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Barrio Logan distiller named Deaf Shepherd after his Afghan dog

Last ten years defusing bombs

You’d never know it from his cheery personality, but Josh Christy has spent more time in the worst areas of Iraq and Afghanistan than just about anybody.
You’d never know it from his cheery personality, but Josh Christy has spent more time in the worst areas of Iraq and Afghanistan than just about anybody.

“Born in the Cradle of Civilization,” reads the tagline on Josh Christy’s card. And that is a true statement, if not quite a complete one. “I spent my first ten years in Saudi Arabia,” he says. "And I spent the last ten years defusing IEDs in Iraq and Afghanistan.” These days, at least until his next deployment, he spends his days making powerful spirits at Liberty Call whisky distillery in Barrio Logan.

Place

Liberty Call Distilling Co.

1985 National Avenue, Suite 1131, San Diego

We’re sitting at the bar, hearing the music thump, staring at a bottle of whisky. It has an actual 50-caliber bullet penetrating halfway into it. Josh, it turns out, is the chief distiller here, and the place has a distinct military vibe, as does the grog they make and sell. Names like “Old Ironsides,” “Blue Ridge,” “Splice the Mainbrace,” “Deaf Shepherd.” Deaf Shepherd? “It’s my distillation company,” says Josh. From where we sit, the view through the window is straight out of steampunk: gleaming pots, sieves, coils, portholes, screw-top hatches, thermometers, snaking tubes. “What we have here is a 100-gallon column still, or flute still,” Josh is saying. “You’ve got four plates in there…” At this point, he starts losing me, but he gets me back when he offers a taste of one of his whiskies. “We can make vodka and gin as well as whisky from this same still,” he says.

The life

Maybe it’s the odd sip of the whiskies we’re trying, but pretty soon the word “Afghanistan” creeps into the conversation, along with the word “lost.” It turns out that Josh, at 35, is still active duty Navy. Bomb squad: EOD, Explosive Ordnance Disposal. You’d never know it from his cheery personality, but Christy has spent more time in the worst areas of Iraq and Afghanistan than just about anybody. Seventeen of his 22 buddies at the forward Firebase Cobra in Afghanistan earned Purple Hearts, meaning they were wounded. Three were killed. He has done six deployments and has neutralized 125 IEDs. That means getting up close with 125 live bombs, fiddling with their wires, and defusing them, getting it right the first time, every time.

Josh Christy getting ready to step out on a mission in Olumbagh, Afghanistan.

“What was Afghanistan like?” he says, repeating my question. He quotes Dickens, “‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.’” And suddenly, we’re in it, that life. “What I love about it is that the background noise and the clutter of everyday life is not there. Prepare for mission, go on mission, survive mission, report mission. I mean, just simplicity. And it was beautiful in its way. You became very close with the guys who were with you, even though a lot of guys got hurt, a lot of guys got killed. On the worst day, we lost two guys in one day. Mark Forester, Air Force combat controller, a new guy on his first deployment, but he was so good at what he did, that as a new guy, they sent him to one of the hottest spots in Afghanistan. He dropped so many bombs on danger-close gun runs, he became a legend before he was killed. That guy will live on forever.”

What happened? “Afghan sniper killed one of our ANA (Afghan National Army) guys. Calvin Harrison, as the 18 Delta guy (medic), went out and grabbed that guy to try and save him. Sniper shot Calvin. After calling in a gun run, Mark went out to try to help Cal. Mark was shot by the sniper. And then, as the sniper came into the area, one of our guys killed the sniper. So we got him. But a pretty shitty day. And yet, that life has something we’ve lost in our day-to-day mentally cluttered existence.” 

Where do I sign up?

“Growing up, I just wanted to be a diver,” Christy says. “I grew up overseas, in Saudi, because my parents were teachers with the international schools community. They taught the ex-pat children at an American curriculum school, in different countries. We did ten years in Saudi. My brother and I were both born there. Saudi’s a dry country, as in, no alcohol. And a lot of the ex-pats, including a lot of engineers, are intelligent individuals who understand the theory of distillation, in theory. So, had they set their minds to producing their own alcohol, they theoretically could have done that.” Laws being what they are, the man has to be canny. But it’s theoretically part of why we’re sitting here today, sipping his whisky.

Christy (left) and buddy (code-named “Conan”) cross the Helmand river during an operation.

He didn’t grow up dreaming of cutting the correct wire. “I always wanted to be a Navy Diver. I’d grown up exploring the best diving in the world, the Saudi side of the Red Sea.” He got a lot of offers, including from the Navy’s nuclear specialists. “The nuke guys were calling me once a week. They were offering bonuses. So I called my uncle: ‘Hey man! What do you know about nukes?’ He said, ‘They’re smart guys, but if you like the sunshine, avoid that. You’ll be down among the reactors’” Christy just wanted to dive; the recruiters were ready for him. “They said, ‘If you go EOD, you still go to dive school. And then you go to EOD school, and you blow stuff up, and then you go to airborne school, and you jump out of planes, and then you go out to San Diego for small unit tactics, and you’ll shoot guns at an advanced weapons course, and if you can make it through all that, we’ll give you a $30,000 signing bonus.’ And I was like, ‘$30,000? Hell yeah! Where do I sign up!?’” 

Losing his cherries

“The very first day of my very first operation was in Iraq, probably in Warhorse, in Baqubah, in 2008. It was me and one other new guy. He was an officer, and I was enlisted. And so we flipped a coin for who was going to be the primary robot driver. I lost, so he got to drive for the first call. He’s in the back, and I’m driving the truck up front. It’s a JERV, Joint EOD Mine-Resistant Vehicle. Big-ass truck, with a V-shaped hull. Explosive wave goes around it. I’m just absolutely jealous. So we get on-stream, he drops the robot, and drives it up to where he sees wires coming out of this rice bag. And he’s saying ‘OK. I’m going to reach for the wires now.’ He’s watching the screen and driving the robot. I’m driving the JERV, and the team leader is next to me. We’re looking at the robot working, but we don’t know what he sees on his screen. We’re watching the claw reach out. And he goes, ‘Okay, I’m going to attempt to grab these wires in the rice bag.’ And Boom! He blows up the robot. I started laughing, because at least I didn’t blow up the expensive robot. We were all in the truck, so we got rattled pretty good, but that’s why we use robots. Remote, remote, remote! That was my first mission in-country. And the other guy looked real bad!

