– Toni Volk –
Enroute to a remote outpost in Kunar Province, Jackson, a big guy with a
Southern accent, leaned across me to be heard over the tandem rotors. He was telling the
guy on the other side of me, Bailey Stone, about an email going around that someone had
forwarded to his girlfriend Sari. Jackson said it contained not so pretty news photos of
soldiers in the field and a request for prayers for all the young men risking their lives for
“So Sari bitches to me that the sender should have asked for prayers for peace so
that no one has to go fight for anyone’s freedom. What the hell do I say to that?”
This time Stone leaned over me. “Tell her a god who hasn’t answered any fucking
peace prayers so far ain’t gonna be saving any asses either.” The two burst out laughing
and some guys behind us snickered.
But all of us—except Stone who didn’t believe in God or luck—had along some
sort of juju. Rosary beads, rings, photos, crucifix, Star of David. My own fate was pinned
to a compass the size of a 50-cent piece that had been my grandfather’s. The magnet was
faulty, he’d told me. It couldn’t find true north.
Twenty minutes later we climbed out of the Chinook heavylift at an outpost called
Hellgate. It sat on a plateau in the shadow of peaks high enough to dwarf the Rockies,
above a river and main base named Club Koren because of its location in the Korengal
Valley. A dozen uptight soldiers sat inside a compound of wood huts and tents fortified
by nothing more substantial than razor wire. They were headed stateside, our platoon
leader told us—and, I guessed, focused on not getting killed before that happened. They
had what I call delayed reaction of a permanent kind. Though I didn’t have the name for
it that day, I caught the fear of it. That these men went to bed that night wearing body
armor and helmets, practically hugging loaded guns, said it all.
The next morning, on a tour around the area, we were surprised on a mountain
trail by a young woman carrying a baby and an improv explosive device in one of those
front packs mothers use. Jackson and one of those soldiers scheduled to leave the
following day were in the lead. The four of them were blown into unrecognizable pieces.
Six others among us were critically injured.
I got through the day, but that night the entire ambush played and replayed until
dawn. I see the unmerciful sun, the hillside of scorched scrub, the line of backpacks and
helmets bobbing rhythmically in front of me. I feel the salty sweat irritating my eyes as a
young woman approaches, then waits at the curve to let us pass, the baby she carries
wailing. Then, an explosion knocks me to the ground, throws dirt and rocks in my face
and darkens the air so that for several moments I can't see. The cries and confusion of
men screaming, dying and crawling for weapons—those who can—seem miles away.
Within the week, to sleep fitfully, expecting rocket, mortar and machine gun fire
any minute, seemed normal. Our mission in the valley, besides holding ground against the
haj, as the insurgents are called, was to interact with the locals, help them with building
projects, mostly infrastructure—roads, clinics, schools—and to gain their trust so they
might ally with us instead of anti-coalition militants. To that effort, building supplies and foodstuffs were airdropped in and distributed.
But there was this problem: many of the elders we helped by day, supped with the
enemy by night—insurgents who used innocents as shields, women as food suppliers and
children as spotters. It was up to us at Hellgate to sort out who did what with whom. One
of the kids on the watch list was a suspected liaison between insurgents and certain elder
I knew this kid. A skinny runt and a pickpocket. Not two weeks earlier, he’d tried
to lift a radio from my buddy Ramon’s belt. The two of us were helping a local Afghan
haul sheets of plywood up a ladder to his roof. When I saw what was going on, I grabbed
the boy. He pulled a knife and stabbed me, first in the chest—I was wearing a chest
plate—and then again, in my left arm. In the meantime, Ramon lost his hold on the
plywood; it hit the ground and the kid took off running. The old man we were helping
stared after him. The look on the elder’s face wavered between amazement and
amusement, which pissed me off.
Maybe because the incident amused everyone around Hellgate, our PL assigned
the kid’s coming and goings to me and Ramon. The boy, intense as any soldier,
conducted his operations after dark every day of the week, indicating to us that he might
also be a food supplier. We watched him with long-range surveillance cameras, one of us
from the roof of an abandoned building, the other from the graveyard or hillside.
