Chapter 5

Ernest Goes to War

 11 December 2008

 

Hello my America-dwelling girlfriend,

I’m currently writing to you from the future. That is, my day is 10½ hours ahead of yours. As you’re getting up in the morning to do your thing, I’m getting ready for bed. And when I’m getting ready to do my thing, your day is closing.

I, along with several other soldiers being shipped off to different parts of the country, arrived into the combat zone on December 6th. After a flight that burned up about a day, we touched down in Manas, Kyrgyzstan (a country just south of Borat’s Kazakhstan). From there, we boarded a C-17 military plane and flew to the outskirts of Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan. The C-17 flight was nerve-racking; you kind of feel like you’re on a ride at a Six Flags amusement park, except you can’t see what’s coming next and you’re wearing body armor and holding a weapon the whole time.

We landed outside Kabul and were told that we had to jump on a convoy into the city. If you’re unfamiliar with the term, a military convoy is where you get a bunch of vehicles in a row to travel together to wherever you’re going. It’s like caravanning with your family to a vacation spot, the only difference being that someone might blow you up.

Before we began the convoy, we were briefed about the route we would be traveling. Every route is rated on a color scale. A green road means that there’s virtually no threat at all, an amber road may have potential for an enemy encounter (though there is no specific concern at the time), a red road is expected to have some likely enemy activity, and a black road means that you will most certainly be attacked if you try to travel it. On that particular day, the route was classified as red. Even though it was just a 15-minute ride, there was a lot to beware. They told us that there were three known VBIEDs in the area (VBIED = vehicle-borne improvised explosive device = car bomb), and they gave us the license plates of the cars to look out for. Beyond that, regular IEDs were possible, and there’s always the potential of small arms fire (automatic weapons being shot at you) and BBIEDs (bicycle-borne improvised explosive devices). Realizing that the threat of attack was finally real and not just some nebulous training exercise on Fort Bragg, we began packing ourselves into an armored bus (known as a Rhino) that would take us on our first convoy.

I was one of the last soldiers on the Rhino; all the seats were occupied by the time I got in, so I had to just grip an overhead handrail with my left hand as I clutched my rifle in my right. As we jaunted through the streets of Kabul with our helmets bouncing off one another, I hunched down to survey the streets outside the windows.

My initial reaction was that I’d landed in a dump. Buildings were in poor condition and there was excessive trash in the streets. But at the same time, it was exhilarating to see the locals browsing the market kiosks and to watch the little Afghan children playing on the sidewalks. If any of us forgot why we were there, we remembered then.

We continued into the fields just outside of the city. My eyes widened and my forehead began glistening as several Afghans wearing backpacks bicycled towards us.

Think quick, Danger. What are you going to do? If those are explosives in their backpacks, you’ll be hurled against the side of this bus.

I swiveled my head around in hopes of devising a quick plan that I could implement if we would get blown up, but I found no viable solutions to prevent myself from harm; we were packed sardines with no control over anything that was about to happen.

I bent my knees, clenched the handrail, and controlled my breathing as we whipped past the bicyclists. Hearing a whoosh instead of a boom, I looked out the back window to see the peaceful Afghans pedal away from us.

We were safe this time, but my mind was being transformed, starting to comprehend the potential threats that existed all around me.

We arrived into the heart of Kabul safely, only to experience the worst air quality you can ever imagine. The air tasted like carbon and smelled like car fumes, and hovering over the city dangled a cloud that was the color and enormity of a herd of elephants. Afghans have to burn tires in Kabul just to stay warm, but with the way the air circulates in Kabul, the smoke from the burnt rubber collects together and forms a menacing haze that remains suspended over the crestfallen capital. And, as if the city needed an extra pinch of dreary, dust is omnipresent; tents that haven’t been occupied in days look like they haven’t been occupied in years.