Satchel, 4 months old, watches a Blackhawk helicopter touch down successfully at Firebase Cobra, Afghanistan.

“My first time as the primary — because that was the big thing — I was so excited, because when I first showed up to the platoon, my chief had taken my helmet and drawn two big cherries on it. And he colored them in red. That was so everybody knew I was the new guy. And he told me like, ‘Alright. You can do your first IED. I’ll let you paint your helmet, I’ll let you paint over your cherries.’ So I was ready to get those cherries off my helmet. I got on scene, dropped the robot, did my search, found the IED — it was crush wire. You find the patterns in the ground. I saw the crush wire going across — little contacts spread out over a road, like someone has dug something up, then covered it over. You start to see patterns. So I saw that, and then with my cameras, I was able to look back and [spot] the main charge, put my charge on there, and we blew it up. I was all excited, and we get back, we’re done with the mission and I take my helmet off, and I hand it to my chief and I was like, ‘Get those cherries off there.’ And he takes it, and he draws a little bite mark out of one of the cherries. And I was like, ‘What is that!?’ And he says, ‘Every IED you do, I’ll take another bite out of it.’ I said, ‘Goddang it!’ But slowly and surely, I did get rid of the cherries. At first, the bites were pretty little. It depended: the size of the call would dictate the size of the bite.”

The work 

“That first one, I was really thankful for it, because I was able to work out of a truck. Basically, unlimited explosives, with myself and two other people to bounce ideas off of. It’s the best way to learn how to do stuff in real life. Because from that point forward, I had less equipment, where I wasn’t necessarily alone, but I was by myself. So having that foundation to build on [was important]. I was the only EOD guy out there, in that situation, later on. There’s always another EOD guy with us, but he might be on the other side of the village. We’d separate on purpose, so if something happened, you’d be close enough where you could help out, but you weren’t so close that you’d get hit by the same thing.

Josh, Satchel, and Luci(fer) the monkey enjoy an afternoon reading at VSO (Village Stability Operations) Harrison base.

“I did not have another EOD guy that I was with get blown up, but I did have other guys: Afghans, and some Army SOF guys (Special Operations Forces) who did unfortunately hit stuff and get hurt, and I was the first responder, and it’s the other part of our job. You try to render it safe, and you try to mitigate the hazard, but you can do everything right, and still have stuff go wrong. When it does, that’s when we’re there to come in. We clear up to and around an individual, making sure there aren’t any other explosive hazards, and then usually the medics are right on our ass. So we’re making sure it’s a safe area for them to come in. It can get pretty gnarly, especially when it’s one of your boys. But you have to take a deep breath. And you talk to him, like, ‘Hey, I’ve got you, brother. I’m coming up.’ But you do have to clear it.

“You get frustrated sometimes. Everything’s going bad, and you’re doing everything that you can do, and then something really bad happens. It pisses you off, and you get frustrated, but you’re not focused on that, you’re focused on helping out your boy. Later on, that’s usually when you start doing the after-action in your head, and going over everything that happened. You’re like, ‘Could I have done anything different that would have prevented that from happening?’ You usually do it on your own, internally, and then you sit down with everybody and you go, ‘Okay, let’s walk through it, so if something can be figured out where you can do it better, then you don’t do it again. So if you make a mistake, that’s horrible, and it sucks. If you do it twice, that’s when it starts to become unforgivable.”

Lucy the monkey grooms her friend Josh at VSO Garrison Base in Yakdan, Afghanistan.

Where was he? “I was out with Special Forces working out of Firebase Cobra, which was the worst place in the entire country at that time. It was so bad, all our food, water, fuel, ammo, was air-dropped. So we’d have these big C-17s and C130s parachute our stuff in. The best of times, and the worst of times, right? We were in firefights every day. We worked our White (secure) Space, where we’ve cleared an area, have good relations with the local populace. We moved from where the town right outside our firebase was maybe 50-50, semi-permissive, to, by the time we left, we had boys who could go out for a run. You’d still take your weapon, but you could run in the mountains, and be relatively comfortable with that. But it took a long time to get to that point. Maybe 10 months. In the end, we had great relationships with the village. And that’s the bread and butter for the Green Berets, right? They go out and train up the local populace. 

“In Shamshad, we ended up losing those two guys, which was a real shitty day. At the time we were doing ‘Village Stability Operations,’ VSO. We would go in, and kill, capture, or kick out any Taliban in the village. And then we would train the local males. We would help them set up checkpoints, we would teach them the basics. And we’d be ‘Alright. This is your village now. If you don’t want the Taliban to come in, it’s up to you.’ And after we left and moved on down the valley to the next village, we got word that the Taliban had come back, maybe a week or so after we left, and they told the village elders, ‘Give us everything the Americans gave you, or we’re going to kill your families. We know where they live.’ But the locals who we worked with said, ‘Well, you can kill our families, because you know where they are, but we’ll kill your families, because we know where they are. So we’re going to be arguing over a dead village. If you want to play that game, let’s dance.’ And the Taliban were like, ‘Aah, it’s not worth it.’ Because the villagers were no longer an easy target.”

