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Crossing the Wire
One Woman's Journey into the Hidden Dangers of the Afghan War
By AnnaMaria Cardinalli
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2013 AnnaMaria Cardinalli
All rights reserved.
C-130 Rolling Down the Strip
"C-one-thirty rolling down the strip. HTT's going to take a little trip."
The silly old song played through my mind, despite my attempts to think of anything more serious.
"Mission Top Secret, destination unknown. We don't know if we're coming home."
As I sat lodged in the belly of the C-130 aircraft, having found my space between some tank components and a slightly more comfortable shipment of tires, I hummed along to the familiar tune. It had been chanted for generations by members of the U.S. military as they shared a morning run. I smiled to think of the tradition and the fact that, somewhat implausibly, I had found myself a participant. Slowly, it occurred to me that the song raised the questions that lay just below the surface of my awareness.
Everybody inserted the name of their own team or unit into the song, but what did it mean to be a member of HTT—a Human Terrain Team? Our team was flying toward the most remote tribal badlands of Afghanistan, the outermost limits of Western presence. We were the only team attached to the U.S. Marine Corps, and I was enormously proud of the fact. Only a few months before, the Marines had just began to secure the dangerous area, which had been considered untamable for countless generations. I had to wonder what, exactly, a gung-ho but utterly "girly" and almost comically diminutive woman was to accomplish there.
The mission was, in its own way, secret even to me. All I truly knew was that our purpose was to protect American and Afghan lives by uncovering hidden cultural differences that could cause unnecessary conflict—as arose tragically in the early phases of the Iraq war—and by identifying the ways Western forces could best assist the Afghan people. We were to do this by venturing beyond the lines where academic involvement typically ends and the work of warfighting typically begins.
Today was not the first time I found myself on a C-130 that would deliver me spiraling into a war zone. As an Intelligence Analyst for the FBI, I had been attached to the Joint Special Operations Command in Iraq. There, I supported the most forward efforts against terrorism with the intent of preventing attacks on U.S. soil.
I wasn't the person who rushed out on daring assignments, however. I was the person who worked out the meaning of what was discovered. My experience of war in Afghanistan is bound to be different, as I am now charged with a highly unusual combination of both.
The U.S. has truly realized that subtle and variable local cultural differences cannot be discovered in a book or from a purported expert. Instead, they have to be learned directly from the Afghan people. This can only be accomplished by putting those charged with investigating these matters up front, at times ahead of the major body of U.S. forces, to learn the nuances of the local culture by interacting with and interviewing the communities themselves. The HTT program hires highly motivated, ideologically driven, and slightly reckless civilian Ph.D.-level researchers, just like me, to lead the studies.
It was also true, in a way, that our destination was unknown. In the academic sense, we can never know in advance where our research might lead us or what unanticipated turns it might take. Neither do we know what our personal fate or that of our team might be.
Being among the first to collect information means that HTT members never know who they might be encountering. On initial meeting, we are warned, one can never quite tell an angry insurgent bent on violence from a friendly and innocent villager, as the former often pose as the latter. This confusion opens a wide door for those who wish to do us harm to approach closely and attack almost unopposed.
This thought weighed on me with unusual poignancy and not a small amount of carefully suppressed terror. Just before deploying, my team and I attended the memorial service of another female HTT researcher—Paula Loyd. I never knew Paula, but I know that her unimaginable bravery and dedication to the assistance of the Afghan people should be remembered always. A "prayer card" from her service was tucked in a corner of my rucksack, and in my Catholic schoolgirl way, I was sure she would be praying for the teams still on the ground.
Paula, of course, was not the only HTT member recently killed in service. For such a small new program, we seem to have seen a disproportionate number of casualties. However, Paula's tale haunted me in an uncomfortable number of ways. The stories I heard about her work seemed to say something troubling about the Afghan communities that I am so enthusiastic to encounter and hopeful to assist.
Paula, as I learned, had been absolutely impossible to deter in her efforts to help the Afghan people—particularly Afghan women—though she often faced the opposition of the very individuals she sought to aid. While some of this opposition was undoubtedly unwitting, some of it seemed troublingly willful. There are iconic stories about Paula's efforts that have circulated to almost legendary proportions.
