Afghanistan Changed Me

In January 2009, I flew to Dubai and got my first taste of what I would come to know as the Terminal of Lost Souls. Dubai International Airport was one of the glitziest in the world—enormous and modern and filled with luxury shops and lounges. But that was only Terminals 1 and 3.

Terminal 2 was for the discount carriers flying to South and Central Asia and parts of Africa—places like Uzbekistan, Somalia, Iraq, and Afghanistan. The passengers were generally poor construction workers, mercenaries, contractors, and journalists like me.

I was a public-radio correspondent and had produced stories about Afghanistan for years, but I had been longing to report from the field. When I finally had the chance, I dove in. Only later would I realize how oblivious I had been to the true human costs of the conflicts I had sought to cover.

That first trip, I was reporting on the Taliban’s use of Pakistani tribal regions as a training ground. It was clear that if the Taliban had a sanctuary the U.S. couldn’t touch (at least not with ground forces), the war was doomed. I had been granted an embed in Laghman, a province in northeast Afghanistan where the Taliban had supply lines to Pakistan.

I landed in Kabul and hauled my gear into the dusty winter air. Kabul looked like a cross between Russia and Sudan: The gray sky and scattered trees were Moscow, and the rundown buildings and hordes of vendors were Khartoum. A driver took me north, past mud houses seemingly stacked on top of one another up the hills. Kabul was full of people who had fled the provinces over the years to escape conflict. Many didn’t want to, or couldn’t, return to their homes, and so they stayed, crowded into informal settlements.

I arrived at Bagram, then flew to Camp Fenty. As I waited there for transportation to Laghman, I spoke with the brigade commander, who told me in no uncertain terms that security was getting worse, there was no chance of locking down the border, and if Pakistan provided haven, the Taliban would be difficult to beat.

I had hoped to head out on combat patrols in Laghman, but instead I was assigned to travel around with one of the U.S. government’s provincial reconstruction teams. At least it allowed me to speak with Afghans about their experiences. Road construction was one of America’s major initiatives, counterinsurgency 101. The theory was that with paved roads came increased economic development. Greater economic opportunity would mean less likelihood of people accepting payments from insurgents to shoot at coalition forces or to blow things up.

Afghans posed for pictures with me looking like a dork in my frumpy body armor and thick-rimmed ballistic goggles. They expressed gratitude to the United States and frustration with Pakistan. But I often wondered what they might be thinking that they did not say.

I spent a few days at an outpost in Najil. Soldiers told me that militants would frequently sneak up the opposing ridge and fire on the base. One evening, they believed an attack was imminent and fired off three rounds in the direction of the suspected threat. However, one of the rounds was an illuminating mortar—a potentially catastrophic mistake, because it hovered there, shining over the entire valley, turning the base into a well-lit target.

We waited, and waited, and yet nothing happened. The night was cold and rainy, and the soldiers explained that the militants who typically attacked were “fair-weather” fighters—locals paid a few bucks by the Taliban to take shots at the base. The chilly rain was enough to stop them. Although there was no contact that night, something that should always have been obvious to me was beginning, for the first time, to feel real: I was in a war zone, and even if I was surrounded by the best troops and military hardware in the world, I was not safe.

Picture of the Khost-Gardez Highway cutting through a high pass near Gardez, Paktia Province
The Khost-Gardez highway cuts through a high pass near Gardez, Paktia province. (Scott Peterson / Getty)

I returned to Afghanistan in October 2009, this time to report on security conditions and development efforts. I traveled to Gardez, in the east, and was embedded with American troops building and inspecting schools. I followed along with an Army captain and engineer, a tall man with wire-framed glasses and a mustache. We walked through a shoddily built school, where bricks, mortar, and other debris were scattered all over the floor. The captain made muted sounds of frustration, but no workers were around to be reprimanded. A couple of weeks before, locals had found an IED planted in the school.