The schedule

A typical day in the deployed life of Josh Christy: “Everybody had their different schedules, but you had your chow hall times — okay, there was no chow hall. Just a room that we ate in. We had an Army cook who was out there with us. He made what he could, with the air-dropped food, and we would buy eggs and chickens and stuff like that, and rice. So now we’re injecting a little money into the local economy — improving our diet, plus helping the local economy, and garnering some favor, and they support the firebase, and we get better food than the kind of boil-in-bag stuff that the army drops out of a plane for us!  So you wake up, grab breakfast, you go work out, you prep all your gear for a mission — and we’re basically going on missions every day. Because there’s two ODAs out there — Operational Detachment Alpha — it’s what the Special Forces platoon’s called — and because there’s only two EOD guys, myself and my partner up there. We would go out with each one of them. So the teams would get a break every other day. We’d have to go out with each one. So you wake up, and we had our letters that we wrote, our ‘almost made it’ letters, letters to family, in case you got killed that day. Then you have your list where you divvy the stuff up that you had, like, ‘You can have my computer.’ And then you have your list of all your sensitive items, so they could gather these things up. At first, you say, ‘Oh please.’ But after the first week there, it was like, ‘This is for realsies!’”

On a typical day, “You’d get ready for your mission, you’d do like your pre-mission brief. Most missions were a ‘presence patrol,’ per the correct verbiage. We’d call them ‘KLE to Contact,’ which is short for ‘Key Leader Engagement,’ which is, ‘We’re going to talk with the elders of this village.’ But we knew, once we got to a certain point, we were going to get into gunfights, the ‘contact’ in ‘KLE to contact.’ We just wanted to say ‘Hey, here’s who we are, can we do anything for you? Do you guys want a well put in?’ Or, ‘We do Medcaps or Vetcaps (medical/veterinary Civil Action Programs). Our ‘18 Deltas’ are medics, Docs. We can come out. Anybody who’s sick, we’ll see them, and if we have medicine for it, we’ll give them medicine, or treatment for injuries. Same thing for the animals, because it’s all farming out there, vetcap. It was like, ‘Hey, how can you help us help you?’ That would be our intention, but we knew before we got there we were going to get in a fight. We had Hesco, one of the best inventions ever made, big wire baskets, eight feet tall, and you fill them with dirt. Six feet by eight feet. That was our walls for our firebase. So you’d drive out through the entry control point, and then we’re in basically [enemy territory]. At that time, in that area, we were in open-back GMVs, Humvees, with guns out everywhere, Stick-track, and then we had four-wheelers and motorbikes. Dirt bikes. You could stay off the road more on them. It was so heavily IED’ed out there that if you didn’t maneuver, or get high ground to get better assay, you could be in trouble. But we’re armed! You’ve got a 240 machine gun at each door, we’ve got two in the back, and a 240 Mark 9 machine gun in the turret. You made it so you weren’t necessarily an easy target. 

“That was the concept, but soon enough, you’d hear a bullet snap. You’d give out the 3-Ds, Distance, Direction and Description. You try to find a little cover if you can, think small, put your helmet on. There’s cover, and there’s concealment. ‘Cover’ is like behind a thick mud wall. Rounds can hit that, and they’re not going to hit you. ‘Concealment’ is where they could hit you if they could see you, but they can’t see you. So you had to utilize the Green Zone, which kind of dictates the fighting seasons in Afghanistan. When the field crops are about waist-high, that’s when you know, ‘Alright. It’s fighting season again. Let’s go!’ Then, when they harvest their crops in the wintertime, there’s no cover or concealment. So now everybody’s friends, and they’re farmers, and it’s all cool until the springtime. And then, depending on where you were in the country, it’s really all in the crops. They harvest the marijuana — 14-foot weed plants — as far as the eye can see. The Taliban pays them to plant and grow and harvest the crop, to make hashish. So they do weed for the fall harvest, and then the poppy they plant in Spring, and harvest in summertime. The poppy fields grow to about waist-high.

“That’s for heroin, I guess,” says this guy who’s listening in. He’s a chef. 

“Yeah.”

“So you guys take care of that?” asks the chef. “Like, you want to make sure there’s no heroin plants, right?”

“Well technically, it is illegal,” says Christy. “But at the same time it’s that farmer’s livelihood. We’re not there to fuck with their livelihood. We’re there to remove the bad people out of the area. I mean, yes, there have been initiatives to offer [the farmers] low cover crops. So, ‘Here’s watermelon seeds,’ and ‘Here’s cantaloupe seeds.’ And the farmers are like, ‘What the fuck am I going to do with those watermelons, when the guy who pays me to grow weed is going to kill me if I don’t grow weed?’”

Soldier’s best friend

Christy and his buddies did have some “family,” mainly Afghan dogs. “Honestly, they were something to come home to at the end of a busy day in firefights. To scratch behind the ears.” Almost until the end, alongside Christy would be his dog, and buddy, Satchel (as in “Satchel Charge,”) an Afghan Warrior Shepherd who adopted him.  “I found her in Aruzcon, Afghanistan. On the whole deployment, she went out on missions with us. She didn’t distract us in, like, firefights. She’d hide under the Humvee. Where I went, she went. She just lay there. She got stepped on a bunch, but when bullets are flying by, she’s pretty good.” 

He even arranged to have her flown home. At the last moment, he almost lost her. “We’ve been 11 years together, a lot at firebases. We finally came to the end of one deployment. I had one last mission, to blow up a cache of weapons we had discovered. I checked everybody was clear, but somehow Satchel snuck back in.

“The charge went off. Then we saw Satchel. She came tearing out of the cache area, disappeared into the tent and under my bed. The explosion blew both her eardrums. She has been partially deaf ever since. But otherwise okay. So I named my distilling company after her: ‘Deaf Shepherd.’”

The Monkey Incident

“One of our ‘terps found her for me,” says Christy. The interpreter brought in a bad-tempered monkey they named Lucy. “We named her Lucy because on her good days, she was like ‘I Love Lucy,’ and on her bad days, Lucifer. So this was during winter, the non-fighting months. I took a long time to get her used to me. But every day, I put my chair just outside of her range, and I’d read a book with Satchel, and just get Lucy used to my presence every day, because monkeys are social creatures. I’d move a little bit closer, a little bit closer, until I was within her realm. I would bring her food. I’d give her fish from the river, crabs from the river. I’d pick leafy greens, and give her that. I’d put that down, and sit in my chair, and read a book. I’d spend time with her throughout the day. And over time, we got to the point — about a month and a half in —where she’d run up and jump in my lap.

