Specialist Christopher Robinson is a member of the Iowa Army National Guard. Due to the unpredictability and delay of mail, Robinson pre-filed this piece for the current issue. He has arrived safely in Afghanistan and will write his next column from there. This is part four of his series of dispatches on the war.
Two months into our deployment and I realized that at some point during that time the barracks at Camp Shelby, Mississippi, had become a home. It wasn’t when the bus pulled into the base that I realized this, or when we walked into the barracks and saw the beds just as we’d left them, with their superhero and cartoon-character linens. No, it was when I drank my first cup of terrible coffee that I fully realized where I was and how good it felt to be back. Of course, that feeling vanished rapidly over the next few days.
We had survived the “most intense training of our lives” at the National Training Center in Fort Irwin, California, and returned to Mississippi only to discover that now we were just bored. It was the kind of bored that you get at the beginning of summer break, when the excitement of freedom has dissipated and there’s several weeks before you go to Disney World. You’re just waiting for the excitement. And waiting. And waiting.
I cannot understate the levels of apathy and ennui that we experienced. It was pervasive. It affected everybody. It was a disease that swept through our unit, leaving none untouched. It was the scent of burned coffee wafting from the mess. Zach was bored. Marshal was bored. Sgt. Irish was bored. The singing snipers were bored. The infection rate was a cool one hundred percent. That isn’t to say that we didn’t do anything. Far from it. Our days were filled with activity. But within that activity, we were all stricken with the untreatable malady.
Our mission changed. Our commander changed. Our roster changed. And then our new commander and his new Joes tasted the dirty coffee and became bored too. The only way to scratch our collective itch was for the day to arrive, but always we woke up and the day hadn’t arrived and so we’d pack our bags. Every day we’d pack them, and every day we’d get a new list of what we needed to bring, and so we’d unpack and repack them. We were each issued seven bags: three duffel bags, three rucksacks, and a large lead-out bag. And we packed them, according to painfully detailed instructions. And then we unpacked them, and then we repacked them according to new instructions. And then we went to classes. And we went to lectures. And we spent time at the firing ranges. And every day the list would change and now we were going into the mountains. And now all of the “most intense training of our lives,” training that was designed for a mission in an urban environment, was for nothing and we’d be fighting more and would the Afghanis speak Pashto or Dari? It didn’t matter. Two and a half months into the deployment and we had no idea what Afghanistan would even be like. Maybe it’d be like the open yet cramped tents that we slept in during our time at Fort Irwin. Maybe not. Two and a half months and every time we woke up and the day hadn’t arrived but was one day closer, the pressure would build, and we’d try to find ways to ignore it, by working, by doing something, anything, in order to ignore it but we couldn’t ignore it. It was always there, always with us, a pressure, an anxiety, a desire, and in the pressure and the activity we were bored.
Finally we woke up one morning and the day was here and the coffee tasted the same but it was the day nonetheless, and we secured our weapons and changed into civvies. Finally we woke up and the pressure dropped and the rain started and the entire Bravo troop echoed with the repeating bass thunderclaps of laughter and jokes about strippers and alcohol and beaded topless women in New Orleans and Joes wrote down their contact information on slips of paper, each white lightning glimpsed flashing from one overburdened heavy to another. Formation was called and we lined up and I saw Jessi and I thought about the first meal I would eat in New Orleans and couldn’t decide what it would be, only that I wasn’t going to shave for the entire four days they were giving us. Four days with Jessi in New Orleans. Four days until I come back and four days until the final countdown to Afghanistan. Formation was dismissed and Jessi found me in the crowd of newly light and unburdened Bravo troopers dispersing into the brilliance of a south October sun.