Monday, August 6, 2007
It began when we had to take down our old roof. It consisted of a metal tent frame sitting on top of the HESCO walls with a tangled tent hanging all over it. We began to cut all of the ties holding the tent to the frame. But the ties in the middle posed a problem. There was nothing to stand on, no ladder, and it was a good fifteen feet above the ground. Sgt. Manning took it upon himself to spiderman his way out to the middle of the rickety frame. He was hanging upside down with a knife in one hand reaching to cut the last tie to the heavy tent canvas.
"You know that's a really bad idea right?"
Sgt. Manning and I went to the shooting range to check the zero on our rifles before our mission that evening. The shooting range on the fob a few crappy cardboard targets and a firing point seperated by a rocky valley. So if you want to see where you hit you had to hike down and up a valley and then back.
"We don't have time for that," said Sgt. Manning, "Here I'll go down there first and set up a target, then I'll stand off to the side while you shoot then I'll tell you where you hit. Then we'll switch."
I stared at him blankly for a second.
"What?" he asked.
"You know what I'm going to say right?"
"Yeah I know it's a bad idea," he replied, "just don't shoot me."
One night when we were hanging out the flies were unbearable. They gather on the wires near the ceiling to the point that the white wire appears black because it is completely covered. Sgt. Manning was reaching the end of his patience with the flies.
"Hold on," he said "I have an idea."
He left the tent and returned shortly with a can of spray paint.
"What are you going to do with that?" our third medic, Mac asked.
"I'm going to kill these flies, because they are driving me insane." replied Sgt. Manning as he grabbed a lighter.
"So let me get this straight," I chimed in, "you are going to use a spray paint blow torch on our electrical wiring, attached to our dry wooden roof, to kill flies."
"Yep." answered Sgt. Manning.
"That's a bad idea dude." said Mac laughing.
A burst of flame shot out of the paint can. A moment later we heard the bodies of a dozen flies hit the ground. Sgt. Manning went on a rampage after that torching flies until the smell of burning paint hung thick in the air. Every so often now we have a fly holocaust.
When Sgt. Manning was putting up the lights in the tent he cut and stripped the wires and just stuck them into the socket on the end of the electrical cord. He then wrapped the ghetto wiring with medical tape because we didn't have electrical tape. Electrical tape was invented because it doesn't start on fire when wrapped around live wires. I can't say the same for medical tape.
"Just for the record, so that when this place is burning down, you will know that I said this was a bad idea."
We would constantly pick up our small propane stove while it was lit. The way it is built puts the flames dangerously close to the face and chest. Rather than turn it off and relight it, we would just carry it wherever. Whenever I was holding it in front of my face I couldn't help but think,
"Man this is a bad idea. Why am I too lazy to turn this off?"
We built our new roof with some of the cheapest thinnest plywood I have ever seen. Everything in Afghanistan is such low quality in construction. After we built the roof we wanted to put sandbags on tarps on it to waterproof it. Well there is a crew of local Afghanis who work on the FPB every day taking out the trash and doing various projects for us. Sgt. Manning recruited them to sandbag our roof. Inside the BAS I could hear the plywood cracking as they walked around placing sandbags above me. Directly above my bed I could see a crack in the wood that got bigger every time someone stepped on it. I was half expecting to see a leg punch through at any moment, creating a hole in the roof and a patient to treat at the same time. I hollered,
"QUIT STEPPING ON THE SPOT THAT CRUNCHES EVERY TIME YOU WALK OVER IT. HAVING THAT MANY PEOPLE UP THERE IS A BAD IDEA!"
Speaking of the roof during the first rainstorm we had to figure out how to patch all the leaks in our roof. We also discovered that The Hescos were channeling a small river into BAS. Sgt. Manning took it upon himself to climb on the roof and dig out a path on the top of the HESCO wall so the water would run away from the BAS rather than into it. Standing on the roof with a shovel during a lightning storm may sound like a bad idea in and of itself, but he was reaching through three coils of razor-wire to dig. And yes, he did cut himself. I had to yell to be heard over the rain.
"HEY! OF ALL THE BAD IDEAS IN THE WORLD THAT ONE TAKES THE CAKE! YOU ARE GONNA BE A CASUALTY IN A MINUTE!"
Somehow, Sgt. Manning wasn't seriously hurt during the 2 weeks.
Sunday, July 22, 2007
It's a totally different kind of life out here. Join me in a tour of the Forward Patrol Base.
We live in a self built aid station. The walls are HESCOS filled with dirt. The roof we made when we arrived using all the crappy wood we could find. The door is simply a tent flap hanging over the opening. The floor is made of wooden pallets, so you have to watch your step or risk rolling your ankle. All of our medical supplies are in various crates and bags hanging on the HESCOS with tent stakes and zip ties. We sleep on the same litters where we treat our patients. The flies and other bugs are rampant so we sleep inside bed nets. It is over 100 degrees every day which leads to constant sweating and a uniform that consists of flip flops and shorts and nothing else. We also have a fire pit out in front of the Aid Station for field cooking.