“The first time it happened, she’s posturing as if she’s big. She grabbed my beard. I was all, ‘What’s going on!’ But she started to groom my beard. Pick through it. Because it’s a social thing for them. So I let it happen. She got on my shoulders and groomed my hair, and then she got back on my lap, and I groomed her. And then, by the end of it, she would groom me, I would groom her, and then she’d jump on the ground, and she would groom Satchel. And Satchel just lay there, and the monkey would pick through her fur. It was one of those things through the wintertime in Afghanistan, when not a whole lot was going on, and that was my entertainment, befriending this monkey!

“Then these new guys came, from a different unit. They came out to build. So we named it Harrison Base. This was named after Calvin Harrison, who was with us, was killed. That was in the town of Yaktan. Have you ever seen the TV show Inside the Green Berets? It’s on National Geographic. That’s where I was. And in this little town, this little village of Yaktan, they built a clinic. The Taliban came and took it over, and then a couple of years later, we came and liberated that town, and we took the clinic area back over. We called a Seabee contingent to help us with some combat engineering. And I let everybody know. I said, ‘Hey, the Afghans have a monkey out there.’ There’s me and one other guy who have built a rapport with the monkey, but you guys, don’t mess with her. She can be mean if she doesn’t know you. So just leave her be.’ 

“Lucy used to eat cigarettes. Somebody gave her a cigarette one time, and she got addicted to nicotine. So if you got within her realm, she would jump up and grab a cigarette out of your mouth. She’d wipe the cherry off on your arm, eat the tobacco, and then throw the butt down. Monkeys are smart. So guys would throw her cigarettes. This Seabee figured that out. He was doing it when I came in. Every day, he was either throwing her cigarettes, or food, and I had a feeling he was going to try to pet her before he left. So his last day, he came up to one of our 18 Deltas, and he was like ‘Hey, the monkey bit me.’ And we were like, ‘Man, this idiot!’ So we talked to the Delta. We were like ‘Can you just make something up? Just to mess with the guy.’ So he was ‘Yeah, I can do that.’ So he went to this kid and he was like, ‘Hey man: we told you not to mess with the monkey, but obviously that ship has sailed. You got close enough where she bit you. There’s a 99 percent chance you have monkey herpes.’

“And this kid’s like, ‘Monkey herpes? What?’ 

“So the 18 Delta’s like, ‘Yeah. Basically you’ve got a fifty-fifty shot. If you have it, you can just drop dead from it in 10 years. If you don’t, nothing to worry about.’

“So we all think this is hilarious. We’ve been hanging out, fifteen Americans, for a long time. So you’ve got to create your own fun out there. And this new guy was just a big target for us. So he flew back to Kandahar airfield, back to his parent command. And apparently he was worried about it. Monkey herpes! So he told his chain of command, and I would say in less than 24 hours, we were getting a call. ‘Do you guys have a monkey out there?’ And we were like, ‘No sir, we do not. Our partner force does. Our Afghans, who we’re co-located with — we live together — but we can’t tell them they can’t have it. It’s their country. There are a couple of people who have befriended the partner force monkey, but again, it’s their monkey. It’s not our monkey.’ So [the colonel] was like ‘The CDC is sending people out from Atlanta, so you need to secure this monkey, make sure he stays there, and there’ll be people coming out to test this monkey.’ Well, of course, ‘testing,’ if it’s like any other animal, they have to kill the animal, right?  Because this dude was really nervous. ‘Like, what if I just drop dead in 10 years?’ And we had just made it up: ‘Let’s just tell him, like everyone knows what herpes is! So, let’s go with that. It’s a little bit safer than AIDS.’

“So after the phone call, we had a group meeting, and we were like, ‘Alright. She’s a wild animal, doesn’t belong to us, for the record. But we always had her on a big 20-foot leash. She had this big corner, she had this house and everything, and she’d get up on these Hesco Barriers, 12 feet up: she had a nice big chunk of real estate. So when we were on watch one night, me and the other guy, we let Lucy go. Because I was like ‘I’m not going to let them kill this animal because we played a joke on this kid. So I let her go, at the end of my shift. ‘Be free, Lucy!’ I carried her outside of our [protected area], and let her go. Then I went to bed. 

“A couple of hours later, one of the guys woke me up. He’s like, ‘Hey man, Lucy’s at the front door, and she won’t let anybody out.’ I had walked out with her, and let her go, thinking she’d go for freedom, even though she had been with us a while, and we had fed her and sheltered her. She was free, off her 20-foot tether. But I think it started to rain that night, or snow, so she went right back! She came under our front porch, and she was like hanging out by the front door. But she was only cool with two of us, so anybody else who came to the front door, she’d blow up on, and show her teeth. So they’re like, ‘We’re not going to fool with the monkey; we’re going to wake JC.’ 

“So I tried a couple more times before I left, and she always came back. She was still there when I left, and the CDC hadn’t been there yet. Every time you have a team turnover, just like with camp dogs, things change. I brought Satchel back with me, but we had Madus, Eddie and Roxie, three of our original camp dogs. They had been there since the inception of the firebase. Those dogs were staples there. If the guys coming in behind us didn’t like dogs, then they could get rid of them. You never knew what was going to happen. So I doubly don’t know what happened to a mean monkey. 

“What I told the guys was, ‘Hey, there’s this monkey out there, and here’s what we did, and here’s the timeline, and this is all the steps I took, from when we got here to now. And she’s super cool, and it’s a kind of unique experience, right?’ I don’t know if they put in the time. In my mind, she’s still living her best life. But then, I’m more of a silver lining guy.”

