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11 June 2010

By Erik Goepner

“Where is he?” Shamshullah shouted. He reared his arm back ready to strike one more blow across Abdullah’s face. “Where is he, you son of a donkey?”

The sound of the first strike had startled the children playing nearby. Those who saw it did not believe Shamshullah could hit Abdullah so hard. Abdullah did not believe Shamshullah would hit him that hard. It was a tense moment between the fifty-year-old elder of this southern Afghan village and his twenty-something nephew.

“Uncle, I do not know. Please, let me make a telephone call. I’ll find out.”

Shamshullah grabbed the young man’s kameeze and pulled himself onto the toes of his sandals. His eyes fixed on Abdullah’s. “You find that boy—now!”

“Alright, Uncle, alright.” He rubbed his cheek briefly. “Just give me a minute to make some calls.” Abdullah pulled his mobile out of his pocket and sat down on a tree stump next to the mud wall.

He punched in some numbers and in a moment, “It’s me,” he said. “I’m calling about a village boy. His name is Noor. Do you know him? Do you know where he is?”

“Noor?” His friend had no idea who he was talking about.

“Yes, Noor.” His voice was tense. “The retard, about thirteen-years-old, youngest son of Hanif.”

He listened for a moment. Then his head dropped and he placed his mobile back in his pocket. Dread coursed through him. He pushed himself to his feet and made his way back to his uncle.

“Well, what is it?” Shamshullah demanded. “Where is he?”

“Uncle, I think he has been taken. That is what they said.” The small bit of truth helped appease Abdullah’s conscience.

“Taken? Do you mean kidnapped?”

Abdullah nodded slowly.

Shamshullah grabbed his shoulders. “He is a dimwitted boy from a poor family.  They have no connections to the government, to the Taliban. No connections to any of the groups. What idiot would kidnap him?!”

Abdullah had not thought that far ahead.

“Not Taliban, Uncle. I think they took him.” He continued on, but Shamshullah was no longer listening. “They don’t know these things for certain. They hear things.  They are told things. But, it is hard to know what is true and what is rumor-”

“Haqqani!” shouted Shamshullah. He pushed his nephew away. “That murderous blasphemer! He and his sons are dogs! Dogs!”

“Uncle, please.” Abdullah stepped towards Shamshullah and gently clasped his uncle’s hands in his. He lowered his voice. “Who knows who is listening.”

Shamshullah pulled away from him. “Get your car, Abdullah. We are going to the bazaar!”

“But, Uncle, the roads, the bridge.”

“Well, you had better make your calls quickly then. Your car, Abdullah!” His voice shrill in the oppressive heat of the morning.

Moments later the beige Corolla was flying along the rutted-out, dirt road.  Abdullah drove with one hand trying to keep the steering wheel steady, while furtively dialing his contacts with the other. Are there any bombs on the road? How about the bridge? Is it safe to cross?

A few moments later Abdullah placed his phone in the console. “It should be safe, Uncle. They said there was nothing planned today, just to stay on the road—they can never remember where they put all their pressure plate bombs. Especially near the bridge,” he added.

They crossed Passani Bridge and made their way onto Highway One, speeding towards the bazaar. Abdullah now had one hand glued to the horn, honking wildly as they passed busses and mule carts and an occasional bicycle. They skidded to a stop outside the produce shop owned by Shamshullah’s friend. The startled shoppers looked up as Shamshullah ran into the store.

Wroora, this is very important. I am looking for a small boy. Do you remember him, the dimwitted one?” Shamshullah was panting.

His friend stopped pouring a basket of pistachios into a barrel. “Yes, my brother, what of him?”

“Have you seen him?” Shamshullah’s voice was rasping. “Did you see him wandering in the bazaar this morning, perhaps with some young men?”

“No, my friend, I have not seen him. What is wrong? Is he lost?”

