April 1 – 9 — (Amoebic) Week 1 — Blurry – Getting Detained
April 9th, 2012
I know I haven’t written for a while. I guess there’s a reason for that. Call it gear-grinding paralysis, or fear. Fear of boredom, of failure, of long miles consisting mostly of walking back and forth between an Afghan National Army brigade Command Operations Center and the contractor-built barracks room I live in.
That’s a mouthful. A fat chowhall plateful of green beens and turkey. Pie. A stomachful of sand, gritty, like grapenuts cereal, beneath my feet, trudging back and forth.
I get to the base to immediately realize I’m stuck. Stuck here. On this base where next to nothing happens except for chow and gym time. I came all the way out here, heard I was covering ANA for the first part of my embed, which sounds sexy, but then I came to a the slow, seeping realization.
Mescaline: “And right when you’re cursing the man who gave it to you … zang!”
I find out the only ANA “Battalion” (Kandak) they have on base is a “service and support” Kandak – in other words, mechanics.
I’ve only worn my PPE (personal protective equipment) to walk it over to the COC. (This is not how to report the war, from Delaram II.)
The other Kandaks, the infantry kandaks, are either A – with the Marine infantry battalions I’ll embed with next, or B – out by themselves, operating “independently,” and thus, impossible to embed with, without the okay from Afghanistan’s Ministry of Defense (technically).
And, of course, without being a total fucking psycho … but honestly I wouldn’t mind being out there with them.
“No we can’t GIVE YOU an interpreter. They’re under contract, they require coalition force escort.”
So I ask for a Lance Corporal too.
Didn’t get that either.
(I like Lance Corporals. Under fire, they’ll kill everything.)
But I do have a good story. Don’t get me wrong. I finally stopped being such a bitch and got a good story. If they want me with a command, I’ll write about the command. I luck out in this aspect.
Most commands are boring. But this command, this guy, Brigadier General Wasea … he rides a motorcycle around the Area of Operations – Hunter S. status – former Muj, and his Executive Officer, Russian trained, speaks English.
Nonetheless, I should know. I’m not the first writer to confront nothingness in war. I think Ernie Pyle once said, “long stretches of boredom punctuated by brief moments of sheer terror.”
In the spirit of boredom (and the sheer terror I feel looking into boredom’s deep eyes), which is almost universally felt by anyone who’s ever experienced war, here’s a Heller-esque look at my week in Delaram II:
War, exciting or not, eventually breaks down, not so much into a collection of days, but a collection of experiences, quite amoebic, mushy, blurry, uniform in consistency except for the occasional burst of flavor, like getting one of those styrofoamish “marshmallows” in a mouthful of lucky charms.
- Cpl. Jasik, the PAO (Public Affairs guy) who’s been tasked to follow me around since the mishap at the ECP (Entry Control Point – kind of like the gateway to and from base), he’s burning ants.
He’s got this high-powered butane lighter he bought at the Afghan PX (Post Exchange). It doubles as a mini-flashlight.
“Ohhhh shit, that’s one of them flashlight jobbies!”
“I’m so goddamn jealous.”
Not as jealous as I was when I realized it was one of those wind-proof high powered flames as well.
We’re inside one of those worthless Indirect Fire shelters, the one closest to my tent, and also the laundry. These shelters are supposed to protect from mortars, but on FOBs (Forward Operating Bases) like this, it protects from wind and sun while you smoke cigarettes.
We’re not supposed to be smoking in these, but all the smoke decks are in no man’s land, surrounded by nothing and no shade. I have no doubt the placement was planned. One of our “smoke decks” is literally a 2X4 sticking out of the ground with a fire extinguisher nailed to it.
I find this kind of funny. Surrounded by 50 feet of rocks in all directions, what is the fire extinguisher for? To save the 2X4 it’s nailed to, in case it catches on fire?
So Jasik is burning ants. They’re crawling up a big tin cookie can that has a picture of Christmas puppies on it. Bizarre.
“When are they going to realize this supply route has been shut down,” he says, blasting another ant.
