The Green Beret, Cricket Ball Fail in Afghanistan and AT NOBO Thru Hike Connection
Remembering a Great Hike from 2013
Here it is the end of 2015 already. Where does time go? Over here in Afghanistan it seems as though the days go slow but the weeks go fast. I was only supposed to be here for four months. It has been over a year, with another two and half months to go. But, only 105 days till my Appalachian Trail NOBO thru hike starts!
The end of a year always brings time for reflection of the last year and really all the time up to this point. Combine that with thoughts of the AT and I find myself thinking about past hikes. I am so lucky to have gone on some great ones. There was one though that will forever be the most memorable one.
The Green Beret’s, the Quiet Professionals and All Around Great Guys
Every once in awhile we meet people who, just by being in their presence, make us want to be a better people ourselves, I was real lucky, I got to live and work with a whole bunch of them for eight months in Afghanistan. Not many people get to live and work with our Green Beret’s in the field, in a war zone, especially a woman.
I was a social scientist attached to them through the Department of Defense. Like I said, I’m a lucky one. I got to see these guys in their element and, wow! was that something to see! I have never known such true professionals, the quiet professionals. Their motivation and dedication to their Team and the mission is so commendable. It was an honor to get to know and be accepted by them. And, to get to go on a hike, of sorts, in their company. It went something like this….
She Did What?!
My hand was already pushing down on the grey colored, oblong shaped handle when I heard him bellow, “She did what?!” I seriously contemplated letting go of the handle and retreating, but to where? Where would there be to disappear on a place smaller than two football fields, especially when I am the only female? Unless you count the female cat that is smart enough to keep herself and her kitten on the other side of the wire, except at night. Besides, they’re Green Berets. They would find me if they wanted to.
So, I continued pushing the handle until the door pushed open. I walked into the OP Center (operations center) hoping my casual stroll belied more confidence than I was actually feeling. How did he hear about it already?
Captain: “So, we finally take you out with us and this is what you do?”
Me: “Well, Sir, what had happened was…”
You just know the story is headed south quick like when it starts with, “What had happened was…”. Before I go on though, I need to digress for a moment. The story had actually started hours before.
Out of the Wire Happy Dance
Usually, when the guys are planning a mission anyone who is not a part of the mission leaves the OP center. This day the Team Sergeant issued the order to clear the room. Like normal I got up to leave. As I stood, he said, “Jen, you can stay.” Sitting back down I couldn’t help but smile and do a mental happy dance. Finally! Finally, I get to leave my, what the guys called ‘Jen’s nerd shit’ and go out on a mission with them!
I had been in Afghanistan since July and the furthest I had made it out of the compound was to the range, which is really not ‘out of the wire’. There were two different types of fences, each topped and surrounded by rolls of razor wire, that enclosed the compound. Anything past these fences was well, uncontrolled territory and referred to as ‘out of the wire’. This is where we were going, on foot.
So many times I had stood and watched these guys, and the Team guys before them, pull on their kits, the kits are the bullet proof vests they wear that, in addition to deflecting bullets, also carry ammunition, a radio, a first aid kit, tourniquets and whatever other equipment or gear the soldier deems important enough to have quick access to, and either walk or drive their trucks out of the relative safety of our small compound. Whenever I watched them leave I always wished I were going with them, and now finally, I was!
Fuckin’ Girl Move
In preparation for my big trip ‘out of the wire’ I put on my Army issued pants, shirt with the US flag, my DA civilian patch and blood type on the sleeve, and my Merrell shoes. This is what most of the Special Forces guys wear. They also grow their beards out when they are in the field. I have heard from the ALP, Afghan Local Police cadets I interviewed that the ‘bad guys’ call the US Special Forces ‘the bearded ones’ and don’t really like to have anything to do with them if at all possible.
I also went to the bathroom because I didn’t want to be ‘that one’. You know, the one everyone has to wait for while she goes to the bathroom. After finishing that, and making sure I was dressed correctly, I headed into the OP center and grabbed my kit, helmet, M-4, and my Beretta. I double-checked to make sure I had everything and walked out, thinking how heavy all this gear was, into the ‘yard’ with the rest of the guys.