If at any point we forgot where we were, we were reminded when loud speakers blared melodic Muslim prayers throughout the city. One of the “pillars of faith” for Islam is the Salaat, which is a practice in which Muslims pray five times a day, no matter where they are or what they’re doing; with these loudspeakers, no Muslim (or non-Muslim) would forget when the Salaat was.

As enlightening as it was to be in Kabul, it was not the final destination for CH Fardpot and me. We had to find a way to get to FOB Lightning, which would become our home base. However, getting there is tricky: in Afghanistan, there are only a few paved roads, one of which we took into Kabul. The only paved road from Kabul to Gardez (the city that FOB Lightning resides) usually flickers between being a red and black road, and is surrounded by other black unpaved roads. My chaplain and I have been in communication with those already stationed at our future FOB, and we’ve always been told that we would fly into Gardez on a helicopter because the roads are nearly impassable because of terrorist activities.

Over the next couple days, we weren’t having any luck finding flights going to Gardez. After we were told that there probably wouldn’t be flights to Lightning for a couple weeks (which was problematic, as we needed to shadow-train and ultimately replace the current ministry team by the time they left in ten days), we found out that the road between Kabul and Gardez had briefly changed from black to red. We decided that the red road was our best option, so we signed ourselves up for a convoy to Gardez. (If you’ve never heard anyone pray a desperate prayer before, go ahead and tell a soldier that, for his first convoy, he’d be going down the road that we were slated to go down.)

The next day, we got all our gear and headed out of Kabul and down the only road that could take us to Gardez. The route at first was great. Again, we got to see the “city life” of Afghanistan, and as we drove by, kids would stop and give us thumbs-up or wave to us. They were so excited to see soldiers going by in their town, and it was great to know that even if it came to the point where nobody in our own country supported us, at least these little kids felt we had value.

As we treaded on, there were fewer and fewer Afghans, and more and more dirt fields. After several hours, our convoy stopped to a jerking halt. I shared glances with the other first-time-deployment soldiers’ faces, and we all seeped with fear that we were already going to have to use our weapons.

“Everyone, get out,” called the troop commander from the front. “There’s a wire in the middle of the road, and it’s screaming ‘I-E-D.’ ”

I dismounted the vehicle and chambered a bullet, ready to shoot when needed while patrolling the immediate area. We knew from our Fort Bragg training that we were supposed to pull security during circumstances like these.

We were in-between two large mountains, so I began carefully scoping out the area to see if I could spot any snipers, hoping we didn’t fall into a trap.

An Iraq-war veteran sidestepped towards me, keeping his eyes on the mountains. He leaned in towards me.

“Right now, if any Talib wanted to fuck us up,” he slowly raised his chin, “they could fuck us up.”

He was right: had a group of terrorists prepared for an attack, we would’ve been stuck in a bad choke point.

My heart beat faster with each passing minute we were out in the middle of the danger zone. I looked at the veteran for some assurance that what he said wasn’t actually going to happen, but his eyes didn’t stray from the mountains, even as he spit his chewing tobacco to the ground.

I noticed an opaque bag lying beside our vehicle, spurring my suspicion. And if I learned anything from Bragg, it was to trust your suspicions.

“So,” I tried maintaining my cool with the veteran, “you see that bag?”

The veteran glanced at the bulky bag, then back towards the mountains.

“Yeah, I seen it.”

I cleared my throat.

“How, uh… how do you think it got there?”

The veteran picked up on my unease.

“You talking about this thing?”

He zeroed in on the bag and darted its way, as if he was going to stomp on it. Filled with apprehension, I stumbled backwards to distance myself from the potential bomb, almost tripping and falling on my rifle in the process.

The veteran had no such qualms. With one swift kick, he sent the bag flying into the air, its contents flying all over the road. It wasn’t a bomb; just a bag filled with candy wrappers, a leftover slab of beef, and a can of pop.

Without saying a word, the veteran returned his eyes to the mountains.

