Wednesday – Letter From Afghanistan: Shaken to the Core
Posted By: Alex, the Lieutenant
[...] My radios are not working. It was explained to me once that an explosion sends out an electromagnetic shock wave that causes radios to reset. After a few seconds the voices of my platoon fill my ears. “Are you okay!?!” I key my mic and try to transmit out, but nobody can hear me. My gunner spins around in the turret waving a thumbs-up. Everyone gets the message.
We wheel my vehicle around and accelerate toward the wreckage. An arm on the ground here. A hand over there. Another small child, his skull crushed in. An old bearded man missing a leg and both arms, his head bent under him, the bones at the base of his neck exposed. Chunks of flesh. The acrid smell of explosives lingers. We pull up two vehicles. From every direction my Soldiers come running, sprinting despite the heavy load they carry. Olive-drab-green first-aid bags appear. …
The next 20 minutes seem unreal to me. We do everything we can. Some of the van’s occupants are dying. Some are too far gone. One middle-aged man has a broken jaw and blood is pouring from his mouth. He has no teeth. His eyes are shut and he keeps moaning while the right side of his body twitches. There is one teenage boy. He does the characteristic Afghan squat as he stares at the ground, face expressionless. The blood coming from his ears traces down his temples, drying on his high cheekbones. There is a deep blast crater in the ground. The loose sand is charred from the explosives.
I keep being asked over the radio how many bodies we have. “I can’t tell. There are pieces everywhere.” I am asked for the description of the vehicle. I can provide an accurate depiction of the van, as I was looking right at it the moment the back right tire triggered the pressure device and was obliterated. I call for more help. A platoon of infantry arrive. Their own medic rushes in to render aid. I call for helicopters. Four Blackhawk MEDEVAC birds land like leviathans. Doc gives their flight surgeon the order of priority and information on the triage he has done. I am proud to have such a good medic with me. Afghan national police arrive on scene. They have three green pickup trucks and lots of body bags. They put on rubber gloves and use sheets to gather the body parts. There is the corpse of a young woman and her child on the other side of the road. The explosion hurled her over two hundred meters. Through all of this my radio won’t shut up. Every Colonel and Commander within miles wants a situation report. My radio still won’t work right. I make a mental note to have it checked out later.
I thought I was desensitized. I have seen bodies before this. I have seen flesh, ripped asunder from the skeleton. Pureed entrails. Those were the bodies of the players in this fucked up war. They were legitimate targets. Bodies of Americans. British. Afghan Army Soldiers. Taliban. They chose to put themselves in harm’s way. They chose to fight for the cause. This was a family that wanted no part of it all.
War has a way of making you think you know yourself, and then in an instant you are shaken to the core. I wish it was my vehicle that hit that IED. My vehicle is designed to take a massive blast and have everyone walk away without a scratch. In my mind I replay the scene, the van only a few meters from me. I see the dull eyes of the dead. The slack gaping jaw of the elderly armless man.
I thought I was becoming uncommonly tolerant of violence. I was wrong.