There are two toilets. The first is a pipe jammed into the ground at a 45 degree angle. It rises out of the dirt and stops at about waist level. This is our urinal pipe. It's for male soldiers only. The second is the outhouse. It has two seats and of course you can see the guy next to you when you are trying to poop. More interesting than the outhouse itself is the way the waste is taken care of. The local workers open the bottom of the outhouse and take out the sawed-off metal barrels full of poop. Then they take it to the burn pit and pour in a mixture of kerosene and diesel. So whenever we walk by we get a nostril full of stink from the big bucket of burning poop. Yes, I did use the word poop, stop giggling.
We have a field shower. It is a 5 gallon plastic bag that hangs above a wooden pallet. We fill it with old bottled water deemed unsafe to drink. The shower is always hot because the water sits in the scorching sun all day. I love the shower, because after walking a third of a mile in full battle rattle i'm already sweatier and dirtier than any day in the States ever.
We don't have a chow hall up here. Just a large metal shipping container full of snacks. The outside of the container is piled high with MRE's. MRE stands for Meals Ready to Eat, or if you ask other soldiers, Meals Rejected by Ethiopians. They send the most random snacks though. One day a pallet showed up with over a thousand muffins. There's less than 30 american soldiers up here eating this stuff. The muffins are perishable also, so I have no idea why they sent over a thousand.
We don't have a washing machine. We have a bucket and laundry detergent. After srubbing the salt stains out of our uniforms we just hang them in the sun. Where they dry in minutes.
There is a "gym" of sorts. It's a set of iron weights and a couple of decrepit weight benches. Us medics placed some poles across the entrance of our aid station. We use them to do pull-ups and dips. We get plently of cardio on missions walking through the mountains. But on our off days we run up the mountain face where the base is located. When I say "run" I mean "run halfway, then trot, then become so tired you just are hiking until you reach the top.
Coming up: "Just for the record, this is a bad idea."
Sunday, July 15, 2007
Not with a knife, of course, as that would have made it difficult for me to write this. I was stabbed in the chest with eleven needles. The eleventh of these needles penetrated my sternum creating an opening to the cavity inside full of my bone marrow. The other ten merely pierced the skin assuring direct aim at my sternum. Behold, the Army's emergency IV system, the F.A.S.T 1
Earlier last week, my platoon Sgt. Walked into the Aid Station and addressed me.
"We have a class today," he said with a devious smile. The smile caught my attention because usually our classes never make anyone smile. I asked what it was.
"Sternal IV. We need a volunteer," he said almost giggling with excitement.
"'ll do it."
"Yeah, I'm looking forward to it actually."
A few minutes later my fellow medic specialist Smith decided to chime in on my decision.
"You do realize that you are asking them to take something the size of a ten-penny nail and shove it in your chest?" he asked.
"What if it hurts like a bitch?"
I have learned two very important things about pain in all the time I have spent getting smoked in the army.
1. Pain is temporary. No matter how bad it gets take solace in the fact that it can't last forever.
2. You can handle a lot more than you think.
I had the entire procedure filmed and I edited it down to the best parts. Enjoy the show!
Overall the procedure was nearly painless after the initial lidocaine injections. The sternum flush hurts some people but I just felt the fluid go into my chest. Thanks for watching, come back soon.
Monday, July 9, 2007
I have kind of become a jack of all trades here on the FOB(Forward Operating Base). Although I am assigned to work full time in the aid station, lately I have been pulled as medical support for the combat platoons who operate out of Mehtar Lam. I have gone on missions with the Tactical Assault Convoy, the Maneuver Platoon, and for the last two weeks, the Scout Platoon. So begins my story.
Day 0- At the FOB
I had just been told the day before that I would be leaving the FOB for two weeks. Way to go Army, short notice is king around here. I awoke at 6:30 to be ready for my mission at 7:30. I was also informed that after my mission I was to report to the Aid Station to complete my normal shift. That isn't the standard on the FOB. When people are on QRF(Quick Reaction Force) they aren't usually required to work other jobs at the same time. I'm working two jobs for the price of one. After mission I reported to the Aid station and was greeted with the joy of various details to complete while I was there. My Physician's Assistant asked if I could teach him to blog before I left. It probably wouldnt benefit my situation to tell a high ranking officer I was too busy to help him out so I reluctantly agreed. I also had to write a 1,000 word essay and clean my rifle because I had gotten into some mild trouble the day before. But before I could start on all that I was called on my second mission of the day directly after finishing my details at the Aid Station. We convoyed into Mehtar Lam and picked up some VIPs from a meeting with the locals and returned them to the FOB. Thankfully the drive was uneventful, everyone was in one piece and in my opinion, thats a great days work for a Medic.
I began to pack for my two week mission. My tiny room was a storm of equipment and clothing as I struggled to find all the things I would need in the various duffel bags of gear the Army issued us. After packing I quickly wrote my 1,000 word essay. Little did my Sergeant know, that an essay is hardly a punishment for me as I obviously enjoy writing. I think most of my blog posts are past 1,000 words. I didn't tell him this. The essay needed to be finished and rifle cleaned by 6 PM. I made my way to my Sergeant's hooch.
