Please read the beginning of this story as shown within the “Afghanistan Story” tab above.
Afghanistan, June 2010, AUP Station in the Town of Delaram
The MATVs picked up speed as we exited the base. Sgt. P spoke over his shoulder, almost tossing the words at me while he continued to scan the road ahead, his eyes never stopping the back and forth inspection of everything in our path.
“We’re called PMT, the Police Mentoring Team. We are supposed to “train the Afghan National Army”.
He tossed his hands up to form sarcastic air quotes.
“Why the air quotes?”
“These men don’t know how to fight. They don’t want to know how to fight. They want to get paid and have us out of here.”
“Well, we are kinda occupying their land…”
“Look, this entire area is fucked. This whole country is fucked. The majority of the locals are okay but the older men see us as the enemy because we are fighting the people who saved them from Russia in the 80’s.”
Why did I not know any of this? I didn’t even know Russia was at war with anyone in the 80’s. There was a history between Afghanistan and other countries before this? Shit. I don’t know anything. Why didn’t we get taught about this?
Sgt. P paused to speak into the radio to his men before continuing.
“Gardner, Lewis, get the vics ready for next convoy when we reach the station.”
Grabbing the edge of Sgt. P’s seat and pulling myself up a bit, I see buildings breaking the line of the horizon suddenly. We had only been on the road for maybe five minutes.
“Russia invaded Afghanistan, Taliban fought them, now we are fighting the Taliban and the locals are pissed. At the end of the day, I don’t give a shit about the intricacies of the politics and history. I’m here to do a job and that’s to get my men home to their families. Right, Dumaw?”
Sgt. P reached over the center of the vehicle to grab the driver’s right shoulder and shake it violently for a few seconds while Dumaw laughed, his whole body moving back and forth from Sgt. P’s clasped hand.
“So you’re all grunts from Camp Lejeune?”
“Nah, we are a mix of grunts and military police. Like Dumaw here is an MP. Owens up in the turret is a machine gunner. I’m a grunt. And we are from Lejeune and Cherry Point.”
“Have you been here long?”
There was a silence in the vehicle as we got closer to the buildings. The road was small and the buildings only went one or two stories high. They were made of plaster or mud and everything I saw was covered in what seemed like mud that had the desert sand tossed on top. Sgt. P’s voice sounded off-hand when he spoke again.
“So what about you? What’s your story?”
“I’m from Pendleton…uh…data…I’m a…girl?”
I had no idea what else to tell him that was relevant and my voice trailed off as we entered the town and I became distracted by my new surroundings. The streets were empty of cars and people.
“A girl, huh? No shit. I never would have guessed.”
We pulled up next to a high wall that ran alongside the left of the convoy. The wall looked like it formed a very small compound. I see familiar signs of the American military in the form of Marine Corps sandbags, the same plastic green ones that were stacked on the outside of the concrete bunkers on Delaram. These sand bags were stacked around the one elevated guard post that stood towering over the streets like an Eye of Sauron. As I squinted my eyes against the sun, I could just barely make out two Marines in the tower, slightly pacing the small space area that was covered in cammie netting. Their Kevlar helmets could barely be seen over the sides of the tower from where I was watching. They looked like the mushrooms from Super Mario with their pacing.
Thank God the Eye is on my side. And the mushrooms.
We turn right into the compound, with Sgt. P waving at the solitary Marine at the entryway as we pass. Instead of concrete barriers that make the entry and exit to Delaram, this compound had giant HESCO barriers filled with sand and dirt that we had to weave through. Dumaw parked the lead vehicle inside what seemed to be a very small staging area and the three other vehicles parked around us. They all shuddered to silence as the engines were turned off. There was faint painful throbbing in my ears from the sudden lack of sound.
Sgt. P had already leapt out of the vehicle and I lost sight of him. I struggled briefly with the door before just leaning against it with my entire bodyweight until it swung out enough for me to kick it the rest of the way open. Looking at the ground below, I devised a strategy of sliding on my butt down the side of the seat until I could reach the step that I had used to clamor into the vehicle. I start to slide down, and Sgt. P. rounds the vehicle just in time to see my feet miss the step and I topple out of the vehicle.
Striding up to me, he holds out a hand and pulls me to my feet.
“No one saw, you’re good.”
How mortifying! Clearly I would need to find a different way to deal with these new obstacles like entering and exiting the fucking vehicles!!
Virkler walks up to us and Sgt. P waves for us to follow him inside the AUP Station. All of us pull off our Kevlar helmets; I clip mine back onto my flak jacket, as Sgt. P proceeds to give us the grand tour. As we enter the smaller compound, the first thing I notice is the small rocks. The ground isn’t the typical moon dust that gives beneath my feet. For the first time in over three months, I have small pebbles of actual stone beneath my boots. The rocks were smooth and flat and varying shades of gray and made a delightful crunch as we walked over them. They were clearly brought here from somewhere else.
