Specialist Christopher Robinson is a member of the Iowa Army National Guard currently serving in Afghanistan. Throughout the course of his deployment, he is sending reflections on his experience as a soldier in a controversial military engagement. This is part five of his series of dispatches on the war.
I could hardly breathe. My rucksack was on my lap and pressing hard against my chest. We were jammed in the back of the Air Force C17, sitting in chairs bolted to pallets that slid back and forth with the motion of the jet. Sleeping to pass the time was impossible, but the plane leaned down and we began our steep descent into Bagram Airfield (BAF).
The back of the plane opened up and we stepped out. I knew that this moment was important and willed myself to remember everything I saw and felt, recording first impressions for posterity, but what I really felt was nothing. It was just another airfield, another C17 cargo plane, and another deployment.
We retrieved our bags and loaded the buses that would take us to our living area, which turned out to be a large gravel-paved lot. Fences topped with barbed wire surrounded six white circus tents and lines of giant trucks. These M-ATVs were the newest vehicles to hit the force, and dwarfed the Humvees we had all trained on. The circus tents were where we would sleep, and looked ready to collapse at any moment. Inconveniently spaced between these precarious structures and the huge trucks were portable latrines. My first impression of Afghanistan was pretty depressing.
Inside the tents, a thick layer of dust covered everything, even though the tents had supposedly been occupied until just before our arrival. We would have to sweep, wipe, or grind it off before we could inhabit our bunks. We went to work to bring them up to a livable standard. Dust raised by our brooms and rags quickly filled the air and joined the noise of speakers blasting everything from Cake to Taylor Swift to Jay-Z. After the dust was mostly removed from the tents we did what we could to personalize them. We hung up blankets between our bunks to offer some privacy, and put out trinkets to remind us of a life away from here. There wasn’t much room to work with, but I was able to find enough places on my locker to put my pictures of Jessi, the framed “Go Fuck Yourself” embroidery that she’d sent to me, and my little rubber ducky.
By sunset we had satisfactorily occupied the tents and were free to ponder our first night in Afghanistan. Most of us congregated outside, chatting, smoking, and trying to imagine what the next nine months would be like – where we’d go, how much fire we’d draw, which of our fearless leaders would cause trouble. We had the setting; now we needed the plot.
As night came in, we got our first look at the mountains surrounding BAF. During the day, they were hidden by dust and smog, but dusk lit them up orange and pink, which made them dominant and impressive. I sat on a wall of sandbags, stared out at the mountains, and hoped that I would never get accustomed to their beauty.
Our first couple of days in “the Stan” were terribly boring. Transition happened all around us, but we were left to wait. We weren’t sure what we were waiting for, only that it had to be something. Occasionally one of us filled a seat with the unit we were replacing, returning from the mission to a clamor of “What’s it like?” and “What’d you see?” or “We gonna be busy?” and “Any contact?” As we each got our chance to go out and play in the mountains, we learned that the unit we replaced was too relaxed, unprepared for the mission, even after all the time they’d spent here. The information they gave us was sketchy and unorganized, and revealed little about what lay ahead. We learned that they had been shot at “a lot,” and that they hated to drive, especially on the steep and narrow switchbacks up the mountains and treacherous wadis in top-heavy monster trucks. Even with only the limited information we could get from the previous unit, we knew that we had plenty of work ahead of us. We just had to figure out what sort of work it was going to be.
After eight days in Afghanistan I finally got the chance to go out, driving for another crew. This was my first chance to get acquainted with the vehicle I’d have to drive for the rest of the deployment. I’d have to learn on the fly because before I knew it, we were headed right for those treacherous switchbacks. Even the two-lane highways looked like goat paths under the wheels of this 16-ton behemoth.
“Attention passengers,” came the outgoing lieutenant over the radios, “make sure your seatbacks and tray tables are in the upright and locked positions. Make sure your doors are battle-locked, your dukes are on and jamming, and go ahead and charge your weapons. We’re expecting a gentle trip with winds from the northwest. Your in-flight movie today will be ‘Fearless.’ Enjoy.” I was trying to focus on the mission, but it was hard not to chuckle a little bit, too. The lieutenant told me that it had been a ritual from the day they arrived: with each mission came a new movie title.
“I’m glad you guys are here,” the lieutenant said. “I was running out of ideas.” He was nervous. Maybe it was because of the driving conditions, maybe because of the “rookie” driver, or maybe because the last few missions you go on are the most nerve-wracking (something I knew from Iraq).
The reality of the place set in as we drove through a market constructed out of trash from BAF. Old shipping containers lined the road and garbage was everywhere. I felt helpless as I looked through the four-inch-thick ballistic window of my million-dollar truck.. I’d come to Afghanistan with high hopes of doing as much good as I could in a no-win situation, but after seeing what was around me, I thought for the first time that maybe I wouldn’t do any good at all.
The first days in-sector are the hardest. Everything seems suspicious and threatening, and you can’t trust any gut instinct. I scanned my assigned areas, but didn’t know what I was looking for. I drove without feeling like I was really in control of the vehicle. I tried to take everything in, but couldn’t focus on any single thought I was having. It seems silly to say now, but it wasn’t until that first drive that I asked myself exactly what in the hell we were supposed to accomplish. Before we came, I wasn’t sure how we were going to do good things here, but now I didn’t even know if it would be possible to do anything, to help anybody, at all. What, exactly, were we expecting here?
The air was clean at the small patrol base when we arrived, and it helped me relax and forget the heavy thoughts, the stress of being back in a combat zone, and everything I had seen of Afghanistan so far. Aside from an occasional helicopter flying over, there was nothing but silence up here. It was the first calm I had felt since leaving home.
I imagined how we would someday defend this base, where the bad guys would come from, what weapons they would have, how they would try to maneuver, and if they would have any idea what they were doing. I suppose I also wondered if we would have any idea what we were doing. The serenity of the valley and the surrounding mountains made those thoughts seem out of place, though, and better saved for another time. We sat in the weathered firing points and waited in near silence for hours, until the lieutenants and sergeants came back from their walking tour of the area. We loaded up and returned to BAF.
It was a good feeling to get out and start doing missions, although all the thoughts, feelings, and conflicts would be amplified in the coming weeks. I called Jessi and told her about everything, and then took my spot on the sandbags. Now I looked at the mountains with a feeling of respect and ownership. I took out a knife and carved the date into one of the sandbags, along with my name and a single tally. The first mission was in the books.