I turned my essay in and showed him my rifle. He took it apart and began to run white Q-tips through every nook and cranny of the rifle. He would show me each one that came back with black on it as if it were some glaring error in rifle cleaning. In basic training during the final inspection, we spent hours on our rifles. We would take them in the shower, use shaving cream to strip the carbon, hundres of Q-tips, anything. And you could still find some black on someones rifle if you took a Q-tip all over it. Most of the time in training I would spend about 10 minutes cleaning my rifle and I never had a jam and I qualified expert 37/40. And that rifle was over 20 years old. So here I am, in the middle of a combat zone, with a brand new M4 about to go on a two week mission, and he is giving me a more strict inspection than I have ever gotten on my rifle in the military ever.
"I've never had a jam Sergeant and and I qualified expert."
"I don't care," he shot back.
Some conversations are impossible in the Army. Anything you say is the wrong thing to say and you can't win. So then the best strategy is to agree with them and just let them establish their dominance. Eventually they are satiated and they let you go. Arguing just hardens their resolve to make you look and feel like you are wrong. I just sat and waited till he gave me my rifle back. I'll be gone tomorrow, I thought, I can't wait.
After dinner I rounded up the last items I would need for the two weeks and spent some time chatting with my friends who were staying at Mehtar Lam. It was about 9 PM when I saw my Sergeant again,
"Davis you need to be ready to go at 3:30 AM tomorrow SP is at 4."
Jesus I was already exhausted from working BAS and missions for the last few days and now I'd be getting little sleep that night. I made it to bed at about 10:30.
"Four hours, that will have to do."
Day 1- Traveling to the Forward Patrol Base
2:30 came painfully early. This was my chance with the Scouts. A couple people had vouched for me to put me on this mission and my performance would reflect on them. The Scouts themselves are a tight knit group and I was going to be the sole new guy. I had also heard through the grapevine that the Sergeant White, the head of the scouts, had said that he "Wasn't sure if I could handle the mountains." So I was feeling some pressure. I gathered my last minute items and met up with my assigned squad.
We departed in our convoy of armored trucks. I am constantly amazed at the mechanic's ability to keep these humvees driving. The roads, if they can be called roads, are atrocious. The extra weight of the armor rocks the suspension over every pothole and rock. Sometimes the road gets so narrow that I would look out the window and see the sheer cliff face spanning out below me. The tires would be on the very edge of the road. The trucks have scrape marks on the sides where they had to literally hug the mountainside. Then we reach points where the road itself is just a shallow stretch of river. The locals didn't bother building a road there because the shallow parts tend to stay fairly flat but full of rocks.
After a couple hours of slowly bouncing along crappy roads we made it to the base. The base itself is halfway up the side of a mountain. It's made up mostly of a few HESCO walls and tents. The Afghan National Army also shares the base but they had managed to build some simple huts with rocks. I was shown to the base's aid station.
It was a complete mess. The medics we were replacing said that during a rainstorm the roof had caved in from the weight of the water. Apparently they hadn't done anything about it because the roof was still completely fucked up. After filling us in on how destroyed everything was they waved us goodbye and left for Mehtar Lam with the Maneuver Platoon.
My medical Sergeant, Sergeant Manning, took charge and laid out a plan for building a new roof. But then I recieved a message from Sergeant White through Sergeant Manning.
"He wants you to climb the mountain," said Sgt. Manning as he looked to his left. I turned and gazed up the the rocky slope cut in places by a twisting road that led to the top of the peak. "I think he was joking though, which would be good because I need your help on the roof here. After only a few minutes had passed Sgt. White approached,
"Sgt. Manning you have to know that I wasn't joking," and then turned and walked away. Sgt. Manning turned and looked at me
"Time to climb a mountain?" I asked as I jumped down from our trashed roof.
But he didn't have to answer. I put on my body armor, camelbak canteen, helmet and rifle. A 60 lb. load. I walked out into the blazing sun. It was already past 10 over 100 degrees outside. I passed Sgt. White on my way to the base of the climb. He didn't say a word but simply pointed to the top. It was a rite of passage, I was the new guy and I had to show him I could make it up a climb like this with energy to spare. A lot of people who had vouched for me were counting on me not to let them down. Bring it on.
