TOWER GUARD |
January 03, 2013
Name: The Afghan Battle Fox
Returned from: Afghanistan
Hometown: Clyde, Ohio
On an early morning in late February 2012, I had to pull a security shift known as tower guard. Every Soldier stationed on post, save a select few, had to provide security at either the entry control point (ECP), one of the towers that surrounded the post, or at the gym or dining facility (Guardian Angel Duty) on a rotating schedule as part of base defense operations. Donned in full body armor, helmet, gloves, and eye protection, Soldiers would rally at the BDOC office prior to their shift to get a briefing on the potential threats on the BOLO (Be On the Look Out) list and other pertinent information to their upcoming duties.
I woke up only 20 minutes before my shift and ran through my abbreviated morning regime. Unlike office or mission mornings, there was no need for making my hair look professional or putting on much of a fresh face, I was going to be sitting in a tower in my gear by myself for six hours. I dressed myself in several layers before even putting on any of my gear. Only in the mid-20s that morning, the cold Afghan air wasn’t going to warm up much without the help of the sun and I still had a couple of hours of darkness ahead of me.
I finished dressing, put on my heavy body armor and protective gear, grabbed my assault pack, and headed out the back flap of my tent. The little jaunt across post wasn’t very long but it was enough time to let my body embrace the outside temperature and begin to settle in to the daunting thought that I was just going to be cold until this shift was over.
Once reaching the BDOC office, I stood in a semi-circle with several other heavily padded Soldiers to receive our briefing. The briefings usually didn’t last more than just a few minutes and the information didn’t change much at that time. It was too early for fighting season in Afghanistan so there wasn’t much activity to be expected. Still, like being spoon fed bad tasting medicine, we were dosed with the day’s intel and ingested it into our constant state of awareness.
The group disbursed in different directions as each Soldier left to go to his or her respective positions around post. A few Soldiers, like myself, made a short pit stop at the DFAC to grab coffee, breakfast, or snack foods. I grabbed a tall Styrofoam cup and filled it nearly full with coffee then secured my morning treasure with a lid. It wasn’t the flavor of the coffee I was excited about by any means -- this DFAC’s coffee was horrible tasting -- it was the warmth I was seeking.
I carried my coffee, with my assault pack strapped to my back, through the dark, slumbering post. The rocks crunched loudly under my boots as I made my way to the tower, passing under one light as it faded into the next. Other than the humming of generators, there was no sound.
I reached Tower 2 and began my ascent up the metal steps, each step echoing in the silence. My footsteps did not go undetected. Two Soldiers finishing their night shift swung the tower’s large metal door open and greeted me when I reached the top of the three tiers of stairs. Eager to be properly relieved of their duties so they could go to bed, we quickly chitchatted through the events that happened to them through the night: radio checks and trying to stay warm. Other than that, all had been quiet.
The Soldiers gathered their belongings and weapons and disappeared down the steps as I closed the bulky door behind them. Like four methodical hoof beats of a horse trotting off into the distance, the two men’s footsteps became quieter and quieter as they exited the tower area. Again, all became silent.
I set my assault pack on the high wooden counter to my left and surveyed my area of operation. Three sides of the tower had sliding windows. Half of each window was covered in a rusty iron cage of sorts. The battered wooden counter in front of me traced the walls under these three windows. A high 2×4 and plywood stool sat in the middle of the cubicle tower. There was very little room to move and everything was within arm’s reach by just turning my upper torso. On the counter were various pieces of Army equipment: night vision goggles, batteries, and a radio. In the middle of the u-shaped counter was a very powerful U.S. weapon loaded with ammunition and at the ready.
I began to look past my silhouetted surroundings inside the tower to focus on the darkness outside. The tower I guarded that morning was in the southwest corner of the American-side of post. To my south, and just over the fence below me, was a camp of Afghan National Army. They slept in the same Alaskan-style tents that the American Solders did and the first row of tents looked like a mirror of the first row of American tents on my side of the wall. Anything past the first row of tents was too dark to see but, occasionally, there was a small dotting of light from a building or two in the distance. To my west, there was nothing visible close by -- simply nothing. In the distance and slightly to the southwest, a kilometer or so out, was a construction site that had some lighting; however, beyond the wall beneath me was an eerie and complete blackness. The remainder of my view from the tower, to my north and east, was the still-slumbering German and American sides of my post.
