The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown. – H.P. Lovecraft
Going to Bagram Air Base from Morales Frazier (lovingly nicknamed MF) in MRAPs is an hour and a half of sheer hell. We leave at 11:30 p.m. in the hope that the bad guys will be asleep and won’t shoot us or blow us up. There is always the grim knowledge that one fanatic nightowl is out there waiting to do just that. One particular mission is burned into my memory in nightmarish clarity. As we prepare to leave MF, soldiers are loading our gear on a trailer and scurrying around checking out the vehicles and equipment. You definitely don’t want to break down in Taliban country, and that includes the whole route we will travel on. It is raining and I huddle in my rain gear, miserable and cold. MF is either dusty or muddy. There is no in between. It sits in a valley at 6,000 feet and in winter it is frigid. I can see my breath curling in the air and the exhaust fumes of the idling MRAPs burns my nose. The commander comes down and gives us a briefing and we load up.
MRAPs are armored vehicles designed to minimize the damage humans sustain if we hit an Improvised Explosive Device (IED), but they are not designed for comfort. The seats are hard, with no padding that could catch fire in an explosion. Six people can fit in the back, not counting the gunner, who is standing between the front and back, half inside and half out, manning a 50-caliber automatic rifle in the turret. I am sitting next to him and it is my responsibility to feed ammunition belts to him if we come under fire. If we have a rollover, we all shout, “Roll over! Roll over! Roll over!” and brace our arms on the roof of the MRAP. It is also my responsibility as the closest person to the gunner to grab him (or her) by the legs and hold on for dear life to prevent ejection as we turn over.
There is not a lot of legroom in the MRAP and our legs are interlaced like a zipper. I strap myself into my harness and put on earphones, which fit underneath the flaps of my helmet. Everyone in the convoy, which is usually five or six vehicles, is connected by the communications system so we can hear all the conversations as we get ready to go. There is always an undercurrent of tension until we get the word to go – then there is nothing to do but go. The die is cast. We bump our way out the gate on the rutted dirt road in the drizzling rain.
The road to Bagram consists of a series of steep mountain switchbacks with hairpin curves. My MRAP is pulling a trailer loaded with luggage, and as I look out the back window I can see a rooster tail of mud flying over the bags as the trailer sways back and forth. The night is pitch black and the rain is coming down harder, lashing against the windows like an angry demon. The navigator sits next to the driver and watches a monitor. The turret ratchets around with a screech as the gunner rotates it, scanning for anything that doesn’t look right. I am always tense on this trip and I try not to think about the French gunner who was shot in the forehead just underneath his helmet and killed on this same road today. There is a crack marksman out there somewhere, because this is the second French gunner to be killed this way in two weeks.
We work our way tortuously up the mountain–sharp right, grind on up, sharp left. I hear our driver shout, “I can’t see the road! I can’t see the road!” The navigator replies “Move a little over to the left!” I can see there is a ravine with a 200-foot drop to the right. Solid lines of rain are streaming down, reflected in the lights that are dimmed to keep a low profile as we move farther into enemy territory. The visual range for the driver is only a few feet.
“A little to the right. Too much! Go left! Go left!” The words echo through my earphones. My nerves are stretched taut and my muscles are hurting from being contracted in sustained fear. Finally, we reach the summit of the mountain and start down. I can hear the brakes engage as the driver balances braking and accelerating. Sharp left, go down, sharp right-back and forth on the switchbacks that surely must have been designed by a sadist. We hit a particularly big pothole and a box of 50-caliber ammunition bounces off a shelf and lands on my knees. It weighs at least 30 pounds, and I am in agony. For a few minutes all I can do is take shallow breaths and fight back tears of pain.
Over the earphones I hear that we are coming up on the place where the French soldier was killed. You can feel the tension in the silence that permeates the earphones. I am praying for our gunners, who are the most vulnerable. I hold my breath and my senses become hyperalert, expecting any minute to hear the crack of a high-powered rifle and see my gunner slump down in his harness. We round a curve and I can see the lights of Bagram in the distance. So close. So close.
