Says his world view has expanded, but there’s no place like America –
By Patricia Beech –
PFC Landon “Trae” Wright recently returned home to Adams County from a four-month tour of duty in Afghanistan.
The 19 year-old private and graduate of North Adams High School, admits to feeling “culture shock” when he arrived at the American airfield in Kandahar Provence last November.
“When you’re used to seeing trees, beaches, and houses, it’s kind of weird entering such a desolate place with nothing but mountains and dust, it’s different, you have to get used to it,” he says. “Once you do, it’s not too bad.”
Kandahar Province is located in the southern part of Afghanistan next to Pakistan. It contains about 18 districts, over 1,000 villages, and approximately 1,151,100 people, most of whom are native ethnic Pashtuns, who are mostly tribal. The area is primarily desert and mountainous. The society is rural.
Wright was stationed at the Kandahar Airfield, the largest U.S. military post in the region.
An Army Paratrooper with a fear of heights, Wright admits that he “doesn’t like jumping out of airplanes”, and says, “I put it off as long as I could”.
But, in the end, he set his fears aside and jumped.
That willingness to step outside his comfort zone in order to serve appears to be a common trait in Wright’s family. His great grandfather served during World War II and his great uncle fought and died in Vietnam.
“It’s a pride thing,” he says. “It makes you feel good about yourself for doing something like this – it’s really a good life experience, and I think it’s meaningful to follow in the footsteps of family members who have given their all.”
Stationed within the relative safety of the American Military Base, Wright says he was in the most danger while serving at a Forward Operating Base (FOB) 120 miles from the Kandahar Airfield.
“We were there acting as support for the Afghan army,” he says. “We were advising them and giving them supplies to make sure they didn’t get overrun.”
Rocket attacks were the greatest danger he and the other soldiers faced during FOB operations.
“We took 37 rockets in a little over two weeks,” he says. “You could hear them coming in – they sound like a whistle, or a zipper – and you have to judge how close they are to you by how loud they sound.”
He says they were lucky, no one was hurt.
“The rockets shoot shrapnel everywhere when they blow up. We had a guy who had a concussion, but mostly we were very lucky.”
While American troops retaliate against these attacks with mortars and rockets shot from Apache helicopters, Wright says he doesn’t think America should be fighting the Afghan’s war. “We should just be there as advisers to teach them how to fight for themselves,” he says. “The Afghans are beginning to take over and they’re doing a pretty good job fighting the Taliban.”
Despite their alliance with American soldiers, Afghan soldiers have to be closely screened because many of them work undercover for the Taliban.
“It was unnerving because you didn’t know whether the Afghans you were working with were on your side or the other side,” Wright says. “You had to be careful about what was happening around you. It was a very intense. Trusting no one is key to survival in those situations.”
While he didn’t have opportunities to meet Afghan civilians, Wright says he did develop relationships with many Afghan soldiers.
“Many of the Afghans I met thought we were doing a lot of good,” he says. “One Afghan medic in particular really loved Americans and he wanted to come here, but language was a barrier because not many Afghans speak English.”
Serving as support for Afghan troops, Wright witnessed several firefights between the Taliban and Afghan military forces, but he says most Afghans don’t think of the Taliban as an extremist group.
“They’re more like rivals,” he says. “What they believe isn’t that different. The Taliban is slightly more conservative then the average Afghan, but average Afghans are really very conservative too.”
Muslims in Afghanistan, and around the world, pray five times a day – at pre-dawn, midday, late afternoon, evening, and at night.
In Kandahar the call to prayer echoes from loud speakers placed throughout the region.
“It’s a little nerve-wracking, but you learn to deal with it,” Wright says. He believes the cultural differences he experienced in Afghanistan have changed his view of the world.
“You see other cultures and you see how bad it is in third world countries that are in a constant state of war, and you begin to appreciate just how amazing America actually is, and how much you actually love home.”
During his tour, Wright’s daily life revolved around the 9 ½ hour time difference that separates Afghanistan and America.
“We stayed up late to talk to our families, and we were allowed to sleep until 11 or 12 o’clock the next day,” he says. “Sundays, we’d play football or basketball on the base, plus we had a gym, a lot of board games, Xboxes, and projectors to watch movies.
He says receiving packages from home helped to boost morale.
“Getting stuff like snacks and things you can’t buy over there really perks you up and makes you feel like you’re closer to home.”
He thinks everyone should serve their country when they’re young and says the best thing about being in the service is the “opportunities it provides”.
“You get a job and experience, you get college credits and free college when you get out, it’s a good springboard, and you get to see the world,” he says, “It just may not be the best part of the world”.
Stationed more than 7,000 miles from home in unfamiliar terrain, Wright says he was homesick.
“I was excited to see trees again, green trees and snow,” he says, Afghanistan wasn’t too bad, but there’s no place like America.”
Returning home in early March, Wright and his unit were marched in formation to an airport hangar where family members waited.
“People there were cheering, there were speeches from higher ups, then family time before we went back to the barracks, and off to the bars,” he says, “I’m very happy to be home.”
(This is a corrected version of the story which appeared in the April 18 edition of The People’s Defender.)