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You’d never know it from his cheery personality, but Josh Christy has spent more time in the worst areas of Iraq and Afghanistan than just about anybody.
You’d never know it from his cheery personality, but Josh Christy has spent more time in the worst areas of Iraq and Afghanistan than just about anybody.

“Born in the Cradle of Civilization,” reads the tagline on Josh Christy’s card. And that is a true statement, if not quite a complete one. “I spent my first ten years in Saudi Arabia,” he says. "And I spent the last ten years defusing IEDs in Iraq and Afghanistan.” These days, at least until his next deployment, he spends his days making powerful spirits at Liberty Call whisky distillery in Barrio Logan.

Place

Liberty Call Distilling Co.

1985 National Avenue, Suite 1131, San Diego

We’re sitting at the bar, hearing the music thump, staring at a bottle of whisky. It has an actual 50-caliber bullet penetrating halfway into it. Josh, it turns out, is the chief distiller here, and the place has a distinct military vibe, as does the grog they make and sell. Names like “Old Ironsides,” “Blue Ridge,” “Splice the Mainbrace,” “Deaf Shepherd.” Deaf Shepherd? “It’s my distillation company,” says Josh. From where we sit, the view through the window is straight out of steampunk: gleaming pots, sieves, coils, portholes, screw-top hatches, thermometers, snaking tubes. “What we have here is a 100-gallon column still, or flute still,” Josh is saying. “You’ve got four plates in there…” At this point, he starts losing me, but he gets me back when he offers a taste of one of his whiskies. “We can make vodka and gin as well as whisky from this same still,” he says.

The life

Maybe it’s the odd sip of the whiskies we’re trying, but pretty soon the word “Afghanistan” creeps into the conversation, along with the word “lost.” It turns out that Josh, at 35, is still active duty Navy. Bomb squad: EOD, Explosive Ordnance Disposal. You’d never know it from his cheery personality, but Christy has spent more time in the worst areas of Iraq and Afghanistan than just about anybody. Seventeen of his 22 buddies at the forward Firebase Cobra in Afghanistan earned Purple Hearts, meaning they were wounded. Three were killed. He has done six deployments and has neutralized 125 IEDs. That means getting up close with 125 live bombs, fiddling with their wires, and defusing them, getting it right the first time, every time.

Josh Christy getting ready to step out on a mission in Olumbagh, Afghanistan.

“What was Afghanistan like?” he says, repeating my question. He quotes Dickens, “‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.’” And suddenly, we’re in it, that life. “What I love about it is that the background noise and the clutter of everyday life is not there. Prepare for mission, go on mission, survive mission, report mission. I mean, just simplicity. And it was beautiful in its way. You became very close with the guys who were with you, even though a lot of guys got hurt, a lot of guys got killed. On the worst day, we lost two guys in one day. Mark Forester, Air Force combat controller, a new guy on his first deployment, but he was so good at what he did, that as a new guy, they sent him to one of the hottest spots in Afghanistan. He dropped so many bombs on danger-close gun runs, he became a legend before he was killed. That guy will live on forever.”

What happened? “Afghan sniper killed one of our ANA (Afghan National Army) guys. Calvin Harrison, as the 18 Delta guy (medic), went out and grabbed that guy to try and save him. Sniper shot Calvin. After calling in a gun run, Mark went out to try to help Cal. Mark was shot by the sniper. And then, as the sniper came into the area, one of our guys killed the sniper. So we got him. But a pretty shitty day. And yet, that life has something we’ve lost in our day-to-day mentally cluttered existence.” 

Where do I sign up?

“Growing up, I just wanted to be a diver,” Christy says. “I grew up overseas, in Saudi, because my parents were teachers with the international schools community. They taught the ex-pat children at an American curriculum school, in different countries. We did ten years in Saudi. My brother and I were both born there. Saudi’s a dry country, as in, no alcohol. And a lot of the ex-pats, including a lot of engineers, are intelligent individuals who understand the theory of distillation, in theory. So, had they set their minds to producing their own alcohol, they theoretically could have done that.” Laws being what they are, the man has to be canny. But it’s theoretically part of why we’re sitting here today, sipping his whisky.

Christy (left) and buddy (code-named “Conan”) cross the Helmand river during an operation.

He didn’t grow up dreaming of cutting the correct wire. “I always wanted to be a Navy Diver. I’d grown up exploring the best diving in the world, the Saudi side of the Red Sea.” He got a lot of offers, including from the Navy’s nuclear specialists. “The nuke guys were calling me once a week. They were offering bonuses. So I called my uncle: ‘Hey man! What do you know about nukes?’ He said, ‘They’re smart guys, but if you like the sunshine, avoid that. You’ll be down among the reactors’” Christy just wanted to dive; the recruiters were ready for him. “They said, ‘If you go EOD, you still go to dive school. And then you go to EOD school, and you blow stuff up, and then you go to airborne school, and you jump out of planes, and then you go out to San Diego for small unit tactics, and you’ll shoot guns at an advanced weapons course, and if you can make it through all that, we’ll give you a $30,000 signing bonus.’ And I was like, ‘$30,000? Hell yeah! Where do I sign up!?’” 

Losing his cherries

“The very first day of my very first operation was in Iraq, probably in Warhorse, in Baqubah, in 2008. It was me and one other new guy. He was an officer, and I was enlisted. And so we flipped a coin for who was going to be the primary robot driver. I lost, so he got to drive for the first call. He’s in the back, and I’m driving the truck up front. It’s a JERV, Joint EOD Mine-Resistant Vehicle. Big-ass truck, with a V-shaped hull. Explosive wave goes around it. I’m just absolutely jealous. So we get on-stream, he drops the robot, and drives it up to where he sees wires coming out of this rice bag. And he’s saying ‘OK. I’m going to reach for the wires now.’ He’s watching the screen and driving the robot. I’m driving the JERV, and the team leader is next to me. We’re looking at the robot working, but we don’t know what he sees on his screen. We’re watching the claw reach out. And he goes, ‘Okay, I’m going to attempt to grab these wires in the rice bag.’ And Boom! He blows up the robot. I started laughing, because at least I didn’t blow up the expensive robot. We were all in the truck, so we got rattled pretty good, but that’s why we use robots. Remote, remote, remote! That was my first mission in-country. And the other guy looked real bad!