I think maybe, ‘some kid, probably a little girl, picked out this extra special can, filled it with tinsel and cookies and lovingly wrapped it and sent it through an AnyMarine website out to Delaram II, where it was raided by a bunch of chowhall eatin’ Marines and tossed aside, where eventually the Third Country Nationals from India who run the laundry found it and decided to use it as an ashtray in their illegal smoke deck.
Damn, why do I have to give everything a cute little fictional back story. How do I know a fat biker didn’t pick out the puppy tin because it reminded him of better days or something, and then he filled it with single serving liquor bottles and sent it out to Afghanistan.
The TCN’s walk by and look at me and Jasik every now and then, faces sort of squished, disappointed that the white man has stumbled on their piece of property. Replace ‘stumbled on’ with ‘invaded and claimed.’
There’s even a bench in there.
- There’s even a bench next to my bed. It was outside for days, I noticed no one sitting on it for days, so I brought it into my tent.
It’s not really my tent. There’s this former combat engineer turned DynCorps employee, and at some point there’s a chowhall ID scanner contractor (who’s kinda squirrelly) and a Comm Marine (who I now know is “definitely getting out” of the Marine Corps) and then another contractor who I don’t really talk to, except he tosses and turns at night and glares at me while I type.
Everyone on base lives in these cushy tents. I sleep on a mattress. Never thought I’d be so upset to sleep on a mattress.
- I sleep sometimes in all my clothes. Sometime not. Depends on how I feel when I finally give in.
In a few days, my white comforter is a dingy brownish color. I switch it out with some other guy’s comforter. The squirrelly guy’s.
Before too long the new one is brown too.
- I’m on the flight line.
On the bus ride out, a former US Army Captain who now works for DynCorps vomits up bilious displeasure for his stint with DynCorps.
“There are people out here who don’t have a goddamn idea what they’re doing. And the company hires them, I don’t know why, politics?”
I’ve known this guy for literally a collection of seconds. I don’t answer but he doesn’t wait.
“I spent ten years as a load master for 1st Airborne and I can tell when someone has no experience, and these guys have no fucking experience.”
I’m trying to fix my rucksack. It chose exactly now to fall apart. Could have fallen apart at any moment, but now is that moment, when I need to actually use it. Black electrical tape and 550 cord. I lost a lot of things on my way out – a headlamp, my multipurpose tool – but thank god I did not lose my black electrical tape and 550 cord.
- I walk into an ANA barracks/tent room because I hear music. Inside there’s a soldier splayed out on some carpet, watching what turns out to be Afghan MTV.
He offers tea and I accept.
On the TV is a group of punk rocking Afghans. The video is filled with crane shots. I think they’re on one of the hills I visited while I was in Kabul.
“Have you heard of these guys? They’re pretty popular,” says the terp.
“Nah.” They’re singing, or rocking rather, in Dari, and look incredibly western and incredibly hipsterish.
Through the interpreter I find out that this soldier is actually just lounging in his boss’s barracks room, because his boss has cable and tea and tiny little twisty-wrapper candies … and he’s on leave.
“You, Sir,” I say to him, “Are the real fucking rockstar.”
- As soon as the ECP falls into sight, all I can think is, “Fucking spectacular.”
- “As you can tell, I’m pretty disillusioned. And I don’t care if you print this, I’m fucking done after this tour. Last time I work for some inept motherfuckers.”
We pull past a bunch of birds on the flightline.
Finally we pull up to a private jet. Not really a jet, a twin engine prop plane. But it looks like a private jet.
Really? I think. You’ve got to be shitting me.
A bunch of high viz officers jump out and onto the little bongo bus. I jump off the bongo bus and into the plane.
This is not how I picture entering into the conflict.
Now how am I going to get my token door-gunner shots?
- Just try and act natural, I tell myself. I’m walking out of the ECP with no PPE. I’m with a general though, albeit an ANA general, a general nonetheless.
“Hey! Hey wait a second!” From behind me.
- Jasik is burning ants again. The high-powered butane blows them off the tin.
“They are literally flying off the tin.”
