(Working on my first draft of “Kissed by the Taliban” in a ramshackle cabin in the Appalachian Mountains, January, 2014)

INTRO: Starting where I wound up

January 2014, a small town in the Appalachian Mountains

There’s no forgetting what happened, though I’ve done my damnedest to curb a self-destructive compulsion to relive my worst day. The scar on my face is a constant reminder. I catch myself tracing it with a forefinger all the time. One of the metal plates fastened to my cheekbone protrudes from the base of my right eye socket. Even when I press it gently, a sharp pain streaks across my face and neck. Why I do this confounds me, but I can’t stop.

The vision in my bad eye seems to have gotten worse in recent months. My glasses don’t work as well as they once did. I’ve all but given up using them in favor of an eye patch I wear only when I’m alone.

Consequently, when I’m out in the world, everything is in two fields of vision—one clear, the other foggy—unless I keep my right eye shut. I find myself spending less time with others due to my discomfort and insecurity. Either I need to get better glasses or resign myself to Unibomber-like solitude.

Before the scar and my bad eye, I was a romantic, a serial monogamist who thought he finally found the right girl and was on the verge of tying the knot. Now I wonder whether I’m even emotionally fit to ask a woman to dinner and a movie. Most days I’m home with the doors locked before the sun goes down.

Maybe I’ll make new eye wear a priority when I get my workman’s compensation from CBS. Lawyers for the network are dragging their asses over what amounts to a measly sum for a multi-billion dollar company that has the rights to the NFL and produces fifteen different versions of CSI. I had to hire a lawyer to collect what is legally mine. I reached out to my old editors there in hopes they’d help me. My calls were never returned. I even left a handful of vaguely menacing voicemails for the head of the news division.

I wasn’t always like this. Just a few short years ago, I was a struggling, perpetually impoverished freelance journalist specializing in the plentiful horrors the world has to offer. I was broke, but impassioned by my work and would-be wife. Then I found myself staring at the man who was trying to kill me.

Every time I trace my scar I think about him.


CHAPTER 1 – Freelancing in Afghanistan

September 2010, Kunar Province, Eastern Afghanistan

The company commander at Combat Outpost Pirtle King in eastern Afghanistan only half-heartedly offers to let me tag along on a mission in the mountains that kicks off at 3:00 in the morning, probably assuming I’m not up to it. He warns me it’s an all-day, ass-breaking hump up steep mountains littered with ankle-twisting rocks and Taliban bogeymen.

Daunted as I am by his description of the day, I tell him I’m game, convincing myself it will give me the perfect opportunity to document the difficulty of the fight in this corner of Kunar Province, a relatively safe haven for militants crossing the porous border from Pakistan. More importantly, I don’t want the commander to think I’m a pussy.

I’ve been embedding with US forces for years, both in Afghanistan and Iraq, so I have a pretty decent idea of what it takes to get readers interested in a story. Getting caught in a firefight helps. So does anything blowing up. I put myself in situations that will make for tantalizing reading so folks will pay attention to what’s going on over here. That doesn’t mean I’m not scared shitless when I do it. I just leave that part out of my stories and let the action do the talking.

I can’t let soldiers see I’m scared either. It makes some of them nervous enough having a journalist in their midst, wondering whether something I’m going to report will get them chewed out by their commander or end their career. Worse yet would be me panicking when the action kicked off. Soldiers can’t be worried about me doing something stupid when they need to focus on the guys trying to kill them.

“Count me in for tomorrow,” I tell the commander as calmly as I can, hoping he doesn’t notice the tremor in my right leg.


After a few hours of nervous, twilight sleep, I meet up with the men preparing in darkness for the torturous slog ahead. During the pre-mission brief, the platoon leader warns them to keep their eyes open for snipers hiding behind the boulders and caves that dot the mountain. I listen to his instructions while stuffing my bag with bottles of water and nervously inhaling several knockoff Chinese Marlboro Lights. I’m up to three-quarters of a pack a day, evidenced by the mud-color phlegm I spit. That’s too many for me. I wake up every morning feeling like there is a cinderblock on my chest.

I’ve had a handful of close calls while embedded, most of them here in Kunar. The previous summer, just a few miles south of Pirtle King, I got pinned down with a unit along a riverbed. Gunmen tucked behind boulders and from mountain tops fired on us without fear of retaliation. Shots pinged off the stone and mud walls we crouched behind while we screwed up the gumption to sprint across a wide-open expanse toward a footbridge that led back to the armored vehicles. Everyone scurried for the quickest cover. A dozen soldiers piled in the back of a truck designed to hold six men. Bullets plinked off the truck’s armor plating. Somehow, no one was hurt. “Seven more days till I go home,” said one soldier, laughing atop the hurried puppy pile after the door closed. Pinned under 1,500 pounds of young menin the steel-walled cabin of the armored truck, I caught on camera the mass of haphazardly stacked soldiers, their faces conveying relief and jubilation at escaping another Kunar shitshow.

