BADULA QULP, Afghanistan – BADULA QULP, Afghanistan (AP) — When he was a child, and it was bedtime and lights out, Gene Hicks would hide under the blankets and read with a flashlight. Now he's Army 1st Sgt. Gene Hicks, fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan, and sometimes lies in his sleeping bag reading with a flashlight.
"I'm still doing the same thing," said Hicks, whose mind travels far from the war zone to a world inhabited by a monk, a duke, an assassin and the merchant princes of medieval Europe.
Hicks, 39, of Tacoma, Washington, is reading "The Anger of God" by Paul Doherty, a mystery novel set in London in 1379. His girlfriend in the U.S. wrote to Doherty to tell him Hicks was a fan. The author mailed a prayer card, autographed copies of four books, and a note — "Be safe."
Hicks is part of a force from the 5th Stryker Brigade that has pushed into Taliban land near the southern town of Marjah, where U.S. Marines are fighting. He retreats to Doherty's book when he can.
"I like reading about the history of how things were; he doesn't sugarcoat things much," said Hicks. He likes the atmospherics — the gallows, the intrigue, the intensity of religious belief.
The first line:
"The man waiting in the corner of the derelict cemetery between Poor Jewry and Sybethe Lane jumped as an owl in the old yew tree above him hooted and spread ghostly wings to go soaring like a dark angel over the tumbled grass and briars."
The soldiers of Alpha Company of the 1st Battalion, 17th Infantry Regiment have fought insurgents in the fields and villages of Badula Qulp. Bombs and snipers are a daily threat. There is downtime. Some read in the quiet hours, when they are not shooting or patrolling or scanning, or cleaning their weapons or waiting or sleeping or eating or chatting or tending to Stryker infantry trucks.
Many prefer movies or conversation. Those who do read like fact and fiction: the Bible, best-sellers, Westerns, thrillers. A lot of it comes in care packages from the U.S. The soldiers bring books, too.
"It talks about morality first, and then it talks about the virtues of Christ, like faith and hope and love ... you've got to have a strong faith. My faith has gotten stronger. I've seen a lot of things in my life," said Clemons, 27.
"My wife, she bought me a book for Christmas. It's called 'Tender Warrior,' by Stu Weber. Even though I'm a soldier, it's about opening up and showing my feelings toward my family and my friends instead of holding it all in. ... I've always held it in and she wanted me to show my emotions a bit more, instead of holding it all in until I can't anymore and then I explode."
Clemons was in Iraq in 2004-2005, and during that time, four roadside bombs exploded near his vehicle. He was unhurt.
"I believe I have a guardian angel," he said. "I believe that." But he wants to be a state trooper when he gets home, figuring that giving out speeding tickets is a lot safer than what he's doing now.
He is staying in a compound that was earlier occupied by another Alpha platoon, and when he moved in, he found "The Screwtape Letters," another C.S. Lewis book, on a shelf. He'll read that next.
Staff Sgt. Van Forbes of Decatur, Alabama, usually reads for about 30 minutes before he goes to sleep. It helps him unwind, even after a day's firefight when "you're all amped up and stuff."
He has read a book about a Japanese hitman, a "horrible" horror novel about a vampire-like villain who sustains himself by draining women of their vitamins through sexual intercourse, and Marcus Luttrell's "Lone Survivor," a true story about a Navy SEAL.
One afternoon, Sgt. Abel Aceituno of San Francisco sat in the sun and read "The Fifth Profession" by David Morrell. He described what he knew of the plot so far — an alarm system, a labyrinth, a Greek drug lord.
"I never thought I could be captivated, but it caught my attention. It gives me a chance to get away from where I'm at," said Aceituno. On base, he brings a book to the chow hall.
On this mission, the company commander, Capt. Michael Kovalsky, brought Ernest Hemingway's "The Snows of Kilimanjaro and Other Stories," and "Forever," by Pete Hamill. The jacket fell off the Hemingway book, so he drew the cover image in pen and colored pencil on the blank hard cover: a biplane, and the snowcapped volcano.
"Forever" was recommended by his father.
"I thought it sounded kind of cheap and stupid, but it has become my favorite book," said Kovalsky, outlining the plot that begins in 18th century Ireland, moves through the American revolutionary period and the "Boss" Tweed era of New York, and leads to Sept. 11, 2001 — the attack on the twin towers that led the U.S. into war in Afghanistan.
"The real character and the main character is New York City," the captain said. "Pete Hamill has this great style of bringing to life something inanimate. He's a natural New Yorker." Kovalsky, 26, is from Fords, New Jersey, less than 30 miles (50 kilometers) from Manhattan.
A self-described "fan of rhetoric," Kovalsky began to recite "The Raven" by Edgar Allen Poe: "Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary ..."
Next he quoted from President Abraham Lincoln's letter to Mrs. Bixby, who lost sons in the Civil War: "I feel how weak and fruitless must be any words of mine ..."
Up on the roof of the company outpost, Pfc. Andrew Ubil of Sacramento, California, was in full combat gear, on guard duty behind a pile of sandbags. He is 19 years old, a 2008 high school graduate. He said he doesn't read. But as he killed time until the end of his shift, his measured, drifting phrases carried a kind of rough poetry of their own.
"Sixth grade not too long ago, high school, graduation and now I'm in Afghanistan ... It's just finding out how much you take for granted ... That's what I wanted to do, see different things ... Old enough to die for your country, but still a kid ... Get used to it, I guess ... These people don't quit. You've got to shoot them a few times to get them to stop ... I kind of like the culture here. It seems more respectful. They're more apt to help a neighbor ... I've always been kind of quaint."