Satchel, 4 months old, watches a Blackhawk helicopter touch down successfully at Firebase Cobra, Afghanistan.

“My first time as the primary — because that was the big thing — I was so excited, because when I first showed up to the platoon, my chief had taken my helmet and drawn two big cherries on it. And he colored them in red. That was so everybody knew I was the new guy. And he told me like, ‘Alright. You can do your first IED. I’ll let you paint your helmet, I’ll let you paint over your cherries.’ So I was ready to get those cherries off my helmet. I got on scene, dropped the robot, did my search, found the IED — it was crush wire. You find the patterns in the ground. I saw the crush wire going across — little contacts spread out over a road, like someone has dug something up, then covered it over. You start to see patterns. So I saw that, and then with my cameras, I was able to look back and [spot] the main charge, put my charge on there, and we blew it up. I was all excited, and we get back, we’re done with the mission and I take my helmet off, and I hand it to my chief and I was like, ‘Get those cherries off there.’ And he takes it, and he draws a little bite mark out of one of the cherries. And I was like, ‘What is that!?’ And he says, ‘Every IED you do, I’ll take another bite out of it.’ I said, ‘Goddang it!’ But slowly and surely, I did get rid of the cherries. At first, the bites were pretty little. It depended: the size of the call would dictate the size of the bite.”

The work 

“That first one, I was really thankful for it, because I was able to work out of a truck. Basically, unlimited explosives, with myself and two other people to bounce ideas off of. It’s the best way to learn how to do stuff in real life. Because from that point forward, I had less equipment, where I wasn’t necessarily alone, but I was by myself. So having that foundation to build on [was important]. I was the only EOD guy out there, in that situation, later on. There’s always another EOD guy with us, but he might be on the other side of the village. We’d separate on purpose, so if something happened, you’d be close enough where you could help out, but you weren’t so close that you’d get hit by the same thing.

Josh, Satchel, and Luci(fer) the monkey enjoy an afternoon reading at VSO (Village Stability Operations) Harrison base.

“I did not have another EOD guy that I was with get blown up, but I did have other guys: Afghans, and some Army SOF guys (Special Operations Forces) who did unfortunately hit stuff and get hurt, and I was the first responder, and it’s the other part of our job. You try to render it safe, and you try to mitigate the hazard, but you can do everything right, and still have stuff go wrong. When it does, that’s when we’re there to come in. We clear up to and around an individual, making sure there aren’t any other explosive hazards, and then usually the medics are right on our ass. So we’re making sure it’s a safe area for them to come in. It can get pretty gnarly, especially when it’s one of your boys. But you have to take a deep breath. And you talk to him, like, ‘Hey, I’ve got you, brother. I’m coming up.’ But you do have to clear it.

“You get frustrated sometimes. Everything’s going bad, and you’re doing everything that you can do, and then something really bad happens. It pisses you off, and you get frustrated, but you’re not focused on that, you’re focused on helping out your boy. Later on, that’s usually when you start doing the after-action in your head, and going over everything that happened. You’re like, ‘Could I have done anything different that would have prevented that from happening?’ You usually do it on your own, internally, and then you sit down with everybody and you go, ‘Okay, let’s walk through it, so if something can be figured out where you can do it better, then you don’t do it again. So if you make a mistake, that’s horrible, and it sucks. If you do it twice, that’s when it starts to become unforgivable.”

Lucy the monkey grooms her friend Josh at VSO Garrison Base in Yakdan, Afghanistan.

Where was he? “I was out with Special Forces working out of Firebase Cobra, which was the worst place in the entire country at that time. It was so bad, all our food, water, fuel, ammo, was air-dropped. So we’d have these big C-17s and C130s parachute our stuff in. The best of times, and the worst of times, right? We were in firefights every day. We worked our White (secure) Space, where we’ve cleared an area, have good relations with the local populace. We moved from where the town right outside our firebase was maybe 50-50, semi-permissive, to, by the time we left, we had boys who could go out for a run. You’d still take your weapon, but you could run in the mountains, and be relatively comfortable with that. But it took a long time to get to that point. Maybe 10 months. In the end, we had great relationships with the village. And that’s the bread and butter for the Green Berets, right? They go out and train up the local populace. 

“In Shamshad, we ended up losing those two guys, which was a real shitty day. At the time we were doing ‘Village Stability Operations,’ VSO. We would go in, and kill, capture, or kick out any Taliban in the village. And then we would train the local males. We would help them set up checkpoints, we would teach them the basics. And we’d be ‘Alright. This is your village now. If you don’t want the Taliban to come in, it’s up to you.’ And after we left and moved on down the valley to the next village, we got word that the Taliban had come back, maybe a week or so after we left, and they told the village elders, ‘Give us everything the Americans gave you, or we’re going to kill your families. We know where they live.’ But the locals who we worked with said, ‘Well, you can kill our families, because you know where they are, but we’ll kill your families, because we know where they are. So we’re going to be arguing over a dead village. If you want to play that game, let’s dance.’ And the Taliban were like, ‘Aah, it’s not worth it.’ Because the villagers were no longer an easy target.”

