The Arghandab River runs from the foothills of the Hindu Kush Mountains into the plains of Kandahar. Ancient irrigation tunnels and canals carry the water into the valley and turn the desert into surprisingly rich farmland. The area west of the city of Kandahar, called Zhari, looks like California's Central Valley. It's close to harvest season and the grape vines are full and laden with sweet purple grapes. The vines sit high in tall mounds of earth so the water from the Arghandab can run through irrigation ditches and soak the roots of the vines.
The Taliban hide under the grape leaves and behind the mounds of earth to fire on the U.S. outposts that guard the main highway. There are few outposts in Afghanistan that get attacked more than Combat Out Post JFM -- a COP for short.
It's rough here. It's not much more that a circle of "HESCO" barriers -- metal and fabric containers filled with dirt. When the sun is high the HESCOS and sand bags are hot to the touch. Shade is a luxury. There's a small tent, a plywood shack and a couple of sani-cans. The soldiers here are at the front line of a real shooting war.
It usually starts late morning -- sometimes with machine-gun fire but most of the time begins with the stunningly loud blast of a rocket-propelled grenade. U.S. and Afghan soldiers fire back and hope the Taliban don't get lucky. During the heat of the noonday sun it usually gets quiet but the soldiers can't rest.
It would be suicide to let the enemy surround the COP, so the soldiers venture out on patrol, climbing over the grape mounds and wading through the canals. They have to watch everywhere they step, watch for the enemy, know where their buddies are and continually listen for the crack of gun fire or the explosion from a hidden bomb.
It's here, in the shadow of the Hindu Kush, near the Arghendahb, in a place called Zhari, that my friend died.
Sgt. James Hunter had a simple job this day. He wanted to take pictures of the soldiers to show families and others that they were locked into a life-and-death duel. It was his duty to tell their story.
He was the boss, the sergeant in charge of a team. He didn't have to go. It was what he loved.
The soldiers remind me, often, that this is "full spectrum warfare." Hunter was part of that war. He ran the day-to-day public affairs operation for the over 3,500 soldiers in the second brigade of the 101st Airborne Division. When he wasn't out on patrol telling the soldiers' stories, he was helping journalists like me. He was good at his job.
Just a short blink in time ago, the two of us were on a nearby base. Two trailers full of washers and dryers faced each other and there was a small wood deck connecting the two. We killed time and talked as we waited for our laundry to dry. He waited for his digital green uniform and I waited for my sand-colored civilian shirts and pants.
We agreed that we were fighting apathy back home. It was difficult to get the audience's attention. The war had gone on too long. There was "war fatigue." Few people at home cared. We struggled with ideas that would make people notice.
He was killed by one of those hidden bombs. Today's military calls them IEDs, or "Improvised Explosive Devices." It's a fancy name for a booby trap. That's all I know and all I need to know.