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Navigation by Cracks of Light


Well, here's yet another update from Afghanistan. This is a topic I've wanted to write about for a long time, but other things have popped into my head, jumping the line of precedence for this topic. There might be a few more I depart on vacation.

Navigation by cracks of light

There are many things that go hand in hand around her, two of which make life challenging – the gravel which covers much of where we work, live, eat, and walk & the fact that we’re a “blackout FOB” more on that later. This FOB was constructed on and around an orchard – I spoke to that topic in a previous update. Because of the lack of rock, hard surface, and the omnipresent dirt/ground everywhere – the military uses gravel as ground cover in most locations. It’s ideal during rainy season, which usually falls in the colder months. So, instead of trekking to the bathroom, shower, chow hall, work in mud, we walk on gravel. There’s an obvious plus, but a sinister minus.

Have you ever walked on sandy beaches/dunes? Know how after awhile your calves get sore? Well, that’s kinda what it’s like walking on the gravel here. Ya pretty much get used to it after a week. But unlike a beach, the gravel here is not uniform in size or composition, meaning there’s gravel of various sizes everywhere and it’s not uncommon to stumble over an outsized rock among the more consistent gravel. That sucks, cuz it usually happens to me when I’m talking to someone or there’s a group of people around. I wobble, curse, they giggle, or make fun of me. Whatever, it happens to everyone. It’s our norm.

Now, if walking on gravel can be a bit challenging during the day, it completely blows at night. Those outsized rocks become outright obstacles when its dark, Blackout FOB remember? Yeah, we can’t have any regular lights – no porch lights, no street lights, no light thru windows, no vehicle headlights, no normal illumination of any kind. It sucks. We can have flashlights, but the light must be colored – either red, blue or green, preferably red. But even if you’re shining your flashlight directly on the ground you’re not gonna see the difference in rock size and contour.

And what about night vision? I am often challenged by the complete darkness which envelopes this place upon leaving a building or room that is well lit. For example, only during the summer months do we enjoy daylight after dinner chow. When we first arrived, we’d head to dinner at dusk – it got dark around 5pm here and we’d leave the chow hall in complete darkness. So, go from well lit – to utter blackness. It was nearly impossible to navigate when we first got here, so flashlights were a must. Nowadays it’s abit different. Oh, we still are challenged when it’s completely dark, but it’s not as bad.

I’ve come up with a game I play – well, it’s more like a survival game. When leaving the office at night, completely exhausted after an 18hr day, I turn off all the inside lights –the hum of the computers and the dull glow from the computer screens is my only company. Then I open the door to the outside and step into the awaiting darkness, completely enveloping myself in its opaque fold. It usually takes 10-15 seconds for my eyes to adjust to the lack of illumination. If the moon is out I’m lucky – but it’s those times when the moon is absent that are the most fun. You honestly cannot see 6” in front of your face. I don’t use a flashlight – instead I work the navigation game.

The navigation game was born one black night when I left the office and remembered that both my flashlights where in my room – my destination. I had often walked that distance between the room and the office so I knew what to expect. I use the familiar cracks of lights that emanate from underneath or on the sides of doors/windows/etc of the buildings and rooms I pass en route to my room. It’s easy now, because I know how many cracks to count and when I should see them. If one is mysteriously missing, that probably means a vehicle is blocking the light’s path to the ground.

I didn’t realize the meaning of not seeing those cracks of lights until I ran into the back of a pick-up truck one night. We had just arrived to the base and I hadn’t come up with my navigation game yet. I left the office one dark night, heading back to my room. I heard some people talking ahead of me but thought nothing of it. The quiet voices got steadily louder and then THUNK! I ran into the back of the truck. They stopped talking as I gathered my wits, and moved around it. I also started laughing – it’s what I might’ve done if I had been them, but if I had been watching, I probably would’ve laughed out loud. I mean come on, that had to be funny, right? Well, it’s the last time I’ve run into anything at night.

I’ve become a pro at night nav. When passing a building and someone opens a door, the smart thing to do (in order to preserve your night vision) is to look the opposite way. Tiny lights become beacons by which one can get your bearings. By now I know where most things are so walking around in complete darkness is pretty easy. Driving, however is another story altogether.

Blackout FOB, remember? That means all vehicle headlights are supposed to be covered somehow. People paint them taupe, red, blue, or simply use duct tape to get the vehicles in compliance. The lights on both our trucks are covered over and pretty dark. The windows are tinted on both vehicles, but with the pickup you can roll them down, which greatly helps with driving (the lights on neither vehicle emit much light). However, the windows on the up-armored truck do not roll down, so driving is much more of a challenge.

One night we were coming out of the chow hall. It was pitch black and my eyes hadn’t adjusted yet. It was cold outside and none of us wanted to wait around – to adjust our night vision. We got into the up-armored truck, with me behind the wheel, which is the case most of the time. I started the truck, turned on the lights, put it in reverse and ever so slowly started backing up. Woody sees some dimly lit figure walk across the front of the vehicle as I’m backing up and position itself next to my door. We quickly put on our seatbelts – me expecting this figure to be an MP, checking seatbelts – they do that here. I open the door to see what our ghostly figure wants. Well, it was someone much more important.

Remember the Duke from my previous update? It was him – the most senior man on base. (Mind you, this driving incident happened long before I officially met him so thankfully he didn’t know who was behind the wheel) “Yes Sir, what can I do for you?” I asked, although I thought of being a total smart ass and offering him a ride somewhere.

He says, “Can you turn your lights down?” I was dumbfounded! I can’t see NOW – with my lights on, why would I want to turn them off? “Sir, I can turn them off….” I responded. “Okay, thanks.” he said. I thought, Are you kidding me… Off? Why would I turn them off – I wouldn’t be able to see anything if they were off. Well, he is the MAN, so I turned them off and incrementally crept forward. Everyone inside the cab squawked, I was scared honestly. I mean, my eyes hadn’t quite adjusted, my feeble lights are now off, I can’t see anything and I’m moving forward. Woody – the voice of reason – suggested I turn the lights back on. It didn’t take much convincing.

We had moved maybe 10 feet and I turned the lights back on. I didn’t care whether or not that lunatic was running behind me yelling at me to turn the lights back off or walk. He wasn’t, well, not that I could see if he was. We got back to the office and vowed to never use that vehicle again at night. Ya know, I think it’s his goal to make driving so dangerous and such a hassle that people avoid it. Not only can we not use headlights, the speed limits were changed from 20kph/10kph (day vs night travel) to 10kph/5kph. Dude! You can walk faster than that at night. Hell, I was driving 10kph one day and a dude RAN by me. I felt so emasculated.

Thankfully the old speed limits were adopted again in some places, but Jeeze… what was that guy thinking? As you can tell, I've got a little more time on my hands than usual.

Trying to make good use of it and let you know more about life for a deployed Soldier.

FOB Salerno

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