Friends in the program tell me that when Paula was working for an aid organization before joining HTT, she assisted a village in developing a sustainable (non-narcotic) income source by planting an apricot orchard. Unlike many other fruit trees, these apricot trees would mature and bear a saleable and highly profitable crop in four years—a fantastically reasonable amount of time. In those four years, Paula devoted tireless efforts to both the cultivation of the young and fledgling orchard and to sustaining the village's various other needs.
The women of the village were empowered by assisting in the cultivation. They were helping to build their families' futures. This was one of Paula's most important goals.
As the story goes, Paula visited the U.S. to celebrate Christmas with her family just before the spring of the fourth year. When she returned, she found the orchard cut down and the trees used for firewood. Dismayed, she asked why the just-matured trees had been burned when plenty of fuel had already been provided and sat unused. The response she received from the town's kingpin was, "Yes, there was fuel, but none of it smelled as sweet as the apricot when it burned."
Later, after joining HTT, Paula stopped to visit with a vendor at a small bazaar and discuss the price of kerosene. Engaging with a local resident about a topic like this was a typical daily task for an HTT member. The vendor's warm response and kind smile invited her to continue in conversation.
HTT members seldom miss an opportunity to chat. Simple, friendly conversation is the best means of absorbing cultural nuance. The availability of kerosene was an important and relevant topic in the daily life of a village, and Paula was keen to know more. The remarkably pleasant vendor expressed his appreciation for Paula's interest and invited her closer.
Casually, the vendor picked up a container of his kerosene with the apparent intent, like that of most bazaar vendors, of showing off its quality. The vendor then, in an incredibly deft motion, doused Paula with the liquid and set a flame to her. Her body lit instantaneously. This thought alone sickens me with fear, but Paula's ordeal did not end there.
The vendor ran away, having accidentally set his own hands on fire. A nearby teammate of Paula's, unaware of the circumstances, aided the man by rolling on top of him to extinguish the flames. It was a heroic attempt on his part to show American dedication to protect Afghan lives.
However, Paula's teammate quickly learned the truth of the situation after seeing Paula and witnessing the vendor's prompt arrest by local authorities. Horrified, Paula's teammate shot the attacker, point-blank, in the head. Shooting a detained man was a crime that would change the teammate's life forever, but it ensured the vendor would not enter the undeveloped Afghan justice system, where he, like other terrorists, would be released within a matter of days.
In the meantime, the rest of the team had run to Paula's aid. In a desperate attempt to douse the flames, they threw her into the nearest water source available—the local stream. It, like that of most villages, was heavy with sewage.
Paula wasn't lucky enough to meet a quick death, but one of tortuous endurance over several months. The treatment for full-body burns—consisting of constant "debridement"—is almost barbaric in its brutality. We were updated constantly about her condition throughout our HTT training and told how she handled the pain with all the grace imaginable. She very well might have lived had her body had not become completely infected by the waste-infested water of the village.
Paula's story leaves no room for doubt that this mission is fraught with cruel dangers—not just the flying bullets and bombs that seem typical of war—but those particularly terrorizing acts that can arise from extreme cultural and ideological differences. This time, like the old song says, we don't know if we were coming home. If the information is worth the risk, I can't help but wonder what might be the hidden mysteries of this culture that I am being charged to uncover.
We have arrived too early. Camp Leatherneck, the planned bastion of the USMC presence in southern Afghanistan from which we are to base our operations, does not quite yet exist. From the C-130, we took a helicopter to the location where Leatherneck should have been. The helicopter let us off, crewmen helpfully tossing our bags out after us, and we charged like commandos just to remain on our feet against the power of the rushing blast generated by the propellers.
In a few seconds, we found ourselves standing alone, each encumbered by four enormous and battered olive-green bags, and surrounded by darkness and silence so complete it seemed limitless. The stench of fuel was the only detail that reminded us where we were. Much like hapless tourists mistakenly dropped off in the "bad" part of town at the worst time of night, we had no idea where to go. Also, far more ominously, we couldn't be sure what might wait for us in the still blackness.
We dragged ourselves and our bags in the direction we deemed to be "forward" until we ran into the fabric wall of a tent. After groping for an entrance and fumbling for the string to a light bulb, we enjoyed an unimaginably welcome sight—food. Someone had left M.R.E.s for us. It meant that we were where we were supposed to be.
In a few hours, dawn neared, and an earnest young Marine pulled up in a decrepit Pakistani minivan. My sleep-deprived mind settled into a cheerful place thanks to the incongruity of the Marine in his minivan, the newness of the adventure, and the promise of the good we might accomplish ahead. The quickly increasing heat of the rising sun smiled on us as we traveled the dusty miles to where Leatherneck actually began.
