Afghans weren’t the only ones who had to cross streams on foot. Frankly, combat boots are not terribly pleasant when they are soaking wet, but taking our shoes off wasn’t quite an option, and I honestly think our drivers intentionally stopped in the middle of the water so we had no choice when we hopped out. Soldiers, however, could be innovative, especially if it was cold. More than once, we sardined ourselves into the bed of an Afghan Army pick-up to make it over. And sometimes when they realized they were on the wrong side, they got very clever:
Now what had inspired this particular brainwave was a patrol a few days before, when the guy closest to us in the picture (who was no small man and prone to being hot-tempered) was crossing a similar stream on foot, slipped and went sprawling, face-first into the water. To top it off, he had done the same thing in the mud by some fields not 15 minutes before. After making sure he was okay, I cracked up. Loudly. I couldn’t help it. He could be a big, angry NCO, so other soldiers kept their giggles quiet, but that only made it funnier–he was now a big, angry and soaking wet NCO. He scowled at me, but that just made matters worse. He finally gave up and started to chuckle helplessly as he realized that it was, in fact, pretty funny, though I think I was one of the few people out there that day who could have gotten away with laughing so hard.
Aside from the inherent comedic value of slapstick (which never gets old), I was also laughing a little bit from relief. Being a civilian with the Army is a precarious thing. Most soldiers assume you’re out there because you’re some kind of raging idealist (I am, but a pragmatic one, I like to think) or for the money (I wasn’t). Everyone sneers at civilians, and they sneer right back. Those who go out on patrols are often the worst, walking around with a dangerous combination of being oblivious to danger and having a sense of entitlement that the patrol revolves around them. In short, civilians are a giant pain in the ass and, frankly, a liability.
I told that to a soldier once and he stared at me in amazement, saying, “You’re the first civilian I’ve ever heard who recognizes that fact.” So I did my best to minimize the damage, making sure everyone knew I was just along for the ride and would always do what I was told. But with my little pistol and my lack of military training, I was still the weakest link and was absolutely petrified that I was going to prove it by doing something stupid like not being able to keep up, falling down a mountain, or faceplanting in a stream. Add that to a natural overabundance of pride anyway, and you have someone who was actually more concerned about falling than getting attacked while on missions.
So when this very capable NCO (who wound up my friend precisely because I laughed at him) toppled not once, but twice, all that pressure came off and I reveled in the hilarity of it. For the rest of that day, it didn’t matter if I fell, because a soldier had done it first.
If you’re wondering, I didn’t. Not that day and, aside from the occasional stumble, not any day. Score one for the pain in the asses of the world. Or, at least, this one.