A Glass, and Darkly
Chapter 16: Exit Stage Left
23 October 2004 – Bagram Airbase, Bagram, Afghanistan
The late-October day dawned cloudy and cool at Bagram. Jeff scanned the cloud deck, looking for signs of falling rain; he found none but the scent of moisture was there. Rain would make for a miserable and slippery hike to the village. Most of the team ignored Jeff while they prepared to leave. He felt like the guest at a party the hosts invited but no one talked to; he collected his ammo allotment, loaded his magazines, and kept to himself before they boarded their aircraft.
The pair of Black Hawks sped northeast to the edge of the Hindu Kush. Jeff stared out the open side door with one leg dangling as they flew; the impressive mountains passed by unnoticed. He was lost in thought. His friendship with Mickey Kasperson hadn’t translated into any kind of friendly treatment from this Special Forces team. He could hear Ken Takahashi and Tom Cavanaugh laughing at him for volunteering for this mission; maybe he’d made a mistake.
Someone nudged his arm. Glancing to his left, Jeff saw CWO3 Henderson. The chief warrant officer motioned for Jeff to plug his headset into the connection to the internal communications system on the aircraft. Jeff did so and turned to the indicated channel.
“Where exactly are you from, Sergeant?”
“Originally? About sixty miles west of Boston, Chief.”
“Mickey said you’ve been a medic for a while?”
“Yes. I’ve been an EMT since 1991 and a paramedic since 1995.”
“Do you know any of the languages around here?”
“A phrase or two of Pashto, Chief,” Jeff shrugged. “We didn’t strike up many conversations during our raids. I imagine what I do know wouldn’t be much help where we’re headed?”
“Probably not, unless you know some Dari?”
“No. Japanese, Spanish, and French in addition to English, that’s all.”
“You speak Japanese?” the chief asked in surprise. And in Japanese.
Jeff returned the surprise. “My wife’s brother was my roommate when we were in the 82d together. Their parents are from Japan and taught them both the language, though Ken and Keiko were born in the States; that’s how I learned. You, Chief? Did you learn at DLI?”
“Yes. I went to the Defense Language Institute in Monterey when I was with the 1st Special Forces Group.”
“What can I realistically expect up here, Chief?”
“At first, the cold shoulder. The village knows and trusts both Mickey and Diego, our other medic. The villagers will expect them to be with us when we arrive. The captain will explain things to Aalem, their village chief, so hopefully that will smooth things over.”
“Do you think he’ll be able to?”
“Aalem is a practical man and, well, you’ll see for yourself when we arrive this afternoon.”
The chopper’s crew chief indicated they were five minutes from the landing site. The team readied their weapons. The aircraft flared to land behind the mountain peak separating the landing zone from the village. After a quick head count and comm check, the team began their trek.
The captain’s men set a fast pace; Jeff suspected it was to test him. He noticed several members of the team glancing back at him whenever they stopped. Jeff silently stared back at them with a bored expression when they did. The extreme pace kept Jeff warm in the cool weather. Thankfully the rain held off, or they could have all been candidates for hypothermia. By the third time Captain DeFusco told his point man to watch his pace Jeff could barely keep up, though he hid it well. Jeff suspected they’d get a lecture on professionalism tonight.
Once through the mountain passes what little chatter there was dropped off. The men watched their surroundings closely; approaching another known armed group requires even more vigilance than being on regular patrol. It was well after noon when the patrol halted and a soldier led an armed Afghan fighter to the captain.
The captain greeted the man warmly before the patrol resumed its march. A warning about not shooting their hosts came through over the radio net. Other armed Afghans could soon be seen standing among the rocks approaching the village. The first native fighter led the SF team to the middle of the village where more fighters awaited them. A man stepped forward when the American column entered the center of the village; Captain DeFusco stepped forward to meet him. They embraced.
“Aalem, peace be upon you.”
“And upon you, peace, my friend Arturo,” the Afghan replied in clipped British tones. “One of these days, we’ll teach you to say that properly – in Dari, of course.”
“Aalem, I mangle my native English badly enough, don’t make me embarrass myself in another language.”
Aalem laughed. “We have your lodgings ready, Arturo. Let your men get settled and we shall have our evening meal.”
“There is one thing I need to mention, Aalem.” Their host arched an eyebrow. “Diego and Mickey are not with us this time.”
“Are they quite alright?”
“Quite. A spot of bother with Mickey’s appendix, and a misstep caused Diego to break his leg.”
Aalem shook his finger at Art. “It is not seemly to mock one’s host, Arturo, particularly when he endeavours to speak properly.”