He had a routine: he’d pick up things at a deserted gas station that would stuff his
backpack, then drop whatever it was off at a shack in a cluster of them, and move on to a
two-story building with small, high windows to the street. Here he would come out with
something less bulky and take it back to the gas station. Little more than nothing
happened in between. Whoever occupied those buildings or picked up his drop-offs did
not show themselves during our shifts.
One of those nights, a woman called to him from a doorway of what looked to be
a merchant shop. “Here we go,” Ramon said over the wire from the roof.
The kid hesitated. The woman opened her mantle slightly to reveal a baby. At that
the kid went over to her and gave her his canteen of water and something he took from
his bag, maybe bread. Ramon called it in. It was of no interest.
As a rule, the kid walked fast and made no contacts on the street other than polite
nods to police and soldiers, once a wave to an old man, and one night he helped a guy
pick up the few unbroken watermelons that had fallen from the truck bed of a rusted out Hino.
“This kid has no imagination,” Ramon said one night from the graveyard. “Never
even stops to take a leak.”
I didn’t answer. I was dead tired. Tired of going without sleep, good food, a day
off, the comfort of a cold beer. Tired of flashing back on firefights and ambushes, and to
what seems in retrospect to have been the perfect life back home. Not that I’d ever
appreciated much. Not my ex-girlfriend. Not the little things I value now. A real mattress.
Ice cubes. Sun streaming through a window. Wildflowers instead of bombs at the side of
“So do you think we’ll get stop-lossed?” I asked Ramon once.
“Oh yeah. But does it matter?”
“Bro, this is how it works. It’s like being in juvie—every day trying to keep from
getting pounded on or raped—and then one day you go home. But then you see that while
you’ve changed, your friends are still thinking life is about the size of their dicks. So
you’re always pissed. And everyone’s like, ‘Dude, what’s your fuckin’ problem?’”
One morning I discovered that my grandfather’s compass was gone. Only part of
the watch chain still hung from my belt loop. He hadn’t given it to me; I took it from his
things after he died. Years later when my mother was so sick, I came across it in a
drawer. I was fooling with it one night as I sat beside her bed. Though pretty out of it, she noticed.
“What is that?”
“Grandpa’s compass.” I handed it to her.
She smiled. “I remember it. Keep it with you so you’ll always know where you are.”
I returned her smile and nodded. She didn’t mean physically. She was referring to
my anger and rage. To my taking drugs, dealing drugs. My not showing up. Evidently
grandpa hadn’t told her that the compass couldn’t be counted on either. After she died a
few days later, I attached a watch chain to it and put it in my pocket. I’ve carried it ever since.
I tore the broken chain from my belt and tossed it onto the ground, thinking about
the guys at Hellgate: Jackson who’d blown to kingdom come despite his girlfriend’s
prayers; Stevens, carrying a photo of his wife, killed by a rocket launched frag grenade
two weeks before his son was born; Crandall, shot dead by friendly fire that struck him
just left of his crucifix; Schwartz and his Star of David, saved from insurgents by Ramon
and Polinski, one wearing a rabbit’s foot, the other his father’s Desert Storm dog tags.
And then there was Stone who didn’t believe in lucky charms.
One night, in the middle of boy-patrol, Apache gunships sweeping through the
valley broke the calm, followed by rocket blasts echoing across canyon walls.
“Let's check it out,” I told Ramon. We took a shortcut across the hill and, halfway
home, spotted haj coming through the trees. I called it in and joined Ramon in dense
brush to wait until they'd all cleared the area.
By the time we got to base it was quiet, that kind of eerie stillness you feel while
waiting for a target to get close enough to blow away. One of the armored Humvees and
the tow missile mounted on it looked like they’d been bombed. That ungodly mix of
smells that defines battle—explosives, sweat, blood, death—was in the air. Schwartz, one
of the sentries on watch, stepped out of the shadows.
“What happened?” I asked.
“We got a call that Potter and Cordova were taking fire. Dudes in manjammies
trying to jack a supply truck down the valley. On the way, we were ambushed.
