OPERATION ENDURING BOREDOM - EPISODE IV
photo by Buck Sargent
American Citizen Soldier *Extra*
This is the continuation of a series of selected excerpts from my Afghanistan war journal recorded from October 2003 to August 2004. They are along the lines of a conventional weblog in that they captured the daily events and my thoughts about them in real time.
Full disclosure: I am posting this ancient history in the midst of my current deployment to Iraq as column filler due to the fact that I am too busy and too exhausted at the moment to come up with anything original for this week’s submission. Regular postings will continue as soon as my situation on the ground permits. Several articles and a movie trailer cataloging my experiences in Iraq thus far are currently in development. Stay tuned.
God grants liberty only to those who love it, and are always ready to guard and defend it.
Afghanistan. It’s hard to believe that we’re finally here, after talking and prepping for it for the last 3+ months. It really doesn’t feel like we’re on the opposite side of the planet; it looks like some uninhabited spot in New Mexico or Nevada. It’s extremely dusty and barren, and warm out for November. If we care (or dare) to venture outside the wire perimeter we have to do it in full battle rattle (weapon, k-pot, flak vest, LCE). There’s a small outdoor bazaar run by local Afghans, selling everything from marble chess sets to rugs to cigarettes that look and taste like they date back to the Soviet occupation.
The locals we’ve seen so far have been polite, clean, friendly people with excellent English speaking ability. It’s hard to believe there are others just like them beyond the wire that would as soon slit our throats as sell us rugs. Perhaps these people are no different.
A First Sergeant from the 10th Mountain Division who gave us our welcome brief today had a little surprise for us. It seems the very same photo of our deployment ceremony that ran in the Anchorage Daily News last week also just happened to make the front page of a Pakistani newspaper. The enemy not only knows we’re here, they’re advertising the fact. Not a good sign.
We’ve been working off Zulu time (a standardized 24 hour system utilized by pilots to avoid confusion when flying across multiple time zones), but so far the only thing it has accomplished is mass confusion. The sun comes up around 0100z to 0200z, lunch is around 0800z, and the sun goes back down at 1600z to 1700z. So basically, we know what time it is but we never have any idea what it means.
I’m not sure how much I trust these local-nationals who are employed all throughout our camp. They seem friendly and grateful for the jobs, but one can never tell with these people. They could be going home every night and spilling their guts about everyone and everything they see here. The Army obviously trusts them (or perhaps they don’t either), but I sure hope they pay them well either way. Because if they don’t, there are plenty of others who will kill to find out what they know.
I nearly forgot today was my birthday. I guess I was too busy digging holes outside our tent for a chin-up bar or playing endless games of Scrabble and chess. We have a lot of free time right now; I’d better enjoy it while it lasts.
The weather here today was idyllic--80 degrees and sunny without a cloud in the sky. Supposedly, it rarely rains here--no more than 12-15” a year--but we’re told it typically comes all at once in a few sudden torrential downpours that threaten to flood the otherwise bone dry moonscape that is Afcrapistan.
Our chain of command had us link up with a company from the 10th Mountain who our unit is going to take over control of FOB Salerno from sometime next week. Their CO (commanding officer) briefed us for a little while and then had us mingle with their troops in order to ask questions or just to get a feel for what to expect from this place while we’re here. They had a lot of experienced guys, many of whom had already been to “the ‘Stan” once before in OEF I (Operation Enduring Freedom Rotation 1). A Specialist Boudreau I chatted with had been in country 10 months thus far, but had been here during Operation Anaconda in the freezing Hindu Kush mountains only a few months following September 11. He had seen and done a lot, and was obviously ready to go home to his new wife. He figured their current tour would be up around January or so. Unfortunately, his unit is moving on from here to a more unstable part of the country, so I wish him luck.
As far as Salerno goes, we learned quite a bit about this area that our briefings previously had failed to mention. First, Khost (pronounced: “Hohst”) is not some tiny tribal village, but a veritable city (at least as far as Afghan cities go). Intel reports estimate as many as 600 al Qaeda members operating out of Khost alone. I didn’t realize there were even six hundred people living in Khost, much less that many potential hostiles. Can’t wait to go search houses door to door!
