A Day in the Life

Forward Operating Base Morales Frazier, Kapisa Province, Afghanistan

Forward Operating Base Morales Frazier, Kapisa Province, Afghanistan

War is as much a punishment to the punisher as it is to the sufferer. – Thomas Jefferson.

Excerpt from “Small Gifts from the Heart”

As I settle in to life at Morales Frazier it becomes like any other job. Get up, go to work, come home, have a little down time and repeat. Instead of commuting to work by bus or train as I did in Washington, DC, I can walk about one hundred yards to my office. Instead of a background of horns honking, the screeching of the brakes of a bus, the whirr of a train as it rushes into the station, I hear gunfire, rockets and the chatter of the French and American military as they go about their daily routine. And because you can get used to anything, it does become routine.

I start my day at 5:30 in the morning and I exercise to the sound of helicopters landing and taking off at the helipad. There is not a lot of equipment but enough to get a good aerobic workout. The smaller weights I need are missing, usually taken to use as doorstops and although I ask for more, they never come. In my younger days I competed in body building and weight lifting. I have really strong legs and I just love getting on the legs press after some guy has been straining and grunting and lift more weight than he did without effort. It’s the little things, you know. Once I saw a guy lifting weights incorrectly and offered advice on the correct way. Of course I got made fun of. Who was I, an old white haired lady telling this young, virile soldier how to lift weights? I took the higher ground when I saw him icing his shoulder in the dining hall later that morning. He at least had the decency to look sheepish.

Our dining hall or DFAC, is a small room with tables. We have Army cooks that don’t really cook much. They don’t have a real kitchen to prepare food so they heat up a lot of dinners that look like Schwann’s meals. We don’t have any fresh fruit or vegetables, although on one memorable occasion when a general visited we had a green salad. I just stood in front of it and lifted a trembling hand to my mouth as I whispered wonderingly, “A salad!” We have milk, soft drinks and water to drink. In the morning I have cereal and sometimes there are some stale pastries as an option. We do have good ice cream as dessert or for a snack.

When a RIP/TOA (Relief in Place/Transfer of Authority) is in place the departing unit tries to use up all the food allotted to them. Once when a supply truck burned up at Bagram at the same time as a RIP/TOA we had some interesting meals, like seven different kinds of chicken. Nothing else, just seven different kinds of chicken.

The French have a better DFAC, but is on the other side of the base and I am usually too wiped out after a 12-14 hour day to bother going. The few times I ate there I was not impressed with the food so it doesn’t seem worth the effort. Surprisingly there is a small pizza place on this tiny little base and it makes a nice change. We also have MREs (Meals Ready-To-Eat) that can be taken on long missions. I know they must have some heavy duty preservatives because they can last for years.

After breakfast I take my “bath” which consists of wetting a washcloth with bottled water and using camping shampoo. About every four days I trudge through the dust or mud, depending on the weather, and take a real shower. The showers and bathrooms on MF are coed so as I walk up the steps and open the door I go in with lowered eyes because they don’t always explain to newcomers the “coed” part. If I hear a shocked gasp I just keep my eyes lowered until a towel is draped over the appropriate places.

The showers are small cubicles with a tiny space on one side of a shower curtain to disrobe and hang up your clothes. As the water is trucked in and is in limited supply we only get two minutes of water use. I wet my hair and body, turn off the water, lather up, turn the water back on and rinse, all the while trying to not get water in my mouth as it is not potable. It can be done. Just. Then the trick is to try to dry off and get redressed in such a tiny space. While I am in the shower room I brush my teeth and admonish the guys for leaving hair in the sinks. I tell them “I don’t even get this close to my husband at home!” I’ve seen more men in boxer shorts since coming to MF than I have in my whole life. Like I say, you can get used to anything.

One particularly uncomfortable time in the shower was when I found myself in the stall next to our chaplain. He comes from Bagram once a month for a service. “Nice sermon, Chaplain,” I say over the wall. “Well, thank you,” he answers back. Awkward to say the least. After my shower I walk back to my tent in the dust or mud which necessitates washing my feet again when I get back to my room.

If I need to get up in the night to go to the bathroom there is a port-a-potty conveniently located in front of my tent. An Afghan business cleans all the port-a-potties every morning but by night they are disgusting. I cautiously open the door like someone checking for booby traps, which in a way is true. Toilet tissue lies in clumps around the facility and the floor is coated with urine. For goodness sakes, these men are trained marksmen. Are they trying to hit the floor? I sit gingerly on the plastic seats that are cracked trying not to pinch my butt. The Afghans use squat toilets and they don’t understand the concept of sitting on a toilet. They stand on the seats to do their business, therefore the cracks. There is a small sticker in each toilet with a person standing on the toilet with a red line through it, but apparently it doesn’t get the message across.

Privacy is at a minimum as the potty outside my tent also has a bench sitting right next to it. I usually walk to another one if I feel I need a buffer zone. Once, as I was leaving a stall, my boots slipped in the mud coating the linoleum floor of the latrine and I fell to the floor. The latrines are in B-huts sitting on blocks and when I fell the whole place shook and my fall echoed loudly in the confined space. I heard a “Holy shit!” come from another stall. I got up and quietly left the latrine and burst out laughing when I got outside. I know some poor guy is sitting in there with his pants down thinking we are in a rocket attack.

