With both hands I was gripping my pistol, two sweaty hands. The Glock 17 would have slipped from my grasp if I weren't wearing gloves. There was a black rifle lying next to where I was sitting on the dusty clay roof, the ammo for it was long expended. So was everybody else's. We stopped returning fire from the rooftop when the ammunition for our rifles ran out, those of us that had pistols were saving the last rounds. No no, not for ourselves, this isn't a hollywood movie. The 9mm rounds and sights on the Glocks just weren't effective at that range, we were saving them to defend ourselves. While one person was trying to peek over the edge, little puffs of dust indicated where the rounds snapped at the mud stone wall around him, my team-leader was trying to communicate over the radio. I was keeping the door covered. The kind of behaviour that is despised in a computer game, camping they would call it. But this was no game, there was no fair play. There were dozens of armed men outside, with their only goal to take our lives, there were six of us, on a rooftop in Kandahar. Trembling I kept my pistol aimed at the doorway, which revealed a staircase. I already made a mental picture of how I would squeeze the trigger the moment I saw something moving on those stairs. I was picturing how fast I could load a new mag into my weapon after emptying it. In my head, three times seventeen, that's how many bullets I would have fired before anybody got through this door. For the last minute rotor blades could be heard overhead. It was a reassuring thought, but the Apache gunship hadn't fired yet. It would have to identify targets first, and communication between us was not going smooth. It was my sergeant-major who shouted, “Get down!” Over the sound of AK fire rattling down in the street. It was then I got the wind knocked out of me.
How did I get there? Well I suppose I should start with a different question first, who am I? I'm a sergeant in the Royal Marechaussee (KMar), a young one at that, during this story, a lot has changed since then but thats not what this story is about. I joined the OCKmar, now named LOKKMar, the big brass like to change names every so often, a school for non commissioned officers when I was 17 years old. For the first three months I got basic military training. They thaught me how to march, how to make my bed, how to eat, how to sleep, and how to hold a rifle. After a tiring exercise in the last week of basic, that was over. The rifles, Canadian made Diemaco C7's, were handed in to the armorer and what I didn’t know at the time, is that that would be the last time I held a rifle for the next couple of years. The next year we learned all about how to be police officers and then at the age of 19 I graduated and I was an NCO walking around with a Glock at a big international airport. It felt a little surreal at that age, but it's what I signed up for, and I enjoyed my job and the responsibilities that came with it. We'll skip over the next years of me tactically operating a desk doing police work and working as a dangerous substances military safety inspector to the point where I got a call telling me that I was going to Afghanistan.
It was a strange thing to get used to. After all, I never signed up for war. Yes I know I know, I joined the military, its part of the job, but I mean, I didn't join the army. I'm not an infantry grunt that spends his life training for that war, spending every day with his rifle and his unit honing his skill. No, the last time I held a rifle was years ago in basic. I signed up for a job in national security, hell, most KMar never get deployed in their entire career, there’s too much work for us to do at home, but not me, I was one of the 'lucky few' to get chosen to go.
So how does that happen? Well, you get a phone call from camp Nieuw-Milligen, from a lieutenant informing me I'm going to be part of the next rotation for PRT Kandahar. Not much other information, I asked some questions, but didn't get a lot of answers. I got a very formal letter the next week saying something about needing to do my duty for my nation and my queen with a printed signature of the minister of defense, a very fancy story copy pasted and printed by a young enlisted clerk behind a desk. It included a roster for additional training to prepare for the mission, four months of getting to know the guys who I was going to be there with and teaching us how to shoot, search for mines, use a gas mask, drive off-road, practice contact drills... A lot to do in four months time. Nine other people were on the list, nine names I had never heard of before.
I met the group two months later. We were all 'specialists' in our trade one way or another, thrown together in a group in the hopes we could teach our skills to the Afghan National Police. Two people in the group knew each other prior to this but other than that it was a case of introducing yourself to each other. “Hi, I'm Peter. I work at mobile immigration, district south.” I shook his hand and forced a smile, this guy was supposed to be one of nine others I'd had to leave the gate with in a war zone, and all I could think was Fuck this guy is a fatass, how did he pass selection?
But we got to know each other, got to trust each other, and they were a right bunch of guys. We were just all completely clueless when it came to the job we were about to do. Well all but one. Our sergeant-major had done a former deployment in Iraq, SFIR-4. I was glad he was coming along. Then there was the captain. He was the kind of officer you would follow on a bayonet charge in the first world war, a big, calm man, not your friend, but your leader, with a mustache to match. Granted, he had been to Sudan, but other than that no deployment like Iraq or Afghanistan. It was unknown territory for him too, but somehow we still felt that we could trust our lives with this guy. I wont bore you with the details of the rest for now. They were all a fairly good bunch of guys that you could trust, but soldiers? Hardly. None of us were.
My initial questions started getting answered. No, we weren’t getting escorts. Yes, the unarmored, unarmed Mercedes-Benz Jeeps (MB's) we were training with was what we were going to be driving around with over there. No, nobody is getting special weapon training, and we were not getting any minimi's or panzerfausts. “In fact, we are not expecting you to fire your weapon at all, it's really just there for personal protection, but you'll be staying in Kandahar. It's a relatively safe place, the war there is over," an instructor told me. I believed him at the time. It would be like walking in a bad neighborhood of Amsterdam at night, nothing special for a law enforcement officer. With statements like that I reckoned it would be quite worrisome for the people at home, but quite boring for us. I didn't mind, sounded perfect to me. Most Dutch cops pride themselves on the fact that in their entire career they have never had to fire their weapon. I was planning on honoring that tradition.
