(From my recollection this is fairly accurate. I may have blended some events over those initial days into the one day. I was tired, it was a long trip, a little nervous. Oh hell! A lot nervous. And these first moments were surreal. There are some colleagues you remember forever just for the little things.)
3. Dust On My Boots
I spent a year in Afghanistan yesterday.
October 2009. It’s 5:00 a.m. Roto 8 had arrived from Canada after 3 days of transit to what seemed to be from all corners of the earth to get to what most would refer to as the dustiest shit-hole on the planet.
I disembarked the Canadian C-17 Globemaster from our layover in Cyprus and shuffled across the tarmac just as the sun was illuminating a beautiful bright yellow across the blue sky. An orange band topped the yellow where the light met the dust suspended in the air. Everything was brown, covered in a thin layer of moon dust. Even the green trees were covered in dust; making them brown. As I marched off the concrete, each step resulted in a small explosion of talcum-like powder that engulfed my pants to mid-shin. I chuckled in disbelief as my new boots already looked like they had ‘time-in’.
After “checking in” to the new resort, my chalk of air-soldiers were ushered through numerous stages of orientation. Since no one had slept in the past 3 days, except for a few winks on an airport floor in ‘secret’ isolation in Germany, most of us were aloof to the detail of material presented. However, coffee and snacks were a welcome provision as we listened to what sounded like Charlie Brown’s teacher professing.
Following this reception, we were ushered through the equipment issue process. Side arms, ammunition, administrative forms and videos on combat first aid techniques were all completed with a focus on the most recent tactical situation to sharpen our purpose.
I retrieved my pistol, a Browning 9 mm sidearm and 30 rounds of ammunition. I loaded it, made it safe and holstered it over my shoulder. Later that night we would go to the ranges to verify they were working. Then like a flock of sleepy sheep, we were herded onto another bus which crawled down a dusty channeled road through the rocket protection barriers and sea-cans.
I arrived at the temporary accommodation called BATs (Big Ass Tents), which would be home for the next two days until the crews of 430 Squadron, who we were replacing, departed so we could take their lodgings. The BAT was a huge white temporary housing haven for soldiers transiting in and out of KAF. It had numerous rows of bunk-beds easily being able to house a company of 150 soldiers.
At the BAT, we were granted a couple hours of personal time. This was very welcome after 3 days of travel before further orientation started in the afternoon. Many flopped on a mattress and immediately slept despite the noisy infantry platoon that had also arrived. Anxious to go home, they were all telling their war stories – adding another realistic dimension to the anxiety of our newly arriving aviation team.
I couldn’t sleep. My mind was nervous about the unknown. So coupled with my body vibrating in sleep deprivation, I could do nothing other than explore. I needed to look around. I clung to a respected colleague who had already completed a tour in KAF several years earlier. He was a fellow Griffon captain and section leader. He was respected for his experience, meticulous work and detailed planning. A person who anyone could look upto for both friendship and advise. However, he had little time for non-sense, which was quite plentiful in a military organization. It wasn’t uncommon for him to look wide-eyed at someone who was presenting a ridiculous comment. And with his head sternly tilted forward and forearm held out across his chest, he would slowly raise his finger-tips pivoting about his elbow, vertically representing and analog meter as he sarcastically warned his conversant:
“My fun-meter is pegged! Conversation over!”
He was proud of this demeanor and often referred to himself as THE grumpy old man. This in itself was contradictory since he was positive and smiled most of the time. However, at one point in our training for Afghanistan, he comically labeled our entire cadre of captains ‘Grumpy Old Men’ depicting the gruff attitudes of our group of senior captains – most of us older than our supervising majors and colonels. Unfortunately, the overwhelming majority of young copilots would have to learn to deal with us for 8 months of pre-training followed by the year in theatre. In order to protect the confidentiality of the not so innocent, I shall refer to him as “Grumpy Old man – Grumpy for short.” (No offense Grumpy)
Grumpy noticed my perplexed look from the realization that we were actually arrived. Conversely, he looked excited to be back and anxious to do some ‘show and tell’.
“You gonna sleep?” he asked.
“Nope.” I responded.
“Timmy’s for coffee?”
“You bet, I need something to keep me up, I’m sleep-fucked and won’t be sleepin’ with those guys in there tellin’ war stories!” I enthusiastically requested.