“It’s like, their legs stick to the metal, but then when the flame hits them the first thing that chars is their legs, so their little bodies just fly right off.”
- “Marines, man, I swear, they are the strangest species on the planet.”
“Yup,” says Jasik, “only in the Marine Corps.”
Then he tells me a story about a press release the government wrote concerning a bus crash.
“Yeah, they’re not as touchy feely as us. The report said something like ’9 injured, and 3 dead. And the corpses were delivered to Kabul Hospital.’ They actually said “Corpses.”
Then he and I are laughing, giggling like bitches.
Only Marines would giggle at something like that.
- I interview the general and then he wants to take a ride. Some locals are at the gate, it turns out, and they want to talk to him.
- I’m in a porto-jon masturbating like it’s the fucking apocalypse.
Outside is one of the Laundry TCN’s. He’s doing the PP-Pace.
I don’t know why I’m doing this. It’s somewhere around 2 in the afternoon. Maybe it’s because I haven’t in weeks. Or maybe this is a despair session. A few days in I’ve covered what I can cover but now there is nothing left to cover, or at least nothing they’ll let me cover.
I pitch a story to the Lieutenant.
“Well, you’re kinda here to cover the ETT*.”
*(embedded training team – the group of Marines who advise Afghan National Army units)
Shit. Maybe I should cover whatever the hell I want. I don’t know. I can’t really make a decision. There’s plenty of other stories, but most of them have nothing to do with the ETT.
So this is me, sweating in this blue liquid, blue walled, shit sauna.
Focus. Focus. Focus.
- “So what happened?” Says the LT, the Public Affairs Officer.
“It was just a communication debacle. You should have heard it. Like telephone in kindergarten. All of a sudden I’m a fucking spy or something.”
“I hope I didn’t get you in trouble.”
“Nah, it’s more like my bad, these guys had no idea you were on base.”
“Yeah, well, it was mostly these blowhard contractors who made it worse. They ratcheted the pressure up on the Marines, who were at first just gonna let me go.”
- Bloody kids. Goddamn bloody fucking kids.
I don’t know if I mentioned that these people drive like psychos out here. It’s not like there’s any highway patrol or anything. I can’t count how many times I was almost killed by the driver on the way out to Kanduz.
Now we’ve got a Shock Trauma center filled with dying people and a couple bloody, obviously in shock kids.
Head on collision, bus and car. The people in the car, four of them, dead on impact. Then the bus rolled. Five more people died waiting for clearance at the ECP (I’m not surprised).
Nonetheless, like the LT told me, “We take security very serious here.”
And I totally understand that.
What I also understand is that the Afghani Shock Trauma Center is not adequately equipped to handle mass casualty events. It’s kind of funny in a very not-funny way but, I notice immediately that the doors to the Afghani STC are like tiny funhouse doors. I can hardly get through them, especially if I’m carrying something. I can’t imagine anyone getting through there in a hurry with injured patients.
I don’t want to say what would happen to these people if the Americans weren’t here. The short answer is that most of them would have died on the highway.
- There’s a USAID worker and a Public Clinic Physician (Afghan) meeting with the general. They want to know if they can get support from the military.
I thought USAID was the support.
- “Sir, what are you doing?”
“I’m out here with the general, the ETT and the base knows I’m here, he’s just going to the ECP to talk to some upset villagers, and I wanted to get a photo of him doing so. Don’t worry, I’m a former Marine, I’m not going to photograph the ECP.”
The General loves talking to people, and he’s well respected in this community, more so even than the District and Provincial Governors. People know him by sight before anyone else. Getting a photo of him talking to locals is essential in my eyes.
But now this sweaty lance corporal, probably bored out of his mind and trying to stay “frosty,” has stopped me. After the other guy got sniped in the head, he’s probably a little jumpy too.
“Well, you gotta say something to me, man.”
Why? I think. Why do I have to say anything? So you can fuck me over? Give me the run around? If I hadn’t said anything, or if the general hadn’t decided to stop and go out on foot, you never would have known.
“I don’t think you can take photos of the ECP.”
“I’m not taking any photos of the ECP.”