“A thousand pardons, sir.” That earned Art another finger wagging, though it was clear the two were firm friends. “In all seriousness, Aalem, we have a medic with us who Mickey personally vouched for. I hold Mickey’s medical judgment in the highest regard, and in this instance there is no exception.”
“Introduce him at our meal, after you are settled.” With that he motioned to another of his young fighters, who led Charlie-97 to their building.
Mirwais Nuristani, Aalem’s son, sat in the empty infirmary building with Jeff the next day. Jeff hadn’t expected many patients given his status as an unknown guest; still, he expected at least one patient in the four hours they’d been here. Captain DeFusco’s team visited here three weeks prior, so that might explain part of the absence of work for him to do.
Mirwais mercifully spoke English – very good English – his accent a curious mix of his father’s British mixed with the Dari of the native tongue. There was no shortage of topics for the two to talk about. Inevitably the subject of his presence came up.
“Why am I here?” Jeff echoed. “The short answer is that Mickey and Captain DeFusco asked me to come when Mickey and Diego could not. Beyond that the answers get much less clear-cut, Mirwais. Why am I in Afghanistan? Why is my country here fighting? Again, the short answer is we were attacked. Past that, you could make the case that years of decisions on both sides brought us here after the attacks of 2001. Like all parents, I hope for something better for my children. I would have felt horrible if something else happened back home and we lost our way of life, especially if I hadn’t fought against that loss.”
“And what part of your country’s way of life did you fear losing, Jeff?”
“The opportunity for our citizens, any of them, to choose how they want to live their lives. Our ways aren’t perfect, nor are they for everyone, but they’re our ways and we mean to keep them.”
“Yet here you are imposing your ways on my country,” Mirwais’ tone was conversational, not confrontational.
“If I had my way, we’d have already smashed the Taliban and left your country. The problem lies in the level of comfort each individual in my country seeks to find. Some would have been happy dropping a few bombs, or launching a few cruise missiles; some wouldn’t have been comfortable until your nation was a glowing, nuclear wasteland with everyone dead and everything here in ashes. Most of us just don’t want to be attacked again.
“You have to understand, Mirwais, we thought the oceans protected us, as naïve as that sounds. The fear Americans felt on September 11th was unprecedented. This area has been invaded over and over throughout your history; our nation has been invaded in force once back in the early eighteen-hundreds. With one other minor exception our battles with foreign powers have been fought outside our territory, not within, since then. Now there is no definable, conventional enemy we can point to; there is no Soviet Union, to use an example from your recent history, for us to shake our fists at. I can’t imagine how you don’t see us in the same light as the Soviets.”
“I had the privilege of sitting at my father’s knee while growing up to hear the difference. He left modern, peaceful, urban Kabul as a young boy to undertake schooling in the United Kingdom. He returned to his homeland to find it shattered, the standard of living he knew gone, thanks to the war started by the Soviets. Mickey and I held many similar conversations as this during his visits. I can now see why he asked you to accompany Captain Arturo. I think tomorrow will be busier for you.”
The young Afghan was correct. The following day villagers formed a short line outside the infirmary building with complaints of mostly minor ailments – strains, sprains, and the like. One young family was different.
The mother, wrapped in traditional women’s robes for modesty’s sake, looked worried. A five year-old girl hung limp and listless in her embrace with the detached, disinterested look of a very sick child. Her father glared at Jeff, distrustful. Jeff asked about the child’s illness; the man grunted and waved at his wife when Mirwais began to translate. The answers and a quick physical exam revealed the reason for the mother’s fear: the child had pneumonia.
Pneumonia was once a fierce killer of the very young and the very old around the world. The introduction of antibiotics in developed countries reduced pneumonia to only an occasional cause of death. But in the still-developing and under-developed countries where antibiotics weren’t widely available to the majority of the population, it cut wide and deadly swaths through those vulnerable ages.
“Your daughter has an infection in her lungs,” Jeff explained to the father. “There are two possible causes. One of them I can easily treat; the other, I cannot. She also needs fluid put into her veins. There are pills I will give to her with your permission; I can give a few pills each day over the three days my people are guests of your village. If the infection is the kind which is not treated easily, the pills will not harm her but they won’t help her, either. Your daughter needs the fluid put directly into her veins because she is dehydrated; that would help either way, but it won’t cure her.”
“We can do these things at home?” the father asked through Mirwais.
“Yes. I would need to bring her the medication and check on her recovery each day, but she can stay home.”
