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Jeremiah Smith Tuesday, 04 June 2013 12:13 TWEET COMMENTS 15

Trail Running in a War Zone - Page 4

After winding through the incoming convoy at the main gate, we pass a beat-up freight container with a tarp rigged canopy-like over the opening. It’s a makeshift Afghan store, sometimes open daily, sometimes not. My Afghan friend from town, Mohebuela, runs the shop, selling bootleg DVD’s, counterfeit Benchmade knives, stale cigarettes and anything else the Romanians, Jordanians, Americans or otherwise will buy.

I ask Mohebuela about Afghan life. He tells me about Ramadan. I tell him about Thanksgiving, but he’s confused when I try to explain Halloween. Mohebuela tells me he’s happy that his mother will choose a bride for him, that it makes everything so much simpler. He also invites me downtown to the local bazaar. “You can wear this, jeans and shirts,” he tells me, indicating the Western apparel he’s wearing.

I don’t disagree, but he changes back into his traditional Afghan man-dress when he goes home so I’m skeptical. It’s also in stark contradiction to what Alam Khan, another local friend who works in the chow hall, tells me.

“You wouldn’t leave there with your head on,” Alam Khan says when I ask him. I tend to side with Alam Khan on this one. I won’t be walking around downtown dressed like an American. I do hope that one day I will be able to return as a civilian and run, free and safe, on the countless singletrack that crisscross every mountain here. Until then …

Seth and I begin a climb taking us away from the front gate and Mohebuela’s ramshackle store. It’s a good climb. The sun is creeping closer to the horizon past more grazing sheep and goats, and in the cool, crisp mountain air, it’s beautiful. I’m tempted to wave and shout, “Hello!” to the two shepherds standing watch over the animals, but I resist the urge. I wish “winning” this war were as simple as exchanging happy and hopeful greetings on the side of a mountain. The shepherds lean on their walking sticks and stare at us. Both parties—the shepherds and us—assuming much and knowing little about the other.

A unique smell greets us as the trail descends to the lowest point around the perimeter. Runoff from the showers and latrines makes a grey-water creek spilling underneath the fence here. Someone has planted melons and tomatoes in the damp, well-fertilized soil next to the runoff. No one knows if it was some Afghan interpreters, Jordanians or a country boy from the U.S. looking for a piece of home.

A "jingle" truck is parked by the creek, painted with red poppies and other traditional Afghan motifs, the bumpers and rails littered with dangling chains and tiny bells. The Afghan driver is washing his feet, hands and face in ablution, preparing for evening prayer. His Romanian escort stands patiently nearby with a Kalashnikov over his shoulder. He shrugs when I make eye contact as if to say, “Don’t ask me, I hate my job.” It’s an odd sight and I can’t figure out why they chose this spot to break for prayer. Then, as Seth and I jump over the creek, I see why. The truck is dumping a load of raw sewage into the runoff creek, downstream from the Afghan performing ablution. I decide not to read into it …

We round the last corner and approach the firing range from the opposite direction, almost completing our loop around the FOB. It’s just a hair over two miles—not quite long enough to really burn off the day’s stressors. It’s almost a little sad … I don’t want to go back to wearing my combat gear and toting around my M-4; I like my shorts and T-shirt, risky as they may be.

“Wanna make another lap?” I ask Seth. He remains stoic but I see him gauge the sun on the horizon and do the math in his head, thinking the same question that I do: Is it worth the risk? He says nothing  but his concurrence is clear. We lean forward toward the burn pit, pull our shirts over our faces and squeeze in another lap before calling it a night. The perimeter trail, with all the exposure to both good and bad, will always be worth running one more time.


Jerry Smith, an Army helicopter pilot in Selah, Washington, has a BS in Anthropology and an MFA in Film. After a couple tours in Afghanistan, he is ready to get back into filmmaking. In his free time, he mountain bikes, rock climbs and trail runs.


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