It is raining in southern Afghanistan.
This is not your Gene Kelly yellow rain slicker and red umbrella happy-happy dancey-dancey type rain, this is the sort of thing that decreases the marginal utility of water to nearly zero. Granted, for people possessed of flaming houses water is a pretty valuable commodity. But when it generates ankle deep mud, washes everything out in a perpetual blanket of white noise, and generally makes a mess of everything?
It sort of gets to sucking with a quickness.
You can’t operate in this sort of shit, everyone knows that. You can’t fly, you can’t shoot, you can’t drive anywhere. In an emergency we have the battered Land Rovers or the HiLuxes, trying to get around in an up-armored truck is a bit of a bear, but fucking forget about an RG. Junk will be up to the axles in a minute and then you’re going to have to figure out how to pull a fantastically heavy vehicle out of the muck with another fantastically heavy vehicle without getting second said vehicle stuck. We were pulling an RG-34 out of a ditch once and the image of a line of vehicles, each pulling the next one along, strung from Afghanistan clear through Pakistan to the Indian Ocean had me laughing for about ten minutes. Maybe they’d hitch that shit up to an aircraft carrier and yank the whole fucking assembly into the drink.
The only thing you can do is sort of hole up and wait for it to quit. Both sides of the equation understand this, as putting in work like burying an IED or brewing up a batch of homemade explosives requires more temperate weather. So we sit. And we wait. And we listen to the rushing water bearing down on our heads from above for hours that twist slowly into days and finally into weeks.
This doesn’t mean that you have absolutely nothing to do. Our tiny spit of American sand in an Afghan sea was, at one point, a Taliban checkpoint, jail, mosque, torture center, opium processing facility, and arms cache. Sort of one stop shopping for your local asshole. This means our buildings are made of a donkey shit-based adobe that has some great insulating properties, but isn’t so hot when it gets rained on for more than about two days straight. You rapidly learn how to gingerly work your way across the muddy roof to where the leak is, pack a handful of more mud in there, and then trace your steps back without falling through. Then there’s the constant problem of the RF cables slowly disappearing into the stuff, water intrusions into your antenna heads, checking the seals on the boxes connected to the antennas, and periodically cleaning the water out of your transmission elements.
Then there are the leaks you can’t fix. This in turn leads to a constant search for various containers to catch the water, draining them, and rigging up tarps in your room so that you aren’t being flooded out while you’re sleeping. You would think that Lahars were a problem limited to mountains, but they happen in Afghani buildings too. The ceiling can soak up only so much water before it begins to form a sort of threatening bolus, warning you of an impending collapse and deluge of mud, manure, water, and a whole lot of swearing.
I come out of my building and walk toward another, mud worthy of being enshrined in a poem by none other than Sigfried Sassoon sucking at every step. In one hand I’m carrying a fairly substantial Makita sawzall, which makes sense considering I just finished cutting the last two feet of exhaust pipe from a Honda CR-125 in order to hoon it up just a bit. The sawzall was something I found laying around on some shelving I’d been poking around in while smoking a cigarette under one of the few non-leaky awnings on the base. After giving the trigger a quick pull to ensure the battery was charged, I snaked it and a couple of metal cutting blades out of the case. I’d also succeeded in obtaining several other quest related items like the +1 9-Iron of Smiting, several golf balls of questionable origin, a pack of pencil flares, a Halal MRE, two double-A battery MBTIR adapters, and four rolls of green duct tape. All told a pretty respectable haul for a five minute smoke break. So after modifying the motorcycle, I set out through the problematic meteorological conditions to find something else to attack with the sawzall.
Ernest, ever present cigarette dangling limply from one corner of his mouth, is squatting in front of a small ammunition container inside of which he has built a fire. He sees me tromping through the mud, nods slightly, and resumes poking at the inside of the can with a length of bent up coat hanger. “S’up dude.”
“Nothing." I pull the hood of my jacket down and carefully lay the sawzall on the dirt next to the can, hands extended toward the meager heat produced by burning off the wood from an ammunition crate.
