Bases, Perspective, Stars, Lights, Animals, AFN, Laundry
I apologize for not writing sooner, but we've been incredibly busy over the holiday period. As I've told some of you and all of my staff, the Taliban doesn't celebrate Christmas or our New Years so plan on working. And that's exactly what we've been doing. Oh, they know it's our holiday period, and that's why we've been extremely busy. But ya know, it's only one year, so what is there to complain about? We are collectively "suffering."
Here are some more random thoughts I've been collecting about the experience here. There's so much to tell, this will have to do for now. I promise it's cleaner, well, not as personal, as the last update. So, gather round one and all to learn of one man's experience in Afghanistan.
I guess it’s all a matter of perspective. Soldiers are based at different types of installations in Afghanistan. Some installations, like Bagram AirField (BAF), are monstrous in size (relatively speaking) with accompanying ridiculous rules and regulations. People complain that being on BAF is akin to being stationed in the US – because the rules are similar or worse to those stateside. Commanders and senior enlisted are more concerned with what type of boots you are wearing or if your reflective belt is worn across your body right to left – versus left to right. They lose sight of the bigger picture: we are at war and the Taliban doesn’t care what we look like – their goal is to kill infidels. Sometimes I wish they’d start with the myopically focused enforcers of inane, morale-busting rules! Thankfully I’m not on BAF.
My base is smaller, more neighborhoodly (if that’s a term) and much more manageable to deal with. Yeah, there are dumb rules, but there are dumb rules everywhere. The leadership isn’t oppressive. I’m on a Forward Operating Base (FOB). This FOB supports many units and has amenities not seen on smaller facilities. The Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders, a comedienne and some low grade celebrities were recently here to entertain the troops. You won’t find USO like that at smaller installations. We have shower trailers, latrine trailers, a gym, large dining facility, Post Exchange (PX), an education center, MWR building, coffee shop, etc. Heck, there’s even a hair salon and local bazaar at which local vendors bring local products to sell to eager, shopping deprived Soldiers and civilians.
I’ll never complain about my FOB. It is large enough to support fixed & rotary wing aircraft. That means both planes and helicopters land here. We have a post office, finance center and combat hospital. I empathize with my comrades at the smaller FOBs or worse – the COPs. A COP (Combat Out Post) is the smallest of installations. They are usually smaller than half a football field and can contain up to 150 Soldiers/civilians. A friend of mine is at such a COP. There are fewer people at his location. I use a “proper” shower, whereas he uses baby wipes. I can sit on an actual toilet, whereas he uses a sawed off portion of an oil drum which has a board placed on it. You CAN sit, but many prefer to squat. I use a urinal, whereas he pees into a tube which sticks out of the ground at an angle. I live in a proper room, with a door and window. The room is one of eight in our building – I share it with a roommate. My friend sleeps in a connex with 5 other guys. A connex is basically the metallic box structure of a semi-truck which sits on a flat bed. You know, the kind you see on the highways in the states. Yeah, 6 stinky guys live in that smallish connex with all their gear and funk. Not a pleasant situation, but one steeped in memories, both old and yet to be made. So, I’ll never complain about my location. I know I’m lucky.
One trait that many installations share is black out conditions. What’s that you ask? It means during night hours, after the sun has set, the only authorized illumination is available moonlight or small flashlights. We’re supposed to use red, green or blue colored flashlights but I’ll be damned if many people don’t walk around with bright white flashlights. This blackout policy is in place to prevent the enemy from identifying our locations of activity at night and directing fire accordingly at those locations. Does it work? Who knows, I’ve not had the opportunity to ask the local enemy who live near the base. They tend to shy away from casual conversation with Americans.
Some nights it’s so dark that you literally cannot see your hand in front of your face. When the moon isn’t out and it’s so cloudy you can’t see the stars, it’s impossible to navigate without some kind of artificial light. Ahhh, the stars. That deserves a whole separate chapter – but a few words will suffice for now. The stars – on a cloudless night you can see how the Milky Way got its name. The stars are overwhelming! Big ones, little ones, a huge wave of them scattered across the sky in various or no pattern. Because of the lack of ambient light, there is nothing to dim the stars’ brightness. I imagine it’s what the ancients saw way, way back. I now understand how the Arabs were able to navigate in the desert, or the Greeks could sail all over the Mediterranean. Once you’ve mapped the constellations, everything is relative to them.
