Kevin Norton: Part 2
In part 2 of the interview, Kevin discusses his recall to active duty from the civilian world and subsequent deployment to Afghanistan.
Part 1 of Kevin's interview can be found here.
Interview conducted on June 13, 2015 in Bryant Park, New York City
Present: Richard Hayden and Kevin Norton
Transcribed by Richard Hayden
Kevin Norton: In the fall of ’08 I got called back to go to Afghanistan.
Richard Hayden: How did they call you back exactly? Did they send you an e-mail? Did they call you?
KN: Great question. It’s funny. When I first got out of the Army, I got out and went up to New York and was looking for jobs and I got a note saying, “You’re still in the Individual Ready Reserve,” the IRR, “and we can call you back any time. We’ll never call you back. Just in case, you’ve got another four years on your enlistment that you’ll serve in the IRR and if we need you for any reason, we’ll call you back. Don’t worry about it.” But you do have to go and muster, go check in with a recruiter in the Bronx, let him know you’re OK, fill out information to let them know where you are now and then you’ll be good to go. OK. Sounds good. So I did it and, I think, I was told that going to that muster showed them that I was serious enough about my commitments that two years later, literally almost to the day, I get orders. Literally I got handed down orders for Afghanistan.
This is a funny story. I come down with orders from Afghanistan and at the time I was working for Booz Allen Hamilton in the Operations and Intelligence Shop at what’s called First Army Division East. First Army is all the National Guard units in the US. I was working for Division East in the Op Shop teaching, training and planning for units that were going away to Iraq and Afghanistan. I was doing counter IED stuff and pulling intel or and this is what was going to inform the training. It was a cool job. I get these orders in September of 2008.
RH: Did they mail them to you?
KN: No. I get these orders and it says – just like military orders, same thing – it says, “You are to report to Fort Benning on October 19th,” which is my dad’s birthday. “October 19th, 2008 you will report to Fort Benning,” it was a Sunday, “for induction back into the US Army in support of Operation Enduring Freedom,” which is Afghanistan.
Oh shit man! My mom’s crying. Holy shit! She came down. I was living in Baltimore at the time. She came down and everyone’s all up in arms. I take the next two days off from work to try and figure out what’s going on. I make a phone call. Is this shit for real? I go back to work – remember I’m at First Army Division East which is the National Guard Bureau headquarters – I go into work and I tell my boss, he was a Major in the Army National Guard, “Hey boss. I just got orders to go to Afghanistan as part of OEF to be a Combat Advisor apparently.” And he goes, “So you got the orders, huh?” And I go, “What do you mean?” And he says, “You’ve been on our list for at least six months as someone who was going to get called back and I just happened to notice your name on our list about three months ago when you started working here. I talked to the Chief of Staff of First Army Division East, a Colonel, and he told me not to tell you. I wasn’t allowed to tell you. I knew three months ago. I put it together looking at the list. Kevin Norton. Wait a sec. Is that the same Kevin Norton? I pulled your file and found out you were going to Afghanistan. I had your orders on my desk and couldn’t give them to you.”
RH: Ohh. [makes a sound of disappointment]
KN: You’ve got to be shitting me! So that was kind of crazy. In fact, they wouldn’t let me go into the QTBs – the Quarterly Training Briefs. Every quarter they give the commander of Division East, a two star general, they give him a briefing on what training we were working on. For the month leading up to that we had staff meetings with slides. They never showed me the training brief slides that had the list of people that were being called up month by month because I was on that list.
RH: Oh wow.
KN: I was slide forty-five or whatever it was, “call ups for September 2008.” I was on that list. It was wild. It was one of those things, I was in the shop when they called me back. So I got the orders to report on October 19th. It was a Sunday, my dad’s birthday. They pick us up in Columbus airport in Georgia which is a total shithole. They bring us onto Fort Benning and put us up in base housing. I’m in formation with all these civilians and they’re like, “Congratulations! You guys are the ten percent of the three hundred that were called back that actually answered your orders and came back to duty.” Everybody was like, “You’ve got to be fucking kidding me! We didn’t have to come back?” And the guy goes, “Hold on, I know what you’re thinking. You do have to come back. Most people don’t realize that. They blow off these orders and now they’re technical AWOL. We just started calling people back and if they don’t respond to the orders, they’re getting arrested. Next time they get a speeding ticket or whatever they get arrested, sent back to Fort Benning, and get out processed with an Other Than Honorable discharge.”
RH: Oh wow.
KN: So we were all pissed off that there was only thirty of us, the ten percent that actually responded to these orders. So I was like, “Damn.” They trained us up a little bit, bullshit infantry training. It was like, “Here’s how you do individual movement technique.” We’re firing AT4 rockets and that type of shit. We did the training and went to Combat Advisor School at Fort Riley. That’s where they teach you about counter insurgency and what you’ll be doing, working with the police and the State Department. That was definitely cool training. We did that for a couple of months. I get my team and then we all go and deploy to Afghanistan.
RH: What was the mission of your unit exactly in Afghanistan?
