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

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Farrar, fair-haired and a lanky six feet one, moves with a slowness that's both lazy and deliberate, and says he joined the Army to get money for college. "I never thought there was going to be a war," he says. "There were guys at Fort Campbell who squirmed out before we deployed — like a kid who developed 'dizzy spells.' I thought of doing that, but fuck it." Farrar holds an unusual position in the platoon. His superiors consider him one of the platoon's best soldiers, but he is also the lowest-ranked. About a week after he arrived, he was busted down two ranks to buck private when an infraction he'd committed back at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, caught up with him. Farrar is sketchy about the details but allows it had something to do with a urine test. (Bad luck seems to dog Farrar. On a recent mail call, while his buddies opened letters and boxes of cookies from home, Farrar received a parking ticket. "This girl didn't write me for three weeks," he says. "I told her to pack her shit and get the fuck out of my house. Now she's got my car.")

At about 0600, the platoon strap on about sixty pounds of protective gear and equipment apiece and climb into three Humvees. They drive out the front gate of the American camp and go less than a mile, to a former Taliban command post surrounded by fourteen-foot-high mud-brick walls, that belongs to America's ally in Kandahar, an army called the Anti-Taliban Forces.

The Fifth Platoon stay here for days at a time while running patrols, sleeping in beat-up Marine Corps pup tents set up in a dusty field opposite the ATF command post. Pulling into the fort, the men scramble out of the Humvees and make for the tents, each racing to find one that has the fewest rips and, ideally, zippers that work. You would think staying in the fort would be a hardship duty, but spirits are high. Spc. Arman-do Ramos, a twenty-year-old from Bakersfield, California, who has a three-year-old daughter back home, says, "Dude, this is the only place where we have the privacy to jack off." Farrar groans, "I am so sick of beating off." Ramos adds, "I see a stick figure of a naked chick someone drew in the latrines, and I'm ready to go."

Before the first patrol, D'Angelo assembles the men for a briefing held beneath a parachute strung up in a corner of the walled fortress for shade. Once they sit down, D'Angelo turns to the new guy, Pvt. Jason Swinehart, a nineteen-year-old former high school football player from Ohio who arrived in Afghanistan only five days ago, his bag packed with George Strait and Kenny Chesney CDs.

"Private Swinehart, where are we?"

Swinehart looks around, grins, turns red. "I don't know, sir."

"We are outside the wire," D'Angelo says in his most patient, speaking-to-a-dumb-fuck voice. The Kandahar desert is basically one vast, unmarked minefield. Three ATF soldiers were killed several weeks earlier when their Toyota pickup hit a mine less than a mile from the ATF fort. Two more died in a mine blast just beyond the perimeter of the air base. The American and coalition soldiers have been luckier. In April, a Canadian patrol hit a mine, but they were in an armored vehicle and no one was hurt. D'Angelo turns to Swinehart again. "What do the occupants of the lead vehicle do if they hit a mine?"

Swinehart sweats it a moment, squeezing his eyes shut in deep thought, then answers: "Everyone exits through the hatch, sir?"

"Very good, Swinehart," D'Angelo says. Swinehart's ability to quickly adapt to conditions in Afghanistan proves one of D'Angelo's pet theories about young soldiers: It's easier to train the ones who don't have a lot of education. "See," D'Angelo explains as the men start getting into the trucks, "if you took a nineteen-year-old philosophy major in college and gave him Swinehart's job, that guy wouldn't know what to do. We put Swinehart on top of the truck with a machine gun in his hands and drive him into a village where people have their own personal weapons — shotguns, AKs — and they start waving them around." D'Angelo spits a long stream of black Copenhagen juice into the dust. "What do you do if you're Swinehart? We have very simple rules: You don't shoot unless he aims a weapon at you. I trust a guy like Swinehart to follow the rules. If you put that machine gun in the hands of a nineteen-year-old philosophy major, he might think too much. We don't want that. In the Army, everything is decided for you. Just follow the rules."

SGT. Quast, The Thirty-Four-year-old platoon staff sergeant, leads the initial patrol of the day from the first Humvee. A second Humvee follows about seventy-five yards behind. The basic crew of each consists of the driver, the turret gunner and the TC (truck commander), who also operates the radio. The patrols also include an ATF translator and a medic. For several days the soldiers have been excited about the prospect of driving new "up-armored" Humvees recently shipped in from the States. Up to now, patrols were conducted in conventional thin-skin vehicles providing little protection against land mines. The new Humvees are fitted with 3,500 pounds of armor protection. But it's not the safety features that have the men talking; it's the fact that these new vehicles are rumored to have air conditioning. All morning, Ramos has been repeating, "Dude, we're gonna be cruising in the up-armors with the AC on full, windows all up and shit."

The AC unit blasts with the noise and ferocity of a leaf blower, but hot air and dust pour in as usual through the open roof hatch where the gunner stands. The added armor interferes with the global-positioning-navigation unit, called a Plugger. The TCs now have to hold the Plugger about two feet out the window for it to operate.

There are other problems. The secure radios mounted in the Humvees cease to work once they get a few miles into the desert. So in order to communicate with one another, the soldiers ask friends and relatives to send seventy-dollar Motorola walkie-talkies you can buy at any Wal-Mart in the States. "The Army issues us its own walkabouts," says Quast. "But they don't work worth shit."

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