Chapter 3

Live from Fort Bragg, it’s Sergeant Geist!

 29 November 2008

 

Joanna,

After two months of training, we finally leave to Afghanistan in a few days. I loathe Fort Bragg so much that I’m actually looking forward to going to a dangerous third-world country. The comfort level here is so low that I can’t imagine the war zone will be any worse.

When we first arrived to Bragg, we were herded into tents like cattle. These tents were constructed to comfortably house eight soldiers, but 16 soldiers inhabit each one; this situation would become our living conditions for the next couple months. The issue isn’t as much that we barely have room for our gear, but rather we’re more infectious than the undead. Besides catching illnesses from one another, we’ve also been shot up with anthrax, tetanus, and the highly-contagious smallpox vaccines, tanking our immune systems so low that we feel the rancor of every germ out here.

The good news is we haven’t spent much time in our disease-infested tents. The bad news is our days have usually started around 5:30am and we work until 8:00pm. This is true of all seven days of the week, and we don’t get “days off.” One day, we started work at 3:45am and didn’t get time for ourselves until 9:00pm.

It’s also been frigid. On the first night we arrived to Bragg, none of our gear had arrived from Illinois yet, and so I swiped rolls of port-a-pottie toilet paper to use as pillows, while my dirty laundry functioned as my blanket. You would think that North Carolina is warm year-round, but I can tell you that’s not the case. Soldiers who go to the water supply to top off their canteens right after they wake up find the entire water supply’s been frozen. No water means no showering, no rinsing your mouth while brushing your teeth, and no option but to dry shave. It didn’t take long for me to wise up and start filling my canteens between mid-afternoon and midnight, so I’d have a full (albeit musty) water supply for the next day. One soldier cracked a joke, “I can’t wait ‘till we get shipped to a third-world country, where our living conditions will improve.”

That being said, you and I both know that I didn’t sign up to be comfortable, and I certainly don’t mean to complain. Rather, I hope this puts it into perspective as to why I’m so zealous to get onto that plane that’ll zip me over to a country where I’ll have to be at the top of my game just to survive.

As non-ideal as the conditions are, I can’t help but appreciate the knowledge I’ve gained. Though I’ve never had trouble grasping the fundamentals of being a chaplain assistant, I’ve learned more in my two months on active duty than I had in my five years as a part-time soldier. I always knew the chaplain assistant’s main job is to provide religious support to soldiers, but now I fully grasp the execution of its three main responsibilities.

The chaplain assistant’s first responsibility is to be a counselor for troubled soldiers. On paper, this is solely the chaplain’s job, but often the chaplain isn’t available, and so the chaplain assistant gets handed the duties. These can range from girlfriend issues, financial problems, work stress, and deaths or illnesses back home, to name a few common ones. In a war zone, the chaplain and chaplain assistant must travel from base to base to perform this duty, which I imagine will constitute the riskiest part of this job.

The second responsibility is to essentially be an altar boy. We help set up services for the religions of the soldiers that are under our care, and we get the holy books that are associated with each of those religions. The most requested books are the Bible, the Qur’an, and the Tanak. Generally, most soldiers going on this deployment identify as Protestants, though there are a handful of Catholics, a few Jewish soldiers, and one Wiccan. I haven’t worked extensively with a Muslim or Buddhist in this job yet, but I know there are some Muslim soldiers within our unit.

In my opinion, these two responsibilities are less important than our third role: the bodyguard. Now, I’ve been scolded before for using the term “bodyguard,” but the fact of the matter is that we are charged with the safety of our chaplain. In a battle, our primary mission is to make sure the chaplains aren’t injured or killed, and we have to be ready to put our lives on the line to ensure that happens. If that’s not the description of a bodyguard, then I don’t know what is.

The reason it’s so important to protect the chaplain is because if they became incapacitated, religious support gets flushed down the toilet. By the Geneva Conventions code, chaplains are not allowed to carry firearms, nor can they even pick up firearms from a dead soldier in self-defense during a battle. Because of this code, the combatant role of the chaplain assistant emerged. We carry the weaponry that chaplains are forbidden to have. Even before it was an official job in the military, soldiers were selected to be chaplain assistants as a side-job. In essence, I have a somewhat different mission than everyone else: I am to ensure the chaplain’s survival.