KN: I got there and deployed with a whole bunch of other Combat Advisor officers but they send us to the four winds. They send us all over Afghanistan. We fly into Bagram Airfield and they bring us to Kabul to this CSTC-A which is this Combined Security Transition Command Afghanistan in Kabul – camp Phoenix. I get there and they give us our assignments. My assignment was to go out to Paktia province way out on the border, right on the Pakistani border in the mountains to a little fire base. It wasn’t even a FOB. I didn’t learn the difference until I actually got there. They kept calling it fire base Chamkani and I’m getting on the bird thinking it’s FOB Chamkani. The difference is a FOB is a big reinforced base. You’ve got Pizza Huts and all the amenities. You can get your hair cut. That’s a FOB. A fire base was, literally, much smaller than Bryant Park here. It was up in the mountains and it was surrounded by mountains and we had local Afghan security guards in fighting positions up on the rooftops. But it was really bare bones.
We lived in these little balsa wood huts. They were like a command center for the team and then each team member had his own little room. It was literally made of plywood and balsa wood. We moved in and it was one of those things where the toilets didn’t work half the time. To shower you had to fill up the tank and then pull the string to the shower. That type of shit. Really bare bones living. It was very different from my experience in Iraq where it was like, “Hey, what’s for dinner tonight? Surf and turf at the chow hall!” Know what I mean? Very different from Iraq in that sense. It was just us and a Special Forces team for fifty klicks in any direction. We were, literally, their fifteen/twenty man team and them my team. I came in and I was the operations and intelligence advisor to two local police forces – one in a town called Dand Patan that was right on the border and one that was down in what we used to call Indian Country, a town called Jhanikhel.
So we would go to both of those two districts and there was a team leader who was a Major. There was myself who was the second in command and I would advise the operations officer and the intelligence officer on how to run the police force. The rest of the guys would pair up with their guys and teach them tactics, shooting and investigation stuff. It was a National Guard unit from Las Vegas and most of them were cops. Then there was me who was not. I was just a straight up infantry guy. They were National Guard guys who were cavalry soldiers but who had the experience of being cops so we would go out and advise the police forces there.
We ended up standing up a team. We selected a bunch of the best guys from both districts and made them into a special tactics team that would roll with us. They were the kinetic shooters that had no fear and were hooking and jabbing with the Taliban whenever they wanted to. They would shoot it out.
RH: These were Afghans?
KN: They were Afghans, local Afghans. There was the Afghan police and then we had our own special tactics team that would go between both units for both districts and really clean house. These guys were really badass and led by a guy named Zahir Khan. We used to call him disco because he looked like John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever. Big black slicked back hair that kind of looked like a ‘fro and it was perfectly combed. Thick, swarthy skin with piercing blue eyes and a big, thick brown moustache. He was a young guy. He was like twenty-eight but definitely one of the baddest mofos I’ve ever met. I loved the guy. No fear. One of the most competent fighters I’ve ever seen. Truly a warrior.
So those were the two districts and then we had our special tactics team. We advised them all how to do things. It was a very different deployment.
RH: What do you remember most about Afghanistan when you first got there?
KN: What do I remember most? The beauty of the countryside. It was unbelievable. We drove from Gardez where the base was. I had a unit pick me up and they drove me all the way out. It was only about thirty klicks, nah, maybe fifty klicks but it used to take seven hours. It would take all day because the roads were so bad. You were going up into the mountains. There were washouts where a mountain stream would come right across the road, climbing over boulders. The road would just disappear at some points.
The higher up you got in the mountains, the more beautiful it was. That area ended up being very lush with vegetation and very green. The Afghans used to call it Lowari Lewani. The translation was “the crazy jungle” because, unlike most of Afghanistan that looks like the surface of the moon, that southeastern border when you’re going into the mountains is very, very lush. It’s almost like jungle or deciduous forest but very thick. I just remember how beautiful it was – the streams, the fields of winter wheat and stuff like that. It was a very nice landscape. That’s the first thing I noticed about Afghanistan.
RH: Did you actually go out on patrols during this deployment?
KN: Yes. Our mission was to go out and engage with the police forces and try to get them to patrol. There is a very busy marketplace in Dand Patan. It’s right on the border. People were always trying to bring stuff in and out in a very busy marketplace. There was a business council, a shura, that actually was collecting taxes from the people in the market legally to do things like improve the marketplace. The State Department helped them put in these streetlights that were solar powered. They would get the sun all day and at night these things would go on and would stay on all night. It was awesome.
The market was open all night long but that presents its own security challenges. We were trying to get the police to stay out there. Who’s in the marketplace? Who might be doing illegal shit? We used to find contraband in the marketplace. They found a bunch of videos of us being attacked and a couple of gunfights. They had videos that insurgents were selling on the market of attacking our team or attacking the team before us.
So we were always scouring the marketplace and always trying to dominate the terrain but it was tough because they didn’t have many resources. They had one great commander who got fired because they thought he was corrupt. The local governor was very corrupt and this guy was trying to clean up everybody’s act so they fired him. We ended up bringing him back in because he was so effective. So we were always dealing with that type of stuff.
We were always out. We were always on patrol bouncing back and forth between the two districts. We would either go to the one Dand Patan which was right near our base or we’d go twenty-five K through the Lowari Lewani into the town of Jhanikhel which is over a huge mountain pass – the Jhanikhel Pass.
RH: And you were a Captain at this point?
KN: I was a Captain. Yes.
RH: What are some of the notable events that occurred during this deployment?
