Afghanistan in 2002: Not Much War, But Plenty of Hell

Greetings from Ass-Crack-istan: For the horny and heavily armed young GIs at the front line, life is nothing but heat, no beer, dust and fear. On the ground with a new generation of American warriors

March 23, 2011 12:22 PM ET
Pvt. Jason Swinehart is the platoon's new guy.
Pvt. Jason Swinehart is the platoon's new guy.
Photograph by Nathaniel Welch

To the soldiers of The Fifth Platoon Delta Company living at Kandahar Airfield, deep in the former Taliban stronghold of southeastern Afghanistan, dawn breaks each morning with a horrible stench. Their tent is located at the southernmost end of the airfield, not far from the "shit lagoon" — the canal where all the excrement from the camp's 5,000-plus inhabitants is dumped every day. Temperatures in Kandahar soar to more than 125 degrees, and the first hot winds of the morning bear an overwhelming smell of raw sewage, spiced with the odor of disinfectant from the latrines outside the tent, not to mention occasional gusts of diesel fuel blowing off the line of helicopters on the nearby runway. Sitting on the edge of his cot, twenty-year-old Pvt. Joshua Farrar, a former surfer from South Florida, shakes a Newport out of a dust-covered pack, surveys his fellow soldiers getting up to face another day in Afghanistan and concludes, "This all sucks."

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The Fifth Platoon Delta are air-assault infantry attached to the 3-187th Battalion, America's main combat force in southeastern Afghanistan. Their job is to fly into battle on helicopters, rappel down from ropes, and blow the crap out of tanks, fortifications and the enemy. But in Afghanistan the soldiers have been thrust into an ill-defined role. They mount round-the-clock combat recon patrols through former Taliban villages in the Kandahar desert. But the shooting has stopped for the most part, and now the soldiers are called on to enforce a shaky peace while serving as America's ambassadors of good will in what remains a lethal land.

This article appeared in the July 25, 2002 issue of Rolling Stone. The issue is available in the online archive.

As they prepare for their patrol, Farrar and a couple of the other gunners stand on top of two Humvees to mount machine guns in the turrets. Lt. Donato D'Angelo Jr., a twenty-six-year-old from Ramsey, New Jersey, leans on some sandbags outside, studying a plastic-encased patrol map.

The first thing you notice about D'Angelo, the platoon leader of Five Delta, is his physical power. He is about five feet eleven and weighs 195 pounds, with much of that weight carried in his shoulders and massive biceps. A week ago, he set a regimental record in Kandahar for his weight class by bench-pressing 325 pounds. D'Angelo played soccer at West Point, boxed for three years and completed Army Ranger school, during which he survived a lightning strike that killed the man next to him.

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"Today," he says, "we will drive through some minefields and drink tea with village elders." He looks up with a sort of grin or snarl. It's tough to tell. D'Angelo is the son of first-generation Italian immigrants. "I'm like the black sheep of the family for being in the Army," he says. "My brother's twenty-three. He's a bond trader in Manhattan, making $120,000 a year, and I'm making $35,000 living in a tent in Afghanistan with fourteen other guys."

"Step aside, sir!" a soldier shouts. "Dust devil coming." From across the parking lot, a brown cyclone whips up from behind a row of portajohns; D'Angelo steps back five paces while the funnel slips by. "You get used to the dust here after a while," he says. Most afternoons, forty-mile-an-hour winds kick up dust storms that blow into the airfield like a thick fog, reducing visibility to a few yards.

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"Do people at home still care about the job we're doing over here?" D'Angelo asks. He speaks softly, but emphasizes every syllable, as if laboring to make himself absolutely clear, just in case you happen to be a dumb fuck. "Are they still patriotic and all that, or have they forgotten about us?"

D'Angelo spits a thick stream of brown juice and adds, "You know, I took it kind of personally when the Towers fell. That was my back yard. To say I wanted to put my life on the line for America is too abstract. I came to Afghanistan to protect my mother, my sister and my little brother."

Taibblog: Commentary on politics and the economy by Matt Taibbi

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