by Gabriel Prince
Afghanistan was uncomfortable. Is uncomfortable. It never changed much since the 2001 invasion. Going there was like walking back in time 1000 years, except they have: guns, cars, and cell phones. And although the creature comforts have gotten progressively nicer, they were always contrasted against something better back at home. So what really changed were the expectations. The bitching and griping continued and would have continued until everyone got their very own Temperpedic mattress and silk bathrobe. There is an old army expression concerning the grunts, commonly referred to as simply “Joe.”
“If Joe ain’t bitchin’…Joe ain’t happy.”
So what did Joe bitch about? Everything. Living conditions were a favorite subject. At first, there were only tents, and they were the basic army model called GP-Mediums. GP stands for “General Purpose”, and Medium stands for, well…medium. The GP-Small could only hold about six guys, while a GP-Large could protect a large Texas family reunion from a rainstorm. These tents got scattered around the little camps that were being set up and formed into little blocks neatly arranged in a row. Some fences were strung around them, and then finally a wall was built. That was how “tent cities” were built. Simple huh?
Afterward, some private defense companies started contracting over in Afghanistan and delivered large shipping containers to live in. They were the same ones that you see cruising down the freeway on the backs of 18-wheelers. The difference was they had a door on them and a little ventilation port for an even littler Air Conditioning unit. They were all different sizes and all different colors. They became known as “hard billets”. They got stacked on top of each other with rudimentary stairs up the doors. It was like living in a high-rise.
One note on the expression “hard billets.” The army retained a lot of French words that are still in use today. This is probably because France is our oldest ally. The French and Indian War was the last time we fought them outright. Since then, we allied with them during the American Revolution, and again in the War of 1812. Our armies have been working together for nearly 250 years. We still say words like billet, and we mispronounce it as badly as most French words like croissant. It should probably be pronounced “bee-yay” with a silent “t”, but we would all just say “Bill It.” We also say “Bivouac” instead of camp site, and “Defilade” instead of Cover. Every unit is said to have a certain type of Pride in his Fellow Men or “Espirit de Corps,” and it shows by the simple fact that everyone somehow manages to pronounce that one correctly.
So hard billets were the first step towards having a floor in your bathroom instead of dirt, and we were all very happy indeed. On a floor, the mice would be easier to spot and less likely to invade, which was good because where there are mice there are snakes. Snakes are a fantastic addition to the climate of hospitality in the desert. They serve as a constant reminder for a non-native that anything in the desert that can survive is both poisonous and able to kill you.
And that was the way the soldiers over there pretty much see life. A constant challenge to stay alive, given that everything that survives in middle eastern deserts is genetically pre-dispositioned to be: deadly, resourceful, and cunning. Much like the people who are trying to kill them. The Taliban already had those qualities on their collective resume; it was the animals and weather that surprised everyone.
The gang returned from another patrol completely strung out and limping. Those were the two basic conditions they would return from patrols in: sleep-deprived and hurt. Not injured, like a broken foot or shot in the arm, but hurt. Hurt like they were athletes and got hurt in a game but could keep playing if the team really needed them. Hurt like they had a hot date and a sprained ankle wasn’t going to stop them from finally getting to see a girl. Rub-dirt-on-it-hurt, suck-it-up-hurt.
The sergeants gave basic commands to their teams. Dallas told his guys to get clean and get some chow. It came out as a mumble because of his braces…” something, something… clean… something, something…chow” but his guys got the gist. Web echoed Dallas, and added to get their boots off and “air out their dogs.” Dogs being feet, and everyone’s dogs were barking. Five days in the mountain snow really did a number on their feet, and even with clean socks, all the walking under all that weight sliced up all their Achilles and toes. As the boots came off so did the red-tinged socks.
Mark (AKA “Sally”), a short and wiry kid from Texas led the charge down to the showers. The sun was beginning to break through the clouds, but at that elevation and during the late winter it was still about 45 degrees out. It didn’t matter to Sally, he had this knack for finding a shred of warmth within his tiny frame and he stomped off down the hill with a towel around his waist and flip-flops. This was better than most days when he just threw his towel over his shoulder and walked down naked. Laughing and humming because he knew how ridiculous he looked. He would tell his team leader “What the hell Web, there ain’t no girls out here anyways!” And he was absolutely right.
The rest of the guys followed Sally and took turns allowing the two working shower heads to leak icy cold water on their backs. The pressure was almost zero, and the water had to be hand-pumped through a partially broken hose from the river. From a collection tank, it went through a filter to remove the human feces floating downstream from the town nearby and ended up as a pathetic dribble on their bodies. Showers were taken mostly only as a necessity and usually with breath held the entire time.
The lines to the faucets were four people deep and the guys stood around in towels (or naked) caught up by the thought of what got them there. After the first group finished Chris spoke…
“You know, I wonder if somewhere across Afghanistan this exact same thing is taking place but with all girls?”
Everyone laughed a little, it was kind of a wacky giggle given the cold and the circumstances. They didn’t know if that was supposed to be a joke or a sexual fantasy. Before they could decide John answered for them…
“Shit… it would probably be a bunch of butch military girls anyway, and that shit ain’t sexy. I think I saw this in a porno though… in prison.”
Now that was genuinely funny to everyone. The image of a bunch of girls suffering the same way did a lot to create an atmosphere of community amidst the misery. It should have been exciting to think about, but it was hilarious because it only highlighted the futility of sexual enterprise there. Laughter broke out in the middle of the misery. A few guys snapped their towels against their buddy’s legs and howls of pain erupted from the darkly lit room by the river. Laughter and pain, fun and misery, these themes pervaded every trip to Afghanistan. Like two old friends who constantly argued but were inseparable.
That night gunfire woke everyone from bed who didn’t sleep with earplugs in. The rest of the guys were violently woken up because if their friends were up, then by god, they should have to miss some sleep too. Everyone rolled out of bed and out of their tents to see what all the hubbub was about. Since they had conked out their little pot-bellied wood stove had run out of fuel and the tents were covered in thin sheets of ice. There were actual sheets of ice on the wood slat floor outside and a few guys slipped. Others just yawned in the freezing air, standing around and still wearing their sleeping bags over their heads like big cotton condoms.
The mumbling persisted, led by Sally, a smartass by his own right, he was also dreadfully accurate and a pain in the ass to argue with because he was seldom wrong. “Aw, what the hell. The 82nd must have taken contact.”