OPERATION ENDURING BOREDOM - EPISODE II
American Citizen Soldier *Extra*
This is the second 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, Afghanistan
Rehearsal Day for Operation Avalanche; A-Day minus one. Our rucks seem to have reached critical mass in terms of how much weight the average-sized human can carry on his back short of slipping a disk. We hump more weight per person than American Airlines allows you to check at the counter.
Mortar rounds are truly the bane of an infantryman’s existence. We don’t get to fire them, yet we still have to carry them. Otherwise the Eleven Charlies (mortarmen) wouldn’t have room for all their coffee grounds and trail mix.
Of course, it’s easy to bag on the Chairborne Charlies until us 11Bs (Eleven Bulletstoppers) are knee deep in The Shit and are cryin’ for that indirect fire to fall from the sky and save our asses. But until that time comes (which may be sooner than later) I’m still gonna bitch about it.
Good news. 3rd Squad may not need to climb all the way up to the high ground tomorrow after all. The helos are supposed to drop us off directly on the ridgeline we’ve been tasked to secure. This is a mighty relief, considering I would have a hard time scaling a speed bump with the load I was teetering around with this afternoon. Now I know how a sherpa feels.
Quasimodo’s got nothing on me.
Now for the bad news. Captain Condrey graciously informed us that the latest "Magic 8-Ball" intel predicts up to 450 enemy fighters massing to assault a border checkpoint in the next few days… and we’re the bait.
"Magic 8-Ball, within the next few days could we encounter up to 450 enemy fighters massing to assault a border checkpoint?"
My sources say yes.
We're choppering over in broad daylight and setting up a roadblock right in the heart of Indian country. We want them to know we’re there. We want them to attack. And then we want to call in the overflying B-52s to unleash the Holy Wrath of God on them.
Sorry Hajji, but Allah doesn’t have close air support (CAS).
We’ll put a boot in your ass, it’s the American way.
-Toby Keith, Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue (The Angry American)
The following just happened to come in the mail today. I’m taking it as a not-so-good omen:
Dear fellow American,Hey thanks, Joe. You’ve really brightened my day, let me tell ya. I’ll be sure to think of you when I’m dodging machine gun fire, ducking RPG rounds and trying to avoid SPINAL CORD INJURY. What’s next, Seasons Greetings from the Association of Opportunistic Funeral Directors? Happy Holidays from the I Hope You Don’t Step On a Landmine Society? A little tact, please. Is that so much to ask?
The thoughts and prayers of the members of the Paralyzed Veterans of America [!] are with our troops in Iraq, Kuwait, Afghanistan, South Korea, Bosnia, and all the other places around the globe where you are putting your lives on the line.
It is our sincere hope that no one else becomes eligible for membership in PVA -- that no one emerges from the current conflict with a spinal cord injury. But if it should happen [knock on wood, rub the rabbits foot, cross my fingers], rest assured that PVA will be here [sure, with a big fat wheelchair with your name already on it].
My heartfelt thanks to you. God Bless America and return home safely!
[But not too safely! We’ve still got bills to pay, you know].
Joseph L. Fox, Sr.
Paralyzed Veterans of America,
A-Day. Preparing for an air assault mission is similar to prepping for an airborne jump, minus the parachutes. You ready all your equipment, top off your water, oil up your weapon, and then waddle on over to the tarmac (in our present case, a rocky helicopter landing zone) with your insanely heavy sherpa loads and plop down behind the “birds” to wait out the hours until mission launch.
Sitting here on my rucksack waiting for the helos to spin up, the only thing I can’t stop thinking about is whether or not someone will break into our tent while we’re gone and steal my hajji guitar.
As soon as the Chinook that was delivering us to our objective lifted off, it was only an eight minute flight to the rocky hilltop that would be 3rd Squad’s home away from home away from home for the next three days -- five thousand feet straight up. Sergeants Sarten and Russell both swore out (or rather, yelled) the Oath of Reenlistment in a little impromptu ceremony-in-flight while myself and Specialist Putuga outstretched an American flag in the background and tried our best not to fall off the open rear ramp of the chopper.