“We think Haqqani’s people have grabbed him. And there is no reason for it, unless—I mean he’s a dimwit, his parents are poor, they have no affiliation with the government or any rival groups—so there is only one reason I can think of-”

The explosion was deafening. Shamshullah’s friend grabbed him and pulled them both to the floor. The walls of the store shook. Stacks of pomegranates and crates of kishmish toppled over. They could not tell where the explosion came from, perhaps just outside the store, perhaps a few blocks away.

The explosion brought chaos. Screams from the injured, cries from the bewildered civilians, and orders being shouted by the Americans and Afghan police. The narrow dirt street, once home to several pharmacies and other shops, was littered with the dead and injured.

“Man down, man down!” Sergeant Jack heard the same call from multiple directions, followed by shouts of “Medic! Medic!” He was in what passed for a pharmacy when the explosion hit. His team had come with the ANP to buy 35,000 Euros worth of medical supplies. They were going to transport them to the nearby hospital in the ANP’s pick-up truck. The European Union had provided the money in an effort to better supply Afghan hospitals, so the hospitals could better meet the needs of the people.

Shelves of medical supplies, boxes of bandages and glass bottles of unregulated drugs had smashed around him in the blast that sent him to the floor. The store owner and two teammates who were in there with him had also been knocked over. Each struggled to their feet. Sergeant Jack staggered to where the door used to be. It was broad daylight but he could see nothing through the dense cloud of smoke and dirt. The acrid smell was nauseating. His senses were overwhelmed. Then, muscle memory, his training kicked in.  Every good military did it this way—prepare your troops to handle the grotesque and frightening by training them to such a level that thought is no longer needed. Jack was a medic and the medic autopilot had just switched on.

He made his way through the gaping hole where the door used to be out to the pleading voices. Visibility began improving. He saw Sergeant Feakes, the security team leader, lying face down in the dirt street. He saw no sign of life as he ran up. He turned Sergeant Feakes over and looked for the heavy protective vest to rise and fall with his breaths. Nothing. He shouted his name. No response. He checked his vitals. No breath.  No pulse. He was dead. He called a soldier over to start CPR just in case and hurried on to the next downed man. It was Sergeant Huber. He repeated the steps and thought he detected a faint pulse. He immediately began CPR, but the trauma had been too much and within seconds Sergeant Huber also passed away.

“Medic!  Medic!” The screams began anew. Sergeant Jack looked up. The voice was coming from around the corner. He directed a nearby airman to continue CPR on Sergeant Huber, again just in case, as he ran towards the latest shouts.

Specialist Spellman was slumped up against the sand-filled HESCOs that ran behind the shop. He was moving. “Spellman, can you hear me?”

“Yes, Sergeant.” Spellman moved his legs as if to stand.

“Not so fast.” Sergeant Jack held him down and kept him seated up against the HESCO barrier.

“Do you think you’ve been hit? Do you think you’re bleeding?” Sergeant Jack asked as he visually scanned Spellman and ran his hands along his arms, legs and inside his vest. He couldn’t see any blood or detect any other severe trauma. And Spellman was coherent enough. Until the threat was resolved, the care provided would be limited to opening the airway, ensuring breathing, and stopping bleeding with a tourniquet.  Everything else would wait until the team had reestablished security, so Spellman would now have to get back into the fight.

Sergeant Jack saw the rifle fifteen feet to his right, resting against the HESCOs.  He ran down the line of barriers to get it.  Apparently Spellman and his rifle had become separated when the blast threw him thirty feet back, crashing into the ten-foot high HESCOs.

Jack handed Spellman his rifle. Spellman handed it back, pointing to the barrel.  The blast had thrown it against the barriers hard enough to warp it.

“Fuck,” Jack said. He hurried back to Sergeant Huber’s body, grabbed his rifle and brought it to Spellman. He motioned Spellman over to the sergeant who was shouting orders to the handful of teammates as he reestablished security.

Sergeant Jack expanded his search from what he assumed was the blast’s point of origin. On the other side of the street, he saw a tiny frame curled up. He ran to it. It was a young girl, nine, perhaps ten. He ran through his checklist. She was gone. He moved a few feet further down the road to where the ANP and their pick-up truck were.