The Illinois National Guard’s 33rd Brigade Combat Team is sending 3,000 of its soldiers to Afghanistan, the largest deployment in the state’s history. As such, we’re sending more chaplain and chaplain assistant teams from one single unit to war than there have ever been before. We have six teams going (constituting a total of 12 people), and we’ve all been training together since January to prepare for this deployment. But, even though we’re sending so many ministry teams, we’ll still be stretched thin when we get into theater. Afghanistan is roughly the size of Texas, and so imagine six undermanned churches having to minister to 3,000 people stretched across the entire state.

Though there are some commanders who undervalue the ministry role of the chaplain team, most appreciate our role and take us seriously. We want to be respected as knowledgeable and useful assets to the teams we’re put on, which is why we’ve been practicing bodyguard techniques during our minimal down time. This training consists of throwing our chaplains to the ground to provide them cover and learning how to reload our weapons without looking away from the enemy, allowing us to maintain awareness of our chaplain’s location in the heat of battle. It gets intense, especially because we wear our heavy gear whenever we train.

We’ve also spent much of our time practicing our rifle and pistol marksmanship. Because this revolves around using live bullets (as opposed to blanks), I always hope to be paired with the most adept soldiers whenever training teams are put together. One day, we practiced kicking down doors, rushing into rooms, and shooting cardboard cut-outs of terrorists with real bullets. The training facility’s walls are composed of rubber to prevent ammunition from bouncing off, but those rubber walls still wouldn’t stop a less-than-proficient soldier from accidentally shooting another troop. As if that exercise didn’t make us nervous enough, we returned that night after sundown to repeat the task, this time executing it in pitch black while wearing night vision goggles.

Conducting training in which one person’s split-second mistake could be the difference between life and death for a bystander forced me to realize what my greatest fear is in regards to this deployment: killing a terrorist, only to find out later that I had made a mistake and shot an innocent local. If this happened, I’d have great difficulty learning to forgive myself. I pray that my fellow soldiers and I aren’t put in a position where we accidentally kill an innocent citizen or, even more devastating, each other.

Not all of our exercises are centered around killing, though. Some of our best training involves identifying what improvised explosive devices (IEDs) look like, and how to prepare yourself in situations where you believe you might run into one. The term “IED” is interchangeable with “roadside bomb,” which the media most likes to use. They’re the most efficient way of killing soldiers because they’re bombs that don’t look like bombs until you get up close to them, at which point it’s usually too late to react. There are so many forms of IEDs, it’s ridiculous. Terrorists can turn practically anything into a bomb, from bicycles to car trunks to paper bags to patches of dirt to roadkill to dead bodies. We’ve been told that if we didn’t put something on the ground, don’t pick it up. In an attempt to familiarize ourselves with the different variations, we’ve practiced searching houses for IEDs and we’ve been exposed to deactivated bombs.

Because there are a lot of soldiers who are dying overseas when their vehicles roll over, we’ve spent some time preparing for such situations. You see, many soldiers who have died in rollovers didn’t die necessarily because of the physical impact, but rather because they were trapped inside their humvee as it filled with water or was engulfed in flames. We have a simulator that’s similar to a roller coaster that lacks securing mechanisms. In the simulation, we enter the humvee, and then it physically flips upside-down and we’re tasked with escaping the vehicle. After the vehicle flips, we hang upside-down and try to unbuckle ourselves. The first time I did this, I fell on my head and then a nearby soldier fell on me while I was twisting my body to get positioned for my escape. As it would turn out, this was also the first time I’ve ever been grateful for my helmet.

I reflect on the rollover training and am surprised that more soldiers don’t get hurt from the simulation. Several soldiers have had injuries here and there throughout training; I’ve only had one recurring injury. One day while I was out in the field visiting soldiers with my chaplain, my body unexpectedly gave out under the weight of my gear and I collapsed to the ground.

Earlier that day, I’d been given additional side-rib plates that added several pounds. The body armor alone weighs between 30 and 40 pounds, not to mention the extra weight of all the additional ammo, firearms, and water on my body. I’ve been told that, altogether, that equipment can weigh anywhere from 60 pounds upwards to 100 pounds. My skeletal frame has always been weaker than the average person’s, and though I’ve generally had success in overcoming my inferiority, that wasn’t the case this time: the drastic change of weight on my shoulders was more than I could handle.

