Sunday, June 28, 2009

Afghanistan’s Most Dangerous Corner

A father reflects on his
son’s deployment to the
Korengal Valley

By Scot Cunningham, August 20,

Reprinted from Culture11

My son Michael, 22, is a paratrooper operating out of Firebase Restrepo, an outpost in Korengal Valley built on a treacherous mountain outcropping. It is named in honor of Pfc. Juan Restrepo, who was killed by small arms fire when the Taliban attacked his unit. Enemy fighters regularly target this base for attack, hoping to breach the bags of rock that form its walls. It is a terribly dangerous position to defend.

These facts cause me endless anxiety. In order to forget them, I sometimes take long walks under the loblolly pines in Houston’s Memorial Park, though the relief is fleeting. Few things move me as powerfully as the cause for which my son is fighting, so I am grateful for news coverage that reflects its importance. But each story from Afghanistan cannot help but remind me of the dangers that he faces, increasing my worry.

Take the recent Vanity Fair piece on the Korengal Valley. Americans ought to know that the valley is a strategic passage sought by the Taliban and Al Qaeda, that securing it would be a major victory in the War on Terrorism and that our efforts are meant to improve the lot of the Afghani people. Imagine how it feels, however, to read this description of the place where your son lives:

The Korengal is widely considered to be the most dangerous valley in northeastern Afghanistan, and Second Platoon is considered the tip of the spear for the American forces there… There is literally no safe place in the Korengal Valley. Men have been shot while asleep in their barracks tents.

The idea of combat hasn't always made me so nervous. As a young Marine, I didn't fear Vietnam – I felt some eagerness to join the fight, though the war ended before I got the chance. I remember my mother's relief. Only now, as a parent, do I fully grasp what she must have felt.

During his time in Afghanistan, Michael has been pushed physically and mentally beyond anything he ever imagined, facing a brutal enemy, harsh mountainous terrain and constant mental stress. A small example of the trials that arise concerns a stray dog taken in by 2nd Platoon. Tank was a good sized animal, muscular in stature, his medium-length brown coat marked by a white blaze on the chest and face, with a huge wolfish head. He provided comfort and companionship. He also alerted the men to Taliban lurking about.

My son loved the dog, even entertaining the idea of having him shipped back to Houston, but one day he disappeared, returning to the compound almost a week later with burns and open wounds—the enemy had tortured him. The wounds were more than the medic could treat, so Michael comforted Tank as best he could, carried him to the rear of the compound and put a bullet into his head. This act of compassion required bravery I might not have managed.

Of course, he faced physical trials too. When I wrote an e-mail asking about the frigid winter temperatures, for example, I got this matter-of-fact response:
I don't think I've ever been this cold before. It got down to -5 or so. And you know it wouldn't be the first time I've been in -degree weather; after all, it got to -30 once in Maine. But I was never like, hmm, let's go sleep outside in it.

They slept outside through three months of sub-freezing snow and ice, aided some by the community of Belfast, Maine, which sent an ample supply of tuna, beef jerky, hand warmers, arctic socks and thermal underwear—gifts inspired partly by an article Michael's grandmother wrote for the local newspaper. The outpouring, buoyed by the generosity of total strangers, sometimes made for a challenge. "You know, Dad, it's not like the UPS truck rolling up to your front door," my son wrote me. "We have to go out to where the helicopter is, gather up the boxes and beat it back to the compound without taking fire."

Having survived the winter, my son got 20 days leave this spring. At the airport, people shook his hand and thanked him for his service, a reaction he'd gotten for the whole trip. "On the plane from Dallas to Houston, everybody wanted to buy me a drink," he said.

How good it felt to see my son! Running around for whole a year carrying 80 to 100 pounds of weapons, ammo, and other equipment had put muscles on him that made young women fawn. We spent one night in Austin to take in the "blues scene," and I had just as much fun watching the young ladies clamoring around him as I did listening to the music.

It's hardly the first time I've felt proud to be his father. "Why did you enlist in the army?" I remember asking him. He said he wanted to help people, a disposition he's had since childhood, fulfilled these days by fighting bad guys. It requires a certain mindset, captured in a letter written to his grandmother:

There's no other time in your life that you will feel as alive as you do in the seconds that you are in a real firefight. There is no comparing it. Jumping out of a plane is one thing: you face the probability of death with a certainty of success. Success is not guaranteed in the Korengal. Everyone wears the same face; everyone gets the same feelings. We all are aware that every bullet has a final destination.

Spoken like a true warrior—one who has done an impressive job keeping his humanity intact. Occasionally you can catch a glimpse of my son locked in a "battle stare." But his sense of empathy and compassion toward others has not suffered much--nor has his sense of humor--and he remains optimistic about his future.

I long for the day when he is finally home, safe and sound, as do his mother and sister. I’m often the one who relates messages to everyone else since Michael rarely has an opportunity to make phone calls. In these conversations our fears are seldom articulated, but long, heavy silences make it clear that we’re all dealing with them.

I’ve felt so much fear for my son and for myself, immediate relief when he came home on leave and a weight that returned soon after he went back to the front. That’s why it’s important that I get lost in the cool shade of the woods, the mid-afternoon sun filtering down through the trees. My mind can rest here, until I walk out from under the canopy, back toward my car, the blast of hot summer air jarring me back to reality.

“He’ll be just fine,” I tell myself. “He’ll be just fine.”