Remembering was one of the toughest things about coming back home from Afghanistan. I tried to forget my first trip to Forward Operating Base (FOB) Salerno, in the Khost Province (mere miles from the Pakistan border), which took me there sometime in the late spring or early summer of 2011, the exact date buried in one of five journals I kept during my deployment with the 130th Military History Detachment, a North Carolina National Guard unit based in Raleigh; yet, every time I open the small green books with loose spines, I find mine becoming as loose. The scribbles in them become less and less clear. Some phrases trigger memories that will never go away.
My flight from Bagram Airfield (BAF) was delayed a few times in my attempt to get there. Being a contract flight, the pilot worried about getting bogged down in the mud and gravel runway made worse by the rainstorms at the time. Because of the under-developed airstrip, Air Force C-130 transports could not land there – they were too heavy, and wasted fuel in high altitudes. Instead, the widely used small white planes represented an upgrade from the civilian help like the Air America types from the Vietnam era.
Soldiers getting from Point A to Point B in the ’Stan settled into bucket seats of the 20-passenger small jets; we sat back, relaxed, and had everything but the snacks. Not all peachy, travel was touch and go. The Air Force guys managing reservations at Bagram took the brunt of fierce complaints, but knowing cancellations came without warning and explanations, most travelers camped out in the USO lounge across from the dilapidated terminal OK with not getting back to the war too soon, especially kids returning from R&R, distracted by fresh memories of getting drunk and getting laid back home. Catching on quickly, my own patience grew.
No one met me at the airstrip at Salerno, mainly because my contact thought I’d given up on coming. My frustration rose about two hours after sitting on the bench outside the terminal, a makeshift building held together by cheap wood and nails, filled with sour, smirking visages, the second lieutenant of rosy kid face showed up apologizing for failing to check the flight manifests despite my repeated email messages I was coming sometime during the week no matter what.
A high fence ran along the airstrip with a few guard towers as the only obstacle keeping enemy forces from entering the base; they didn’t have the numbers to overrun us, but just the same, they could wreak havoc and stir chaos. Stories from the soldiers who lived there, and every base and outpost had them, told about the small arms firefights which kept the bad guys at bay – embellishments adorned their heroic tales.
By evening, I found a bunk in the transient barracks, claimed my mattress by laying my 85-pound ruck on it, but kept my M4 rifle and continued to wear my heavy plated vest – a shrapnel protector, but not a full-proof lifesaver. The large rounds fired by the enemy’s AK-47s found exposed necks and torsos, bouncing off bones and ripping through tissue. The heavy equipment we wore, and the armored vehicles in which we travelled, ironically became steel and Kevlar traps and prisons. Death, always on my mind, I couldn’t help but look around at the people on each bird or transport, from the helicopters to the C-130s to the Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles in convoys on the ground. Would these soldiers, strangers to me, have my back if shit hit the fan?
My host, the young 20-something LT met me outside the transient quarters, saying he had Pashto lessons and couldn’t join me for dinner, then pointed me in the direction of the chow hall. Not more than 10 minutes into my meal with finance soldiers from the California National Guard who I met at Fort Dix, N.J., during pre-mobilization training, the base sirens sounded, along with that infernal recording warning me and all the other soldiers trapped inside about incoming rockets or mortars and to seek shelter, “Incoming, incoming, incoming!”
My heart kept time with the siren that made more a clanging noise, with a start-and-stop rhythm, and a frog in my throat telling me this could be the day. Then came the thuds on the roof of the dining facility, reportedly reinforced by the Russians to withstand bombs, when they took their turn occupying this enigmatic country after the British tried twice, a land populated by a malleable society corrupt to its core; it’s multitude of tribes competing for survival at the same time thumbing its nose at our ego-centric lifestyles. I’d say they proved their system works in 2,000 years. Why try to change it?
My sources at all levels said the government waits for whoever brings the bigger checkbook, and that’s how temporary allegiances formed. I felt ashamed for a field grade officer who told an Afghan government official he was “at his service,” promising the Afghan politician payola to do America’s bidding, finding a way to get our equipment safely out of country when it came time, even if it meant traipsing halfway across Russia, opposite a viable seaport in Karachi, Pakistan. Lukewarm diplomatic relations set us apart with Afghanistan’s neighbor to the east. A few months away from capturing Bin Laden, we were about to discover another wedge.