Because we’re simulating a combat zone, we’re not allowed to take the body armor off in the field, so after I floundered to the ground, I rallied myself back to my feet and lingered over to a vehicle that was deemed to be a makeshift garrison, and then took my body armor off as I lied in a lump on the vehicle floor. Each time I put my armor back on, my shoulder was in unbearable pain.

Not but a few days later, we were all issued new body armor that was invented to help offset the weight on the shoulders to be distributed throughout the rest of the body (specifically onto the hips). While this did help a little bit, my back has been in poor condition ever since my collapse. Military doctors have examined my back several times since this incident and have been unable to help me, though they instantly recognize the problem: body armor frequently destroys soldiers’ backs, they say. Yet, all they can do is prescribe medication to ease the pain.

Understanding that I need to just work with my equipment, I’ve tried my best to ignore the pain as I continued training in the field. One night, I forgot all about my back pain when I endured a different kind of discomfort that I’ve only heard about in stories from other soldiers who’ve had to cuddle with one another to survive the night. There’s an old military anecdote that “there are two kinds of soldiers in the field: the warm and the proud.”

As I was packing my gear to sleep in the field one night, I underestimated how ruthless the cold would be. I had been told I would at least be in a tent, so I figured it couldn’t be much chillier than what I was used to. What I didn’t know was that the tent would be paper-thin and retained less heat than a mortuary. I had naïvely grabbed the thin layer of my sleeping bag, misjudging the extent of the conditions I would be facing. By midnight, I was sleeping in 30° weather with the temperature dropping as low as the 20s by morning. My shivering was so intense that it woke me up every hour that night; I was so desperate for heat, I would’ve gladly cuddled a live bear had one been available.

Aside from growing icicles on my nipples, we’ve spent some time mentally preparing ourselves for cultural obstacles we’re sure to come across. For instance, every soldier is going to have to interact with local Afghans on some level, and so the government has invested money into training us to speak Dari, the most-used language in the areas of Afghanistan we’ll be making our locales. I’ve taken this classroom training seriously because I can’t help but feel I’ll need to use this knowledge at some point over the next year. We’ve been given a translation book to study, and I’ve picked up on a few key phrases, like “drop your weapons,” “thank you,” and “good day.” I’ve also learned a few interesting words, including “Khatar,” which is Dari for “Danger.” Soldiers have been calling me “Sergeant Khatar.”

When we get to Afghanistan, every soldier will be placed in a Camp, a Forward Operating Base (FOB), or a Command Outpost (COP). The difference between each of these bases is size and luxury; in oversimplified terms, think of Camps as hotels (usually having things like fast-food restaurants, laundry services, and massage parlors), FOBs as motels (usually having things like contracted chefs, makeshift theaters, and small libraries), and COPs as homeless shelters (usually having things like port-a-potties, makeshift kitchens, and electrical outlets).

Despite the varying degrees of luxury, every base is prone to indirect fire on the base itself and direct fire just outside of it.

 

*

In the weeks leading up to Thanksgiving, we’ve been enduring the Mission Readiness Exercise, a 4-day simulation that tests our readiness to go to war. During this exercise, our base comes under attack by hired actors playing terrorists, to which we have to throw on our gear and protect our base from. These battles can last a couple of hours, and we practice everything from flanking our enemies to providing first-aid to wounded buddies. Most nights between the hours of 1:00am and 4:00am, we’d be woken up to the whistle (and explosion) of dummy mortars, then have to sprint to our chaplains’ bunkers to account for the chaplain we’re assigned to.

I’ve been assigned to Chaplain (CH) Fardpot, a man in his upper-40s who’s as stout as a sack of plums and as handsome as one of its shriveled fruits. While a compassionate minister to soldiers and well-trusted by leaders, his homely appearance parallels his much-to-be-desired attitude towards me. While it’s improper to directly address a chaplain by his rank, CH Fardpot is proud to hold the rank of Captain and has made it clear that he doesn’t appreciate how seriously I, a lowly enlisted soldier, deem my job to check in on him, a superior officer, after a battle.

You see, CH Fardpot wasn’t always a chaplain. He often boasts about once being a soldier in the Special Forces; nevermind the fact that he wasn’t actually an SF soldier, but support to a Special Forces battalion. So, because he once had the esteemed job of cleaning the toilet bowls in a Special Forces barracks while the team was away conducting covert operations, CH Fardpot seems to believe that he can do any enlisted soldier’s job better than them, especially mine. To him, I’m just a scratched cassette tape: an obsolete piece of equipment that’s defective in the first place.

