February 29th, 2008.
The plane landed on the runway and we were there finally. Afghanistan. Camp Marmal airport. The other side of the world.
Sixteen of us, an Army ‘Embedded Training Team’ (ETT), slowly spilled out onto the smooth concrete at Camp Marmal airport amid the high whine of the jet engines ramping down. I was a member of an ETT–a new concept wherein small teams of officers and experienced sergeants embed with a Corps of Afghan National Army (ANA) soldiers to train and mentor the ANA.
As we moved toward the rear of the military jet to help unload equipment, I spun around slowly, taking in the ring of distant mountains, the flat light, the austerity.
We gathered and sniffed the air warily, like dogs. We made small jokes about nothing and tried to hide our carnival excitement at being in a ‘combat zone’. It was a time to hone indifference.
I watched a couple of Afghan men a short distance away working on the runway. These were the first real Afghans I had seen, outside of the trainers and interpreters who rotate to the United States to try to train Americans in Afghan language and culture.
So, I watched these two. They were both bearded and dressed in Afghan garb, which struck me at distance as girlish. Each was wearing a housedress over the balloon-like flowing pants of a stilt-walker. And the hats, dear lord, the little crazy colorful hats. Sandals rounded out the costume. All of this in a strange-smelling breeze which moved their clothing in undulations.
One guy was holding a very long iron spike and the other had a sledgehammer. They were breaking up a portion of the runway for some maintenance or repair reason. I could see no obvious reason why this intact section of the expansive runway needed breaking up, nor could I see any obvious stopping point for them. I noticed also that they were in no hurry, though, (and maybe because), even a small measure of progress would take forever. One held while the other struck: a small chip of concrete would fly. Kang! Sometimes a weak or off-center hit would result in a Clink! I realized how dangerous this was to the man holding the spike. I wondered why someone, spending God-only-knows how much money over here daily, hadn’t provided a jackhammer, or more men. Clink! I wondered what the overall project was supposed to be, and I wondered what these two were thinking as they watched the Americans assemble near them so laden down with weaponry and equipment. Kang! It all seemed so elemental–muscle and metal against stone in the thin air.
Then my mind returned to the big picture. The complexity of the American mission, and especially that of the ETTs, was incredible, and I had so many questions. I didn’t know it then, but I had just learned everything.