Soldiers battle boredom in Afghan valley
GOWARDESH VALLEY, Afghanistan — Time has a quality all its own in this remote valley in eastern Afghanistan’s Nuristan province.
If you take away the U.S. soldiers and their weapons, the occasional Toyota Hi-Lux truck, the concrete bridge down the river and the cigarettes and candy at the roadside stands, very little would seem to have changed the last several hundred years.
A house built of flat river rocks and mud bricks is across the road, tucked between the river and a small field of green wheat. There’s no electricity, no running water, no modern conveniences for miles.
At night, the sky is so clear and dark that you can see satellites moving among the stars.
Dawn comes just after 4 a.m. Old men and young boys move cattle and goats into the hills soon after, just as they’ve done for ages.
More than 100 U.S. and Afghan troops came into the Gowardesh a little more than a week ago to rebuild an Afghan border police checkpoint abandoned in August to the insurgents. Until the soldiers from the 173rd Airborne Brigade’s Task Force Saber arrived, the Gowardesh had been firmly in enemy hands.
Soldiers from the task force have been in this valley four times since August. They were ambushed every time. The firefights lasted for hours. Several U.S. troops have been killed or wounded in the area and nearby environs.
This time, the U.S. and Afghan troops came expecting another fight, but so far, there’s been no contact.
The insurgents, who are in the mountains, know that U.S. troops monitor their radios and they usually talk in code. But lately they’ve been describing attack plans almost daily. It seems to be a crude attempt at psychological warfare.
U.S. and Afghan soldiers occupy several fortified positions overlooking the Gowardesh and control all of the approaches into the valley. The chances of a well-coordinated and successful attack are pretty slim.
Most of the U.S. soldiers are here for security. They’ve had the same routine for almost 10 days now. They man the checkpoints only during the day, but pull guard duty around the clock. There is nothing else for them to do.
Time has slowed to a crawl for the average soldier. The biggest enemy they face, at least for the moment, is the boredom.
“I’m about ready to get the hell out of here,” said Spc. Dennis Grooms, 32, of Sumter, S.C., a soldier from Blue Platoon, as he walked one recent afternoon past a Humvee where Staff Sgt. Antwane Mobley, the explosives ordnance disposal team leader, sat.
“That’s true,” agreed Mobley, 29, of Lancaster, S.C.
There’s little shade in the Gowardesh, and once the sun has risen fully over the mountains, it quickly gets hot. The soldiers have rigged up tarps and ponchos next to their Humvees so they can have a little shade. But with temperatures hovering around 100 degrees for most of the day, they still swelter.
The shade is where the flies tend to congregate, and they come in hordes.
Staff Sgt. John Finn, 33, of Fayetteville, N.C., has developed a special hatred for the flies in Afghanistan. Yesterday, he was spotted inside his Humvee, swatting at them with the cardboard top of an MRE box, going for multi-casualty kills.
There’s been little to eat for most of the past week, except Meals, Ready to Eat. The food has become monotonous, and everyone suffers from terrible gas. But a convoy did bring a supply of hamburger patties three days ago. Somebody set up a grill by the river, and every soldier got two burgers. They cooked hot dogs the next day. The meals were rare and special treats. But then it was back to MREs.
Mobley and his teammates, Sgt. Wesley Faudree, 28, of Oklahoma City, and Spc. Michael Hardy, 22, of Clarksville, Tenn., and some of the soldiers from Blue spend the long afternoons playing endless games of spades.
Blue cut a deal with the old man who lives in the house beside the river. They bought a big bag of rice from him for $100, and then agreed to pay him another $10 a day to cook dinner for them. Usually, it’s rice with some potatoes thrown in.
A group of boys who live in the house look to be about 10 to 12 years old. One carries a slingshot around his neck. Whenever anybody pulls out a camera, he tends to hide his face or run off.
Another boy has a second thumb growing out of the thumb on his right hand. Another one, a dark-skinned and shy kid, has shoulders that are bunched up so high on his neck that he looks like a hunchback. Another has pale skin and red hair.
The kids were pretty wary of the U.S. troops at first, but they’ve ventured closer in recent days. Wednesday afternoon, Slingshot was making the rounds, trying to sell cigarettes for $1 a pack. Later, he came by with a stringer full of fish. Some of the guys in Blue bought the fish and had the old man cook them up for dinner.
Every morning, the boys play what appears to be an Afghan version of horseshoes on a level patch of ground next to a Humvee. They toss flat rocks, but the rules of the game appear to be about the same.
It seems to be no coincidence that the boy with two thumbs on his right hand is the best rock thrower in the group.
You can get pretty dirty in Afghanistan if you go a week or so without taking a bath, and within days, everyone was filthy and as sour-smelling as dogs that had just come in from the rain. A dip in the river every couple of days helps wash off the stink, but the dirt seems to be ever-present. The river is ice-cold, fed by the snowmelt in the high, distant mountains.
The wind usually kicks up in the afternoon, sending great clouds of dust sweeping across the valley. On Wednesday, the winds brought a rainstorm, sending down huge sheets of rain. It lasted for a couple of hours, and made for a damp night, for those who were sleeping out in the open. But the sun was baking again by 8 in the morning, and after a while, it seemed like it had never rained at all.
Although the first of the troops are supposed to be pulling out this weekend, some could be here for another week. Or more.