“Fucking sawzall?” He inquires. “Where’d you get that shit from?”
“Found it over in the shelves behind the CA vehicle park. Chopped the pipes off Broom Broom with it, fucker sounds silly as shit now.” ‘Broom Broom’ is how we refer to our collection of cobbled together 125cc motorcycles. This moniker had been attached to them after I’d explained to Ernest about Japanese onomatopoeia during a four hour stop to have EOD come dispose of something that would have turned one our vehicles inside out if left alone. “What’re you doing, other than squatting in front of a fire?”
“Thinking to watch a movie. Can’t do shit else right now,” he says after a thoughtful pause. Ernest hails from deepest darkest south Texas. He's Hispanic, dark-skinned, lean, typically quiet, and sort of looks like someone who would be perfectly at home staring out from under the brim of a substantial hat while perched on a horse and assessing the state of some manner of livestock. Ernest was at one point Ernesto, but dropped the last letter since it, as he put it: “gave people the wrong goddamn impression, fucking come up to me speaking Spanish and shit. Me no fucking habla, motherfuckers.”
He’d initially not cared for the squid in their midst, until I out-shot him for a five dollar bet at the long range a week into my tour. We’d set up a row of ten liter water containers filled with sand at 150 meters from the firing line. Him with a heavily modified M14 against me with an open sight M16A3, first to six bottles takes the fiver. I’d shot seven before he even hit two.
A few nights later Lewis, one of the Humanitarian Affairs guys, suggested Ernest let me win just to see if I could actually shoot. That one thing didn’t have anything to do with another.
I’d worked a deal to have someone bring up a carton of American-made Camels a week later, and then chucked them to Ernest when they arrived. He’d asked what they were for, I’d explained it was payback for a bet I’d lost. Nodding, he tucked them under one arm and told me I was an all right guy. We’d been somewhat inseparable since then.
“I have that projector of yours done. You wanna plug that hooker in and then watch something?” For whatever reason, being the only guy on the base with any actual knowledge of how to fix shit has led to my being the guy everyone brings their computer, camera, motorcycle, power tool, and a litany of other things to for them to be set back in working order. The projector just needed a disassembly and cleaning, Afghan dust the consistency of talcum powder does ugly things to unsealed optics.
“Yeah,” he says while stabbing at the dying fire. “I’ll get the DVD.”
“Is it DVD or deh veh deh?” The latter of these two is how Afghani kids will try to hawk movies to us in the local bazaar, and has become how we determine the difference between something Sent From Home or one of the innumerable bootlegs floating around the countryside. Say what you will about the Taliban or al-Qaeda, those fuckers sure do love them some Hollywood movies. Acted like a bunch of silly bitches when ‘Avatar’ came out. Half-expected some AK-47 wielding man jammie wearing douche canoe to come screaming around a corner with a blue face for a wee bit.
“It’s legit. Straight up DVD, yo. Got it in a care package a couple of weeks ago.”
Half an hour later I am sitting on a couch in front of pieces of my M9 pistol, neatly laid out on a tan towel, carefully cleaning non-existent dirt out of the crevices for the sixth time that week. You tend to spend a lot of time cleaning weapons in a war zone, and after a while it becomes not so much a necessity as a sort of weird therapeutic process designed to let your mind freewheel for a while.
We’re sitting in the lounge, which is to say a concrete box populated with mismatched and foul-smelling furniture purchased on the local market and lined with something that qualifies as carpet. Ernest waves at his face to dispel the smoke collecting under the brim of his hat from yet another cigarette, then resumes figuring out how to plug a surge protector into a wall socket without being shocked. The wiring, much like the weather, sucks.
Someone swings the door to the lounge open too fast and shoots the elastic cord off of the nail holding it down, startling Ernest. This results in a small shower of sparks from the outlet and a burst of obscenity. We both look over to find the cherubic face of the Chaplain’s Assistant staring back at us.