One of the ANP was also laid out in the street. A nearby ANP officer motioned that he’d already checked him and then shook his head. Jack moved forward anyway.  Again he went through the steps. Dead, too. When Sergeant Jack had finished tending to the killed and wounded, he counted seven dead—two Americans, two ANP, three Afghan civilians.

Shamshullah and his friend turned onto the street and saw the police and the Americans. They were not letting anyone inside the area. As Shamshullah got closer, he began to see the carnage. “Sick bastards,” he swore to himself. The Haqqanis were savage by anyone’s standards.

Increasingly active in Nowkhaiz, Haqqani’s group roamed freely throughout both Mirza Ghulam Mohammad district to the east and Bakhat Mohammad district to the north. Both districts were completely ungoverned, not a single government rep, police officer or soldier in either. In the past two years, Haqqani and the Taliban had dedicated more resources to Nowkhaiz, trying to shut down the bazaar and finally break the elders.  So far, they had not succeeded. As a result, Haqqani’s tactics had become more grotesque.

Shamshullah looked on with the other civilians who had now gathered. He scanned the area for anything that might tell him if Noor was in there or not. He overheard the snippets flying from one mouth to the other. “It was a woman,” someone muttered. “She was wearing a burqa,” said another. He moved around the blocked off area. There, he saw it, the remains of a burqa lying in the street. They were correct, he thought. But what about Noor? Where was he? Then, a few feet from the burqa he saw remnants of a light blue shalwar kameeze. He could see ornate white stitching on one small piece. His head fell forward. It had to be Noor’s. He had never seen stitching like that anywhere else. It had been a special gift from a mother to her beloved son. Noor’s simple mind had never tired of the beauty of the garment or the mother who made them.

Shamshullah didn’t have the energy to be shocked. He had heard of other suicide bombings where they also used young boys who were dimwitted like Noor. Explosives strapped to their thin chests, a woman’s burqa thrown over them, sent roaming the bazaar until unseen handlers ended the game and detonated them.

The situation was quieting. The police and the Americans were loading their dead into the police truck. Then, Shamshullah heard a shout, but there was no fear in this voice. He and his friend moved towards it. The police pick-up passed them going in the opposite direction. He saw the Afghan and the American sitting in the bed of the truck, keeping watch over their fallen comrades. Shamshullah and his friend turned the corner and saw a police officer leaning over, pointing and talking. It looked like his boss was standing just behind him. Shamshullah couldn’t make out what the policeman was pointing at. He moved a few steps closer, though careful not to arouse suspicion. He could see it now. The head of a child, swollen and disfigured. He looked closer to make sure. “It is the boy,” he said to his friend.

“Twenty meters from the body,” the policeman reported to his boss. He pointed back to the main street where the tattered remains of the burqa and shalwar kameeze lay.

Shamshullah looked at Noor’s remains. He knew he was looking upon innocence in a land where there was none. He stared, no longer knowing how to cry.

Wlarshu, wroora—let us go, brother,” his friend said softly, his hand gently touching Shamshullah’s shoulder. He took Shamshullah’s hand and they turned and walked away.

Abdullah was standing by his car. He had taken no chance of being spotted in the aftermath of the attack, and who knew what Shamshullah might have done in the heat of his anger.

“He is gone,” Shamshullah said. “He is at rest. God be praised.” Shamshullah climbed into the front passenger seat. He leaned his head against the dusty cushion and closed his eyes. “Let us return. I must go and see his father.” Shamshullah was exhausted. This exhaustion had none of the comfort he had known as a young Mujahadeen after battle.

The past ninety minutes had been a blur. As they drove, Shamshullah’s thoughts began to clear.  He looked over at Abdullah who was hunched over the steering wheel.  What was I thinking to have slapped him? In his humiliation, he just as easily could have called those same people and instead of inquiring about Noor, he could have sought revenge.

And what of my outburst against the Haqqanis? Who knew who might have heard this?  Informants could be anywhere. You just couldn’t tell.