The last MRAP passes by the kill zone and I breathe a sigh of relief. Although we are not out of danger, the lights of Bagram are steadily getting closer and beckoning us with their siren brightness. At last we reach the checkpoint and are cleared to go inside the fences topped with razor wire. The tension eases from my body, and I am physically and mentally shattered. I unstrap myself, hang up my earphones, climb out of the MRAP, turn around and back down, stretching to meet the ground with my boot from that last high step. The rain is coming down hard now, and I don’t know if I have ever been more tired. It has taken us two grueling hours in the rain to reach Bagram, and it is now 1:30 A.M.
I pull my mud-encrusted bag from the trailer and begin to make my way to the billeting office to arrange for a place to sleep. I dodge mud puddles and wade through water that is flowing across the roads. My bruised knees are aching, and each step is an exercise in sheer mind over matter. Rain is dripping off my helmet, running down my back and dripping off my nose. My hair is hanging in dank strands and feels like snakes crawling on my face. By the time I reach the billeting office my feet are soaked inside my boots and I am shivering with the cold.
I pull out my travel orders to show the billeting clerk. Rank definitely has its privileges in the military, and my civilian pay grade allows me to have the same accommodations as a lieutenant colonel. For me that means a bed in the VIP tent. This is a large tent with rows of bunks on each side and plywood walls and floors. Bare light bulbs strung from the ceiling cast dim light on the room. Each bunk has a single wardrobe to hang clothes in and store gear. My favorite bunk is just inside the door. It has a wall and so it is like a single room. Privacy is a luxury I don’t enjoy often, and this little space gives me a feeling of much needed isolation. It houses a big blower tube attached to a compressor that shoots heated air into the tent. It is loud, which is probably why it is in a space by itself, but the noise seems like a small price to pay for a few hours alone. Earplugs are a way of life anyway as the roaring of F-16 jets taking off day and night overrides any other extraneous noise.
The billeting clerks are civilian contractors and as I show her my orders, she writes up my bunk assignment. I grab a plastic garbage bag filled with bedding from a closet next to the desk. She hands over my orders and says, “You’ll have to take this over to the mayor’s office and get him to stamp this.” She shows me is the location on a map, and it is quite a distance from where we are, with a lot of left turns, right turns–in the dark and in the rain. Then after I get the stamp, I will have to walk all the way back to the VIP tent–in the dark and in the rain.
“I’ll get that first thing in the morning. I am too tired to go over there tonight,” I tell her. I am drooping with exhaustion, weighted down by my 50 pounds of body armor.
“No, you have to get it tonight.” At this point it is the thin end of the wedge. Something in my rain soaked, flagging body snaps. I tap my finger on the counter emphatically and say, “I have just experienced hell on earth for two hours in an MRAP. A box of 50 cal. ammunition bounced off my knees. I am cold, wet and in pain and I’m just before lying down in this floor kicking and screaming. Now I am going to sleep somewhere tonight if it is out there on your front porch. I need a place to sleep, and I need it now!” The clerk looks into my demented, glazed eyes and backs away saying, “Let me check with someone.”
She goes behind some filing cabinets that separate the desk from office space in the back. I can hear her urgent whispers, and I expect MPs to swarm out at any second and put me in flex cuffs. At this point, I don’t care. At least I’ll get a nice cell to sleep in, and I bet I don’t have to get a stamp for that.
The clerk comes back and says, “That’s okay. You can get it in the morning.” I can tell she just wants to see the last of me. I thank her, pick up my pack and sling my bag of bedding over my back like Santa on his way across a rooftop. I plod in the rain to the VIP tent–right foot, left foot. Just keep going.
Finally I stagger up the steps, maneuver myself through the door trying to be as quiet as possible and (Joy!) my little space is vacant. I tiptoe in, put my bag and backpack down, pull out a sheet and a blanket and throw them on the bed. I roll up some of my clothes to make a pillow, pull off my sodden shoes and socks, strip down to my underwear and slip under the cold blanket. I screw in my earplugs and fall into the deep sleep that only the truly weary can appreciate.
I spend the next two days going out on missions with the Agricultural Development Team, National Guardsmen who have expertise in agriculture and engineering. At the end of the day I enjoy nesting in my little space. It is a haven to collapse into at night and for a few restless hours it is the place I call home until we start our long journey back to MF.