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Maura R. O’Connor: Afghanistan Base Life: A Vicious Groundhog Day

May 12, 2011

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The tempo of base life is strange. It swings from extreme boredom to high stress, day after day after day.

By **Maura O’Connor**

Maura O'Connor head shot.jpgThe first time I ever saw a 20 oz. can of Red Bull was on a military base in eastern Afghanistan. It was 7 a.m. in the morning and an infantry soldier was drinking it for breakfast before heading out in a convoy of MRAP (Mine Resistant Ambush Protected) vehicles for a mission. “If they made 40 oz., I’d drink that,” the soldier told me. Deployed for 12 months to bases where alcohol is strictly prohibited, soldiers seem to have insatiable appetites for every other stimulant available: Cigarettes, dip, sugar, and caffeine. Of the latter, some prefer the 8 oz. cans of Shock Coffee Triple Latte available in chow halls, and others go for the “MOAC.” The MOAC or “Mother of All Coffees” is sold at any military base with a Green Beans Coffee Shop, and is 24 oz. of dark roast coffee with four shots of espresso.

At Forward Operating Base Gardez the popular beverage is RipIt Energy Fuel, which contains caffeine as well as taurine and a lot of corn syrup. On average, Task Force Lethal’s senior food operator orders around 60 cases of RipIts a week for about 500 “green suits,” as soldiers are often called. SFC Michael Miller is 52-years-old, an Iowa National Guardsmen who volunteered to come to Afghanistan for one year to pay for his daughter’s college education in marine biology. Miller joined the Navy in the mid-70s, caught the very tail end of Vietnam, and spent most of the following four years picking up Cambodians trying to flee the Khmer Rouge. “We gave them food, water, a map, and pointed to the Philippines,” he said. Since last November when Miller arrived at FOB Gardez, his job has been to keep all the FOBs and COPs (Combat Outposts) in Pakitya Province stocked with RipIts, Mountain Dew (another all-time favorite), and food. But the biggest expense and logistical hurdle is water. He shows me an average weekly order: 3,920 cases of bottled water costing over $41,000. Transporting the pallets of water out to remote COPs is always tricky as many of the mountain passes in the region are above 10,000 feet and “red air,” most often bad weather but sometimes threats of fire from the ground, is frequent.

“It’s like a vicious Groundhog Day,” one army engineer explained. There are no weekends. 12-hour workdays are the norm, 16-hour workdays not unusual.

Like most FOBs, Gardez is ugly. It’s a bewildering maze of shipping containers, MRAPs, and “bee-huts,” where the majority of soldiers work and sleep, all contained within a heavily fortified perimeter of hesco baskets and concertina wire. Within “the wire,” the scenery is completely homogeneous. Brown, khaki, dirt, gravel, sandbags, rocks, brown, brown, khaki, brown. But FOB Gardez has several features that make it strangely unique from other bases. The land it was built on is rented from a local Afghan and contains two qalats, the traditional, castle-like fortresses made of mud in which multiple generations of an Afghani family or even entire villages will live. Not far from these qalats, at the heart of the base, is a large graveyard where flat rocks stick out of the earth like cracked teeth to mark the resting place of dozens of members of the Daulat Zai tribe. This tribal graveyard is the explanation why, unlike some other military bases, FOB Gardez is rarely attacked by indirect fire from insurgents. As the story goes, a few years back an insurgent launched rocket-propelled grenades onto the base, which destroyed parts of the graveyard. Upon hearing about the destruction, the landowner sought out the insurgent and depending on who you hear it from, cut off his head or attached his body to the back of his car and drove him through Gardez until he died, or both. Either way, indirect fire has been a relative rarity since then.

Supposedly, Afghans never destroy a qalat but leave them to melt like candlesticks back into the earth, memorials to the people who inhabited them. The two qalats at FOB Gardez are in varying states of biodegrading but both are actively used by the military. Indeed, one of the qalats was the site of planning and operations for the infamous Operation Anaconda, which took place in 2002 and some believe was the occasion on which the military may have missed an opportunity to capture Osama bin Laden. (Some people say Osama inhabited one of the qalats at FOB Gardez in the ’90s, but no one could offer any convincing details.) Anaconda began on March 2, 2002 when the US Army launched a ground assault on the Shah-i-Kot Valley, where they believed hundreds of Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters were embedded in a system of caves and subterraneous tunnels. Instead of surprising the enemy, however, the first wave of Afghan fighters were expected and decimated by mortar fire. It’s thought that the number of Al Qaeda and Taliban in the valley actually numbered as many as 1,000. When the operation ended sixteen days later, eight American soldiers had died, and an unknown number of enemy fighters were thought to have simply crossed into the border into Pakistan. In his book Chain of Command: The Road from 9/11 to Abu Ghraib, Seymour Hersch writes that even though Army commanders claimed seven hundred of the enemy had been killed, only ten bodies were found in the mountains.