SPC Boudreau had some interesting factoids about the enemy activity he’d seen: They film themselves when they attack American or coalition forces. Apparently, the only way al Qaeda will pay you is if you present proof that you fired this RPG at a humvee convoy or shot that AK-47 at an American patrol. It seems the only ones still fighting this war are foreign mercenaries. Muslim Chechens have even been captured in these parts. Every wannabe terrorist towelhead in the Middle East comes across these mountains now just so they can claim they fired a few potshots at American soldiers and collect their “Jihad badge.” Kind of like a fantasy camp for terrorist assholes.
Still, I think I’d prefer it were this way in the end. I’d feel much better about shooting some prick who thinks he can just waltz into someone else’s country and prolongate a war just for shits ‘n giggles, than some poor goat farmer who thinks he’s simply defending his homeland from yet another group of western invaders and could care less about the politics of it all.
But don’t get me wrong; either way, if it’s a choice between me or him--that’s no choice at all. It’s gonna be him.
Another day in the ‘Stan. The luxury of each squad having its own tent has now become a liability, as spending the majority of the day with the same eight people is beginning to test the limits of everyone’s patience, myself included.
Third squad’s lineup has changed so much since I first arrived in the company back in April that every time we take a squad photo or make out a roster it’s usually obsolete within a month’s time. Only three original members remain from my first day in it.
My closest friends in the platoon all happened to get shifted to other squads for this deployment, including my buddy PFC Shirey. He’s the only one in the platoon (or perhaps the entire company) that I really have anything in common with, at least in terms of pre-Army life experience. He and I are approximately the same age, we’ve both been to college and worked other jobs before coming into the Army, we’re both avid readers and aspiring writers, and most importantly, we both have big plans for our lives once we leave the military behind.
Like myself, he abandoned his civilian persona and enlisted in a surge of post-9/11 patriotic fever. He and I call each other by our first names, a rare mark of comradeship in the infantry. Paul is in weapons squad now; thus, despite living only a tent or two away, I rarely see him over here except for the occasional game of team Scrabble.
Our PL (platoon leader), 2nd Lieutenant Harber likes to task me out for any letter drafting that he needs doing, and today’s assignment was to correspond with a kindergarten class from Ursa Minor Elementary on Fort Richardson who would be sending us letters and drawings of encouragement and various care packages throughout our deployment. My reply was as follows:
Dear Mrs. Teekell’s kindergarten class,
Thank you for your letters, drawings, care packages and especially your kind-hearted support of our platoon. It is very dusty here in Afghanistan. We all live in large tents but have to sweep them out several times a day because of all the dirt and dust. It gets everywhere!
The desert is very hot during the day, but gets cold at night when the sun goes down. Not as cold as in Alaska, but still pretty cold when we wake up in the morning. There are many dogs here in Afghanistan. There are even a few puppies that stay right here in our camp. The local Afghans that work for us are friendly and some even speak English fairly well.
Before the United States Army came to Afghanistan, very few of the country’s children were allowed to go to school or play sports or even to listen to music. Now they can do all those things and more, but America’s soldiers will have to stay here for a little while longer to make sure the bad men don’t come back and take away the freedom that the people of Afghanistan have worked and waited so long for. The children here are so grateful for the chance to learn and go to school just like you, and love to receive pens and paper in which to write and draw with.
We hope it doesn’t get too cold for you back at Fort Richardson this winter, and we hope to see you all back there real soon.
The soldiers of 2nd Platoon, Charlie Company, Task Force 1/501
It wasn’t easy to describe this place to a bunch of kindergarteners without scaring the bejesus out of them. How does one explain this place truthfully to kids that young and exactly why it is we’re here? I barely understand it myself.
I guess the bottom line is that there’s still a lot of people that would like to see this region descend back into lawless anarchy so that the strict Islamic fundamentalism of the Taliban would be welcomed back by an Afghan populace weary of chaos and tribal feuding. It’s our job to ensure that that does not happen, and if it means that we have to stay here until every one of those bastards is dead or captured, then so be it. It looks like those kindergarteners got the truth after all.
Well, some of it anyway.