I went straight up the side of the face at first. Whenever I have to do anything miserable in the Army I handle it like an alcoholic, one step at a time. I started breathing harder as I ascended, but I didn't slow down. If he was watching and saw me stop for a break, I wouldn't hear the end of it. My lower back tightened as I was leaning forward on the steep slope. My legs began to burn about halfway up. I sucked down warm, plastic flavored water in between deep breaths for air. I navigated between jagged rocks and loose dirt patches. We have strong legs in my family, and in Basic training I always passed people on the big hills. My pace didn't slow. I approached a crossing on the face where a road cut through. An Afghan Army Soldier was driving by and saw me climbing and stopped. He waved for me to get in but I just told him to keep going. I was almost there. I reached another road crossing. This time it had just one short hook before reaching the top pulling into a dirt parking lot for the Afghan Army vehicles. I finished the climb and waved hello to the Afghan Soldiers manning the tower at the top. For the first time I looked back down at the Patrol Base. The people looked like ants. The up-armored humvees were like matchbox cars from the elevation on which I stood. I was expecting to look down and see Sgt. White, so I could see the look on his face when I had climbed the mountain in full battle rattle without stopping. But even if he was watching I wouldn't have been able to make him out.
I made the walk back down the slope which was much less physically demanding. Sgt. Manning greeted me,
"Well let's go talk to Sergeant White now, tell him you completed the task. You are barely sweating which is good. He might be pissed off though, because you went straight up the side, apparently he wanted you to take the roads."
I contemplated a second trip up the mountain as we approached Sgt. White. As much as it would suck I would be able to do it if he asked. Expect the worst, hope for the best.
"I completed the task Sergeant." I was careful to sound like I had no problem with my breath. My left leg was wobbling whenever I put weight on it from the workout so I shifted all the weight to my right. It was critical to show that the climb hadn't phased me. Sgt. White is from the old school of Infantry. He likes to give people a really hard time to see how they react, I was determined not to react to anything he said. Sgt. White spoke,
"Sergeant Manning here said you were a giant pussy Davis."
He didn't hesitate with the hard time.
"I did not say that," Sgt. Manning retorted.
"Yes he did he said you were a giant pussy and that you would never make it up the side of the mountain."
I knew Sgt. Manning hadn't said that so I just stared silently, waiting on Sgt. White. Sgt. White started laughing and joking about other things. I was good in his book, for now. I just needed to stay sharp for the next two weeks.
A blog tour of the FPB
"This is a bad idea." Dangerous and humorous solutions to our problems.
Life at the FPB part II- Sweating buckets and crossing the bridge of death.
Monday, May 21, 2007
A grin spread across my face. I had been working hard nearly nonstop on building and stocking the new Battalion Aid Station here on Mehtar Lam. While I found the work rewarding, I was dying to go outside the FOB on mission and see more of the country. The moment had come, and I couldn't hide my satisfaction.
"Sounds awesome Sergeant!" I said.
"Good, I want to see you there by 0800."
Yes! Finally! I returned to my hooch and started preparing my combat load for mission. I had a hard time falling asleep that night. The next morning I went to chow at about 0730,
"Davis! SP got moved up an hour! Move with a purpose!" said my sergeant.
I slammed my breakfast down my gullet and started helping with the preparation for the mission. I would be driving the medical Humvee on this mission. Our medical Humvee has the back seats taken out and a backboard for a patient added. We loaded our medical bags, water, and ammo. We tested our radios and headsets and mounted a machine gun on top of the Humvee. After a briefing we were loaded and ready to roll. I took all instruction from my sergeant,
"Okay this bitch weighs an extra 5,000 pounds from the armor plating. They put a turbo in the engine to compensate which helps some but the roads out here are brutal. Are you ready?"
"Yes," I lied. It's hard to be ready for something you have never done before but I banked on the fact that I am a quick learner.
"If you have ever gotten an aggressive driving or speeding ticket, today would be the time to use those skills," my sergeant added with a chuckle.
I eased us into motion in line with the other trucks. I hit the brake as the convoy slowed and my gunner slammed forward in his turret as the truck jerked to a stop. 'Sensitive brakes,' I made a mental note as I apologized to my gunner for checking him against his machine gun. We halted at the gate just inside the FOB walls. The order was given to "go red." I pulled back the charging handle on my rifle and released. The bolt neatly scooped and seated a round in the chamber with a satisfying clack. I drew my pistol and pulled the slide back, I saw a flash of brass as I released and chambered a bullet. I returned the pistol to my holster. This is the real deal, I thought. I felt tense but focused. I was nervous but it made me alert. The truck ahead of me started rolling, I hit the gas.
Once we left the gate there was no slowing down. We were the last truck in the convoy and my sergeant was hollering at me to keep up. I punched the gas and felt the turbo kick in. For weighing over 10,000 pounds it responded pretty well. I was careening down a dusty dirt road that wound it's way through the farms and huts outside the base. The road itself was atrocious, there were ridges and potholes everywhere, I told my gunner to hold on as I worked to maintain the right gap in the convoy. The closer I came to downtown Mehtar Lam the more crowded the road was. A small taxi started to ease it's way back into the road as I approached. Instinct moved my foot off of the gas,
"HONK YOUR FUCKING HORN! HIT THE GAS THEY'LL MOVE, TRUST ME!!!" I heard in my headset.
