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 .