54. Fries

Fries

These men are at peace with us; let them dwell in the land and trade in it, for behold, the land is large enough for them. 

Genesis 34:21

For my first patrol, Sergeant Toon took us down the southern end of the ridge around 1600, where we traversed the wide, rocky causeway in file with about a three-meter dispersion between each Marine. I walked in the middle of the pack because Corporal Ward decided to bless me with carrying the THOR,1 a radio frequency jamming device that prevents Johnny Jihad from setting off IED’s on command with a phone or radio. The THOR though, is an odd shaped box with wires and antennae that weighs about twenty pounds and is impossible to situate comfortably on one’s back, especially with a rigid flak jacket on. During the duration of this patrol, though I attempted many times, I was unable to adjust the strap to stop it from digging into my right pec. I realized the vanity of my suffering after noticing the risk of an IED was almost none down this way because the only place we could step were rocks and hard-packed dirt.

We continued down the ridge overlooking Cho’Gra until Habib came into view, stopping several times along the way as Toon oriented Sergeant Ward to the AO. My journal entry regarding this first two-hour patrol sums it up well when I described it as a “walk in the park minus the park.” 

Future patrols were more interesting when we went through Cho’Gra. We saw a camel lounging outside a man’s home, a man bathing in a basin formed out of mud, and an odd display that at first glance appeared to be a walking pile of sticks. As we continued walking I kept staring at it, eventually realizing it was a donkey. Only the hooves and a bit of its snout were visible as a boy about ten years old walked behind it leading the beast by waving a long stick in its periphery.

Children almost always approached us saying one of two words, one of which needs no translation. “Cho-co-laat!” and “Tajuman.” Our response always disappointed them.

“No cho-co-laat. No Tajuman.” Our candy supply was non-existent and interpreters were limited. Due to our remote location, we were never allotted one, except for a very short period of time. This still didn’t prevent the kids from coming up to us. 

When they did, I noticed the Afghans had an interesting solution to diapers. They simply tossed a long shirt on the kids with nothing else on bottom. The whole area is a giant litter box, so even if they plop their surprise in the home, it can be scooped or at least scraped up and tossed in the corner of their compound.

This isn’t just any corner. I stumbled across one when we paused at a mini mud apartment complex with three or four adjacent homes joined together. I meandered to the edge of the courtyard  and noticed a small gap in the corner. When I peered around the one-and-a-half foot wide opening, I discovered it expanded to a roughly 10’ x 10’ potty box with all the accompanying scents of old feces and urine. Once the poop dries out enough, they can use it as fuel for their fires.

When patrolling through the green zone I felt at home within the small strip of trees on either side of the river. Small sputtering pumps chugged their engines as they fed water to homes and crops. The corn approached its harvest with stalks higher than our heads. During one patrol through another segment of Cho’Gra, we walked past a field of weed.

Davis, the lean black runner took immediate notice. “Daaaaamn bro. That’s a shit-ton of weed.” Some of the plants grew over six feet tall and the garden stretched at least 30’ x 30’. Standing in front of Davis in formation, I asked “How much do you think this would fetch in the states?”

“Yo, I don’t know. A lot,” he said. “Hey Green!” Our corpsman Green, one with many years of experience puffing a bong, turned and met us.

“How much you think all this weed would go for in the states?” Davis asked.

“Ummm,” Green scanned the height, width and depth of it all. “One to two.”

“Mil?” I asked.

“Yeah.” My eyes widened. “Man these guys should get a new buyer, hah.”

“See that?” Green pointed to one large stalk. “That’s a female plant. They’ve got the buds. That’s where the money is.”

Learn somethin’ new every day.

The poppy season was over by this time. All that remained were piles of brown skeletal twigs with their iconic bulbs at the end. During our Afghan culture classes, we were taught that Afghanistan, specifically Helmand province, produces eighty to ninety percent of the world’s opium, despite it being illegal to grow.

Because the Taliban is the sole buyer of poppy, they pay a hefty price for this drug that ultimately funds their entire regime. Although the Afghan government with the aid from the US added subsidies for farmers to grow traditional crops, money earned from selling poppy still outweighed legal produce by up to a factor of ten.

What would I do in this situation? In a high honor culture where men must provide for their families, would I stick to my guns and scrape by with one tenth of my potential compensation? Would I be so firmly convicted in my morals to oppose funding the barbaric oafs that I would sacrifice the few creature-comforts I could get for a lifestyle of scarcity? I doubt it.

Beyond this, some families are forced to grow poppy for one reason or another. Like any drug empire, once you slip into it, the only way out is death. So, either the families ally with the Taliban or are forced to provide for their family by providing resources to the men that they hate.

When the time came for them to spend their hard earned money, they traveled south to the bazaar. During some outings, we set up a VCP’s,2 stopping vehicles as they came and went to inspect their vehicles. Almost every automobile in this region was a small Toyota truck.

Somehow, they managed to utilize every square inch of space. During one stop, I looked over to see the usual Toyota with its cab and truck bed full of Afghanis. For whatever reason, I decided to count as people filed out. 

…Five, six, seven, eight.

Wow, they just keep comin’. 

Nine, ten, eleven, twelve… thirteen!

I kept turning my head between outboard security and watching the clown show pop out of their tiny car.

Fourteen. This has to be it.

When I thought they must have been done, a few kids popped out.

Fifteen. Sixteen. Holy crap, sixteen people in that little truck? Right when I finished counting, one of the women pulled a baby out of her Hijab.

Seventeen! And that was truly it. They should have quit farming and auditioned for America’s Got Talent.

Not only are the Afghans great at cramming people into small trucks, they packed them beyond capacity when they returned from the bazaar. We’d see empty trucks go south and return north with their truck bed resembling the Grinch’s sleigh, no joke. They packed their groceries higher than the cab of their tiny truck, topping it all off with a live goat.

I wondered what the guys were doing when they held up a full truck for some time. Ward leaned in the driver’s side window, but I couldn’t tell what he was doing. When we finally started heading back for Panda, I saw him carrying a two-gallon jug of vegetable oil and Kath holding a large sack of potatoes. Once we returned, you know what happened. We propped the cast iron skillet over the fire, chopped up some potatoes and enjoyed the finest home-made delicacy of our deployment: Panda Fries.

  1. THOR stands for Tactical High power Operational Responder
  2. Vehicle Control Point

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