Oh the training itself, yeah that was quite a failure. They taught us some of the language, which turned out to be the wrong dialect completely, so it was utterly useless, but hey, shit happens, we have a translator. And then the weapons... oh boy the weapons. First we used a simulator. A screen in front of you and a rifle in your hands attached to a wire. I wasn’t a perfect shot, but I never thought I'd be this horrible. I couldn’t hit a man-sized target at 100 meters. Not with a single shot. Something is wrong with this thing I said, but the range master wouldn't have it, he insisted I was just a lousy shot. After eventually getting him to try my rifle, he couldn't hit anything either, it was infact the simulator that was faulty. Phew, that was a relief. So on to real rifles, oh yeah baby I was looking forward to this. It was old and busted up, ex-army Diemaco C8 carbine, a shorter version of what we used in basic, but it worked. At least mine did. Jeff's rifle was fucked up big time. Jeff, yeah, the funny guy. Why was he the funny guy? Well, he was the youngest of the group, 19, fresh out of OCKMar, the rookie. Humor can be great shield at times from the big world around you at that age. I'm no weapons expert, but I do not think his rifle was supposed to fire two rounds per trigger pull then fail to feed each time while on semi. So we tried burst. Well, we finally got it to fire one round, but again not really our intention when you are expecting a three round burst. Needless to say this continued for a while with the range master shouting at him until eventually the rifle discharged in between Jeff and the instructor while his hands were of the rifle and off of the trigger. Finally they decided to get him another rifle. And they were going to ship us of to Afghanistan with this, but not that it mattered, after all “We are not expecting to fire our weapon, it is a safe place.”
A Good Place
Inevitably the day came. You say your goodbyes to your girl, family and friends. You get on a KDC-10 to Kabul and mentally prepare yourself for the most basic of basic of living conditions for the next half year, for a radically different world. How do you do that? Well, you don't think about it and talk about other stuff on the flight, its all pretty relaxed. Well until the decent to Kabul starts. Which is done at night, with no lights, with the airplane making evasive maneuvers, just in case someone shoots at you. “Just in case someone shoots at you.” Its a consideration I have never had to apply to anything I did in my life.
Well, Kabul was pretty basic, we took a shower, slept a couple hours, then we got on a helicopter to Kandahar. An American Chinook. That was different, we talked with the crew chief for a while, he was used to the place. I remember him talking about how the helicopter got shot at from time to time in a far to casual way, “RPG's are part of the local weather”, is what he said. It was also the first time I was introduced to the minigun, a huge six barreled machinegun, which this helicopter had two of on either side. There was also a machinegun on the rear door. I tried to recall whether or not our Dutch Chinooks even had any weapons mounted in the first place, afterall it's just a transport. I didn't have that much time to think, because our new home came into view outside--Kandahar Air Force Base.
I was told it was big, but I still didn't imagine it would be this big. When we got out of the helicopter we were shown to our living quarters. A couple prefabs, basically armored shipping containers used as housing units with... internet connection? We received our basic safety instructions, which alarm means what, where the nearest bunker was, and were handed our weapons. Finally. It felt good to sling your rifle. There is something about having a firearm that makes you feel safer than the best body armor in the world. They were pretty basic though, C8's with iron sights. We had already seen every single US Army guy that walked by with a fancy M4 with rails, a grip, infrared an-peq lasers, and either an ACOG or Aimpoint optic. We went for a walk across the base and... is that a Burger King? And a Subway? We stared in amazement at the Pizza Hut and various other shops and food outlets. Centre Parcs of Afghanistan the resident soldiers called this place. Absolutely not what I was preparing for on the plane ride over here...
Life on Kandahar Airfield is pretty good. The food is good, you have plenty of opportunity to exercise, the living quarters are a relative luxury, and strolling over the bazaar on Saturdays was always an amusing past time. Imitation watches and sunglasses, pirated CDs and DVDs, that kind of thing. “Wen de dividi broken is you ket niew wan from me,” he said. They were pretty bad quality, but if you returned them he did give you a new one. Of course the one you returned was placed back among his stock as soon as you walked away, he wasn't that stupid. We bought a senseo coffee machine at the local supermarket. Best, thing, ever. I'm too much of a caffeine addict to survive on instant coffee alone. The weather is... hot. And when it's windy it's not like a breeze to cool it down, its like somebody is pointing a hairdryer in your face. Sometimes you step outside and forget to put on your sunglasses, the resulting blindness is not the most enjoyable of experiences. And the dust, it gets everywhere. We undergo all this in our dark green woodland fatigues, while the Americans, Canadians, English and Romanians try to explain to us that there isn't actually a whole lot of green trees, green field, or any other sort of related color matching our uniforms around here really. The Americans started collecting old desert fatigues for us to try and get us all at least one set of clothes actually suited for this part of the world.
And then came the first trainees. They arrived at the gates in the morning. How did they get there? Some hitched a ride when possible. I was amazed how many people could fit on a pickup. Some walked, which was impressive. It was quite a walk from town to the base, and this man didnt own any shoes, yet he was standing there every morning ready for training. Well, most days these guys weren't that bothered about attending. Most of them missed a class here and there, but you make the best of it. They couldn't read or count, it was hard to imagine how disconnected from the world they had lived. And we had to turn these guys into police officers in a couple weeks. Most were actually quite dedicated, they really wanted to help their country. I respected that. They were given a uniform and a gun, and we would teach them how to shoot, how to make an arrest and cuff someone and, well there was not a whole lot we could teach them in three weeks. We had a basic idea written up by someone at home behind a desk. To that person a couple weeks was apparently enough to turn an illiterate person into a police officer. But these guys were dedicated. When they passed the first three weeks they would come back for another 4 weeks of extra training, at least, if they could read, because that training did entail the extensive paperwork that came with police duties.
The day you've been looking forward to, you get to leave the gate for the first time. Just six of us, as it would always be. Four people stayed behind and six people in MB's went out to visit police posts and stations. Not the first time though. The first time we traveled in a US convoy. Army guys in humvee's with .50 machineguns on them. They were better armed in every way. Their humvee's were covered in armor plating on all sides, our MB's had no armor whatsoever, theirs were armed with machine guns, ours, nothing. They all had fancy M4's with the latest optics, we used iron sights. Every fourth man had a light machinegun and underslung grenade launchers were a common sight. What exactly all those AT4 anti-tank launchers that they carried around everywhere were for, not to mention the extra pair they had in each truck, I don't know, I didn't think the Taliban had a lot of armored vehicles, but I'm sure they found a use for them. But hey, don't worry, this place is safe, I wont have to fire my weapon anyway.