That night I had anxiety dreams. I wasn’t sure what to make of them. I hadn’t experienced anything dangerous, but I was starting to tune in to the general stress level of being in a place where something could go boom at any moment.

The next morning, I caught a flight to Combat Outpost Herrera, a small base atop a hill about 10 miles from the Pakistani border. It was the ideal place to observe how the border was nothing but a line on the map to insurgents. The base had seen a fair amount of action. Insurgents had been coming close enough to the base to attack with small arms.

Sure enough, soon after I arrived, an explosion occurred nearby. The alarm went off, and I scrambled for the bunker along with a few civil-affairs soldiers. The security forces ran to their posts around the perimeter. After a few minutes of huddling in the cramped space, we got the all clear. A mortar had landed outside the base, but it didn’t trigger a firefight. At the time, I felt mostly excited that I might finally gain an understanding of the realities of combat.

That evening, the troops had a cookout. They were loose and having fun squirting gasoline on the coals in the oil-drum grills to stoke the fires. Most of them were just kids, many not even old enough to drink. They had been barely 10 or 11 years old when 9/11 had happened.

When I was their age, I was going to fraternity parties, playing guitar, chasing girls, and in general being a class clown. I couldn’t imagine how that version of me would have handled heading off to a foreign land to fight an unfamiliar enemy.

At one point, as I was hanging out with a couple of soldiers in the small, plywood rec room, there was a slight boom and rumble—like someone stomping on the roof. We looked at one another and pondered whether we needed to react. Then the alert came over the base PA system. Off to the bunkers we went. According to soldiers, the explosion had happened about 500 yards from the base—perhaps someone had stepped on an old mine or bungled the planting of an IED, but most likely it was a poorly aimed mortar or rocket.

A couple of days later I flew to Salerno in Khost province. Like most larger bases, Salerno had a bazaar. It consisted of a couple dozen metal containers that had been converted into shops where Afghans sold rugs, local crafts, and bootlegged DVDs.

I joined a group of soldiers for tea outside one of the shops. The shop owner, Saeed, a slight man in his late 20s, said that he faced threats for working with the Americans, but no other job paid him enough to support his family. He was frustrated by the corruption of the Afghan government, and he felt that security was getting worse. Just then we heard a loud boom, followed by a quick whistling sound. I caught the second impact out of the corner of my eye. A black cloud of smoke rose from behind a building about 75 yards away.

Some two dozen people scrambled to the bunker in the center of the bazaar. Nothing had ever landed that close before, people were saying. I spoke with a few of the Afghan shopkeepers. They all said it was the most frightening moment of their time at the base.

When I walked to the scene, I realized how lucky everyone in the area had been. A tree had broken the fall of the shell. The projectile hit the branches, detonated, and then sprayed a comet tail of shrapnel all over the area. A canvas tent sat about 20 feet from the tree. Seven soldiers had been sitting inside at the time of the impact. Chunks of shrapnel sliced the tent and cut through the interior plywood like it was wet bread.

I walked through the tent. There were holes everywhere—in the ceiling and floor, in chairs, lights, computer monitors. The soldiers’ body armor had been perched on stands in the tent, and several of the vests had been torn by the flying chunks of metal.

Amazingly, shrapnel hit only one of the seven soldiers. And the injury was so mild that he didn’t even notice it until a few moments after the blast. He walked off to the medical tent under his own power to have the metal removed. Surrounding buildings had several-inch-deep impact craters in their brick and cement walls. The blast had had more than enough force to kill everyone in the tent, and yet it had caused only one small flesh wound.

Had the tree not been there, the rocket would have landed in the tent and probably killed everyone. If you want any proof that war is a game of inches, well, that was it.

That night, I again struggled to sleep. The blast replayed in my head. I had to process that anything could happen at any moment. I was on a mission to see and experience war for what it was, but I also wanted to go home in one piece.