KN: Oh my God. It depends. There were a lot of notable events. Let’s see, from the tactical side I’ll start off by saying that these people were much better gunfighters. They were much better fighters and were more than willing to engage us whenever they wanted to. Very different from the Iraqis for the most part. Unless you ran into an Al Qaeda unit, you were not really seeing an effective organization. So the gunfighting was very different. Those were the most memorable. We got into two or three, two scrapes, really. One that went on for a while and one that was kind of in passing during our nine months there.
My vehicle got hit by an IED in the pass. You could barely get a Humvee through this pass and it was a three thousand foot drop to the valley below. We’d drive through that pass and go really slow so it was the perfect place to hit us. We got hit a bunch of times but they didn’t hit us with hard enough stuff. The charges weren’t big enough and we figured out why later on. My Humvee got hit in the front. They hit us under the engine block, thank God, instead of hitting the crew compartment. It hits the engine block which is just a big thing of steel, eight hundred pounds of steel, and absorbed most of the blow. So we basically got our bells rung and the thing got filled with smoke or whatever. We just really got shocked. Other guys had the same issue. Unless it hit the crew compartment, it wasn’t really doing much to these vehicles. We figured out that they didn’t want to put too much of a charge in the ground in that pass because if they did and it hit us with enough charge, it could also collapse the pass. If they collapse the pass then they cut off the town of Jhanikhel from the rest of Afghanistan and the locals would use that pass to get their shit to the market. If that pass was no longer passable, you’d be pissing the locals off. So it was like harassment fire. It was the IED equivalent of them shooting a machine gun at us for a couple of seconds. But it was wild. It was still an experience every time. So there was that type of stuff.
We got into a pretty legit gunfight where we got ambushed. They set this perfect ambush where there was a snake in the road in the thickest part of the jungle. We were up there in the mountains at seven thousand feet. We get up into the mountains and they hit us. We just came out of an engagement in the town of Jhanikhel so they had been watching us all day. There was this bend in the road, it was a serious bend in the road. The road isn’t that wide and the road on the sides went up on a berm on both sides. Perfect place to be ambushed and they knew what they were doing. They hit us perfectly.
I’m in the lead vehicle and right in the front of the road there’s these woods. We’re at the bend and they place their first machine gunner. He’s got a PKM machine gun and then the rest of them are fanned out on the side of the road to the right of the bend and he’s facing us. Perfect angles, right? Like I said, we fight at ninety degree angles. The US fights at ninety degree angles. These guys knew how effective that is so that’s what they hit us with. They had us caught, hit us with a bunch of RPGs, gunfire erupts, and this guy’s got insulated. The guy in front of us is shooting and hitting all of our Humvees. He didn’t have to move all that much because of the angle was directly on us and he was spraying bullets at us. All those bullets are hitting effectively because he’s not trying to aim the shot. He doesn’t have to. If he misses our Humvee, the guy right behind me is in line or the guy behind him. There were five of us in the line plus our special tactics team was with us.
So I’m in the front Humvee and all of a sudden shit pops off and the glass in the windshield starts cracking up. I’m like, “Holy shit!” My gunner falls down. He freaks out because it hits the Pope glass, the glass in the gun. He freaks out and he’s going, “Ah God!” So for the first ten seconds we’re trying to figure out what’s wrong with this guy, the gunner. And the doc who was in my vehicle realizes that he wasn’t hurt, he was just scared and he grabs him by his ass and he starts pushing him back up in the gun. So the guy finally gets his head squared away and he starts laying down .50 cal. He’s laying down fire. Guys are trying to get out of their Humvees and I literally was like, “I have to do something,” and I kind of panicked. We had to do something. So I open my door and I get out, we’re still under fire, and from behind my door I start shooting. I’m not even aiming shots. I’m just aiming in the general direction of where this fire’s coming from. I’m not even with rifle on my shoulder – I’m just trying to lay down some type of suppressive fire, God knows. What I did was eventually I got a bunch of shots off. I thought I fired like twenty rounds off. I ended up only firing four bullets the whole engagement. I thought I was Rambo like, [in a gravelly voice] “dut-dut-dut-dut-dut.” Know what I mean?
I fire a couple of rounds off and then run to the berm to try and draw some fire and see what’s going on. I could at least get out of the line of fire and at least inspire the guys to get up to the berm. I wasn’t even going to call it on the radio. Hopefully they saw me and did the same thing. I’m just running and in panic mode – boom boom boom boom! – I run like twenty yards, not even, to this berm and the woods. There could have been a guy right there and shot me right in the head. I didn’t know where these guys were in the woods on our side but they weren’t on our flank. I was jumping and my radio goes flying out of my pouch and I’m like, “Oh my God! What the hell am I doing?” I pop my head up and I’m looking around and I don’t see anyone around me.
The rest of my team and the special tactics guys are engaging these dudes behind me. I pick up my radio and my radio dumps its fill. The battery came loose so now I’m not on the radio. So I run back and go back to my Humvee. The rest of my vehicle goes into the woods and they’re getting into the defensive posture and they’re looking around. I run back and get another battery out in my Humvee and square the radio away. I put it back in and run back and meet up with the rest of the guys in my Humvee. We move to the woods, I linked up with the rest of my guys, and they had broken contact. Once we started to fight back, they didn’t want to fight with us, I guess. They slowly but surely broke contact. I never got to fire any more bullets but the guys south of my position, a hundred meters or so, had engaged a bunch of dudes and pushed back. They saw these guys get on mopeds and dirt bikes and drive away. They said there was maybe eight or ten of them.
