OPERATION ENDURING BOREDOM - EPISODE I
photo by Buck Sargent
American Citizen Soldier *Extra*
This is the first in a three-part series of selected excerpts from my Afghanistan war journal recorded from October 2003 to August 2004. They are along the lines of a conventional blog in that they captured the daily events and my thoughts about them in real time. I am posting them on the eve of my current deployment to Iraq as a study in comparison to the OIF columns to follow.
As I will be necessarily incommunicado for an indefinite period while in military transit to the Middle East, regular postings will continue as soon as my situation on the ground permits.
FOB Salerno, Southeastern Afghanistan
It is difficult to believe a full month has already passed since the 501st first set foot in country. If our unit were still slotted for a mere six month deployment, we would already be 1/6th done. Alas, seeing as how we now have no real idea just how long the Geronimos will remain here in Asscrackistan, a month feels rather like a pebble dropped in the ocean.
No mail call today, although every time a C-130 roars in with a delivery the entire FOB (Forward Operating Base) begins to salivate in anticipation. If we had a choice between a needed chow resupply or a mail drop, the majority of us would likely take our chances with mail. Then again, there isn’t a whole lot we wouldn’t trade the food here for. (Dysentery, Lyme disease and malaria come to mind, but that’s about it).
Nothing really took place at all today, sans an hour-and-a-half long Sergeant Sarten PT session followed up by some medevac classes for the remainder of the day. After dinner chow is typically when the squad leaders return from their nightly meeting with the platoon leader and platoon sergeant and parcel out “the poop”-- an inexplicable Army euphemism for “the latest info.”
The poop tonight was a doozy: On December 2nd, Alpha and Charlie companies begin a fourteen-day expedition along the Afghan-Pakistan border. The mission: Draw anti-coalition Taliban forces out into the open -- and kick their asses. C company’s role is to set up prominent roadblocks and to conduct cordon & searches of known enemy-supported areas; essentially as bait to lure them into A co.’s crosshairs in pre-planned ambushes. We’ll be air assaulted in by CH-47 Chinook helicopters and likely walk far and sleep little during “Operation Avalanche.”
One thing is for certain--if we weren’t exactly feeling like high-speed combat veterans before, we sure as hell will after this. We are dropping smack dab in the middle of Taliban country, with the likelihood of enemy contact estimated at an upwards of ninety percent.
Two words: Game On.
Now on a slightly less interesting but no less serious note: Apparently, there is roughly 18,000 lbs. of Task Force 1-501 mail currently sitting up north at Bagram Air Field just waiting for distribution. What exactly it is waiting for, I do not know, but what I do know is that it had better find its way down to FOB Salerno before 800+ airborne paratroopers go postal.
Operation Enduring Boredom is officially in full swing today. Aside from a brief block of instruction from Sergeant Arguello (one of our veterans from a previous OEF tour) on how to conduct ourselves at the roadside checkpoints we will likely be setting up in the next few weeks, little else has transpired today. Undoubtedly, the leadership is busy planning the logistics of our upcoming mission, the launch of which has now been pushed forward a day to the 3rd.
I have been trying in vain to occupy myself with back issues of National Review and a dog-eared and yellowed paperback copy of Bob Woodward’s The Brethren, a journalistic account of the inner workings of the Supreme Court circa 1969-76 that I happened to run across in the “morale” tent. It is certainly an odd selection, considering the surroundings, yet it is strangely compelling nonetheless, ostensibly due to the fact that it is precisely the subject matter I would be immersed in at this exact moment in time had I not decided instead to join the Army and march off to war.
My desert camouflaged comrades, content to fritter away their down time with endless rounds of Spades (the card game de rigueur of the 501st), or openly-traded DVD movies, or battered copies of the Army “Holy Trinity” -- Maxim, Stuff, and FHM -- view me with curious bewilderment at my peculiar intellectual bent. There are some avid readers in the military, though many in the enlisted ranks seem to possess below-average writing and spelling ability. At the the risk of sounding elitist, let me assure you they are far from stupid, but merely the unfortunate victims of both the sad state of the American public education system and the invention of the Sony Playstation. If it were not for portable DVD players and Nintendo Gameboys, I cannot fathom how the majority of these guys would cope with the hours on end of inactivity, especially after dinner chow when there is very little to occupy your time until lights out.