The stool in the center of the tower was slightly higher than my waist so I had to give myself an extra little push to get up on top of it to sit. I took the radio in my hand and proceeded to radio back and forth with BDOC letting them know I was checking the radio as I was instructed. Like a child with a new toy, I fidgeted around with the night vision equipment first. I raised and lowered it to my eyes several times and in various directions to see my surroundings in a different light, so to speak. After realizing that not much was really happening, I put the device down and fidgeted with papers that were left on the counter from a previous shift.
Everything remained quiet for another hour or so with the exception of radio checks and my occasional mumbling. I just sat there sipping my nasty-tasting coffee and mentally thought out what the rest of my day might entail. Once in a while I would think of a question and speak the answer out loud, as if there was someone there to agree with my answers. The sun began to turn the dark sky a hazy shade of grey-orange behind the mountains. I figured that was my cue to retrieve my camera from my assault pack.
There still wasn’t any activity happening anywhere in the area yet so I thought I would shoot the sunrise coming up over the mountain. I unbolted the large door and let it swing open then leaned myself in the doorway for stability. Capturing a sunrise or sunset can be a heart-warming and uplifting thrill some days. They are usually over within a few minutes so the enthusiasm peaks but then slightly diminishes leaving behind a fuzzy feeling and, hopefully, great photos. On other days, if the sky is one large sheet of cloud or there are no clouds at all, there isn’t much change in the sky other than the color turns from the hazy grey-orange to a brighter shade of hazy grey-orange so there’s little excitement to get all gushy about.
I stood in that doorway for nearly twenty minutes snapping a photo from time to time and feeling slightly disappointed that all I was seeing was the Earth getting brighter with no spectacular Hallelujah-filled, angel-singing array of colors. I would occasionally turn to look out the other windows to make sure I was still covering my guard duties but, once I realized I wasn’t going to get my majestic “photo of the day," I returned my camera to my bag and my butt back to the stool.
Another radio check, another hour done. By now, Soldiers were starting to roam around. Most stepped outside their tents, realized how cold it was, turned around and went back in their tents. Others came out fully dressed and on the move to wherever they needed to be. My coffee was gone and my fingers and toes were feeling the cold, I decided to stand up for a bit in an attempt that movement might warm me up. I bent back slightly to counteract the forward arching that I had been slumping myself into while sitting on that stool. I readjusted my body armor and fidgeted with the papers some more.
The post’s silence was ending as the voices of Soldiers, vehicle engines, and machinery started to filter in over the constant hum of the generators I had been hearing since I had woke up a few hours earlier. It was then that I heard a very different sound that didn’t seem to be natural on a military post -- cowbells.
I turned my attention to the western area below me that was not long ago an abyss of darkness. The sunlight now revealed the area’s secret. At the bottom of the tower on the outside of the tall concrete wall with a concertina wire fringe was a large grassy area with dozens of shallow rounded dirt mounds. Some of the sandy shell-shaped hills had holes in them while others were fully intact. Remembering back to my Afghanistan culture classes from pre-mobilization training, I realized these were graves. I was over watching a graveyard. There were no headstones or grave markers like in our American cemeteries, nor were there any wreaths or flowers honoring the dead.
Moseying over and around the rows of uneven graves were fifteen or twenty sheep and a dozen or so cows. The sheeps' wool was extremely matted, ragged, and dirty and the cows didn’t look much better. In shades of black, brown, and dingy white, these mangy-looking creatures walked wherever they pleased looking for some patch of grass to chew on. About a half of dozen of the cows had bells tied around their necks which signaled to me that they belonged to someone.
Saundering slowly behind the gathering of sheep and cows were four young Afghan boys. Two had thin wooden sticks that were taller than they were, and they used the sticks to knock against the stray sheep that weren’t going where they wanted them. As the boys walked toward my tower, I noticed each was wearing the traditional Afghan clothing that I had only seen in pictures before. They wore loose-legged pants and a long shirt. One in royal purple, one in aqua, one in navy blue, and one in tan. Each of the boys also wore a winter coat and all but the smallest boy had a hat on. The boys didn’t seem to be bothered by the cold as they wandered around with their coats unzipped and no gloves on their hands.
