OPERATION ENDURING BOREDOM - EPISODE XI
American Citizen Soldier *Extra*
This is the continuation of a series of selected excerpts from my Afghanistan war journal hand-recorded from October 2003 to August 2004. All OEB entries are previously unpublished.
The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.
-Martin Luther King, Jr.
11April2004 Easter Sunday
FOB Salerno, Southeastern Afghanistan
More rocket and (possibly) mortar attacks rained down on us late last night during our perimeter guard shift. Happy Easter from our good friend Allah. You know, the President is right. Islam truly is a wondrous religion of peace!
Our platoon received the LT’s standard “complacency speech” again tonight. We’re to the point where we’re starting to get complacent about listening to his lecture about not getting complacent. More vintage El-Tee Harber (speaking through a giant wad of Copenhagen):
“Men, I know it’s boring, and at times you may not feel like you’re accomplishing anything worthwhile over here -- but trust me, you are. You’re doing a job that needs to be done. These guys helped crash planes into our towers and now we’re here to hunt them down and kill them. It’s really that simple.
“As long as bombs aren’t going off over in the States, then the way I look at it we’ve done our job. Right now bombs aren’t going off in the States -- they’re going off in Spain (scattered laughter) -- so we must be doing something right.
“I need you to stay focused… keep doing the right thing… don’t get complacent… always be ready for anything… expect it to happen. Just give me a few more months of your ‘A-game’ and then we can all go home and get piss-drunk and tell war stories.
“That’s all I’ve got. Squad leaders, I need to see you about the…”
The rest of us joes quickly file out of the “head shed” and resume our nightly DVD watching/cigarette smoking/book reading/phone waiting/navel gazing…
My new OP partner for the past few days has been SPC Nix, the RTO to the platoon’s attached FO (forward observer), SGT Saunders. (Riddle me this, Batman: If the FO’s RTO is MIA, does his family receive his SGLI, ASAP? Or are they simply SOL?)
Nix is not exactly what you’d call the sharpest tool in the shed. With his bushy, perpetually furrowed uni-brow, tiny chiclet-like gapped teeth, and brillo pad mustache, he appears more akin to a desert cammied hedgehog with body armor and body odor than a combat soldier. Nix not only looks dumb, he insists on proving it at every opportunity. One recent night shift he occupied himself by repeatedly fiddling with the ITAS* thermal imaging scope in the dark OP, swiveling it to and fro and manically pressing buttons like a hyperactive child in an elevator.
*A large, tripod mounted weapons sight normally used in conjunction with the TOW anti-tank missile.
“Hey, how do you rotate this thing forward?” he asks me. (Say in dumbest voice possible).
“Pull out the lever on the right side,” I tell him, already visibly irritated.
“Is this it…?” CRASH, BOOM. “Oh shit.”
“'Oh shit'? 'Oh shit' what? Nix, what the hell did you do?!”
“I guess I pulled on the wrong lever, ‘cause the ITAS just fell off the tripod onto the floor.”
“Jesus f***ing Christ, Nix. You are without a doubt, THE stupidest person I have ever met. Bar none.”
“Oh man… I hope I didn’t break it. They’ll be taking this out of my check for the rest of my life. Hey, help me pick this thing back up, will ‘ya?”
The ITAS is indeed an expensive piece of equipment, its cost rivaled only by its sheer weight. We spent the next 30 minutes struggling to lift it back onto the sturdy tripod and latch it back down with the aid of only a tiny red lens flashlight. After a thorough systems check, the ITAS seemed no worse for wear, Nix and his pay stubs breathing a nervous sigh of relief.
His incessant, mindless chatter, though, was not the least bit cowed by this latest faux pas. For hours on end I struggled to ignore his incoherent babble until I was finally reduced to a near-vegetative state, my head cluttered with his moronic commentary. By the end of every shift, my brain felt like a computer hard drive slowed to a crawl by a slew of unsolicited internet pop-up ads. If I could have gotten my hands on a Norton anti-virus cd-rom, I’d have gladly shoved one up my own ass in an attempt to defrag my grey matter and cleanse my thoughts of his mind-numbing babble. After nearly a week of this torture, I was a miracle I could still read and write.
From the March 8, 2004 edition of the Army Times:
Soldier Seeks Refuge in Canada
A paratrooper with 82nd Airborne Division who belatedly concluded he couldn’t kill people in Iraq is living with his family in a basement apartment in Toronto while his unit patrols the combat zone near Baghdad.
SPC Jeremy Hinzman, 25, an 11B infantryman with the 2nd Battalion, 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment, fled to Canada Jan. 2 seeking refugee status on the eve of the unit’s deployment, after a long, fruitless attempt to be declared a conscientious objector.