I laid on the horn and put the pedal to the floor. Sure enough, the taxi moved right out of my way. If I had to put my money on a four-wheel-drive armored Humvee vs. Toyota sedan in a crash, I'd take the Humvee. I think the locals would too. When we roll we roll in the middle of the road, no matter what. People move for Americans, not the other way around, and as I said before we don't slow down for anyone. All of these measures are for security. If we stopped for every obstruction or slowed for every donkey cart it would be that much easier to target a truck with a roadside IED(improvised explosive device) or a rocket launcher. In Iraq, terrorists would intentionally place children in the street to stop a convoy for an attack or robbery.
We cruised through a crowded market and made a short halt. We headed about a mile down the road and took a sharp right. I saw as the lead truck drove up and over the curb and onto a dirt road that wound sharply up the side of a mountain. The Humvee swayed as I cleared the curb and began my ascent. I saw the road rise at a sharp angle in front of me.
"Hit the gas! Get a running start or we'll get stuck halfway up!"
I shifted down and hit the gas. Slowly but surely, we climbed. About halfway up I looked to my right and realized that I was on a one-lane dirt road, barely wide enough for a Humvee and there was no guardrail. This road was designed for donkey carts. A vision jumped in my head of the right tire accidentally getting to close to the edge. I visualized the dirt road giving way to a giant armor plated truck rolling down the mountainside. I snapped my attention to the task at hand.
I made it to the top where the land flattened out to reveal a small village with several rock huts. We were high enough to see the lush green valley stretch below us. The convoy halted. Several villagers came out to speak with us and the local children came for the handouts which American soldiers always have. A young boy and girl approached our vehicle. My sergeant got out to say hello and, as a driver, I was required to stay inside. Now my sergeant has a real soft spot for kids. He melted when he saw their smiling faces. He started giving them everything he could, gum, change, all of his pens. I was worried he was going to give them his gun. I asked the little girl for a piece of the gum and traded her a bottle of water. As I popped the gum in my mouth I realized it had touched her grubby hands.
"I hope I don't get dysentery,"
The call was given and we headed back down the tiny dirt road on the mountainside. We traveled through Mehtar Lam and I couldn't ignore how absolutely gorgeous the country was. There were lush green fields, palm trees, and colorful bazaars. Many of the women were adorned with beautiful ice blue burqas. So beautiful in fact, my sergeant would make a comment every time he saw one. After the 27th time I heard,
"Man that is such a beautiful blue burqa! I am gonna get one for my wife."
"Will you shut up about the burqas already?" I replied.
"No! They are beautiful!"
"Yeah, and blue, I know."
We left the village and entered what became my favorite part of the drive. We cruised into a valley full of tall green grass. Several seemingly random roads interlaced as and cut through the grass fields. The convoy picked up speed and we were careening from road to road trying to keep up with the vehicle in front of us. I could see the wind rippling through the tall grass and the trail of dust we were kicking up. It was a beautiful day, and I was having a blast.
Saturday, May 19, 2007
It was our fifth night of tower guard. So far the week had been pretty quiet. A few nights before an Afghan National Army soldier had accidentally fired off a burst of rounds inside the FOB. We usually don't expect gunfire from inside the wire but once we found out it was an accident we relaxed. Night fell.
My guard buddy Gurd and I sat, taking turns scanning the village in front of us with our night vision goggles. Everything is dark green through night vision. Then as soon as you take them off it is pitch black. The radio cackled,
"S.O.G.(Sergeant of Guard) this is tower five, over."
"Tower five this is S.O.G, go ahead."
"S.O.G. we just saw a three round burst of tracer fire in the sky."
Gunfire wasn't common at night, but it wasn't uncommon either. We didn't think much of it.
Gurd and I were watching and laughing about something when we heard two distant bursts of machine gun fire. I grabbed the radio.
"S.O.G. this is tower one, we just heard several rounds fired over a mile away at our 10 o' clock over."
"Tower one this is S.O.G. roger that keep me informed. S.O.G. out."
I sat on the bench with my night vision as Gurd rested on the stained, beat up cot behind me. After midnight we had to take turns so we wouldn't both fall alseep around 3AM.
The radio battery was starting to go. It would beep incessantly the worse it got. I should call the S.O.G. for a new one I thought to myself. My train of thought continued until it was derailed by a gunshot that rang out very close,
In a split second I visualized a rifle round coming into my tower and hitting me in my gigantic melon. I dropped out of my chair and got below the tower window.
KRACK! A second shot, yes that is definitely nearby.
"That was close, very close!" I heard Gerd say behind me. He scrambled to put all of his body armor back on while remaining kneeling on the floor. I had dropped my night vision in my rush to remove my head from the view of the tower window. I was trying to find the radio and my night vision at the same time. I found the radio first, I pressed the big black button on the side,
"S.O.G.! S.O.G.! We just hear-"
BEEP BEEP, BEEP BEEP
"STUPID PIECE OF SHIT!" I screamed, "Gurd help me find my nods!" Oh man where are my nods, where are my fucking nods?!
I found my nods and put them back on, we chambered a round in our rifles. I joined Gurd in peeking over the window ledge towards where the shots came from.
"Why are you on my window?!" he asked.
"I DON'T KNOW!"