“Hey Battles.” He says, entirely too exuberantly. The Official Issue G.I. Name For People You Do Not Know is 'Battle Buddy,' and people that use it are seen as the type that would wear white after Labor Day, pearls before Easter, or that sort of tacky shit. “What you fellas up to?”
“Jerking off,” I reply, flatly.
“Jerking off,” says Ernest in the same deadpan tone. Neither one of us are particularly fond of the God Botherers, the God Squad, the Holy Rollers, or whatever else you want to call the Chaplain and his minion.
“You brothers going to peep a flick?” The Chaplain’s Assistant isn’t having any of the usual masturbation-themed shit today, and persists in his line of inquiry.
“Yeah,” I say as I go back to figuring out which molecules of dirt belong on the slide of my Beretta and which I will save to clean off later.
“What are you going to watch?” He says while striding into the center of the room. There is a low table clapped together out of the pallets our supplies are air dropped on sitting there. The DVD case is sitting in the middle of said.
“Says here,” I reach to pick up the DVD case from in front of the Chaplain’s Assistant, “’Forgetting Sarah Marshall,’ the unrated edition.”
“You know anything about it, buddy?” He says brightly, oblivious to the fact that I am considering throwing something heavy and metallic at him.
“One would presume it is the unrated version concerning how to go about not remembering someone named Sarah Marshall, or some other substantially similar proper noun. But I could be way off base with that,” I respond.
“You mind if I peep this flick with you fellas?”
“Do what the fuck you want, Chaps,” Ernest finally says after having succeeded in both getting the outlet back together and the surge protector plugged in without doing the 110-volt shuffle.
It bears to mention that we weren’t sure why the Chaplain was even on the base at the time. Which is to say we didn’t know why they were sent there, just we couldn’t figure out why someone down in Kandahar elected to send them here at that particular time. Over the previous couple weeks the bazaar had been bombed twice, one of the local police checkpoints shredded, our security camera cables cut in the middle of the night, and someone wounded badly enough to warrant a trip out of the country and to Germany.
When we initially heard the Chaplain was coming out to provide ‘preventative counseling,’ I’d wondered aloud if this meant he was being dispatched to preemptively deliver our last rites since things just weren’t quite going according to plan. One of the Privates, Smoll, so devout to his particular strain of Evangelical Christianity as to suggest some type of mania, said that we needed the Holy Armor of God more now than at any other time. After considering this for a few moments, someone suggested that he was glad Smoll was a virgin as it meant we had a few years left in a germ-free gene pool. Smoll, in typical fashion, stormed off to pout about this most recent insult.
The Chaplain’s Assistant is something of a weird duck. For the inhabitants of Firebase Case it is a matter of course that your uniform is probably screwed up in some capacity. The base is half the size of a regulation football field and inhabited by forty people, broken down into one Special Forces team, one platoon of infantry, and ten civilians. This means that a substantial proportion of the inhabitants of Case don’t wear uniforms unless important people are showing up and regard shaving and haircuts as very much optional. The conventional infantry platoon gets into the act as well, given the shortage of fresh water that doesn’t need to be diverted to scraping hair off of their faces as regularly as Grooming Standards comma Army would normally insist. So to have someone suddenly arrive with a brand new uniform, fresh haircut, and clean boots is somewhat bizarre. Add to that the judgmental sneer the Chaplain’s Assistant affected upon meeting the motley crew stationed on Case and you have a recipe for friction.
The perfectly packed ruck, the pressed fatigues, the lack of any weapons, complaints about smoking in buildings, and a general disdain for the lifestyle adopted out of a necessity for being in the middle of nowhere did not endear him to anyone. We were not the easiest of people to get along with anyway, so the deck was somewhat stacked against him.
For the uninitiated, the beginning of ‘Forgetting Sarah Marshall: the Unrated Edition’ features a sequence where Jason Segel is shuffling around his house acting like a big bag of unmotivated slacker crap. During said sequence, Segel’s penis is given top (really mid-section, but that isn’t particularly relevant,) billing. This did not sit well with the Chaplain’s Assistant.