Grumpy proceeded down a narrow dusty road walled by sea containers over 5 meters feet high on each side. I was entirely disoriented but he knew exactly where he was in this labyrinth. I surrendered to my curiosity by plodding along in tow. It all looked the same. Shipping containers (sea cans) were piled up row on row making kilometers of a maze-like roadways re-enforced by other tall concrete barriers to prevent rocket attack shrapnel from injuring people. Everything, of course, covered in dust. I followed along watching the little dust-explosions climbing and wrapping around his knees as he pointed to land-marks.
“There’s the TLS again, frontgate, HQ, barber, Canadian gym…” he toured with his arm pointing out landmarks. I was excited to see all these things but figured I need a three kilometer long string to find my way back to the BAT through the all-brown maze.
Tim Hortons was a kilometer away, which was really 2000 dust exploding steps making my shiny, virgin, tan-pattern uniform instantly looking veteran due to the thin film of dessert talcum brown. As vehicles slowly passed by, the intensity of the rising dust forced people to stop until the visibility increased. I coughed out the excess dirt; learning quickly to cover my face by raising my undershirt over my nose. Even after opening my eyes, the sweat from my brow streamed the stinging dirt back into them. I couldn’t escape the talcum powdered invasion. Additionally, combined with damp clothes from immediate heat induced perspiration, the dust clung to my clothing forming a darker brown in those affected areas…it was the typical Kandahar attractive look: dusty brown framed by bacon stripe butt and pit-shadow. Despite only two hours since arrival, my uniform appeared like everyone else’s. The differentiator was the white skin tone and wide, but red, eyes.
The boardwalk was the social centre of KAF. It was a large square with each side about 150 meters in length. The centre courtyard shared a basketball court, a gravel football field, a stage, a memorial rock garden and of course, the Canadian hockey rink. There were market stores and a few cafes offering some psychological reprieve from the ruggedness of the operation. It was comfortable in KAF, especially to those soldiers who lived and worked outside the security fence (outside the wire). To them, this was a resort. Our aviation Battalion aircrew worked outside the wire but lived inside. We understood and respected what the troops lived (and died) through and never tried to take the “resort” feeling for granted. There was already some animosity between soldiers living in the FOBs and soldiers that worked entirely inside the wire. They patrolled every day and night, risking their lives and experiencing pain and death. Yet, everyone serving in Afghanistan was on the same danger pay and received the same campaign medal. Aircrew respected that, and appreciated KAF, but knew that one small bullet in the right place would make us instant foot soldiers outside the wire….that was always in mind. So respect for those living ‘outside the wire’ was never yielded.
“Steve, check this out.” Grumpy directed. “You can walk in, or take the walk through.”
“How’s this work?” I inquired looking at two long lines with several dozen people in each.
“If you have a small order, you go in the walk through line. It’s faster. If you want a larger order, go inside”. Grumpy explained. “We’ll stand in the walk-thru outside line. There is a lot to watch from here.”
It took about 10 minutes to serve the 20 people in front but it gave a chance to say hi to various people. It wasn’t uncommon to meet Australians, Russians, Brits and especially Americans who quickly fell in love with Iced Caps and donuts. Newly arriving American soldiers were escorted around KAF by a designated colleague for orientation. Tim’s was part of the tour. I felt unusually proud to overhear them telling their colleagues about how the Timmy’s was a MUST place to go with the best donuts, bagels and Iced Caps.
“Dude, you just gotta say black, which is black. Or regular, which is one cream and sugar. Or double-double which is two of each. They automatically know.” An American with a southern drawl explained to another.
“Oh alright, I got this.” The new comer replied.
“But you gotta order a Wayne Gretzky.” He added.
“What’s that, a hockey player?”
“Ya but it’s a large coffee with 9 creams and 9 sugar. I recommend it highly.” The southern drawl expertly advised.
Grumpy and I both astonished, looked at each other silently repeating in disbelief: “9 and 9?” It was an extreme Tim’s order but nevertheless, I was proud of our national institution in coming to KAF and influencing others from afar to choose Timmy’s over Green Beans, the American choice on the boardwalk.
Timmy’s was perched beside a small patio which overlooked the ball hockey rink and also had the best wifi connection. Many soldiers had coffee while concurrently skyping home and watching the game. The hockey games were almost continually on-going — even on hot 40 degree days. Some Canadian night shift workers were currently playing hockey following their shift; soaked in sweat. I noticed the thermometer anchored above the door at Tim’s. It was only 33 on this dusty autumn day. However, it was also only 9 am.