The Team guys, and the new infantry uplift guys, were adjusting their gear and conducting last minute radio and weapons checks. We were just about ready to head out when it happened. Yep, I pulled a total girl move. Of course I had to go to the bathroom, again. Nerves, excitement whatever I don’t know but I had to go. I didn’t want to say anything. So, I just casually turned and headed quickly off in the direction of the bathroom hoping to go unnoticed. No such luck with Green Berets around, and so it started…
“Seriously Jen”, “Nice chick move Jen!”, “What a fuckin’ girl!”
I thought to myself, “Whatever! I have peed my name in the snow to get into the ‘good ‘ol boys club’ before. I should tell them that! “ Smartly, I decided not to share that little bit about myself. There is no way giving them that piece of information could work out in my favor, ever! Besides it was only the first three letters and it was cursive because I couldn’t get the whole stop-start thing down and yes, both types of evidence, physical and photograph, have long since been destroyed. So, I just flipped them off, weak I know but it was all I had.
Anyway, when I got back from the potty break, we headed out, falling into a single file line, one foot in front of another, out the heavy steel sliding gate, across the HLZ (helicopter landing zone), across a small desert area and through the last barrier-razor wire. Finally, I was ‘out of the wire’.
Having crossed the threshold of perceived safety, I turned and looked back at our little compound for the first time from the ground outside and wondered if I would see the inside again. Though aware of the dangers, I felt relatively safe considering the company I was in. If you are ever going to go traipsing around Afghanistan, I highly recommend it be with a Green Beret Team and the infantry up-lift from the 101st, which provides their support!
These guys are amazing! I trusted them with my life every day and every night. I know unconditionally that each and every one of them would die protecting each other and me and that I would do the same for them, every single one of them. I looked around at them spread out walking across the rocky ground and could not believe I was actually with them walking down into the very same waddy I had watched them walk into so many times as they headed for a nearby village.
We walked down into the dry creek bed, climbing over collapsed stone fences, and small rock ledges. Looking up the wall of the waddy, I could see large gapping holes. It was hard to tell if they had been either dug out or had just eroded from the steep walls.
We walked under the paved road and up into the village. There were a handful of villagers milling about outside their mud houses. They began to notice us and a few young boys began following at a distance.
We walked past mud houses surrounded by mud walls, with small children hovering near doorways covered with sheets of fabric. We walked past older boys and men standing outside the mud walls. Most just stood silently as we passed but occasionally one would wave and we would wave back. Looking back, I noticed after we had passed the villagers would come together in small groups and begin talking and pointing.
I noticed small clusters of goats here and there, the trash on the ground, and human waste in some places. The poverty and destitution were a rugged contrast to the beauty of the towering snow capped mountains in the background.
Hey Jen! Maybe Even You Could Find a Husband Here!
As we moved through the village more and more boys and men both young and old began to follow us moving in closer and closer. I could see them pointing at me then talking quickly in Pashtu or Dari and laughing. One of the Team guys yelled over to me, “Jen, I think you are a hit, maybe even you could find a husband here!” “Very funny!” I replied, “If I wanted a husband I would have one!” If only it were that easy I thought to myself! Oh, I am sure there is just some guy out there but if I ever go down that beaten path again it is going to have to be with one hell of a man!
The Disparity Between Ugly and Beauty
When we stopped to talk, through interpreters, with some of the older men, I noticed some young girls peeping at me through the growing crowd. They were wearing colorful but dirty dresses. Many of the children and young men were dirty and many had very red brimmed eyes, open sores and wounds on their hands, faces and feet, dirty eyes and runny noses. All were talking quickly and crowding around us. Whenever I smiled and waved at the girls they would duck behind one of the boys.
The two interpreters with us were busy with the soldiers talking to village elders who had come out meet us. A young man pushed his way through the crowd and spoke to me in broken English, which he proudly reported he had learned in school in Jalalabad. He told me he was studying medicine at the Jalalabad University and would one day be a doctor.