My office is in a concrete block building with plywood walled offices that don’t have an interior ceiling. I share my office with one other person from the military and we get along very well. Dust is usually everywhere so I dust first thing, then check email. I am trying to figure out what was done by the USDA rep before me but there doesn’t seem to be any records or contact information for local Afghan leaders. In the civilian world there is no passing of the baton and we just keep doing the same things over and over with no documentation, no follow-up and no accountability. With the military it is a little better but I come to realize that most of the projects the Civ/Mil (Civilian/Military) Provincial Reconstruction Teams are implementing do not have lasting value. I desperately try to look for projects that I feel can make a difference but I don’t kid myself that I am going to change the world here. The whole point of putting civilians in the most kinetic areas of Afghanistan was to stabilize the economy by creating jobs and sustainable agriculture. The reality is this is incredibly difficult if not impossible to do in an active war zone. It just increases the likelihood that civilians  will be wounded or killed. We will never win this or any war with how much money we throw at people and it certainly won’t be with how many people we kill. If we have any measure of success it will be the one-on-one interactions we have with Afghans where they see we are not all infidels and we see they are not all terrorists. I try to take a small measure of comfort in that.

After a day of trying to see a way clear to use my skills and expertise to help farmers in my province I make my way back to my tent where I have about two hours to myself, or as much by myself as you can be in a tent full of women. I put my earphones on and listen to music as I turn to my sketch pad for some relaxation. Soon I am lost in another world and as my pencil scratches across the paper my mind is distracted from the omnipresent noise that permeates our base. After an hour or so, I look down and see a beautiful picture that I can barely remember drawing. It is like a meditation and I did some of my best work in Afghanistan lying propped up in my bunk in that tent on MF.

At about 9:00 PM I brush my teeth, spitting in the trash can and rinsing with bottled water, followed by an Ambien so I can sleep. I wash off my feet again and crawl under the covers on my bunk. I screw in my earplugs that muffle but don’t exclude the noise and in the dark I lay and ponder my being 12,000 miles away from my family. As I say my prayers I hope they know how much I love them. I pray God will show me a way to be useful here; a way to bring some comfort to people who are living under the tyranny of 40 years of war. I pray that soon we all can go to sleep in peacefulness.

Copyright (C) 2015 Kathleen Gunderman

There and Back Again – Part II

Convoy

When you are in a combat situation, you mustn’t let your mind be polluted by emotions like fear and anger. Simply accept the situation and react, even if you are facing impossible odds. Keep your head clear and you will be one step ahead of your attackers. – Aaron B. Powell

My unit decides to break from our routine and head back to MF during the day. As we repeat the process of preparing our convoy to go back, the skies are sunny and I am almost giddy from the absorption of a few rays of warmth. Deep ravines and steep mountain roads don’t hold the same menace in the day as they did on that nightmare ride three nights ago. We have just about reached the summit of the mountain when we roll up on a firefight. It quickly becomes clear we should have stuck with our routine.

I can see French soldiers hunkered down behind dirt berms on the side of the road firing 50-caliber guns down into the ravine where insurgents are firing back. The rat-a-tat-tat of gunfire is a constant background noise as I listen to the chatter over the earphones. “Hold up! Hold up!” Our convoy comes to a stop and I can see the gunner’s legs tighten with tension as he rotates the turret rapidly back and forth, trying to see everything at once.  I have a strange sense of resignation although a frisson of fear is making my limbs tremble like a taut wire being strummed by the wind.

“Are you okay, Miss Kathy?” our driver asks.

“I am fine. Don’t worry about me.” I don’t want them to focus on anything but their jobs at this point in time.

Rat-a-tat-tat! Rat-a-tat-tat! Continuous, near at hand from the French and far away as the insurgents return fire from the valley. I know we are relatively safe from gunfire in the thickly armored MRAP. Again I am praying for our gunners. Then I hear over the earphones, “There are two guys on the mountain with an RPG (Rocket Propelled Grenade).” Okay, I think, if this is armor piercing, it can take us out. My heartbeat speeds up and the tension can be felt in the silence that permeates the radio. Finally, someone says, “It’s a French guy and an ANA (Afghan National Army).” You can feel the collective sigh of relief over the radio.

Rat-a-tat-tat! Rat-a-tat-tat!  An F-16 roars through the canyon overriding the sound of gunfire. A French helicopter swoops over, dropping canisters that burst into red and green smoke upon impact to mark the location of the insurgents. Another helicopter fires rockets into the area. Clouds of grayish dust mingle with the colored smoke in a bizarre, surrealistic display of dancing plumes. The loud explosions of the rockets shake the ground, and I can feel the concussion under my feet. My civilian companion in the MRAP is excited. “That’s right. Light ‘em up!” he shouts.