“When I enlisted, I knew what the Army was about,” he said in an email to Army Times. “But I didn’t foresee how much effort would be employed to break down my barriers and turn me into a being who would not only simply be able to kill, but to do so with enthusiasm.”
The Army will not attempt to track down Hinzman and take him into custody, said spokeswoman Master Sergeant Pam Smith. “We do not go after soldiers who are AWOL.”
Meanwhile, Hinzman, his wife and baby son [They must be so proud. Dad, what did you do in the war? Well son, I ran away like a scared little bitch before I even got there!] are living in a basement apartment in Toronto found with the help of connections in the Quaker community near Fort Bragg, N.C.
In late spring or early summer, Hinzman will have a hearing before a Canadian Immigration and Refugee Board, his lawyer Jeffrey House said.
“At the hearing, they will decide if he has a fear of persecution by reason of his political opinions,” which would entitle him to become a refugee, House said. He could then acquire “permanent resident status,” the equivalent of having a green card and, after three years, applying for Canadian citizenship.
The Canadian government could deport Hinzman if his citizenship request is turned down [Right. Canada deport somebody?], but that would happen only if he was discovered to have a criminal record, House said. [Hey, how about “desertion in a time of war.” Ring a bell? We used to hang people for that, you know.]
Canada opposed the invasion of Iraq, however, the country has troops in Afghanistan as part of Operation Enduring Freedom. [So, in other words: Welcome to Canada, Jeremy. We think you’ll fit right in with our quite extensive Vietnam draft-dodger community, although they are getting on in age lately. We hope you like Bingo.]
Hinzman has “certainly expressed the desire to remain in Canada permanently,” House said. [I’d like to go on the record as expressing the same desire for this dirtbag.] If Hinzman returns to the United States, he could be arrested, turned over to the Army and court-martialed on a charge of desertion. The maximum penalty for desertion during wartime is death. [Now we’re talking].
Hinzman studied Buddhism and attended Sunday meetings at Quaker House in Fayetteville, N.C., which counseled Hinzman and hooked him up with Quakers in Canada. He said he wanted to be a conscientious objector on both religious and philosophical grounds.
He declined to be interviewed at length, but said in a Feb. 26 email:
“It was a very personal decision and I don’t want to influence younger soldiers to do something like I’ve done, even though I believe in what I’ve done. Although my co-workers and superiors will undoubtedly have a cynical view of my actions, I would like to say that they are the most devoted people I have ever seen. They sacrifice seemingly ceaseless time away from their families during deployment… They should be extremely proud of themselves for the way they live their lives. I know that sounds a bit patronizing, but I am sincere in saying…”
Blah, blah, blah. Shut yer cakehole and save it for the judge, shitbird. I’m torn between hoping your dumb ass gets court-martialed and glad that someone like you is out of our country for good. But couldn’t you have at least persuaded Michael Moore to go with you?
Heinlein said it best:
"Pacifism is a shifty doctrine under which a man accepts the benefits of the social group without being willing to pay -- and claims a halo for his dishonesty."
2nd Platoon had our own AWOL wannabe by the name of PFC Eric Korotki until he finally got chaptered for disrespect and a host of other charges right before we left for Kabul. This guy had been a total shitbag ever since he’d been in the unit, and from day one it was painfully obvious he had no place in the Army, much less the airborne infantry.
The shrillest whiner, the loudest complainer, the biggest liability in the entirety of the 501st -- it’s truly amazing how difficult it is to get rid of people once they make it past basic training. Korotki’s drill sergeants not only failed him by allowing him to squeak through -- they failed our whole damn battalion.
A constant headache in garrison, he was a total disaster in combat. Terrified to even venture outside the perimeter, he would constantly make asinine remarks that the U.S. was only in Afghanistan “for the oil.” Yeah, apparently his public school geography teacher failed him as well. We had money on how long it would take for him to go AWOL from Salerno and try and make his way alone to the nearest Pakistani airport. Hell, we encouraged it. But the thought of him being captured and forced to become some hajji’s Talibitch was probably hoping for too much.
Eventually, his recalcitrance went too far and he was stripped first of his ammo, later his weapon altogether, and ultimately his liberty. After a short stint in the stockade at Bagram, he was reportedly shipped back to Alaska to be discharged from the Army. But he got off easy if you ask me. I think we should have kept him here in the detainee center with all his “Talibuddies.” No such luck.
So if anyone out there ever runs into this kid back in the real world (I believe he hailed from Maryland) and you hear him spinning all kinds of wild tales about his brief time in the Army and all the “harrowing combat” he survived, please kick him in the nuts for me.
--We rolled out during our QRF shift today to a nearby village to implement yet another Operation Feed the Children. This typically involves bringing food and supplies to a friendly village in reward for helpful information or cooperation in the past -- what the mainstream media likes to call “winning hearts and minds.” Winning wallets and stomachs is probably more like it.
