It was a typical winter morning in northern Afghanistan. The sky was clear, and the blinding sun slowly climbed into it. The sun was bright, but it didn’t do much to fight the biting cold that pumped down the turret opening in our Humvee and chilled us all.
I was in a light infantry reconnaissance platoon, made up of an almost even split of snipers and recon guys. We were on our way to a large forward operating base just south of Kabul. Our specific skill set had been requested by the commander there so we crammed into our cold Humvees and headed into the unknown.
We pulled into the base later that morning and were shown to the tent that we’d call home for at least a day or two. After unloading all of our gear and equipment, me and the other lower enlisted guys made ourselves at home while our senior leaders went to work out the specifics of the mission we’d be supporting.
We hadn’t been there long before sudden pounding winds seemed to threaten the integrity of our tent. One soldier leapt up from his cot and ripped open the door flap of our tent. The clear sunbathed sky had faded behind a thick sheet of dark clouds and snow was collecting quickly on the ground outside.
The soldier fastened the door flap shut as we all looked at each other in amazement. “This mission has got to be scrapped” quipped one soldier. “There’s no way we’re going out in this” added another. Assuming the mission was a no-go, we settled back into our cots and pulled out our books, iPods, magazines and other essentials needed to ride out the storm.
Just as we were all getting comfortable and cozy in our sleeping bags, a red-faced and snow covered staff sergeant barreled into our tent. “Get your cold-weather gear on and get outside”. The staff sergeant stormed out of the tent just as rapidly as he’d come in.
We tossed our creature comforts to the side and began tearing through our bags for heavy jackets, pants and beanies. Questions and confusion filled the frantic tent. Once suited up, we all funneled out of the tiny tent opening into the storm and lined up in front of the two stone-faced staff sergeants.
We stood there silently as they divided us up between them. Reading our confused expressions, the staff sergeants laughed and explained what was about to happen.
“You guys go with him” he said gesturing at the other staff sergeant and his group. “And you guys come with me. We’ll have 15 minutes to build up our arsenal of snowballs and then it’s on. If you get hit, you’re out. You can be revived by a teammate once, but if you’re hit again, you’re out until the next round”.
Before our shock could fade, we were elbows deep in snow mounds, hastily and inefficiently shaping snowballs with our gloved hands. The 15 minutes were up and my group had established three separate caches of snowballs in case one were to be compromised. Our hodgepodge of recon and sniper guys made it difficult to establish a quick plan of attack. Me and the other recon guys suggested we move between tents to find a good ambush point. The snipers suggested we push to a small hill top and take advantage of the high ground. The infighting put us at a disadvantage.
When the other team started lobbing snowballs, strategy turned into self-preservation and it was every man for himself.
A number of my recon teammates had been taken out of the game so I retreated to the hill top where a few snipers were dug in. The high ground gave us the upper hand, and the continuing snowfall guaranteed we wouldn’t run out of ammo. We had the other team pinned down and just when we thought we had the game won, we were flanked and wiped out.
The snowball fight went a few more rounds and the longer we were out in the storm the more exhausted we got. Our honed military training and tactics gradually devolved into a laughter filled display of “soldiers on ice” as we slipped and fell endlessly.
When the snowball fight was over, we sluggishly made our way back to our tent, shed our cold weather gear and collapsed onto our cots.
The mission we came for had officially been scrapped, so we quietly retrieved the creature comforts we had discarded earlier and tucked ourselves into our sleeping bags. The next morning the bright sun rose and melted most of the snow. We gathered all of our equipment crammed ourselves back into our cold Humvees, and headed to the next outpost.
That day was rarely talked about in the months that followed. It was as if we were all safeguarding a cherished memory and if we spoke about it, the day would somehow seem less special.
I’m sure the snowball fight meant something different for everyone on the battlefield that day. For me, its meaning has evolved over the years. What was once just another story from my time in Afghanistan has grown into a meaningful narrative about the human moments soldiers often experience while deployed but are rarely reported.
For me this day was important because it helps me show that not every war story is a tale of heroism or tragedy.
When the winter months creep by here at home, I look forward to an impromptu moment where I’ll look out on a large snow covered field, and I’ll tell whoever will listen, about my snowball fight with snipers.