Another chaplain from the 33rd Brigade picked up on the fact that I wasn’t being taken seriously.

“Geist,” he candidly explained, “you’re just a kid, and your youth is gonna work against you. There’s nothing you can do about that. But here’s what you can do: take your appeals to God. Check this out…” He flipped open his Bible and pointed to a passage. “This is Proverbs 21:1. Read it aloud.”

He handed me the Bible and I squinted to read the words, “The king’s heart is in the hand of the Lord; He directs it like a watercourse wherever He pleases.”

“Exactly, Geist,” he pushed my chest. “This is your verse for this deployment, understand? I want you to focus on this. You can’t change the hearts of the leaders above you, but you can pray that God will change their hearts.”

I certainly appreciated his encouragement, but it seems God doesn’t care to change CH Fardpot’s heart just yet; I’m still being treated like a deck of cards missing its ace of spades, expected to keep collecting dust on the shelf until the chaplain has no other option but to invoke my services. What CH Fardpot doesn’t acknowledge is that the government has spent tens of thousands of dollars to specifically train me for his sake, so I have a duty to protect him at all costs.

At least I know it’s nothing personal, as CH Fardpot doesn’t seem to value any of the training being provided, either. Recently, after reporting to my bunker during one of our early-morning pseudo-attacks, I looked around at the soldiers and realized I didn’t see my chaplain’s face anywhere. I checked a couple of other bunkers and didn’t see him there, either. So, I jogged over to his tent, which I knew was inhabited by officers ranking from Lieutenant to Major. Not only did I find CH Fardpot still snoring away in his bunk, but so was every officer in the tent.

“Gentlemen,” I flicked on the lights, “you would now be dead. Report to your bunkers.”

After putting on their protective gear, the officers flooded out of the tent, stumbling to the bunkers like a group of drunken men who had gum sticking to their boot soles.

Whenever I’m done accounting for CH Fardpot during these notional attacks, I have lots of time to evaluate the simulation before we receive the “all clear” that permits us to go back to bed. I consider how quickly my body becomes alert and fully operational in the dead of the night; if I’m this frightened when I hear dummy mortars now, how terrifying real mortars must feel! The dummy mortars provide an intense sensation in which the blast hits you with a strong wall of wind, flapping your clothes against your skin, even when they’re a respectable distance away. I can’t imagine what a real mortar attack would feel like, and more importantly, how would I react? I feel like my first inclination wouldn’t be to account for my chaplain, but instead to find the closest bunker, suck my thumb, and close my eyes until the attack stops.

Thoughts like these pressure me to evaluate how important I deem our mission. That is, do I believe in it enough that I’m willing to risk my life? Well, let’s examine why I’ve been slated to go to Afghanistan in the first place.

The 33rd Brigade was activated for a specific purpose: we are to train the Afghan National Police (ANP) and Afghan National Army (ANA) so they can stand up to the Taliban bullies on their own, thus allowing the United States to safely pull out. The mission we face is unique compared to other missions in wars past and the war on al-Qaeda in Iraq right now. What I mean by that is the government of Afghanistan has pleaded for our help; we aren’t simply invading their country and forcing our ideals on them. Instead, our desire is to equip them so they can be considered a viable military presence, compelling the Taliban to reconsider their efforts to overthrow the Afghan government.

A key piece to achieving this mission is that we need to learn about their culture and ensure that we don’t force our methods down their throats. We’ve been beat over the head again and again that our goal is to “win the hearts and minds of the Afghan people.” To do this, we’ve been learning about the country’s rich history and have been getting educated on their contemporary culture.

One thing we’ve been warned about is that we’ll see things that might particularly bother us, but we shouldn’t overstep our boundaries and criticize their practices. For instance, we’ve been told that many women wear burkas, often against their will. Women who don’t wear the burkas are looked down upon in society, and in a Taliban-influenced society, “looked down upon” can sometimes spell death.

For a freedom-inclined America, this is bothersome, but we’ve been taught to just grin and bear it. In the late 1980s, Russia invaded Afghanistan to set them up with a civil government. However, Russia forced Marxist ideals upon Afghanistan, enticing the Afghans to rebel against the Russians. The Russians lost the fight largely because they didn’t have the support of the locals. According to the U.S. Army, the Russians killed 30,000 insurgents per year during their war in Afghanistan, but the Afghans’ operations weren’t slowed down because for every one insurgent they killed, several more were created. Imagine if a soldier killed your father: would you, your brother, your sister, and your mother not want vengeance against the government that murdered your loved one?