"WELL GO TO THE OTHER WINDOW IN CASE THERE IS SOMEONE OVER THERE!!!"
On my crawl to the other window I stopped to report to the S.O.G. I hit the button to call,
"S.O.G. this is tower on-"
BEEP BEEP, BEEP BEEP, BEEP BEEP, BEEP BEEP
"GOD DAMN STUPID PIECE OF SHIT RADIO!" Gurd started laughing. I started laughing. Gerd added,
"Why did I pick this window? This window is where the shots came from! Hahahaha! Why am I on this window?"
"I DON'T KNOW!" I couldn't help laughing, "WHY ARE WE LAUGHING GERD?"
"I DON'T KNOW I'M SO SCARED!" yet we continued to laugh.
I finally got a hold of the S.O.G.on the radio.
"S.O.G. this is tower one we heard two shots fired very close at 2 o' clock in relation to our position!" The S.O.G. replied,
"I know I heard them inside my hooch."
"FUCK!" Gurd yelled from behind me.
"No more sleep tonight, I guess," he said. Once again I couldn't help laughing. We both sat quiet for a few minutes, one on each side of the tower with our eyes barely over the edge of the windows. The rest of the night was quiet. Dawn came and revealed our bloodshot eyes. I stumbled to my hooch and laid in bed.
"Two more nights of tower," I thought.
The next day we sat down in good ol' tower one to begin our shift.
"You ready for another night Gurd?" I asked.
"Yeah let's just hope tonight is a lot slower than last night."
30 seconds later...
BOOM! We heard a distant blast.
"S.O.G. this is tower one..."
Friday, May 11, 2007
I turn 22 today and when I look back at my 21st birthday it feels like it was three years ago. I attribute this to the many many experiences I went through over the last twelve months. 21 marked the end of my six-month solderization process. It also marked the end to a very long, very serious relationship I was in. As I had been previously living with her, now I needed to find somewhere else to go. After separating with someone I had been close to for three years, emotionally I was crushed, I had just removed myself from the military environment, and I felt I had nowhere to go. I went home to get some time to collect myself.
I moved in with my parents in Prescott. I had almost no social network to speak of, I was reeling from a break-up, and after spending six months surrounded by my fellow comrades in training I found myself up late at night in a dark, quiet house and I was lonely, extremely lonely. During the day I was extremely restless, in training it was common to work 40-60 hours a week along with physical training five days per week. To occupy myself I threw myself into everything I could. I found two jobs, registered for a full schedule at school, got a gym membership, workout schedule, and unfortunately, threw myself headlong into a new, exciting relationship.
I was crossed and the relationship completely fell apart. Once again, I felt alone. I was so used to having a girl in my life to boost my confidence and self-esteem. Once that was gone again I began to compensate. My insecurity grew. Without a girlfriend I felt I had to prove I was attractive. I became a big asshole for awhile. I would brag, talk constantly about myself and the things I had accomplished. I would always take credit rather than let people give it to me. I would rub it in when I outperformed someone. And the worst thing I did, if I felt someone had some sort of dominance over me, I would harshly criticize them to soothe my own insecurity. Also, without a girlfriend to be considerate of, I focused all that consideration inward. I was completely selfish and impatient. I remember telling my Dad I wanted to go golfing with him and never did. I remember him asking me several times and I turned him down because I thought I had something more important to do socially. Looking back now, I remember Dad asking me and I can't remember a single thing I did when I told him no.
I was a damn jerk.
Then I started to question why I was driving all these people I cared about away from me. I began to become a little more self aware. A very good friend pointed me to the author Robert Greene. Much of his work deals with being self aware and controlling your emotions. I saw myself for what I was. I began the long process of eradicating all those horrible habits and over-compensations I had picked up. I remember talking to a good friend one day,
"I really haven't felt like my usual self lately," i said.
"Like, how haven't you felt like yourself?" she asked.
"Well there hasn't been anything usual about myself since before I went to basic training."
Changing as a person is great, I have gone through huge personal changes in the last year. The only problem is I lost my sense of identity sometimes. It really frightened me, and at times I would feel completely lost. But as I examined myself and read about some different perspectives, I found a goal and it wasn't until my friend Hager put a name on it that I realized what it was that I was working towards.
-a state of freedom from emotional disturbance and anxiety; tranquillity
I feel like I have learned more in this last year about life than I did in the 21 years before.
Wednesday, April 25, 2007
After unloading the helicopter we formed up on a volleyball court. At least some people have fun, I thought. I scanned the area as our Captain droned on about the showers and types of shacks we would be living in. Immediately around the area was large HESCO barrier walls. The walls were made of square containers that were filled with dirt and stacked on top of each other. Printed on the side of each container in big blue letters was the word HESCO. Hence the name "HESCO barriers." The ground consisted entirely of dirt and gravel. I didn't see a single paved road. Immediately to my right was several rows of dark green tents. These were affectionately known as the "transient tents." Images of homeless bums leaped to mind as I was referred to as a "transient" for the first time in my life. I looked further and saw gently rolling green hills past the walls. Small tan huts and buildings broke up the hillsides as I took in the villages around me. Past those a mountain range rose sharply into the sky. The peaks were frosted with snow even though it was over 90 degrees where I stood. I quickly saw that we were completely surrounded by mountains. It was no surprise we chose to fly out by helicopter.