We got to a small village. The American lieutenant went to have a chat with the village elders while we checked out the police post. It was interesting how they perked up when we approached them. They were eager to show of to us, telling us how they saw a suspected car and searched it etc. Not that I believed they actually worked as hard as they want us to believe, but the willingness was there, it was a start. Our meeting was over soon, but the the meeting with the elders took a lot longer. With the rest of the Americans pulling security we were left to entertain ourselves in the village for a bit. We met with the local children who, might I say, were adorable little shits. No really, I liked them and their cheekiness. We gave them candy, key shaped liquorice sweets, a Dutch thing I suppose. I have no idea who came up with the idea, but they are damn tasty. The kids loved it and had never tasted it before, in fact they never had any candy before whatsoever. One of the Americans joined us and gave them some candy from his MRE ration. We taught the kids some Dutch songs, Sinterklaas songs, more typical Dutch things, winning hearts and minds, starting at the roots. It was time to move on. We left the village with the kids chasing after us as we waved them goodbye. I had a smile on my face, this was a good place, I was gonna like it here.
Three more weeks of training Afghan National Police, ANP, went by, the next batch had arrived. The engineers had been making a place for them on the base, so some of them stayed on the base during these weeks with the Afghan National Army. It was a huge improvement from having them walk barefoot from the city every day. They quickly adjusted to life on a base and in no time tried to imitate the Western soldiers in every way. Like how some started wearing knee protectors on their ankles, because they saw an American soldiers wear it that way, on who it had just slipped there. They never stopped to think about why, they just copied it. We did try to spend some time with them, though it was mostly kinda awkward when there was no translator around. They served us a drink which I'm not sure whether it was tea or coffee, I think it was tea, but the strongest one I ever had. They didn't like my senseo coffee. And that’s how days progressed. I woke up in the morning, turn on the senseo, put on my uniform, strap my Glock to my thigh and drink my coffee. Over breakfast we discussed what the plan for today was, and then we spend a good amount of hours training ANP's, or better said, herding cats. Don't get me wrong, they had the devotion, it just, I don't know, they just didn't get it. They had the attention span of a child, it was very difficult getting through to them and understanding their culture.
Another day, another patrol. We were going to visit the same village as before. We had an interesting discussion with the US Army guys before leaving the gate. We had gotten orders to leave our helmets off, it would look more friendly, and idea to win hearts and minds the guys back in parliament came up with. Meanwhile the Americans weren't allowed to take them of at all, they had to be on at all times, and the strap secured. I'm sure someone high up was just uptight about things, I was glad our commanders were more down to earth and relax about things, after all, its safe for us here, isn't it? The convoy stopped. At the front two soldiers grabbed metal detectors and started searching the road ahead. Not that they found anything, it was just a precaution. Somehow that was the last straw for my guard. There was no roadside bomb, no IED or anything, my guard was now completely down, I truly believed it was safe here. The convoy started moving again. A while later we approached the village. There were not a lot of trees here, but the ones outside that village stood out. I felt sick when we identified the lifeless objects hanging on the trees as the kids I was playing with three weeks prior. Its like that sheltered life, that bubble of protection around you, suddenly shatters, it was very hard to believe. I felt guilty, these kids were hanged because of us. They mingled with us and had to die. Or it was punishment for the village for not resisting us. Or... all these ideas were running through my head, but mostly I was angry. Whoever had done this, whatever their reason, they had to be brought to justice. Together with the American officer and our translator present we talked to the elders. They explained to us the story of how when we left the Taliban came to the village. They knew the kids listened to music and danced and ate candy. The Taliban forbids this and the children were punished, by death. I couldn't believe it, but I was assured by them that it was not specifically because of us. The Taliban punished the kids for their 'wrongdoings'. It was then that I was sure that the Taliban needed to fucking die.
I'm usually the sunny guy of the group. And I still was, I can put up a pretty good act. But in my mind everything had changed. I truly wanted to help these people. They were repressed, in every sense of the word, and they deserved my help more than anyone. At home you hear the usual complains “We should stop focusing on the problems in some far off country, we have our own problems here.” What problems? The fact that you can't afford to buy the latest fucking iPhone? Fuck of, thinking you need help more than these people. I wasn't for war, and I wasn't for the political agendas of the world, but being here was justified. These people wanted our help. On our last patrol the elders said, “we want to side with you, but we just cant. NATO comes here once a month, the Taliban come here every week. You cant protect us, you couldn't protect our children even though you wanted to, why would we side with you? Its suicide.” I didn't know what to say, it was true, we didn't have the manpower to play hero, because somewhere on the other side of the world people think it would benefit this conflict if less soldiers were involved. The public doesn't want to see more soldiers go to war, and the politicians agree. So we have to make do.
Mail from home. That was always good. I got a letter from my girlfriend, it was dated a month back, but at least it arrived. A big load of senseo pads. I was glad, I was running low on those, and the local market here doesn't have the dark roast ones I like. Some dirty mags from the boys, what a surprise there. But most importantly, desert uniforms, yay! Oh no, don't get your hopes up, we didn't get them issued, they were a generous donation from a unit of airmobile infantry back in the Netherlands who had served in Iraq, but at least we finally had clothes to match. Training continued. We heard news of an attack in the city. A US soldier died in an attack on a police station. Oh yeah, some ANP's died too, but somehow that was just an afterthought at the end, as if that wasn't interesting at all. Strange, we were at that police station a couple days earlier, and some of the guys we trained got sent there. I genuinely started wondering if those guys were all right. You try not to think about it. The next evening was a strange one. The alarm went off, the base was under attack. A ground attack, there were enemies on the compound, so we heard. We were huddled on the ground in a compound in the Dutch corner. Mostly air force guys, ground crews that kept the F16's in the air. They were all unarmed and visibly more worried than us. When it was told that there are hostiles on the base and the protection teams were fighting them everybody had only one question “when are we getting guns?” They didn't, leaving the two of us as the only armed people around, each with a single pistol and 17 rounds for it, extra mags for it were back in my living quarters on my vest. Shots were clearly heard outside, I couldn't believe anybody had the balls to attack this place, but it soon died down and the all clear was given. Maybe I still had my air of invulnerability around me, but the situation never felt dangerous to me. This base is safe, it was foolish of them to attack, and they couldn't harm us here.
