Major Ben Martinez, 34, is no stranger to Cold Spring. Originally from New Mexico, he lived in the village for more than two years while teaching at the US Military Academy at West Point. Last year he was assigned to Afghanistan with the 82nd Airborne Division of the U.S. Army.
Having completed his tour there, Martinez returned to the U.S. and recently visited family and friends in Cold Spring. I interviewed him at the Philipstown.info office on Main Street.
Philipstown.info: How long were you in Afghanistan?
Martinez: One year.
Philipstown.info: What region were you in?
Martinez: We were in southern Afghanistan in the provinces of Kandahar, Zabul and Uruzgan. I was in six different locales over the course of the year.
Philipstown.info: What was the 82nd Airborne’s mission?
Martinez: Our job was to mentor the Afghan army and police force.
Philipstown.info: How often were you in harm’s way?
Martinez: Every time we traveled around.
Philipstown.info: How often did soldiers in your unit encounter the Taliban
Martinez: We were out amongst the people every day. Contact with the Taliban was sporadic. There wasn’t a lot of direct contact but IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices) were very common.
Philipstown.info: How common?
Martinez: Every day. We found 6,000 IEDs while there.
Philipstown.info: How many casualties did the 82nd suffer?
Martinez: We lost 52 soldiers.
Philipstown.info: Do women serve in combat roles in the 82nd Airborne?
Martinez: Technically, they do not, but because the battlefield [in Afghanistan] is not linear, meaning there is no distinguishable front line, they are in harm’s way, as well.
Philipstown.info: Do you think they cope with the situation any differently than their male counterparts?
Martinez: I think it’s pretty much the same for everybody. We did use our female soldiers to engage the female Afghan population and that was very positive.
Philipstown.info: Did you have much contact with average Afghans? What was your impression of them as a people?
Martinez: They are just normal, nice people. They are not well-educated. In the larger scheme of things, they just want a better life.
Philipstown.info: What was their attitude toward American soldiers?
Martinez: It depended on what part of the country we were in. Some were happy to see us. Some were apprehensive. In areas where we had more soldiers and there were fewer Taliban it was better. In areas where we were fewer in number and there were more Taliban people were more apprehensive.
Philipstown.info: What temperatures did you experience while there?
Martinez: The hottest was 118 degrees. Low was about 10 degrees.
Philipstown.info: What did you do to relax — if you ever relaxed?
Martinez: Just working out on weights — or running.
Philipstown.info: You do look a bit trimmer than the last time I saw you.
Martinez: I lost 30 pounds.
Philipstown.info: What were your sleeping quarters like?
Martinez: Basically a 6×20 storage container. Sometimes I slept in a tent. Other times in a small room with eight people.
Philipstown.info: What was the day-to-day food like?
Martinez: Mostly just normal cafeteria style.
Philipstown.info: Did you have any Afghan meals?
Martinez: I had lamb. It was really delicious but a bit hard on my stomach. I’m not sure why. Maybe it was the water.
Philipstown.info: Were you able to have a beer at the end of a day?
Martinez: No beer. The regulation is no alcohol. And I simply had too much responsibility. Someone could be knocking at my door in the middle of the night needing to talk to me about a downed helicopter.
Philipstown.info: You served in the Iraq war, as well. How do the two countries and conflicts differ?
Martinez: The terrain is very different. There is no infrastructure in Afghanistan and the people are not as well-educated. They are definitely two very different wars.
Philipstown.info: What is the average age of the Taliban fighters you encountered?
Martinez: I don’t know. But it’s interesting — some of them would have been only about 10 years old when the World Trade Center was attacked. And it’s the same with our guys.
Philipstown.info: What was your working day like? How much sleep did you get?
Martinez: I usually worked about 14 to 16 hours a day. Usually about six hours of sleep a night.
Philipstown.info: Do you think enough is being done to help soldiers with their mental health after returning from combat?
Martinez: I think there is a lot being done to help them.
Philipstown.info: If there was no war going on, what would you think of the Afghan landscape?
Martinez: It’s beautiful. It reminds me of New Mexico.
Philipstown.info: How does it feel to be in Cold Spring? Is part of you still back there?
Martinez: People in Cold Spring have been really good to me — several people sent me packages or emailed me while I was over there. It’s difficult because part of you realizes that life has continued here. And while I’m enjoying a beer at McGuire’s there are guys enduring hardship and doing their job in Afghanistan. It’s an interesting transition. You have to step back and reflect.
Philipstown.info: Has your service in Afghanistan affected your plans regarding military service or life after the army?
Martinez: I don’t know what my future plans are yet. That’s still up in the air. I’ll probably know my next assignment sometime in October.
Philipstown.info: Might that include another stint in Afghanistan?
Martinez: Not for at least a year.
Philipstown.info: If you had to use only one word to describe your experience in Afghanistan what would it be?
Martinez: It was an extreme test of the will physically and mentally. I cannot think of a better word than “rough” — though I am sure one exists.