Voice from the Commonwealth
Commentary, World Views and Occasional Rants from a small 'l' libertarian in Massachussetts

"If ye love wealth greater than liberty, the tranquility of servitude better than the animating contest for freedom, go home and leave us in peace. We seek not your council nor your arms. Crouch down and lick the hand that feeds you, and may posterity forget that ye were our countrymen." - Samuel Adams

Friday, February 28, 2003

The Christian Science Monitor continues its great coverage from Afghanistan. Here they take a look at some of the individual US soldiers still there fighting to wipe out the Taliban and al Qaeda while helping to rebuild the war torn country.

Staff Sgt. Dick, a barrel-chested Green Beret with a thick mane of curly gray hair, rides horseback through the dusty streets of Kunduz. He has torn the arms off his fatigues to beat the August heat, but still wears a bulky flak jacket. Children run from their homes and shout in English at the rough-riding soldier.

"Thank you," one boy calls out.

"You're welcome, buddy," Dick says. "You're plumb welcome."

"Friend, friend," another child shouts.

"You better believe it," Dick says, and rides on, down the sinuous alleyways of the adobe-walled neighborhood. Dick is a member of the 2nd Battalion of the 19th Special Forces group, an Army National Guard unit based at Kenova, W.Va. Though he doesn't speak Dari, the local language ("my second language is vulgarity," he quips), he makes friends on his rides through town.

"I was out this morning, saw a guy on a great big horse," Dick recalls. "He looked at me, puffed up his chest. I was like, 'Yeah, let's go.' We raced for about a mile, then he reared up his horse on its back legs like Gene Autry."

Dick is known to his cohorts as Bones, a nickname that dates back to when he was growing up skinny in a coal camp in West Virginia. As a teenager he did a tour of duty in Vietnam, and fought in the Tet offensive. Now 54, Bones is the oldest man in his unit, but he keeps fit. He passed the grueling combat diver course when he was 49. In the words of an officer in Bones's unit, "He's as hard as woodpecker lips."

Green Beret A-teams are vulnerable to hosts with superior firepower, but in Afghanistan, alliances with warlords allow them to fight at battalion strength, at least in theory. In practice, however, nothing comes easily, and Afghan militiamen sometimes have divided loyalties. Firefights have reportedly broken out between American units and Afghan soldiers paid to be on their side.

In Kunduz, Green Berets suspect that militiamen loyal to Daud Khan, a commander nominally allied with the US military, are betraying American intentions and foiling operations to capture Taliban and Al Qaeda remnants. One man under Daud Khan's command has admitted to harboring the same Islamic militants the Americans are actively pursuing. Suspicions run so deep that Bones isn't sure whom to trust.

"You don't know who's a good guy and who's a bad guy," Bones says. "But if he's shooting at you, he's definitely a bad guy."

Headquarters platoon of 3rd Battalion's Alpha Company is housed in a capacious green canvas tent with a blue battle flag flying outside. The company is on Quick Reaction Force status and must be ready to fight at a moment's notice. In one corner of the tent, amid crates of ammunition, a few soldiers watch "Blow," starring Johnny Depp, on a laptop computer. It's 8 in the morning. "Gladiator" already screened at 6:30.

About noon, a soldier with a yellow mail sack plops a box in front of Pfc. Ronald "Doc" Bernier, a 22-year-old from Boston. Just before he left the States, his wife gave birth to a baby boy, who is just now taking his first steps. Private Bernier finds the box stuffed with holiday cards.

"I can't believe you got all that mail," says Pfc. Eric Jarvis, 20, who occupies a cot next to Bernier. "Is it, like, from a class? People you don't know?"

"It's Christmas cards from last year," Bernier says, knifing open an envelope with his finger. "I'm going to be busy today."

It is July 2002, and "Dear Soldier" letters written in the wake of the 9/11 attacks are just now finding their way to forward- deployed troops.

Suddenly, the tent becomes a welter of activity. Soldiers snap magazines into their rifles and pull on body armor. A Special Forces base near the Pakistani border has come under attack, and Alpha Company must be ready to assist. Bernier checks his backpack - morphine sticks, pressure bandages, plastic and gauze pads. Satisfied, he wolfs down the contents of an MRE (Meal Ready to Eat, the ubiquitous American ration packs), then straddles his cot, ready to go.

As soon as the Chinooks touch ground, soldiers pour out of the back ramps and fan out in a defensive perimeter. The helicopters, like a fleet of drab green school buses, peel away and lumber up to the safety of higher altitudes. Overhead, Apache attack helicopters are ready to provide close air support. Children from Hesarak perch on mud walls, watching the US troops take up positions in their village.

One child approaches a heavy machine gun crew across an open field. The soldiers vehemently wave him off; he has walked into an interlocking field of fire. But the child continues to advance, in halting steps, with a book in his outstretched hands.

"There's a kid walking toward us," one of the soldiers reports over the radio. "He's making hand signals. He's got a book."

"Well, talk to him," a voice barks back. "But tell your guys not to touch the book."

The child makes his way slowly over to the machine gun crew. A pause, and then another radio transmission.

"He wanted us to know he passed his tests, that he studied hard in school," the machine gunner reports.

Assault teams, meanwhile, sweep the suspected weapons lab. Forensic specialists dust for fingerprints, while intelligence officials remove cassette tapes, documents, and blocks of a paste-like material. (Initial laboratory tests confirmed the presence of ricin, a highly toxic derivative of the castor bean. More accurate tests conducted later in the US came out negative.)

There are two others profiled. Go read it and get to see some of what the people defending our lives are doing.

< email | 2/28/2003 01:06:00 PM | link

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