6 Things A Soldier Learns Dodging Taliban Rockets All Day
America's War in Afghanistan is set to officially end this month, after 20 years. It's the longest war in American history, by a wide margin. The war lasted so long that children of the original soldiers ended up taking up their parents' patrol routes -- a fact reported on first jokingly by The Onion and then seriously not long after. And it lasted so long that we spoke a few years ago to a couple soldiers there, and their experiences are just as relevant today.
We talked to Tyler, a 13F-9 Fire Support Specialist deployed in January 2013, and Matt, a combat medic attached to an Army infantry regiment and deployed in July 2009. They told us ...
The Enemy Aim At Us With Motorcycles And Mountains
So, how did the technologically outclassed Taliban fighters attack an American military base? For starters, with two pieces of wood.
"They shoot rockets off of a rail built out of two-by-fours fastened together in a long V shape," explains Tyler. One of the attackers, who has some working knowledge of physics and ballistics, calculates the best angle and position for the rail, and he aims it at the targeted forward operating base (FOB). Sometime afterward come the firing team, two to five men with rockets. They set up fuses to launch the missiles and then slip away long before the missiles fire.
"I can't say that they were ever particularly accurate," says Tyler, "but an FOB is a large place—you don't have to be that accurate to hit it. We'd get some sort of attack at least once a day, but it would land inside the FOB walls every third or fourth shot. The closest one ever landed to me was about 50 to 75 meters away."
For another weapon—the mortar cannon, with a shorter range and less direct attack—the attackers try something a little different. If you were in the scouts, you might have learned how to signal with a mirror over long distances, using your hand to guide you like in this video. The mortarmen do something similar, but instead of their hand, they use a mountain.
"Put the mountain between you and the FOB so that the FOB is just visible beyond the edge of the mountain," says Tyler. "It gives you something closer to aim at, and if you're firing some improvised hunk of crap, you'll need all the help you can get." And right after sending a mortar shell a couple thousand meters at the base, you hop on your motorcycle and zoom away across the desert.
The best of those mortars, incidentally, are American-made. "We give them to the Afghan National Army," says Tyler, "and they give them to the Mujahidin." And with these attacks, we guess that's just the Mujahidin's way of giving them right back.
Bases Offer No Protection
"An FOB is not a fortified castle," says Tyler. If fact, unless it's a major one with an airfield like Bagram or Sharana, it won’t even have buildings, other than a couple flimsy ones made of particle board. The base is just a bunch of tents. For walls, they set up what's known as Hesco barriers—big baskets filled with dirt stacked on top of one another. "I remember first getting to the tent we slept in," says Tyler, "and being able to see the stars because of all the shrapnel holes. As soon as I could, I moved into a metal shipping container with nine other guys because it seemed crazy to live in a vinyl tent when we were getting mortared and rocketed every day."
His base had almost nothing blocking fire. "In fact, every FOB I saw was built in the center of a bowl of mountains. You couldn't find an easier spot to attack." It did have, however, measures for spotting these attacks with varying success. A radar detected the point of origin for any incoming projectiles (projectiles such as rockets, mortars, and a great many birds). Above the base flew a blimp loaded with cameras. It surveilled the area at all times—except for when it got shot down. Or blew away in a dust storm.
One night, a rocket fired at a base went through two shipping containers and ended up in the barracks, where it hit a soldier in the arm. But it was a dud, so while it did tear his bicep from his bone, it didn't blow up and annihilate him. "When people ask if I've ever met special forces guys and want to know how badass they are," says Tyler, "I tell them, 'I know a guy who stopped a rocket with his bicep'."
If the rocket's not a dud though, a direct hit is a done deal. A steel wall won't stop it, though it'll at least block some shrapnel. A foxhole would be safer, and the only way to make their sleeping quarters really safe would be to dig a hole and bury the whole container. "But the crazy part about this whole thing," says Tyler, "is that after about two months, nobody gets all that worked up about it anymore. We'd groan about being forced to put on body armor and get into bunkers. Most people stopped getting out of bed to take cover, saying, 'If I'm gonna die, I want to be in my bed when I do.'"