Meanwhile, haj hit our mortar pit and Humvee.”
“Noticed you had air cover.”
“Hell, yeah. Amy was on.”
Amy. Hers was the comforting feminine voice over the wire, no matter how little
she said: Got it! Roger. Done! And she was good, maybe the best Apache strike pilot out
there—surely the only one we would have marched all the way to Jalalabad to meet. We
all fantasized about her. Not just about her strip dancing out of her flight suit either,
though there was plenty of that. No, Amy had possibly reached the status of protective angel.
“The girl made it one hell of a kill,” Schwartz said. “They didn’t even have time
to carry off bodies.”
Typically, insurgents removed their dead and wounded so quickly that we were
often left wondering whether we’d killed anyone or not.
“Hodges and Perez went down and Hodges probably won’t make it.” Schwartz
kicked at what was left of a tire. “It’s always hit and run with these fuckers,” he added.
“I tell you what, if we can’t get a handle on these few miles of valley, we’re not going to
make a fucking dent in the rest of the country.”
I walked around the mess. The whole area was strewn with metal fragments, shell
casings, and what was left of a box of radio batteries, binoculars, paperback books, and
laundry left out to dry. Most of the sandbags had been shot to pieces, which created
miniature dunes all over the place. I spied Stone sitting on the ground outside the wire
staring into the dawn. “Stone,” I said, “Que pasa?”
Without looking at me, he said, “I killed them. Every damn one.”
I turned to Schwartz. “What’s with him?”
“Refuses to come in.”
He meant inside the wire.
“And he unloaded his magazine on all the dead haj we found.” Schwartz shook his head.
Though Stone was airlifted by medevac to Jalalabad and dense-dosed with drugs
for a week, he was never the same and we all missed him. You can’t help missing a guy
who comes out and says what everyone else is thinking.
It wasn’t just Stone going crazy, though. We all were.
“Called the old lady this morning,” Polinsky said after they took Stone away.
“So how’d that go?” Poly had this thing with his mother.
“All she talks about is her bingo and the neighbors. I know I can’t tell her what’s
going on, but why the fuck doesn’t she at least ask?”
“Mothers want to believe we’re at Camp Napi,” I said, thinking of my own, not
gone a year yet.
“Yeah, well, maybe I’ll send her a body part.”
“Jesus, Poly. That’s cold.”
Another time, he said, “Sometimes I’m afraid that life will be so lame when I get
home that I’ll have to rob banks to feel alive.”
I knew what he meant. Here adrenalin rushes are so intense and back-to-back that
you get hooked on them, to the point that when there’s a lull between firefights—like the
last ten days—I missed them.
That week the weather turned hot and for once I was glad to be sleeping days and
following the kid nights. One late afternoon, I woke up sticky with sweat. I grabbed my
shower kit and went outside where it was even hotter. A bunch of guys were sitting
around in shorts and t-shirts, listless as old dogs, cleaning their weapons. I joined them.
Baker, in that Southern drawl of his, said, “I think we should take the tires off one
of those Humvees and go float that river.”
“If we had the energy,” Potter said.
“Or if sewage had any appeal,” Stone said.
“And if we wanted to get shot,” Polinsky added.
That was the extent of their conversation over the entire hour I sat there. Everyone
was in a stupor. I finally ambled down to the main base showers. I had just soaped up
when the first blast rocked the building. I grabbed my towel and ran barefoot across the
hot dirt to get a weapon. Others were running around too and someone handed me a
machine gun. I dove behind a wall of sandbags. Grenades were popping inside and
outside the wire in every direction. Bullets were whittling away the tops of the bags, so
we had to shoot blind. Turret gunners were firing from the Humvees and one gunner went
flying through the air high enough to be seen from our position.
Nearby, a grenade blew up some long-range surveillance equipment. Someone
was handing out ammo and several times I stepped on hot metal droppings from our
machine guns. The air was thick with dust and then wood smoke after trees burst into
flame outside the wire. Six feet away from me, one of the few guys wearing helmets took
a round in the top of his. It knocked him across the ground but he scrambled back in
seconds. Another guy went down when a grenade struck the ground near him. I crawled
over to him but he was dead. I couldn’t tell who it was; I noticed that one of his flip-flops
had melted to his foot.
