The following is an excerpt from “Kissed by the Taliban.” In this part of the story, I receive a package after my injury that I am reluctant to open.

Hacking away at my book "Kissed by the Taliban." January 2014

Hacking away at my book “Kissed by the Taliban.” January 2014


I’m staring at this box in my living room that arrived more than two weeks ago. It came by delivery, DHL, all the way from Afghanistan. About a week after my surgery, the intercom buzzed and a voice said he had a delivery for me. Not expecting a package, I was shocked by its size and heft. Two men had lugged it up three flights of stairs with some apparent difficulty — I heard them grunting and huffing before they knocked on my door.

When I answer, they’re standing behind an olive drab container made of a composite plastic, a model I’ve seen at the foot of soldiers’ bunks.

The label reads:




APO AE0931





APO AE 09354

I can guess what’s in it. Presumably it’s everything I had with me when I got shot, plus all my gear that was scattered on and around my bunk at PK. I should be glad to have it. But there are bogeymen in that box. Mean-spirited, ill-tempered, out-to-get-me baddies are in the box. I’m already having a hard enough time coping with what happened to me. I don’t need what’s in there kicking my anxiety into high gear.

My fear of facing what’s in that box is what keeps me from addressing anything Afghanistan-related. I haven’t read a single story out of there since I was hurt. Uncle Billy brought me a copy of Sebastian Junger’s new book, “War,”about an outpost of soldiers in Afghanistan and the challenges they face. I had asked him to buy it for me. I haven’t so much as cracked the cover. I can’t.

I promised my editors at USA Today that I would write a story about PK and what happened to me there. But I’m not sure I can. Besides, my laptop and all my expensive gear — the cameras I was carrying when I got hit, my helmet, body armor, everything — was either taken from me by invisible hands while being treated or left behind. It might be in that box. Perhaps worse, it’s not and I’m out a lot of money. If it isn’t, do I go out and buy all new things? It might not be worth it. Lately, I’ve been thinking I may never report again. Questions about my career lead to long bouts of staring into the existential abyss: How did I wind up in this sorrowful state? What am I going to do now? Will I ever work as a reporter again?

Confusion about one’s place in the universe is apparently the norm when you stare at the floor all the time. But now I’m standing next to the box, so I’m staring at it. Every day I do this. Every day I stare at this box and say, “This is the day I’m going to open you, fucker!”

But I never do. More than two weeks pass with that box taunting every time I walk past it.

Till today.

Today is the day, you motherfucker.

It has to be someday, and today is as good a day as any.

I take a deep breath, then let it out, just like I did with that catheter nurse I whizzed on. I chuckle, remembering how much I enjoyed that.

OK, you can do this. Let’s go. Just open the damn box.

I take a step back and circle around the living room.

 Come on!

I walk back up to the box and start flipping the plastic latches, two on the front, two on each side. The release of each clasp makes my heart skip.

My hands find the edges. This is it.

Ready …

Set …


I throw open the lid of the box and am immediately blown backwards.

“Holy fuck, that stinks!”

An invisible, toxic fog of my own body odor and a collection of scents from the bowels of PK smacks me square in the nose and I’m immediately transported back to that tiny combat outpost. On top is the crusty collection of well-worn socks I’d stashed beneath my bunk. I was on the fence about throwing those things in the burn pit while at PK. Now that they’ve had a few weeks to marinate, they really have to go. I grab the lot of them and toss them in the kitchen garbage can. Under the sink with the cabinet door closed I can still smell them.

What remains are essentials: my passport, tucked neatly in the corner of the box so as not to be fouled by the rest of my gear, and my laptop, battered by weeks of abuse in the dusty Kandahar Desert before Kunar. The battery is dead. At first I’m afraid it might be toast, considering the asthmatic, sputtering sound the fan was making before I was shot. I dig out the power cord and plug it in. After a tense moment of silence, the laptop flashes to life with its ubiquitous MacBook “Baaam!” At least I won’t have to buy a new one.

The rest of my gear is wedged into the case chaotically, denoting the quickness with which it was likely packed after my injury. Sweat-stained T-shirts are wrapped around my still-photo camera, a dozen cables for connecting cameras to my laptop or my laptop to my audio recorder and video camera are tangled in a ball like Clark Griswold’s Christmas lights. I spot my helmet, covered in a Rorschach of dried blood stains, and an old pair of leather boots with one sole separated from the upper. No sign of my body armor, however. My first thought is that someone swiped it because the plates alone cost a couple thousand bucks. Then it occurs to me that clothing saturated with blood is burned by the military as a biological hazard.

That’s going to take a real bite out of my wallet. I loved that vest, with its slick zip-up-the-front style and body-hugging design. I looked positively gangster in that thing.

I sort through the rest of my gear, pulling out more clothes and my camera bag till I reach the bottom of the box. There, battered and abused, its microphone hanging precariously by a length of cord tied to the handle, is my video camera — the camera I was filming with when I was shot. I’m not sure it works anymore. I did drop the thing when I got hit. But there’s is a chance I caught the attack right up to the point I got hit.

I backtrack through the moment before impact like I have a countless times in my waking nightmares. Except this time I’m looking for clues. I was pointing my camera at those young men on the side of the road. Then I whipped around to see the rocket heading right toward me. Maybe I did catch it. Maybe the worst fucking day of my life is on this camera. While everything else that was in the box is now scattered around the living room, I decide to put the camera back inside it.

I’m not ready to find out.

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