My eyes broke through the dried crust between my eye lashes. I was freezing, curled in the fetal position on my cot with an Army-issue sleeping bag wrapped around my body. I didn’t know where I was. I had never woken up here before. I tried to gain a sense of my surroundings using only my peripheral vision. The room was dark and damp. I looked at the indigo light on my digital watch. 0608. Where the hell was I? …“Gah!” I shuddered like a little girl as a fat drop of arctic water fell on my face from the leaking roof. It was enough to purge me from any further attempt at sleep, and an ample reminder that, “oh yeah…I live with the ANA now.”
The previous day with Captain Nasrollah was at least mildly productive in the sense that he afforded my platoon a roof, or something close to it, to sleep under until our unit could bring out more structures. The tents that we used at FOB Ramrod were simply out of the question; incoming mortar rounds are far more prevalent in this sector, so maximizing cover on the post is critical. The ANA COP is about the size of a football field. Large puddles of stagnant water cover the dirt terrain. On each corner of the complex, there are guard towers ridden with shrapnel and spotted machine gun fire from previous fighting seasons. On the north and west flanks of the compound are empty dirt fields encompassed within separate barriers. These fields are where our unit would soon make our home.
I’ve never built a room before, much less been responsible for building a whole outpost. The only thing I’ve really ever built in my life was a few bookshelves for my Eagle Scout project back in high school…and even then, I didn’t do most of the work. The good news was that I had a First Sergeant with seven some odd deployments under his belt and a strong vision for the COP. “Task one when you’re building any COP…it’s not food, cause we have MREs. It’s not water, we can bring that in. And it’s not showers, we got our baby wipes. We are lucky to fall in on a COP with sufficient barriers and outside protection. Right now, task one: gravel.”
Yep, it all starts with gravel. Who would have thought that tiny rocks can do so much for your quality of life on a COP? It all starts with the rainy season. A thick layer of gravel over the ground keeps the mud at bay when it starts to rain. It prevents water from stagnating, causing future problems with mosquitoes, and thus disease, come summertime. Gravel keeps the dirt from flying all over the place on windy days, allowing for a relatively clean maintenance environment for our vehicles. Perhaps most importantly, when it comes to helicopter landing zones, rotorwash can form huge blinding sandstorms and throw lighter stones from the ground at one’s head at fatal speeds. I think I’ve already had enough of that for one year.
Task One is clearly gravel, but to get there, you need to go through Task Zero: connecting with a trustworthy and reliable Afghan provider. I decided to start with Captain Nasrollah. I approached the parlor where I had met with him the other day.
“Asalaamu Alaykum,” I said with a cordial left hand placed on my chest; a sign of welcoming both in the Arab world and in Afghanistan.
“Ahh! Al-Hindustani!…The Indian!” the Captain replied back. He was sitting comfortably with the Battalion Executive Officer, the Signal Officer, and a few of their soldiers lounging beside him. None of them budged. They were sprawled over the twin sized mattresses in the room, staring feverishly at a 24” television set in the corner of the room. “Sit! Breefast!” cried the Captain.
I took a seat on an empty mattress where I wouldn’t disturb the meditation in which I had found these officers. I checked the TV screen to see what had them so entranced. They were watching Pakistani girls in salvars dancing and lip-syncing to Pashto movie songs. It was something like a Bollywood movie, but not at all. The film quality was terrible; it looked as if someone had taken out a camcorder and taped the scenes in their backyard.
But most appalling to me, the girls on the screen that had captivated these men, well…they were not attractive to say the least. In fact… hell, they were fat! And I don’t mean a “Victoria’s Secret plus-size model, who is actually normal in real life” kind of fat…I’m talking “could have played defensive end for the Washington Redskins” fat. I tried to turn my eyes away, but it was like driving by a car accident: I just couldn’t stop myself from watching.
Thankfully, the kitchen servant busted through the door with tea and food, breaking the trance of the dancing linebackers. The servant laid out a thin rubber mat, much like a shower curtain, on the ground of the parlor. One by one, he began to toss rounds of naan, a flat bread also found in India and Pakistan, at our feet like frisbees. Another servant walked through the door carrying a large stainless steel plate with powdered milk, sugar, and yogurt. He bypassed his colleague and placed the communal condiments on the center of the mat and immediately left. The other servant stayed to pass cups of piping hot tea around the circle of officers.
Patience is certainly a virtue in dealing with the Afghan people, and I didn’t expect much to be done today, quite frankly. I fully anticipated spending the majority of the day bullshitting with these men over countless cups of tea to eventually earn their friendship, and more importantly, their respect.
“Eat!” commanded the Captain. I was getting more and more impressed with his English. I joined the group as I ripped off a piece of naan and dipped it into the cold yogurt.
“So,” began the Signal officer, Lieutenant Hasan, through his bread-filled mouth, “You like these girls?” He spoke in Urdu and pointed to the TV screen. I suppressed my chuckle. I wasn’t about to start off our joint relationship with the ANA by calling their women fat.