When We Dodge Bombs, Children Die
Right after Matt, a medic, landed in Afghanistan, a group of local children set off an IED meant for his tank. He popped out of the Stryker, and the first thing he saw was a girl, five years old, face down in the dirt. She didn't seem to be breathing, and before he could examine her closely, a more urgent case stole his attention: Twenty yards away, in a woman's arms, was a boy around 10, both legs blown off above the knee. Matt rushed over to attend to him and saw none of the copious bleeding he expected—presumably, the boy had bled out and was now beyond saving. (Only later did Matt realize the blast had cauterized the wounds.)
Matt applied tourniquets anyway, for the mother's sake if nothing else. "I said as much out loud," he recalls, "which rightfully shattered the Staff Sergeant's confidence in my abilities."
Ten minutes later, the main ambulance arrived, and he could look up from his work to the others gathered there. "An old man carried the limp body of what I assume was one of his grandsons toward us with tears in his eyes. A teenage girl with shrapnel and blood where her eyes used to be sat with some of the other women. Another boy no older than ten had had clear head trauma with his pupils massively dilated. I still have no idea what happened with the little girl I never had a chance to check on, and it's probably the biggest regret that I have from my deployment."
That's not the most disturbing brush he had with dead Afghan children. Another time, he was explaining dosage instructions from ibuprofen to one of the local men (using his miming skills to beat the language barrier) when a group approached with a wheelbarrow filled with a 13-year-old boy. Then came more people bearing more victims—a boy with one purple kidney sticking out of a hole in his belly, then various others bearing assorted shrapnel wounds, all coming for help and hopefully an airlift to a hospital. It's hard to remember each of them, but one memory stays clear in Matt's mind: A soldier offered one of the boys a Gatorade, and the boy refused then looked at all the men there, "hate in his eyes."
"It was easy to understand why," says Matt. The official story was the kids had been hit by grenades thrown by Afghani police. But the fact was, those police don't carry any grenades. Meanwhile, Matt's CO had recently called in a mortar strike that he'd been advised against. "The grenade story was just to cover his ass," says Matt. "To this day, I believe the CO made a bad call, and a group of innocent kids paid the price for it. It still makes me angry when I think about it."
Say Hello To Our Wacky Afghan Comrades
Tyler's main job was setting up communications to call in fire support, but when he wasn't doing that, he was training the Afghan National Army using a megacomputer and a projector that created simulations. He taught them how to call in artillery fire, and he taught them English, and in return, he learned ... a lot about Afghan hygiene routines. Like about their habit of brushing their tongue and throat along with their teeth, producing a chorus of gagging from the sinks every night. Or about their preferred style of shitting.
"Afghans don't sit when they shit," says Tyler. "They squat." (This position is actually better for you and easier once you get the hang of it.) So, what happens when die-hard squatters are presented with their first awkward seat toilets? "They stand on the toilet seat," sags Tyler, "and shit EVERYWHERE! So we stuck signs on our stalls that say 'do not stand on toilet seat' with a little picture of what not to do."
Loose in the desert, squatting is certainly the more convenient way of dropping a load, especially when you wear flowing Afghan garb without the trousers. "They squat all the time," says Tyler. "They squat like you or I shift our weight from one leg to another. It's just the default position they go to when they're talking to each other, drinking water, eating, washing their faces, etc. This makes it very difficult to tell who's crapping and who's not."
Tyler kept riding with the locals in their trucks, which are the most pimped-out desert vehicles this side of the Fury Road. "We call them jingle trucks," he says, "probably because they love to coat the insides of the cabs with bells." And Mardi Gras beads. Also Christmas tree tinsel, and rubber bands, and carpet over every inch of the floor.
The driver's cigarette of choice is Pines—the worst-smelling tobacco in the world, Tyler assures us—and the windows stay up as they drive, to keep out the dust. "And if you think of the most stereotypical Middle Eastern music, with the wailing and the screechy horns and all that, that is exactly what my guys would listen to. Combine this with chain smoking the sock-flavored cigarettes and the windows up, and you have one hell of a good time."
