Trail Running in a War Zone
A Black Hawk helicopter pilot’s daring evening jog on the FOB
It’s the end of another stressful day somewhere in Afghanistan, my second combat tour here, and I’m about to abandon my combat gear—boots, body armor and M-4 carbine rifle—for running shoes, shorts and a T-shirt. Even here, on a forgotten Forward Operating Base (FOB) in southern Afghanistan, you’ve got to get out and hit the trails, right?
I grab my roommate and running buddy, Seth. If I want to talk, he’ll listen. If I don’t, he’ll run with me just the same. Plus, if one of those bad guys—be they Taliban, Al Qaeda or otherwise—is going to do me in, I want a witness.
We begin our run near the firing range. No one’s here tonight shooting M-4s, Kalashnikovs or RPGs—only a shepherd grazing his goats and sheep in the target area. The image cracks me up—an Army shooting range nestled right up next to an Afghan version of Brigadoon.
Now, I should give a disclaimer of sorts at this point …
I’m a Black Hawk helicopter pilot, a Chief Warrant Officer, and I live a conflicting life. I abhor the wastefulness of modern technology and a few aspects of the American lifestyle I go to war to protect (whatever that means and however that may or may not actually work). The over-consumption, commercialism, immediate-gratification and something-for-nothing aspects of the great nation I belong to turn my stomach.
I want to be a small-time subsistence farmer in Maine, enjoy the outdoors and take no more than I need while trying to give back more at the same time. That’s the hippie side of me I have to suppress while I continue my Army career. I love the country of Afghanistan and see its people as great, though often misunderstood. I wish I could spend time on the ground helping some small village rise above the chaos of the last several decades, but I can’t; my job is to fly helicopters. That internal struggle is stressful and greatly increases my need to get out and run to unwind.
From the range, Seth and I turn clockwise onto the perimeter road. Up-armored Humvee’s and Romanian armored personnel carriers patrol the FOB from this sketchy line of doubletrack. Within an armored vehicle, it’s one thing; running it in shorts and a T-shirt is another thing all together. There is nothing between us and no-man’s land but a chain-link fence or haphazardly strung concertina wire.
Within the FOB, behind the security of the perimeter fence, the guard towers, concrete slabs and eight-foot-high, dirt-filled barriers, we wear our combat gear, carry our weapons and play war. When we cross the wire on combat missions, in the air or on the ground, we wear our body armor and helmets, and carry our weapons locked and loaded, ready to fire in an instant. These are hard-and-fast rules in combat. But no one questions—out loud, at least—leaving body armor in your room and your weapon hidden under your pillow, to go for a jog around the perimeter road.
Singletrack waiting for better times to be explored.
Seth and I are running clockwise for a good reason: we want to get past the burn pit early in the run. This FOB is too small for an incinerator, so countless scraps of food, paper and plastic from the chow hall, refuse from base construction, dunnage from ammunition and, occasionally, live ammunition all go into the pit. The pit is self-sustaining, constantly burning, spewing toxic black smoke. Sure, the steady Afghan wind diffuses it, but it blows across the FOB and not so gently into our lungs. I pull my shirt over my face and breathe shallowly. I can’t help but wonder if there was a scene like this in Dante’s Inferno.
We’re almost past when Pop … Whizz! Pop … Whizz! A couple rounds cook off in the pit. We flinch ever so slightly. A few strides later I have second thoughts—maybe that pop and whizz wasn’t from the burn pit, but from somewhere outside the wire? Oh, well. We keep running.
A classic David-and-Goliath scenario is playing out outside the wire, typical at this time of day. A gang of Afghan kids have come to taunt the Romanians in the guard towers. They’re creeping closer to the wire, telling each other, I’m sure, to act natural. A couple have bolos and swing them bravely over their heads. Seth and I are coming up on a guard tower with a PKM machine gun sticking out, and I’m wondering what the guards are going to do about these kids.