The four of us arrived in Oman in early June, and we were glad to get there despite the heat. Glad to get off what had to be the most rickety C-130 in the Army's arsenal, glad to wobble relievedly down the stairs after what had seemed to be a 90-degree descent to land in a small flat area in the mountains, and, most importantly, glad to be in a place where we could have beer. We'd been stationed since late March in Kuwait, a country in which it can be a capital offense to possess alcohol or other intoxicants, and we were no exception to the stereotype of soldiers as hard-drinking sons-of-bitches. We were thirsty, and, after 1700, the young airmen behind the bar at the airbase were happy to sell us almost-cold beer just flown in from some BX in Germany—despite which, unfortunately, our only choices were Heineken, Corona, and some godawful piss from Scandinavia called Kroner.1 They were only $3.00 though, and despite official rules limiting each person to three beers per night, we easily had as much as we wanted.
I was babysitting two majors and a captain, all of them at least ten years older than I—which is no easy feat for a 21-year-old enlistedman not yet an NCO, but they tended to listen to me since I had basically run our mission single-handedly from the get-go; I can say with (somewhat embarassed) immodesty and some pride that they were there, in a very real sense, as my liasons. We were, theoretically, on a stopover on our way to Afghanistan to coordinate personnel accountability at a theater level with one of the Corps, but it was far too easy for the (theoretically in-command) major to give up our seats on a (different) C-130, declaring somebody else's mission more pressing (and for the other three of us to let him) when, after several weeks in Kuwait of 12-15 hour workdays, we suddenly found ourselves more or less at leisure to read,2 nap, watch movies at the local "movie theater" (a DVD player and a projection TV), or even play video games. Our only real "duty" there was to drop by the housing tent every day around 6 am (despite our nightly drinking and lack of activity, we found the soldierly habit of rising early hard to shake) to let them know not to give our beds away. We gave in to temptation for a week and a half, and then, after watching all five Rocky movies in a row while waiting, sweaty and half-dozing, in a tent for a delayed plane, we left for Bagram.
If you've never been in a C-130 before, let me tell you: it's an experience. There are no real seats. For almost all official missions, cargo has priority, but if the plane's not filled with cargo, you may be able to fold down some benches (usually red, for some reason) which may (or may not) have some seatbelts.
It's a long flight, longer than it looks on a map. It was windy, and turbulent. I tried to put into practice the hesychastic lessons I had read about in the Philokalia and which an archimandrite I'd visited with had recommended, while slipping in the occasional prayer to inquire whether God would be so kind as to help me keep my stomach where it belonged rather than in my throat. The captain turned a pale shade of green, but before he was overcome, we stopped, briefly, to refuel in a country in which we at the time had no official military presence and which I am probably still not allowed to admit the name of.
We took off again and made directly for Bagram. This time we came under fire. I am a soldier, and as such, my initial training was as an infantryman. Nonetheless, being shot at is just not fun. You can quote me on that. Not that, truthfully, we were aware of it at the time. All we knew was that the plane began to move erratically—we didn't quite do barrel rolls, but our insides seemed to. We were all somewhat green-faced by the time we reached the landing strip, and the captain who'd been green before was only able to keep his guts in by sipping cold water and keeping a frozen waterbottle on his wrist. It wasn't until we actually touched down that we learnt from the pilot that "Some yahoos on the ground decided to shoot at us," and that this was "pretty standard."
My first real view of Afghanistan was the mountains. Statistics say that the highest point in the country is 7,485 meters3, but as I walked out of the plane and looked up, we seemed to be ringed in by peaks reaching all the way to the heavens. Grass, green like the purest viridian of some painter, interrupted only here and there by fields of poppies waving in the breeze, stretched up to stark white snow. Perhaps I should not have been, but I was suprised at how beautiful the landscape seemed—a land which had not known real peace in decades should show some signs of it, I thought. The airman sent out to greet us began to yell over the roar of the tarmac: "They'll tell you this later, but don't step out on the grass. There's fuckin' mines."
They did tell us later. Giving the briefing, required for all incoming personnel, on how to identify mines and other unexploded ordnance, was a soldier I'd been in training with. (Small world. Small army.) I'd envied him in basic training, sort of. He'd somehow managed to get busy with one of the more attractive female recruits, whom I'd vaguely lusted after her in the same way any man will on seeing a pretty young woman.4 I did not envy him now.
That night, I truly slept as a warrior for the first time in my life, my weapons and my armor beside me. I remember no dreams.
I awoke in the darkness around 3:00 AM, needing to empty my bladder. On the way back from the latrine, I made the mistake of looking up and was dazzled. The stars, for a moment, held me in their thrall—these foreign stars, different in some indefinable way from those of my homeland. I was dizzy. What is man, O God, that you are mindful of him? And I sat down there, on the earth which had been pounded into flourlike dust by the EOD teams, and I shed three tears. One for all the soldiers, on all sides, who had given themselves in sacrifice. One for all whom those soldiers had left behind. And one for me, and for all soldiers yet living, who might yet, for honor and in sorrow, do our duty, as we must.
I lay there through the rest of the night, until the sun began to rise and the cooks likewise. I stared at those far away pinpricks which care nothing for man, for his dignity or his squalor. And I rose with the sun, a quieter man, and a wiser.
1Which I drank exclusively. Not much is worse than Kroner, but Heineken and Corona definitely qualify.
2I cannot speak for domestic military posts, but books in forward encampments' libraries (I use the term loosely) tend to follow a pattern. They tend to be fiction, and more especially, genre fiction: mostly mysteries, fantasies, military fiction, science fiction, and military science fiction, with a smattering of "literature" (I read, for example, Far from the Madding Crowd on the way back to Kuwait, having borrowed it from the one of the libraries I came across) and romance novels.
4More accurately, I was envious of the fact that he had the energy to do anything with her. In any free time we recruits managed to get during our physically exhausting 17-hour workday, I mostly just dozed.