“The AUP Station is what used to be the Afghan National Army’s general’s quarters. When we came in, his house was split into two. They kept half and we have the other.”
“So you guys share a house?”
“They aren’t supposed to be over here and we aren’t supposed to be over there. They don’t really like us.”
We were walking under a cammie net that partly covered an otherwise open courtyard that was very small. The house was directly ahead of us and two large tan tents were to the right of the building. There was a small walkway between the tents and the building. Some wooden picnic tables were in the courtyard, and I noticed a small grill that sat next to the building. Next to a picnic table near the left side of the building stood a sturdy wooden ladder with large flat steps. The ladder seemed to reach the roof of the two story building.
Sgt. P led us down the walkway. As we passed the large tents, I glanced in to see cots everywhere, some filled with men in various stages of undress, all racked out and asleep. The tent flaps seemed to hang limply from the heat.
We reach a door on the right side of the building with an awkwardly designed step.
“Be careful with that step.”
Sgt. P looked at me with a pointed expression.
We enter the house, which is almost drastically cooler. The walls were rock and the rock stayed significantly cooler than the plastic tents and cans that I had been used to for the last three months. There is a room to the immediate right that holds two cots. I see a Marine sitting on one of the cots.
“Hey LT, we’re back. Here are the two data dinks that are gonna fix comm.”
The lieutenant is skinny and when he stands up, I see that he is very tall. And he is so young. The energy around him is one of newness and excitement and the smallest bit of fear and apprehension that he was trying to hide behind a veil of authority.
This is the officer? He’s so young. He’s so…proper. Ha. Aren’t we all really young? Just a bunch of kids fighting the wars.
I glance over at Sgt. P as he pulls out a tin of chewing tobacco and shoves a wad between his lower teeth and lip.
As we stood in the hallway, Marines squeezed past us. Sgt P spoke to each one as they passed, asking about their shifts and their sleep or if anyone has unloaded the food that had been grabbed on the convoy from Delaram yet. The LT ignored them as he shooed us down the hall.
Two very different people. Sgt. P is in charge; he knows his Marines and he cares about them. This kid is in charge on paper. How frustrating it must be for Sgt. P to deal with taking orders from a child. Sgt. P was 27? 28? He had already been to Iraq as a grunt at least once. And this kid looks like he is still doing keg-stands with the other frat boys.
Virkler and I were herded into the next room. As you entered the room, there was a long table on the left wall and it was full of radios and a few Toughbook laptops and one particular large screen with a joystick below it.
“How long will it take you guys to fix it?”
The LT was looking at us expectedly.
“Uh, well, we need to take a look and see what’s wrong first.”
Virkler and I refuse to look each other in the eyes because we wouldn’t be able to keep from rolling them. We were used to “customers” needing immediate assistance, of course. And this was an extremely important connection. Their internet was completely down, which wasn’t life threatening as they had radio communication, but their mission was severely affected by the lack of quick chat with the Combat Operations Center on Delaram. However, it is frustrating for us to make a claim on how long something will take when we have no idea what’s wrong.
Sgt. P walks into the room.
“Hey, do y’all need anything?”
“Nah, I think we’re good.”
“Alright, well take all your shit off. We are relatively safe here.”
Virkler and I throw our packs into a corner and remove our flak jackets. I have to peel my top from my skin; the sweat caused it to stick tightly to me. We are wearing flame resistant organization gear (frog) suits, which is designed to not melt to our bodies when we catch fire or explode from an IED.
Too bad the sweat causes it to melt to my body anyway.
Frog suits are super comfortable. The bottoms look a little darker than normal cammie bottoms but the tops are completely different from our typical cammie top.
The LT stands over us as we begin to troubleshoot. Virkler pulls out his Toughbook from his pack and we start verifying connections and settings of the wireless point to point link. I hate nothing more than to have people watch over my shoulder as I troubleshoot. Virkler and I are studying the equipment intensely and the LT is almost tapping his foot with impatience.
“Hey LT, can I talk to you for a second?”
Sgt. P motions the LT over to another side of the room and starts talking to him over a map. I manage to catch Sgt. P’s eye and I mouth *THANK YOU*. Sgt. P nods and keeps talking to the LT.
We get the WPPL up within 15 minutes. Virkler and I had climbed onto the roof and verified the direction of the radio shot to Delaram. The station had lost power a few days ago and a few settings of the radio were incorrect when the power came back on.
The LT shoots us a quick thanks as he hops onto the computer and starts typing away.
Sgt. P looks at us.
“So what do we do now?”
Both Virkler and I hope he isn’t going to make us go back to Delaram immediately.
“Well, we can’t get you two back for a few days so just hang out. Stay out of the way.”
All responsibility drops from my shoulders. Sgt. P turns away and misses the two of us grinning at each other.