A group of Dutch engineers was shipping out. Before they left, of course they had to pull a stunt and sawed down the legs to our picnic table in the middle of the night. We talked with the guys from the MP, also KMar, and they started a witness interrogation to get to the bottom of this matter. There were two MP's and twenty-two engineers and they can interrogate about six people per day, so they reckoned the investigation would take about four days. A highly amusing joke, so good that even the officers played along. After actually believing their flight home would be postponed for four days the perpetrators confessed to the heinous crime, and they left for home. Though that still left us without a table, so it was time to scout around for tools and wood. It didn't take us long to get a saw and cordless drill and after a good hard days work we had ourselves a new table. We could then focus our attention on more pressing matters, football world cup! The Americans quickly realized the Dutch corner was the place to be. What exactly was up with this huge orange themed party was completely lost to them, and they stared in amazement as the television showed twenty-two people on a field kicking a ball around. It was a good party and that's all that mattered to them. After explaining to them how much national pride we have in football and the color orange, some of them helped us sneak into the UK MP barracks. Ones there we covered up every Union Jack with a Dutch flag, and of course spread as much orange around as possible. Denying knowing anything about why the inside of their sleeping quarters was suddenly painted orange this next morning over breakfast was priceless to say the least.
Another patrol. Earlier we had spread the “ISAF Newspaper”, proper propaganda control for a people who couldn't read. But just for them it included a lot of pictures on how to turn in suspected Taliban. Also lots of articles about work done around the region. The reaction was positive, so here we are, on another mission as paperboys. As usual, the six of us were sent out. Three MB's loaded with newspapers and water bottles. First stop would be the police station, as usual, to check in on things. It seemed like any other day when we left the gate and turned onto the road to Kandahar city. I was driving in the lead vehicle, Rob, sheriff Rob was sitting next to me. He was the only one in the group with a little bit of extra weapons training, so he carried the groups shotgun, a mossberg 590, hence the sheriff. We were always a chatty bunch but I don't recall what we were talking about when suddenly, black. Like you just get knocked out, you don't really remember anything except just well, everything went black. In my memory there was no bang, no explosion. I'm not sure how long it took, be apparently it was just seconds. I sat there kinda phased, I couldn't recognize the world around me. The mangled metal didn't resemble the MB I was just in. My first concern was Rob who was sitting next to me. He had the same thought and he was staring back at me as he put a hand on my shoulder. Next to me was the sergeant major. He had seen a man get killed in an ambush in Iraq, he wasn't wasting any time making sure we weren't added to that list. He stood there shouting, or at least his mouth was moving like he was but my hearing wasn't cooperating at the time. Optimistic as I always am, I sat there, waiting for the rest of the group, waiting for four guys around us laughing saying look how you cocked up this time. But that never came, just the sergeant-major asking if I could get out. It was a strange question until suddenly, probably very close, but sounding very faint far in the background “Contact right! Contact right!” It is that word, contact, that switches you on. Its been drilled over and over and over into your mind and body in basic. You immediately know what you have to do. That sudden surge of adrenaline that can make a man perform miracles. All your senses suddenly sharpen and I could now hear the metallic thud of rounds hitting the truck. I got out with my weapon and laid down on the ground. On my right I could already see the rest of the guys putting fire down range exactly like they were taught. I couldn't actually see any targets. I'm not sure if my senses were just that dulled, or if we really were just shooting at nothing. But there was a ditch 100 meters away which the fire was probably coming from, so you start putting rounds in that direction. Instinct takes over at this point, before you know it you are rolling on your side grabbing that next mag from your vest to feed into your rifle with a smooth motion. Slap the bolt release, and continue. Its not rocket science, you just lay there and shoot until no more rounds are coming in your direction, or you have no more rounds to send in their direction or someone tells you to do otherwise. We were not far from the base, it was probably less then 10 minutes before the quick reaction force, QRF, arrived. When I heard the sound of rapid fire cannons from the QRF's armored vehicles I could finally relax. Not that that was good thing for me, since that meant I now felt the stinging pain in my legs. I just laid there, I had trust in my team leader and the QRF, help would be on the way, and it was. An American medic was tending to me and Rob soon after. The usual assurances you see in hollywood movies “You're gonna be alright buddy”. When I looked behind me I could hardly recognise the mess that was once my MB. The IED must have went of a bit ahead of the vehicle. The rear end was intact, but the engine compartment was completely shredded. A gaping crater was in the road in front of the mangled truck. Half a second later, or if I had driven just a couple km/h faster, the entire MB would have been shredded to unrecognisable bits. Oh yeah, no, we definatly didn't feel invulnerable anymore after that...
Build Where We Can
Role 3 Kandahar hospital. Now there was a place I would have been very satisfied never seeing the inside of. I was hoping to not have to walk in here to visit someone, I was not expecting to be lying there myself. And I got my visitors, the entire group standing around my bed “Ha, damn you really cocked that one up didn't you.” Finally, I was waiting for that remark. It wasn't actually that bad, the injury that is. A bit of shrapnel embedded into my legs, not deep, nothing permanent, but lets just say that in the coming days pants would not be the most comfortable thing. I've had worse, no really I have. Horse riding was always a favourite past time of mine. As a kid, when I was fourteen, I got in an accident with that, I got trampled under two fighting horses. Spend a good week in the hospital with a couple broken ribs, broken arm, broken fingers, some internal haemorrhaging in my abdomen. When you are that age all this has a pretty big impact and its true what they say, you have to get back on the horse ASAP. That's the only way of overcoming that fear. Well a week later, my body was still pretty banged up, but hey, they released me from the hospital so that was good enough for me, I got back on the horse. That same horse, the one that trampled me. It was an ex-race horse, the wildest horse they had on stable, but somehow I had full control of it that day, even the owner couldn't believe it. From that day on I rode that horse every week, and the owner wanted me to ride it. I had some grim determination to tame this animal, and I did. That's what I thought about lying there in the role 3, I had to get back on the horse, got to get back out there on patrol like nothing happened. So I set my mind on recovery, and two days later I was back on my feet. A couple days after that I was back in Kandahar, on patrol. It felt good, better than before. I was determined.