--Salerno U. is now in full effect. Tents and several dozen folding chairs have been set up along an empty stretch just inside the north gate, ostensibly to provide a school forum on the FOB grounds for the local children to learn English. I will say one thing about the Afghan culture, the young ones are always eager to learn. They have yet to embrace the uniquely American “too cool for school” attitude of intellectual indifference. Give this country a decade or two to get its act together and I bet they’ll start outperforming the U.S. on standardized test scores. (No big feat, really, but more impressive when you consider that we have laptop computers in our schools and they haven’t even progressed to chalkboards yet.
Two separate rocket attacks in one night. Woken up twice in the span of a few hours in order to haul balls over to the bunkers and stand there in the dark with our dicks in our hands.
Some 1st Platoon fool in an OP tower then had to go and radio in that he “saw the flash” of the rocket as it launched -- from 15 klicks away! (He’d soon regret that whopper).
Launch the QRF! (Dammit, that’s us). Hey, who needs rest anyway? Sleep’s a crutch. If you guessed that we’d drive around all morning on a wild goat chase and find exactly nothing of value -- you would have guessed correctly. The TOC supposedly intercepted a hajji radio transmission describing a planned ambush for us once they’d successfully drawn us out of the FOB. No such luck -- we didn’t see shit. Operation Enduring Boredom: Take 47 [clack].
My bet is that these lame rocket attacks are not simply aimed to annoy us and deprive us of needed rest, but are a method for gathering intel by measuring our level of response and reaction times, just as a master criminal would test the 9-1-1 system before making any moves in a certain locale. Okay, whatever.
By the time we get back to the FOB, most of us are dead on our feet, not having enjoyed an uninterrupted night’s sleep since the previous Wednesday. (The other platoons would have to pull 12 hours on/12 hours off until we’d had time to recover. They can thank 3rd Platoon’s PFC Hubble Telescope for that one). Lesson learned: If you happen to find yourself on guard duty during a rocket attack, the correct response is, Rocket attack? What rocket attack? I didn’t see a goddamn thing.
We slept all day to make up for constant activity of past two days, not to be deterred by the 90 degree-plus sweltering heat. (And that’s in the shade, with portable fans blowing directly on you). Indeed, this is the most miserable country on Earth.
Our platoon finally received a new joe, a SPC Scott Noe, fresh from the rear in Alaska. Apparently, he failed to deploy with the unit originally after inadvertently discharging a POW (personally owned weapon) into his foot while drunk barely a week before we left for Afghanistan. He’ll fit right in at 2nd Platoon.
The day shift with new OP mate SPC Scholz is eminently more entertaining than it was with “Stevie” Nix. For one, Scholz, the resident brainiac of the platoon and longtime RTO (Wainscott recently assumed the mantle) can always be found with a sly grin on his face and a snide comment on his tongue. A natural born cynic, he makes Andy Rooney look like Mickey Rooney.
Scholz is also a diabolical mystery bomber -- as in, “Mr. E” bomber -- as in, MRE bombs. For the uninitiated, an MRE bomb is a rather crude yet wonderfully devious device created with the help of an empty water bottle, a cornucopia of powdered condiments -- to include cocoa mix and Tabasco sauce -- and the contents of an MRE flameless ration heater. Mix ingredients, add a few ounces of water, screw cap on tight, emplace in obscured area near unsuspecting persons, and wait. General hilarity will typically ensue, especially when anointed victim lets out girlish scream and instinctively dives for cover at resultant POP! Bonus points if they are within the blast radius and unfortunate casualties of condiment shrapnel. Atomized Tabasco -- the poor man’s mustard gas.
Oops… I did it again.
I’ve created a monster. I unwittingly allowed SSG Sarten to borrow a pirated Britney Spears “hits” compilation cd that I had impulsively purchased in a fit of new music desperation from a hajji-mart in Kabul. He promptly burned it onto his Xbox hard drive, and now the most common sounds to emanate from our tent include: “She’s so lucky… she’s a star… but she cry, cry, cries in her lonely heart…” and “You drive me craayy-zee… I just can’t sleep… every day and every night.”
That last one is especially astute in regards to our current predicament. SSG Sarten’s Britney fetish is driving us all crazy! Add the constant Madden football monopolization of the squad tv by the Xbox Addicts and you have a virtual recipe for close quarters-induced madness: PTSD (Post-Traumatic Spears Disorder). Unless something is done, and soon, the rest of us are Section 8* candidates in the making. Britney’s “loneliness may be killing [her],” but it’s her music that’s killing us.
*The apocryphal military parlance for “nuttier than a fruitcake.”