“Let me just radio my Sergeant.”
Great. I tell the General it’s okay, he can go without me. He doesn’t want to, like most generals, he wants his photo op. Nonetheless, I reassure him, and finally he goes.
“Hey, Sergeant, there’s this journalist. He’s with the General Wasea and he wants to go out of the ECP and take a photo.”
“Roger, he wants to take photos of the ECP?”
- “I don’t want to take photos of the ECP.”
- “No, Sergeant, he’s just here and he’s got a camera, wants to go out and take a photo.”
“He’s got photos of the ECP?”
-”Well I don’t know what he’s got photos of … ”
-”I don’t have photos of the ECP.”
Fuck me. Fuck me, running.
I’ve been detained.
The sergeant walks over and walks me back to the duty hut. A couple times he offers to let me go, but the sun and heat have me stupefied, and his promise of cold water keeps me walking toward the duty hut.
I don’t think anything of it, until I see two “operators” in civilian clothes. Obvious former military “operators,” who probably thought they were going to Afghanistan to kill people, now they’re at an ECP at a huge base and they’re incredibly bored.
I, am the ass end of that boredom.
Eventually the general comes back and, through an interpreter, the sergeant explains that I’ve been detained and am waiting for the PAO to come get me.
The general insists many times that I’m attached to him and that I should be able to go, but the Marines refuse.
Then this happens:
The general and an interpreter are standing next to me, speaking Dari. I’m smoking a cigarette. Suddenly there’s this huge bulk of a human coming up behind me. One of those “operators” turned contractor.
“Excuse me, Sir, if I could just have you step over here and have a seat.”
“Just step over here and have a seat for me please.” Real dickish.
So I step over “there” but I remain standing. Not to be rebellious, but mostly because of nervous energy.
Now check this out:
He’s on his radio, talking to someone, I’m guessing either someone lateral, or the ubiquitous “higher”; and this is exactly what he says:
“Yeah, huh, I had to move the guy because I caught him LISTENING IN TO CONVERSATIONS.”
Seriously, and then he repeats it.
“Yeah, yeah, well yeah, I saw him trying to listen in on conversations and I think, you know, this guy should be escorted, isn’t that sort of obvious?”
Isn’t it obvious that the “conversation” I was attempting to ‘gather intel on’ was in Dari! As in, a language I DO NOT understand.
Immediately, the wild little monkey inside me visualizes five different angles of me burying my elbow shoulder deep into this guy’s neck … but the fantasy concludes with me on the next flight home.
These guys are way too bored. Now I’m a spy. What next.
For the rest of the day, I think of that elbow though.
- Worst thing is. As I sit here typing this I realize I probably could have just told the LT, “Look, man, can you send me somewhere else. I’ve pretty much covered this.” And had my ass sent somewhere else.
At least, for one horrifying second I think that this may be the case. That I could have truncated my stay. But at least I made some friends.
Rookie mistake I guess. I’ll ask the LT tomorrow if I coulda.
Coulda woulda shoulda, though, but didn’t.
A deep, childlike part of me hopes he’ll say, “Nah, man, your embeds are pretty much written in stone.”
Like a kid from a coal mining town who gets coal for Christmas. Not because he was bad, but because of some kind of Eastern Philosophical inevitability.
“Look, son, all we have is coal.”
I guess I’m just happy, honored even to be here. I don’t want to rock the boat.
Maybe I should have.
Look Daddy right in the eye and say, “Fucking coal, dude?”
- Jasick meets me at my tent the next day. I don’t really know him, but I get to know him over the next few days, as well as a guy named Galo. Chill dudes.
The advisers at the ETT all have a good laugh at my expense.
I like them, honestly, and they’ve done a fine job out here, in all honesty. Their lane is covered. The Afghan Army is slowly building readiness, and have even taken over three districts.
It’s too bad the Marines can’t do everything out here. (USAID, asking for help with development … )
- “Sir, can we take a look at your photos?”
“Yes, sure, fine, I just want to get out of here.”
“Cool … … … okay, well … … … looks like there’s no photos of the ECP here.”