I’m preparing myself for more of the same today at the start of our predawn excursion. There’s no telling when a routine patrol is going to turn into the worst day of your life. That’s what keeps these guys on edge and me sufficiently scared even though I’ve done this more times than I can count.

We pass through the gate of the combat outpost and set out along a dirt road for a couple hundred yards, then hang a sharp right, taking a wide snaking trail upward into the side of the mountain. After ten minutes of humping up steep faces cloaked in darkness, stumbling every other step, my lungs a raging inferno.

Fuck, I’m thick-headed for tagging along.

Between gasps, I tell myself for the 10,345th time that I will quit smoking as soon as I get back from Afghanistan.

No more excuses!

After two hours of climbing, day breaks over the jagged mountain peaks. We rest halfway up the mountain; soldiers take defensive positions while I guzzle water and try to capture the moment on video.

The sun streaks majestically over verdant mountain faces peppered with craggy boulders and settles daintily on the ginger-red thatch of Lt. Derek Zotto’s unruly pubic hair and exposed unit. The inseam of his pants has ripped from countless climbs in these mountains. The terrain in Kunar wreaks havoc on uniforms, blowing out crotches after just a few missions in these mountains; it’s a common problem for the men at Pirtle King. A few other guys are also sporting crotch-less fatigues. And with no running water at Pirtle King, Zotto isn’t the only one to stop wearing underwear.

I conduct an impromptu, on-camera interview with Zotto on the side of the mountain in whispered tones so as not to alert any Taliban of our presence, urging him to keep his legs closed and trying not to laugh. “It sucks never having the high ground,” he muses stoically about the distinct disadvantage soldiers have in the mountains where Taliban fighters have the geographic advantage.

I wrap up the interview then grab some B-roll shots of his dong, just for fun.

We spend the rest of the increasingly sweltering day hauling ourselves over and around boulders toward the summit dubbed Observation Post East, a flat, shade-less expanse with views of tiny Pirtle King and the river valley below. Across the valley are the terraced hillsides carved out by generations of Afghan farmers working the land with crude tools. I’m ready to pass out hiking up here, and Afghans on the other side of the valley are doing it every day to tend to their vegetables. Either I’m in lousy shape or these people are the hardiest people on the planet.

We shed our gear and collapse to the ground, our clothes stained with sweat that has dried into a crystallized tie-dye of salt on khaki and camouflage. While my bulletproof vest and camera gear are a mighty weight for me to bear, it’s nothing compared to the hundred-plus pounds soldiers lug around every day. Their vests, laden with extra magazines of ammo and other gear, weigh twice as much as mine. Their weapons, an awkward mass of metal whose shifting weight constantly alters their centers of gravity, make climbing in these mountains near impossible without the occasional fall. On the way up, Spc. Jeff Hutchins stumbles over the loose boulders and lands face forward, his legs splayed behind him awkwardly while the rest of us try not to snicker. “Is my helmet crooked?” he quips in a whisper as he pops up with his Kevlar head cover cocked awkwardly over his eyes and the bridge of his nose.

We slog on, growing more comfortable with our surroundings despite the increasing dangers that come without visibility. “Are we there yet?” knowing damn well the summit is several hours away. “Uhhhhhhhh!” I groan like a child getting on his parents’ last nerves during a never-ending car ride to Sea World.

Eight ankle-rolling, deep-heaving, crotch-sweat soaked hours later, we reach the summit. The temperature is well over 90 degrees despite our lofty elevation. Looking through my pack, I realize I’m down to a bottle and a half of water. Some of the soldiers are nearly dry too. Already I’m dreading the climb down knowing it will be a dry-throat dash back to base before sunset.

After an hour’s rest, Zotto orders his men to throw their gear back on so we can start the long haul back to Pirtle King. While the descent is always quicker, the perils are greater. If anyone is watching us, the climb down would be the ideal time to attack. With our heads facing down, and our energy depleted, we are vulnerable to potential sniper attacks from the peaks all around us.

Halfway down the mountain, two soldiers reeling from severe dehydration stop dead in their tracks, their faces stark white and gaunt. Hutchins quickly whips out IV bags and jabs their forearms to pump them with fluids as they lay motionless on the mountainside. Combatting my squeamishness at the sight of the IV needles, I focus my camera on Sgt. Chris Kline, who immediately takes umbrage at the sight of my camera directed at him. “Dude, don’t film this,” he says, his eyes rolling back in his head from exhaustion. After a moment, he acquiesces. “Oh, what the hell, go ahead.”