“Yes…they’re very beautiful!” I replied cautiously.
“Ah! So you Americans like the big girl too?” I shrugged my shoulders and waited for him to continue, “These are Pakistani girls from Peshawar. Afghan men like big, strong women. They work in fields, they are not weak. They keep you warmer than small girls when you sleep next to them at night!”
HA! I couldn’t control myself, I bursted out laughing! I felt like I was talking with Borat from Kazakhstan! I knew I was in the middle of nowhere, but I certainly didn’t expect these men to judge attractiveness on the body heat a woman can produce. I wish I could have taken these officers to a nightclub back in Seattle and listen to them judge American women, “Oh that one looks like she can plow very well, but this one…not so much. Oh look at this one, she can save me lots of wood from my heating stove at night!” The officers in the room who understood Urdu began to join in my laughter. I could tell they valued my genuine nature far more than my attempts to avoid putting my foot in my mouth. I needed to relax a bit. They were just men.
“So, are you all from the same part of Afghanistan?” I asked a general question to the group, doing my best to change the topic.
“No. We are all from different parts,” replied Lieutenant Hasan. “I am from Khost, but I went to University in Kandahar.” His actually being a college graduate explained why his Urdu was so perfect. He clearly had studied in college. “Major Akbhar is from Ghazni,” said Hasan as he pointed to the Executive Officer. Major Akbhar was technically in command of the battalion as the actual commander was visiting his higher headquarters in Kandahar City. The XO was a bear. He was well over six feet tall and intensely strong. His angled mustache and constant five o’clock shadow gave him the appearance of a mama grizzly waiting to pounce. Of course, his work ethic was more reflective of a sloth, so I think was going to be okay.
“Captains Nasrollah, Kalay, and Lieutenant Aleem…well, they are from ‘out of town’,” Smirked Hasan. Each of those officers stared deep into my eyes with sadistic grins to see if I could understand their implication. They were all former officers in the Mujahideen.
“Ah…that’s…that’s amazing!” I stuttered. Part of me was a little cautious. The Mujahideen were an incredibly cryptic organization with clandestine operations running up and down its ranks. This wasn’t about respect anymore. It was about trust. I could watch their eyes retelling my every move and word since I set foot on this post. They had been sizing me up this entire time. I felt like a lamb surrounded by a herd of wolves, teasing me by keeping their fangs at bay. What is this American about? And then I remembered. Captain Kalay and I had already had our introductions. He still thought I was a spy. It was good to know that I had found the source of their speculation. I felt a soothing moment of relief that quickly ended as Lieutenant Aleem suddenly reached into his holster, pulled out a 9mm pistol and pointed it at my head.
“Bang bang!” He laughed hysterically as he lowered the weapon. I looked around to find only blank stares from the other ANA officers around me. Aleem grabbed the weapon by the receiver and handed it to me. I took the pistol and instinctively cleared it. It wasn’t loaded. “You know this weapon? It is Desert Eagle. Very famous. You must know it.” I was too busy trying to pick my stomach out from my intestines. I stayed calm…took deep breaths. Did that guy just pull a gun on me? I asked myself.
“Yes, of course I know Desert Eagle.” I smiled, showing as little hesitation as possible. If I was going to earn the respect and trust of these men, I had to stand tough, regardless of their ridiculous protocols. These men were each between 30 and 40 years old and had spent the better parts of their lives fighting Soviet and Taliban armies off of their land. At age 23, I had barely fought off the chicken pox. I could feel myself regressing into the childish state as I continued to endure this overwhelming and intimidating debacle.
‘Wait a minute, Rajiv,’ I began to give myself a mental pep-talk, ‘Who gives a fuck how old these crusty idiots are. I am the one with the American flag on my shoulder. Your CO isn’t here. You’re the only American officer on this post. This is my house. I own this place! It’s time to grow a pair and act like it!’
Aleem’s silver Desert Eagle pistol still rested in my hands. I gripped the receiver and began to hand it back to him. “Lieutenant Aleem, I’m excited to be working with you and the ANA here,” Aleem reached out for his weapon, but I tightend my grip, forcing him to pause “…but if you ever point a weapon at any American’s head again, we’re going to have some serious problems.” My eyes remained fixed in a dead stare with his. I let go.
“But it wasn’t loaded!” Aleem smiled, trying to laugh it off. The burly Executive Officer, Major Akbhar yelled at Aleem in Pashto and followed it with a harsh slap on his head. I waited patiently for them to finish. “Lieutenant Rajiv,” Aleem sighed, “I am sorry. I will be more careful next time.”
“Mah Mushkilla!” I smiled, “No problem!”
“No problem!!” Yelled out Captain Nasrollah, ecstatic that he could now participate in the conversation with his one complete English phrase. We all laughed. “Lieutenant Rajiv, I can tell you are good person. India is strong friend of Afghanistan. Anything you need, my men and I will help you.”
“Thank you, Sir,” I replied kindly, “Now that you mention it…I’m in need of a grader and some gravel.”