The Transition Home

When the Dust Blossom Settles

I yelled to my men, ordering them to get down and take cover and orient their weapons eastward, halting our joint patrol with the Afghan National Army. A sniper had been terrorizing our small outpost in the middle of the Zhari district in Kandahar for three weeks. This menace had created a phantom persona, like the Ghost of Christmas Past who had followed us to the deserts of Afghanistan.

My platoon scanned to acquire enemy targets, but all visuals grew opaque with debris from the Afghan soldiers’ hasty and reckless firing of their rocket-propelled grenades and RPKs, Kalashnikov light machine guns. They certainly hadn’t seen anything we missed, but we all knew the general direction of the sniper fire, and the Afghans expended a hefty load of ammunition each day suppressing the advances of that phantom.

This typical ANA reaction to enemy contact is casually called the “Dust Blossom” in military circles. The dust blossom is not only detrimental to command and control of a joint patrol, but it also undermines whatever hope we have of minimizing civilian casualties.

But on that day, this particular dust blossom might have saved our lives.

“Got him!” shouted my company sniper team leader from the outpost, only 100 meters behind us. Through that big cloud of dust, an enemy muzzle flash appeared bright and vivid. There was no doubt this was our guy: “Hey Sir, it’s coming from that tall building with offset windows, 600 meters northeast!”

“Roger, stand by for fire mission.”

I clenched my jaw, grabbed my company net, and called the most passionate fire mission I called during my entire tour in Afghanistan. I wanted that sniper dead. I thought of all the close-call stories my company had accumulated over this nightmare. He had created a dire psychological scar in the minds of the soldiers of 4th Platoon; my boys were edgy and more conservative in their movements.

How much time had we lost, how much less confident were we with this threat looming ahead of us at all times? We may have hated this enemy, but we had no choice but to respect him.

Shot over; shot out,” I responded to the confirmation over the net that the fire mission had been cleared of collateral damage, and that mortar rounds were on their way. In my excited state I stood up straight, emerging from my cover to signal to the ANA leadership that there would be incoming fire; dangerous, yes, but it could have been a lot worse if an ANA soldier decided to storm the objective at the last second.

Splash over; splash out!” The rounds detonated with a thunderous applause of military might.

The gray aftermath spiraled into the air before dissipating into the blue Kandahar sky. And then the most beautiful sound of all … silence.

My men and our Afghan counterparts stood up. Our heads swiveled back and forth, wondering if the madness would return. Whether in Dari, Pashto, or English, only one question replayed through our mind: Did we actually get him?

Later that evening on post, the sniper team leader would remark” “I doubt he’s dead. He’s too smart to operate without cover … but he sure ain’t too happy right now!”

Fast forward to seven months later and I am back in the United States. My girlfriend sent me a link to a news article (see here) and a photograph of an American outpost in Afghanistan. She asked, “Is this what your outpost looked like?”

My jaw dropped. “No way, it couldn’t be!” I thought to myself. I showed it to a fellow platoon leader who gave the same reaction. The picture was not of an outpost we had been to, or an outpost we had built. Rather, the compound in the photo housing a platoon of soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division (our replacement unit) was the same compound that had protected that sniper so long ago. The offset windows, the texture of the ground — the image was identical.

When we were in sector, very little American news media on Afghanistan made it my way, and now that I am inundated with reports, it’s overwhelming to hear so much talk about the shortcomings of our presence in Afghanistan.

It’s overwhelming to the point where it provokes my mind, still vulnerable from a year at war, to continue questioning why I was there and why so many of my friends sacrificed so much. It can genuinely bring tears to my eyes.

But I got a huge smile on my face seeing that picture. Most readers would never know it, but just a few months ago, that compound was an enemy staging point; an enemy sniper hide. And now, it’s an American defensive position. No matter how trivial it may seem in the strategic arenas of debate, knowing that this piece of terrain had been taken warmed my heart.

We are soldiers, and we get assigned the tasks our country wants done, regardless of time or resources allotted. The fact is that progress is slow, but our cumulative efforts are getting there, slowly but surely.


7 responses

  1. Clay

    So when does the book come out?

    15 October 10 at 20:58

  2. K.J. Hinton

    If we are not there to win, then it’s time to go… because that entire country isn’t worth a drop of our blood… if the goal is anything besides victory.

    The trouble of course is that right now, it seems impossible to describe what that looks like.

    Does it mean the eradication of anyone who can even spell “Taliban” or one of the other groups working so hard to get us dead?

    Does it mean getting someone in charge of that place who can actually put the interests of his nation ahead of fattening up his own bank accounts? Does it mean ending the heroin trade that seems to have continued, if not flourished, since our arrival?

    What the hell DOES it mean?

    I can’t answer that. And as much as I love my country (If I could get back in… even now… I damned sure would) I have so far kept my son from joining the Marines and unsuccessfully done all I could to keep one fine young man out of the 18X program…. because we have to be there for a reason that exceeds the nebulous “they started it” program.

    What I told my son… was that this all has to matter. It can’t be a political football… and it has to matter. Because, Colby, when you come back, it might be in a box, or it might be in some vaguely functioning pieces, or it might be with a mind that’s a mess… and my greatest fear is that I won’t be able to put you back together again… and it won’t have mattered.

    It has to be worth it. It has to matter. And for the life of me, as I lose hope and heart on a daily basis about our political leadership, I find it harder to believe that it does.

    Your writings will stand the test of time. And none of these exceptional men and women who have sacrificed so much for us will be forgotten because of your efforts and those of so many others.

    But I hope to God that it all matters.

    15 October 10 at 21:47

  3. Stewart Brough

    Glad you’re home man – sometimes it’s hard to decide whether I’d rather be here or back there…

    15 October 10 at 22:13

  4. Irene Clark

    One plants, one waters, and another reaps the harvest!
    Their sucess becomes yours as well, for you prepared the way for victories that would come later. Well done good and faithful soldiers!!! Hopefully your biggest worry now will be Dust Bunnies under your bed! Lol. Hugs and the sweetest of dreams. God grant you His Peace & God bless America……please.

    16 October 10 at 01:53

  5. Meredith

    That is amazing! Wow! I can imagine how frustrating it can be to read the many negative reports and hear the commentaries, some of which are delivered in a vitriolic way. We are so grateful for all you have given and I think in time things will improve.

    16 October 10 at 12:32

  6. Every time I read one of your posts I am impressed with your integrity. You will not have to live with any regrets that you were less than your best. I know that you hear (we hear) so much negative stuff through the media, but there’s an unheard, unseen base of Americans that are proud of MEN like you. I’m one of them… It does break our hearts to feel and see the demise of the real American ideals but there ARE some still here that make it “the land of the free and the home of the brave”. Thanks for not letting us, or the men under your command , down. Don’t know what’s going to become of USA, but you won’t be a part of the corruption. I’m so sorry you have these things to work through… But I’m so glad there are men like you still around. God help…

    16 October 10 at 14:17

  7. William (Bill) Kinzie

    I tend to agree with Hinton…it should matter. We mustn’t waste young lives needlessly…goals have to be clearly defined.

    That being said, it must be heartening to discover by chance
    that a place you were getting fire from is now in the our hands.

    Afghanistan, Turkey, and Iran are all flash points of history.
    Of then all Afghanistan is probably the weirdest one. For some reason this wild, arid, desolate, beautiful non country has been an important crossroads for the back and forth movement of West vs East. It’s a political tectonic hinge pin. And it’s not the capital city, Kabul, that is so important. It’s the northern border between Pakistan and Afghanistan where the action seems to be the most critical.

    16 October 10 at 15:29

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