The explosion went off just under a hundred meters in front of us. The eighth one in the last hour, the freezing and contracting of the ground putting pressure on the estimated twenty-four million mines surrounding the valley we lived within, randomly causing them to explode throughout the day. Bagram Air Force Base (AFB) Afghanistan sits within a large valley surrounded on all sides by high mountain peaks. The valley itself sits some four-thousand feet above sea level, with the surrounding mountains rising several thousand feet more.
A normal duty day always starts out early, but early can be late afternoon, or early morning, depending on what work rotation and sleep cycle you are assigned to. Eighteen hour days are more the rule than exception as you’re constantly on call, or actively patrolling one area of the valley or another, even taking quick flights into the mountains to spend days searching or following up on intelligence that for the most part is a dead end, until it’s not.
We all take turns with certain types of duty, rotating from our normal jobs to fill in where personnel are always in short supply. Perimeter security for the base consists of three story towers, double razor wire fences, all strategically placed around the semi-circular area of the valley that contains our base. You can walk around it in three hours, even in the heavy body armor, weapons and ammunition we wear or carry for most of the eighteen hours we’re on duty.
Today was my turn to rotate and be Sergeant of the Guard (SOG) for the day. There are six of us split into three and three on a twelve hour rotation. We’re all on-call, but only three at a time constantly moving throughout the base, checking up and inspecting other soldiers on watch duty or roving patrols inside and outside of the fence perimeter.
The SOG is primarily the inspector and conduit for problems and the solution to those problems, from Command to the individual guards, soldiers, as well as liaison to the local nationals that are used as interpreters and support staff for dealing with the many Afghan civilians that live just outside our gates.
The procedures and steps that we go through each duty cycle is a standardized list of common requirements, that incorporate consistent security checks on each soldier, but also provides up to date intelligence of threats, changes in orders, or specific threat protocols that Command (the eye in the sky) wants us to look out for.
The day starts out like any other day, taking into account the type of duty I’ve been assigned as the SOG. Wakeup at 0430 hours, morning absolutions to a shower facility a quarter-mile away, a cold morning, with a cold shower, walking in shower shoes over gravel covered with ice. The ever-present blizzard of valley dust mixing with the early morning drizzle of winter sleet, turning everything into more flying mud, then just snow, ice or dust.
Back in my room I escape from the cold and dust, still shivering from the icy-shower. Of course icy-shower is usually a euphemism for just being cold, but here it is more the literal truth as you jump in and out of the cold water, holding your breath as you lather up quickly, the water on the wooden shower floor quickly turning to ice as you hear it crunch under your feet.
My room is four-feet by eight-foot made of plywood, lined with duct tape I bought online. It helps to keep out the local bugs and hold back the dust that seeps into any corner left open to the outside world.
Preparing for the day starts with long underwear, uniforms that do not breathe from the heavy flame retardant chemicals used on them. Heavy boots with a laced fabric made of Kevlar draped and laced around the boot. You wrap your protective mask (gas mask) around your waist, the straps going around your waist and your thigh, evoking memories of old gunfighters in western movies as you strap on your protective mask and 9mm pistol much like they did with their six-shooters.
The base is not unlike that of an old wild-western town, thousands of people moving back and forth, constant construction, everyone with weapons, the locals invaded and invading as the cultures cross over each other.
Body armor is next, thirty-five pounds of camouflaged vest like wear, with Kevlar plates in the front and back and two smaller ones on each side. The material heavy, but manageable, the new body armor, with a quick emergency release strap hidden under a Velcro patch on the center of your chest.
The new design the end result of trapped and drowning soldiers when their vehicles flipped or were turned over from road side bombs. They drowned when their vehicle went into the water filled ditches during the rainy season, their loss from their inability to remove the heavy armor once they were upside down.
We take training on how to escape from overturned vehicles, the process including sitting in a real vehicle that has been built to flip quickly upside down on a mechanical gimbaled system. You hang now upside down, the body armor that hung so well, now pressing against your throat and head, holding back your arms from releasing the seat belt.
Your breath going, choking for air while you start to see black spots in your eyes, all the while grabbing for the razor sharp seat belt cutter, frantically cutting yourself free as quickly as you can.