That got to me. That and the relentless shooting. Evidently, it pissed off Potter
too. He stood up and headed across the sandbags straight for the shooters. "You mother
fuckers. Enough already!" he screamed, firing as he went. I dropped my weapon, tackled
him and dragged him back behind the bags. Instantly, it was quiet. Spooky. As though his
screaming really had ended things. Silence, in some ways, is worse than the constant
shooting. I looked down at him. By the slant of his jaw, I knew Potter was dead.
Abruptly, the quiet was over and the sweet sounds of our aircraft strafing the area
filled the sky, followed by mortar fire pounding down haj escape routes. The toll once it
was over: 7 dead, including Potter; 16 wounded, including Polinsky; untold damage to
crucial equipment; and the loss to haj unclear.
That evening, as usual Ramon and I parted on the hillside above the two-window
building. I set up shop and Ramon headed for the graveyard. I saw the kid come out of
the door. But instead of going towards the gas station, he took off towards the roadway.
Instantly Ramon was back. “Where the hell’s he going?”
I was already on the radio. “Uncharted move,” I told base.
“Follow him. Ramon stays put,” the PL ordered. “And keep in touch!”
The kid soon left the road on a trail into a rocky, desolate area full of coulees and
gopher holes that went uphill into the mountains. No landmines, I hoped. Formations
loomed ghostlike in the faint light of a new moon and I could smell my own sweat. The
kid knew exactly where he was going and moved with astounding speed. Twenty minutes
later, he stopped and sat down against a rock, maybe exhausted, maybe to wait for someone.
I got on my belly behind boulders a good hundred yards downwind from him and
called it in.
“Stay with him. Maybe he has an appointment,” the PL said.
My night goggles were dusty and my eyes were watering. The hike up had
irritated the burns on my feet. I concentrated on not moving or falling asleep. Bats
hunting prey rustled above me, monkeys screeched from trees across the hills, a rooster
crowed in the distance.
Ten minutes later I heard a vehicle. The kid heard it too and stood. I got out my
infrared and focused it. My gun lay nearby. An increasing glow of headlamps moved in a
twisted path up the hill. I zoomed in on the vehicle as it pulled up near the kid. Two men
got out and opened the back. Even with the zoom lens they were hazy blobs. They
struggled with something but the boy didn’t help or even move from his position to see
what they were doing. Finally, they threw what looked like a body onto the ground and
got back into the vehicle.
The one on the passenger side said something to the boy from the window; then
the driver headed my way. He made a careful U-turn through large rocks, so close to me
that I recognized the guy in the passenger seat—a prime-target Afghan. The man
responsible for importing Pakistani and Chechen militants to help overrun our outposts in
the valley. Abu-boo, we called him.
I got on the radio again. “Abu-boo himself,” I said.
“How abut the nose?” the PL asked.
Abu-boo’s nose looked like someone had removed the real one and replaced it
with a thumb. “Just like the pictures. He’s in an armored Land Cruiser heading downhill
east to primary road about a half-mile north of Ramon.”
I signed off and turned my attention back to the kid. So the little punk was
conspiring with Abu-boo? It pissed me off and I stormed towards him. He was leaning
over the body thrown from the vehicle. As I got closer I could see that the person was alive.
The kid turned and saw me and said something I couldn’t understand. By then I
was close and the boy pulled his knife and lunged for me. He grazed the same arm he’d
stabbed before and I knocked the weapon to the ground, grabbed it and put it in a pouch
on my tac belt. “Stop trying to knife me, you little bastard!”
Suddenly, the male on the ground reached for something and I lifted my gun to
shoot. The boy threw himself across him as a shield. I yanked the kid away and saw that
the guy was not much older than the kid and in terrible shape, blackened eyes, broken
nose, and bleeding from his forehead, right arm and a wound to his leg. The boy looked
at me, his clothes now bloody too and his usual cockiness gone. He spoke again but I
didn’t understand a word of it. I guessed he wanted water. I hesitated, waiting for him to
pull out another weapon.
