If you had told me five years prior that some day I would be sitting in Afghanistan eating filet mignon and fried calamari with the Spanish Army, then I would’ve called you crazy. Yet there I was, one of two Americans in a room filled with Spanish officers. They really know how to have a good time.
My partner, Johnny, was a first-generation American who was born in Korea. He was incredibly intelligent and physically capable of out performing most grunts. We worked so well together because we had the same sense of humor and we were both willing to give each mission everything we had.
When we left the chow hall, it was pitch black, but, oddly enough, I could still feel the sun’s heat on my face. It’s a similar feeling to when it starts raining, but there are no clouds. Familiar, yet out of place. We had just returned to our room. I was glad that the day was almost over. It seemed like our days only consisted of walking for miles around this small city of mud huts. But the day, overall, was fairly productive. I had talked to many locals earlier that day, which led to a few good leads. I was just happy to have a “gunshot-free” day. Then my partner’s phone started to ring.
“Johnny here,” he said.
He immediately handed it over to our interpreter. This must mean it’s one of the locals. A million thoughts start racing through my head. Who is it? Good or bad news? Hopefully it’s not somebody wasting our time. It’s been a long day, and I’m exhausted. Our interpreter started to do his thing.
“It’s ‘Good Cop’,” he said. We gave all of our local counterparts nicknames. This made it much easier for us to remember who was whom. And yes, there was a “Bad Cop.”
“What does he want?” I replied. Good Cop doesn’t call this late unless he has something good.
“He says he needs to show you something ASAP.”
We proceeded to arrange a meeting. My curiosity was running wild. I had run into many situations by this point. It was almost refreshing to find that I could still be surprised. Johnny didn’t say a word the entire ride to our meeting location. I couldn’t tell what he was feeling, but he looked focused. I think he was mentally preparing himself for the worst scenario possible. He always had an uncanny ability to sense when something bad was about to happen. I learned quickly to trust his feeling.
We finally arrived at our meeting site. It was an old house, and I use the term “house” loosely. It was a one-room building with four walls constructed of mud. The top of each wall looked like it was melting, and the roof was a haggard assembly of plywood, tarp, and various other materials. The sad part is this was typical house in Afghanistan. We had only one chair, but that didn’t matter because our anticipation kept us all on our feet.
The one thing I liked about “Good Cop” was that he was very punctual. Most Afghans have no sense of time. They will show up hours late to a meeting and not realize that there is an issue with that. But as usual, he arrived precisely on time. Normally, I would greet him and seat him, but this time was different. A disheveled man with trembling hands entered the room. Good Cop’s speech was stuttered, and at such a high rate, that even our interpreter was having a hard time understanding him. He went straight to Johnny and handed over his phone.
At this point, I was beyond confused. What could be so important? What could make this guy so upset? He was normally very professional and cool-headed, but at that moment he was borderline hysterical. I could tell by the reflection of the cell phone’s light on Johnny’s face that he was watching some sort of video.
“What is it, Johnny?”
“It’s a video of some guys. Oh…my…God!”
Johnny’s jaw dropped. I had been in many combat situations with this guy, and I had yet to see his face like that. I very quickly realized why. The sound still rambles around in my brain. I could hear a grown man crying, which turned into screaming. The screaming then gradually transitioned into more of a gurgling sound. When the gurgling finally stopped, Johnny set the phone down. I could clearly see the screen. My suspicion of what was happening was now confirmed. A man I was supposed to protect would not be going home to his family. At least not in one piece.
Something changed inside of me that night.
It seems that the cruelty of man knows no bounds.