The sheep and cows continued to graze as the boys wandered around the burial site with no sense of purpose and with no regard for the ground they were walking on. They walked up and over some of the graves and, eventually, plopped themselves down on one near the wall below me. I had not seen any Afghan children yet since I arrived in country and, in actuality, I hadn’t seen any children in nearly six weeks since I left home, so I was captivated. I gazed at them while they threw small pebbles at the ground and drew lines in the sand with the sticks they were carrying. I watched them carry on an inaudible conversation and laugh silently to each other.
Seeing them laugh made me snicker which, in turn, took me out of my trance. Like a knee-jerk reaction, I grabbed my bag and reached for my camera. I didn’t have a very good angle from where I was in the tower because the wide counter was in my way and I was not about to dangle my camera or myself out a window. Instead, I pushed open the door of the tower and walked out on the platform at the top of the steps. The squeaking noise from the door drew the children’s attention up to me.
As soon as the boys looked up at me, I raised my camera to see through the viewer. Without any hesitation, one of the boys curled up his knees and pulled his brown tweed coat up over his shoulders tucked his head in like a turtle. The other three boys looked curiously at each other instead of me and then stood up quickly. I managed to shoot a couple of pictures before they got out of their little grouping. The photo at the top of this post shows the moment right after the boy spotted me and tucked his head away to avoid getting his picture taken.
The three boys walked closer to the base of my tower and, as I noticed this through my camera, I stopped taking pictures. One of the boys yelled something back to the turtle, which prompted the young man to peek his head up and get up to join the rest of his group. It was hard to tell how tall they were but one of the boys was much younger and smaller than the rest. He lagged a bit behind the others until he caught up with them just a few feet away from the wall.
“Ma’am! Ma’am!” one of the boys cried up to me as I looked back down at his little tan face and dark eyes.
“Water! Water!” he continued as he fashioned his small bare hand to the shape of a cup and tapped his lower lip like he was drinking.
My heart sank as I stood there motionless. I didn’t know what to do. My first encounter with someone from this foreign country and it’s a child begging me for water? My mind raced as I battled with what to do. I had been instructed not to throw anything over the fence and not to give anything to the children. It sounds cruel but there really are reasons I have been told and that’s another topic in itself to explain at another time. Anyways, I simply could not throw bottles of water down to them over the fence and I couldn’t tell them that. It was at this moment that I kicked myself for not taking the Dari language courses more seriously during pre-mobilization training. Albeit, it was a very brief online course that maybe could have given me only fifty words and ten phrases or so, but it would have been something.
I felt so bad as they stood there looking up at me. The little guy continued to call out “Ma’am!” and “Water!” and there was nothing I could do. The boy in the tweed jacket, who had just minutes before hid his face from my camera, half-heartedly smacked the boy on the arm while saying something to him. The pursuer dropped his little hand and was quiet. All four boys looked at each other, turned around and walked back past where they had been sitting and continued until they disappeared around another corner of the post. The animals trailed behind them, vanishing one by one behind the wall. Their bells now faintly being heard as they moved way. Deflated, I stepped back inside the tower and bolted the door shut.
I don’t recall the rest of that tower guard shift now. I know I went through the motions of watching my surroundings and calling up radio checks as required but the exact details of those last couple of hours are moot. The feelings of helplessness and guilt had made me more numb than the cold had. I had exactly what these young boys were asking for yet I could not give it to them. I had four bottles of water right there at my feet! I felt so selfish. Moreover, I was frustrated and felt ashamed that I could not even communicate with them. I was in their country, for Chrissake!
Later that night when I was back in my area, I managed to grab enough bandwidth to download a Dari application on my iPod. In time and with the help of that app, a good friend of mine who knew some of the language because of his previous deployments, and a few interpreters, I learned enough Dari to carry on a small conversation. Learning one word at a time and not always pronouncing the words correctly, I spoke to the Afghans in their language as often and as much as I could.
As for the water issue, the feelings of guilt never went away. I did, however, figure out that if you toss a water bottle from inside a tower out an open window instead of from the back steps overlooking the post, you are less likely to be seen.