/A Story/
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A College Application Essay

I spent the entire summer break of 2008 in the sand. Nearly every day was sunny, al hamdulillah, and when I stripped down to just my shorts and moved my toes through the grit I could almost imagine the ocean roar that would have made the entire experience somewhat pleasurable. One of our linguists told us that the Afghan's of Kabul came to Helmand province only to die. A month after we landed it got hot enough that the ants stopped coming above ground.

Before I found myself 110 miles away from the Pakistani border I thought I had developed a good taste for deprivation from a prior vacation in Iraq. It seemed normal to find indoor plumbing novel and exciting after utilizing plastic bags with chemical treatments to achieve the same level of waste management. We lacked running water but it was never a concern because of the seemingly infinite supply of bottled water from an incomprehensible source. Food was familiar and varying enough to keep the complaints to a minimum and abandoned concrete buildings made living indoors expected. As far as Maslow was concerned, we had our bases covered.

The hierarchy fell apart shortly after landing in the farmlands of Garmsir, in the Helmand province of southern Afghanistan. Our mission was to secure a road for "seven to ten days," a cringe inducing phrase between everyone who partook in this event. Two days prior to touching down we had had catered food, air conditioned tents, refrigerated bottled water, and nothing to do by choice. Now the smell of livestock pervaded the air along with an unshakable feeling of a Vietnam war-movie portrayal come to life. The opium fields were still green at that time but they ultimately failed for two seasons from neglect. I feel horrible about that: I wouldn't want to live there without someway to make the days melt away.

Ignoring the sporadic threat of angry men with aged Russian weapons trying to kill the Infidels, the persistent enemy became the environment, which was in constant conflict with our understanding of habitability. The days became a game of hide and seek with the sun, each person vying for the most enduring shade of our leased mud-brick huts. The buildings themselves became unreasonably hot within hours of sunrise and retained that heat well into the night, forcing us to sleep outside. Sleeping was a trial in itself; either sleep encased in a bug net and sweat through to the hard-pack dirt floor, or stay cool and wake up saturated in bug bites. Either way the sun was rising at four thirty. It took four or five days before an active campaign against the flies was launched to protect our food, water, and sanity. In spite of the hundreds we killed the heat eventually finished them off for the remainder of the operation.

All of this was tolerable knowing that within a few days we would be back in comfort, waiting for another mission. As we approached the end of our timeline a large metaphorical boot began stomping on the neck of our hope. MRE boxes started to get lined up against the windward walls in a fashion mocking lawn chairs at a pool, followed by the improvisation of an awning from an "acquired" tapestry as our week long escapade groundhog-dayed itself into a month. "Seven to ten days" was quickly accepted to actually be a misprint that meant to read "seven to ten malaria pills," which were taken every "Malaria-Monday" and became the means of keeping track of the weeks.

By week three waking up before the sun to stoke a fire for hot coffee became a comforting routine. Mailed packages started to show up along with the acceptance that we weren't going anywhere soon. Truffles and Cuban cigars became a weeklong highlight from one of the packages but could only be enjoyed in the morning: it took all night for the chocolate to semi-solidify again. Trade agreements for vegetable oil, potatoes, sodas, and blocks of ice were established with the Afghans from several miles away and the livestock that was left began to disappear in direct relationship to our perceived cooking ability. Intestinal illnesses ruled the day and Imodium became akin to a dinner mint.

When the "seven to ten malaria pills" theory fell apart we were living fairly comfortably. No, actually we weren't but our relative deprivation gain had been turned down so low that it didn't matter anymore. We were finally done with the three-meal-rotation of nearly expired Katrina emergency box meals that had somehow ended up in Afghanistan and started to get "tray rations" that resembled real food enough to seem like a reward in a screwy Pavlovian sense. It was around the third month when I started to go on late afternoon patrols expressly to take photographs of the surrounding area while the sun was low and golden. This became my routine before I got moved to another camp in preparation for our departure after the fourth month.

The last month was fairly inconsequential, ignoring the persistent extensions of our departure date, the reduction of manpower at my camp from sixty to six Americans, all the guard posts being manned by Afghan Army soldiers, the same soldiers infighting to the point of nearly shooting each other, and the sudden influx of freeze dried steaks, hamburgers, and hotdogs. Did I mention that the deprivation gain was severely turned down? When we finally turned the camp over to the British Army and left in armored trucks I felt calmly certain an Improvised Explosive Device would put a bright pink bow on this entire experience. We made it to a connecting camp without event and eventually back to our catered food, air conditioned tents, refrigerated bottled water, and nothing to do because it felt awesome.

Looking over the images that I captured from Garmsir there is one that will continue to make waves against my perception of life. During a patrol to the "village at the end of the world," I came across an Afghan in front of his house. Sitting on a shawl with feet bared and worn hands working red prayer beads he looked at me with a tired and transient interest. He smiled when I showed him his photo and then resumed to look past me into the distance. As I thankfully return from the memory to my own world I remember vividly that the sun was setting on his.