“Aaaah,” says the Chaplain’s Assistant in a tone you’d normally use when at Dental and being stabbed by some officer of questionable qualification. Visible penises are apparently the crucifix for this particular vampire, as his next move is to run out of the room.
Ernest and I are nonplussed and continue watching Segel act out the rest of his neatly packaged life, and succeed in forgetting about Afghanistan and the rain for 118 minutes. Later someone informs us, in a moment of high hilarity, that the Chaplain's Assistant had An Addiction To Internet Pornography that he cured by finding Jesus in the couch cushions. Or something like that. Apparently, his temporary roommate found him on his knees next to his bunk with an open bible praying aloud to be cured of some kind of desperate affliction or another.
Several hours later a pair of American CH-47 helicopters slowly descend out of the clouds, whipping the ground on the landing pad into a slurry of gravel and brown mud. The Chaplain, the Chaplain’s Assistant, and their baggage were unceremoniously loaded onto the aircraft and flown away bound for another base and another set of preemptive last rites.
A week has passed, the rains are gone, and we are prepping for another operation. I’m sitting in front of my building checking various bits dangling off of my vest, counting magazines of ammunition, checking batteries, ensuring frequency sets are loaded into the radio according to the brief sheet. Ernest crunches through the now frosty mud, shemagh wrapped around his neck and a pair of sunglasses riding on top of his battered tan ballcap.
“Hey.” I clip the harness for Hate Stick, something that was at one point an M590 shotgun to my vest and check the safety one more time. It’s had the front end of the barrel sawed off up to the choke, the stock hacked to pieces, and most of the remaining handle wrapped in 550 cord. I like Hate Stick. The first three rounds are rubber riot balls and the last five 12-gauge solid slugs. I figure that if someone doesn’t grasp what the fuck is up and cop some feelings by the third round, they’re going to find out what their insides smell like. Having fired it several times before, I’ll tell you it breaks like murder but it really, really gets the point across.
“So all they found was his left boot.” He’s staring off into space, somewhere at the range of mountains some kilometers distant. We’re going up there today and maybe we’re coming back. Who knows, the morning is young yet.
“Come again?” I say quizzically while stuffing rounds into Hate Stick.
“Fucking Chaplain’s Assistant. Fucking idiot. They went up to Kunduz, right, and they told his ass to stay with the vehicle. Stay with his fucking escort.” Snorting in disbelief, Ernest swings his hands wide and then drops them to his side. “And most of all, stay the fuck away from the goddamn ‘ghans and don’t go near the motherfucking checkpoint, and don’t talk to fucking anyone.”
“Lemme guess, didn’t do any of the above?” I stop, stretch my neck and let the rumble of diesel engines in the background dominate for a few moments.
“Nope, son of a bitch left the vehicle, ditched his escort, went up to the checkpoint, and started talking to the ‘ghans. Some fuck pulled the cord on a vest.” Shaking his head slowly, Ernest scratches the bridge of his nose and sighs loudly. “Big one, probably twenty, maybe twenty five pounds of Semtex. Found dude’s left boot, bit of foot, and that’s it.”
“Huh.” A minute or so passes before either of us say anything. I am the first to speak. “I’m not sure what to do here. You realize the last interaction we had was us ambushing him with Jason Segel’s dick, right?”
“I mean is that terminally fucked up, funny, or what?” I sort of snicker under my breath wondering if it is appropriate to actually find this amusing. "I'm in sort of a moral dilemma here. I mean part of me really wants to laugh at this shit, another part wants to not give a shit, and a third part just wants to fucking cry. And actually, now that I think about it, there's a fourth part that wants to write his family and fucking apologize."
“Man, I have no fucking idea.”
“Fucking left foot, huh?”
“Yep,” he says as we turn and walk toward the idling vehicles, “fucking left foot.”