As more people gathered a much older man, with a turban wrapped around his head and a long greyish beard hobbled up to me on crutches supporting himself and his one leg. He used one of the crutches to push the children back. The younger boys began attempts to rid me of my one pen. During the negotiations, I would hear a word or to of English mostly, “Miss, Miss”.
I looked around and saw the Infantry guys standing guard on the peripheral of the crowd. I laughed as I watched one of the Team guys being swarmed by a group of children. Reassured, I turned back to the crowd.
A boy holding a cricket stick pushed his way through the crowd, until he was directly in front of me. He began talking to me, not in English, obviously trying to get some message across about something. I had no idea what he was saying so I made motions with my hands trying to ask about a ball to go with the cricket stick. Cricket is very popular in Afghanistan. We can often see a game being played from our raid tower.
Finally, I don’t know how, but he understood what I was trying to say and shouted out into the crowd, his words being repeated over and over among the villagers, until a white cricket ball was shoved into my hands. The boy began yelling what I can only guess was “Move back. Move back!” because with the help of the old man with the crutches the crowd parted and I found myself in position to pitch a cricket ball.
Those of you who know me know I am one of the most uncoordinated, ungraceful, non-athletic people in the world. My experience with anything even remotely close to cricket is limited to t-ball and softball neither of which ever went really great for me. My feeble attempts with the sport ended after being hit in the forehead with a baseball bat, an incident that resulted in a concussion and two black eyes.
But that was years and years, well lets just go with a really long time ago. Besides, how hard could one little pitch be? So, there I was, my return to athletics about to take place in a third world country surrounded by a hundred villagers most of whom had never seen an American female in person, all waiting to see what would happen. No, no pressure here.
Half the crowd was pushing forward, the other half pushing them back. The cleared space would shrink then swell once more with the movement of the crowd. I tossed the ball and the much more athletic young Afghan boy swung the cricket stick and soon the ball was sailing over the villagers heads landing on the other side of the crowd. Success I thought! I would leave a good impression with the locals! Everyone cheered loudly.
I was a Hit!
I turned to rejoin the soldiers only to find the cricket stick shoved into my reluctant hands. “Shit”, I thought to myself. I had barely succeeded with the pitch and now here I was being asked to hit the damn ball. I tried to think of a way to get out of it. A fleeting thought was, “Where are the damn Taliban when you need them!
Well, how bad could it go? I had managed the pitch quite successfully, maybe my athletic skills have improved with age. So, I took a practice swing to the crowds delight and prepared for the pitch. “I really hope I hit that freakin’ ball” was what I was thinking as the ball was tossed into the air, headed my direction.
Somehow, despite wearing my kit and helmet and my M-4 slung across my shoulder, I swung and hit the ball! Yeah! I actually hit the ball! I watched it sail over the crowd. Everyone clapped and cheered. I was a hit, literally!
Oh My Gosh! A Woman!
By this time we needed to head out of the village for security reasons. As we made our way toward the edge of the village the guys had to yell at the kids before they would stop following along. Soon we crossed the road and headed into a different village. Here we moved faster not stopping to talk with any of the villagers standing in front of their mud houses watching us walk by.
Nearing the far edge of this village I noticed a woman in the doorway of one of the two story houses. I called out to her, “As-salaam alaikum!” (a standard greeting for Muslims meaning peace be onto you) and again, “As-salaam alaikum!’ She waved her hand and ducked behind the curtain in the doorway. She moved the curtain so only her eyes were showing and responded back to me, “Wa-alaikum as salaam! (and peace onto you!).
I quickly called for one of the interpreters as if the woman were a rare endangered species that would disappear, leaving me wondering if she had been real at all, if I did not get near her as quickly as possible. I asked the interpreter to ask the much older man standing outside the doorway if he could translate for me with the woman. Surprisingly, the older man said yes. It is surprising because I had been told the more traditional Afghan men would not let their women speak through a male interpreter.
