“Over There”: An Interview With a US Soldier Returned from Afghanistan
by J. Andrew Zalucky
The War on Terror and the protracted conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have produced a lot of commentary, news coverage, and statements from officers and leading politicians. At times, it seems as if book deals are routinely distributed to Generals, heads of the joint chiefs, and other notable military personnel as if post-retirement memoirs were Standard Operating Procedure. An often unreported story however, is that of the soldier on the front lines (when those lines actually exist). In the following interview, held via e-mail- I had the chance to chat with one such soldier who recently returned from his first tour of duty in Afghanistan. The soldier in question is still on active-duty, and has asked to remain anonymous.
What made you want to join the Army?
Since I was a kid I always wanted to join the military, I knew that eventually I would serve, but I originally wanted to serve as an officer. I was accepted into several colleges so I had to make the choice between going to school for four years and becoming an officer or enlist right off the bat. As the deadline for enrolling approached, I decided to enlist much to the dismay of my parents, who wanted me to accept an academic scholarship that was offered to me. I came to that decision because I was tired of school and I thought college was a scam and I figured I can be self-educated. I wanted to experience something different in my life; an experience college could never provide me. I felt that many college students are living in a sort of dream world where life is generally a party, while they ignore the fact that the country and the rest of the world is in turmoil or at least fail to grasp the magnitude of the chaos. But, “ignorance is bliss,” right? However I wanted to see the real world, you know, the one that is falling apart. I didn’t necessarily do it for the money or benefits, but it was also very appealing to earn a solid paycheck every two weeks and with it, pay my own way rather than leeching off my parents for at least four more years. (Please note this is what I thought before I came into the Army).
Where did you serve and for how long, and did you ever face combat/were under fire/ect?
I was deployed in support of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan for eight months. I was in the west in Herat province near the Iranian border where we did convoy security missions for NATO. We would run transport and security missions all over Herat Province and sometimes farther south into Farah province. Our convoys were attacked on several occasions by small arms, but since our mission was to protect the convoy, we would push ahead through attacks rather than risk ourselves to seek the enemy out and destroy them as it wasn’t our job. The attacks on us were never really hindered our mission. The majority of the time, my job was being the gunner mounted in the turret of an MRAP Maxxpro which gave me the opportunity to observe the country and fire back if fired upon. Fortunately we were never hit by any IED’s. After about three months of being in Herat, I was moved to the capital of Kabul for the remaining five months in Afghanistan where I worked with the PSD (Personal Security Detail) teams for various individuals; I was mainly working on the advance team clearing areas before the rest of the team arrived. While in Kabul I didn’t experience any combat.
(Photo: National Geographic)
With your on-the-ground experience in mind, what are your thoughts about our operations in Afghanistan and elsewhere? Are we doing the right thing?
In my opinion, we are doing everything we can to rebuild that country. But it’s going to take more than killing the Taliban and throwing money at the government to actually succeed there. This is a society that has not had a functional stable government in 35 years (I wouldn’t call the current government functional or stable). The scars of war are prevalent through blown out buildings, mine fields, tank graveyards, and the amputees that seem to be everywhere. The wars seemed to have made them completely backwards due to the lack of education and communication with the outside world. The success of Afghanistan depends solely on the Afghans and their willingness to step up to contribute to their country by becoming educated and cooperating with the people who are trying to help them.
Did you ever encounter any troops from paramilitaries during your tour overseas? As a soldier, how do you feel about them?
Security contractors are everywhere in Afghanistan, especially the capital. I have never had a problem with them besides that they get paid ten times more than me. I’ve talked to a few of them, and most of them are Americans who previously served in the military and they are hired to protect the interests of other contracting firms transporting supplies and equipment to bases throughout Afghanistan or as PSD elements for other contractors working for NATO. I am not aware of them participating in combat unless they are attacked. Contractors fill a security void NATO forces don’t have the capabilities to fill. They fulfill a purpose, so therefore I didn’t mind them.
