Estonian soldier fought in Afghanistan before ... for the Soviets
NAD ALI DISTRICT, Afghanistan — Ravo Hirvesoo had a choice: Fight in Afghanistan or go to jail and end up fighting in Afghanistan anyway.
So the 18-year-old headed to Central Asia and endured two years of ambushes, rotten food and exposure to freezing cold and blazing heat with inadequate clothing.
It was the same Afghanistan he fights in now but under a different flag in a different war — a war many experts point to as a warning sign for the current, tenuous NATO operation.
It was 1985 and Hirvesoo fought for the Soviet Union. They were fighting a losing battle that would eventually help topple the country, and he and most of his fellow Estonians were happy to see it fall.
Hirvesoo, now a 42-year-old sergeant and armored truck driver, is on his fourth tour in Afghanistan with the Estonian army, this time as a volunteer.
“When the Soviet Union left Afghanistan he stayed and just switched uniforms later,” his friend joked.
For two years, Hirvesoo drove a communications truck for the Soviets across Afghanistan, living in the field for up to six weeks at a time and sleeping in his truck in the dead of winter without a sleeping bag, blankets or heat (turning on the truck could alert the mujahedeen to his position). Food was a bowl of rice, perhaps with a few scraps of meat, armor was nonexistent and attacks, plentiful.
“I just took it day by day and tried to stay alive,” Hirvesoo said.
When Hirvesoo returned he found even the modest perks the Soviets had promised as reward for his service — permits to rent an apartment and buy a car, both very dear items under the Communists — never materialized.
The one positive he took from the experience was his training as a truck driver. Hirvesoo drove trucks as a civilian until 1995, when he joined the army again for a mission in Croatia, only this time wearing the flag of his newly independent Estonia. After a few more years he joined the army again — he says for good now — in 2003 and deployed on the first of four tours in Afghanistan in 2006.
Despite his traumatic tour with the Soviets, Hirvesoo said he always felt a calling to serve in the military and that it felt natural to get back to being a soldier. And he again drives a truck, this time a Finnish-made armored personnel carrier.
“I kind of liked the military service my whole life — I just didn’t have a choice before,” he said.
He sees many differences between the current conflict and the Soviet war, starting with conditions for troops, which he says are “like night and day.” He also said NATO has learned from Russian failures that a scorched-earth policy only alienates people and strengthens the insurgency.
“Those days, I felt the whole nation fought against the Soviet Union and the way the Russians fought, they pretty much destroyed everything in their way,” he said. “Now our troops understand there is only a small contingent fighting us, not the whole nation, and we are picking who to shoot.”
But asked what he thinks of NATO’s chances of securing a better outcome in Afghanistan than the Soviets, who hastily withdrew in 1989 and saw their country collapse soon after, Hirvesoo pauses a long time before giving an answer reflective of the ambiguity of the current effort in the country.
“That is a hard question,” he said. “There is a chance, at least, I think there is a chance, to end this war some way.”