Why airborne troops insist on re-upping in bizarre, completely unnecessary scenarios, I will never understand. As far as Sergeant Sarten goes, this is a guy with a proclivity for unusual behavior (e.g., running from tent to tent stark raving naked except for desert tan combat boots and a football tucked under one arm, screaming, “BLUE--FORTY TWO! BLUE--FORTY TWO! HUT-HUT-HUT!”) So perhaps that explains a little of it.
The Chinook ride felt just like it does when we’re waiting to jump out of a C-130. Everyone was facing each other on opposing fold-down bench seats bearing that same look of constipated fear that all jumpers have waiting to “stand up, hook up, shuffle to the door,” as the time honored cadence goes. Everyone is nervous or scared, but no one dares show it, thus, all that comes out is this blank, thousand-yard stare that says, “What the hell am I doing here?! This is f---ing insane!”
No one was sure if our LZ was likely to be “hot” or “cold,” so many of us were displaying that look as we waited to touch down. Luckily for us, the LZ turned out to be colder than a witch’s tit and we disembarked without a hitch. That is, until we had to ruck up and move out.
In true "Geronimania" fashion, the spot where the bird dropped us off was not precisely where our fearless leaders wanted us to be. Thus, we spent half the day humping our impossible loads up and over several ridgelines until we reached the closest one overlooking the road that 2nd Squad would be blockading and searching vehicles on.
Afghanistan is notorious for its rugged terrain and steep gradients, but what they fail to mention is that many of these huge mountains are nothing more than giant rock piles that shift and slide under your boots with every step. I turned my ankle five times in the first fifteen minutes alone.
Trying to sleep on these mountains is no picnic either. Between the bi-polar weather, the jagged rocks and the backbreaking climbs, the only word necessary to describe this rotten country is uncomfortable. It is the one-word all-purpose modifier du jour.
The Moutains of Afghanistan
Another full day and night spent in the overwatch position above our checkpoint; our squad rotating in shifts while pulling security (3 hours on/3 hours off). The only activity noted were the crazy hajji goatherders who walk their flocks back and forth across the mountains all day long wearing sandals, no less.
The enemy activity that was supposed to be generated by our overly demonstrative presence on the border never seemed to materialize (despite virtually every type of helicopter in the U.S. inventory constantly buzzing overhead). I’m guessing the Huey and Cobra gunships that the Marines canvassed the skies with all day and night may have instead had a deterrent effect. The Taliban may be crazy, but they’re not that crazy.
We rucked down from our hidesight this morning to rejoin the rest of the platoon in order to move on to the next border checkpoint. Initially, we were supposed to be air assaulted in, but that plan somehow went to shit and we ended up riding the whole way in five-ton trucks.
In the infantry it’s often stated that even the worst ride is still preferable to the best walk. Today this theorem was proven false.
You have entered: The Convoy from Hell.
(Say in the voice of Rod Sterling)
Picture yourself riding in the back of an open dump truck over “roads” that are about the width of bicycle tires. Add numerous switchbacks that drop off to treacherous chasms and cliff faces on either side; mix in a few boulders in the roadway that end up severing fuel and brake pressure lines (repaired onsite with confidence-inspiring Shoe Goo); top it off with a canyon-heavy route that turned a ten klick movement into a 3 ½ hour death knell.
It was an Afghaniland Theme Park ride gone terribly wrong. Imagine Pirates of the Caribbean, except for real pirates and real cliffs to drive off of.
This was the first and only time since arriving in country that I have been truly frightened for my life. Actually, it wasn’t really fear but more like acceptance of the undeniable fact that we were all going TO DIE. This is not literary hyperbole; only the plain truth. I sincerely believed there was no way our truck was making that trek without ending up overturned at the bottom of a hundred foot ravine. The fact that I’m still here to tell the tale obviously proved me wrong.
I suppose God really does love the infantry.
If you’re going through hell … keep going.
COPYRIGHT 2003 BUCK SARGENT