About 3 weeks into the deployment, when we had settled at our FOB, I heard something at dusk I had never heard before – the cry of the coyote. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised – I mean, we are in an undeveloped land, full of wildlife and wild peoples for that matter. It was dusk and I stepped outside for one last trek to the latrine in daylight. I got about 15 feet from the office when the wail/cry/yip of a pack of coyotes went off in the near distance. At first I didn’t know what the noise was all about. Then it hit me – we have no dogs on base (the guards shoot the ones that sneak on base – more on dogs later) so the noise must have been coming from coyotes. A buddy of mine told me about the coyotes, but I hadn’t experienced them yet. It reminded me of a young dog yipping and wailing – not the deep, almost soulful howl of the German shepherd we had when I was a teenager and the tornado siren would go off – warning us of a possible Wizard of Oz experience. This was almost playful yet aggressive. I look forward to hearing it now. I try to remember to spend some time outside at dusk.
Dogs – how does one correctly put this? Afghans have no history of domesticating dogs for human cohabitation. If a family has a dog, “Fido” always sleeps/lives/eats outside, no matter the weather, temperature or danger. The dog is not a part of the family, it is an unclean, wild creature which is more than likely abused, kicked, thrown rocks at and overlooked. It is common to see dogs wary of human interaction because of the systemic abuse humans inflict upon them. At night, dogs will roam villages, countryside, cities in packs – attacking and scrounging anything they can to eat. That’s why the guards shoot dogs which make it onto base. It’s for our safety – really. All that being said, on my last mission I saw a guy with a dog straining at the leash he held tightly in his hand. The dog looked intent on getting away. My interpreter told me the dog was most likely vicious, prone to attack anything it could sink its teeth into. Some people keep such dogs in their qalats (compounds) for protection.
Cats –a different story altogether. Afghans have an entirely different opinion of cats. I think I’ve seen one cat while in town. It looked healthy but kept a wary eye on us. According to Islamic legend, a cat approached and sat next to Mohammed once during prayer. Henceforth, cats were viewed as an almost holy figure. Don’t ask me why. I thought people valued cats more than dogs because cats catch mice/rats/etc which eat grains and other food stuffs. Either way, cats have it much easier in Afghanistan.
Armed Forces Network (AFN)
AFN – the omnipresent staple of our dining facility. Like most large installations, our dining facility, or DFAC for short, has a couple of televisions located where most tables can view them. The only thing playing on TV, day and night, is AFN. AFN has a few channels to choose from but these are pre-approved by the government, so no HBO shows, nothing risqué or controversial. Most everything is re-broadcast so instead of commercials we get military themed “infomercials.” These are usually lame attempts to influence us to recycle, cut our lawn, turn off the lights, etc. Sometimes the messages are worthy, like reporting people to the suicide hotline, don’t take stress out on your family, saving money for an emergency or quitting smoking for the benefit of yourself as well as others. Also, there are horribly pathetic testimonials by persons in Command of this or that. They stand at attention like mannequins, reading something into the camera with zero emotion or inflection. If they only realized how stupid they actually look they’d be mortified. I’m sure their kids get teased at school for their parents’ talking, cadaver-like performances.
Oh, so in the DFAC you better like sports because that aaaaaaaalllll they show. College & professional football and basketball, (I dread baseball season) played over and over. Unfortunately the re-broadcast rights for college sports must preclude AFN from benefiting. We see college games only once but are subjected to pro games all day. I remember watching Dallas in various stages of beating New Orleans at breakfast, lunch and dinner. I mean, Come on! Play something else! How about the news? Why can’t we watch the news? Just for one meal a day? Don’t you think it’s important to know what’s going on in the world? Even the Neanderthal army rangers and infantry guys would be fixated on the hot female news casters and just might absorb some morsel of information about stuff back home. But no, sports it is.
Each installation has a different method of doing laundry. Some places have crappy, overworked washers and dryers, half of which are in a perpetual state of disrepair. Getting your clothes clean at those locations takes discipline, patience and determination. Our installation has such a Laundromat, but also has a place where one can drop off a bag of no more than 20 soiled garments and pick it up 24-36 hours later. Usually the clothes come out relatively clean, but sometimes they are completely knotted – as if a wrinkle bomb exploded in your laundry bag. At least we have such a facility –Joes at some places must beat their clothes on the proverbial rock to get them clean. On a personal note, I wash my microfiber REI underwear in a bucket. I haven’t yet had a problem with my clothes being stolen or damaged but I don’t want to take the chance on my precious nut huggers.
See, I told you this one would be less personal but just as informative. I keep trying to upload a current picture, but I'll the entirely overpriced internet service available on base is unable to to achieve that small request. You'd think the only superpower left in the world could spring for better internet service for it's deployed citizens. But hey, what do I have to complain about - the guys who served in WWII , Korea and Vietnam relied on monthly letters from home at best. I've got it made in comparison!
Have a great night, I'll see ya in the safe New Year!