Over the years, Shamshullah had developed a very pragmatic decision-making style, born of the instinct to survive the violence and instability—the Afghan communists, Russian invasion, Mujahedeen, civil war, Taliban and now the Americans.  The turbulent waters necessitated the pragmatism, yet today the offense against Noor had pushed it aside. That frightened him.

Those moments of indiscipline and the retribution they might bring would haunt his thoughts.

They arrived back at Jaffer Khel. Abdullah dropped him off at his compound.  Shamshullah collected several elders and together they made their way to the home of Noor’s parents.

At 0130, the Chinook carrying Sergeant Feakes and Sergeant Huber touched down at FOB Able. The helo was en route to Karezgay Air Field where the soldiers would be processed through the morgue, honored with a Fallen Heroes ceremony, and then depart Afghanistan homeward for their final resting place back on American soil.

Drej, with the First Sergeant to his left, approached the back ramp of the Chinook.  The flag-draped body bags lay in the center of the helicopter. Drej and the First Sergeant rendered a salute to their fallen comrades. The blacked-out Chinook’s blades whump-whumped as two-by-two all of Able’s soldiers, airmen and civilians followed suit.  American, Afghan, and Bangladeshi, they approached the ramp in the dark of night with the military offering salutes and the civilians bowed heads. When the last two had saluted, the First Sergeant and Drej boarded the helicopter to accompany their fallen Soldiers to Karezgay.

They landed at 0330. The Soldiers were carried directly to the base morgue. All of their personal effects and military gear were inventoried. Such an impersonal process in the midst of the intensely personal nature of death would one day provide some comfort to the families. It also helped the military learn about where its equipment could be improved to increase survivability.

At 0130 the next day, two hundred soldiers, sailors, airmen and civilians stood silently on the darkened flightline. The Honor Guard stood vigil over Sergeant Feakes and Sergeant Huber as a chaplain shared words of peace and offered a prayer. Silence followed as the Honor Guard carried the two Soldiers from the entrance of the flightline up into the belly of the C-17. The ceremony concluded and the crowd departed. Drej, the First Sergeant and five PRT members walked up the ramp and encircled the caskets.  They held each other’s hands and prayed—for the deceased, for the team and their continued mission, but mostly for the families and loved ones who would be meeting the plane at Dover Air Force Base. Drej’s mind fixed on the twelve-year-old daughter of Sergeant Feakes. She was the same age as one of his own. Bodies shook and jaws clenched as each struggled to hold back the tears.

Drej and his team disembarked, leaving the escort officer to stand watch. The two Soldiers continued their journey home.  Their service complete.

Four days later, in the vehicle maintenance bay at FOB Able it was time for closure and a time to honor. Comrades came from nearby units. The chaplain was flown in from FOB Wolverine. The Deputy Governor attended on behalf of the Afghan government. A mishmash of a hundred chairs were precisely placed in rows of ten. At the front, two M-4 rifles were inverted with helmets resting atop. Dog tags hung from the rifle grips. Empty boots. A picture of each man.

Drej and several close friends shared a few words. Then, the Chaplain thanked the Almighty for the service and sacrifice to their Nation of Sergeant Feakes and Sergeant Huber.

“…And Father, we pray your peace that surpasses understanding be upon their families, loved ones and the team. Amen.”

The First Sergeant snapped to attention and began roll call for Team Shagardahn “Specialist Spellman?” He bellowed.

The Soldier popped to attention. “Here, First Sergeant!”

“Sergeant Jack?”

The Airman jumped up. “Here, First Sergeant!”

The First Sergeant continued through the list until he reached the final two names.  “Sergeant Huber?”


“Staff Sergeant Brady Huber?”

“Staff Sergeant Brady A. Huber?”

“Sergeant Feakes?” The First Sergeant’s voice echoed across the vehicle bay.

“Sergeant First Class Roger Feakes?”

“Sergeant First Class Roger J. Feakes?”

Erik Goepner has served in Afghanistan and Iraq and his non-fiction has appeared in Small Wars Journal and Military Review.  He’s married to Nancy, the World’s Best Mom…to their four children.
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