There’s an old man who the 10th Mountain hired to clean the camp latrines when they expanded the FOB perimeter and took over his orchards. The old man had not been paid for years for his work in the fields, yet he worked them every day just the same. So the 10th Mountain paid him $50 (per day, per week, or per month, I never found out), but either way, he was basically given a sympathy job because our presence here displaced him to some extent.
Well, now that the 501st has arrived and “Geronimania” has already begun, this old man is about to be laid off so our brilliant chain of command can save a few bucks of the Army’s money. (Right, because we all know how thrifty the military is).
Bad move, I say. Why create disgruntled locals where none existed before, especially someone with intimate knowledge of our base camp. We fire him today, you can bet he’ll be on the AQ/Taliban payroll by next week (assuming he’s not already). The only loyalty people here observe is to the local mullah and to American moolah, and if paying them off is what it takes to keep them on our side, then I say: Show them the money!
Changing of the guard took place today, two days earlier than expected.
Exit: 10th Mountain Division.
Geronimania is when our battalion chain of command gets involved in something that was previously running smoothly and fucks it up beyond all recognition until everyone in the unit is uniformly pissed off. See: fubar, goatfuck, clusterfuck, and/or gagglefuck. Geronimania means that chow will now begin to suck again, we’ll never get enough sleep, we’ll be made to do pointless tasks all day for inexplicable reasons, and all our free time will evaporate into thin air.
Our guard shifts are starting out as 8 hours on, 16 hours off, but I’m sure they will get longer over time. I’m assigned to an OP (observation post) guard tower at one of the inner perimeters near the flight line. Tonight it was with SPC Semanu Putuga from my own squad (he’s Samoan--a great guy to know, a bad one to piss off), and my ex-3rd Herd buddy Paul Shirey. I hope the guard roster stays the same for the four weeks that our company will have it, because as boring as it is to be on your feet for eight straight hours looking through green tinted night vision goggles, it’s a lot more tolerable when you have people around you that you actually like.
Paul and I talked about movies for near four of the eight hour shift. He’s really hard to stump at movie trivia due to the fact that he owns something like 800+ DVDs, has seen nearly every film ever made, and can name just about every actor in them with corresponding director, cinematographer, gaffer, and "best boy."
Shirey worked in the film and television industry before he came into the Army and is always toting around his video camera for the documentary he’s planning to put together about this deployment. He’s also currently working on a screenplay about trolls. He’s definitely a unique individual in the military, which is precisely why we get along so well. I pray the Big Green Machine never succeeds in squeezing that individuality out of him completely.
Geronimania lives! Our platoon got off guard close to midnight last night, has to go back on guard and hour earlier today, I have ASP (Ammo Supply Point) guard with PFC Christy right before going on the same eight hour tower guard as yesterday; and to top it all off, the whole unit had about two hours of our precious free time wasted earlier by the battalion sergeant major so we could do a “Hands Across Salerno” police call of all the trash, junk, sandbags, and cigarette butts that the 10th Mountain graciously left for us to clean up when they pulled out yesterday.
Not many people know this, but 99% of what an infantryman does on a daily basis centers around “police calling,” i.e., picking up other people’s garbage. Not firing your weapon, not parachuting out of a C-130, but picking up trash. Reason #2,487 why I will not be reenlisting.
We’ve been forced to take anti-malaria pills every Monday since the week before we left Alaska. The medication makes you feel like dogshit. The perfect complement to any dirty, dusty, exhausting deployment half a world away.
My interest in daily Scrabble sessions has waned, as my game board has since become monopolized by soldiers with the vocabulary of Dr. Seuss. The game loses its zeal when every other word placed on the board is “cat,” “hat,” “tub,” or “ball.” It’s like playing Pictionary with orangutans. There’s only so many times one can repeat the phrase: “Sorry, but (fill in gibberish here) is not a word. Try again, Genius.”
Guard duty again tonight; same place, same people. It’s fun to watch the locals who live right outside our perimeter with our binos. It seems all they do all day long is amble back and forth along the dirt road that doesn’t really go anywhere, breaking only long enough for their “Allah is the Greatest” prayer times.
Cows, donkeys, mopeds, bicycles… we get the whole Third World Theme Park experience.