After 20 minutes of security operations, we were told to mount up back in the vehicles. I felt relieved because my back was killing me under the weight of the armor. I couldn’t wait to sit down again under the protection of our vehicle.

It was an interesting sensation as we continued our drive: as we climbed higher and higher into the mountains, I became more and more tired. It got to the point where I couldn’t keep my eyes open for more than a few seconds because of how thin the air was. Us “newbies” weren’t acclimated for the altitude, which was one reason we were riding down with those who had already been in those mountains for quite some time as we struggled to stay awake. And, of course, the jet lag wasn’t doing us any favors, either.

When I woke up, it was over an hour later, and we had reached a daunting altitude, just under 9,000 feet above sea level. At this point, it was starting to get dark, but the view was gorgeous as I looked down into the valley below. We entered FOB Lightning well after sundown, with no significant activities (SIGACTs) to report.

I imagine you can’t be happy with the story I just told you, Joanna. I don’t doubt that you’re gasping to yourself, “Oh my gosh… my poor little baby is in such a dangerous place, he could’ve been killed!” Yes, your little baby had an intense experience, but now baby is safe at his FOB, and doesn’t have to make that trip again. When the Army found out that I was college-educated and proficient on the computer, they deemed me an asset that they didn’t want to lose. They’ve told me that I’m not to go out on combat missions for any reason; that my mission is to stay on the FOB and take care of the mental tasks that I’m particularly gifted at.

Besides the fact that I won’t be leaving the base, the chaplain assistant that I’m replacing told me that FOB Lightning itself is particularly safe, and other Lightning natives have corroborated on that. With the way the FOB was built, I have to agree: we’re on a hill and thus have the advantage to any attacks that may come our way. Also, our FOB has both the ANA and our own American soldiers pulling security, and there is a presence of soldiers from other allied countries that could step in and help us in the case of an emergency.

So far, the FOB seems nice. We have porcelain toilets and warm bathrooms, and instead of having to eat Meals Ready-to-Eat (MREs) all the time, we have a dining facility (DFAC) in which contractors serve food for us. And despite Afghanistan’s low health standards, the local nationals who serve meals put on chin covers, so our food doesn’t get beard in it. I appreciate the gesture (not because I’m afraid of accidentally eating beard, but because the attempt at sophistication brightens my day for reasons I don’t understand, kind of like seeing a dog wearing a sweater). The DFAC is also always stocked with a modest array of free cold cola products (which makes me wish I brought my grenadine so I could make myself some kiddie cocktails).

Overall, I anticipate a tolerable year here. It does get difficult to walk around at night because most FOBs (including ours) are “blackout FOBs,” meaning the sun and moon are our only sources of outdoor light. We’re allowed to carry flashlights, but besides that, there are no unnatural lights to guide us around the FOB after dark. We keep it this way because American forces are the most elite nighttime-ready forces in the world; it’s often said that we “own the night” because we’re so efficient at nighttime operations. And then, of course, there’s the obvious: terrorists can’t shoot a rocket into a base they can’t see.

It’s a little bit difficult remembering where everything is in the dark, but in a couple days, I should know the layout by heart, sun or moon. Because we have had full moons the past couple nights, the visibility hasn’t been bad. Come next new moon, I shouldn’t need my flashlight anymore to guide me.

There are only two things that I’ve found may be ongoing problems: one of them is the water supply. None of our water is potable, meaning if we drink it, we’ll get sick. This is a fact of life for all soldiers living in Afghanistan. You know how annoying a boil order is; imagine having to deal with one that lasts a year. It’s not ideal to have to brush my teeth using a water bottle, but I imagine I’ll get used to it.

Instead of tap water, they supply water bottles around the FOB. Apparently, the tap water here has quite a bit of fecal matter in it, so we don’t drink that crap. It’s always in the back of my mind when I take a shower that I’m washing my body with Afghan poop, but when I think about what soldiers had to do during the initial OIF and OEF campaigns, I really can’t complain.