The Kevlar headgear takes up most of the impact, but still you lay for seconds or minutes crumpled up on the ceiling, which is now the floor. Multiply this with four people all over six feet plus feet and you come away feeling like you been beaten up as you try and open the four-hundred pound blast doors that trap you within. The training is mandatory as it should be, but it does call into question your ability to get out of the vehicle in a real emergency.
Thoughts like these circle the drain of your brain, all the while you work to put your gear on. My body armor is on, I add the individual packets of miscellaneous items that clip on or strap on easily to attachment points built within my vest: Two-hundred and forty rounds of M16 ammunition rounds resting over my abdomen, six magazines of 9mm rounds, three on each hip, a Camel-Pak with two liters of water strapped to my back like a mini pack with a hose attachment on my shoulder for easy access, a: medical kit, Saline IV’s, two knifes, a hide-a-way Glock pistol in my boot holster, phone, maps, snacks for the day, sixty to eighty pounds of a turtle’s shell that we carry throughout the day, other specialized equipment which we drag around in our battle-packs, small bags that we keep close. More ammunition, books, papers, extra batteries, the list can get fairly long.
The morning starts as I head for the door, meeting up with my counterparts (other SOG’s) to go over the day’s needs, what soldiers we have to cover what post, who gets what vehicles, exchanging phone numbers, as well as call signs for our radios. We go to breakfast, picking up multiple extra meals for those guards already on duty throughout the domain of the base.
Once the meals are delivered, checks on all of the guard sites and a stop at headquarters to sign-in and get the day’s security updates, we head to the rally point to meet up with those soldiers we will use to relieve those just recently given breakfast.
Since some soldiers are given duty for more punitive reasons, rather than the quality of their efforts, we find ourselves having to be careful to pair them up with others we know will be more attentive to their duties then someone here just to be punished.
As important as security is, it’s a sad corollary in military history that for some soldiers who are not well integrated into their units, immature, or have some habits they are learning to deal with, it’s often becomes an informal punishment. It’s also true in history, that many of those same individuals were the first ones to die when their lack of discipline finally caught up with them in the form of an attack. Like most jobs of this type, police, military, fire etc., if you survive your mistakes they are self-correcting in one form or another.
Formation includes sixty men and woman, Military Police, Navy, Air Force, Marine and Army Infantry all lined up, all waiting to be inspected and approved to replace those waiting to be relieved and get some sleep from the long cold night, now over.
Each of the three SOG’s now on duty, myself included, work our way through the ranks checking each solider for the required things they need, as well as those thing they were not allowed to bring i.e., books, laptops, audio or audio equipment etc.
Soldiers are maligned in a number of ways, all too often as not being too bright, or blind automatons that are brain washed without the ability to think for themselves. It’s been my experience, that although you will find those traits if you look close enough in any field, you will find the opposite as well, even to the point of brilliance at times.
The attention to detail we give our soldiers is as much for their benefit as our own. With forty-thousand lives encircled within the perimeter we guard inside and out, some thirty square miles to watch, or patrol, we have to depend on them to understand, or be made to understand the serious nature of their jobs.
One such personality that we all remember is a young kid I’ll call Private Kimble. New to the Army, first deployment, bright but uneducated and trained within the limits of what seven months can give a young eighteen year old boy trying to be a man. He’s tall, slender, one of the many kids coming into the military as much for excitement as getting away from home or the need to build a college fund.
He was an amateur techy with excellent skills, but addicted to the internet as much as the games and social spaces he likes to interact with. Not uncommon for many of the soldiers we get today. There are pluses and minuses, but I like to think the basic core of each brings more of the pluses to the military than the negative we hear so much about.
As SOG one night, I was on roving patrol, scouting the outside fence for problems, sneaking along, trying to see if my guards in the towers were awake and giving their full attention. I came to Private Kimble’s tower and could see a blue glow spreading outward from the windows. It was rather obvious of course, that kind of glow is only seen from video cameras, or more likely an open laptop.
It turned out that Kimble had spent around a thousand dollars of his own money, and hours upon hours, setting up four antennas crossing over the two mile line-of-sight from his room router to that of where he volunteered to be a tower guard. In his endeavors, he repeatedly moved through areas blocked from traffic, where multiple unexploded mines and bombs were left, the reasoning being that it was safer to leave them alone, than try to detonate them.
Over the previous month he had repeatedly risked his life for a Wi-Fi signal, and risked getting shoot, for he had smuggled his laptop into the tower, replacing his body armor plates with the laptop and equipment he needed to use the signal he so diligently set up.