Grumpy Old Man treated me to coffee and we continued walking. 200 meters away was our home to be. We proceeded that direction. He gave me the change from the coffee at Timmy’s, a POG. There were no coins used in theatre, only cash. And instead of coins, a paper POG was given representing 5, 10 and 25 cents. My first souvenir.
The accommodations were beside the American post exchange (like a mini-Walmart) and the Niagara DFAC (dining facility pronounced Dee-Fack). This was where the majority of their meals would be for the next year. It was primarily an American cuisine but had huge variety.
I entered the small weather haven. A dusty partially torn tent about 60 feet long and 14 feet wide with an arched roof. It would soon be home to 17 pilots. It was dark. It took several minutes to for the eyes to adjust and likewise just the opposite as one returned outside into the bright sunlight. I introduced myself quietly to one of the guys; I recognized him from Canada.Tactical aviation in Canada is a small community. We all cross paths with each other at some point.
In a whispering French accent he excitedly welcomed, “Bonjour! Bien venue KAF! I am glad you ayr haiyr. I keen gow howme now”. He snickered.
“Deese eeze your chamber”. He said. “You can feex it up az you –pray-furr.”
I shook his hand as he directed me to a vacant bed-space. My room was a small 7′ by 7′ square with a sloping roof. It had a bed and some handmade furniture from scrap wood for a desk. It would eventually provide my 6 square feet of living space which I would eventually occupy with a swivel office chair. This took up all remaining floor space. So access to my bed, desk and shelf-dresser had to be gained via the chair. However, it would become home and a sanctuary. It even had cable wired through providing a motivating but not very reliable internet service. Air conditioning seemed to be holding out but we were cautioned not to adjust it or it would fail…this eventually proved as true advice.
Since crews were sleeping, as we worked 24/7, Grumpy exited to continue leading the tour. We proceeded to the laundry facility and Grumpy demonstrated the routine. Stand in line, zap strap laundry bag closed with several straps, fill out paper work, keep receipt (or you may never see your clothes again), pass to Afghani laundry clerk, hope you see your laundry in three days.
As we approached the laundry, my eyes began to sting. A penetrating ammonia odour scoured my sinuses making my eyes water. This, in addition to the dust, cause my eyes and nose to go into foreign sensory overload. I had to take short little breaths to minimize the sharp sting.
“What is that smell?” I asked half covering my face.
Grumpy was smiling. “Next on the tour my friend,” he smirked leading me forward.
Just around the corner was the poo-pond. It was the open pit circular sewage sump that is so large it can be clearly seen on a Google satellite image. It was right behind the laundry. During a westerly wind the entire camp was infused with the sewage stench. It was so strong that it often choked most people and burned the eyes. Unbelievably, I did get used to it. However, there were some days the intensity was overbearing. With a west wind, I had to sleep with my nose covered as the fumes easily penetrated our tents. Grumpy smiled as he showed me the pond; and pointed to the ‘no-swimming’ sign. We both laughed.
We continued touring around, dusty step by dusty step, getting the first kiss of sun burn on our faces as he showed me the other two kitchens, the NATO, American and Canadian gyms as well as the Canadian barber shop and Canadian lines. We finished at the D-FAC for lunch.
All the D-FACS were similar. One stood in a long line to get to the cafeteria style service. Food was usually excellent. Additionally, there was a salad station and an a’ la carte grill to serve primarily American style food: burgers and deep fried. After over-filling my tray to satisfy my starvation from the near 4 day fast, we sat next to a few young American infantry soldiers. The newest was rapidly stuffing his face with what he thought were French-fries while the experienced colleagues smirked and chuckling, hiding the truth. The french-fry eater, twisted his face and slowed his chewing:
“These fries are awful!” he disgustingly reported in his southern accent.
“That’s not fries Bob, that’s whut theys calls cal-i-mari,” his colleagues chuckled.
“Cali-whut?” he responded.
“Squid y’all!” They both broke out in laughter as the novice calamari eater had never been exposed to such flavour and began politely spitting it out; silently dry-heaving in the process.
Grumpy and I chuckled at the entertainment and finished lunch. Satisfied that KAF had not changed very much, he showed me to our next required location. I did not know how we returned to where we started. I was still geographically confused, but a little less disoriented.
That afternoon was filled with more administrative paper work, training and briefings. The entire team was required to walk through a mock-up IED mine-field reviewing safety drills and IED hazards. By this time it was 36 degrees. Wearing fighting gear and helmets gave us a taste of what was to come.
“The first group was getting hammered with instruction. “Stop Stop Stop. IED IED IED.” the sergeant yelled.