The other thing that is less-than-appealing is the altitude. The air is exceptionally thin up here, and so it screws with our bodies in ways I didn’t expect. Of course you get your standard shortness of breath, but it goes beyond that. For one, my sinuses are going nuts. My nose constantly shifts from running like a waterslide to being clogged up like a mud pit, which then turns into a sore throat at night.

Also, we’ve all been experiencing bladder problems. Because the pressure is so low here, it’s like someone is pushing on our bladders, and so we have to pee all the time. The altitude even causes bags of chips to puff up to the point where they feel like a blown-up balloon. I’ve found that when your body alerts you that you gotta go, you better get going. Some soldiers don’t even attempt to make it to the bathroom; they just keep empty water bottles next to their bed for when nature calls, then dump their homemade apple juice in the morning.

As someone with OCD, I don’t take to this practice. Though, I can’t say I necessarily blame those who do. Last night, I had to pee three times during the night, and I have a young bladder. I can’t imagine what some of these older guys are experiencing.

Because of the thin air, I also get tired a lot earlier, but when I finally go to bed at night, I can’t sleep for long because I’m either trying to breathe too hard or my mouth is too dry (there’s approximately 0% humidity in the mountains here). Also, we have to take pills everyday to prevent malaria, which makes our skin drier, and with us being so high up in the air and close to the sun, it’s a double-whammy of dermatology issues. So, whoever came up with the phrase “your attitude determines your altitude” obviously never took a trip to Gardez, Afghanistan.

CH Fardpot and I are still getting into the groove of things here, trying to soak up information from both the soldiers who have been here for awhile, as well as the interpreters who permanently live here. Today we met the oldest interpreter on the FOB, an Afghan in his early 60s; his ash-colored hair makes him particularly respected among the Afghan people. Those with “mature” hair are regarded as wise folk, which makes me wish I could grow out my sexy cowlicks and show the Afghans my locks that’ve been sprouting silver since I was 17.

Anyway, this older interpreter expounded that he, as well as the other Afghans, want us here. He guesstimated that, of the Afghan people, at least 98% of them appreciate the American presence. We were invited to the country and have liberated them from a lot of the tyranny and fear they were living under when the Taliban ruled their country. He respects us, as do more than most of the Afghans. The Taliban is becoming less successful here because of American efforts, and the Afghans are becoming less fearful as a result. In fact, most of the suicide bombers these days aren’t even Afghans – he said that they’re Pakistani terrorists who found a way across the border. It’s gotten to the point where the terrorists are running out of volunteers for suicide missions, and those that did it once before don’t answer their phones for a second round – go figure. But, hearing this man’s appreciation for America gave me a newfound distaste for the media, rarely showing that side of the story because it doesn’t sell. It’s a huge encouragement to know that the Afghans support us.

So, the prognosis is good. From the moment a soldier signs the dotted line, he gets tossed onto Uncle Sam’s conveyor belt. You can try running backwards to where you started, but there’s no escape from the inevitable: you’re going to get dumped out onto a foreign land.

I’ve finally reached that dumping point, and now I’m safe in Afghanistan. Surprisingly, it’s a laid-back atmosphere, and much more pleasant than Fort Bragg. Not to mention, it’s a beautiful country; the FOB is surrounded by monstrous mountains, many of them snow-capped. If only this were a secure country, it’d be a tourist attraction that would rival Ireland and Italy.

Joanna, I know this is a big lifestyle change for you, having me over here, not being able to talk to me every day. Not to mention, while I have the luxury of being occupied all the time, you don’t. I’ll be praying for you, not that you learn to live without me, per se, but that God comforts you in your loneliness and anxieties. But don’t worry about me. I believe God is on high-alert for my sake, and though I always appreciate prayers, I’m at a point where I believe I am exactly where God wants me. There’s much comfort in that.

I’ll be home for Christmas… just not this one.

 

Love,

Sleepless in Battle