NORMAL DAYS: THE RITUAL OF MOVEMENT |
July 23, 2012
The life of an advisor can hardly be called “normal.” However, as anyone in Afghanistan can attest, there is a sameness that settles in, a point at which there is a sense of “Groundhog Day.” It’s the repetition of the actions, the same trip made over and over again, that cause this impression. So, what’s a daily mission with the SFAT like?
I’ll spare you the personal rituals of the morning. Wake-up, showers and the like. Everyone does that, and having to walk a hundred meters for a shower is not that serious that it requires examination.
Today I’m going to try to put you in the Multi-Cam uniform, in the turret behind the machine gun as you roll through the outskirts of Mazar-e Sharif on your way to work as an advisor for the Afghan Border Police. In a later post I will try to put you in the uniform again as you go through advising Afghans for a day. I don’t usually write in this style, but I’m hoping to share the experience. Please forgive me if I don’t bring you fully into it.
Suiting up; most people don’t do this. Many here at Marmal do not do it, either. For us, it happens numerous times a week. The uniform is self-explanatory; pants, boots, t-shirt, blouse (yes, it is called a blouse). Then comes the body armor, weapons -- M-4 carbine and M-9 pistol -- gathering up the helmet, gloves and “go bag.” Your body armor carries the ammunition, and there is a magazine in each of the weapons,
Today, you are on the trip ticket, or “flapsheet” as RC North calls it, to gun an M-240 in the turret of an MATV (an all-terrain MRAP, or Mine Resistant Ambush Protective vehicle). This means that you will have to mount the machine gun, check the ammunition, put a can in the rack attached to the swivel mount the gun will rest in, test the electric drive on the turret, and make sure that all your equipment is secure in the turret as well.
It’s early; many people at home don’t even get up this early to face their commute. But it’s already bright outside, beginning to get warmer after a low in the mid 80s last night. The sky is blue and clear save for the light haze of dust. You are grateful for the breeze and hopeful that it remains breezy through the day.
Feet crunching on gravel, you lug your gear to the vehicle, open the back door -- a “suicide door” type door -- and place your weapon and pack on the rear seat. Then you crunch to the SECFOR (Security Force; they drive the vehicles and usually man the guns) tent and grab the machine gun. Returning to the vehicle, you climb inside the back, the floor of which is at chest level when you are standing on the ground, and make your way up into the turret in the center of the vehicle.
Standing on the platform above and between the seats to the rear of the radios, you place the gun in the mount, secure it with the pins and lever the ammo can into place next to it; one hundred rounds of linked 7.62mm ready to be loaded. You place your carbine and helmet in the turret and then squat to secure your pack to the back wall between the back seats with a bungee cord so that it doesn’t become a free-ranging object if the vehicle gets knocked over. That complete, it’s time for the convoy brief.
Everyone who is going out today is gathered around in a clear area of the lot in the tent area you live in. Soldiers are finishing breakfast brought to them in styrofoam containers by one of their buddies. Others drink coffee from mugs. Some drink meal-replacement shakes. Some drink energy drinks in place of coffee. Some are smoking. A few minutes later, the SECFOR Platoon Sergeant, the patrol leader today, lifts his clipboard and calls off the march order by vehicle number and the names of the crew and occupants. Each individual answers, as do you when your name is called. You’re the gunner in the lead truck.
The patrol leader goes over the mission, the routes that will be taken, any new information about things the enemy may be doing out there or significant events since yesterday, special instructions, location of the medic and satellite phone that is used in case of all other systems failing. He sums it up with, “TCs inspect your people for proper equipment and uniform. Be ready to stage in order in ten minutes.”
You make one more quick stop in the green plastic box to make sure that your bladder is empty before the trip. There is a fine balance between staying hydrated and needing to relieve yourself at an inconvenient or dangerous moment. Making your way back to the vehicle, you put on and snap together the harness that all gunners wear, which keeps them from being ejected from the vehicle in the event of an explosion underneath or a rollover. You climb up through the back, up into the center of the vehicle, lock your harness into the retractor on the floor and begin the ritual of getting set. One iPod earphone in an ear, helmet on, headset on over that. Gloves. Eye protection. Turn on the iPod, keeping it low enough to hear everything over the intercom or radio. You plug into the intercom and ask if the rest of the crew has “got you.”
“Gotcha,” comes the reply. You’re set.
The vehicles roll to the gate and in a minute the patrol leader calls for a REDCON (Readyness Condition) in march-order sequence. Each vehicle, or “vic,” calls out “Vic 1 (2, 3, etc in sequence) is REDCON 1 (ready to go).”
