Even back in my tent, for the first two weeks or so after starting out on missions, I would jump at the slightest of noises, a person’s touch on the shoulder, or even an unannounced figure standing beside me.
My stomach nervously churned every time I climbed up in my truck to go out on those first few missions. Feeling conflicted, I would toss my assault pack into the truck, climb the metal stairs of the back gate of the uparmored vehicle, fasten my seatbelts, and wait helplessly to arrive at a destination. Unlike the hum of a car engine when I was a young child, the loud low hum of the vehicles engines did not comfort me. With every bump in the road, I bounced around, held only slightly in place by the harness that held me strapped me to my seat. I feared that one of the bumps in the road may hold an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) and that a blast was imminent. I would create panic within myself to the point of a cold sweat.
I fought with myself. In part, I was excited and eager to see new places and to photograph this new country that surrounded me but the pit feeling I had in my stomach often made it hard to be optimistic of each day’s journey.
When we rode through the city, I would look out the side window of my uparmored vehicle and watch Afghan women in blue burqas walking along the dirt road beside us headed toward a market. I would gaze at young Afghan school boys donned in their blue shirts and Afghan girls in their white shamaughs on their way to school. I observed older Afghan men working in their road-side shops and younger Afghan men driving carloads of people up and down the paved roads of the city.
Like a lightbulb on a dimmer switch, two things slowly began to occur to me. First, these people were going to the market, to school, and to work… just like I did back home! I was watching people who were, in these respects, no different from me, my friends, and my family.
Secondly, I realized that nothing hazardous was happening when I went out on my missions. The Afghans were going about their business and I wasn’t even a concern to them. Heck, most of them didn’t even look up at the convoy when we past them and the ones that did were waving at us like we were a parade. Waving… and smiling! Threatening people don’t do that!
I hadn’t lost my sense of awareness but I started to feel less and less uptight with each mission. The fog created by my fear was beginning to lift and my new clarity was now seeing people… not threats.
I grew tired of feeling a constantly exhausting state of nervousness and I knew that I had several months in Afghanistan ahead of me so I decided that I had to let go of some of my fears. If something was going to happen, it was going to happen… with or without my worrying about it. I wasn’t going to be able to anticipate a negative event so why stress myself out over it?
It took me nearly a month of missions to begin to ease up on my tension to where the nervousness didn’t exist. As a Soldier, I continued to be apprehensive and cautious. Whether inside or outside the wire, I just didn’t trust anyone… save a couple of close American friends there. I wasn’t like that before I joined the Army. I don’t like that I had changed to become who I was at the beginning of my deployment. I’m actually shameful of the misconceived thoughts I had about the Afghans.
Threats of violence do not come from an entire population, I told myself. One bad person in a photo or on a video is not indicative of an entire country of threatening people.