On the heels of an overnight 12-hour guard shift we were lucky enough to get to escort a detainee being released “on good faith” back to his village. Never mind the fact that this is scheduled during our “off time” following a long, tiring night in the OP towers. Our PL as much as admitted to us that he gets bored “sitting around on his ass all the time” and thereby volunteers us for anything and everything that comes down the pike. Don’t get me wrong: I like our LT. And I know it must be tough sleeping in his bunk all night while we get to have oh-so-much fun on FOB security, but he needs to learn how to say NO. Most of us who looked forward to this guard rotation as a welcome respite from the frenetic activity of mission cycle are now having second thoughts.
A quick word about our battalion S-2 (intel) shop: They suck! All day long we listen to the radio traffic from the guard towers between the front gate and the TOC (Tactical Operations Center):
“Comanche TOC, this is North Gate. Roger, there’s a local-national here to see Captain (So & So) concerning some info about his village, in accordance with some ridiculous promise Comanche Six* made him last month. He says it’s taken him all day to travel out here. Can you send someone down here to speak with him? Over.”
*Radio call sign for the Charlie Company commander.
“North Gate, this is Comanche TOC. Roger… yeah, tell him to come back tomorrow, m‘kay? S-2 says they’re busy right now [playing cards].”
“Comanche TOC, North Gate. Yeah… uh, this guy’s saying he has information on Osama bin Laden’s whereabouts, the location of Jimmy Hoffa’s body, and knows where Saddam’s WMDs are hidden, break… Roger, he also says he’s discovered the cures for both cancer and erectile dysfunction, over.”
“North Gate, Comanche TOC. We don’t care, over. We’re busy right now.”
Okay, so Hajji tends to exaggerate a bit, but that's no excuse. Not only are these S-2 guys terminally lazy, they're also supremely incompetent. That detainee they had us deliver home? They gave us the right guy, but the wrong village. So no shit, there we were driving all over Allah’s brown earth when Hajji starts waving his arms and chatting furiously with the terp sitting behind him.
“What’s the problem, 'terp? What’s he jabbering on about?”
“Jes, da man is says dat he live dat way.” (Points in complete opposite direction).
Well, that’s just freaking swell.
I actually enjoyed myself on the (eventual) way there, manning the Humvee-mounted SAW while Shirey drove like a rabies-infected bat out of hell. I’ve found that one of the rare pleasures of combat patrols in Afghanistan is manning the gun either in a turret or on a vehicle mount. One, it makes you feel high-speed and two, it beats getting your ass pounded in the back of the truck any day of the week.
After about a dozen wrong turns, back tracking, and dead ends, we finally found this yahoo’s village and kicked his ass out of the truck. The trip back, though shorter, would not be nearly as fun. The weather suddenly turned to shit -- lightning filling the sky, rain stinging our faces like an angry swarm of bees, a massive sandstorm obscuring our vision, and the temperature plummeting thirty degrees. Shirey of course feels diabolically compelled to hit every mud puddle and sinkhole at breakneck speed, thus vaulting torrents of grotesquely brown flood water over the Humvee and into our unsuspecting faces. It felt like the log ride at Six Flags Over Bangladesh. For the first time since arriving in country I belatedly wished I’d taken my malaria pills after all.
It would seem the oft-alluded-to rainy season is finally upon us. We finally made it back to the FOB -- cold, wet, muddy, and hungry. Our tent is leaking like a sieve because the Supply jackasses keep dragging their boots on finding us a rain fly for the top. We contemplate stealing the one off their own tent (If anyone asks, just tell ‘em we got it from ‘Supply‘), but end up jacking one from one of the empty tents vacated by the recently departed 10th Mountain crew. And wouldn't you know it, this one leaks too.
What’s missing from this so-far stellar evening, you ask? You guessed it… rocket attack! Predictably, it lands nowhere near the interior of the FOB, but we have to trot over to the enclosed bunkers nonetheless: Army regulations. (We can’t have anyone getting hurt in a war, now can we?) If it was up to me, during incoming I’d never even leave my tent. Let’s make these hajji bastards prove they can actually hit something before we start scampering around like scared rabbits.
Unbelievably, some here actually still take these “attacks” seriously. One young female recent arrival was seen quietly sobbing in the corner of the dark bunker until the rest of her tent mates arrived to console her and help allay her fright. Lockhart -- sick bastard that he is -- and never one to pass up a prime opportunity, looks down at this Incoming Queen and announces: “Man, that last one sounded close. We’re really screwed now! Oh my God, we’re all gonna die!!”
So naturally, she starts crying harder and is practically hysterical by this point. I’m still not sure if it was from the rocket scare or the abject terror of being trapped in an enclosed space with this coterie of obviously unhinged paratroopers. But either way, can you really blame her?
COPYRIGHT 2006 BUCK SARGENT