Low ops Sundays, those were good. Sleeping in till ten, and wandering around the base. We really only trained on the weekdays, and there aren't many patrols on Sundays. So you wander around the base a bit, trying to keep yourself busy. There weren't many flights on this particular Sunday, either, so the fly boys decided to show us around a bit. Explaining stuff about their jets, mostly showing off, though it worked. I was impressed. I've always loved this kind of hardware. The RAF guys let me sit in a Harrier jet, I had to resist temptation to try out any of the buttons. They did yell “you can pull that big handle labelled eject!” But in all my wisdom I decided against that.
Time for lunch. Queueing up in front of the Pizza Hut I chatted with some of the Americans. Martin, a big muscular staff sergeant. We had been out with his group on patrol twice, the kind of thing that gives you a small bond. They felt as if they should protect us, and in a way I didn't mind. We could take care of ourselves sure, but I did have an interesting conversation with him. “In the end, we are all going out the same gate,” is what he said. They were infantry, grunts, meant to fight. Before being shipped out they were told “Kandahar is Taliban central, it's dangerous there, and there is going to be fighting.” Funny, they told us something completely different, but here we are, going out the same gate.
The next day he asked a couple of us to come to the range with them. We have a nice open range out by the base, not the kind of stuff you would find anywhere in the Netherlands. A wide stretch of empty desert with burnt out wrecks at different distances to train with the longest range weapon systems. They got us some Aimpoints for our weapons. We didn't bother asking where they got them. Fallen of a truck, broken, lost somewhere in the cogs and wheels of logistics, you know exactly what I'm talking about. More equipment handed to us by unofficial means, but it worked, and it was appreciated. We lined up, laid down and started sighting in the new optics. I was amazed how easy shooting was with them. No lining up sights, no perfect cheek weld, just put the red dot on the target and pull the trigger. I spend a good couple hours on the range that day, learning how to shoot with my new set up. Until a shot, well, a lot of shots were fired, but that one insignificant shot, somewhere behind me. Not that I noticed it until I heard someone shouting, “Check fire! Check fire!” An American soldier had been shot, in the foot. It was an accident, another soldier had a “negligent discharge”, that's what they called it. In reality he was just fucking with his rifle, I don't know exactly what happened, and I didn't want to. He shipped home the next day, back to the states. I thanked the staff sergeant and his group for the training and optics and left the range. I walked past the ANP area, where Rob and Jeff were trying to make the Afghans do push-ups. I say trying because it mostly just looked like beached whales struggling to get back in the water. Most couldn't get themselves up once. I don't think they lacked the strength, it seemed more like a complete lack of motor skills, like they were not only mentally but physically underdeveloped. Maybe I was just pessimistic. These guys were trying, they wouldn't be here if they didn't want to do this. I managed to go to sleep early that evening.
The next week was good. We visited a school that the Provincial Reconstruction Team, together with Afghan contractors built in the city. It was a girls school. Most women weren't allowed education in Afghanistan, but that was slowly changing. They were safe here from Taliban law. Yes it was still hostile every once in a while, but it wasn't like the smaller villages where the Taliban were free to enforce their rule. And these kids deserved it. I saw a little girl with a makeshift toy. An old soap bottle, with bottle caps for wheels, pulled along on a string. She was happy. We brought a football along for them, we wrote KMAR on it before handing it to them. Merchandising, Jeff called it. At the time that I'm writing this, Kandahar has their own woman’s football team. Somewhere in the back of my head I like to think that ball we handed them helped achieve this. It's the small things we do that can make a difference.
Later that week we set up a checkpoint on the main street. Or at least, the ANP set up a checkpoint and we helped. It was part of the examination of the advanced police training program. A car approached the checkpoint, and it was funnelled into the correct area. The driver was told to get out and he was searched while one man covered the whole proceedings with his AK. The people appreciated it, contrary to belief, a lot of them like the show of force--the idea that these people would actually actively be here for them. Well, at least that’s what they told us. I learned early on what Afghans say and what Afghans think isn’t always the same thing. But it went good, they all performed well. Just like kids with short attention spans, they paid a lot better attention when they actually got to put things into practice. All of them received their diplomas the next day in a ceremony on the base. They looked nothing like the boys we took in two months prior. They had uniforms, weapons, handcuffs, and they all stood there very proud with their paper in hand. Yes, I was sure, maybe not all of them, but most would go out and make this country safer. They were young boys who just graduated, and now walked around their city, with an AK and all the responsibilities that came with it. Kind of how I walked around Schiphol airport with my Glock, when I graduated from the OCKMar. We were helping, we were building. Seeing the results--the fruits of your labour really warms the heart. We built a school, we trained another batch of police officers. Mission accomplished.
