To keep from getting blown to bits in Afghanistan, one key is knowing how to read the locals.
This advice comes from Durangoan Keith Sylvain, who has been toiling in the war zones of Iraq and Afghanistan for most of the last 10 years.
“Situational awareness is the key,” he said during an interview at The Durango Herald on Jan. 17 while on a rare four-week leave. With us is his wife, Michelle.
Say, he says, you’re entering a village in a convoy. For safety’s safe, you want to see a normal mix of people.
“OK, no kids (around). This is bad,” he began with the laugh of someone who’s apparently been in the situation. “Where are the animals? No animals. OK, guys, keep an eye on the road.
“You get a little sixth sense about it. ... If your eyes aren’t open you won’t see it coming.”
The day after our meeting he headed back to his job 11½ time zones away. He works as a contractor under the auspices of the Department of Defense. Basically his task is to keep U.S. soldiers networked through computers, whether they’re at the base near Kandahar or at some far-flung outpost in a highly volatile area.
Fixing an Internet problem might be a simple task stateside – a term he uses often – but in Afghanistan it might mean using ingenuity, zip ties or duct tape.
So what would possess a guy to keep going back? He’s not a soldier; he can say “no.” Maybe it would help to know why he started going in the first place.
It was not long after Sept. 11, and, as much of the country, he was feeling patriotic. He was working in Denver for the Department of Defense’s Defense Finance and Accounting Service. The military buildup for Iraq was beginning, and he was recommended for a job.
“The whole interview was, ‘Want to go to Iraq?’ ‘Sure.’”
In December 2003, he was on his way to the Middle East.
Whether he’s in Iraq or Afghanistan, he says he likes the feeling of serving his country, and of doing his part so the soldiers can more readily do theirs.
“You focus on mission first,” Sylvain said. “It’s the connection to something greater. A mission that matters. Making a difference.”
Keith is involved with Wounded Warriors, helping out soldiers at the base hospitals in whatever way he can. That could mean helping them with finances, or connecting them with the right person. It’s all about helping them heal and head home.
Michelle Sylvain, who urged Keith to share his story with the Herald, is palpably proud of him. She’s struck by the ways he’s grown with each return.
“The person who keeps coming home, his heart is bigger and bigger,” she said. “His sense of giving is larger.”
Keith and Michelle met in 2001 in Denver. She got a job in Durango in 2007, and the two were engaged at a Count Basie Orchestra concert at Fort Lewis College the next year.
They were married during a rendezvous in 2010 on the Caribbean island of Antigua, to which he traveling from Afghanistan and she from Durango.
Tying the knot doesn’t make it easier on Michelle’s state of mind when she hears news about clashes or incidents involving U.S. crews in Afghanistan. Unlike members of the general populace, who can put Afghanistan in a far corner of the brain, she has no such luxury. She looks at maps and watches the news.
“Every time something comes on television about something blowing up you feel a little catch,” said Michelle, a lawyer who works for the Colorado Judicial Department. “You’re wondering, ‘Is that somebody I know?’ – especially if you know that’s where your loved one is.”
One time, they were chatting long-distance when a commotion arose in the background and Keith had to suddenly hang up. Because of security concerns, there was a blackout on communications for the next three days, during which she couldn’t be sure if he was OK.
“That’s hard,” Michelle said. “Three days. I didn’t know what to think.”
Keith Sylvain said he spends a lot of time in remote areas, often going places where other technicians won’t. He does prefer flying to convoying.
“I ride a helicopter like you ride a cab,” he said. “I’ll be on and off a helicopter three times in a day.”
The interview covered a wide range of topics, but Keith Sylvain made a point to emphasize two things. First, that what you see in the media (even this story, he insists) can’t truly explain the situation in Afghanistan. Second is that no matter what might be happening, the common bond among soldiers and contractors of all nationalities and even the Afghans themselves, is family.
“Everybody feels it,” he said. “Stateside, you don’t think about that. You think about other things. But, over there, all you think about is your family.”
U.S. troops continue to come home in greater numbers than they arrive in Afghanistan. By the end of 2014, it is possible that most U.S. forces will be gone. There is a worry that in retrospect the U.S. mission will be viewed negatively. Keith Sylvain pointed out that Afghanistan has known war for centuries, and the culture won’t change overnight.
“I really hope the country remembers this in the right way,” he said. “That we built bridges, we built hospitals, we built roads, we rebuilt infrastructure. We made a difference.
“I’m just saying we did good. We tried to do good while we were there.”
firstname.lastname@example.org. John Peel writes a weekly human-interest column.