The schedule

A typical day in the deployed life of Josh Christy: “Everybody had their different schedules, but you had your chow hall times — okay, there was no chow hall. Just a room that we ate in. We had an Army cook who was out there with us. He made what he could, with the air-dropped food, and we would buy eggs and chickens and stuff like that, and rice. So now we’re injecting a little money into the local economy — improving our diet, plus helping the local economy, and garnering some favor, and they support the firebase, and we get better food than the kind of boil-in-bag stuff that the army drops out of a plane for us!  So you wake up, grab breakfast, you go work out, you prep all your gear for a mission — and we’re basically going on missions every day. Because there’s two ODAs out there — Operational Detachment Alpha — it’s what the Special Forces platoon’s called — and because there’s only two EOD guys, myself and my partner up there. We would go out with each one of them. So the teams would get a break every other day. We’d have to go out with each one. So you wake up, and we had our letters that we wrote, our ‘almost made it’ letters, letters to family, in case you got killed that day. Then you have your list where you divvy the stuff up that you had, like, ‘You can have my computer.’ And then you have your list of all your sensitive items, so they could gather these things up. At first, you say, ‘Oh please.’ But after the first week there, it was like, ‘This is for realsies!’”

On a typical day, “You’d get ready for your mission, you’d do like your pre-mission brief. Most missions were a ‘presence patrol,’ per the correct verbiage. We’d call them ‘KLE to Contact,’ which is short for ‘Key Leader Engagement,’ which is, ‘We’re going to talk with the elders of this village.’ But we knew, once we got to a certain point, we were going to get into gunfights, the ‘contact’ in ‘KLE to contact.’ We just wanted to say ‘Hey, here’s who we are, can we do anything for you? Do you guys want a well put in?’ Or, ‘We do Medcaps or Vetcaps (medical/veterinary Civil Action Programs). Our ‘18 Deltas’ are medics, Docs. We can come out. Anybody who’s sick, we’ll see them, and if we have medicine for it, we’ll give them medicine, or treatment for injuries. Same thing for the animals, because it’s all farming out there, vetcap. It was like, ‘Hey, how can you help us help you?’ That would be our intention, but we knew before we got there we were going to get in a fight. We had Hesco, one of the best inventions ever made, big wire baskets, eight feet tall, and you fill them with dirt. Six feet by eight feet. That was our walls for our firebase. So you’d drive out through the entry control point, and then we’re in basically [enemy territory]. At that time, in that area, we were in open-back GMVs, Humvees, with guns out everywhere, Stick-track, and then we had four-wheelers and motorbikes. Dirt bikes. You could stay off the road more on them. It was so heavily IED’ed out there that if you didn’t maneuver, or get high ground to get better assay, you could be in trouble. But we’re armed! You’ve got a 240 machine gun at each door, we’ve got two in the back, and a 240 Mark 9 machine gun in the turret. You made it so you weren’t necessarily an easy target. 

“That was the concept, but soon enough, you’d hear a bullet snap. You’d give out the 3-Ds, Distance, Direction and Description. You try to find a little cover if you can, think small, put your helmet on. There’s cover, and there’s concealment. ‘Cover’ is like behind a thick mud wall. Rounds can hit that, and they’re not going to hit you. ‘Concealment’ is where they could hit you if they could see you, but they can’t see you. So you had to utilize the Green Zone, which kind of dictates the fighting seasons in Afghanistan. When the field crops are about waist-high, that’s when you know, ‘Alright. It’s fighting season again. Let’s go!’ Then, when they harvest their crops in the wintertime, there’s no cover or concealment. So now everybody’s friends, and they’re farmers, and it’s all cool until the springtime. And then, depending on where you were in the country, it’s really all in the crops. They harvest the marijuana — 14-foot weed plants — as far as the eye can see. The Taliban pays them to plant and grow and harvest the crop, to make hashish. So they do weed for the fall harvest, and then the poppy they plant in Spring, and harvest in summertime. The poppy fields grow to about waist-high.

“That’s for heroin, I guess,” says this guy who’s listening in. He’s a chef. 

“Yeah.”

“So you guys take care of that?” asks the chef. “Like, you want to make sure there’s no heroin plants, right?”

“Well technically, it is illegal,” says Christy. “But at the same time it’s that farmer’s livelihood. We’re not there to fuck with their livelihood. We’re there to remove the bad people out of the area. I mean, yes, there have been initiatives to offer [the farmers] low cover crops. So, ‘Here’s watermelon seeds,’ and ‘Here’s cantaloupe seeds.’ And the farmers are like, ‘What the fuck am I going to do with those watermelons, when the guy who pays me to grow weed is going to kill me if I don’t grow weed?’”

Soldier’s best friend

Christy and his buddies did have some “family,” mainly Afghan dogs. “Honestly, they were something to come home to at the end of a busy day in firefights. To scratch behind the ears.” Almost until the end, alongside Christy would be his dog, and buddy, Satchel (as in “Satchel Charge,”) an Afghan Warrior Shepherd who adopted him.  “I found her in Aruzcon, Afghanistan. On the whole deployment, she went out on missions with us. She didn’t distract us in, like, firefights. She’d hide under the Humvee. Where I went, she went. She just lay there. She got stepped on a bunch, but when bullets are flying by, she’s pretty good.” 

He even arranged to have her flown home. At the last moment, he almost lost her. “We’ve been 11 years together, a lot at firebases. We finally came to the end of one deployment. I had one last mission, to blow up a cache of weapons we had discovered. I checked everybody was clear, but somehow Satchel snuck back in.

“The charge went off. Then we saw Satchel. She came tearing out of the cache area, disappeared into the tent and under my bed. The explosion blew both her eardrums. She has been partially deaf ever since. But otherwise okay. So I named my distilling company after her: ‘Deaf Shepherd.’”

The Monkey Incident

“One of our ‘terps found her for me,” says Christy. The interpreter brought in a bad-tempered monkey they named Lucy. “We named her Lucy because on her good days, she was like ‘I Love Lucy,’ and on her bad days, Lucifer. So this was during winter, the non-fighting months. I took a long time to get her used to me. But every day, I put my chair just outside of her range, and I’d read a book with Satchel, and just get Lucy used to my presence every day, because monkeys are social creatures. I’d move a little bit closer, a little bit closer, until I was within her realm. I would bring her food. I’d give her fish from the river, crabs from the river. I’d pick leafy greens, and give her that. I’d put that down, and sit in my chair, and read a book. I’d spend time with her throughout the day. And over time, we got to the point — about a month and a half in —where she’d run up and jump in my lap.