Life in Kandahar was becoming normal. With our help proper police investigations were started. I'm not talking about Sherlock Holmes novels, very basic police stuff. And its not like a robbery was hard to solve, as criminals are generally quite dumb the whole world over, from the Netherlands to Afghanistan. You just went to the market to look for you stolen stuff. Once you got the right suspect it was easy from there. Witness statements, fingerprints, etcetera made cases like this easily solved. We tried to have the ANP solve their own cases although most of the times we did most of the thinking but let them feel that they solved it. They are new to this, you got to help them out a bit. It was motivating. And you cant have them fail in public, that's just not done in Arab cultures. They will blame you and hate you forever. Another case, more people to talk with. That's what I spend most of my time with, talking to people. I wasn't prepared for this, but by now I was getting to know the people, the culture, and even the language. We were commenting on the simple pick ups with machine guns jury rigged to them the police used. Halfway we suddenly realised we were having this conversation while driving behind them in unarmed four by fours. We arrived at the house, or qal'a, a walled collection of houses where a whole family would live, it was kind of out of town. They wanted to talk to the ANP, said they had information, so we brought the ANP to them. They were doing most of the work themselves, it was good to stand on the sideline. Well maybe not this particular sideline. See, qal'a's are horrible to defend. You'd think putting a wall around you would make you feel safer, but in reality it made for a bad position to be in. The walls had no windows to shoot out of, no ledges and parapets to shoot back from the walls, just a gate on one side, and a small doorway on the other. In this case there was also a section broken down, from fighting in earlier years during the US invasion. When the rounds started coming our way this is where we mostly returned fire from. It was hard to see the enemy, and hard to engage them at those ranges. We began to return fire, sparsely, we didn't have that much ammo and no light machine guns. You try to identify muzzle flashes and firing positions. I put the red dot over the approximate area and pull the trigger a couple times. It wasn't accurate, I didn't see a target to shoot at, but it was definitely going in the right direction, and it wasn't long till no more fire was coming in our direction--maybe two minutes. And that's as simple as it is, you put fire down range until none comes back. I don't know if we hit anything, and I didn't really want to think about it. It was just another fight, now we could continue with our work. But I'm not stupid, those four farmers with tools walking across the field from where the rounds came just minutes after the firefight may have played innocent, but I knew they were the ones that shot at us—but what can you do?
A Dutch reporter was on the base. I never talked to her but I was there when my sergeant-major was interviewed. I thought it was good, some media coverage. We were eager to show the world back home what we were achieving here. It was hard work, sometimes dangerous, and not progressing at the speed we really wanted to, but the prospects on paper were unrealistic goals anyway, any sane person could see that. As far as what we saw, the mission was going well. That was until the reporter was sitting opposite my team leader, and she opened her fucking mouth. “How do you feel that you can't do your job, that a rebuilding mission has turned into a fighting mission?” What the fuck?! “Why is it that the situation in Afghanistan is only getting worse, and there is no end in sight?” I was angry, this bitch couldn't be serious. We built a school, by this time we had trained 100 police officers, that is 10 people each in 3 months time. And she was sitting here, writing our mission of as a complete failure, asking us how we felt about that! It was good that my sergeant-major was able to keep his cool. His reply was calculated, but sincere:
“We build where we can and fight where we must.”
His reply was longer than that, he did talk about the school, and how building was ninety percent of what we did here, and the fighting only ten percent, but of course that didn’t make it into the actual media coverage, just the catchy one liner.
I gave a dollar to the Afghan local to wash my car. It wasn't to make it look pretty, it was needed regularly. The dust would clog up everything. I sat down drinking more water. Water, so much water, you could never drink enough of it in this climate. We didn't have a lot of running water on this base, I suppose that was the only luxury we missed here. I would have traded that Burger King for a regular shower any day. It was summer, and a very hot day. The meter showed fifty degrees air temperature, it was hard to imagine. Almost every door had a paper on it. It told you how much you had to drink, at what hours of the day. Yeah, you really had to follow those instructions, you cant just drink when you're thirsty, that doesn't work. At the hottest hours of the hottest days it read, 2 ½ liters of fluid per hour. Your body protests when you force that much water down, it's not used to that, it's not natural, but if you don't stick to it you are dehydrated within the hour. I started to wonder about small silly things, like who put these papers up every day. That must be a day task. I can just imagine the conversation “We want you to go to Afghanistan to do your duty for your country, we need you to hang up notifications on doors all over the base for six months.” In a way this was true, two thirds of the people on this base never left the gate. They all had an important role to fulfil, weather forecasters, ground crew, military police, that guy that cleaned my air conditioning every time it got clogged up with dust, and that guy that hangs up the notifications, this war couldn't be fought without them. Oh yeah, there I go again, I called it a war, I mean this reconstruction mission of course.
Half Way There
I had a great view from up here. Jet engines roared overhead, two F16 fighter jets. They approached low, always trying to stay between the mountains where possible. In the valley down below US forces were fighting Taliban. Our original plan was to go down there, to chat with the locals. That plan changed when the Americans called in the troops in contact. So we waited here, a good distance away from the fighting, a couple miles, with the perfect view. I'd be lying if I said I wasn't enjoying it. The average person might say they wouldn't enjoy the spectacle, but they'd be lying too, we like action movies with lots of explosions for a reason. See, a couple minutes before this the American soldiers down there called in a nine liner, a request for medical evacuation. Shit was serious, and command went full out on this one. Aircraft arrive and get added to the stack, the stack of close air support, circling, waiting for their turn to drop bombs. The F16's made a second pass over the valley, ten seconds later the ground shook. You could see a black debris cloud kick up and a shockwave ripple through the dust. There was no fireball, this was not directed by Michael Bay, no, this was much more impressive. To feel the heavy thud sound through your body is indescribable. BRRRRRRRRRAAT! That was the sound of a warthog jet firing its main gun overhead. Tiny explosions rippled through the valley, hundreds of them in what might be just two seconds. I really did not want to be on the receiving side of the hardware we had flying up there. If that gun was aimed at you your day was fucked. I noticed I couldn't wipe the grin of my face, I just couldn't, no matter how much I wanted to.
Another low ops day. Not because it was Sunday, but because it was our midterm day, the halfway point of the mission. A day for tradition and games. On mid day, when it was nice and hot, it was time to saw the mission in half. Literally yeah, we had a big piece of wood painted in the Dutch tricolor, red white blue, and you write the mission name on it. The youngest and oldest person of the group would then proceed to saw it in half. It was a nice tradition, done all over the Dutch military. I think it started with sailors, who would do this on the halfway point of their voyage. Jeff and the captain where up, sawing away in the fifty five degree heat while we were sipping our drinks. Not alcoholic drinks mind you, some very sweet tasting non-alcoholic bubbly, but you pretend. In fact with the correct party atmosphere enough of that bubbly could get you pretty drunk it seemed. Its nice to see everybody relax like that. After the sawing there would be games, all different kinds, from volleyball to a stratego tournament, but that would have to wait for a bit. Thirty minutes in and the wood was still defiant till the end. Maybe it was the straining heat, maybe it was the old man losing his strength, but most likely it was the metal bar that the engineers hid in the wood before they painted it that they failed to mention. Under a loud cheer the two pieces finally dropped to the floor, time for celebrations. I went to bed tired that day, which I often do, but a different kind of tired, a good kind. I fell asleep with smile on my face, half way there.
