It didn’t take long for Hikmat to become a reliable and trusted member of the group, as well as one of the most desirable interpreters to take on missions. All too often, during mission briefs and planning, who Hikmat travelled with became a topic of great debate. “Now for the terp breakdown. Eid is in Truck 1 with the CPT. Tony is in Truck 3 with Dave and we’ll have Hik with us in Truck 2.” George said, knowing that he was about to get an earful.
“Why is Hik always in Truck 2? How ‘bout we change it up from time to time?” One of the guys always asked, most of the time with a sheepish grin, knowing he’d just stirred the pot.
“Why don’t you flip that blinker on and get right back into your lane there buddy.” Being one of the many hilariously sarcastic responses dished out by me or one of the others on Truck 2. Regardless of the argument, Hik eventually grabbed his bag and crawled atop the many boxes of food and water and ammo, piled up in the rear of the truck 2. Hik took his position and manned the rear-mounted 240B.
Day in and day out, Hikmat rolled out on missions with us. From riding for hours upon hours all over southern Afghanistan to walking the miles upon miles of mountain ridgelines. Hik never stopped asking questions. He never stopped learning.
As time rolled by, as it always does, our team left Afghanistan. Behind us we left the new camp we’d built in Shinkay, the many villages we visited and helped in our area, and the newly-made friendships we’d forged over the months we’d spent battling the Taliban. Not knowing if you’d ever see or hear from these guys again, you saved their names, cell phone numbers and email, hoping you’d get in touch again, “If we ever get back this way.”
One of the most important pieces of transition — handing over the camp, equipment and personnel — it was imperative the incoming teams knew who they’d work with, along with strengths and weaknesses. The thing that always got most people’s attention with Hik was, when handing over his file and giving a brief about him, it was just easier to say, “Well, you’ll see!” Statements about Hik’s skills as an interpreter, laborer, fighter, and whatever task we gave him was always received with a look of disbelief and uncertainty. Could such a young Afghan be this well rounded? In Hikmatullah’s case, the easiest response was, “Yes!”
As time rolled on, the war never slowed. I returned to Afghanistan four more times after that first rotation. And, as I always did, as soon as I got into country, I started calling. One of the first people I called? Hikmatullah.
By this time, his reputation had grown immensely, and as one can imagine, Hik had become a commodity that other teams did not wish to let go. After my first return to Afghanistan, it became clear that the opportunities to work directly with Hikmat and the others I met on my first trip grew scarce. Hikmat, being a man of his word, would not leave the new guys coming in. Promising the outgoing commander that he’d stay and work with the new team, Hik was bound by this promise and, as much as I hated not having him with us, we always understood. Each time returning. Each time calling. Just at the chance he’d be available. And each time, we always understood.
Then, in 2006, after not talking with Hikmat for over a year, I returned to Kandahar. During our absence, things took a turn for the worse in Afghanistan. Finding ourselves right smack in the middle of Taliban resurgence, I placed my calls as I always did, hoping to work with some familiar faces in the soon-to-be hard times.
After a few days, I’d talked to most of the guys. A few could come. A few couldn’t make it. As always, I had a few calls where the advice was, “The Afghan wireless number you are trying to reach has moved out of coverage area or has been switched off.” Even so, most of the calls answered. I was happy with the group we put together, even though still, a little down not to have the old crew back. The times ahead would most certainly be long and rough. Having a few familiar and trusted faces around brought some comfort and ease to the team. However, it was just not in the cards at this time.
So, after a lot of planning and coordinating, we did as we always did — rolled out. That early morning in late August on Operation Medusa, we rolled into what would soon become one of the biggest battles in Afghanistan’s history. After a few days of fighting, we finally established a stronghold on top of a small hill known as Sperwan Ghar. From there, we dismantled and destroyed piece by piece the Taliban stronghold covering the entire southern region. It was on this dusty, war-torn hilltop that I ran into my old friend Hik again.
After days of fierce fighting, we’d secured most of the surrounding villages, and more importantly to us, finally secured a supply route into the area. That night, we received our first ground resupply, which not only brought us the much needed ammo, water and fuel, it also brought us the company of brothers who’d been closely watching the battle unfold on ISR and wanted nothing more than to be there with us.
Never the ones to disappoint, they brought something else that we were extremely grateful for — our first hot meal in weeks. While piling my tray with mounds of the Italian food, I heard out of the darkness, one simple question filled with excitement, “Myke?”