Specialist Christopher Robinson is a member of the Iowa Army National Guard who will be deployed to Afghanistan during 2010 and 2011. This is part two of his series of dispatches on the war.
Three years ago, I went through Camp Shelby for the first time, during the mobilization for Iraq. Little has changed here since then, except now the mock villages carry the names Kabul and Kandahar, instead of Najaf and Mosul. The same dilapidated buildings and roads still crisscross the base, and it is still miserably hot. Mississippi is no place to be in August. I spend a lot of my time hoping that Fort Irwin will be better. Maybe the training will be realistic and applicable. Maybe I’ll be able to find a decent cup of coffee.
Our first phase of training is finally complete. Next week, we will load up and fly to California for what we are told will be “the most intense training of our lives.” I am skeptical. The training here in Mississippi was subpar, to say the least. Missions were poorly planned and tended to contain unrealistic scenarios. While our troop was able to garner some value from what we were taught, it was more in spite of the training rather than because of it. Throughout the entirety of our time here the emphasis lay squarely in checking off boxes on a clipboard rather than preparing us for our mission in Afghanistan, navigating bureaucratic red tape rather than preparing us for the realities of a warzone.
We joke that they send us here to frustrate us and make us want to go to Afghanistan.
My platoon looks different today. It isn’t the same one that was training together just two months ago. Half of the familiar faces have been sent to other platoons, and new faces from other units have been sent to replace them. Now the scouts are nearly outnumbered by snipers, artillery “gun bunnies,” and forward observers (FOs). Even with these plus-ups, there are fewer than twenty of us.
Marshal piles all of his gear and laundry on the floor, while his empty duffles are stacked neatly inside his otherwise empty wall locker. Sgt. Irish has his aftermarket gear, the entirety of the Ranger Joe’s catalog, hanging from every available hook. The snipers sing constantly. Last time I heard them, they were alternating between Jack Johnson and Lady Gaga. The barracks of the entire troop is full of beds covered in Transformers sheets, Little Mermaid blankets, and Hannah Montana pillow covers. Around here, we all have to cope in our own ways. It helps to break up the coyote-brown and olive-drab scenery we know all too well.
For now, I am content playing Superman. Of course the irony is that when everybody is playing Superman, the heroes become ordinary, and to everybody else I’m the quiet liberal who spends all his free time reading and writing.
A stress of this life is that we must, all of us, at every moment, appear infallible and strong. We always judge each other harshly, but we are much worse on one another now. We know the area we’re going to in Afghanistan has been active in the past, and no one wants to be giving when it comes to trust. Not when our lives are on the line. It has been one of my biggest fears coming here – that for some reason I would fail to pass muster with my unit. We all cope with this new reality in our own way. Still, even with all of our quirks, the process is coming along well. Although it would be easier if I could find some decent coffee, or my normal brand of smokes, the singing snipers make me smile.
The days here have been long, but the weeks have been short. Most of the initial fears of the deployed have faded, and we’ve settled into this new pace of life. We want more sleep, better food, and to be back at home. But mostly, we want to leave Mississippi. Within the week we will be in “the most intense training of our lives,” it won’t be Mississippi during August, and I will still be looking for a decent cup of coffee.