The father nodded. The girl watched Jeff impassively while he started the rehydration IV, though her dull blue eyes followed everything he did. She didn’t make a sound or movement when he stuck the needle in her arm. Jeff gave her Tylenol, a high-dose amoxicillin pill, and told the parents what to do with the IV. They left in a much friendlier mood than when they’d arrived.
“Well, at least I didn’t get shot...” Jeff muttered.
Mirwais snorted. “Ramin is aptly named; his name means warrior. He is a brave fighter and a valued member of the village. It takes him a while to warm up to strangers. If Yasameen dies, she will be the second child they have lost.”
“I better not let her die, then.”
Yasameen had more energy the next day, thanks to the medicine and IV fluid she received. The pneumonia still held her back, but Jeff hoped the amoxicillin would soon help to clear her lungs. Jeff infused more fluid, then removed the IV from her arm.
“She will not need the tubing any longer?” Ramin asked. He was less gruff today.
“No. The bags of fluid she received have helped her catch up to the point where simply drinking will keep her hydrated. The fluid will also help her get the congestion caused by the infection out of her lungs; it won’t be as thick now.” Ramin nodded but said nothing else. His wife wore a hint of a smile at seeing the improvement in her daughter. Jeff waved Ramin and Mirwais to a corner and lowered his voice to a whisper.
“Ramin, I must caution you and your wife against getting too excited yet. Your daughter is doing better today, but I won’t be satisfied until the antibiotic pills I gave her show stronger signs of working. The medicine needs time to build up to the necessary level inside her body before it begins to work. We will know by the end of the day tomorrow if the pills will work.” Jeff saw an all too familiar pain creep into the man’s eyes once Mirwais translated his words. “I cannot promise she will not die, Ramin; that is for someone more powerful than us to decide, though I am growing more hopeful. I do promise that I will use every bit of knowledge I possess to try and save her.”
Ramin nodded again and walked away.
“And the award for ‘Most Depressing Bedside Manner’ goes to...” Jeff muttered. By the look on his face Mirwais didn’t understand Jeff’s comment, so Jeff explained. “A doctor’s bedside manner is how he interacts with his patients or their families. I was commenting on how poor mine was with Ramin just now.”
“Cautioning someone against false hope is not wrong, Jeff. Neither is winning over a man such as Ramin.”
“I don’t think I’ve won him over yet, Mirwais.”
For all his success running the clinic most of the team still ignored Jeff. Any talk died when he showed up; whatever small snippets of conversation he overheard gave credit to Mickey’s hard work during previous visits. Jeff tried to ignore what he did hear. Captain DeFusco bucked the trend and spoke to him before their final day in the village.
“I’m hearing good things about you from Aalem and Mirwais, Jeff.”
“Good to know, sir, thanks. After that first day I kinda wondered.”
“Don’t sweat it too much. And the guys will warm up to you.”
“They don’t really need to do they, sir? I’m just some visiting, wannabe poser they have to put up with. I’m out of their hair in a couple of days.” DeFusco frowned. “So, we have all day tomorrow, then we leave the following morning, right, sir?”
“Right, Jeff. We’ll have breakfast with Aalem and his top men before we leave. We have to be gone before the group from that other village arrives.”
“What time is that?”
“They won’t get here until about 1500, but I want to be out of here by 0900 anyway.”
“Any issues with me checking on a patient on the way out, sir?”
“Ramin’s little girl? I don’t see any. She’s doing better?”
“Starting to look that way, sir. I’ll know for certain before we have to leave. I’m hoping she’ll continue to improve.”
Yasameen’s cough sounded worse to the untrained ear the next morning, but the sound told Jeff that her congestion was breaking up. She didn’t need any more Tylenol, either. The little girl wanted to be done with his exam and go play; her mother struggled to keep her still long enough for Jeff to finish. When Jeff nodded to Ramin’s wife that she could let her daughter go, Yasameen was out of the room in a flash. When Jeff turned back to Ramin and his wife, Mahnaz, both were smiling.
“It is good,” he told them. Mahnaz teared up in relief when Mirwais repeated Jeff’s words in Dari.
Ramin took Jeff’s hand. “Tashakor,” he said.
Jeff looked the man in the eye. “Qalebe tashakor nest.”
Ramin nodded before he escorted his two guests to his door.
“When did you learn Dari?” Mirwais asked while they walked back to the infirmary building.
“I don’t think knowing how to say ‘thank you’ and ‘you’re welcome’ counts as having learned Dari, Mirwais.”
“It is still more than you knew before.” Mirwais looked sidelong at the American next to him. “Or is it?”
