Story by By Cpl. Reece Lodder
FORWARD OPERATING BASE DELHI, Helmand province, Afghanistan — The soldier’s youthful eyes and perpetual smile contradict what he’s endured. In 22 years, Afghan National Army Sgt. Khal Mohammad, an infantryman with 2nd Kandak, 1st Brigade, 215th Corps, has experienced a lifetime of challenges.
Yet he bears an infectious smile while plodding through a muddy field on a long patrol or toiling through physical training in the pouring rain. The scenes change but his smile remains.
During his youth in Afghanistan’s Badakhshan province, Mohammad’s mother died before he was old enough to remember her. Though his father had another wife, she didn’t want to take care of Mohammad and sent him to live with his older sister.
“I’m blessed to have been raised by my sister,” Mohammad said. “I don’t know what I would’ve done without her.”
Eight years later, he moved back to his father’s home, hopeful their relationship would grow. Instead, he was mistreated by his stepmother and quickly felt out of place. At 10 years old, he set out on his own to find work as a mason.
“I was old enough to differentiate between friends, family and my enemies, so I decided to do what was best for me and to gain experience working in a trade,” Mohammad said. “I wanted to provide for myself and not be a burden on anyone.”
He left home, traveled to the neighboring Kunduz province and found work with a construction contractor. For six years, Mohammad lived in his employer’s guest house and worked to improve his masonry skills. When he felt he’d gained enough experience, he left to work on his own.
Three years later, a family event suddenly demanded Mohammad’s attention. One of his cousins was murdered and the blame placed on another cousin. The family didn’t have money for an attorney, so Mohammad mediated on his accused cousin’s behalf.
The choice created tension and divided his family. Even after Mohammad helped acquit his accused cousin and the murderer was caught, it persisted. An uncle acknowledged Mohammad’s noble effort, but encouraged him to move away from the family for a while. Once again pushed from his home, Mohammad began weighing his options. He had seen Afghan National Army recruiting advertisements in newspapers and longed to make a difference alongside his older brother, an ANA soldier serving in Herat province.
“I knew I’d make more money as a mason than I would as a soldier, but I wanted to serve my country,” he said.
In 2009, Mohammad pledged to pay his dues and joined the ANA. After completing basic training, the self-described “adventurer” requested to become an infantryman. He was granted his wish and assigned to the mobile section of 4th Kandak, 1st Brigade, 215th Corps.
Traveling throughout southern Afghanistan, he participated in heavy fighting alongside infantry and reconnaissance Marines in Nimroz province and Helmand’s Gereshk, Lashkar Gah, Marjah, Musa Qala, Now Zad, Khan-Neshin and Sangin districts.
“I learned how to be a good soldier from training, fighting and patrolling with Marines,” Mohammad said. “I was proud to serve with them because I had the chance to fight for my country … to help release my people from Taliban rule.”
In 2010, Mohammad’s unit and their Marine counterparts took numerous casualties during battles in Nimroz and Helmand, encountering frequent improvised explosive device attacks and firefights. He said he owes his life to the Marine Corps air support they received in those battles.
After receiving his wish to “fight on the frontline,” he was sent to join 2/1/215 in Garmsir district. There he was promoted to the rank of sergeant, a noncommissioned officer in the ANA, and focused on training to improve himself as a leader.
“Earning the rank of sergeant was a personal achievement but I don’t use my rank to push other people around,” Mohammad said. “I have to know my duties, continue learning how to carry them out professionally and pass on what I’ve learned to my soldiers.”
Over the three years he’s served in the ANA, Mohammad has spent a year in training, forever smiling because he’s “always learning something.” He’s completed advanced weapons and IED detection training, and graduated from the first NCO leadership academy in Garmsir, Jan. 26.
“I wish every soldier who’s become an NCO was like Mohammad,” said ANA Sgt. Maj. Mohammad Khalid, the senior enlisted leader of 2/1/215. “He’s a disciplined and determined soldier and a hard worker with a profession on the side. His experience has molded him into a strong leader and he’s eager to pass on his knowledge.”
As a soldier, Mohammad’s mettle was tested in battle. Now, as a sergeant, his rank and experience demand that he lead his men. He’s the crucial link between his soldiers and the officers above him.
“The first thing I tell my soldiers is that this command has been handed down to me, and I have to make sure it’s carried out well,” Mohammad said. “I can’t pass them knowledge by throwing books at them and telling them to read. I have to lead with a strong example.”
As the insurgency wanes and the Afghan government develops in Garmsir, Mohammad is a vital piece of the force that will soon provide security in the district on their own. And he’s confident in his preparedness for their mission.
“In the past, the Marines were always out front,” Mohammad said. “Now, with peace and the knowledge and education we’ve gained as soldiers, we’re starting to take the lead. We’re partly responsible for the steps we’ve taken forward and that makes me proud.”
In his young life, Mohammad has battled hardship and felt the toll of war. Battered but unbroken, he still smiles.
“Afghanistan’s future is brighter because of soldiers like Khal Mohammad,” Khalid said. “Soldiers who are devoted to protecting our country’s soil … men who put in all of their effort and aren’t willing to quit.”