In just a few days, I would be out of Afghanistan and on leave, I thought. I was so excited that I could almost taste home. Prior to leaving, I had one more mission to go on though. And while I was on it, I had moments where I thought I may never make it home.
It was suppose to be a simple mission. I was headed out to a nearby village to hand out humanitarian aide with a Special Forces Group. I was going along to document the mission through photography. I have to admit, I was thrilled to go. As a public affairs officer for a signal task force, there was not necessarily a lot of excitement or interaction with the Afghan people. So, I jumped at the chance to go on a mission. It was a low-threat area and we were just handing out clothes and food. The SF guys wanted to use this opportunity to give specific items to specific people. Baby clothes and food to new mothers. Shoes to young kids. Hats to the teen boys. Interacting with the community also gave us a chance to talk to them, build relationships. And of course, get a feel for what is going on the area.
We loaded up the gator with our boxes of donations and we started walking though the town. Like expected, people started to follow us. We chatted with the kids, handed out candy. We spoke to the adults. We found out their concerns. And through all that we handed out some items to people in need.
Of course, some Soldiers were not involved in the banter. Their job was security. As I snapped away, I tried to be very aware of those Soldiers to watch their cues as they instructed. They knew I was not very experienced in moving through a village. I’ve been on some patrols and convoys over the years, but its not my typical every day mission. So, I have to trust the experts. So of course, I was a little nervous.
As we kept moving through the village, more and more people came. The crowd was not only making me nervous but I could see the security team was not as relaxed as before either. They started pointing things out for me to photograph. Certain people. Odd piles of rocks. They told me to get closer. I was getting a bit uncomfortable and very aware of everything around me. (And, when looking at my pictures, I can tell when the mood changed because the quality of many of my photos diminished greatly. It was like I was just snapping away and not paying as much attention to my craft. I was merely thinking of tactical skills at that point. I was no longer a photograph but a Soldier with a camera.)
What I noticed is that there was now a bigger crowd and they were pressing in on us. The security Soldiers were telling them to back up. They were not listening though. They were trying to grab things off the gator. They were trying to “steal” the things we wanted to give them. My thoughts were very conflicted then. I thought, if we are going to give them these things anyway, why do we care if they take them? Well, we wanted to give the right items to the right people was my answer. Then I felt empathy, thinking how awful it must be to feel that desperate, that in need. And of course, part of me that had never been in the middle of a swarm of people pushing, was scared. I was scared I would get hurt. I was even more scared someone else would get hurt. My fellow Soldiers were in the crowd. There were kids in the crowd. One child fell to the ground. I helped them up and put them near my legs and pulled them with me out of the growing chiaos. Now, I was getting angry at the carelessness of people pushing with no regards to the kids.
To bring the risk to an end, we just walked back from the donations, pulling what small children we saw with us. And we just let them run of with the stuff we wanted to give them anyway. It removed us, and the small kids, from the middle of the pushing and the crowd dispersed.
We headed back to the base shortly after that. I think we had all had enough community interaction by that point.
I look back at this mission years later and think, a few varied thoughts. This is definitely no where near any level of danger that many Soldiers have experienced. As a matter a fact, it would probably be laughed at by some of those hard core troops, and justifiably so. But, I can only tell you about my experiences and how I felt. At that time, I felt conflicted. I was nervous, but still had a job to do. I could see the potential for this situation to go bad as a Soldier and as a public affairs officer. I was trying to think tactically and not do anything that would put my host Soldiers at more risk. I didn’t want to let them down and make the situation worse. I was also thinking…I am about to go on leave, I really hope I get to go.
To see some of the better photos from that mission, check out my photography blog next Thursday, March 5th.