So we do that and it was a euphoric feeling afterwards. It was unbelievable. “Get the fuck off my mountaintop!” Do you know what I mean? It was that type of thing. The Afghans were all excited like, “Yeah!” Slapping five. “That was awesome!” We go back into the town of Jhanikhel and tell everybody how we fucked them all up or whatever. The local townspeople were excited too. They were like, “Nobody’s ever stood up to these guys.” The previous units hadn’t really done much in that AO because they would get attacked. So we made it a point to go down the next day. We’re back, they don’t scare us, fuck them. That was a pretty memorable moment too.
It’s interesting. The difference between Iraq and Afghanistan was in Iraq we barely got engaged so we were able to deal with the people. I loved the people, they were great people, and they were worthy of our sacrifices and our efforts. Then I get to Afghanistan and there’s no time for that shit, do you know what I mean? It’s like that chick says on Sweet Brown on that video on YouTube, “Ain’t got time for that Lord!” So it was just try to help the police out as much as possible. We hardly ever got to engage the Afghan people themselves because it was trying to get these guys to do something. We sometimes got to go and walk in the marketplace and stuff like that but for the most part we had the mission of get the police out there, get them tactically squared away, get them patrolling and see what we can do from there. It was just a constant struggle. We never really got to do the other counter insurgency stuff, the hearts and minds stuff, like go to a mosque and have conversations or the medical capabilities operations. We never did that shit. It was just gunfights or IEDs. We got mortared a bunch of times. It was one of those things where we never could settle down and just focus on the people. It was a very different deployment. And like I said, those guys could fight. The Afghans could fight and that’s all they wanted to do. So it was a very different deployment that way.
RH: Of the Afghans that you did meet, are there any that are memorable?
KN: Yeah, Disco Khan. [RH laughs] That guy was a bad mofo. I just wanted to support this guy any way I can. He was the guy in this gunfight that I was telling you about. Every other Afghan that I had seen broke contact right away on the cop side. This guy grabbed cops – not only his own dudes but some of the cops that were cowering in their trucks – and ran them out there with him. They had tactics and techniques and procedures. His team that he selected and training up were badass. They were moving together, they were shooting together. As soon as we were getting hit, they fired off two RPGs in the area with the machine guns, where they thought the fire was coming from. It was awesome. The guy was just great. He had no fear but he cared about his men. He would have been a great officer or a senior enlisted guy in the US Army. He knew the same thing: if you take care of your guys, they’ll take care of you. They’ll do whatever it takes to get the mission done. And his men would fucking run through walls for this guy. You could see them just in awe of this dude and how much they loved him. He was a legend.
We set him up with his own little police station and his own little AO. He took over a couple of buildings and an old police station. We built it back up for him. We got him Humvees, M16s, all the best gear and shit like that, night vision goggles. And the locals so loved and feared this guy at the same time that they gave him a goat at one point as a tribute to sacrifice. He was like, “Ah, fuck it. I’m not going to kill the goat.” So he had this pet goat that would walk around his little AO. [RH laughs] He was a name around the area, like, “Oh! Zahir Khan. Zahir Khan,” because he was just a bad mofo. He’d go on patrol in the middle of the night. These guys we could barely get to go out on patrol in the middle of the day. This guy was like, “I’m going out around two o’clock. I’ll call you if I see anything.” We were like, “Roger that.” And he’d go out and hook and jab, find somebody and shoot somebody then come back. He was just a legend. I remember him.
I forget the guy’s name but I remember hating the local district governor. He was just a corrupt piece of shit. I forget his name but he was part of the problem. The other thing too, and as much as I hate to say it, I didn’t really like the Afghans when I did see them. They were far less educated so it was hard to talk to them. A lot of them were lazy and didn’t have jobs. They didn’t want to do anything. You saw a lot of guys just standing around which pissed me off. A lot of dudes that had no problem smacking their wife around in public. A couple of times we were like, “OK. Let’s go tune this guy up.” The local police would see our reaction to it and they would go arrest this dude, throw him in jail and probably smack him around. It was kind of par for the course. You’d see this woman carrying this kid and the husband yelling at her and he’d smack her upside the head. You’d never saw that shit in Iraq. Maybe it happened and it probably happened but you never saw that shit so brazenly done. It’s disregard for human life, really. Nobody really respected life out there.
RH: Did you interact with any of the Afghan women at all?
KN: Oh God no! That’s one of the things I had no respect for. In Iraq women were our best sources. Women were our best sources because they were always willing to help out. They had the information. They were always cooking dinner when the plan was coming up. “Who’s doing this?” “My brother-in-law is involved with these bad guys.” They were the best sources for information. As long as you stood a safe enough distance and you weren’t on them didn’t look like you were trying to accost them, nobody cared. We used to engage women all the time and they would say, “Thank you.” And they were always the first to thank us. One woman actually kissed my hand at one point because we helped her kid with medical supplies. And that was OK. That was the way it should be in a normal society.