“Okay, 1, let’s push,” comes the call.
The music cheers you as you keep an eye out for the traffic that moves on Marmal 24 hours a day. Trucks, “Gators,” conex-moving pickers, semi-trucks, armored vehicles, bikes and pedestrians; you are the only one who can see much of what is going on around you. You clear each intersection and tell the driver what is going on outside of his field of view. Finally you pass through the gate to “outside the wire.” At a certain point the gun is loaded and each vehicle in sequence calls out that they are loaded and combat locked (the doors cannot be opened from the outside). The convoy passes civilian trucks bringing construction materials to the base, local nationals on their way to work for the day, and other vehicles, and snakes its way to the Afghan Border Police Headquarters where the real work of the day will be done.
The move takes you over a combination of dirt and paved roads. The dirt roads require that you keep yourself from slamming into the hard metal of the turret, machine gun and turret ring as the vehicle pitches and rolls. Each vehicle churns up dust and the light breeze is blowing across the road; it keeps most of the dust from any oncoming traffic from blowing in your face today. On other days, you’re not so lucky. Today it’s good.
Trucks and motorcycles come towards you, picking their way carefully through the potholes and bumps of the dirt road. Flocks of sheep and goats, tended by men or children, graze a couple of hundred meters away. You watch the sides of the road, the half-built houses and compounds springing up all around, the shepherds, the other vehicles and pedestrians near and far for any sign of unusual behavior or intent. Finally, you reach the paved road and begin to head into a more built-up area.
You get your M-4 out and position it next to the machine gun. In town, you can’t be spraying fire willy-nilly; you must be precise if you have to respond. Pedestrians become more common; people going about their lives. If one makes eye contact, you nod or wave, then judge the response as either friendly, hostile or neutral. You watch rooftops, alleyways, windows and side streets for any indication that something has gone wrong. Almost anything can happen on any given day in Afghanistan. It usually doesn’t in this area, but it can. So you watch. You don’t point your weapon at people, but you know that if you see someone kneeling with an RPG pointed at you, you can raise the weapon and be ready to fire in less than two seconds.
Radio traffic is minimal; only turns are being announced, by the lead and trail trucks, to ensure that everyone knows where the others are. Inside the truck, the driver and TC are chatting about something funny that one of the other soldiers did yesterday, a movie one of them watched, how many Afghans are sitting on the roof of a moving vehicle -- and the car approaching the intersection that the driver cannot see. It’s a mixture of business and informal chatter.
Today, most people seem friendly. Children wave or give a thumbs-up. Men respond with a casual wave or a nod of the head. Some only continue to look. It’s a normal day.
You have other passengers to pick up at another base just a few miles from the headquarters, and you are making your way to pick them up. You pass shops open for business with people taking advantage of the fact that it is not yet 100 degrees out while they shop. Children are on their way to school. Men are on their way to work. Traffic moves in a slow-motion chaos that verges on incredible, and yet civility reigns as cars, trucks, motorcycles, buses, taxis, three-wheeled Zarang carts and motorcycles weave through the streets and pedestrians like strands in a rug. Horns let others know that you are passing. Your convoy takes up a lot of space and is given deference at the many traffic circles.
Arriving at the other base, the convoy makes its way inside and picks up other personnel with business to conduct at the headquarters. They have coordinated with the team for movement and are conducting business that will help the ABP and the team to reach their goals. For a few moments, you can relax. Here there is no threat to speak of. A few minutes later, each seat in each vehicle is filled. You glance down at the backseaters to the left and right of your feet. They are all buckled in. The ritual of REDCON is performed and you make your way back outside the wire again, repeating part of your journey as you continue on your way to work.
Back past all the shops, through the traffic circles, past more children on their way to school, more men on their way to work or at work driving trucks full of materials or goods; you head to the headquarters and the work of the day with your Afghan counterparts.
Finally you arrive at work. Entering the compound, the trucks park in a line and advisors and SECFOR alike begin to dismount; one always listening to the radio and staying alert. Body armor off, helmet and carbine in the truck, you grab a bottle of water to replace the sweat that now fills your blouse and body armor. Handheld radios are distributed so that you can stay in touch as you move about the large compound. A quick huddle; the time to report back to the trucks is given out.
When the work is done, the caravan of the morning will be repeated in reverse. But it will be hotter; well over 100 degrees. It’s just what you have to do.
You match up with your interpreter and head towards your counterpart’s office. This is the real work, what you’ve gone through all the trouble to get here for.