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And Say Hello To Our Treacherous Afghan Comrades
The Afghan National Army officially works with US forces against insurgents (you probably know these insurgents as "the Taliban"; Tyler prefers the term "Mujahidin"). Yet when a US general was killed in 2014—the first US Army general killed in any war since Vietnam—the shooter wasn't some jihadist from the Haqqani network. It was a uniformed Afghan soldier. "It shows how blurry the lines are between good guy and bad guy in Afghanistan," says Tyler. "That stuff happened all the time, though. It's called a green-on-blue incident."
Green on green incidents, meanwhile, are when Afghan police or troops attack each other. Sometimes, it's a joke gone wrong, and sometimes, it's plain murder. On Tyler's first week at FOB Arian, an ANA guard stationed up in a wooden watchtower set a fire in the middle of his floor to keep warm. The tower burned to cinders, and his corpse burned with it. A couple months later, two guards were in a tower "horsing around," as the army called it. "It escalated, and they shot each other point-blank with AK-47s," says Tyler. "Both died."
Tyler's mornings would start by heading to the Tactical Operations Center, a barebones version of the war room you've seen in movies, with video feeds from flat screens mounted on bare wood walls. And during one of these morning briefings, he was surprised to see a huge traffic jam on the nation's one main road. It turned out Afghan soldiers were flagging down every vehicle and demanding money from drivers before letting them go by. "The rampant corruption was nothing new to us, but the audacity to stop cars on a highway in broad daylight was something we hadn't seen before." Tyler's team made some calls and got the checkpoint eliminated, but over the next few months, the same thing happened again and again.
Then in early summer came a new obstacle on that highway: flaming oil vehicles along the side of the road.
"The sky was black with burning fuel trucks every few hundred meters," he says. "The fires seemed to burn for weeks because there was always a fresh truck burning close by." These drivers normally sold their fuel to the Americans, but they'd realized that they'd be paid for both the fuel and the truck if they were attacked by insurgents. So they set their own trucks aflame and cashed in. "By the time we left," says Tyler, "there were so many burned-out hulks along the highway that it looked more like a warzone than when we arrived. It certainly helped shatter any illusions that what we were doing was in the interest of the Afghan people."
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Some Of The Real Dangers Aren't Even Combat
On Tyler's base, they'd drink bottled water—"It's not Evian or whatever," he says, "it's like Bagram Mountain Water or something"—and before unscrewing the cap, they're always supposed to give the bottle a squeeze. If any liquid leaks out, the bottle is immediately discarded. The assumption is that the water has been poisoned. "Then, once you get the little deathtrap open," he adds, "it could be a bottle of seawater, so you have to taste it to make sure you're not going to gulp down a whole bunch of salt."
Matt's medical duties alternated between combat stuff and treating the locals, who came to him for everything from a missing nose to deafness ("which was obviously beyond my capabilities"). But when we asked him about his narrowest lifesaving event, he told us about a routine trip to a nearby base for vehicle maintenance. One of the tanks swerved to avoid crushing an oncoming car, and when it rolled over, the man in the command hatch died instantly. Another man inside broke his pelvis. Then there was the driver, belt unfastened, who was thrown from his seat. The Stryker landed on his legs, amputating one fully and leaving the other hanging by thread of skin.
"In addition to the dual amputations and blood loss," says Matt, "the driver was incoherent and only responsive to pain. Coupled with large, dilated pupils, he had clearly suffered head trauma as well." Matt struggled to insert a catheter into his arm, but the patient kept pulling away from the needle, no matter how much he was told he needed the IV. So Matt tossed the needle aside and reached for a FAST1, a tool for sticking fluids into the sternum. He'd never used it on a person before, just on practice dummies, and these weren't ideal conditions for his first procedure—the two of them in the sand under a giant tank propped up with just a jack—but he popped it in place and watched the slow drip start.
When the medevac helicopter arrived, the patient was breathing. He made it, and word later came down that he'd have died had anything been done differently. And in the company, people began treating newbie Matt with respect for the first time. "One in particular," he recalls, "went from calling me 'medic' to calling me 'Doc,' the two terms carrying vary distinct meanings to some."
Sure, you might be in a war of seven armies with shells and RPGs coming at you all the time, but we guess a car accident is as good a way to earn your stripes as any.