Monday, July 9, 2007

Life at the Forward patrol base- Part I

Two weeks without internet, a real shower, or my bed. Two weeks of meals out of vacuum sealed plastic bags. Two weeks of hiking up the mountain ranges of Afghanistan in 100+ degree weather with a combat load of 65 lbs. Two weeks at a base known for being mortared with nothing more than a canvas tent over my head. I couldn't have been more excited to get to Mehtar Lam's forward patrol base.

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.

Coming up:
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.


Guillermo said...

And here I thought all you had to do to prove you were tough was eat those plasti-meat sticks in the MREs that are supposed to be hot dogs.

[JLB] said...

Nice use of the word "Satiated". Classic Pfeiffer.