcohol here could be as severe as a sentence for heroin in the United States.  Bar tabs in America are paid with money that says “In God We Trust,” while Afghans are notorious drinkers and are normally barred from Kabul bars.  And here we were, in a marijuana patch, in Kandahar Province, hypocritically calling each other hypocrites.


Maybe that’s why so many people prefer the life of a Soldier.  Moments like this are simple.


For some people, war is a duty.  For others, a gateway.  For a few, war is a gateway drug.

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  • This commment is unpublished.
    bman · 10 years ago
    A LTC with 5 combat tours leading a helicopter insertion. Things have changed since Nam.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Randy Hensel · 10 years ago
    I am sending a check to Winter Haven for the amount of a pizza. I'm on it once each month for you. Hope this helps. Keep up the good work. I'll reread this post while at Burger King eating a double wopper and large fries, drinking an ice cold coke. Say "Hi" to Apache Troop for me. God Bless
  • This commment is unpublished.
    BV · 10 years ago
    Michael, thanks for the book. It is awesome! I've had many guests read it and looking to order copies.
    I suggest you look into an iPad. The 10+ hour battery life is well worth it.
    Be safe!
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Phillip Kite · 10 years ago
    Love the Edvard Munch scream! Your images are amazing. Your work is important! Keep up the flow of truth! stay safe!
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Thomas Krivulka · 10 years ago
    Michael, keep up the good work. Your insight into the unfiltered realities of what is really happening day by day is invaluable for all of us back home. Your work will be remembered as the gold standard for front line journalism for future generations, there really is nothing else that comes close. Pass along our best wishes to all you are with, their service ( and yours ) is appreciated beyond words.

    Stay safe, we all are counting on you.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Wayne Philpot · 10 years ago
    Mr. Yon, once again you bring the day to day highs and lows of a bunch of folks doing their business a long way from home right to the desktops of us here at home. Great photography, and even more awesome attention to detail - i.e. "The Scream." Keep your head down and prayers lifted for you and the magnificent folks of the 4-4.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Rick Reiss · 10 years ago
    These night time photographs are mesmerizing. Bravo Zulu!
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Mark · 10 years ago
    Great photography and stories, love reading your articles. Recommend you let the whole Menard/McChrystal thing go though, makes you sound bitter and snarky, you ain't got time for that noise. Other than that, keep up the good work and stay safe!
  • This commment is unpublished.
    CC · 10 years ago
    ...to my son in Afghanistan.This online journal has provided me with the window I needed to peek into his world. We received your new book,thank you.Suggest it become required reading for all those holding public office. So much courage and love,as well as painful moments in such a strong tasteful format.Son is with another Troop at the moment(good guys),but I'm sure he'd want me to send his love to 4-4 CAV.So I am!
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Bryan Andrew · 10 years ago
    That camera is awesome! The pics that you take have a really.. weird but cool look to it! The one where they were in the compound I honestly thought it was day time!
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Henry · 10 years ago
    I too feel a connection thru these posts with my SON-inlaw who is there now with 4-4CAV. Michael, your narrative is so vivid I can visualize what you describe without the photos, but the photos, as Mr. Rick Reiss said, are mesmerizing. I really enjoy your candor and you sharing your honest truthful thoughts and opinions. Thanks again for giving us here in the States a glimpse of what our brave men and women endure over there.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Violette · 10 years ago
    Peace doesn't exist,only Moments of Peace.
    "Stay hungry,Stay foolish,Stay healthy"
    Don't be "bitter and and snarky"

    WE LOVE YA !!!
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Matt · 10 years ago
    What kind of camera do you use? The photos are amazing.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    W.E. Henley · 10 years ago
    What is a "screamer", as in last dispatch, please?
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Violette · 10 years ago
    is the most famous painting {crayon and tempera on paper,189 ]by the Artist Edvard Munch,it is an symbolic icon of existential anguish.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Greg · 10 years ago
    Being a soft spoiled state sider and never close to combat, other than California gangs, your reports are my gateway drug.

    You are the only journalist I read.


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