“The first time it happened, she’s posturing as if she’s big. She grabbed my beard. I was all, ‘What’s going on!’ But she started to groom my beard. Pick through it. Because it’s a social thing for them. So I let it happen. She got on my shoulders and groomed my hair, and then she got back on my lap, and I groomed her. And then, by the end of it, she would groom me, I would groom her, and then she’d jump on the ground, and she would groom Satchel. And Satchel just lay there, and the monkey would pick through her fur. It was one of those things through the wintertime in Afghanistan, when not a whole lot was going on, and that was my entertainment, befriending this monkey!

“Then these new guys came, from a different unit. They came out to build. So we named it Harrison Base. This was named after Calvin Harrison, who was with us, was killed. That was in the town of Yaktan. Have you ever seen the TV show Inside the Green Berets? It’s on National Geographic. That’s where I was. And in this little town, this little village of Yaktan, they built a clinic. The Taliban came and took it over, and then a couple of years later, we came and liberated that town, and we took the clinic area back over. We called a Seabee contingent to help us with some combat engineering. And I let everybody know. I said, ‘Hey, the Afghans have a monkey out there.’ There’s me and one other guy who have built a rapport with the monkey, but you guys, don’t mess with her. She can be mean if she doesn’t know you. So just leave her be.’ 

“Lucy used to eat cigarettes. Somebody gave her a cigarette one time, and she got addicted to nicotine. So if you got within her realm, she would jump up and grab a cigarette out of your mouth. She’d wipe the cherry off on your arm, eat the tobacco, and then throw the butt down. Monkeys are smart. So guys would throw her cigarettes. This Seabee figured that out. He was doing it when I came in. Every day, he was either throwing her cigarettes, or food, and I had a feeling he was going to try to pet her before he left. So his last day, he came up to one of our 18 Deltas, and he was like ‘Hey, the monkey bit me.’ And we were like, ‘Man, this idiot!’ So we talked to the Delta. We were like ‘Can you just make something up? Just to mess with the guy.’ So he was ‘Yeah, I can do that.’ So he went to this kid and he was like, ‘Hey man: we told you not to mess with the monkey, but obviously that ship has sailed. You got close enough where she bit you. There’s a 99 percent chance you have monkey herpes.’

“And this kid’s like, ‘Monkey herpes? What?’ 

“So the 18 Delta’s like, ‘Yeah. Basically you’ve got a fifty-fifty shot. If you have it, you can just drop dead from it in 10 years. If you don’t, nothing to worry about.’

“So we all think this is hilarious. We’ve been hanging out, fifteen Americans, for a long time. So you’ve got to create your own fun out there. And this new guy was just a big target for us. So he flew back to Kandahar airfield, back to his parent command. And apparently he was worried about it. Monkey herpes! So he told his chain of command, and I would say in less than 24 hours, we were getting a call. ‘Do you guys have a monkey out there?’ And we were like, ‘No sir, we do not. Our partner force does. Our Afghans, who we’re co-located with — we live together — but we can’t tell them they can’t have it. It’s their country. There are a couple of people who have befriended the partner force monkey, but again, it’s their monkey. It’s not our monkey.’ So [the colonel] was like ‘The CDC is sending people out from Atlanta, so you need to secure this monkey, make sure he stays there, and there’ll be people coming out to test this monkey.’ Well, of course, ‘testing,’ if it’s like any other animal, they have to kill the animal, right?  Because this dude was really nervous. ‘Like, what if I just drop dead in 10 years?’ And we had just made it up: ‘Let’s just tell him, like everyone knows what herpes is! So, let’s go with that. It’s a little bit safer than AIDS.’

“So after the phone call, we had a group meeting, and we were like, ‘Alright. She’s a wild animal, doesn’t belong to us, for the record. But we always had her on a big 20-foot leash. She had this big corner, she had this house and everything, and she’d get up on these Hesco Barriers, 12 feet up: she had a nice big chunk of real estate. So when we were on watch one night, me and the other guy, we let Lucy go. Because I was like ‘I’m not going to let them kill this animal because we played a joke on this kid. So I let her go, at the end of my shift. ‘Be free, Lucy!’ I carried her outside of our [protected area], and let her go. Then I went to bed. 

“A couple of hours later, one of the guys woke me up. He’s like, ‘Hey man, Lucy’s at the front door, and she won’t let anybody out.’ I had walked out with her, and let her go, thinking she’d go for freedom, even though she had been with us a while, and we had fed her and sheltered her. She was free, off her 20-foot tether. But I think it started to rain that night, or snow, so she went right back! She came under our front porch, and she was like hanging out by the front door. But she was only cool with two of us, so anybody else who came to the front door, she’d blow up on, and show her teeth. So they’re like, ‘We’re not going to fool with the monkey; we’re going to wake JC.’ 

“So I tried a couple more times before I left, and she always came back. She was still there when I left, and the CDC hadn’t been there yet. Every time you have a team turnover, just like with camp dogs, things change. I brought Satchel back with me, but we had Madus, Eddie and Roxie, three of our original camp dogs. They had been there since the inception of the firebase. Those dogs were staples there. If the guys coming in behind us didn’t like dogs, then they could get rid of them. You never knew what was going to happen. So I doubly don’t know what happened to a mean monkey. 

“What I told the guys was, ‘Hey, there’s this monkey out there, and here’s what we did, and here’s the timeline, and this is all the steps I took, from when we got here to now. And she’s super cool, and it’s a kind of unique experience, right?’ I don’t know if they put in the time. In my mind, she’s still living her best life. But then, I’m more of a silver lining guy.”

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