“So who’s in charge of everyone in this vehicle? What the hell are you gonna do now? 5 and 20…do it!” We could hear him yelling recurrency instructions expecting immediate action from his trainees. Also adding graphic detail to what would happen if we did not do it right.
“Some of these IEDs have enough explosive power to rip a tank apart!” he taught with enlarged eyes. “Get your shit together ladies and gentlemen.”
This was quick for the our aircrew. We had conducted this training extensively and repeatedly over the past six months. Not only the basics, but also with respect to being shot down and concurrently being in a fire-fight while treating casualties. It’s called combat first aid. And we briefed it daily in our jobs…it was real.
“Roto 8, you are finished for this afternoon. Next timing is busses at the BATs at 19:30. Bring your fighting order to prove your pistols.” A voice bellowed.
At this time, I don’t recall much. I must have slept in the bus and then I think my head hit the pillow for a quick nap. And what seemed like seconds later, someone woke me. It was dark, 19:20 and time to go to the pistol range.
The drive was unique. The rows of 5-meter high stacked sea-cans on either side of the narrow road made it appear like a dust-trof to navigate through. The dust was like a brown fog rising from the vehicles and obscuring vision to only a few feet at times. Since the road was barely two cars wide, the driver proceeded at a walking-pace in order to veer from the on-coming headlights. Despite the heat, the windows remained closed otherwise it would be incapacitating.
We arrived at the pistol ranges. It could have been Tarnac Farm but I don’t recall for sure. It was once outside the outskirts of KAF but was now part of the area. I mention Tarnac because it is significant. In 2002, the first 4 Canadian soldiers were killed here by an American F-16 pilot. The pilot had mistaken them as enemy and attacked them despite attaining PID. It served as a reminder to always have positive identification of the enemy prior to releasing fires. The rule was if any doubt existed, wait for another day. One public speaker briefed us before deployment that the bottom line on pulling the trigger is whether you can personally live with the multitude of results that could occur, not just the obvious result. Appropriately, this affirmation of restraint and patience would come to challenge us on a daily basis. The result lead to many nightmares that some soldiers still have to this day— sorta damned just by being there.
At the range, I stepped off the bus into a another cloud of brown talcum. Dim lights illuminated the 25 meter pistol range at the corners offering just enough light to function. We marched into rows behind 10 targets down range, approximately 5 person deep in each row. This wasn’t about accuracy, it was about proving your weapon worked. A quick 5-round shoot and review of safety drills.
It was an assembly line shoot. A normal indoctrination procedure on arrival. Along with most others, I had now not slept properly in over three days. I was mechanically reacting like a cow in the herd. Brain activity had shut down, it was all muscle memory. Is this safe? What could go wrong?
“First row, at the 10 meter target, on your own time, fire!” commanded the lead gunner sergeant. He was in charge of safety.
Blam blam blam.
“Cease fire, make safe your weapons!” he bellowed.
This required removing the magazine, cocking the weapon as many times as required to clear any remaining bullets, then test firing down range to ensure it clicks but doesn’t fire.
Click – click – click – blam. The gun fired. ….”Oops,” a humble voice embarrassingly called out.
“Number 4 , check fire, is your weapon clear?” boomed the sargeant.
“Well, it is now Sargeant.” was the sleepy reply attempting too, but failing to add levity.
“Number 4 clear your weapon and test fire again!”
Shick-shick, blam. “Fuck!”
The safety Sargent approached the individual and took the firearm.
“You need to remove your fuckin’ mag first soldier!” The Sarge cleared the weapon, test fired – click, and returned it firmly to the candidate with a small shove.
“Against the back wall for remedial drills!” He ordered. “Next line advance!” He continued onto the program without waste.
“With a 5 round magazine – Load!”
And the progression continued. At the end, everyone loaded onto the bus and waited patiently – sleeping – until the remedial training was complete on the four failures.
I’m not too sure what happened next. The bus stopped and robotically each of us staggered into the BAT. I do recall my face falling on a rolled up jacket being a make-shift pillow. I was exhausted and overwhelmed. I never thought I would get to sleep with my mind racing and body buzzing with the huge sleep debt. But obviously I did … until about 2:00 am…
A deafening siren shook the camp; repeating its oscillating and screaming sound. I sprung out of bed, disoriented. Where was I? What is that noise? I coughed out some dust. Oh ya, it was coming back to me. I covered my ears.
“What the hell is that?” I yelled into the dark.
“Rocket attack!” A voice hollered back.
…And so begins day 2.