An Army Civilian Remembers Afghanistan

I wrote this in 2013 shortly after returning from a six-month deployment to Afghanistan as an Army civilian.

I was still half-asleep when the first rocket hit just before dawn. It sounded far off, but what did I know? It was my first.

It may have been my first, but I had no doubt what it was. Things bang and boom on a military base in Afghanistan all day and night, but there was an unmistakable, percussive finality to it that shook awake some primitive, previously dormant part of my brain.

As a new federal civilian employee and 53 year-old, loyal citizen of Recliner Nation USA, I simply couldn’t get my mind around this disturbing fact: People were shooting powerful explosives in my direction, and they’d rejoice if they managed to kill me.

The next one, maybe twenty seconds later, hit closer. Wide-awake now, I realized that the base warning system had been blaring out an alert to take cover and put on our bullet-proof vests and helmets. I pulled the covers over my head

The third one was nearer still. I was surprised by how powerful the explosions were. Based on my experience shooting July 4th fireworks, I’d assumed that all rockets were mostly propellant. But these things sounded more like big bombs.

The fourth and fifth marched even closer. I remembered that at lunch the day before, a tired veteran of three deployments had told me, “You’re OK, unless you hear one whistle. If you hear that, it’s close.”

And then I heard a whistling sound.

“No freakin’”, I shot under my bed faster than when I was six and saw something ‘move’ in my closet, “way!” The huge explosion shook my quarters so violently that I thought it was going to collapse.

When the all-clear finally sounded, I asked myself yet again, “What the heck am I doing here?” I’d only been a Fed for a few months when I got the recruitment email. I’d been planted in Corpus Christi for 25 years, and out of nowhere I was being asked to volunteer for six months in Afghanistan. But then I thought, if Uncle Sam put up the Bat-Signal and I was the best he could do, then count me in, never thinking for a second I’d actually get picked.

So, why send civilians into a warzone? Years ago, the military decided that soldiers would do the fighting, and civilians would serve in support roles. We cook, clean, and clerk for the troops.

The hours are brutal: 12/7/365. Basically, if you’re awake, you’re at work; if you’re asleep, you’re not. The days pass in a blur of similarity. You go to the same place, do the same thing, and see the same people: Groundhog Day. We don’t check our watches to see what time it is; we check them to see what day of the week it is.

What does Afghanistan look like? Picture the lunar surface, but all the moon dust is blowing around.

The whole country makes me edgy. I don’t trust the air, because you can see it; I don’t trust the mountains, because they frequently disappear in the dusty air; I don’t trust the birds, because they skitter around as guiltily as informants; and, at a time when I never needed a beer more in my life, the place is dry.

But it’s all worth it to serve our troops. For an older guy to be treated with such courtesy and respect by young Americans is unusual. Their goodness breaks your heart.

Make no mistake, they’re lethal. They carry their loaded automatic weapons everywhere they go on base, to the point that I constantly feel underdressed without an M-16. And they’re brave enough to volunteer to go outside the wire and fight a war against an army of kamikazes.

But they’re also just kids. At Thanksgiving dinner, they argued happily about the Cowboys and Redskins while they ate facsimiles of turkey and all the trimmings. But you could see it in their suddenly stony expressions as each in turn was overwhelmed by memories of home. And then to see their buddies jolly them out of their sad reveries….It was beautiful.

This is an impressive group of young people. They’re hardened by more than a decade of war, strengthened by their discipline and sacrifice, and painfully aware of the real price of foreign policy. From what I’ve seen, we could be looking at a truly transformative generation. They deserve a warm welcome and our lasting gratitude and respect when they finally come marching home.


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