Our potbelly stove flickered and puffed its final surge of heat from its gaping mouth as a cold wind blasted our tower. A black plume of smoke saturated our 6 feet by 4 feet (1.8 by 1.21 meters) guard tower. Most of the thick soot settled on the floor, but a layer of black camouflage covered our bodies.
“Dang,” Hector Mercado shouted. He allowed several colorful words of aggravation flow from his mouth. “Freakin Army spends millions on all kinds of junk – crap just like this heater!”
“At least we had a few hours of heat,” I said, laughing at my team member while he smacked his uniform and danced around the small guard tower like a crazed baboon. “Could’ve blown up on us instead of showering us with soot.”
“Yeah, yeah.” Mercado sighed while cleaning soot from his face with a baby wipe.
Our tower was situated on the east side of our FOB (Forward Operating Base). A family compound sprawled across the base of a mountain to the right, a graveyard to our front, and a small village to our left.
My platoon was on guard rotation, and I welcomed the cycle with opened arms of relief! We recently spent a tad over a month conducting operations in Eastern Afghanistan, and freezing my butt off in a guard tower was more appealing than dodging bullets.
Mercado positioned his M249 SAW (Squad Automatic Weapon) back in its place. The weapon reflected the moon’s light, but Mercado’s face was still dull from the black soot. He grumbled about the stupidity of the deployment until words eluded him.
“Four hours down, eight to go,” I nudged Mercado’s arm as I took my position next to him. “Just think, the sun will pop up just there.” I pointed to the family compound on our right as he sighed. “After that, we can shower, eat, and sleep.”
“Sure, a shower will be nice – if the water doesn’t stop. That’s our luck.” Mercado grumbled something in Spanish as he scanned his area for any movement.
“We did get that care package with tons of baby wipes,” I said as I laughed.
Mercado began spouting more Spanish in aggravation. My knowledge of Spanish is limited, but I do know my fair share of curse words. He used them flawlessly.
The next couple of hours crawled by like a man trudging to a gallows – it was excruciating. The sun finally peaked his orange head above the ridgeline and covered us with his warm blanket. The warm rays took me to another place and time – one far away from Afghanistan.
The loud sound jolted me from my thoughts, and I robotically began scanning my sector for movement.
“Mercado! Are you okay?”
“Yeah!” He adjusted his helmet and swung his SAW towards a small figure to our two o’clock position. I heard a metallic click as his thumb smashed the weapon’s safety to fire.
I quickly scanned our sector for insurgents. However, a small figure stood, silhouetted by the sun, as their clothes flapped in the wind. I peered through my scope and realized the daunting figure was a small boy.
“Hold your fire. It’s a boy,” I said as I tapped Mercado’s back. “It’s okay.”
“Okay? That punk about knocked my head off with a rock!”
I laughed a bit more than I should have, but Mercado’s anger was a bit comical. I picked up our binocs and zoomed in on the child. The source of the bang became apparent when the boy started walking towards our location.
A tan piece of material wrapped around his right wrist. The rest of the material dragged on the ground behind him as he sauntered closer to us and the concertina wire dividing our FOB from the wildlands. I recognized the material as a homemade slingshot. This little guy reminded me about the story of David as he faced off with Goliath.
“Ah-mair-ee-kah!” The little boy started shouting at us while waving his right hand with his palm downward. He was signaling for one of us to meet him at the wire.
“I’m not going.” Mercado sat like a stone and tensed as he looked at me.
“I’ll go. Just cover me.” I grabbed my gear and climbed down the maze of ladders in our Conex tower.
The child smiled as I approached the wire. He held out his hand and offered me his slingshot. I took the biblical weapon and sat my assault pack on the ground.
“Thank you,” I said. I sensed the lad wanted something in return. I opened my assault pack and fished out an MRE (Meal Ready to Eat). I tossed him the meal. A huge smile full of teeth appeared as he studied the package.
“Sabra Jahn.” The boy patted his chest like Tarzan did when he introduced himself to Jane.
“Chris,” I responded as I replicated the boy’s movements. No, my name is not Chris. I gave him that name for Operation Security (OPSEC) reasons. I didn’t know if the child was sent to us by insurgents. So, I kept any identifying information to a minimum.
“Chreees,” the boy said.
“Sabra Jahn,” I responded. He looked happier than a child on Christmas morning.
From that day forward, Sabra Jahn became my friend. I often lifted him over the fence and allowed him to sleep in our tower whenever we started our guard rotations again. He brought me gifts, and I reciprocated the gesture.
We often conducted local patrols in his village, and I would have a shadow named Sabra Jahn each time I entered his town. I often wonder if he lived to see twenty years old. I often wonder if my actions changed his perspective on life.