The next day, another close call: While we were on a mission to a village to inspect another construction project, an explosion rang out. An Afghan on a motorcycle had hit the trip wire for an IED that had been planted in the road into the village. The motorcyclist survived the blast, but the IED was not meant for him. It was meant for us—and it had been planted there in the short time that we were in the village.

The implications were disconcerting. It was possible that on our way into the village we had passed some bad guys who saw an opportunity to plant the IED. It was also possible that someone in the village had tipped off bad guys. Either way, it meant insurgents were camped out in the area and possibly mixed in with the local population. Maybe one of the men the soldiers had just paid for working on the construction site had called about planting the IED. That was the war in a nutshell.

Had the motorcyclist not hit the IED, our convoy would have. We looked at the blast crater as we drove out of the village.

Picture of a view of Kabul from a hill on the outskirts of the city.
A view of Kabul from a hill on the outskirts of the city, on August 1, 2008 (Moises Saman / Magnum)

I think a lot of journalists, myself included, started out with a false sense of security during embeds. Subconsciously, it could feel like a TV war sometimes—like there was no real danger. However, that bubble had been definitively pierced for me. I knew how naive I had been. And that made me question what it was that I had been seeking in the first place.

That day was the first time I started to think deeply about what I was doing and why I was doing it. Was I chasing firefights because I felt it was crucial to cover and report on them? Or because I had something to prove, because I wanted people to think I was brave? I started to realize it might have been more the latter. Some of it had to do with notions of masculinity, the idea that real men did combat journalism. I realized I had been ignoring the human toll all around me.

I was wrong to have believed that experiencing combat was the pinnacle of war reporting. As I gained more experience, I began to see how reports from journalists with that attitude tended to be more about how badass they were for being in the thick of the action than about the people who were fighting, suffering, and dying. Many journalists were narcissistic and ambitious. Some were damaged.

From 2012 to 2014, I reported full-time from Kabul—I was NPR’s last correspondent to be based there. In those years, I reported on the deaths of numerous friends and colleagues as the Taliban began targeting foreign civilians.

The last year, I was part of a group embed in Helmand when I overheard an American correspondent say, “I’m only happy when I’m being shot at.” In 2009, I might have felt the same, or at least empathized. In 2014, after years of covering conflict, it struck me as about the most defective thing I had heard in a war zone.

Back in D.C., I had difficulty readjusting. One morning, a car bomb went off outside my condo—or at least, that’s what it sounded and felt like. I shot up out of bed and stood pulsing with adrenaline. I looked outside the window and saw no smoke or debris. What I did see were storm clouds gathering. What I thought had been a car bomb was an epic clap of thunder. It took me at least an hour to calm down.

I knew that I had been altered by years of covering death, destruction, and devastation, but I had no idea how damaged I was. I had no reentry care or support. I felt isolated and had difficulty interacting with friends and family. I made a series of bad life choices. I hit bottom and found the will to keep living ultimately because of my obligation to Squeak. She was a cat I rescued from the streets of Kabul shortly after moving there. I took pity on the dusty little kitten, and she became my battle buddy. Little did I know then that the decision to save her would, years later, save me.

Two years after the fall of Kabul, I am still processing. I believe it will be years, at least, before we as a country can understand the consequences of the 20 years of war that followed 9/11. And it will take at least as long for me to understand all of the ways I was changed by a doomed war that I felt was likely to fail from the time I first set foot in Afghanistan.

My experience has brought clarity about one thing: the need to support civilians who work in war zones. Though there is growing support for veterans’ mental health, the same cannot be said for the thousands of civilians—journalists, aid workers, diplomats, and others—who also risked their lives to help the people of Afghanistan. Many of them are dealing with the trauma of witnessing combat and its impact, but also with the painful reality that their work made little lasting difference—that the Afghan people are largely back to where they were before 9/11. Among the many lessons we ought to learn from America’s failures in Afghanistan is one we can do something about now: Take better care of one another.

This essay was adapted from the book Passport Stamps: Searching the World for a War to Call Home.

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