The Transition Home

The Last Patrol

26 June 2010 never seemed like a benchmark date I’d remember during this emotional year in Kandahar. I can tell you the exact date I arrived in theater. I remember the date I moved to my ANA COP as the senior American on the ground. I remember the date I was promoted to First Lieutenant. I remember the exact dates, and occasionally even the times, of each company casualty, as well as those of friends and classmates in other units. I deliberately seared these events in my memory as threads of the military experience I sought to weave into my mental landscape. 26 June 2010 was never supposed to make the cut…

26 June was my final combat patrol as a platoon leader forward deployed to Afghanistan. The following day, my platoon would regress back to FOB Ramrod. From then on, it’s just inventories, paperwork, and sitting around just waiting for a bird to take me home.

After the eventful tour our company has had in Zhari, our replacement brigade decided to relieve our company with a full battalion at our ANA COP. Four infantry companies will now cover the same sector we owned with four maneuver platoons. For the battle-handover process (informing and guiding new units as battle spaces change in ownership), my platoon worked primarily with Delta Company.

To my vivid delight, I found that two of Delta Company’s platoon leaders were my former West Point classmates. Huge smiles came across our faces upon finding each other. Whereas most universities hold their alumni reunions in bars and restaurants underneath metropolitan skylines, Academy reunions are held on hostile objectives and outposts under scorching desert suns. I was thrilled to see my brothers. The task of preparing them to take our sector suddenly became far more personal. I wanted these men to have every tool at their disposal to have fewer bad days in Zhari than we did.

On the morning of the 26th, I stood on my platoon’s motor pool line watching the COP’s profile against the Afghan sunrise. I shook my head in disbelief, “How did this baseball diamond sized outpost turn into this massive battalion FOB practically overnight?!” The Delta Company Commander interrupted my meditation.

“Hey Raj, you ready for this thing?!” The Captain said in his charming southern draw.

“Roger, Sir. Just taking a moment to enjoy the scenery.”

“Well you better enjoy it while you can, you’re bouncing out tomorrow!” The Captain slapped my back, painful even through my body armor vest, and ran towards his vehicle.

I called up my REDCON1 status before I led the convoy out the gate and onto the Highway. Like a tour guide, I pointed out areas of attraction over the net, “If you look on your left, there are compounds with red doors about a click south of our position, they’re often a staging point for enemy ambushes on the ANA or civilian convoys.” I stood out my hatch and saw nearly every vehicle optic system turn in sync with my narration. I was actually surprised! The Delta Company commander and  1SG bombarded me with questions. I was actually taken aback. It never occurred to me that I was the only officer on this patrol who had spent a full year here and already understood this area like the back of my hand. I was a subject matter expert. Wow. This really is happening.

We drove to a village north of the highway. I wanted to show them a well I had built for them as a development project. This war isn’t all “shoot, move, and communicate.” I wasn’t about to leave our discussion to just the kinetic stuff. As we approached the well, a dire voice came on the net, “Hey D6, we got six FAMs with RPKs and man dresses down south!” With nervous tension, the soldiers of the new infantry unit all turned their weapons in one direction hoping for a taste of the action. They wanted blood.

“Break Break, this is Attack46, hold your fire. Those are civilian contracted security directing the traffic of their convoy off road. Do not engage.”

It took a second for the aggression to peel back. “Hey Attack 46, Dog 6, so these guys just run around in civilian clothing with heavy weapons and no one gets hurt? I gotta ask…how do you keep from lightin’ these guys up everyday?”

I had to pause for a minute. How did I know? I had no clue! These civilian contractors look exactly like the enemy, yet we always knew who was who. In twelve months, we’ve developed deliberate muscle memory to certain combinations of demeanor, poses, scenery, and instincts. We knew when we were in danger, and when we were not.

“Sir,” I began my reply on the radio, “I guess it’s all about tactical patience and developing the scenario. The enemy typically doesn’t play in open ground with Americans present. These guys are not threatening us, so we restrain ourselves.”

A few of my soldiers on the vehicle internal radio started laughing at the new unit’s overreaction to stimuli that had become the daily grind for them. I didn’t stop them; after the year they’ve had, they deserve the right to beat their chests a little. But if we’re being completely honest, we were all trigger happy gung-hos when we first arrived in country too. All units are the same. Once the entry-level nerves wear off, we can think a little clearer and more critically about situations unique to our area of responsibility.

