Private Syprian, a radio operator with Charlie Troop, is young and lean. He has pale blue eyes, long lashes and he is head-over-heels in love with is new wife—who is in the regular Army and who also has orders to deploy to Afghanistan soon. She’s training at Fort Irwin in Death Valley, California, this week, carrying 100-plus pounds of gear on her back in the desert heat. “It worked out pretty well that we were both gone at the same time,” Syprian says.
As he talks, he smokes under the open-sided tent that covers the all-important troop radio. Syprian is trying to transfer into his wife’s unit so they can be together. In the meantime, when he’s not training with the guard, he’s a househusband. “She says I do a good job,” he says, with a quick laugh.
Even as Syprian chats, 7,000 miles away from the Northern Michigan woods, the Taliban is condemning a young Afghani couple to death by stoning for eloping. In less than a week, news reports will carry the story around the world of the first public execution by stoning in Afghanistan in nine years. The young lovers died together.
Later that evening Grant and Landry load two squads—12 camo-clad soldiers—into the back of a truck. Tonight’s mission: to penetrate Bravo Troop’s camp and slap kill-stickers on the windshields of their Humvees. There’s a steady banter of manlove, “fit-yourself-right-here-sweetie” jokes as the soldiers cram themselves in for a ride that takes them briefly off camp grounds, past summer cottages and gardens bursting with sunflowers.
Somewhere off Sherman Road, Landry turns down a twotrack, and the first squad tumbles out and sprints single file into the woods. Concealed by foliage, they kneel in a circle, backs together, guns drawn on the woods. For minutes they sit statue-still.
This is SLLS, an acronym for stop, look, listen, smell, and a basic precept of reconnaissance. The Michigan soldiers breathe in the familiar scents of spicy dry pine needles, hot musky loam, the greenness of ferns. They observe towering red pines, a handful of black raspberries and a fern so still it appears frozen on this humid, 80-plus degree evening. A crow caws. Their team leader, Specialist Gavrilovich motions them on. Specialist Krueger, the assistant team leader, falls in behind Gavrilovich, then, Specialist Kalm, Private First Class (and medic) Manor and tall, quiet Private Lukasak.
They are traveling light—no ceramic plates in their kevlar vests, no helmets, no rucksacks. No radios. They’ll text to communicate. They try to move silently, but branches crack underfoot and swish against their broad shoulders. Private Kalm is sweating profusely. He’s a bright, talented soldier, but he’s overweight and he knows it.
A mile or so into the woods Gavrilovich motions them into SLLS again. Then he and Krueger peel off and move forward. In the dusk a flare explodes at the edge of the woods not more than a hundred feet away—Bravo Troop is looking for them. They press themselves into the cool, lumpy forest floor, pull out their night optics, a k a thermal, and peer at trees that appear through the lenses like they are covered in neon snow.
”The enemy is pretty good at hiding from thermal,” Sergeant Menard has said earlier in the day. “They curl up in a ball, or they’ll hide in a herd of animals. I watched them do that. I watched them watch us.”
Gavrilovich and Krueger whisper that they are moving ahead, to the edge of Bravo Troop’s camp and that if they aren’t back by midnight the rest of the squad should head to the Charlie Troop truck, where they will meet at 12:30 a.m. instead. Deep night settles over the forest, the Big Dipper glitters through the canopy, and the mosquitoes turn vicious. Passing around a tube of Army mosquito repellant, the soldiers joke in whispers that it causes cancer, but they’d rather have cancer than be bitten.
Then a text from Grant: The mission has been indexed—called off. A soldier from another company has come up missing. Everyone in the squadron needs to report back to his respective camp.
By morning Grant has learned that the missing soldier, a member of Alpha Troop, was AWOL. He’d left Camp Grayling to go hang out at home in Manistee. An arrest warrant was issued for him. But Charlie Troop can’t head back to camp without Gavrilovich and Krueger. Concealed in the woods, they’ve turned their cell phones off so as not to be compromised by the glow of a text. They are sticking to the mission plan, practicing the day’s lesson of patience.
Gathered back at the truck the soldiers wait restlessly. Grant and Landry have the men set off flares to bring Gavrilovich and Krueger in. At the stroke of 12:30 a.m., as planned, Gavrilovich and Krueger appear out of the darkness. On an August evening near Grayling, Michigan, 45th parallel, elevation 1,137 feet, temperature dipping now just below 80 degrees, all of Commander Mark Grant’s soldiers are accounted for.
Elizabeth Edwards is managing editor of Traverse. [email protected]