Our Shared Humanity
This elusive Afghan woman and I talked for only a moment. We talked about the things women talk about with each other everywhere I have ever been, our families and our children. Yes, these were her children, all eight of them. They are beautiful children. Yes, this was her husband and her home. It is a beautiful home. Yes, the children were healthy inshalla (God willing) and yes, they are a lot of work. No, no it is true a mother’s job is never done.
There we were, two women from opposite sides of the world. We would appear to be as different as two women could ever be. Me standing there in full military uniform carrying an M4 and hand gun, walking and working with men, in fact the only woman with a smallish group of men. Don’t be haters girls! It’s a tough job but someone has to do it and there is nothing wrong with nice scenery. And, there she was, hiding behind a curtain, mostly out of sight, speaking with only the permission of her husband. Yet, beneath it all, we are the same. We love our families and our children and even if we have nothing else to talk about we have this, this shared humanity.
Too soon I had to join the others, falling back into our single file line, keeping a small distance between each of us so if ambushed we would not all be killed at once. I turned one last time to look at the woman and waved. She waved back and called out, “manana!” (Thank you)
I am So Freakin’ Lucky!
Walking across the Afghan desert, tripping over rocks, pushing my helmet back up out of my eyes, readjusting my M-4, I thought to myself how lucky I was to have this opportunity, to be right here, right now at this very moment with these guys and to have met these villagers and to have once again had the opportunity to experience the humanity and graciousness of people so often perceived as so very different. It is humbling in so many contradictory ways. To see the poverty and destitution, to feel the omnipresence of danger yet to once again find beauty in place made ugly by war.
I looked around at the mountains in the distance and mud houses growing smaller with each step. I turned to one of the Team guys and said, “I think that went really great!” He responded, “Yea, especially the part when you nailed that poor Afghan kid in the face with fuckin’ cricket ball, that was classic!”
The Cricket Ball Fail
I think my heart stopped. I know I stopped breathing because I had to inhale before replying,
Me: “What are you talking about? I did not hit any one with anything! That ball went way over the crowd. I watched it!”
Him: “Did you see where it landed?”
Me: “Well no, I couldn’t see over the crowd.”
Him: “Yea, well you nailed that kid right in the face! Way to when the hearts and minds there Jen!”
I was mortified! It was this alleged incident that had the Captain in such fit in the OP center. That conversation continued;
Captain: “We let you out there because you are supposed to be the touchy, feely social scientist and what do you do? You hit some poor Afghan kid in the face with a cricket ball!” Don’t you think the kid has enough problems?”
Me: “Ummm, Sir, at this point it remains an alleged incident. There is no physical evidence and is based only on hear say!”
Anyway, so much for my big chance, I wasn’t allowed outside the wire again. It is obviously not safe for the Afghans!
The Big Connection
Now, as I am preparing for this next, I am sure to be memorable, thru hike on the AT the Team guys are on my mind. Since my time with them I have thought that if I ever get a chance do something for those guys I would be on it!
I can never do anything on the magnitude of what they did for me, keeping me alive and all, while I was with them and for what they do for our country every day, but I am hoping that with the help of my family and friends, both old and new, we can raise some money to help them when they and their families need it most.
So, beginning 11 April 2016, I am going to hike the approximately 2190 miles of the Appalachian Trail from Springer Mountain, Georgia to Mount Katahdin, Maine. Too Easy!
Every step of the way will be for the Green Beret’s I was so fortunate to get to know and work with and their families. Please take a moment and check out my fundraising page and make a donation if you can.
This website contains affiliate links, which means The Trek may receive a percentage of any product or service you purchase using the links in the articles or advertisements. The buyer pays the same price as they would otherwise, and your purchase helps to support The Trek's ongoing goal to serve you quality backpacking advice and information. Thanks for your support!
To learn more, please visit the About This Site page.
Jen, we are really going to work on your anglo-saxon!! It is a cricket BAT and the ball is bowled – not pitched!!! Still; excellent article although I may be emotionally scarred by the peeing of your name in the snow…..