Mitchell's a cherry, a newcomer to the platoon. Folsom shrugs wryly. I say nothing.
Folsom says: The ANA over there want to go inside. They keep coming over to tell us they're quitting for the duration of the storm.
No way. I'll go talk to them.
I turn to Whalen as we make our way along the Hesco wall that runs around the perimeter of the base, where the Afghan National Army soldiers are crouching miserably. What do you think, First Sarn't? I ask him. Should I let them go?
He squints through his bandana. The Hadjis would be crazy to attack in these conditions - but then again, the Hadjis are crazy! So: no. They better stay.
My thoughts exactly, I say.
Closer to the ANA, we walk backwards to be able to breathe. Already my lips are chapped, my face encased in dusty mold. I grimace and my skin hurts. We've had no letup from the storm these past two days. Now we're feeling its full impact, and we'll have to find ways to deal with the situation without letting the enemy catch us off guard. My men know it, but the ANA troops are a different story altogether.
There are three of them by the Hescos and they run forward even before we reach them. I wave them back, but Fazal Ahmed, the smallest of the three, signals to his companions authoritatively, and they attempt to slip past us. I bar them with outstretched arms, while Whalen, who's six four, picks up Fazal Ahmed and sets him down by the Hescos. Stay here! he roars.
I drag the other two Afghans back. You're not allowed to leave, I yell.
Ya'll understand? Whalen roars again, shouting above the wind.
They don't reply, but return to crouching sullenly by the Hescos. We leave them and canter over to the camo nets surrounding the guard tower. I clamber up the staircase, while Whalen stays behind.
The raw wind buffets me as I ascend the rickety steps, and I have to grasp the guardrails with all my strength. Sand, stones, and clumps of dust whirl upward and hit me. A loose splinter ricochets off the back of my hand and leaves a bloody smear. Then the platform looms above me, its wooden planks bucking madly in the wind. There's sand streaming off it, and Staff Sergeant Brandon Espinosa, who's on watch, bends down and hauls me up. He's put up a canvas screen with the help of the two ANA who're there with him. The guard tower sways like a ship in the storm. Espinosa looks exhausted, and I don't blame him.
He shouts: I'm going to send my ANA crew down and stay up here by myself. Less trouble that way.
I lean toward him and shout back: Suit yourself.
The relieved ANA slither down.
I watch them go and shake my head: You'd think they weren't in their own country.
Espinosa says: They aren't. They're Uzbek. This is Pashtun land. I say: No point telling you to keep a look out, but still...
He cracks a smile and shoves a wad of chew into his mouth. He's a veteran of Iraq, a man of few words, capable, efficient. I'm not worried about leaving him in the tower by himself.
Back on the ground, I run with Whalen past the brick-and-mortar command post, then follow the Hescos back toward the ECP. We slow down by the shelter of the mortar pit where Manny Ramirez and Pratt have secured the gun with canvas. Pratt has his M-4 tucked inside his poncho liner, while Ramirez stands some distance away, pissing into one of the PVC tubes jammed into the ground for that purpose. He's bending over with his back to the storm, but the wind arcs his urine way past where he's aiming it. He buttons up his fly with a grin as we approach. Whoo! he says. Whoo...
Whalen coughs and spits out a mouthful of sand. Motherfucker, he says to no one in particular; then he repeats himself for emphasis. This is fun, First Sarn't! Ramirez shouts. He prances around Whalen with an exaggerated mince.
Pratt doesn't say anything. His dark leathery skin looks gray; his eyes are bloodshot and streaming.
Excerpted from The Watch by Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya. Copyright © 2012 by Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya. Excerpted by permission of Hogarth Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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