S.C. soldiers face mistaken identity in Afghanistan

CAMP SPANN, Afghanistan -- When a team of S.C. National Guard soldiers rolled into a remote village on the northern border of Afghanistan, they were greeted with stares.

The townspeople living in a village so far off the beaten path that it is not even on maps didn't know what to think. It had been 20 years since they had seen heavily armed soldiers wearing helmets and body armor.

"Rooskies? Rooskies?" the Afghans asked, wondering if the Russians had returned after being driven out 20 years earlier.

Such is life in extreme northern Afghanistan. At their base here, S.C. National Guard soldiers find themselves in a world the 20th century -- perhaps even the last millennium -- passed by.

The village incident isn't the only example of the area's isolation.

African-American members of the Guard's 218th Brigade Combat Team sometimes find themselves objects of local villagers' curiosity.

Other soldiers are asked if they are Muslim because their last names are in the Quran and, unknown to the Afghans, the Bible.

Many Afghans have little knowledge of the outside world.

Most are poor. Ninety percent have either irregular or no electricity, making access to electronic media difficult. Half the country's people can't read and write.

While isolated, most of the people living in country's northernmost regions are very hospitable, said Sgt. 1st Class Reginald McNeil, of Walterboro.

"They're happy to see us," McNeil said.

An African-American, McNeil said Afghans also are curious about the color of his skin.

"They'll ask me what country I'm from, what nationality," McNeil said.

Many Afghans are unaware that American society is culturally and racially diverse, he said.

U.S. names also can throw Afghans for a loop.

For example, Staff Sgt. Anthony Abraham's last name catches Afghans' attention. In the Quran, Abraham is cited as a prophet, as are Moses and Jesus. And, like all U.S. service personnel, Abraham has a name tag on his uniform.

Afghans who read English will stop and ask Abraham if he is Muslim, the Charlotte soldier said. A Baptist, Abraham tells them no.

"But I'll still talk to them about my name. The Afghans are very curious."

'The end of the world'

The story of the South Carolinians mistaken for Russians involved a team of U.S. troops who were advising the Afghan army and police.

The U.S. troops and their Afghan counterparts traveled to the northernmost point of Afghanistan, the Khamab District of Jawzjan Province, near the border with Turkmenistan.

"We were at the end of the world and beyond," cracked Capt. Eric Barricklow, who headed a team of troops that included S.C. National Guard members.

The U.S. troops planned to get out and talk with local villagers, said Barricklow, of Bow, N.H. But first the soldiers had to convince the town's elders they were there to help.

"We had a jirga (conference) with the elders for four hours," Barricklow said. "They had to decide if we could talk to the people."

The villagers were wary because the area had been occupied by the Russians and, later, the Taliban.

The local Afghans had seen troops from other countries before, Barricklow said. But none were as heavily armed as the Americans. The other foreign soldiers also rode in vehicles much smaller and less imposing than armored Humvees with machine guns in their turrets.

The elders eventually gave their OK and even agreed to sell 800 liters about 208 gallons of gasoline for the vehicles of the accompanying Afghan soldiers.

The purchase was so large the elders used the profit to pay for a party for the village, Barricklow said.

"They invited us," he added. "There was music, dancing and lots of food. We stayed up until 2 a.m. It was a fun trip."