This series will examine some of the things I saw in my 10 months in Afghanistan that probably would never be spoken about by the others I served with. The validity of my claims can probably never be proven, only disputed by anyone who might be offended and/or upset by what I’m chronicling. Take these tales as either the truth, or just entertaining war stories, whatever you will. – JK
By Jay Kirell
In the first edition of this series, I chronicled a firefight against an enemy that wasn’t there. That story contained no deaths or injuries. Today’s tale, unfortunately, does. Though deaths in war are common, especially in the one I served in, how this one came about probably isn’t.
Unlike most stories of casualties in the ongoing war in Afghanistan, this one doesn’t involve the Taliban, or an accident.
No, this tale merely involves one American soldier, one Afghan National Army soldier, a cold tower in the middle of winter… and flatulence.
In other words, this is the story of how a fart led to a soldier’s death.
Somewhere along in the course of my deployment, rules came from above that American and Afghan units would do more training together. Those that shared an outpost would go on foot patrols with their counterparts, and when they were on tower guard, sometimes an Afghan soldier would be paired up in a tower with an American.
This made for awkward guard shifts, because neither spoke the other’s language – and – at least from my experience – the typical ANA soldier was more than a little creepy. They’re not exactly big on personal space, and if you happen to have something on your person they find interesting (whether its an iPod, magazine or something else) they will get right up on you to check it out. Imagine a really awkward NYC subway ride on a crowded train next to a smelly, creepy, person.
Now imagine the subway car gets stuck for four hours.
The one’s that had their own cell phones (which many did, even the most rural or rural areas in Afghanistan has a ton of cell phone towers along its main highway) oftentimes had ..um.. interesting things on them. Things these ANA soldiers (from my experience) were particularly fond of showing off, were their vast collections of tiny, grainy, amateur Afghan
Hey, to each their own. Speaking as someone who spent 10 months in Afghanistan and never once saw a local woman’s face, I’d assume a few of their proclivities are a natural byproduct of a …conservative…culture, to put it mildly.
In other words, whoever thought taking an American soldier and an Afghan soldier and sticking them in a tower together was a bright idea was probably very very far away from Afghanistan when they came up with that winner.
Which brings us to early 2011.
Still winter in Afghanistan. The temperature hovering somewhere around 30-degrees (which after a summer where it was usually 120, 30 feels like the south pole).
An Army Specialist and an Afghan soldier of unknown rank were in a guard tower. Bored, and probably tired of being paired up with an ANA soldier he couldn’t talk to, the Specialist leaned in to his ANA counterpart and promptly broke wind against him.
The ANA soldier, predictably, took offense to this.
The American laughed.
The Afghan then raised his weapon and pointed it at the American.
The American stopped laughing.
Over in another tower, another American on guard duty heard the commotion and looked over. He immediately radioed to the Sergeant of the Guard. A figure walking nearby quickly climbed into the tower from the ladder below.
That’s when all hell broke loose.
As men started to flood out of the headquarters, weapons in hand, towards the tower, a figure flew out from the top of the tower, sailing over the ladder and landing with a sickening crack on the stoned gravel below.
The Afghan soldier broke his neck from the fall. His weapon was still in the tower.
As Americans began to circle the area, their Afghan counterparts ran over from their side of the outpost. Seeing their fallen comrade lifeless on the gravel, the ANA quickly started shouting something. Suddenly the ANA soldiers raised their weapons at the Americans. Other ANA soldiers climbed in their trucks and aimed their heavy weapons at the Americans, who by this point where diving for their trucks.
The outpost was splitting up. It was a near civil war with the Americans on one side and the ANA on the other.
The only thing that prevented this from being one of the largest disasters in the history of the war in Afghanistan was the cooler heads that eventually prevailed among the highest ranking officers on both sides, and the dutiful interpreters who had the yeomen’s job of communicating with two panicked platoon leaders and preventing a massacre on both sides.
In the end the final death toll was only one, but it could have been dozens. The distance separating the two units was less than 100 yards, with nothing between them since they were both inside the same outpost. Ultimately, the teaming up of Afghan and American units at that outpost was discontinued. The parties involved were silently transferred.
What exactly happened inside that tower will remain known to only the three men who were in there at the time, and one is dead. The truth, of course, being the first casualty of war.
Over the years (thankfully the one’s after I left Afghanistan) there have been growing instances of violence between Afghan and American units that were partnered together. I could see the signs when I was there.
The Afghan units resented all the “toys” we Americans had.
They resented our weapons, our trucks, our huge balloon bags of gasoline, our boxes and boxes of food and drinks (though not the MRE’s, even they didn’t want those).
They saw us toss away and burn more stuff than their villages will ever see.
They saw us with good boots, good uniforms, looking like we were well fed.
Above all they saw men who came to their country and spit on it in disgust. Who were there because they were told to be there, not because they had any real interest in “helping” Afghanistan.
So when that Afghan soldier sat in a cold tower on a winter’s day in 2011 and endured the indignity of his arrogant American counterpart, well, who could blame him for raising his weapon in anger?
And the American? Who could blame him for being bored and immature and perhaps misunderstanding the offense his Afghan tower guard buddy would take?
As for the third individual, the one who climbed into the tower immediately before the Afghan soldier flew out of it? Well, who knows what he really saw when he entered that tower. Whoever survives in war gets to tell the story. And once it gets put down on paper, the survivor’s story is the story.
In the end, assigning blame for this incident is as useful as searching for the truth. The truth is a secret taken to the grave already by one, and in many years, by the others as well.
Such are the secrets of war.