These Afghans, once a girl was five or six years old, she had a burqa on. As soon as they saw us coming, within two hundred yards of them they’d be shooing the women into the house. I have no respect for that whatsoever. I get it, keep your woman safe but it’s just not functional and it never will be functional until you do otherwise.
We had this State Department team that was trying to get training for women. They had this program that was training for women to get them to be a little more economically independent and maybe contribute to the household and make a little money on the side by empowering women. And the answer they came up with was, “Why don’t we teach these women how to do basket weaving?” Or weaving carpets. I’m like, “How about you give me the chance to send some of these women to law school? How about we get them legal training so they can run legal clinics?” They were like, “You can’t do that. It’s society, bla bla bla.” I was like, “Bullshit.”
If you look at this society, it’s a very traditional society but it’s one in which – like in most traditional societies – the men are kind of making the rules. The men are the legislators, the governors and what have you. They’re making the rules but it’s really the women who enforce the rules at the end of the day. And more importantly, it’s the women who are the moral authority in the home and in society that essentially say, “That rule’s a joke. I’m not willing to follow that rule because the thing I’m supposed to do is keep my family morally sound. I’m not going to obey that law. It’s bullshit.” And you see that balance of power in its most basic form because the guy comes home and says, “Do this, do that.” And if she thinks that’s something that will lead the family in the wrong direction, she’s like, “No. Rethink that, boss.”
I wanted to kind of exploit that and they were just too scared. If it’s going to be that traditional society and you want to play within society, take other routes that play up that difference. Their society is very different and it’s very traditional but that doesn’t mean that women have zero power and zero say. It’s just a different type of power. So if you played up that power where the men are making the laws and the women were trained legal scholars, they would be the ones to go to to say, “Hey, this is how we interpret the law so you are right and you are wrong.” That gives them their own amount of power that’s in line with the power that they usually wield in that type of society. Does that make sense?
KN: So that’s what I was trying to bring to the table and they were like, “Ah, we’re too scared. The imams are going to hate you.” They built a madrassa. The State Department built a madrassa for the boys in the town and the old team, smartly, said, “If you want to build a madrassa, then we want to build a girls’ school on the same grounds.” The imams and the sheiks were like, “No. Why are you building a girls’ school?” Then fine. Fuck you and your madrassa. You’re not getting a madrassa then. The State Department actually went along with that. They were like, “OK. It’s your AO. If they want to build a madrassa…” But there’s a point here. We’ll build a boys’ school so they can study the Koran and become a knucklehead but we’ll also build a girls’ school to show that there’s parity in terms of what we want to do. And then the State Department was all about it. That’s the type of stuff we should be doing and there’s just too much fear and bureaucracy it seemed like for people to actually get that shit done.
RH: In this deployment, what was the most challenging period? The beginning, the middle or the end?
KN: Good question. I guess I’d say it would be the middle where I realized a couple of things. That’s when we really started getting hit. It was cold. I got there in January and it was freezing out. You’re in the mountains and there wasn’t much going on. We’d go and talk to the police guys and get accountability for weapons. Let’s go on patrol in the market or whatever.
It was the middle of the deployment when it started getting hot. It literally got hot. The Taliban started challenging us. We would go out on more patrols. We were going out trying to get shit done. It was really during that part of the deployment where I was like we’re really not going to get shit done here. I don’t feel the same way like I did when I was in Iraq. Maybe that was the wrong answer and I should have done more but it just felt like it was impossible to engage the Afghan people unless it was like a, “Hey, you do this. Why the fuck are you attacking us?” type of thing. Very little engagement with the locals and we went through police chief after police chief in this other district in the town of Jhanikhel before we finally found a decent one. But I felt like I didn’t get enough done there. I didn’t get much done there at all and it felt like, about halfway through the deployment, I started realizing that we’ve got to just stay safe and do whatever we can. I had to temper my expectations pretty greatly and that was tough to deal with. To stay motivated and continue to do all this planning and coordinating and shit like that and still go out on patrol and be tired and still give a hundred percent – that was tough.
RH: During this deployment, did you have any transformative or significant events that informed this deployment?
KN: Definitely. I figured out that I’m not going to puss out in a gunfight. When we actually got into a legitimate I’m-taking-fire gunfight, I did the right thing. To me that meant the world. You go to Iraq and you get hit by an IED or you don’t or whatever and you do all that great work that I talked about but you’re an infantry guy. You want to hook and jab with the enemy. You always wonder what it’s like and I got the chance to do that in Afghanistan on more than one occasion and especially that one occasion where we got out and maneuvered and were shooting, giving orders and all that stuff. I felt like I did it right when I got tested and did so. That, to me, made all the difference. I didn’t want to regret anything and I felt like I acquitted myself well and in my mind that kind of put my mind at ease. It made it easier to get out of the Army. I did it all and I faced it all, as much as I could, and I got everybody home safe, especially from the Afghanistan deployment and I was just excited by it. So that was definitely transformative.
RH: Good to go. Can you talk a little bit about your immediate post-deployment experiences?