Nasir has worked as an interpreter for the U.S. military for seven years, is a father of four, and has a wry sense of humor. (When I ask him what name I should use to identify him he initially said, “Dennis Miller.”) Nasir was just 20-years-old when he volunteered to fight during Operation Anaconda. At that time, he said, there wasn’t even a base in Gardez, just one qalat which American Special Forces rented for $400/month, setting up tents inside and around its walls. Nasir spent 12 days in the Shah-i-Kot Valley during the fighting. “Maybe 10 percent of the Taliban were killed and 90 percent of them escape away,” he said in broken English, explaining that because the Taliban “don’t write on their faces” or advertise who they are, many of them blended into the local population. “At that time we could not recognize the Taliban from the civilians because everybody has a gun, everybody walk like a gangster.” When Nasir returned to FOB Gardez two years ago, he said there were a lot of changes, a second qalat, the base’s perimeter had grown. His job these days is arguably no less dangerous than it was back in 2002. “This is not a safe job right now,” he said. “The situation in Afghanistan is bad, but we have to struggle. There’s no other way. We know this is risky. When I am close to die, nobody can save me.”

[The] tribal graveyard is the explanation why, unlike some other military bases, FOB Gardez is rarely attacked by indirect fire from insurgents.

The snow-capped mountains over which the Shah-i-Kot Valley lies are visible from the turrets of the qalats at FOB Gardez. So are the sweeping plains at the mountains’ base, where kuchis, the Afghan nomads, settle in the spring, living in colorful patchwork tents while their camels and goats graze. It’s easy to look at this landscape—majestic, exotic, pastoral—and forget that it’s the set of a bloody counterinsurgency battle. Indeed, rumors are that kuchi settlements are used as covers for insurgents. The landscape outside the wire is essentially impenetrable to soldiers unless they are in a convoy of MRAP vehicles or riding in a helicopter. (Some nights, there are so many helicopters landing and taking off from the airstrip to go on missions that the mattresses hum.) It’s another world entirely, one that they can only visit draped in 60 lbs. of body armor and ammunition, helmets, ballistic glasses, fire-retardant uniforms and gloves, carrying M4 carbines in addition to their ever-present M9 handguns.

For this reason, the tempo of base life is strange. It swings from extreme boredom to high stress, day after day after day. “It’s like a vicious Groundhog Day,” one army engineer explained. There are no weekends. 12-hour workdays are the norm, 16-hour workdays not unusual. In this monotonous and taxing environment, very little, mundane things become luxuries. Hot showers, for instance. Walking to the showers is the one time of the day people can take off their military-issued boots and wear flip-flops. Female soldiers who look like they know their way around a .50 caliber sniper rifle, once in the confines of the shower room, bring out pink loofahs, Victoria Secret body wash, and Disney-themed towels, brief glimmers of frivolity before putting their camouflage on.

One day as I’m walking through the central garden of the qalat from which Operation Anaconda was launched, I find myself trying to imagine what it would be like to be a Pashtun woman confined to living in a qalat, day in and day out, only able to leave the walls shrouded in a burqa and vulnerable even then. And it occurred to me: It might be like living on a FOB. I pass along my profound insight to some soldiers that evening, who are sitting in the dark smoking cigars. “Are you stoned?” one asks me. “And, if so, give me some.”

Three days later, news that Osama Bin Laden was killed in Pakistan reaches the FOB around breakfast time. Soldiers gather around the television to watch the news. I expected the mood to be joyous but instead it is surprisingly subdued. ”I got a lot of emails from friends and family but the truth is it doesn’t mean I’m going to go home sooner,” explained one soldier of the somber response. ”If anything, it’s more dangerous for us right now than before.” In another part of the chow hall, soldiers don’t even bother to switch the channel to the newscasts but continue watching Denzel Washington starring in Deja Vu.

Copyright 2011 Maura R. O’Connor

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Maura R. O’Connor is a freelance foreign correspondent. Her work has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Slate, Global Post, and TIME.com. This year O’Connor was awarded a Robert Novak Journalism Fellowship and is reporting on development issues from Haiti and Afghanistan. She is a graduate of Columbia University’s Journalism School.

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