The following months went by surprisingly quickly. We didn't get shot at, no IED's either. The training was going sound, the classes were getting bigger and at this rate we would have trained 400 police officers at the end of our mission. Yeah, I'm making my difference in the world, we are making this place safer. Oh yeah sure there was the occasional bad news. Another police post attacked, another American killed, it hit you every time, yet somehow it didn't. Part of the job, part of the risks. The people in this country don't give much heed to danger, their life continues regardless. You wont see anybody here wearing a helmet when riding a motorcycle, and no cop giving a ticket for not wearing your seatbelt, it just wasn't a subject. That attitude wears on you, whatever happens happens, you cant change fate. Well I wish I could, because that day fate definitely wasn't on my side. We had a month left to go. A month till we could go home, that's practically the final stretch. In two weeks time the next rotation would arrive and we would spend the final weeks introducing them to what had to be done. Oh those weeks couldn't be over fast enough, but fate wasn't done with me.
It felt casual, you've been walking through this city for five months now, it's your home, in a strange way. But everybody knew something was of. You could sense it, feel it in the air, its hard to describe. The streets seemed quieter, the people were reluctant to talk to us, the stallholders on the marked quickly wanted to continue their business and have us keep walking. No, this wasn't a random attack, it was planned, and that wasn't a hard thing to do, we walked here with an air of invulnerability every week, we were not that hard to predict, we could only guess how many people were in on it. It's that moment you find yourself in a big street, even quieter then the rest, yeah, that switches you on, you scan your surrounds, everybody is more alert then ever, but it didn't help. That first snap, those last civilians left making a run for it. And all hell breaks lose. “Contact!” you scream at the top of your lungs while you run for cover. It was a very redundant statement at that moment, but you say it anyway. There wasn't a whole lot to hide behind there, an old car gave some protection to half of the team, I found myself behind a market stall. This is no western, an overturned table doesn't actually stop bullets, but the snaps and whizzes around you were very real on the other hand. Time to even the score, you scan down the street for targets, and contrary to other fights, it didn't take very long this time. A muzzle flash from a doorway, my weapon was already raised to respond, tatat I snap two rounds into the darkness beyond. Movement down the street, just popping around a corner, I think he was armed, tatat. When you dont see a target you continue shooting anyway, you look for a potential firing position, a window of a building you've been fired on from, a street corner someone could pop up from any seconds. I didn't care about hitting anything, you don't think about that, you just want the shooting to stop, keep sending rounds down range until there's no more coming back at you. The sergeant-major was already on the radio, calling it in, raising his voice over the gunfire around him “Windmill three six, troops in contact!” All we had to do was hold out, that call meant the QRF would now be rushing to get to us. They sit on the base on stand-by, their vehicles ready to roll. At this point they would be throwing on their vests, readying their rifles and mounting up, hoping to get to us in time. The thought was not much of a reassurance, we still had to hold out until they actually got here. An armed man ran across the street, multiple C8 rifles rattled out, puffs of dust behind him, he shook, he tripped, he regained his footing and stumbled around a corner. Finally, we hit something. My head was forced down again, the volume of fire was just to great, I wonder how long it would take for luck to send a round through this piece of wood I was seeking shelter behind. I pressed the mag release on my rifle, I didn't bother to stow the empty magazine, I let it drop to the ground, my left hand was already busy reaching for the next thirty rounds from a pouch on my chest. I flinched as the wooden cover splintered slightly with a thud above my head, there's my answer. I press the bolt release and sit up, five or six rounds, I'm not sure how many it were, but I just pulled the trigger a couple times. I wasn't aiming at anything, I just wanted to keep the break between shots as short as possible, they weren't going to catch me unaware while reloading.
I reload, I snap rounds out, I get my head back down. It was the third time I did that. The end to my ammunition was in sight, not the end to the engagement. Suddenly your ears hurt, an explosion nearby, the fine dust kicks up al around. “Man down!” Another one of those specific lines. One you never want to hear, shivers go down your spine, thoughts run through your head--who is it, what happened, is he alright? “Who is it?!” I yelled in the hope of getting those questions answered. “Its Jeff!” “Where is he hit?!” I continued shouting in between shots. I was putting rounds down the street, covering fire, trying to get less rounds to come our way, at least temporarily, so the others could get to Jeff. Peter dragged him into the nearby house. The rest of us soon joined them, we couldn't hold out on the street. I ran through the door with an empty rifle, the mag in it was depleted. I glanced down and saw Jeff was oke, he was hit in the face by clay bricks as an RPG hit the low wall he was hiding behind, but he was getting back on his feet now. I could stay outside and start on the next thirty rounds, but it would be my last. We were surrounded anyway, both streetcorners were in enemy hands, just maybe sixty, seventy meters away. The building seemed more defensible at the time, and maybe it was. Many would say it was a bad call, your back against the wall, hiding on a rooftop, no place to go. I don't care, it was the sergeant-majors call, and it was a good call. You don't have time to think, no time to come up with a perfect plan, you have an idea, and you roll with it. Anything was better than staying on that street and depleting the last rounds, hoping the cavalry would come charging in the last minute.
