I just wanted the Brigadier General-select to be quiet. And I wanted these motorcycles to get away from the vehicle. The SUV was equipped with bulletproof windows, but it was not explosion-proof, as demonstrated earlier in the week when a suicide bomber turned his motorcycle into a missile and attacked a convoy. Now, the motorcyclists jutted in and out of my peripheral, sometimes even placing their hands on the chassis for leverage before pushing off and disappearing into traffic. Despite their vanishing, traffic didn’t seem to be moving in any sort of forward motion, and the Brigadier General-select in the backseat was getting more antsy and more vocal about her anxiety. What should have been a ten-minute drive through town was taking 45 minutes. I was very aware of the target spreading like a virus over my SUV. It was my SUV because, on this particular day, I was the vehicle commander. I could almost feel the weight of my embroidered Captain bars resting on my collar bones. I was responsible for the lead SUV and the SUV behind us, following through the throng of white Toyota Corollas, Isuzu Pick-up trucks, donkey carts, bicycles, and Suzuki motorcycles, so many Suzuki motorcycles.
(This video was a “typical” traveling day; the traffic was very light. I wasn’t the vehicle commander (he’s sitting in the front passenger seat), but the video does give a faint idea of what the streets looked like with pedestrians, mini-vans, motorcycles and difference compared to streets in the US.)
When I was practicing the position of vehicle commander in pre-deployment training six months earlier, I paid close attention to my duties: pre-plan the route, brief the vehicle occupants on their roles and responsibilities, take charge of the convoy with clear guidance, keep my head on a swivel to watch for nearby threats, don’t lose your cool…don’t show fear. I reminded myself, they are looking to you. That training was in the forefront of my mind as my SUV crawled forward through the herded groups of Afghans in their unlicensed autos and the Brigadier General-select complained in the backseat. I just wanted to see our destination come into view: the flimsy, pie-plated front gate of the girls’ school.
Finally, we rounded the corner and the greenish-colored aluminum of the front gate appeared. It was another 10 minutes before we were able to move down the street to the gate, which was normally opened for us immediately as we approached the school. Our drive had taken more than twice as long as expected, and the gate guard, a 60-year-old man with a large walking stick, was not out front to let us into the school’s courtyard. I would have to get out and knock on the plywood that was dressed up as a door. I took a quick breath, opened the bullet-proof door and stepped out into the street.