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The most dangerous place

By Spencer Price It’s beautiful here ‘“ snowcapped mountain peaks, gently rolling foothills, and fertile valleys with lush grasses and tree-lined streams. At first glance, it looks so peaceful. But, then again, looks can be deceiving. Paktika Province, where I am currently serving, was recently named by Fox News as ‘the most dangerous place in the world for an American.’ It didn’t take me long to figure out why. Paktika Province is located in southeastern Afghanistan. Just across its eastern border is the Federally Administered Tribal Area (FATA) of Pakistan ‘“ a known staging area for the Taliban. It is believed by many within the intelligence community that Osama bin Laden is living in the FATA region where many insurgents rest, refit, and plan their attacks. The insurgents then cross into Afghanistan through passes high in the Hindu Kush Mountains and conduct their attacks before fleeing back across the border into the FATA.    My duty station is Forward Operating Base (FOB) Sharana located high in the Hindu Kush Mountains near the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. I serve as the brigade surgeon for the 168th Engineer Brigade of the Mississippi Army National Guard. There are also Army National Guard units from many other states, as well as units from the US Army Reserve and the active duty Army. These units are charged with numerous tasks including maintaining roads (known as main supply routes or MSRs) in the region and searching for improvised explosive devices (IEDs).    Route clearance platoons (RCPs) are struck almost daily by IEDs which are usually buried in loose dirt or gravel along the side of the roads. The heavily armored vehicles in which the RCPs travel are resistant to IED blasts but not impervious to them. Since arriving at the FOB in mid-February, the 168th EN BDE (the unit I support) has awarded more than 30 Purple Hearts to soldiers injured in these IED blasts. The night before I arrived at the FOB, the compound was struck by six 75mm rockets fired by insurgents from the nearby town of Sharana (from which the FOB gets its name). Fortunately, no one was injured but US forces killed six insurgents responsible for the attack. Later, I was told several of the dead were found to be in possession of ID badges issued to local Afghan nationals working on the FOB which means the Taliban had infiltrated the local area and had actually acquired jobs on the FOB. A few weeks ago, an eight-year-old girl from the town of Sharana was playing near her home. She picked up a bright yellow plastic object which she thought was a toy. When she squeezed it, the device exploded severing her right hand. Bypassing the local hospital, her family rushed the little girl to the FOB knowing she would be treated by American health care providers. The physician assistant who first examined her told me the little girl was crying not from pain, but because she was afraid no one would marry her with only one hand. Further, because the left hand is considered unclean in Islamic culture, Islamic custom forbids the eating of food with the left hand in public. Since she no longer has a right hand, the little girl is now destined to a life of isolation and ridicule. The device that destroyed her right hand was actually a Russian anti-personnel mine dropped from the air more than 20 years before during the Soviet-Afghan War. Although this part of Afghanistan is no doubt dangerous for US forces and native Afghans alike, it should be remembered that danger is everywhere. Danger lurks at the intersection where a teenager coming home from a high school football game is struck by a drunk driver; or under the kitchen sink where an innocent toddler finds and drinks a common but poisonous household cleaner; or in the bathroom where the blow dryer on the sink falls into the bathtub; or in the dark alley on the wrong side of town that a lost driver finds him or herself. The truth is that danger, in its many forms, is found everywhere. Whether in a combat zone such as Afghanistan, or in the comfort of our own homes, we must avoid complacency and remain ever vigilant in order to avoid finding ourselves in the most dangerous place.

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