Peter van Agtmael

American Wars: Inside the Wire

Sergeant Russell applies a forceful embrace to two stray dogs, days before the end of a 16-month tour of duty to Afghanistan, A number of strays hung around the base waiting for the bored American soldiers to feed them from their excessive food supplies.  With the absence of women with whom to form physical bonds (the Afghan soldiers were not so discerning), many of the soldiers took to lavishing the strays with excessive affection. Not all the soldiers were so welcoming to the dogs.  Several weeks before, one of the dogs urinated on the cot of one of his more reluctant hosts.  Several soldiers proceeded to shoot the dog to pieces with every weapon they had in their inventory.  This led to tension in the platoon, already strained from a long deployment in which they were extended for four months, just days before they were scheduled to return home.
Patrol Base California in the Pech Valley, Afghanistan.  California was set up by the 10th mountain Division in May 2006 as part of a strategy to isolate and destroy the flow of Taliban stealing in through Pakistan's porous border.  The outpost was built by the small platoon of soldiers that manned it.  As they tell it, they were driven to the Pech in a convoy of humvees which abruptly stopped on the side of a small dirt road, between a fast moving river and a small, boulder-filled valley.  'This will be your home for the next year,' their commander told them.  They started building, and at first weren't attacked.  The local fighters expected them to move on and intended to wait it out. But the base grew rapidly.  Dirt filled barricades called 'Hescos' were lined down the road.   Deep holes were built around the natural cover of the boulders, and the exposed areas were lined with sandbags.  They dug trenches to use as a firing position, and a small hut was built to accommodate a squad of soldiers from the Afghan army.  When it became clear that the outpost was sticking around, the attacks began.  Over the next year, California was attacked 83 times by rockets, mortars, and small arms.  The platoon suffered numerous casualties, and brigade-wide the 3rd Brigade of the 10th Mountain Division lost the most killed and wounded of any unit to serve in Afghanistan.
At dusk, two Afghan soldiers pray while a third mans a recoilless rifle.  A small Afghan contingent accompanied the Americans on the patrol base, living in a plywood hut.  The relationship between the Afghan and American soldiers living on base was a mixed one.   Most U.S. soldiers ignored the Afghans, frustrated by their lackadaisical attitude towards patrolling the surrounding areas.  Many of the U.S. soldiers were on their 2nd or 3rd year-long deployment since October of 2001, and desperately wanted the Afghans to take active and ambitious responsibility for the regions they operated in.  The Afghans themselves were content to let the Americans take care of the dangerous work.  The ANA (Afghan National Army) are sparely equipped, with antiquated helmets and body armor, and few communication devices, armored vehicles, night-vision capability or medical supplies.  Given the American abundance of all these things, the Afghans felt that they should bear the burden of risk.  As a result, the ANA spent most of the days lounging around their hut, smoking hashish and watching DVD's and Bollywood movies from a small TV powered by a portable generator.  One of their favorite movies was 'Titanic,' frequently borrowed from their marine trainer, a gung-ho sergeant on his third combat tour and exasperated with the performance of his Afghan trainees.
Lieutenant Erik Malmstrom of the 10th Mountain Division turns away grimly from photos of three of his soldiers killed in a Taliban ambush in eastern Nuristan province on August 11, 2006. The ambush also wounded three other Americans.  Portraits of the other dead soldiers from the deployment fill the remembrance room, located at the brigade headquarters in Jalalabad.  Erik had arrived on base just minutes before, the first of many stops required (Kabul, Kyrgyzstan, Ireland) to return home after a 16-month deployment leading a platoon in the remote Waigul Valley in eastern Afghanistan.  In all, 43 soldiers from the 10th Mountain were killed during the deployment, the most of any single unit in Afghanistan since the war began, and more than 10% of the total U.S. fatalities in Afghanistan.  The portraits of the fallen were hung between one of the iconic images of September 11, and an image of the flag-draped coffins of U.S. soldiers, meant to offer visitors a pointed reminder of the reasons and risks of their service.
A memorial service for Kevin Jessen, killed the previous day at the age of 28 by an Improvised Explosive Device (IED). He died in the restive former Baathist stronghold of Rawah, in Al-Anbar province.   He left behind a wife, Carrie, and a 2-year old son, Cameron.  It was his third tour to Iraq.  He was a recent arrival to the unit, and not well known to most of the other soldiers.  At the memorial service, bagpipes played a mournful hymnal, while the 400 soldiers that manned the base each filed past and saluted the memorial.  In a tent reserved for passengers in transit, a lone civilian sat and wept after the funeral.  He was an internet service technician working in Iraq as a contractor for a Halliburton subsidiary, lured by the high pay and the opportunity to ‘do his part.’  He had arrived the previous day by helicopter, and Kevin had picked him up at the landing pad.  They had a friendly talk, and decided to continue the chat over dinner at the chow hall that night.  The next day, Kevin went out on a patrol and was killed.  The technician’s job usually insulated him from the daily realities of the war. Kevin was the first soldier he’d known who died.  He pledged that at the end of his contract he would leave Iraq and never come back.