This Afghan retaliation was highlighted in the 1988 action flick, Rambo III. In one scene, an American Prisoner-of-War (POW) explains to his Russian captor the futility of trying to take over Afghanistan:

There won’t be a victory. Every day, your war machines lose ground to a bunch of poorly-armed, poorly-equipped freedom fighters. The fact is that you underestimated your competition. If you’d studied your history, you’d know that these people have never given up to anyone. They’d rather die than be slaves to an invading army. You can’t defeat a people like that. We tried; we already had our Vietnam. Now you’re gonna have yours.

The U.S. has tried learning from the Russians’ mistakes, and now our aim is to work hand-in-hand with the Afghan government. We didn’t invade Afghanistan; we allied with them. We have no desire to give the Afghans reason to dislike us, therefore we aren’t interested in enforcing our own morals and standards on them. The only kind of thing we won’t allow Afghan locals to do is train to be terrorists or strap IEDs to kids. Because we’re so serious about being partners instead of rulers over the Afghan people, Americans have steadily been gaining support from local Afghans every year.

I’ve been soaking up any and all potentially useful tidbits about Afghanistan. For instance, I’ve learned that 80% of Afghans are Sunni Muslims, while 19% are Shi’ite Muslims. There is one registered Jew in all of Afghanistan, and no registered Christians (though there are underground churches).

Most Afghans are illiterate; there’s an 80-85% illiteracy rate in men, and a 90-95% illiteracy rate in women. Though, my understanding is that this is leaps-and-bounds better than the rates they had just a few decades ago.

Many Afghans don’t know their birthday. In their culture, this piece of information simply isn’t important. When Afghans travel to the United States, they often make up a date to use as their birthday for their passport. Most of them choose January 1st because it’s easy to remember. Furthermore, many Afghans are unaware of how old they are, so sometimes they also have to guess what year they were born in.

Afghanistan runs by the Islam calendar, in which they’re in the year 1387. Just like Western calendars revolve around the estimated birth of Christ, the Islam calendar revolves around the year that Muhammad traveled to Medina from Mecca. Nearly every year since their Year One, Muslims have been at war in some capacity.

Muslims have a diet that has a similarity to that of the original Jews; the consumption of pig products is forbidden. (Mental note: don’t share my pork rinds.) We need to keep this in mind so we don’t insult the country’s citizens. What a paradox: we’re allowed to shoot at its natives when necessary, but first soaking our bullets in bacon grease constitutes a faux pas.

Interestingly, Muslims believe that Jesus will accompany Muhammad at the end of times, though they don’t revere Jesus as the Christ or any status above “prophet.” Muslims accept Abraham as their great ancestor, just as Jews and Christians do. The breakdown of agreement between people of Judeo-Christian beliefs and Muslims begins in Chapter 16 of the Book of Genesis; Muslims believe that Ishmael was the chosen son of Abraham, not Isaac. Jesus came from the seed of Isaac, while Muslims believe that Mohammad came from the seed of Ishmael.

Seeing as how Jesus Christ is such a huge part of my life as a Christian, I’m particularly interested in learning about the religious aspects of Afghanistan when I arrive. So many people are quick to point out all the dissimilarities between the two faiths, while others are just as quick to solely acknowledge the parallels. I feel both those approaches are somewhat reckless, and I hope to reflect on both the unifying similarities and the divisive differences. I personally only know the basics of Islam, and so if I have a chance to talk with any locals about their religion, I’m going to jump on that opportunity.

As I’ve hopefully conveyed, I’ve learned so much about the Army and about Afghanistan and about myself over the past couple months. Joanna, now we’ll learn about our relationship and the strength that binds it. I thank God that I got to spend time with you over the week of Thanksgiving. Saying goodbye to you on the night of my deployment, I thought that would be the last time I would see you until I came back. After all, that’s what the Army told us, that we wouldn’t have any breaks. To say that I feel blessed to have seen you one last time is an understatement.

The next time you hear from me, I’ll be corresponding from Afghanistan. Until then, stay safe, and I know I don’t have to tell you that I love you because you know it well. But, I’ll tell you anyway.

I love you.

 

Bon voyage,

Sergeant Khatar