We set up an all round position. The roof seemed like a good place, it wasn't tall, only one story, but we could see both ends of the street. We regrouped, got orders, devided our sectors, became more organised. You each look at the bit assigned to you, trust in the men around you to cover their sector. Normally you would make it overlap, try to have multiple people looking in the same direction, but we had only five people firing, with the team-leader on the radio. He had a map laid out next to him, trying to direct the QRF and air support. In a last piece of communication to us he yelled “Conserve your ammo, shoot at what you can hit”, as he handed me his last magazine. My sector was a street corner, behind it multiple armed personnel. I knew they were there, I didn't know exactly how many, but more than one. They were scared too, tried to push each other to get around that corner to shoot at the infidels. Their fear proved justified as the next man was convinced to have a try. My weapon was already raised, he practically stepped in my sights. Training takes over, like a paper target on a shooting range, you put the red dot center mass and pull the trigger, or I jerked the trigger, your form is not perfect when under stress. The shot ended higher, his head snapped back and he limped to the ground awkwardly. It should have been a strange feeling but it wasn't, it was normal, you hit your target, you are doing something right. A couple men followed him after that, one picked up the rifle he dropped, two others dragged their buddy back by his legs. I didn't shoot, I don't know why, it was a legit target, but I didn't shoot. They wouldn't hesitate to shoot at our medivac helicopters, and these guys weren't medics, but I let them retrieve their friend. I regret it, those were enemies, it was probably only half a minute before these guys too opened fire on me again. I wanted to return fire but it was to late, to many shots coming in my direction. I fire a couple shots while ducking for cover, most went into the air, useless. I cursed, these were my last rounds, I wasted them. “Out of ammo!” I was hoping that would've gotten someone to throw a mag at me, someone to go, “here, use it well,” and continue firing. But that never happened, I wasn't the only one, we were all out of ammo. Rob was firing his shotgun down in the street, his emptied C8 was already lying behind him. My team leader was still on the radio, trying to communicate with the Apache gunship that was in the sky, like an angel on your shoulder. But just like a weapon, a radio is hard to operate under stress, he was not a forward air controller, not trained to direct close air support, non of those things, we didn't know a damn thing about air support. Normally the sound of rotorblades overhead deters them, they run, and hide, they know they cant win. Not in this case, they had the upper hand, the helicopter wasn't shooting yet and they weren't going to let us slip. I peeked at my sector, they were not hiding behind the corner any more, they were advancing in the street. I counted six, maybe seven, and that was from my corner. Behind me I heard shot after shot of twelve gauge from Rob's shotgun. I moved to another place on the roof, opposite the doorway, beyond that was the staircase we came up on, the only quick entrance to this place. I put my rifle down next to me, and drew my pistol. I sat down, my legs slightly bend out in front of me, it felt comfortable, relaxing, even though the snaps and whizzes around me continued. Pulling the slide on my Glock back slightly I check the chamber, the sight of a loaded round was comforting. I know it was loaded, made sure every morning. Before I strapped the thigh holster to my leg I racked the slide, chambering a 9mm round, ready to go. But still right before you use it you want to make extra sure of it. I kept my gun aimed at that doorway, nothing was going to get through, not until I had expended all my pistol ammunition. What I would do after that? I have no idea, I wasn't thinking about that, I was now hoping for that last minute cavalry. I'm not sure why I was not thinking about my bayonet, I think I didn't want to accept how desperate the situation was. I had superior training, superior weapons, as long as I had a gun I would be safe. The thought of combat with a knife scared me, and scary thoughts isn't what I needed right there. The sergeant-major popped his head up from the radio, “Get down!”.
It was to quick, I wasn't prepared. An enormous fireball engulfed the street. Yeah, there was a fireball this time, but it wasn't slow like in the movies, it was fast, a hundreds of a second. The shockwave rushes over you, takes your breath away. I steadied myself on one hand as I got back to my senses. I looked around, it wasn't aimed at us, it was ours, a hellfire missile, an anti-tank missile, the Apache had opened fire. “Ten plus footmobiles on that next street corner south west one hundred meters,” that wasn't yelled at us, that was my team leader shouting into the radio, “cleared hot!”. His head pricked up again “Get your heads down!” I buried my face in my arms this time, the shockwave knocked me around a little bit, but it felt glorious. Smaller explosions, in a perfect rhythm, ten of them each time, that was from the Apache's 30mm gun. The snapping and whizzing had stopped, it had been completely replaced by the awesome roar of the gunships destructive power. That grin on my face was back...
The sight of Americans was good, “friendlies coming up!” I didnt actually lower the pistol until I saw the grey digital camouflage pattern, until I saw that reversed US flag on their shoulder, but it was good to see them. They got us back to the base, after we recovered the MB's. We didn't talk a lot, a small thank you to those guys, but other than that it was fairly silent. There was no patrol the next two weeks, just training. After all, work continued like normal the next day, trainees still lined up in front of that gates, but they didn't send us out. We did one more patrol when the new guys arrived, teach them the ropes, show them the area they'd be spending the next half year in. We didn't tell them about the firefights, just that you have to build where you can, and fight where you must. When that moment comes you'll know what to do.
The helicopter is there. A lot of your stuff is already on its way home, it was packed earlier. You take a last glance back, back at what was your home for the last half year. When I walked to the helicopter the engines were already running, they don't wast time here. A pilot somewhere across the tarmac nodded at me, it was one of the Apache crew that was overhead a month ago, I smiled and gave a polite nod back. The smile stuck as I sat down in the helicopter, my pack in front of me. Certain goals were set before we got here. Train police officers, build a school, and come back home safely, together. I looked around, as if I didn't know everybody by name, inside my head I counted, one two three four five six seven eight nine, and myself. We did all that, we could go home, together. Mission accomplished.
Rob and me were cleaning up the mess, the mess from yesterday. My girlfriend was sitting in the living room, with our little girl. She turned one the day before, we had a party. At that age it is mostly a party for adults, so yeah, it got a little late. I was in the kitchen with Rob, he slept on the couch, he lived a fair distance of and had to much to drink for me to allow him to drive. This time I know exactly what we were talking about, about Rob and his wife and about him having children of his own. “And clean up this mess every day? Hell no.” I laughed at the response. The mailbox clattered, papers scattered over my doormat. “Hold on”, I said, walking over to the door, crouching to pick up the stack of mail. “Bills, more bills, ministry of defense...” I discarded the bills on my living room table. “Finally a response on that extra training you signed up for?” Rob said, knowing I had been trying to get into an instructor course in the Royal Military School. “I hope so,” I sat down, opened the letter, and started reading out loud: “Honorable Jasper, you have been selected for the following rotation of the police training mission in Uruzghan, Afghanistan, PRT Tarin Kowt. You are expected to do your duty for your queen, and for your country. Signed, the minister of defense.”
© Copyright 2016 Jasper Dutch. All rights reserved.
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