BUSTING AT THE SEAMS |
February 16, 2007
BUSTING AT THE SEAMS
Name: CAPT Matt Smenos
Posting date: 2/16/07
Stationed in: Afghanistan
Hometown: Santa Maria, CA
It used to be the remoteness of it all. The lean, Spartan efficiency of a "Forward Operating Base" made us uncomfortable. In July of 2006, when we first arrived in Sharana, my team of Airmen and I couldn't believe how little there was here. Our huts were simple, four-walled boxes. The occasional dividing wall or curtain within was seen as a decadent extravagance and spurred jealousy and vandalism.
At first glance, the bathroom had a certain tropical, steam-room quality, reminiscent of a barefoot resort or a running-water cabana. We all quickly realized such simulations are just that: simulated, and secret provisions protect resort patrons from that which our little baÃ±o had in abundance -- bacteria, dry-rot and odor. Our work centers were marvelous fusions of old and new. Plywood rectangles with simple wooden shelves and tabletops were laden with laptops, router-cables, IP equipment, fax machines, printers, cell-phone chargers and wires. Flies and spiders ran a close second in the food chain.
Though things were rough and unfinished, we all tightened our belts and learned to make it work. You discover very quickly what you can live without. We quickly forgot privacy and modesty. A "males only" environment brings out the Cro-Magnon in everyone. Everyone got leaner, and became more comfortable with swinging hammers, hauling wood, pounding nails and cutting PVC pipe. In time we received gym equipment, but few felt the need to use it.
We learned when the hot water heater would die and when the pipes would freeze. Some just stopped showering. Having at one time flinched at every pop, bang or boom, we now hardly blinked an eye at explosions or smoke. Once treated with reverence and fearful respect, our weapons now hung casually from our shoulders as the creases in our once neatly-pressed uniforms faded in our laundry-less universe.
In time, the routines we developed became transparent to any but newcomers. Visiting soldiers would ask, "Why is the internet down?" and be baffled by the response, "Duh, it's 1345, give it 20 minutes." They'd scratch their heads as they watched me shut off the lights and unplug the freezer in order to microwave a paper-cup of oatmeal.
Hanging over it all was an aura of displacement. No major roads, no crowded sidewalks, no sounds or lights could be seen or heard. Here was true darkness at night, like summer camp in the woods. Standing on the wall, looking out past the wire, one could see the cook-fire smoke from distant qalats. Occasional herds of goats mingled with stray dogs baying and trotting about, sniffing at piles of offal and ash. Beyond were great, brown stretches of war-torn waste and distant, unfamiliar mountains. It felt like living on another planet.
We were all very vocal with our complaints. Our oft-repeated outcries for better food and more equipment became an almost cathartic theme for daily reflection and meal-time conversations. But even as we hated it, we subconsciously conditioned ourselves to live, and eventually find contentment in, our strange little home. We would have been the last to guess that the very improvements we claimed to desperately desire would be seen as unwelcome waves of painful change when they finally arrived.
As uncomfortable as we were at first, we had learned to adapt, and had hit our stride amidst difficult conditions. Different and difficult are relative terms, and our perceptions of each had changed over the months. The next adaptation would actually be a movement towards what we had originally wanted.
It all started with a security force assigned to our FOB. This was terrific. Up until their arrival, information managers, network administrators and radio operators were standing nightly, rotating security watches. Though we had all been trained to do so, it was nice to have a force specifically dedicated to base security. They settled right in. Around the FOB, we noticed a few more people in the chow hall, a few more people using the shower, a few more in the gym. No big deal, right? Wrong.
Another infantry team and a group of IT experts were assigned here. Word from our highers suggested that larger numbers were being pushed downrange and preparations need to be made. Construction ramped up to erect more living quarters and a larger chow hall for our growing FOB. I began to notice that the gym was full by 0630, and I needed to be in by 0530 if I didn't want to wait on equipment. The chow hours expanded, and certain items were now being rationed. A new team of interpreters, Romanian soldiers, replacement US soldiers to overlap and train with current soldiers -- they just kept coming.
For me personally, the real moment of realization occurred when an interpreter walked up and "borrowed" my shower shoes while I was shaving. When I asked him what he thought he was doing, he told me that since he'd arrived, there had never been a shortage of shower shoes, towels and sundries strewn around the bathroom. He didn't think anyone would notice. That makes sense in an Afghan sort of way. My brothers and sisters in arms can attest to that. The real issue was that we were drowning in sweating, hungry, loud, uncomfortable people.
Evidently, it was no better in the northern part of the country. Word of the some 3200 soldiers from the 10th Mountain Division being extended (along with the Fort Drum Wives' riot -- let's give it up for the wives, they're awesome!) and being redeployed around Afghanistan along with the 82nd Airborne had reached us, along with an order not to send any overnight supply or R&R convoys to Kabul or Bagram. I heard the tents were busting at the seams and the chow halls couldn't feed people fast enough.
You can imagine the new breed of bitching that began. In e-mails from co-workers, peers at other FOBs, instructions from commanders at meetings, arguments in the showers and everywhere else you could hear it. Space was tight and the pressure was on. Memories of our lonely, rustic, emaciated little war camp seemed sweeter by the day. What we wouldn't trade to be alone in the dark as we had been before.
This too shall pass. New FOBs will shoot up and hopefully my replacements will be here soon. They'll never know that this place was once a scattered camp of rickety, plywood huts and tents. They'll miss out on the quiet, moonlit security watches and the howling of the dogs, long since run off by the booming "progress" in the area. They'll probably have a brand name coffee shop soon and never even fathom what it was like making filters out of paper towels.