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Guarding guns in Afghanistan, far away from CSC

So there I was in Bagram, Afghanistan. It all began about 11:30 a.m. I went to the supply room, where I was told that I would be ‘babysitting’ a few .50 cal machine guns and ammo to Forward Operating Base Lion in the Panjhir Valley. I was really excited about this, because, after all, the only real way toget to FOB Lion was by helicopter, and, even though it would be for 15 minutes, I was excited to go on my first ever ride in one. We got to the flight line at noon. We waited around for 15 minutes. Then 30 minutes. An hour. Two hours. Finally, after two hours, we heard the familiar sound of the dreaded Blackhawk.

WHUMPA-WHUMPA-WHUMPA. There were two of them, looking as mean as they ever did in the war movies. The pilots waved me and my .50 Cal carrying crew to the ‘bird’. I noted at this time that the two others with me were not wearing body armor and a helmet like I was. Was there something that these two knew that I didn’t? Was I overdressed for the occasion?

Apparently not, because as soon as the .50
caliber and ammo were loaded into the helicopter, the two waved me goodbye,
and headed away from the helicopter. Strapping myself into the Blackhawk, I noticed something odd about this experience right away. It was exactly like I thought it would be.

As soon as I got buckled in, the
thing lifted off. The home I’ve come to know for the last month looked totally different from the air. Then things got completely foreign. Houses, or what I thought had to be houses, dotted the landscape like a grid. Everything in this valley looked like it was part of a scatter plot or something. There were brown houses made of mud and square fields where God-knows what was growing.

I noticed, after taking hundreds of what seemed to be the same picture over and over again, that the mountains I’ve always wished to climb but were so far away we’re coming ever closer. Then came the area where the grass and trees suddenly stopped and the ground got steeper. And steeper. And then came the moments where the trees went out of view from my window and the mountains were all around me. It was like I was in a ‘Lord of The Rings’ movie. Seriously.

And the weirdest part was in the oddest of places, places where it would be impossible to get to, there were houses. People lived in these mountains. The pictures I took are the only things that can do any amount of justice to these things. After we crossed the mountain pass, we started our slow decent down, never more than what seemed like 100 feet above these things.

The ground came closer, and little dots that I knew were cars and people were slowly gaining more and more definition. A river that went between the mountains, following the same path that we were traveling, opened up, and a huge patch of dry river bed loomed out in front of us.

We touched down, the doors were opened by pilots, and the machine guns were pulled out by soldiers and carried to some Humvees parked about 50 yards away. This was odd for two reasons. One, I was told that I would be giving these weapons to a sergeant major who was driving a truck, and two, I was under the impression that Humvees weren’t used in Afghanistan. The threat of IEDS and such made the use of the IED-resistant vehicles standard throughout the country. Before I got the time to contemplate this situation, one of the pilots who opened the doors pointed at me and yelled something to me, but the noise of the Blackhawk’s blades overhead drowned any and all hope of ever hearing what he said.

He seemed to understand this, and he pointed at me, then himself, and then the
Humvees that my machine guns were being loaded into. I shook my head, and then he pointed at me, and then the Humvees. I took this to be a direction to go to the Humvees, so I grabbed my gear, and headed that way. Without warning, the engine of the Blackhawk changed pitch, and I was almost thrown to the ground by wind. Dirt and dust and rocks splattered everything, and I did all I could to protect my face and my dear camera. I knew what the dirt in my eyes meant. It could only mean one thing. My ride was leaving me.

Unable to do anything but watch, I did the only thing a person in my situation could do. I took pictures of the departing Blackhawks. The soldiers, who turned out to be mostly members of the Air force, looked at me, and said, ‘Welcome to Panjhir!’

I stared at them, dumbstruck. They had no idea what had happened.

Neither did I.

Roy Mercon was a student of Castleton State College from 2006-08. He is a public affairs specialist currently on a deployment in Afghanistan with the Vermont Army National Guard.