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Trail Running in a War Zone

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A Black Hawk helicopter pilot’s daring evening jog on the FOB

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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.

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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.

It’s not like the kids can storm the wire and bum-rush the guard tower with a couple rocks flung from a bolo. The Romanian guards realize the limited threat, and know they have to disperse the kids but seem in no hurry. I am surprised to learn that the Romanians have a sense of humor; they wait until the moment that Seth and I are between them, the wire and the Afghan kids with the bolos to let loose a 10-round burst from their machine gun. Bap! Bap! Bap! Bap! …

They don’t shoot to kill, but to scare the man-dresses off the Afghan kids and the piss out of Seth and me. The kids scatter, well rehearsed by now, as this game with the guards has been going on for months. Seth and I, on the other hand, nearly jump out of our skin.

Our lungs burning from the toxic pit and ears ringing from the gun fire, we ramble down a loose gravel hill.

When flying, we often take off from the FOB in this direction, jockeying for position with Russian Mi-17 helicopters and others stopping in for fuel. A small mud-hut village full of chickens, goats and children lies just outside the wire. I try to fly friendly, gaining altitude quickly or at least not flying directly over their homes, but, like the quaint village near the shooting range, we haven’t made friends with everyone here either. I don’t see it during the day, but at night I occasionally catch the sight of tracer fire coming from somewhere below as a disgruntled villager takes a shot at the helicopters. To avoid collateral damage, we don’t shoot back. They aren’t very accurate anyhow, so there is no need to push the issue—as long as they keep missing.

The stretch between the FOB and this village is my favorite, because of the pack of wild dogs that often joins us here.

They greet us with the unyielding enthusiasm only cast-off, feral Afghan mutts desperate to display their loyalty can muster. They squeeze through gaps under the fence, ripping fur off on the concertina wire in an effort to join us. Some of them have names like Mary and Star Fox; others are anonymous, shaggy waifs of skin and bone. They run with us, side by side, pushing us along a series of winding, hilly turns. We are part of the pack, wild canine brothers, as if we’ve all done this a thousand times before. The dogs know their place though, even here with us. They aren’t welcome everywhere on the FOB and, one by one, they begin to peel off. They’re smart enough to avoid the main gate just past the next steep descent. The Jordanians at the gate, fearful of the raged dogs, are quick to offer a boot or worse, if they stray too close.

With the dogs gone, we watch our step on the steepest descent of the loop. Loose, grapefruit-sized rocks threaten us to hyper-extend a knee or roll an ankle. We shorten our pace, pick up our feet and plant them firmly on the trip down. At the base of the hill lies the main entrance with guard towers on both sides. A mixed convoy of Romanian and U.S. vehicles is returning, clearing their mounted weapons as they enter the base.

The front gate, with its winding entrance, barricades and checkpoints was the focal point of a recent coordinated attack on the FOB. The assailants simultaneously fired two RPGs at the front guard towers. Fortunately for the Romanian guards, they missed. Unfortunately for those of us asleep on the other side of the FOB, the RPGs flew past the towers, over the majority of the FOB and exploded upon contact, one with a Romanian tent, the other with my housing unit, sending shrapnel through the window and wall of one of our guy’s rooms. The concussion rocked us all out of sleep.

“Jerry?” was Seth’s quiet response to the attack, as machine gun fire was exchanged by the guard towers and the assailants trying to storm the gate.

“Yeah, I’m alright,” I replied. Truth was, getting excited and running to a bunker wasn’t going to make a difference. No one was injured on our side, just a little shaken up, and it was, after all, the middle of the night. With another long day ahead of me, I had to get some sleep. So I did.

After winding through the incoming convoy at the main gate, we pass a beat-up freight container with a tarp rigged canopy-like over the opening. It’s a makeshift Afghan store, sometimes open daily, sometimes not. My Afghan friend from town, Mohebuela, runs the shop, selling bootleg DVD’s, counterfeit Benchmade knives, stale cigarettes and anything else the Romanians, Jordanians, Americans or otherwise will buy.

I ask Mohebuela about Afghan life. He tells me about Ramadan. I tell him about Thanksgiving, but he’s confused when I try to explain Halloween. Mohebuela tells me he’s happy that his mother will choose a bride for him, that it makes everything so much simpler. He also invites me downtown to the local bazaar. “You can wear this, jeans and shirts,” he tells me, indicating the Western apparel he’s wearing.

I don’t disagree, but he changes back into his traditional Afghan man-dress when he goes home so I’m skeptical. It’s also in stark contradiction to what Alam Khan, another local friend who works in the chow hall, tells me.

“You wouldn’t leave there with your head on,” Alam Khan says when I ask him. I tend to side with Alam Khan on this one. I won’t be walking around downtown dressed like an American. I do hope that one day I will be able to return as a civilian and run, free and safe, on the countless singletrack that crisscross every mountain here. Until then …

Seth and I begin a climb taking us away from the front gate and Mohebuela’s ramshackle store. It’s a good climb. The sun is creeping closer to the horizon past more grazing sheep and goats, and in the cool, crisp mountain air, it’s beautiful. I’m tempted to wave and shout, “Hello!” to the two shepherds standing watch over the animals, but I resist the urge. I wish “winning” this war were as simple as exchanging happy and hopeful greetings on the side of a mountain. The shepherds lean on their walking sticks and stare at us. Both parties—the shepherds and us—assuming much and knowing little about the other.

A unique smell greets us as the trail descends to the lowest point around the perimeter. Runoff from the showers and latrines makes a grey-water creek spilling underneath the fence here. Someone has planted melons and tomatoes in the damp, well-fertilized soil next to the runoff. No one knows if it was some Afghan interpreters, Jordanians or a country boy from the U.S. looking for a piece of home.

A “jingle” truck is parked by the creek, painted with red poppies and other traditional Afghan motifs, the bumpers and rails littered with dangling chains and tiny bells. The Afghan driver is washing his feet, hands and face in ablution, preparing for evening prayer. His Romanian escort stands patiently nearby with a Kalashnikov over his shoulder. He shrugs when I make eye contact as if to say, “Don’t ask me, I hate my job.” It’s an odd sight and I can’t figure out why they chose this spot to break for prayer. Then, as Seth and I jump over the creek, I see why. The truck is dumping a load of raw sewage into the runoff creek, downstream from the Afghan performing ablution. I decide not to read into it …

We round the last corner and approach the firing range from the opposite direction, almost completing our loop around the FOB. It’s just a hair over two miles—not quite long enough to really burn off the day’s stressors. It’s almost a little sad … I don’t want to go back to wearing my combat gear and toting around my M-4; I like my shorts and T-shirt, risky as they may be.

“Wanna make another lap?” I ask Seth. He remains stoic but I see him gauge the sun on the horizon and do the math in his head, thinking the same question that I do: Is it worth the risk? He says nothing  but his concurrence is clear. We lean forward toward the burn pit, pull our shirts over our faces and squeeze in another lap before calling it a night. The perimeter trail, with all the exposure to both good and bad, will always be worth running one more time.

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Jerry Smith, an Army helicopter pilot in Selah, Washington, has a BS in Anthropology and an MFA in Film. After a couple tours in Afghanistan, he is ready to get back into filmmaking. In his free time, he mountain bikes, rock climbs and trail runs.