It is always the youngest who go in first. Generals plan campaigns and politicians pontificate in televised briefings. The risks are taken, the burdens shouldered, by grunts like Pfc. Ryan Odom, a 20-year-old from Charlottesville, Va.
“We expected we’d have to fight our way in through clouds of chemical gas and stuff. It was real quiet on the plane going in,” says Odom, a rifleman with Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 87th Infantry Regiment. (That’s 1/87, pronounced “one eight-seven.”)
“The reality was, there was no opposition. Then we spent weeks building our fighting positions. Pick and shovel work. It was real hot and dry and there were times when we had no water. Living on two MREs (military rations) a day.
“Then it rained and everybody was like, finally! Then we find out what rain does to dust: Turns it into three feet of mud. We’re living in GP mediums (tents) with no floors. It’s probably the dirtiest I’ve ever been in my life. You’d fall in the mud and then just make yourself not care.” The way Staff Sgt. Michael Weldon looked at it, going off to war like this is no big deal. “In the space of 36 months I’ve been deployed for 29 months, twice for six months to Bosnia and once to Kosovo, places I never heard of when I graduated high school.”
Weldon, from Watkins Glen, N.Y., is 28, a squad leader in 3rd Platoon of the 511th Military Police Company.
“I have three kids at home: a 31/2-year-old, a 20-month-old and a 6-month-old. Yeah,” he says, chuckling. “It’s called coming back from deployment. Having kids has changed me. I call the parents of my soldiers, let them know how their kid is doing. Parents like hearing about their kids.”
Sergeants’ responsibilities for their soldiers make them parents of sorts, with the same joys and exasperations, the same risks. Staff Sgt. Steven C. Bailey, 31, of Pine Hill, N.J., a squad leader in Alpha Co., 1/87:
“I enjoy leading soldiers. There’s nothing I’d rather do than training and leading soldiers. Especially in this environment. I try not to stay on my soldiers too much, not let too much stress get on ‘em. For many of them, this is their first time away from home.
“When we were up in Uzbekistan, I had a new kid come to me. I had him only nine days, he came straight from basic. I bought him a shirt and socks, stuff he needed and didn’t have. He was a quiet, kinda timid kid but he was starting to loosen up.”
One day, Bailey says, “He went out and shot himself.” “It really hurt, and I feel sorry for his family. We could have helped him out,” Bailey says. “See, I pride myself on constantly asking my soldiers, how are things, how are things at home, how you doin’? I talked to the chaplain and he said I had done everything I could and I was not to blame ... but I still think there’s something I could have done. I should have said, ‘Hey, what’s on your mind? You’re not going anywhere until you sit down and talk to me.’
“That’s what I should have said.”
In December, 1/87 and other units of the 10th Mountain began moving from Uzbekistan south into Afghanistan, tucking into an abandoned Soviet-built air base at Bagram, an hour’s drive north of Kabul, a desolate place where the wind tumbling from the arctic heights of the Hindu Kush has pushed up piles of war wreckage like leaves: shot-up MiG-21 fighters, smashed helicopter cockpits, hulls of tanks, unexploded rockets and mines, burnt-out trucks.
For fear of snipers, the cargo planes that are Bagram’s lifeline don’t wallow out of the sky until well after dark. That’s how the 511th Military Police Company arrived, its soldiers struggling down the C-17’s rear ramp into darkness and confusion.
No one was expecting them. Within a few hours after sunrise, these troops—
mostly teen-agers—had built platforms and erected canvas tents big enough
to hold two dozen cots. Installed diesel heaters, strung electric lights,
moved their stuff in and started building shelves and tables. “They’d
never done this before,” Sgt. Richard Williams, a 28-year-old team leader
from Schuylkill Haven, Pa., says later. “But there’s nothing you can’t
get soldiers to do with the right motivation. Do you want a warm, dry place
to stay tonight? Or you want to sleep out in the rain?”