I thought warmly of my companions in the minivan. We were a team of four, facing work that would take an army in itself. I did not know them well, but I thought I knew them enough. They had been in my training class, though they were not from the team with which I had originally trained to deploy. Still, I thought we made a perfect combination—two men and two women.
The other woman, an analyst, shared a Hispanic heritage with me, and I thought this might make us close. She hadn't disclosed much about herself, but I noticed she loved a college football team from Texas. No matter the military attire our circumstances might require, she somehow usually managed to fit her Texas football t-shirt into the outfit.
Not knowing her better, in my mind I called her Tex. (Every military story seems to include a friend named "Tex," as I have learned from the movies.) At one time, I learned, she had been a truck driver in the Army. A girl who's hard to mess with, I thought. I liked Tex.
The male analyst I admired for his dedication to his family. He was a bit shorter and rounder than most, but there was something shining about him—and it wasn't his balding pate. I could see his eyes light up every time he spoke of his new baby. I had met the baby, and his wife, at a party our program threw before deploying us. We were all full of good wine and laughing away our fears and tension, but not him. He only had eyes for his family. The definition of a man, I thought. I called him Pop.
The team leader I called Lanky. He was. With his height came a take-charge attitude, and I admired his confidence. He had thick dark hair and glowering eyebrows, which he tended to squeeze together, but this only added to his appearance of authority.
Originally trained as an analyst, Lanky was just recently thrown into his team leader position when someone of higher rank abruptly left the program, and he accepted the challenge proudly. He was the picture of a soldier. I couldn't recall if I had ever seen him out of his Army cammies, and if he said anything often, it was that he knew "how the Army really works." I was pleased with the idea that our team was in such self-assured hands.
I held the program title and rank of Senior Social Scientist, which I found funny as I was most likely the only social scientist for hundreds of miles. While Lanky directed our operations militarily, I led our research mission. I fully expected a wonderful symbiosis as we began to work together.
The rising sun was made more beautiful by the haze of red sand that lingered endlessly in the sky. The same sand, however, quickly prompted us all to pull scarves or shawls over our heads, ears, noses, and mouths, in quick order becoming unintentionally but properly dressed to fit in easily with locals. (There's a reason people dress the way they do in the desert. It works.) The windows on the minivan were all broken out or inoperably jammed open, and the faster we traveled, the faster the fine, sharp, and choking sand came at us.
The sand-clogged air, however, was the cleanest that we would breathe. An enormous plume of lazily rising black smoke announced Leatherneck on the horizon. We smelled the camp long before we reached it. The plume was the product of the fact that neither American nor Afghan political will would allow us to install any building projects that gave the impression of intended permanence, such as waste-disposal facilities.
Therefore, everything was burned. The fuel for the flames today was a mixture of smoldering plastic and rubber, machine parts and gasoline, and a heaping contribution of kitchen, bathroom, and medical waste. I was certain that I would never be able to forget the unmistakable acridity of that smell, no matter the time or distance I eventually put between myself and it.
Leatherneck itself was an unimaginably vast series of identical tents and cement blast barriers, their color perfectly matched to the desert that surrounded them and the sand that swirled about them. If not for their shadows, I imagined that one might not be able to see them at all. The camp already housed thousands of Marines in their equally color-matched cammies, and the effect was both stunning and a bit unnerving in its perfect regularity.
After being shown into the tent where I was assigned a bunk, I wondered how I would ever find it again. There was not a single feature that would indicate my tent's difference from the next. I knew no one who might help me back, and in my disorientation, I was struck with an intense if illogical sense of being lost and alone.
I stepped outside my tent into the sun and watched dusty but ever-formal Marines pass me by. "Good morning, ma'am," each would nod politely, not yet quite knowing who I was and a bit disconcerted to find a civilian woman in their midst. Still, in most faces was a determination I could understand and respect—a kindness spoken quietly through discipline and strength.
My moment of panic began to pass as I realized I was surrounded by this special quality of the otherwise fierce Marines. I felt grateful to be a tiny part of it. For now, I accepted, I was home.
Excerpted from Crossing the Wire by AnnaMaria Cardinalli. Copyright © 2013 AnnaMaria Cardinalli. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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