Normally when checking our soldiers gear, we just punch them in the chest and back verifying that the plates were present. Being so heavy, it’s a temptation for many to take them out, so this was not new, but replacing them with computer gear was.
We, meaning the command staff could not help but laugh and admire his ingenuity only outmatched by his suicidal stupidity. Needless to say he lost some money, became a permanent resident on guard duty, and was not promoted in the upcoming months as he normally would have.
On the positive side, he developed a reputation for solving other soldier’s computer problems, and eventually we moved him to doing computer work full time, feeling he was safer as well as ourselves, but we did take our pound of flesh in heavy work-loads, constant monitoring until we learned to trust his growing maturity. He was actually very lucky for a number of reasons, the most important being he did not get himself or someone else killed. Normally he would have gone to jail for such an offence, five to ten years is the common punishment. The young who don’t know any better we try to rehabilitate, those older, more knowledgably, but not wiser were given jail sentences and dishonorable discharges. The punishment has to be severe, for the possibility of death for thousands is so high.
These thoughts and jokes about Kimble were part of our conversations as we punched each soldier in the chest and back, peeked periodically into the pouches holding the Kevlar plates. Inventoried their weapons, cleanliness, and made sure they each had a condom on the barrel tip of each M16 rifle. A common adaptation to preventing dust and mud getting into our weapons, especially as its real use is something of a non-sequitur.
Weapons check, ammunition present, eye goggles, sunglasses, emergency rations, night vision equipment and the list went this way for each of our sixty soldiers. Vehicle checks were next, going through the same process a list even longer for those vehicles that would be patrolling outside the fence.
The moments plodded along, the day going by slowly at times, faster at others. One call after another, most calls occurring where the towers overlooked or were in close proximity to the local farms and village that overlapped our patrol areas.
There is an inherent sociopathy found in the Middle East, a pattern common in all civilizations where resources, especially water is scarce on a regular basis. It’s not that you don’t find civilization of a sort, but it’s truly a question of “survival of the fittest”, that being men in general. Men who control through their collective will the resources of life that are available, but men who also perform the lion’s share of home protection. Over time, at least in Afghanistan, women and children are more property than they are human beings. You find many examples of this through the calls for assistance we get, as well as our preparations aimed at helping the locals deal with the abuse of the Russians, and now the Taliban.
Our procedures require strict adherence to whom and what go out our gates and even more importantly who comes in them. Anyone not military; our military, stand to wait some time before permission can be obtained from higher command. These procedures are there for a reason, but they do slow down emergency responses when the need arises.
We all work to be moral, to stay within our ethical upbringing, especially where women and children were concerned. Like Iraq, the Taliban in Afghanistan will use women and children indiscriminately to attain their goals. It’s not common, but it’s not infrequent either, to find a tortured man, woman or child laying out at one of our gates, the impulse of most soldiers to rush to their aid, discovering to late, that bombs had been placed with their bodies, detonated as soon as the soldiers came near.
Watching from our perch at night, we see the glow of human bodies walking along the road in front of us, each one a light that we see and wonder who they are. We watch the farmers push their children out into the mine covered field, using sticks or long poles to tap the ground searching for mines that may still be alive, a child’s life worth less than that of the animals that needed to graze.
On those nights we see their glows, the children moving forward, the father and animals a safe distance behind. We always watch with bated breath behind our fence fifty yards away, each time breathing a sigh of relief when nothing happens. Afterwards, enjoying the sound and glowing life playing on our night vision monitor, as they move the animals through the fields along the perimeter of our fence.
Then there are those nights, we see, or get a call for an ambulance, requesting permission to go out and pick up someone who’s stepped on a mine. Our local hospitals are full of young children who were abused, used, human bombs, legs gone from mines placed decades before they were born.
We wait and watch each night the dance of flying cattle past our eyes, one misstep, one missed mine by the children charged with their safety. We wait and watch each night the splattered glow of a child lost to that of the importance of their father’s cows, the bright glow of their body heat a poignant statement to the reality of what we blessedly cannot see, but somehow worse for our imagination of too many deaths, to many kids. We watch the screen, hoping those rushing to their aid will arrive in time, the glow of a child’s body heat, the only guide to those searching and walking tentatively through the mined covered field, the afterglow of their lives slowly dissipating into the common escape of the young spirit, now gone.