When we dismounted to inspect the well, the local tribal elder immediately recognized me. I went out in front of the patrol as the elder approached me. I could sense they were ready to halt his movement 20 meters away, tell him to put his hands up, and frisk him. After all, this is what we’re taught in the school house. But in the real world, that’s hugely disrespectful to such a respected leader. I took the lead in engaging the elder, “Asalaamu-alaykum” I said as I extended my right hand with a hearty smile, placing my left over my heart. The elder reciprocated the friendly gesture. I asked about his children, his village, and his crops, taking almost three to four minutes of small talk. It seems like a lifetime on the battlefield, but for a key leader like him, it would mean a lot. I introduced the incoming company commander and platoon leaders and asked if I could show them the well. He personally led us as our guide.

The watering hole had become a haven for children and family members to congregate in the mid-day heat. Nearly the entire village knew who I was. They call me “Najeeb” because “Rajiv” doesn’t quite roll off their tongues too well.

We took pictures and exchanged the usual pleasantries. I could see the soldiers in the unit finally starting to take their fingers out of their trigger wells and appraise the threats for what they are, not what they could be. Is it still dangerous, yes, but it’s the only way to live in this area and actually make a difference.

As we pulled back into the wire, the Delta Commander and his platoon leaders each came up to me. They thanked me wholeheartedly for the circulation missions on which I had led them over the past few days. This was it. I no longer owned this COP or anything in Zhari. This was no longer my kingdom; in the blink of an eye, it turned to a rest stop on the way home.

I want to come home so badly. I’m tired. I’m exhausted. My body is aging two months for one; my eyes are heavy with sleep deprivation. My head aches in the 120 degree heat and from dehydration. My knees are brittle and hurt with long stands. Yet despite all of this, handing over this battle space to someone else seems so painful. I invested a full year of my life here; seven days a week, 16-20 hour days. Zhari is where my strongest bonds of loyalty were forged with my men. After all the heartache we’ve had here, I guess I actually do care about this place. And from here on out, there’s not much I can do about it. I’ll always remember 26 June as the last time I had an impact on the ground in my home away from home. It will be the last day I lead troops into harm’s way. It’s a strikingly uncelebrated benchmark that has hit me fairly hard.

If I ever do return to Zhari again as a soldier, it will probably be as a staff officer, so engaging the locals and making a significant difference on the ground won’t be among my duties. As far as fulfillment goes, being a platoon leader for twelve months at war really is the best that it can get for a junior officer. You know, I do hope I can come back though. But not as a soldier. I want to come back as a veteran. I love seeing veterans of foreign wars visit the monuments of their sacrifice. I’ve seen American soldiers revisit the beaches of Normandy. I’ve seen Vietnam veterans bow at the granite wall in Washington D.C. I think my biggest hope is that I can one day bring my children to Zhari, Kandahar. I want to show them the fruits of arduous labor and where hard work can lead in the long run. Who knows. I’m sure In 1947, no one thought France would be a tourist destination for quite some time. Perhaps in 2047, I’ll be able to revisit this corner of the world and find a happy and healthy and safe community. That is my biggest wish for this place: that my children can visit Zhari one day as my guests, not as soldiers themselves.

This post drags on. I almost want to apologize for being so long winded. I guess I’m trying to savor the moment even in my writing. For everything my readers, my family, my friends have done for me. Thank you. Your support carried me through. The hard part is over…I’ll be home soon .

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16 responses

  1. Jacob Severn

    Man, I have just been catching up on all your posts, from you leaving West Point to this last day of tour. Your writing is clear and gripping, and makes me feel motivated for my days at West Point and career as an officer. I would like to think I have learned a little bit about leadership because of your unique perspective and sometimes restraint on the ground.

    27 June 10 at 03:11

  2. Mew

    I knew I would get teary eyed! And you are never long winded, always a worthy read.

    Rajiv thank you so very much for sharing your deployment w/us. Thank you so very much for being the man and leader that you are. Thank you so very much for serving our country w/such honor and integrity. You are loved and appreciated.

    Wishing you and your men all good things. Have a safe journey HOME! I can only imagine how happy your family will be to see you and you them!

