The captain, the mine and me
I wrote this story because it’s one of my most vivid memories from Afghanistan, and because I feel a bit like an idiot when I look back on it, and on my actions afterward.
So no joke, there I was, on the mean streets/dirt paths of northeastern Afghanistan. A villager had reported a buried land mine near his compound, so a few other American soldiers and I headed out the gate with a platoon of Afghans to get it. Simple mission, no sweat.
It was a beautiful spring day and a short drive to our destination. Travelling on rural Afghan roads is almost but not quite as bad as driving through Boston; roads turn weird directions, end without notice, take you into horrible neighborhoods and are designed to get you lost. But Afghans were in the lead and took us to the right spot.
We got out in a little open area outside a village. Our concerned citizen led me and my interpreter to a shallow ravine. He picked up a golf ball-sized rock, took careful aim and tossed it into a dry stream bed about thirty feet away. Then he mumbled something to my interpreter and scampered away. My terp told me, “The mine is right where the rock landed.”
Okay, so I guessed Afghans have different methods of dealing with explosives than we have. I realize a small rock probably isn’t going to detonate a land mine, but for some reason I just didn’t like the idea of pointing out a mine by dropping a rock on it. No matter, it didn’t blow up. And this little matter of throwing rocks at land mines wouldn’t seem like such a big deal, compared to what happened a few minutes later.
An Afghan Army captain walked to me with four of his men. This captain, even though he was only 35 at the time, had been at war for twenty years. He had fought the Soviets during the last year of that war, then fought the Taliban under Ahmad Shah Massoud, then joined the Afghan Army after we invaded. He was a small guy, like a lot of Afghans, and could have gone unnoticed in any Hispanic neighborhood. This guy was a little unusual, but only because it seemed like he was trying to get killed. That wasn’t as weird there as it would be here. He also stood out because he spoke pretty fair English.
This captain asked me where the mine was. I pointed. He said, and think of maybe Boris from Bullwinkle when you imagine the accent, “Oh-kay, let’s go.”
“Nope,” I answered. “I’m not an explosives guy. Let your soldier with the mine detector get it.”
The captain scoffed, “This is Afghanistan! You cannot be afraid!”
Considering all the stupid things I did in Afghanistan, when I look back I’m a little surprised I didn’t walk with him to the mine. But Iraq had taught me that big explosions do really bad things to people. So I looked at the captain, shook my head and said, “Uh-uh.”
With a smirk, the captain walked down the slope to the ravine. When he got to the spot where the rock landed, he stomped on it and asked, “Right here?” Jesus Christ, I thought. What the hell is this guy doing? I nodded. He stomped again several times. “Are you sure? Right here?”
At this point I was wondering what kind of mine it was, and hoping it was small enough to only kill the person right on top of it. I yelled back, “Yes, right there!” Captain Suicide called his mine detector guy over. This soldier was carrying an old, World War II style detector with headphones. He walked over and swept over the dirt patch. From thirty feet away I could hear the tone in the headphones. He leaned down and wiped dirt away. I saw the edge of the mine.
The mine detector soldier’s eyes went wide and he backed away. Did Captain Suicide back off? Of course not. He dropped to his knees and uncovered the mine.
When you find an explosive, the proper thing to do is call the experts and have them recover it. Mines don’t just explode when they’re stepped on. They can have pressure plate detonators ten feet away, secondary detonators attached, anti-handling devices underneath, etc. If you’re not well-trained, you don’t jack with mines. Captain Suicide had already broken rules just by uncovering this one. But he wasn’t a stupid man. He wouldn’t dare do anything else with the mine. Right?
I watched him dig his fingers under the edges of the mine. My eyebrows rose. What’s he doing now? He lifted the mine from the ground. My eyes widened. This wasn’t a little “toe-popper,” or even a simple anti-personnel mine. It was a big British anti-tank mine, about a foot in diameter and a few inches thick. This mine held a lot of explosives, enough to destroy a sixty ton tank.
Captain Suicide held the mine and looked up at me. I stared back and made my best attempt to not show nervousness. The good captain lowered the mine toward his feet. I felt a moment of relief. He was putting it down. Then he swung upward and launched that damn mine through the air toward me.
Time froze as I watched the mine flip end-over-end up the ravine. Two of the four Afghan soldiers beside me fled in terror. That was a bad sign, because those guys could be literally fearless.
Now remember, I was a former Marine, highly trained Soldier, Iraq combat vet, 15 year cop, and minor-league ninja. Within milliseconds my catlike reflexes kicked in. Those reflexes told me, “It’s over. Cry for yourself and say goodbye.”
The old story, “my life flashed before my eyes,” didn’t happen to me. I do remember that time slowed way down, and as usual my mind moved too fast to let me feel fear. Two Afghan soldiers had run, so shouldn’t I run too? But they only had about a half second lead on me. By the time I turned and ran the mine would hit the ground right behind us. So the mine would blow me to pieces, but they’d get lucky and merely be blown in half. No use running.
I recall an errant thought about a conversation at my funeral.
“This is so sad. But at least he died heroically in combat.”
“He didn’t die in combat. An Afghan Army captain threw a land mine at him for fun.”
“Oh. . . Uh, I guess the captain was Taliban or something?”
“No. He was just crazy.”
“That’s disappointing. I’m outta here.”
The mine was about to hit the ground, ten or so feet away. Two Afghan soldiers and I stood our ground and prepared to die. In the ravine, Captain Murderer smiled like a psychotic southwest Asian killer. I held my breath and waited for the end.
Some of you are wondering, “So did you die?” I hate to spoil the ending, but no, I didn’t die. The mine hit the ground with a thud, not a boom. My heart started again. The two Afghan soldiers and I looked at each other, shook our heads and laughed. One of them walked to the mine and picked it up. I took a few seconds to make sure I didn’t have any visible shakes, then went on with my business like nothing had happened. I had to at least look like I hadn’t been scared.
I didn’t know much about mines, but the captain grew up with them. When he uncovered the top of the mine he saw that it wasn’t armed. Or at least I think that’s what he did. I didn’t ask him. I guess I just don’t want to believe that he would risk blowing me up for a joke.
I didn’t say anything to the captain about the incident. Better to just let him think I hadn’t been afraid. Later I mentioned to a few friends that the captain was a nutjob. Those who knew him well responded with, “Yeah, what else is new?” So I decided, Lesson learned. I’m never going anywhere with that weirdo again. After all, I was 37 years old, a married father of four kids with a lot to lose. I hadn’t even met my fourth child yet, he was born three days after I arrived in Afghanistan. No unnecessary risks for me.
No more missions with that captain. Yeah, right. One night a month later I followed Captain Crazy across a freezing, raging, stomach-deep river. He was sloppy, stumbling drunk at the time. I clung desperately to another American soldier and tried not to lose my footing and get swept away. We all almost died that night.
So much for my vow to stay away from the captain. Maybe the captain was sloppy, stumbling drunk, but I had followed him. Even though I knew he was crazy.
And now you know why I feel a bit like an idiot about it.
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Tags: afghan army, Afghanistan, ANA, mine, war