KN: Like I said, because we went through a lot more in terms of the actual gun fighting and my vehicle getting blown out from under me and stuff like that, that euphoria that I was talking about after Iraq was amplified by ten. And even though I was kind of aware of it, it was so strong that it was just crazy. I got home and we spent three days transitioning out of the Army again. So literally I get home on a Friday – I remember it was a Friday afternoon – and the National Guard in Nevada sent ten of their soldiers down, a squad of their soldiers, to greet us there, to process us and carry our bags. It was awesome. They really took care of us. They rented vans and drove us around town so we could go out and get really drunk that night which was awesome.
I just remember the euphoria building and building. I went to Buffalo Wild Wings. I remember drinking that first beer and being like, “Oh shit. It’s on.” [RH laughs] I hadn’t drank in a year or nine months or whatever so I got rocked really fast and just had a blast. I spent the next couple days getting rocked all night and clearing out during the day.
So I’m out of the Army by Tuesday. They put me on a plane to Baltimore Airport – BWI. I’m in uniform and I get back, I walk out the gate and I remember seeing my family. My brother now had another little girl who was a toddler at the time and then my niece was four. I was just real excited to see them. They had this sign up, “Welcome home Uncle Kev,” and they were cheering. It was really cool. But the euphoria just built. I got home to my apartment in Baltimore, partied like a rock star. I was out partying and drinking. I went right back to work which was a mistake. I literally got back in August, the first week in August, and by the middle of August I’m working again which was probably dumb. I should have taken some time off. I was working ten hours a day and I just was not aware of how euphoric I was. I was going out. I hooked up with a couple of chicks and made a fool of myself. I won’t go into detail there. But I thought I was the king of the world for a while.
Then eventually again it calmed down. I went back into life. It was good to be back with my family again right away. When I got back from Iraq, I was on base in Savannah still at Fort Stewart so I didn’t have the chance to see my parents all the time but now I could see them. I came home and I could see them every weekend which I did. So that was probably a good thing with all the euphoria involved. Saturday at noon I’d start drinking and keep rocking until two o’clock in the morning. It was like that type of stuff. So it was mostly harmless but I was keenly aware of it after the fact. I would come back down again and be like, “Man, you’ve got to check yourself.” Do you know what I mean? Each time I deployed it was definitely that euphoria afterwards.
RH: Alright. Good to go. How has your military experience shaped your life since you got out?
KN: It made me much more responsible for my own self and for others. I’ve taken on a leadership role with everything I’ve done ever since. It has taught me accountability and the benefits of accountability. It taught me responsibility and the benefits of responsibility. I’ve got lifelong friends I still talk to that I went through something with and bonded with that no one else can understand. That sounds kind of cliché but it’s very, very true. I still talk to, on a regular basis, my driver who was sitting next to me in that first gunfight in Afghanistan. I still talk to him all the time. There are those things that no one else can really understand besides the guys that are with you and that’s a great thing. I wouldn’t trade it for anything. A couple of my buddies came into town about a year ago. We went out on the town in DC, got banged up and had a blast reminiscing and my wife was like, “Kev’s going out with his Army buddies.” I remember hearing her tell my mother-in-law about that and I remember thinking, “Man, that’s pretty wild that I’ve got that, that I can say it.” Most people can’t. So that’s kind of cool.
It really just was a phenomenal experience in growing up and maturing and having a mission and being a part of something bigger than yourself. All of those clichés absolutely are, without a doubt, one hundred percent true.
RH: Let’s move on a little bit. How do you feel about the rise of ISIS and the current direction that Iraq is taking?
KN: It’s devastating. Absolutely devastating. The same terrain that we fought for and won is now being taken over by these shitheads. These guys are barely human renegades. They have no purpose in life besides just murder, rape and pillage and they can dress it up in religion as much as they want. I know it to be false. We had done away with that. After the surge Iraq was in such a good place. We were there. The government was functioning and the courts were functioning, they had a military obviously but we went away. Some people point this out in the press and I’m glad they do but they had a functioning, good military when we left there. But when you have political guys on top and they want to consolidate their power, what do they do? They fire the good generals that are actually responsive and want to do good stuff and, instead, they go around bringing their lackeys in to basically do whatever and foster corruption and not foster a winning military. And that’s what happened and that’s why it’s falling apart. It’s really heartbreaking to see.
Having said all that, I still have hope for them. I still have hope for the Iraqi people who know better. We gave them a taste of what right looks like and I feel like that won’t go away. Maybe it’s just me being overly optimistic but I think the rise of ISIS will refocus our attention on that area and realize what we gained and what we lost. Maybe we can gain it back to some extent again because nobody wants to go back. I don’t give a fuck what anybody says, nobody wants to go back to Saddam. I talked to a guy who literally said, “My brother was killed by the goons that accompanied Uday Hussein around. They would just decide that my brother pissed them off. They took him to the top of a three story building, tied his hands together, and threw him head first off the roof.”
Nobody wants to go back to those days! You never hear that shit in the press. It wasn’t like things were better because Saddam had control of the country so it was better for the US. How much better? How much worse would the Arab Spring have been if Saddam had been in power? How many more people would have died? The guy was responsible for, conservative estimates, at least 1.2 million of his own people including using chemical weapons. What would have happened if he was in charge for the Arab Spring? This is one of those things where that simmering hatred and just the filth below was never sustainable and the result could have been worse as whatever happened during the Iraq war. I feel that gets lost in translation. It’s something that has skewed our discussion about the Iraq war – it really has – and all the good that came out of it and all the good we did that could have been sustained and is now slipping away. It’s devastating.
