Go Away! - to Afghanistan

For the sake of this Opposites issue, we decided to drop the usual 'recommended' travel piece for a more alternative report. Here Jeff Jackson recounts an eventful US Army tour of duty in Afghanistan

Feature by Jeff Jackson | 10 Jul 2007

There's a feeling you get when you set foot in Afghanistan. Geographically, you're on the other side of the world. Economically, you're in the poorest country in Asia. You know these things before you go, and your mind accounts for them. But nothing prepares you for the landscape. Flying low in a helicopter over the Hindu Kush mountains, the terrain doesn't simply look foreign – it looks Martian. The land is scorched; rocks litter the earth; mud huts speckle near trickles of water generously called rivers. Seeing it for the first time, you think: this is a land made for war.

And so it is. Afghanistan has been invaded no less than ten times. War brought me to Afghanistan. I can honestly say it never would have occurred to me to visit had the Army not gently suggested I pack my bags and get my ass on the C-17.

I was a psychological operations specialist (PSYOPS). My job was to drive into a village, meet local elders and religious leaders and make sure they knew we were on their side. At the end of each visit, we'd hand out solar-powered radios and soccer balls with the Afghan flag printed on them. The kids loved us, the adults were generally respectful.

Those tempted to make the trip should know that there are hazards involved in any Afghanistani vacation. First, women are generally required to be covered from head to toe – failure to comply risks death by stoning. Second, malaria pills are a must (despite their odd side effect of remarkably vivid nightmares). Third, Westerners are highly attractive targets for terrorist ambushes and suicide bombings. Not trying to scare anybody, just a few things to consider.

If you happen to be driving a military vehicle, there's another risk to consider. The standard HMMWV (high mobility multi-wheeled vehicle) is two feet wider than the average car. This is important to remember when crossing flimsy mud bridges designed mainly for donkeys. I learned to appreciate this risk one afternoon on our way to a local village. I was in the turret manning the machine gun as we came to a narrow bridge that rose about five feet above a little creek. The driver, for reasons that will forever remain his own, chose to punch the accelerator at the foot of the bridge. Unfortunately, our rapid ascent prevented him from seeing that he was steering us too far to the right. From the turret, I could see what was about to happen, but we were moving too fast for me to do anything other than yell some garbled expletive as our vehicle careened off the bridge, slammed into the side of the embankment, and rolled onto its right side.
I didn't have time to duck into the vehicle, but this turned out to be a blessing. When we hit the embankment, my torso slammed into the edge of the turret, but my body armor absorbed the blow. Had I managed to duck inside the vehicle, I would have been crushed between the door and hundreds of pounds of ammunition that we kept in the central console.

When the vehicle landed in the creek, it was still rolling. If the machine gun and the loudspeaker hadn't been attached to the turret, it would have rolled completely over and snapped me like a toothpick. Luckily, the gun dug into the creek bed and the loudspeaker mount was just strong enough to break the vehicle's momentum and stop the roll. They always told us in psychological operations school that if you know how to use your loudspeaker, it can save your life. In a way, I'm living proof.

For the next seven hours we worked to extract our vehicle from the creek. Twenty locals and the village elder showed up, loaned us a tractor and a truck, and proceeded to demolish their own bridge so that we could up-end our vehicle.

After the adrenaline wore off, I starting making friends with the locals and letting them take pictures of each other with my digital camera. By the end of the ordeal, I had passed out toothbrushes and soccer balls to all the kids and taught them to greet Americans with a special handshake and a strong, "Right on, brother!"

Just as we were leaving, the village elder invited all of us to a feast. The food was, well, authentic. I can't say I ate much of it, but we had a good time.

So when you're planning that next exotic get away, keep Afghanistan on the short list. Sure, there are friendlier places to go - places with paved roads, fewer land mines, and more inviting dress codes. But Afghanistan is one of a kind. Every second you're there, you'll always be thinking, I'm definitely in Afghanistan. Some people would empty their wallets for that feeling. Me? I got lucky – they paid me just for going.

Getting away: Of course, it helps to join the Army. If you're not comfortable with that, they just opened an international airport in Kandahar. The main terminal is still riddled with bullet holes from where the Taliban made their last stand.