As for myself, the maintenance of this daily journal has been my one saving grace. I do believe I have accomplished more writing in the past month than in the entirety of the fifteen months I have thus far served in the Army. By the time this deployment ends, the sheer length alone of this journal may rival Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Of course, in a nod to Afghanistan’s history it would have to be renamed War, War, and Still More War.
I finally bought myself an acoustic guitar from the Hajji-Mart today. I use the word “guitar” loosely; it is closer to a cigar box held together with fishing wire. Still, it has a decidedly “made in Afghanistan” vibe to it, which is all I was really after anyway -- it’s ability to actually produce sound is secondary. And considering the strings on it are likely older than I am, it had better be. My one souvenir -- I can already see the T-shirt:
I spent a year of my life in Afghanistan and all I got was this crappy guitar.
The Army no longer permits the acquisition of war trophies of any kind, so it will have to suffice. Allah forbid we appear like conquerors and offend the oh-so-delicate sensibilities of the Muslim world. Hell, anything worth stealing in this country was stolen a long, long time ago, believe me. If you lack a mental image of Afghanistan, simply picture Land of the Lost: Beyond Thunderdome, and you’re about halfway there.
Today was predominantly spent prepping and packing for our quickly-approaching mission. The operations order has been changed slightly. 2nd Platoon is now the only element from our company going, joined by the mortars crew, a squad of engineers, an Air Force combat controller and -- rather ominously -- a field surgeon.
We’re expecting to interdict anywhere from 80 to 150 anti-coalition militia (ACMs) attempting to cross the porous Afghan border and deny their ability to transport men and materiel intended for their annual post-Ramadan spring offensives.
Our objectives will entail checkpoint searches of vehicles, cave clearing and general recon and engagement of known enemy locations oftentimes hidden within the local population. The probability of encountering al-Qaeda leadership has been estimated as extremely high, and resultant contact with hostile forces is nearly certain.
A single platoon versus a possible company-size enemy force, equipped with only what we can carry on our backs, and at the mercy of resupply helos for water, food, and ammo. Fourteen days in frigid temperatures, at frosty altitudes and with a FUBARed mission from the get go. 2nd Platoon is about to earn our combat pay, no doubt about it.
I’ve been there with the soldiers who’ve gone away to war
And you can bet that they remember just what they’re fightin’ for
-Darryl Worley, Have You Forgotten?
Cheesy or not, listening to that song never fails to instantly place me into a patriotic mood, akin to the one that spurred me to join the Army in the first place just over two years ago today. Few of my compatriots speak openly about September 11th in such terms, yet all acknowledge it is the fundamental reason behind why we are here and why it is so vital that we (i.e., the United States military) stay the course and remain until the job is done.
This nonspoken undercurrent of love of country is what enables many of us (myself included) to keep our spirits up even in the face of the daunting tasks that loom before us. (Read: Operation Avalanche, aka Operation Mountain Goat, aka Operation Mountain Goatf**k, aka Operation Man This is Gonna Suck).
Every passing day seems to add twenty extra pounds to our rucks. Today (A-Day minus two) finds me with an additional 200 rounds of linked 5.56mm S.A.W. ammo, bringing me to a total of 1000. It may sound like a lot -- and believe me, it feels like a lot -- though, considering the M249 squad Automatic Weapon is capable of firing upwards of 850 rounds/minute … well, let’s just say that if the "fit" hit’s the "shan" and the Mongolian hordes are storming the castle walls, I calculate I’ll be able to hold them off for approximately, oh … (allow me to quickly double-check my math) … about eight-point-five seconds.
Bring it on, Genghis Khan.
Tomorrow promises to add a few frags (grenades) and “tootsie rolls” -- oblong 60mm mortar rounds -- to our already overstretched spinal-compressing hernia packs. If our squad ends up humping all the way to the high ground as is currently planned, someone better be standing by with a stretcher and an EKG monitor, Roger?
The infantry is a lot like prison -- no one ever tells you how long they’ve been in; they'd rather talk about how much time they have left.
COPYRIGHT 2003 BUCK SARGENT