Specialist Christopher Robinson is a member of the Iowa Army National Guard deployed to Afghanistan during 2010 and 2011. This is part three of his series of dispatches on the war.
It was our first week in The Box when the orders came in. We were to defend a mountain. We knew nothing about it, except that the last group that tried to defend it had lasted exactly 20 minutes. We didn’t know what it looked like, we didn’t know its name, and we discovered that we didn’t even know which one it was; we drove an hour through the desert to reach it, but it turned out there was more than one, rising impossibly steep from the flat desert. Our troop circled the base of the mountains until we finally found a narrow road on the back side that was just large enough for our vehicles. At the top, we found sandbagged positions, concertina (razor) wire, and thousands of spent shell casings.
Nobody wants to die, even in the Army, but if there’s one thing we want less, it’s dying on a nameless mountain in the middle of nowhere, or one merely numbered, like Hill 223 or Hill 867. So of course we gave the mountains our own names: Big Round Top and Little Round Top. Big Round Top was where we would make our stand (which would hopefully last more than twenty minutes).
The day started out cool but quickly grew blazing hot and there was no escape from the sun. I spent my time hiking from one side of Big Round Top to the other, checking positions, carrying supplies and messages, and trying unsuccessfully to scrounge up anything that could provide some shade. I even found a couple of minutes to stop at my own assigned position and scan the vast desert; I saw only the dust trails from large convoys at the edge of the valley, miles away. It was a struggle to stay focused. I kept thinking of the action-packed commercials that portrayed life in the Army and wishing they would make one that showed us here: listless, sweating, complaining.
We never knew what we were getting into when we were sent to National Training Center (NTC). The meticulously planned scenarios, hundreds of organized buildings, and participation of native Afghans were quite an adjustment following the small mock villages, poor planning, and general disarray of Camp Shelby. The significance of this would be even more apparent when we entered the “full spectrum operations,” where combat conditions were closely replicated and anything was possible.
The Box is the NTC’s main training area. Each mission into it is preceded by a review of the operation order, and then followed by an after-action review. At NTC these were even longer and more tedious than usual. Additionally, all our training was photographed, and much of it video-recorded, so that command could see exactly what we were doing at all times.
Nonetheless, boredom is what we fought the most, even though at NTC all of our free time was occupied with mission prep, weapon cleaning, rehearsals, vehicle maintenance, and all the little things that must be done to maintain the standards of life in the Army. At the end of the day we have only a few minutes to call our own and very little energy to do anything with them. We understand most of these things to be necessary, and what we can expect from the mission in Afghanistan, but it is a far cry from what any of us desire.
Late, the sun was going down and the desert was finally cooling off. Royal blues and purples, pinks and oranges lit up the valley to the east of our mountain. Zach and I sat in our fighting position at the end of another long day, enjoying the view and the cooling weather in silence. We were atop a small ridgeline on Big Round Top, waiting for an attack. Soldiers from the Opposing Force Units (OpFor) at Fort Irwin were going to attack us at some point during the night. By this point in the evening, our gear had started to weigh us down. Body armor weighs approximately 50 pounds, ammunition is 10 pounds; a weapon with a full array of gadgets such as flashlights, optics, bipods, and lasers adds another 10. Here in The Box, we must be in full body armor at all times. Even when we’re just standing around, it doesn’t take long for aches and pains to start, much less when filling sandbags and manning machine gun and missile systems. The discomfort is exacerbated by the rough terrain and hot days. We had already spent 14 hours waiting and there was no telling how much longer that would last.
The attack opened at 0430 with machine gun fire coming from the hills, followed by an infiltration of our lines by 250 OpFor soldiers. We lasted 90 minutes – a defeat, but a respectable one, we were told. Much of our training here so far has been based on no-win situations, and this was no exception. I suppose the idea is that if we train for the extreme, the norm won’t seem as bad. By 0600, we were packing up our gear and weapons and by 0700 we were leaving our mountain, defeated but satisfied.
Soon we will be heading back in from the field, dusty and a little more prepared for life in Afghanistan. We’re happy with how we performed in The Box, although we still have a lot of work to do. We will head back to Mississippi for a couple weeks of classes and our long awaited four-day, off-post pass. That is all I can think about now, seeing Jessi again and trying to forget the Army. It is all I can think about.