RH: How do you feel about the drawdown of US combat operations in Afghanistan?
KN: You know, at the same time that I say we should have stayed in Iraq, I’m not sure it would have done much good in Afghanistan. It doesn’t mean that the Afghans can’t understand democracy. My point still stands about any person can grab hold of that power to shape their own destiny. I still believe that very much. I still think there are a lot of Afghans that truly believe it, especially among the security forces. At the same time, it’s so fractured that it’s going to take a lot more than just military force or military pressure. We’ll still have a military presence there because we’ve learned the lesson from Iraq. Via counter-terror operations we’ll still go out and smack people down and help some factions over the Taliban and vice versa. But in terms of the nation building piece, it’s going to take a lot more.
It’s a very different approach than the one I think we’ve been taking and that needs to take a lead. It needs to be NGOs and I think we’ve set them up to have enough anti-Taliban presence to be able to allow NGOs to stay in there. I think that US efforts should be focused on NGOs and education programs. They’re so far behind the Iraqis in terms of their development as a society and being a democratic society that more basic steps need to be taken. Some of those building blocks, believe it or not, were already there in Iraq. It wasn’t the case in Afghanistan. It’s mountain to mountaintop and people relating to each other however they can and forming organizations however they can and I think that we need to shape that a lot more and you can’t do that with military force. You can try but us being out there and using a huge amount of force wasn’t going to make that much more of a difference, I don’t think.
RH: Alright. Good to go. We’re going to move onto a couple of spiritual questions. Has deploying changed your perception of life and death and, if so, how?
KN: In terms of life and death I certainly have a lot more respect for life in the most basic sense. I live near DC. I drive on the DC and Baltimore Beltway every day. These roads are crushed with human beings and traffic twenty-four hours a day. So I find myself in traffic and being pissed off or whatever and I always catch myself to be like, “Man, any day above ground is a great day.” I also find that not being under gunfire makes it so much easier to operate as a human being. [laughs] If bullets aren’t flying then nobody’s hair should be on fire, do you know what I mean? Civilians worry about the silliest shit and it’s because they haven’t seen that life or death situation where it could easily be taken from you. I’ve been in some great situations in my professional life since the military but I find myself trying to keep people on track and not freaking out and not losing their minds. Because it’s not life or death.
I’m a pretty spiritual guy. I’m a practicing Catholic so you always have that element as well where you think, “Why does God still want me here? What missions do I still have left even if I’m not a military person?”
RH: That was going to be my next question. Has deploying affected you spiritually and, if so, how?
KN: Yes. It makes your life more meaningful. If you get back and you live and hopefully you’re intact – maybe you’re not all the way intact – you’re still there for a reason. God still wants you here for a reason. It could have been like Stan Lupinski – the guy I was telling you about. It could have been a one-off, random shot that was the reason that you’re not back and there’s a reason that you’re supposed to be here. That becomes all the more true when you survive a combat situation. You come home and you start to wonder, why did I live? Why did other people die? You start to realize that there is a reason for you to be here. What is that reason? And that’s a constant. It is something that will always be something that’s in the back of a veteran’s mind. I will always try to figure that out. Why am I still here and what am I supposed to be doing?
RH: Alright. Good to go. Let’s switch it up a little bit. What’s the happiest memory of the entire time you served? This could be from the moment you started boot camp to the moment you left on your three day transition back from Afghanistan.
KN: That probably was it because I knew it was over. I acquitted myself well, like I said. I was with my buddies, we made it home. We showed the Taliban in our AO that we had some ass kicking and that we could fight with any of them. Like I said, that most basic euphoria of getting home but this time I knew it was over for good. I had gone above and beyond. They called me back into the military for God’s sakes and I answered the call. So there is a little bit of pride there as well. And I just had my whole life in front of me. I was thinking about what I would do next. Go back to grad school, go back to work, find a wife and shit like that. I felt like that was probably the happiest day.
RH: What are some of the funniest stories you have?
KN: Ahh! Dude. There are way too many. Way, way too many. Shit, I’m trying to think about boot camp all the way through to coming home. There’s just so many.
On the Iraq deployment we go to hit this house. We know it’s an insurgent and we get ready. We’re locked, cocked and ready to rock. We fly in and the plan was my Humvee goes and tries to break down this gate. In Iraq sometimes they had those big wrought iron gates and a little courtyard and then the house and they were all walled up. So we go to hit the gate – BOOM! The gate doesn’t budge. Aw, Jesus. We all get out. So here comes the assault squad. The assault squad’s getting ready to get through the gate. Well the gate’s still closed and my Humvee is still attached to the gate pretty much. So I tell these guys, “Get up on the Humvee hood, get on the gate, jump over and we’ll go that way.” First squad gets up. They do that. They jump up, they jump in, they get into the courtyard, they run through. I get up and I’m just getting over on the gate to jump over and some gunfire breaks out which I subsequently found out was the Iraqi police who were pulling security on the outer perimeter security force, the outer cordon. They were shooting at dogs in the street like a bunch of numbnuts.
