Lives – Unembedded

By Brian Calvert
New York Times Magazine
August 20, 2006

This past spring, I received an e-mail message from my stepfather, whom I’ve called Sergeant Channell for most of my life. “Right now I’m in Germany at the hospital,” it said. “Nothing to worry about. Not a wound.”

He was deployed to Kandahar the previous July. The last time I saw him, he was still reeling from the death of my mother less than a year earlier and had been giving a lot of if-I-die speeches. So my first thought about Germany was: His nerves are shot.

Channell, who married my mother when I was a child, and with whom I steadily sparred in my younger days, was away from home when she died — unexpectedly, in her sleep — and I could see the guilt gnawing at him. I had not been around, either, and had some hungry guilt of my own. That first Christmas without her, Channell and I exchanged hard words, on whether I was handling it, should see a priest or should seek medication, or whether he should worry about his own problems, leave me be, stop telling me what to do. By the time he was about to deploy to Afghanistan, a cold truce had settled between us. We promised to e-mail.

Later I wrote him that I was going to Afghanistan, too, on a magazine assignment, and that I would visit him. Channell’s e-mail from Kandahar was infrequent and uncommunicative, except one extended missive describing an ambush last October: Afghan soldiers crawled on the ground and insurgents on motorbikes attacked his convoy; there were “green tracers and RPG rounds going everywhere, and lots of explosions.”

“I am always amazed at how anything survives through all that madness,” he wrote. “I must have drove through 10,000 shots fired at us, and there was not one hit on our hummv. Amazing. We also burnt the village. Not with a zippo this time though, with all the 40mm rounds we put in there.”

The Zippo: a reference to Vietnam, where he’d fought as a 19-year-old boy, a marine. That war stayed with him, just as he stayed in the military — as a full-time administrator for the Wyoming Army National Guard. Even at 56, he jumped at loud noises and had nightmares and a bad habit of blowing up at people.

By the time I arrived in Kandahar, Channell was back there as well. Turns out he suffered some swelling in his legs after a 16-day mission in the mountains north of the city, and the doctors feared a heart problem. He could finish his deployment, but missions were out of the question. So not a breakdown. Still, I thought I might find a man unraveling.

Instead I found Master Sgt. David Channell in his element. The soldiers who worked with him seemed to respect him, and they welcomed me as his son. He was part of an “embedded training team,” or E.T.T., for the 1st Brigade of the 205th Corps, teaching the Afghan soldiers to overcome their logistical ineptitude. (The Afghans were willing to “run to the gunfire,” one U.S. official told me, but rarely managed to carry enough ammunition and water for a sustained fight.) Channell was just another guy there helping out, doing his job, or trying to, counting the days, “exactly 130,” until he went home.

If anything, war put him at ease, giving way to surprising moments of awkward tenderness. The night before my first potentially dangerous convoy, he handed me a special tourniquet that required only one hand to tighten and tie. I could use it on myself, he told me, in case no one else was around.

My mother came up only a few times, memories of her slipping past our guard in random conversations. “Your mother, she hated wasps,” Channell offered one night in the barracks. “She would take wasp spray and drench those gosh-damn things. The whole can. I’m not kidding you.” He laughed, then grimaced and stopped, wanting to tell a longer story, it seemed, but hurting.

Before I left, Channell asked if he could buy me a patch from the embroidery shop on base, one that could be sewn onto my field vest to commemorate the trip. “How often does this happen?” he asked. “You and me in a war zone together?”

That night, we walked to the embroidery shop, on a boardwalk on the far side of a dusty parade field. The boardwalk was a nice break from the relentless gravel that covered most of the base, large, sharp stones that rolled underfoot, caught boots, turned ankles. The patch he chose: a screaming eagle swooping past the flags of America and Afghanistan, circumscribed with “Kandahar, Afghanistan, 2006, 1/205 ETT embed.” It was the first gift he had given me in years. We talked easily as we made our way back to the barracks, back through the gravel, two men stumbling home in the cool, quiet darkness.


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