“No, it is, Mirwais. I’ve been listening to you and the others for the last few days; I picked up some useful phrases, that’s all.”
Despite what he said to the captain the day before, Jeff noticed most of the team acknowledging his presence when he returned before dinner that night; Harvik was the lone exception. Other than the farewell meal in the morning with Aalem and his top men, there was nothing else scheduled for the next day.
A light layer of frost covered the landscape when Jeff stepped outside early the next morning. He walked to the small clearing where he’d been doing his kata every day; he cleared his mind and let the familiar routine flow through him. The weight of his pistol and boots threw him off just a little, but he’d been able to adapt.
“What was that, Jeff?” Mirwais asked from his perch on a nearby rock.
“Hey, Mirwais. I was practicing my forms for karate.”
“My father has told me of it, but this is the first time I’ve seen it for myself. How long have you been doing that?”
“A few years; about ten, actually, since I started dating my wife. She’s the reason I started taking karate classes again.”
“Why is that?”
“She’s been studying karate her whole life. It was something we could do together.”
“I think I am finally beginning to understand what you believe you are fighting to protect.”
“As I’ve said, my friend, our ways are not for everyone but they are ours.”
Mirwais nodded. “I have enjoyed our conversations the last few days, Jeff. I am sad we will not be able to continue them.”
“As am I, my friend. I will see you at breakfast, yes?”
“Yes. I will be there with my father.”
“I will see you then. I must go clean up.”
“Until then, Jeff.”
Jeff returned to the team’s building and cleaned up in advance of breakfast. Like all meals during their visit, the American guests received the best the Afghans had to offer. They ate enough to be polite to their hosts but tried not eat them out of house and home. Laughter rippled around the large group while they ate; even Ramin wore a smile, the first Jeff had seen from the man. After the morning meal the other Americans rechecked their building one last time while a small group followed Ramin to his home; Ramin waved Aalem, Art DeFusco, Mirwais and Jeff inside.
Yasameen bounded over to her father with a big smile. Her once-dull blue eyes shone with health and vitality; her eyes reminded Jeff of Sabrina’s. Jeff cautioned her parents that she must complete the course of antibiotics he left for her. Mahnaz smiled gratefully at the tall American who snatched her child back from death. She called Yasameen back to her while Ramin escorted the visitors outside, laughing at something Mirwais translated for him.
Their laughter stopped when they saw a group of six or seven armed men standing at the edge of the village. A large, severe man who appeared to be their leader scowled at them. Aalem asked the man something in Dari. The man answered in a loud and angry voice. Aalem answered back in a quiet voice which sounded no less menacing.
“Arturo, my friend, this is the other group who was to visit us; as you can see they are early. Mirwais, Ramin, and I will ensure they stay here while you and your men depart safely.”
“Will your people be alright, Aalem? This doesn’t look good.”
“We will be fine. As you were welcomed in peace, we will make sure your departure is as peaceful. Go, my friend. We shall see you next month.”
Art nodded and waved for his fellow American to follow him. Aalem and the other leader began yelling back and forth while Jeff turned to Mirwais and Ramin.
“Khoda hafiz,” Jeff offered. ‘May God protect you.’ The two men returned the farewell in similar fashion and shook his hand. The Americans strode away.
Returning to where the others waited, Art got the team moving and out of the village; once out of sight he briefed the rest of the team on the end of the visit before they continued toward the first day’s LZ. Ten minutes later, an unwelcome sound caught Jeff’s attention. He stopped short. Harvik, the last man in the patrol column, looked at Jeff.
“You heard it too?” Harvik asked without rancor; those were the first words he’d spoken to Jeff since his arrival in Charlie-97’s tent. Jeff nodded and pointed back to the village. Harvik nodded in return. “Gunfire, Captain. Sounded like it came from the village.” The team stopped and turned to the two men.
“I heard it too, sir,” Jeff confirmed.
Art DeFusco looked at the unlikely pair; they nodded in confirmation before sounds from another burst of automatic weapons fire echoed off the rocks. Looking around Art pointed to a low overhang. “Stash our rucks under there and let’s move.” Within a minute the team headed back to the village. The brisk walking pace brought them to the end of the rocks along its edge five minutes later. A man yelled out, popped up from behind a large boulder, and raised a rifle; two of the Americans cut him down.
“Fan out,” Art ordered. “Two-man teams. Check every building. Work your way to the central square. Go.”
Jeff and Harvik peeled off to the right side of the village and worked down its edge. The chatter of gunfire continued from the center of the settlement. Harvik stopped suddenly. “You hear that?” he asked. Jeff nodded and pointed to a familiar building.