I cocked my head so high the earth was beyond my peripheral. What remained was the full moon glowing down as thin scattered clouds swiftly blew by. I could smell the moist cool air and feel the evening breeze upon my exposed skin. Barking dogs echoed near and far through the still night. I took deep breaths as my brain filled with distant memories of a life once lived.
I was in Afghanistan once again. I was looking up at a moon just as full then as it is now. The weight of 130 lbs bore down on my body. The tilled earth shifted under my feet, ankles exhausted. The slushing mud can strip one’s feet from under them without notice, a reminder of the Afghanis’ mastery of the karez system. The overbearing weight of my radio drove my boots deep into the mud and I often found a knee impacting the slush. Other times, we tread through soaked fields of chest-high poppy. Each plant was rigid and hard, it was like navigating through bamboo. The exception was bamboo did not decimate everyone’s allergies.
The glow of the full moon illuminated the world under our green eyes. The glow was at times so bright one would not need green eyes to see. So bright there were shadows following behind. The amplified sound in my Peltors made us seem loud and careless. With every slush of the mud, every disturbed poppy, it sounded as if a herd of cattle was staggering about. I would often lift my Peltors away from an ear to hear the eerie silence before the storm. The slushing and swooshing of mud and plants were lost to the open air. The only alarm to our presence was the barking. This was the often too familiar warning of our otherwise silent approach.
Looking up at that moon, it all seemed so peaceful. Its beauty against the rigid mountains of Afghanistan betrayed the dangers that lurked. Sometimes, it glowed upon the red-stained dirt, turning its appearance into red mercury as it trickled away in the chaos of war. Other times, the eerie silence was broken only by the short scuffles of confused combatants and the clicking of flex cuffs. It was the eerie silence under the glowing moon that shone upon a job well done, that shone upon those soon to be extracted.
I looked up at the moon as I watched and listened for Nighstalkers. I looked back upon the line of men waiting in PZ posture. I watched the rooftops and mountainsides as the moon shone upon us, exposing our vulnerable state of affairs in such open fields. I looked up at the moon as the crack of the rotors awakened the occupants of every surrounding dirt house. I could feel the heat of the engines and the sting of dirt as the halos descended upon us. I looked for the moon and the halos to guide me. We ran, shifting and slushing through the dirt and mud, dragging gear and our new prisoners. I could feel the dirt in my eyes, the stinging on my skin, and the downward pressure of the rotating blades glowing as the dirt impacted them. We channeled through the counters and jumped onto the ramp, where momentum often met an inclined surface. One must never stop, the bird must consume us before the glow of the moon betrays us to the enemy. If one falls, one must crawl as others pass them by, dashing to the front. Then the fight to clip into a ring under darkness, the Ranger seatbelt.
The fight with gravity was often quick. The tones changed as rotor wash no longer disturbed the dirt and cut through open air. As we lifted through the brownout, the glow shone upon the spectators. The hairs stood rigid and the body remained alert. A spectator could soon become an enemy, and an enemy could soon send us spiraling back to the dirt. The relative safety of altitude brought a calm–a peace as the moon shone down upon Afghanistan. It shone down upon the fields, the mountains, the dirt houses, the stunning beauty of a country torn. It shone down upon a view so many would pay to see, but likely never will.
I take a deep breath and lower my head. The world of suburbia enters my vision once again.
Jake Smith is a law enforcement officer and former Army Ranger with four deployments to Afghanistan.
As the Voice of the Veteran Community, The Havok Journal seeks to publish a variety of perspectives on a number of sensitive subjects. Unless specifically noted otherwise, nothing we publish is an official point of view of The Havok Journal or any part of the U.S. government.