How did the civilian population treat you?
The attitudes of civilians toward us varied with ethnic groups and location. In Herat, the Tajiks and Hazara’s seemed genuinely friendly and respectful because not thirteen years ago they were being massacred by the Pashtun dominated Taliban based on their ethnicity. Overall the people of Afghanistan seemed friendly towards us; however that does not mean they didn’t resent us. Afghans would normally put on a smile and although this seemingly friendly farmer or merchant by day could very well be an insurgent planting IED’s at night or even relaying intel on our movements to the Taliban. On certain occasions though, depending on the area, we would get dirty looks from the Afghans, we would have certain gestures waved at us, or even have rocks thrown at us. It was very mixed in the west. In the capital the people on the streets were very aggressive in going about their daily business, Kabul is a tough city, where a lot of people didn’t care about who we were, if we were in their way they would push us. On the other hand, I met several Afghans who worked on base, where most of whom were very friendly and would always try to make conversation in English. Also, the Afghan people were also very generous at times; they were always offering us fresh bread and fruit even though they probably made about three dollars a day.
People often say how, depending where you are in Afghanistan, you feel like you’re traveling through time, with life in Kabul like the late 20th century, and other areas resembling the Middle-Ages. Did you get that feeling yourself?
Outside the major towns or cities, in the villages it was like the middle ages; no running water, no electricity, no sewage system. I didn’t have much experience seeing remote villages because we stuck to major routes but we would pass through towns that resembled the 15th century nonetheless, where the poverty is really apparent. Even in Kabul, in a lot of areas, it was like traveling 500 years in one day. In the more affluent areas of Kabul, women would be dressed normally, although wearing a head scarf, but with their face still showing, the buildings looked modern and it looked as if it was almost like a “normal” city. Drive 5 miles away still inside Kabul and you’ll hit mud huts, women in burqas, chickens pecking around, sewage ditches, wild dogs and dirt roads. It was unbelievable.
When you were under fire, what thoughts ran through your mind?
The first time I was shot at, I got so startled, I practically jumped back into the vehicle even though I was mostly protected in my turret. I was crouched and my adrenaline was pumping and I felt the blood rushing to my face while I was peaking out of the little windows on the sides of the turret looking for the shooter. What I was honestly thinking that first time was “fuck, I’m going to get my head blown off.” It was all over probably within 45 seconds as we drove off. That first time I didn’t return fire, I almost didn’t know what to do. After that though, when the bullets started flying it was mind over matter, I had to be confident in my equipment and I let my training take over. After I got the initial shock of while taking fire for the first time, my thoughts would soon race in this form: where is this son of a bitch and how many of them are there; distance, direction, and description etc. I would also pray that these guys weren’t trying to blow us up with an IED at the same time as the small arms attack. We took contact in more rural areas so I would return fire in the general direction/area of the shooter to suppress him and give us time to roll through. We were lucky and didn’t encounter too much danger out there.
You say you wanted to “real world”. With that in mind- after your first tour abroad, what effect has this experience had on you?
There is a remarkable amount of suffering in Afghanistan. I’ve grown numb to a lot of tragic things here, because it could always be worse. I’m glad I’ve experienced these realities, because now I am more aware of all we take for granted here in the United States. When I see people’s Facebook status’s complaining about how tough finals are, how much their lives suck, or how terrible of a day they are having, I don’t care, I have no sympathy for them, not because my life is tough or I’m better than them in that respect, but because its all trivial. People all over the world don’t even have the opportunity to go to school and become educated, instead they fight hunger, poverty, and the cold. They constantly risk being in the wrong place at the wrong time where some fanatic might detonate a car bomb and kill them. That’s a bad day, it’s not something you can just sleep off over a weekend of partying.
Thank you for taking the time to chat with me here, and thank you for your service.
Well, its always a pleasure reflecting on my experiences as a whole. Thank you.
(Photo: US Air Force)