Rat-a-tat-tat! Rat-a-tat-tat! “They’re still coming!” I hear over the radio. I can’t believe anyone could be living after all this fire power has been thrown at them, but still the guns keep firing. After about 20 minutes we get the word to move on past the firefight. There is a huge IED hole in the road that wasn’t there a few nights ago. It is deep and wide, and I hope the sides don’t cave in as we inch around it and plunge us down into the ravine below. Finally, we are on solid road again and we head away from the firefight. We are close to MF and as we near the FOB I look over to my right. A French armored vehicle responding to the firefight has gone off the road and tumbled down a ravine. I see soldiers removing bodies from the wreck. They are covered with blood and their limbs are broken, some are obviously dead, and I wonder if these are men or women I know on the base.

We pull into MF, our nerves raw. I get out of the MRAP, my legs threatening to give way as I step down on the ground. We are parked next to the big 107mm guns. They are being fired in support of the troops engaged in the firefight, and the booms of their mortars as they discharge are deafening. Every time one goes off I flinch and cover my ears as the earth shakes underneath my feet.

We are told that the mess hall has stayed open for us and after I drop my gear off at my tent, I head on over. Up until now I have been relatively calm, considering the circumstances, but when I lift up a forkful of peas and carrots I notice they are falling off because my hand is shaking so badly.

I find that the day of a hostile action I have an afterglow of excitement fueled by adrenaline. It is all anyone can talk about, and each moment is relived again and again. The day after is marked by a massive headache from the release of adrenaline into my body, and I am sleepy and lethargic all day. This seems to be the norm for most of the people around me.

Before I came to Afghanistan, I spent many sleepless nights wondering how I would react in such a situation. I hoped I would behave honorably and not be a coward. Looking back, I feel like I equated myself well. I was scared, no doubt about that, but I didn’t give in to my fear. The sobering and enduring emotion for me is a deep sadness for the loss of young lives, friend and foe, for there is sadness at the core of every death.  Many of the Taliban are not hardline fanatics. They are day laborers hired for five dollars a day. They can feed their families for weeks on that. I can see no gain in the firefight I experienced, and this was just one of many taking place every day in Afghanistan. This is what war is. Taking this valley, that hill, only to lose it and gain it back again – bodies piling up along the way like cordwood. Families irrevocably shattered by loss and grief.

It doesn’t make any sense to me. No sense at all. But I am a civilian, not a soldier. The grim reality is that I am in a war zone and this is the gig I signed up for. I have to accept conflict as a part of my life or I need to go home. I still have hope that I can find a window of peace to help the Afghan agricultural sector and I can make some small contribution that will make a difference in a farmer’s life who is just trying to make a living in the midst of all this madness.

Kurdish Women Warriors

kurdish-women-fighters1

When they see a woman with a gun they’re so afraid they begin to shake. They portray themselves as tough guys to the world, they see women as just little things-but one of our women is worth a hundred of them. – Kurdish woman fighter

Recently images and stories are emerging from Syria of the Women’s Protection Unit (WPU), a 7,000-strong Kurdish military group. These images of young women taking up arms against ISIS has become an Internet phenomenon and put a face on the war against terror. The Kurds are an Iraqi ethnic group, mostly inhabiting Iran, Syria, Iraq and Turkey, a geo-cultural region often referred to as “Kurdistan”. They are mostly Sunni Muslim but are adherents to a large number of different religions and creeds. The Iraqi Kurds have mostly been pro-Western, despite our reluctance in the past few years to address their pleas for support.

In an area where women face extreme subjugation, these women fighters clad in camouflage and body armor are a stark contrast to the burka clad, veiled women we normally associate with the Middle East. While it is tempting to paint these women taking up arms as merely a zealous patriotic desire to defend their land against a monstrous invader, it is more complicated than that. Patriotism and a desire for freedom certainly is a big factor, but serving in the WPU also provides women an avenue to escape abusive marriages and other forms of repression. While Western media and Kurdish leaders don’t hesitate to use the images of the women fighters as a propaganda tool, the WPU and the Peshmerga, the national military force for Kurdistan, provide a network of support for women who might otherwise be locked in the struggles of a repressive society.

Kurds are the most progressive in an area of extreme conservatism but life for women is still not a bed of roses. Human Rights Watch reports that 60% of women in Kurdistan have been victims of female genital mutilation and forced marriages are common. The Kurdish women fighters have been instrumental in the war against ISIS especially in the town of Khobani, where they have been defending the city from radical jihadists since September of 2014. One young woman explained her enlistment in the military, “I didn’t really have any other ambitions. I just wanted to live a free life, as a woman, to be able to see our reality, and have our rights and just live.”

Kurdish women have been training and fighting for decades, especially under the highly oppressive regime of Saddam Hussein, it is just now that we are hearing of them in the Western world. While their bravery and heroism in battle is undeniable, I think the bravest revolution they are waging is against the oppression of women. These women are fighting against stereotypes and they belong alongside the Tuskegee Airmen, the Navajo Windtalkers and Russian sniper Lyudmilla Pavichenko of WWII. Their love of country, freedom and the camaraderie they share as they fight their battles inspire me. I salute you, brave warriors. Your victories are our victories.