Over the next few days I familiarized myself with the FOB. There was the chow hall. A small building filled with locals cooking furiously under the direction of Army and Air Force cooks. The gym, I learned, was more than adequate as we had heard back in the states. I visited the Aid Station, where I learned I would be working, and found out we were moving into a new building. There was also the Rec Center with a room for phones and Internet. I am sitting there now, posting this blog. There is also a shower tent, toilet trailers, and a service where the locals do your laundry for you. I still haven't mentioned the most awesome feature of the FOB. One day we were outside the motor pool chatting when I looked past the group and noticed something odd. Inside a large metal storage container I saw two soldiers sitting. One had his shirt off and the other was leaning all over him. Then I saw a row of inks and a mirror. Someone was running a fucking tattoo parlor inside of a shipping container. It was awesome. What appeared to be gay soldier fraternization turned out to be an innocent tattoo.
Outside of our area on the other half of the FOB was the ANA base. ANA stands for Afghanistan National Army. We work with them sometimes but mostly stay on our side of the FOB. We did learn that a week earlier the ANA was attacked at the gate with a car bomb. Several Afghans were killed, including children. It was a very real reminder of what we had trained for. The Taliban are a terrible group who have no problem killing innocent children to spread terror and instability. I had a chance to speak with a medic who had treated the victims of the blast. He showed me the pictures of the dead and wounded. I had seen enough pictures of blood and guts to not be bothered by the images of mangled bodies of those who had perished only a week earlier. I felt a small pang of guilt for not empathizing with the dead I saw and for a lack of feeling disturbed by graphic images. In this line of work you really can't. Any day another suicide bomber could mangle more locals or fellow soldiers. If one came through the door of the Aid Station there would be no room for disgust or empathy. A medic has to be 100% focused on doing the right treatment at the right time.
My life is definitely much different here on Methar Lam compared to home. It's extremely hectic, busy, and at times, dangerous. But at the end of the day, the temperature cools to about 70 degrees. An extremely gentle breeze drifts across the FOB. I sit outside with a chair and watch a reverse sunset of sorts. Instead of watching the sun set, I face east and watch as the shadows get longer and longer until they slowly drift up the mountainside. The aid station is across from the chow hall and soldiers walking by gradually gather around to joke and talk until we have a small crowd. Eventually the twilight gives way to dark and everyone disperses.
As nice as home is, there is definitely some things I love about this place.
Saturday, April 7, 2007
“You know what was the hardest part about being a medic back in my day?” he asked.
“What’s that sir?”
“Being able to chisel the stone tablet fast enough to keep up!”
We laughed and relaxed immediately. We were instructed on the style and effects of humanitarian aid missions in Afghanistan. I was absolutely looking forward to the missions and working with the local people. Unfortunately it’s not all peaches and cream and helping babies. Men in this society regard themselves as superior to women and children. I recall a Navy doctor telling me that they had set up a treatment center at a local village. The building being used was surrounded by a brick wall with one opening. As the locals began showing up the doctor noticed it was only the village’s men coming for treatment. She instantly halted the line and told her “terp” (interpreter) tell them,
“If we don’t start seeing some women and children we aren’t treating anybody.”
They caved and allowed the women and children to come. But there was another problem. The village men refused to allow the women to enter through their entrance to the compound so they tore the wall down on the opposite side rather than let them use the same one. That’s a taste of how men view women in this country. Class ended and we headed to the airfield where we were faced with about four more hours of waiting. How very thrilling.
At last it was time to fly! We marched out to the airfield and unloaded all of our bags for a third time.
Sanders' gay bag is ruining an otherwise hardcore picture.
I had seen pictures of the Chinook before but I never realized how huge this helicopter was until I saw it in person. We took our seats on the small metal frame benches with nylon seats and the pilot fired up the engines. The noise was similar to screaming babies and metal grinding and was deafening. I jammed my earplugs in and prepped my camera. I was sitting along the wall of the chopper near the back. The back of the Chinook has a drawbridge type door that was left open during flight. A crewmember was manning a machine gun mounted on the back gate. I had a clear view past him and out the back. I felt the chopper shift as we lifted off of the ground. Now I tried to completely trust a pilot who flies these every day but when we were taking off the chopper slipped slightly in all directions and I pictured it tipping sideways and smashing into the ground. Fortunately this was not the case and suddenly we were several hundred feet off of the ground.
“This is it. I’m really doing this,” I thought, “this is the shit in the commercials; this is why I love the Army!”
