Movies and video games have given us an image of the modern armed forces in Afghanistan -- all dressed up in beige camo, maybe one of those cool masks pulled over their faces to keep the sand out, shooting giant phallic rifles and blowing shit up with remote detonators while high tech Predator drones fly overhead raining aerial death on the bad guys. Toss in some pithy one-liners and call it a war. I had the same picture in my mind before I went over there to hunt for roadside bombs. That's when I realized ...
#6. The Equipment Isn't Quite How You Picture It
Since 2007, nearly half of the coalition deaths in Afghanistan have been from IEDs. These are popular with insurgents mainly because they're cheap and don't require taking bullets to the face -- hey, even explosive murder operates on a budget. The military says that people like me, the "Route Clearance Patrol," have one of the most dangerous jobs out there, because our essential job description involves driving around in giant trucks and looking for bombs. It's terrifying and nerve-wracking, sure, but we're actually pretty excited to find bombs.
That's partly due to the warm fuzzy feeling we get from protecting our comrades. But I'd be lying if I said driving around in the vehicle that almost certainly forms Voltron's erection didn't factor into it just a tad:
In the early days of the war, troops rolled along in Humvees. These did about as much to appease the wrath of Sarkon, the Explosion-Eating God, as face paint and prayers. Today we have tons of different trucks that were designed to be blown up. Trucks like the Husky, below, which is more or less a tractor for harvesting deadly, deadly bombs.
The key is aerated soil, and also high explosives.
It drives forward scanning the road for explosives, followed by huge trucks like the Buffalo that eat up fertilizer bombs like Pringles. Once an IED is spotted and marked by the Husky, the Buffalo pulls up and digs it out with a hydraulic rake. It just rakes up a bomb like it ain't no thing. In the worst case scenario, the bomb goes off; the people in the trucks (that's us) get shaken up a bit, and then we hop out and pick up the pieces that were blown off so they can be reassembled like a grittily rebooted erector set.
Erector 2: De-rected, coming to theaters this July.
Mankind's oldest foe, gigantic explosions, has fallen to our relentless passion for welding huge slabs of metal to wheels. But this doesn't make the job risk-free. My greatest enemy is something no bearded mountainfolk can bury beside a highway ...
#5. Your Worst Enemy Is Boredom
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It was the early afternoon, and we were trundling home from a long mission to a distant forward operating base. We'd been driving for something like six hours, and the unchecked nature of our route kept us locked into a blistering 4 mph pace. Yes, we're trained soldiers. That doesn't mean we can stare at a rocky mountain road for hours on end without nodding off.
Test your own ability by staring at this picture for nine hours in a small metal box.
So the first vehicle missed this IED, and so did the second, third, fourth ... well, the vehicle it hit was a heavily armored semi-truck towing a trailer full of diesel fuel. It went off, but the guys who made the bomb clearly didn't do something right. Instead of a huge boom, it hit like the feeble fart of an old man dying from fiber deficiency. When you're driving an armored Freightliner semi-truck hauling thousands of gallons of diesel, every rock feels like a huge bump. The drivers thought they'd just blown through a big pothole at first, then the rocks started falling around them and they radioed "I think we just took a det(onation)." They didn't say the parentheses. They're silent.
Anyway, they got lucky that day -- a grown-up bomb could've turned that 30-ton semi into meat-and-metal confetti. All of those guys' lives were saved solely by the Taliban's bomb maker skipping his Folgers that morning.
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The best part of waking up is not exploding later that day.
The assholes trying to kill you don't operate on Wile E. Coyote logic. There are no boxes placed next to the road with a huge sign saying "FREE PORN MAGS HERE!" and a suspiciously bomb-shaped bulge in the bottom. But more often than not, they'll leave clues. Seeing little things like freshly dug dirt or a pile of rocks stacked vertically could mean the difference between eating shitty pouch food for a few years and drinking it through a straw for the rest of your life. But it's hard to see those signs when your own mind is actively fighting you. After a few hours of staring at a landscape with crippling depression, your mind starts supplying what it expects to see -- dirt, dirt, rock, hey, look, a goat! rock, dirt, more dirt -- and it skips right over that pressure plate you're about to hit. This effect is compounded when all you can think about is the sweet, sweet Xbox waiting at home. All alone. It must miss you so much, the poor thing.
You do everything you can do to fight boredom, mostly by chewing tobacco and pounding energy drinks. This inevitably leads to pissing in bottles, because rural Afghanistan is notoriously deficient in 7-Elevens. (You do find the odd Chevron, but seriously -- you think American gas station bathrooms are bad?) My truck was a single seater, and I only had 3 inches to my left, 3 inches to my right, and an inch or so between my body armor and the wheel. When you have to pee, the tight confines are interesting to try to maneuver around, and by interesting I mean covered in urine.
You'd be surprised at how much of modern warfare smells like pee.
Before you leave the wire, you have to make sure that everything in the vehicle is strapped down, otherwise it could become a missile. It's like a car accident, only the other vehicle is a bomb made with several hundred pounds of poo. You strap everything down. Ammo cans, food cans, water ... it all has ratchet straps and bungee cords on it. So what happens to the piss bottles? Well, they only go free at the risk of having your skull caved in by your own pee in the event of a blast. Nobody wants that on their tombstone.
#4. Most of Your Time Is Spent Waiting for Parts
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We do preventive checks and maintenance before we ever leave the wire. We check our belts, our hoses, our fluids, our pee bottles -- everything. It takes two hours. But the terrain out there is bad enough to break any vehicle. You're going to blow a tire. It's a given. Any mechanical part that moves is going to break. U-joints, suspension parts, air conditioners -- everything breaks. You start to wonder: Was it ever truly working? Is its natural state what we call "working," or perhaps was it always meant to be broken? It's downright goddamn philosophical. Wait, no -- annoying. That's what it is.
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But what is philosophy if not annoying?
If the air conditioner breaks, the vehicle is considered "deadlined," and we can't take it out on a mission until it's fixed. Just because of the A/C. Think we sound like a bunch of fancy-pants armchair infantry with our precious climate control? Try wearing full-body armor in a 20-ton metal can baking under the Afghan sun. With the windows up. There is no such thing as a bomb-proof convertible.
Air-conditioning is a necessity because heat stroke exists. But if it breaks on a mission, you're just fucked, and you might as well start strokin' that heat. One of the trucks we had consistently lost its A/C about two hours in. And when it went out, the inside of the truck would easily hit 120 in the summertime. The smell in that cabin after a full 10 hours of body armor and anxiety sweat is best described as "Lovecraftian."
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Taint-sweat in the morning does not smell like victory.
Unfortunately, the supply chain is often so backlogged that hard-to-find parts can take forever. A lot of times you wind up getting shipped the wrong parts, and just as often fixing one thing breaks something else. So it's, well, it's pretty much like fixing your car at home, only if you had to run every single bolt through a crushing government bureaucracy. But hey, if you do a real good job, everything works just fine.
For about a week, before a new part breaks.
If only Afghanistan weren't a dry country.
Life is a delicate fuckin' ballet.