Purple Hearts and Minds
QRF (Quick Reaction Force) missions are some of the most boring and some of the most exciting opportunities for young officers and soldiers to show their stuff. These missions are given with just a moment’s notice and essentially no time to prepare. Everyone runs 100 miles per hour in a thousand different directions trying to consolidate a day’s worth of mission prep into 5 minutes. Platoon leaders put together makeshift security and movement plans to incorporate attachments and unique terrain. NCOs yell and scream to light the fire in the hearts of the soldiers to convey to them the dire sense of urgency needed for the coming operation.
We were just rolling into our Operational Support Base (OSB) from a two day mission. We were exhausted as usual. Suddenly, I hear over the radio, “Hey 46, this is Legion 3 Tango, get your guys ready to roll out and come to the TOC, you’ve got a mission.” I strolled over to the Battalion commander’s Stryker to meet up with the battle captains running the show in our sector. One handed me a piece of paper, “Hey, this is a grid on a road in the northeast of the River Valley. There’s a complex ambush and IED there. I need you to grab the IED Explosive Ordinance Disposal and your element to help out the guys in that area.”
And just like that, we were off. We flew out the OSB and onto the road like bats out of hell.
The unit we were helping was in another battalion altogether. I researched their frequencies and their call signs so we could communicate on the radio. We were speeding down Highway One, the major East-West highway in Southern Afghanistan, connecting Kandahar, Qalat, and Kabul with one long stretch of pavement. Dust was kicking up and collecting on my face. We were moving at 50mph, an almost unsafe speed for this time of day considering the traffic and the possibility of crashing into civilian vehicles. But when troops are about to take contact, the last thing on our minds was denting a taxi in our way.
As we entered the western edge of Kandahar City, a more hostile part of town, I noticed more and more people lining the streets. They were angry. We had been operating in their villages and infringing on their way of life for some time now. Whatever, we had a job to do. They started yelling, throwing rocks, and flipping us the bird. I did whatever I could to forget them. I had a mission to run—SMACK
Two rocks hit me square in the face. One in the eye brow and the other in my jaw. The force of the throw plus the speed of the vehicle caused a force so great, I fell to my feet. I screamed in agony. Blood filled my hands from my mouth, flowing not nearly as quickly as the profanities I was yelling, cursing this ungrateful and disgusting country. The Stryker became dizzy, and I couldn’t focus.
Private Hoff and SGT Espy were the first ones to grab me after I fell. Espy threw a cold water bottle on my face when he saw my lip swell to the size of a golf ball. It was clear I had a concussion. Hoffman did whatever he could to keep me awake. SGT Espy launched himself over my body, grabbed the radio, and hopped up to the Commander’s hatch of my vehicle and started scanning my sector. SGT Coolie, my gunner, assumed command of the vehicle, while SSG Dantos, my senior infantryman, covered down on rear security.
“What the fuck is going on back there, 6 Golf?” Said SFC Nix over the radio. (6 Golf implies the Gunner of the Commander’s vehicle, in this case SGT Coolie.
“I don’t know, 7. I think LT just got hit in the face.”
“What the fuck are you talking about? Hit in the face? With a rock!?”
“I think it was two rocks. But yeah, I think that’s it. He looks pretty bad. We gotta get him out of here.”
“Arright, hang on. Let me get on the horn with Battalion.”
Just like that, SFC Nix was tackling my communication responsibilities and coordinating with higher elements for my evacuation and security. Bottom line though, and I had made this clear to every single member of my platoon…if I go down, we accomplish the mission. No questions asked. Whether they would ever agree to that, I would never have the chance to test…until now.
I was in a daze, coming in and out of consciousness. Nausea took over my system. Just as the blood stopped coming out of my mouth, vomit followed. I had a bad concussion.
I don’t really remember the rest of the movement. The only thing I caught was someone saying the word “KAF” or “Franterod,” two evacuation options for severe casualties. Just like a drunkard springs to life when someone accuses him of being drunk, I sat up and grabbed SGT Espy’s leg to bring him down. “Give me my damn radio!” I yelled at him.
He stared me in the face and said, “Sir, you really need to stay down. You just took a hit to the face. We got this.”
“We’re not going to KAF or any FOB. Continue Mission.”
“Give me the fucking radio.” I tried standing up to take my position, not more than a second passed before I collapsed again. I kept the radio. “Arright, Espy. Got it, but let me just address the platoon on the net.”
My lip was swollen, hindering my speech. In my best Daffy Duck accent, I keyed the net and called the platoon.
“Flor, fthis fis, flor flix,” I could hear my crewmen cracking up at my bumbling in the background.
“This is 47”
“This is 41”
“This is 42,” My section leaders came online in a serious tone, ready to assume orders. I was almost surprised at the attention and credence they were offering to their platoon leader, despite my ridiculous condition.
“Arright, this is 46. I just took two rocks in the face. I think I have a concussion. I don’t care. This is what we’re going to do. We’re going to drive to the IED site, let the EOD guys do their job. And then we’re going to come back to the OSB. There, I’ll go to the PA and get checked out. Let the guys know I’m alright…I’m going to get off the net. Any questions?”
“Sir,” said 41, “I heard you cried like a baby when that rock hit you,” joked SSG Koontz
“Fluck you, Flor one.” I smiled at my own slobber over the net.
I eventually came back to the Kandahar Airfield that day. After my medical evaluation and screening.
Taking such a painful wound from the populace, not the enemy, gave me a distressful few nights of serious reflection. What am I doing here in this country? I’m taking more wounds and contact from the civilian population than I am from the Taliban! I sat and deliberated with myself, back and forth…who was the enemy here?
The truth is that the populace that wants to harbor the Taliban by default becomes the enemy. The Afghan who throws rocks and keeps a platoon leader off his feet for three weeks of recovery is the enemy. Any force that interferes with the political and military will of the United States Army is the enemy. Thus, if the population of Afghanistan doesn’t want to cooperate with American forces…do they become the enemy? Would I have been justified in my firing my weapon back at those people throwing rocks at me? To convey the insights of the modern line soldier, yes. I should have fired back. I am allowed to defend myself from death or injury using any tool at my disposal. But would that have been in the best interests of the United States? Would that have made us safer in the long run?
I’m not talking about losing hearts and minds. In fact, the more I hear that phrase, the more disgusted I become. It’s almost as if our strategy to win hearts and minds is an end in itself. We’re not here to win hearts and minds. We’re here to keep America safe; winning hearts and minds is only one means, one option, to a desired end state of greater American security. But if by pulling my trigger, would I have instigated a whole community’s furious retaliation for the next convoy that rolls through that part of town, thus making it more dangerous for American soldiers to enter? I don’t know the answers to these questions, but I have a good couple weeks of recovery to contemplate them.
In the meantime, this incident has sparked a battalion wide discussion on the implementation of non-lethal weapons into our arsenal. How can we deter the population from hurting our soldiers without using lethal force? Paintball guns? Water balloons? Riot control gas? Tickling them? I have no clue. Whatever it is, I would rather see purple-bruised hearts and minds than American soldiers winning purple hearts at the hands of an unruly country.