Penn Hills soldier gives a snapshot of Army life in Afghanistan
Matt Shirer's year in Afghanistan found him jumping headlong into daily danger, punctuated by moments of hilarity and the occasional pot-smoking Afghan soldier.
Shirer is an Army reservist and 2003 Penn Hills graduate who recently completed a tour with the 420th Engineer Company out of Indiana, Pa.
His unit returned Feb. 6, and he spoke at the Penn Hills Kiwanis Club's Feb. 20 meeting, discussing his work clearing improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, from Afghan roads.
“We found nine the right way, and three found us the wrong way,” Shirer, 28, said, though he noted that he did not lose any of the 31 soldiers under his command during their deployment.
“We always joked that you have to be close to clinically insane to go out and look for these things,” said the 1st Lt., passing around a piece of an IED, a shred of a gallon milk-jug which had been loaded with explosives and still smelled of sulfur.
Using ground-penetrating radar and metal detectors, but mostly through plain observation, Shirer's team would locate IEDs, move them from the road and safely detonate them.
Shirer's team would head off their base — “outside the wire,” Shirer called it — in a roughly eight-vehicle convoy, protected behind heavy armor and nine-inch-thick windows.
Some of the vehicles were equipped with an exterior aluminum cage which would bear the brunt of a rocket-propelled grenade blast or in some cases, actually snare the grenade, which could then be disposed of safely.
Mainly, Shirer gave Kiwanis members snapshots of daily life in Afghanistan: poor hygiene, worse sanitation, and marijuana, at least on the Afghan side: Shirer showed one photo of a six-foot pot plant he said was growing on an Afghan army base. Occasionally, Afghan soldiers would partake, he said.
“What you've heard about there being no alcohol, no drugs, and no pornography in Afghanistan? It's not true,” Shirer said.
When it came to truth, however, particularly in a country with a myriad of ethnicities, languages and shifting alliances, Shirer said one person he could always count on was his lead interpreter, Mohammed.
“He was probably as valuable to me as my (convoy) trucks,” Shirer said. “We'd send him into a village and ask him to go in, get us information and come back. If he came back and said, ‘We don't want to be here anymore,' we'd be out of there.”
Shirer said that while the Afghan military is ineffective because of a lack of supplies and funding from the Afghan government, “they're very effective at the same time because they live in these villages, they know the terrain and they know the people.”
Shirer is stateside for four months before shipping back out, although his next assignment will be decidedly less hazardous and will feature better weather: he is headed to Germany in June to join a heavy equipment company and help rebuild roads.
Patrick Varine is an editor for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7845 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.
- Penn Hills teens risk arson charges, set car on fire for music video
- Most primary candidates move on to election ballots
- Mt. Hope Presbyterian expands ‘Wednesdays on the Lawn’ with farmer’s market
- Linton Middle School’s anti-bullying program helps kids ‘Get in the Zone’
- Strong finish motivates young Penn Hills softball team