This is how the war in eastern Afghanistan is fought: one long slog through the mountains after another, up and down, day after day. They’re called “presence patrols.” It’s a common tactic that strikes me as both unproductive and unnecessarily dangerous. These grueling humps provide the Taliban the perfect opportunity to light up a platoon from hidden firing positions on the slopes above, making effective retaliation nearly impossible. But I’m not a military tactician, so what the hell do I know? If there’s a strategy to hanging your neck out for the Taliban to take a clean hack at it then scurrying away unscathed, I’ve yet to figure it out.

What little I do know of military strategy I’ve gleaned from the pages of history and the campaigns that make the History Channel’s highlight reel — decisive wins that can change the course of the war. That’s not how it’s done in Afghanistan. No D-Day-like NATO offensives with tens of thousands of soldiers going head-to-head on some predetermined battlefield to decide this thing once and for all. This isn’t that kind of war. The Taliban are guerrilla fighters. Real sneaky ones, too. They play small ball. Plant an explosive here, carry out a sniper attack there. Every once in a while they’ll try to overrun a combat outpost with a couple dozen guys or infiltrate the Afghan Army to take out a handful of soldiers in a sneak attack. Unlike the Vietcong that stymied US forces, the Taliban aren’t savvy or motivated enough to attempt their own version of the Tet Offensive, the greatest surprise attack since the Trojan horse.

The dearth of great battles leaves young soldiers longing for a fight with potential historical significance. Commanders clearly recognize this fact. However, in lieu of nationwide campaigns aimed at ending this fight once and for all, they mount smaller missions with colorful names meant to evoke strong sentiment and rally troops with sagging spirits. Operation “Eagle’s Claw” or “Righteous Hammer” makes walking around the mountains hoping to kill a couple dozen bad guys seem like it’s worth the risk. During one mission brief to which I was privy, I listened to a colonel tell his junior officer how they would carry out operation “Thundercat,” named as such by one of the younger soldiers after the 80s cartoon and whose humor was lost on the brass. Every time the colonel referred to the operation by name, the young lieutenant sitting next to me would murmur through clenched lips while trying not to laugh Lion-O’s trademark war cry: “Hoooooooo!”


We have a problem. Kline and another soldier can no longer walk due to dehydration. Another broke a toe on the way up and is severely hobbled. The terrain is too steep to carry them off the mountain. Even if we could haul them down, our water situation made the extra exertion dangerous. More guys could drop out from the heat, severely diminishing their ability to retaliate in the event of an attack. With no other alternative, medevac is radioed to get the injured off the mountain. While waiting for the chopper, we sit quietly on the mountainside trying to stay low and inconspicuous. Minutes seem like hours while we bake in the afternoon sun and scan the surrounding peaks for any movement.

After about an hour of tense waiting, the steady thrumming of helicopter blades begins to echo off the mountains. Moments later, a medevac chopper hovers over us, winching a rescue paramedic to the ground because the terrain is too steep to land on. The medic fastens a harness to the injured, who are hoisted into the aircraft. Thankfully, someone in the platoon has the presence of mind to tell the medics about our precarious water situation. As the soldiers, limp with exhaustion, are hoisted into the chopper, a crew member tosses out several cases of water and Gatorade. Even before the helicopter takes off, we pounce on the drinks and gulp down several bottles, then pack as many as we can for the remainder of the march.

The soldiers resolve to get the hell off the mountain as quickly as possible. But Sgt. John McAfee, who broke his toe earlier that day, is hurting. Not wanting to leave his men behind, he declines evacuation with the others. McAfee’s every step down the rocky mountain is accompanied by a pained and stifled grunt. I watch him strain to keep pace as the remainder of the platoon picks up the tempo to outrun the rapidly setting sun. By the time we are a few hundred yards from the outpost, we’re jogging in unison as I suck deep for each breath like an asthmatic John Candy.

When we stagger into the outpost, I’m hallucinating from exhaustion. “Wait, you mean to tell me the fucking reporter made it, but two of you had to be airlifted out?” said a razzing voice as I double over to catch my breath. “I can’t wait to bust their balls about that.”

That I endure (without complaint) the rigors of what turns into a fifteen-hour excruciating slog to the top and back earns me a measure of respect with the soldiers. My knees are buckling from exhaustion. I find the nearest object approximating a seat and plant my exhausted ass, trying not to look too tired. Hutchins sidles up to me. “Hey man, how old are you?” he asks. I tell him I’m 36, a vivacious young man by my own estimation.

“Huh, you’re just two years younger than my dad.”

A moment’s pride in my accomplishment is dashed by my apparent decrepitude in the eyes of a 19-year-old I’m almost old enough to have sired myself.

Thanks, douche.

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