Josh Jeter crawls through the war at five miles per hour. From a hulking armored truck, he peers down through three-inch-thick windows at the roads outside Kandahar City in southern Afghanistan, home of the Taliban and the new epicenter of America’s nine-year-old war. Jeter and the other men of the 1037th Route Clearance Company, a National Guard unit from Paragould, Arkansas, retrace these roads so often that they can spot out-of-place rocks and disturbed soil, a giveaway for freshly buried explosives.
The war here is a counterinsurgency, yes. The country needs more development, less corruption, and better-trained security forces. For many soldiers, though, the war is simpler, reduced to a singular concern: IEDs, improvised explosive devices, the biggest troop killer. And many of the soldiers charged with finding them are what used to be derisively referred to as America’s weekend warriors: members of National Guard units from Arkansas, Missouri, North and South Carolina, Washington, Oregon, and South Dakota who used to fill sandbags during floods and now inch along Afghanistan’s roads, picking through trash piles and patches of loose dirt.
They are, in their civilian lives, cops and farmers, electricians, mechanics, welders and builders. And they know each other deeply—an echo of the Civil War, when whole towns went to war together, with shared histories, and often with shared family trees. The 1037th, the War Pigs, has three sets of brothers, a father and son, many in-laws, and a stupefying web of personal connections. “We’re just so familiar with each other,” Jeter says. In high school, he worked at Hays Food Town under Jason Hood, then the night manager and now a sergeant in 2nd Platoon. At home, he works with several other 1037th members, building Monroe shock absorbers in Paragould. “Specialist Gillean, I’m marrying his cousin when we get home,” Jeter says. And he grew up with Private First Class Chad Murray, also in 2nd Platoon. “We sat next to each other on the school bus,” he says. “I’ve known him since kindergarten.”
I find Murray and Tyler Fraysher playing Ping-Pong in the company’s recreation room that night. “Jeter’s grandma drove our bus,” Murray says. He and Jeter left for basic training the same day. Fraysher, currently beating Murray by several points, grew up in Piggott, an hour and a half north of Jonesboro, with 3,800 people, a handful of restaurants, 33 churches, and a new community center, all amid fields of rice, corn, cotton, and soybeans. (Piggott also boasts the family home of Hemingway’s second wife, where he wrote part of A Farewell to Arms.) “My grandma used to babysit for Hicks,” another soldier in 2nd Platoon, Fraysher says. “She goes to church with his grandma and grandpa. Hicks’s dad drove my school bus, and his grandma babysat for me.”