I got out my canteen and handed it to him. He struggled to get the man upright to
drink. I helped him but most of the water dribbled down the man’s swollen, bleeding
mouth. I had nothing else with me but a first aid kit and I pulled it out. It was ridiculously
I didn’t know where to start. The leg, I decided, realizing why he couldn’t sit up.
His right leg was hanging from threads of skin. I got on my radio to call for a medic; the
sound of an Apache close-by, no doubt looking for the Land Cruiser, rattled loudly. “I
need a medic fast, an interpreter too,” I yelled over the noise.
I looked at the leg, then at the boy. He saw the problem: the guy’s torn pants were
in the way. I grabbed the kid's knife from my belt and cut the pant leg from the hip down.
The kid helped me brace the leg so I could wrap it. The boy’s chin quivered when he saw
the deep hacking to the thigh and all the blood that soon soaked the tourniquet wrap.
The kid bowed his head in prayer and seconds later an explosion boomed against
the walls of rock enshrouding the valley. Soon the medic and interpreter arrived,
followed by Ramon. “A perfect kill,” he shouted. “You should have seen it!” Then,
noticing me on my knees and the boy holding the man’s head in his lap, he sobered.
“The guy’s dead,” the medic said, a few minutes later.
“Can we take the body home for the boy?” I asked.
The interpreter spoke softly to the kid, who suddenly lunged for his knife and
stabbed me in my right shoulder where it stuck.
“Son of a bitch!” I yelled, jumping to my feet. Ramon had his gun pointed at the
kid and looked over at me. I shook my head no.
“What the hell did the kid say?” the medic asked the Afghan interpreter as he
pulled the knife from my shoulder blade.
The Afghan looked directly at me. “He said his brother’s death is his fault for
always following him around.”
“No,” I said. “Tell him to blame that snub-nosed terrorist who did the hatchet job
on him!” The Afghan spoke again to the kid. The kid answered but this time did not look
our way. No one asked what he’d said and the interpreter did not volunteer to tell us.
“I need to clean this where I can see what I’m doing,” the medic said, handing me
the kid’s knife. Once again, I put it in my belt. “Can you make it to base okay?”
I nodded and looked back at the kid. He was tearing off the tourniquet on his
brother’s leg. I guessed that before going down the hill to the elders for help, he had to
get rid of all traces that Americans had touched the body. Would he claim that we had
killed his brother?
I walked on ahead, but could still hear Ramon describing in detail how the
Apache had swooped in and struck the Land Cruiser. He was so happy about it you’d
think he’d blown up the vehicle himself. Had Amy been the pilot? I wondered.
When we got back to Hellgate, the sun was rising in a line of red along the eastern
front. The day was going to be a scorcher. The medic cleaned and dressed my wound and
I went into the makeshift shack where I bunked.
I took off my backpack and reached for my canteen, then remembered I had left it
with the kid. I lay down, trying to make sense of things. Through the open flap, sun
glittered on a certain peak in the distance, the one I used to locate myself in the valley.
Just then Stone poked his head in.
“Hey!” I said. “Close that flap, will ya?”
“Found your compass in the dirt by the latrine.” He tossed it to me. “Bet it’s
fuckin’ embarrassing explaining getting knifed by a kid all the time,” he added. He
disappeared from view, laughing like he’d double-upped his meds.
“The flap!” I hollered, but he was gone.
I wiped off a clot of dirt on the face of the compass and set it aside. Though I’d
been about the age of the kid when I stole it from my grandfather’s things, I’d had
nowhere near the balls this kid had.
What would happen to him? I wondered. Was there a life he’d never be able to fit
back into, like Ramon? Would he become addicted to danger and chaos the way Polinsky
was? Would he talk in terms of good and bad kill days? Or, would he get so sick of it all
that he would retreat, as Stone had, to the smallest area of consciousness possible?
But maybe, if the kid had any luck at all, there'd be other options. Better ones. If
he could see them, that is. That’s pretty much what happens here after a certain point.
You quit seeing.