I am a complete junkie for new experiences and at that moment I was drunk with satisfaction. The noise was deafening and the wind blasted past my face. The view was absolutely breathtaking. I have been through the Rocky Mountains several times and let me tell you, they have nothing on Afghanistan. The terrain is absolutely brutal. We left the valley and the chopper tilted as we gently cruised around a mountain peak. The ground which was several hundred feet below suddenly rose as we crossed the jagged landscape. The thin, dirt roads twisted violently to negotiate the terrain. The tops of peaks shot near vertically down hundreds of feet to the base of chasms, which had been cut by a river over thousands of years. In the small areas where the land was smoother I could see little herds of animals and tiny villages dotting the landscape. Farm fields were carved into rectangle tiers like giant staircases leading up the mountainsides. I was snapping pictures faster than the paparazzi.
It looks like a recruitment poster.
We reached Methar Lam and once again as the chopper was hovering it felt like it was about to tip over. Once again, it didn’t. We jumped off the back gate and unloaded the chopper as fast as possible. We fell into a formation outside the landing zone and were greeted by our captain. As soon as the roar of the rotor blades faded into the distance he spoke,
“Welcome to Methar Lam!”
Wednesday, April 4, 2007
I thought carefully. I didn't want to rush to answer this question even though I had now been asked it about 25 times. I didn't want to play everything off like I was hard, like all the wannabe super-soldiers I had met who couldn't wait to, and I quote,
"Kill a fucking hadji."
I'm not Rambo, nor do I wish to be. I feel mildly sick every time I hear someone talk like the soldiers described above. It should also be noted that the younger they are, the bigger they talk. They have a real wake-up call coming.
"Whoa! Are you nervous?"
That question again! The night I left the United States I called just about everyone in my cellphone. Family, friends, teachers and bosses, even some people I hadn't spoken to in over a year. It was such a great experience. You can't even recall the times you have had with people until you talk to them one on one again. I remembered an awesome song lyric...
And I've got some friends some that I hardly know
We've had some times I wouldn't trade for the world
We chase these days down with talks of the places that we will go
Swing Life Away
After ten or so phone calls filled with memories I began to choke up at the slightest happy thought. I knew full well that in Afghanistan I would have internet access and still be able to easily keep in touch with all of these people. I had already been gone for three months so it wasn't new to anyone that I wasn't around. But still, something about actually flying halfway around the world kind of finalized all the thoughts and feelings of separation. I drove on, destroying my cell battery and blazing a trail of voice mails as I sped through my phone book. Finally I finished my last conversation. We boarded the first flight to Maine from North Carolina. Two hours later, we are allowed off of the plane into the Maine airport for an hour break. I used a phone to call the most important person on my list. Shelly Torkelson. Shelly is my best friend and I can discuss more topics with her than anyone on the planet, and I often do. We talk on the phone often and were well aware that I wouldn't be able to call her for quite awhile. Like the other calls that night, it was full of happy memories and soon I was fighting the manly battle to choke down tears. Shelly was teary and said,
"I'm mad and I don't know why..."
I'll miss ya.
"Dude, are you nervous man?"
Am I nervous? I probably should be but after 3 months of BS at Ft. Bragg North Carolina we were more than ready to get into a combat zone. I have spent 9 months out of the last 16 training for this. Hours of medical classes, combat lanes doused with fake blood and screaming actors, shooting ranges, mortar drills, language training, hundreds of miles ran, thousands of push ups. If anything I am ready. In fact, I was starting to get disgusted by preparation. But the day finally came to deploy. After we left Maine we flew to Turkey. After a short stay in Turkey we flew again to Kyrgyzstan. Here we had to wait a few days for, you guessed it, ANOTHER plane. We were at Manas Air Force Base. It's great to work with the Air Force because they have all the money and the best amenities. I was talking to my friend Scott about two days into deployment. He asked
"So where are you now?"
"I'm in Kryzgstan, in an internet cafe enjoying a Latte," I replied.
So maybe getting deployed isn't all bad. After another day of ping pong, gourmet coffee, and Soviet era memorabilia shops, we had to fly to Bagram, Afghanistan. This time we were flying on a huge freaking Air Force plane. This thing was so loud we were required to wear earplugs during the flight. They had bolted old gray airline seats to the floor. All of our bags were sealed up in giant pallets in the back of the plane. I remember about two seconds of that flight and it was two seconds too long. Staying up all night has its advantages.
After arriving we had to perform the "duffel bag drag" and move all of our gear into a gigantic clamshell tent. This tent houses at least 200 soldiers on cots. Sometimes I wake up and feel like a hurricane refugee when see the piles of bags and cots and people everywhere.
The next day we were scheduled for DBPP. This is a popular military acronym for "Death by PowerPoint." We had 14 briefings in one day. I was feeling pretty good about deployment and by the end of the day I had learned,
- Afghanistan has more land mines than any country in the world, over 10 million.
- Methar lam is in the highest category of risk for malaria in the world.
- The Taliban start their offensives in spring, aka now.
- Suicide bombings in Afghanistan have risen dramatically.
- We are along the Pakistan border, the Taliban hide in Pakistan.
"Oh my god Alex, are you nervous?"
Nah, I'm here for a year and it's going to be great. Stay tuned.