Dust cascaded across my food, and I gave up on trying not to be rattled. My neighbors with the widest of eyes, looking for any reassurances of safety, lost their appetites as well. After a few more thuds, the sirens fell silent. I heard a few nervous laughs, and someone saying, that must be the “all clear.” Eager to leave, I wrapped the sling of my weapon around my shoulder and charged out of the door, being stopped by a voice telling me to stay put until the official all-clear announcement came over the speakers. I ignored the soldier, deciding to take the shortest route to the transient barracks.
Halfway there, standing in the open about 200 yards from any building, the clanging warning started again. More than a half-dozen mortars landed nearby, the closest starting a fire in front of a medical tent. The LT later told me a captain bought it, his body obliterated by a direct hit. I made it to a bunker barely noticing it on my way to the chow hall. So much of the base was camouflaged, professionally done up by people experienced at hiding, a mound of dirt that I thought was just a mound of dirt, covered the bunker. Hunkering down behind cement walls didn’t make me feel any better, feeling weak and at a bitter disadvantage. The adrenaline coursing through my body, wasted.
A woman in civilian clothing, a dingy blouse and red jeans, watched me fumble around at the mouth of the bunker, agitated by the sounds, feeling like a sitting duck. She crouched lower with each impact. Within a matter of a few minutes after the sun went down, an inky darkness covered Salerno. Another contractor, there were thousands across Afghanistan, some armed, others not, lit a cigarette, and I could barely make out the woman’s brown eyes watching me, not saying a word. In the small flickering light from his match, I thought I could see her heart beating out of her chest. The other contractor, a man unshaven, with a beefy moustache, wearing a denim shirt, blew his smoke down to the ground hoping others didn’t mind. They did, but nobody would say anything.
Finally, after the bombing stopped, I heard the Kiowa OH-58 helicopter lay down a rain of lead at what I later learned was the Point of Origin or POO, and maybe the pun, as I believed, was intended. With our not-so subtle technology, we could easily determine the enemy’s location. Often, he gave himself away. Hitting them with a buzz saw of rounds struck me as overkill, some of the pilots and operators joked about seeing a bad guy cut in half, or disintegrate under the impact of crackling Hellfire missiles sprayed from an array of assault helicopters, the Apache being chief among them.
The base was named after the city in Italy where during WWII, the main invasion force of the Allies landed in September 1943 and began chipping away at the German’s defenses. Speaking of history, my job left me to wander around the base in search of units doing their jobs, asking them annoying questions, in trying to get them to understand the value of keeping records for posterity sake. While there, being a National Guard troop, I might as well have been invisible to my active duty brethren, even though I served three tours in Big Army before becoming a citizen soldier. Officers did not return my salutes, already deciding my skills as a soldier weren’t good enough.
One of them, a major represented the 187th Infantry Regiment Rakkasans of the 101st Airborne (Assault), a division that oversaw my work as a field historian, marked up a short thoroughfare lined with bland tan stucco buildings. I thought, if that’s what gives them fulfillment. My hat’s off to the career soldier. The word ‘Rakkassan’ cast an emblematic pall on every possible blank space, serving no other purpose than to say Kilroy was here, because it certainly didn’t send a chill up the enemy’s spine, or mine for that matter. Hell, this was the enemy’s backyard. The unit’s need to mark their territory could only be surpassed by the 1st CAV’s introduction of a big white plastic horse in the foyer of the Joint Operations Center on Bagram. The doors literally opened to a horse’s ass.
I saw them all as ominous signs (no pun). The ’Stan did not welcome anybody. My second day in country ended with the same sirens and warnings. The next morning, I woke up with my vest and helmet on, the rest of me clad in skivvies and green Army socks. My rifle poked out from beneath my bed, and my finger glued to the trigger.
Sitting on my bunk at Salerno, I longed for the plywood separations between the eight rooms in a B-Hut in Warrior Village on Bagram, across Disney Avenue from the JOC, not named for the famed Walt, but for a young specialist from Fallon, Nevada, who suffered injuries from heavy equipment falling on him in 2002, not too long after the war in Afghanistan kicked off. Disney served with the 7th Transportation Battalion from Fort Bragg, N.C. Since that fateful day, tradition maintained that the flag-draped casket of every hero who made the ultimate sacrifice for his country be carried on a flatbed truck that followed the route to the air strip, where honors were bestowed at so-called ramp ceremonies and the bodies loaded on air transports bound for home.
I paused at the edge of that road every time a coffin passed by. My respects to that captain who died at Salerno, and to all the other soldiers who kept their promise. That’s the kind of stuff I remember.