    Don’t be a stranger:) If you come to the ‘Ville look me up!

    27 June 10 at 03:26

  3. ektor3

    May the Lord’s Arm be around you and your men as you all travel home/

    job well done, Lt.

    27 June 10 at 04:37

  4. You and your men make us all proud.

    I’da gone to war with you any time.

    27 June 10 at 05:44

  5. Cam Srpan

    Job well done,Rajiv…proud of you and your men. You have made a difference. It is time to come home and be with your family. God speed!
    Cam

    27 June 10 at 07:44

  6. Meredith

    Dear Rajiv, I am SO EXCITED that you are FINALLY coming HOME!!! This post made my heart swell and my eyes well up. We are hugely proud of you for the amazing, tremendous job you did this year and for how hard you’ve worked. A. and I cannot wait to celebrate your homecoming!! Pop the cork and cut the ice cream cake! =) I am so indescribably happy that you will be on American soil again shortly! I can only imagine how thrilled your fabulous family will be to see you and you them. I too can’t wait to see you again, ASAP. Bear hug!

    27 June 10 at 12:51

  7. On behalf of all of us; thank you, all of you, for your service. You remind us that we all have some responsibility to serve our nation whether it is in our communities or in some far away place. Get home safe.

    27 June 10 at 14:42

  8. Jim Richards

    Well done, Rajiv! You may leave the combat zone, but it will never leave you! It will remain in your memory with strong emotions for the rest of your life. In fact, after you have become used to stateside Army life, you will miss it! God bless you and soldiers of the USA wherever you are.

    27 June 10 at 17:21

  9. Irene Clark

    Well soldier…you’ve fought the good fight on the battle field….now head home where you can fight the battle of the buldge with the rest of us! I pray that some day you can return to a peaceful place with your children and a wife and that you can see the fruit of your labor. Our prayers continue for you as you return home and our prayers start in for those replacing your unit. God bless you & your unit….have a safe journey home! May each of you be granted peace of mind and peace within your soul. Hugs and our heartfelt thanks for fulfilling your duty on behalf of America. Continue to fill us in on your next journey in life.

    27 June 10 at 19:30

  10. Bill Kinzie

    Rajiv!

    In a remote war field you have made a huge difference!
    You have made real friends among those who might have been on the fence. For them you are the real “face” of America. To them you have been honest about what you were
    supposed to do and reliably carried it out.

    Men respect a man who is just and wise in his dealings with them. And conversely despise a man who is treacherous.

    Hopefully, those who replace you will use the lessons you
    have learned and carry the mission forward. Not sure their
    history and background will make them that competent.

    Best wishes for a safe return to home and family. Have
    enjoyed your posts and will miss them….unless you begin
    a new blog. If you do…I hope you will let us know somehow. Blessings!

    27 June 10 at 22:59

  11. Mary Tomlinson

    Dear Rajiv,

    We are so happy for you, Gita & Srini – you’ll be home safe. Thanks for your brilliant descriptions of life in Kandahar province. You have given us some sense of the tremendous challenges of split second decision-making with lethal force. It helps, too, to hear of relationships forming, wells built, schools restored, and Afghans learning we really do want to help them free themselves from oppression. Take care & see you soon.

    Mary and Jim

    28 June 10 at 05:13

  12. Patvann

    Thank you for your writing, and especially for your leadership.

    Welcome back.

    28 June 10 at 17:53

  13. El-Tee,

    You ever get up to Maine for a visit, please let me know. I’ve got a place to stay, and the beer and chow is on me.

    Respects,

    28 June 10 at 19:20

  14. JWest

    1. If Zhari is hallowed ground, you made it so.
    2. Again, have not heard such an eloquent recapitulation of what leaving a combat area is about.
    3. You nailed it, brother.
    4. The quality of the academy graduates is continually amazing.
    5. Good luck in your new assignment and future endeavors.
    V/R JWest

    29 June 10 at 20:20

  15. Karaka

    Best of luck, Rajiv. I wish you a fast and safe journey home.

    30 June 10 at 06:04

  16. John

    Please accept my thanks to you, and your men, and the families for a job well done.

    Given enough time and support, guys like you can win this thing.

    God bless you all.

    Have a safe trip home, joyful reunions, and great next assignments!

    4 July 10 at 04:29

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