It feels like it was yesterday, that hot August day in Afghanistan 11 years ago. I laced up my shoes and headed out of what eventually become known as Camp Cunningham, in honor of PJ Jason Cunningham, on Bagram Air Base. Made a right on Disney, and continued past the Task Force compound on my left, the abandoned Spanish area on my right, and finally the former UK compound I would occasionally use in the future for source meetings.
Back then, it was a single strand of barbed wire that formed the perimeter. The flightline road, like all roads on base, was unpaved, composed of what I thought was dirt. My run took me within stone’s throw of the barbed wire at several points along the way, not far from the local warlord Asil Khan’s outpost on the north end. Cautious about venturing anywhere unexploded ordinance might be found (which was pretty much everywhere back then), I continued on the dirt road, jogging underneath the continual haze and heat of my first of many hot days in Afghanistan.
Shortly after, I met the moon dust for the first time. Talcum-fine and sometimes a foot thick, it swallowed my foot, and hid rocks underneath. I recall stopping and marvelling at the phenomenon. It was if I was looking at a miniature crater on the moon, complete with fragmentation impacts around the main crater. I then continued on, my feet and shoes now filled with the silty remnants of a river long since dead.
If there is a common thread that runs throughout the hundreds of runs I conducted across Afghanistan and Iraq in eleven years, it is the moon dust. Thick across a million square miles of Middle Eastern and Central Asian territory, it is ever present, as patient as the tribal mind. Stirring with each footstep, vehicle movement, or breeze; it awaits the next major windstorm that will whip it into the upper atmosphere, then re-deposit it somewhere else.
Within your porous office keyboard, for example. Or maybe the creases of skin in the fold of your elbow. Or the notoriously difficult-to-maintain chamber of your M-4.
In Iraq, where you could still find paved roads untainted by decades of tank travel and explosives, it wasn’t so bad. On Balad, I could pretty much run on roads without ever having to worry about stepping though a couple of inches of dust only to find an ankle-punishing stone beneath. But then the winter would arrive, and with it, rain that turned the dust to a muddy-soul crushing and foot swallowing muck that seemed the perfect analogy to years of combat with no progress.
Through it all, I’ve run. Sometimes fast, sometimes slow. Places with names once the by-line for a million press releases, but now shuttered and memorable only to those of us who’ve been, and the occasional military historian dedicated to fighting our collective rearward myopia. LSA Anaconda. Balad Air Base. Camp Victory. Places with names that soon disappear as well. Camp Bastion. Kandahar Airfield.
Some places were more dangerous than others. In Baghdad, the kidnapping threat on-base was so high that I felt it only prudent to retreat to the treadmill in the gym. Most recently on Camp Bastion, one run took down the same road I would find myself on, a month later under vastly different conditions. Little did I know I would find myself running the opposite direction, in full combat kit, engaged in a six hour firefight to repel 15 insurgents who penetrated the wire.
But always, the dust. Forever, the dust!
Recently, I read Dexter Filkin’s outstanding book, Forever War, and was interested to find that he too, found running a way to connect with his environment as a combat journalist. His runs were a bit more ballsy, often through the same dangerous neighborhoods that would swallow his peers, and reveal them in jihadist videos. But the experiences, I realized, were more common than not. Temporal as the dusty footsteps we left behind, our combat runs were a means of reflection, or maybe a simple way to blow off steam after another trying day.
To say that I someday will miss running in Iraq and Afghanistan is an overstatement. But I do feel as if running in those places gave me perspective on my experiences, and that is valuable in and of itself.