So I kind of get momentarily startled coming over the gate. I plant with my foot and I trip a little bit and I start flying down. Usually these things are like a five foot drop, eight foot drop. This thing ended up being like fifteen feet. So I wasn’t prepared and I was kind of stretched out and I was falling over a little bit anyway. I just land in a pile, like BOOM! I’m like, “Oh my God!” My weapon flies off. I’m like, “Oh God! Oh God!” and roll over. The assault squad behind me, the second assault squad, has no idea this happened to me. [RH laughs] They start popping over the fence and are landing right near me like, “Oh shit! All you alright Sir?” And they’re stepping over me. So now I’m covered up in the floor in the fetal position on the ground and these guys, they’re not stopping. This is the kill zone. We could all end up getting shot if there are insurgents. So they’re on the mission, totally focused. They jump over the fence, seven dudes coming across and I’m trying to get out of their way, huddled on the floor. My platoon Sergeant jumps in behind the second squad and he lands like, “Are you alright, Sir?” I’m like, “Yes.” He picks me up and we go in and the squad is clearing the house. We find the insurgent, we find his guns. He has a whole bunch of guns. We’re all excited, we’re all sitting there, and I’m standing with my platoon Sergeant moving the guys out. He’s smoking a cigarette and he goes, “Goddam sir. You were infantry roadkill!” [both laugh] I was like, “You know what? I was.” I was infantry roadkill. I fell on the floor in the fetal position and dudes were running over me.
There’s so many that I couldn’t even begin to tell. Those are the ones that pop into my head.
RH: Alright. Toughest question of the entire interview. What was the best MRE?
KN: [laughs] The best MRE was chicken cutlet or chicken parmigiana or whatever it was.
RH: Was it chicken cavatelli?
KN: Cavatelli! Yes. Chicken cavatelli.
RH: That was my favorite too, actually.
KN: Oh my God. It was awesome. Every time I got it I was like, “Yeah!” [RH laughs] You get a brownie or pound cake, the chicken cavatelli which is actually edible, What else do you get? You’ve got something else that was decent. Oh! You get either skittles or m&m’s. A lot of MREs you got either m&m’s or skittles, no brownie, no nothing. It just seemed to have the most shit in it. It was awesome. So chicken cavatelli, without a doubt.
RH: Good to go. What was the best chow hall stateside, the best chow hall in Iraq and the best chow hall in Afghanistan?
KN: The best chow hall stateside was probably the one at Fort Stewart. It was the main DFAC, the main dining facility at Fort Stewart and it was really, really good. The best one in Afghanistan was BAF – Bagram Air Field. The best one in Iraq was in the Green Zone. Which one was it in the Green Zone? There was a bunch. It was the one that was in Saddam’s old palace, the one that was in the headquarters of MNSTC – Multinational Security Transition Command Iraq. That was awesome because it was in a beautiful old building and it was awesome. And the one in Kazakhstan – transitioning in and out of Afghanistan – was phenomenal. They had great local food and they had great hamburgers and hotdogs and steaks and shit like that. They brought in local stuff so you had a local T-bone. It was badass. And on the way back out of Afghanistan they allowed you to have two beers a day. So you have a beer which of course is like eight percent alcohol and you haven’t drank a drop so you get a nice little buzz going. You had, literally, a T-bone steak and shit like that. It was awesome. Manus Air Base. That was that.
RH: Last couple of questions. If you could communicate something to young soldiers who are going to be fighting the wars of the future, what would it be?
KN: Great question. Great, great question. If I could communicate to the warriors of the future I would say, no matter what, you always have each other to look out for each other. Always be mission focused first. I feel like there’s too many veterans and too many people and it’s become cliché for everyone to be like, “Jim Smith and his buddies were just out to get themselves home and fight for their buddies and to protect themselves and that’s all they really cared about in Iraq.” If that’s the case then your fucking leadership sucked because if they weren’t keeping you focused on the mission then they weren’t setting you up for success. The success for me wasn’t just bringing everybody home – which was of utmost importance to me – but mission success was more important.
Bringing everybody home became, I felt, more attainable if you had guys that were constantly on mission, that were focused on succeeding and focused on getting the mission done. No matter how fucked up the mission might be, getting the mission done and getting it done to where you can say you were successful, you set those guys up successfully career-wise and mentally and you make them think they’re doing something. Like I said earlier, they’ll do anything that they feel they need to get done, and what you ask them to do, in order to do that. So stay mission focused. Don’t just be about, “Oh, I’ve got to get myself and my guys home.” Yes, it’s of utmost importance taking care of each other but don’t put that ahead of the mission. Don’t be out there, “I’m just fighting for myself.” Be out there fighting for others. Fight for the Afghans or the Iraqis or fight to succeed in your mission and, chances are, you’re going to be successful in whatever you do. That’s definitely what I would say.
RH: Good to go. Is there anything that I left out that you would like to address?
KN: Not that I can think of. I’m sure that it’ll be fifty things as soon as I walk away, you know? [laughs]
RH: Alright. My last question, what specific accomplishment are you most proud of during your entire service?
KN: Oh man. It’s probably a tie between the Operation Kevin’s Kids, bringing things to the Iraqi people, or bringing my guys home from Afghanistan – everyone home intact. If we didn’t succeed in our mission there, so be it. I’m glad, at least, I got to bring those guys home and they all came home intact.
RH: Alright. Anything else?
KN: That’s it man!
RH: Thank you!