Chapter 8: Into the Market

Posted: December 26, 2012 in Uncategorized
Tags: , ,

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A lot of my significant memories from my deployment are negative ones – saying goodbye to my family, dealing with isolation and depression, facing the realities of the violence of war. But mixed in there with all the bad memories are some really positive experiences and great stories of Army Dentistry.

By far, my most positive experience in Afghanistan was my trip into the Jalalabad Market. I got an email one day from the head of our Base Defense Operations Center (BDOC) asking me if I would be willing to go on a short mission outside our base to deliver dental supplies to children in a school near the market outside our gates. Without hesitation I said: “Absolutely!”

An organization back home in the states had collected toothbrushes, dental floss, and other oral hygiene supplies and mailed them to Afghanistan. Not really knowing what to do with them, they arranged a mission to deliver them to some local Afghani children. Realizing that this was a great opportunity to win the “hearts and minds” I made a quick trip to the Public Affairs Office (PAO) to see if they had a combat photographer available to go with us. We were lucky and PAO was interested and readily willing to accompany us on our trip.

The day of the mission was a brutally hot summer day. Those of us going on the trip got in full battle rattle and met our security detail on the friendly side of the Entry Control Point (ECP). In addition to the photographer, the dentist, and the crew of 3 heavily armed and armored gun trucks, a partner team of Afghan National Army soldiers joined us to translate and provide additional security on our mission.

We had a short mission briefing before rolling out. We placed our weapons on “RED” status –meaning we chambered a round and placed our weapons on safe– and headed out the gate. This was my first time on foot outside the wire. I immediately felt like a fish out of water with a target painted on his back. I realized instantly that this was a perfect opportunity for the enemy to hit us with an IED. I imaged the headline the next morning: “An IED attack killed ten American Soldiers who were conducting a dismounted patrol in the vicinity of Nangarhar International Airport on Tuesday….”

I pushed that thought out of my mind and refocused on what was going on. Surrounded by our escorts we walked about 100 meters down the main road – Highway 1. We came upon a small market on the right side of the highway and began slowly patrolling down the narrow dirt road. On both sides of the road were shops – a shoe store, and a butcher shop just to name a few. We all waved and smiled and tried to make the locals feel like they should be happy to see us. The PAO photographer, a young blonde female Staff Sergeant, was drawing quite a bit of attention from the young men on the street. I overheard at least one marriage proposal.

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As we reached the end of the road we were immediately surrounded by a large number of young children ranging in age from infant to teenager. Our Afghan Army security detail yelled at the kids to stay back, and a man who appeared to be a teacher herded the children to a small clearing by a tree. With the help of a translator I gave a short class on brushing and flossing. We posed for a few photos with the kids and then started to hand out the toothbrushes and floss.

Within moments the basic discipline the children exhibited while in the presence of their teacher disappeared. They began mobbing us and grabbing the boxes. We were quickly overwhelmed with dozens of surprisingly strong children who were patting us down, reaching into our pockets, grabbing pens and anything loose off of our uniforms. Fearing a child would accidentally grab a weapon, I dumped my box of brushes and the others quickly followed suit.

As the situation calmed down we started the walk back to the base. On our way out of the market we stopped briefly at an outdoor butcher shop. The locals were very friendly and hospitable and were offering us food. Knowing that the meat had been hanging outside for hours and seeing the number of flies on the food, we thanked them and kindly declined. I always felt bad turning down food from the locals as it is considered an insult. But I would rather offend on occasion than suffer from a severe bout of food sickness. I had a policy of always accepted chai if it was offered.

It took only a few minutes to return to the gates and get back to our FOBBIT lives. Later that week the photographer burned me a CD with all of the photos she took while on the mission, some of which I have included here. That mission remains one of the highlights of my year. My interactions with the Afghan citizens throughout that year made me appreciate how similar–on many levels–all people are.

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