Before coming to Afghanistan, the guys who had already served a deployment or two told us what we could expect. The greatest danger we would face — apart from being run over — would be indirect fire, or IDF, attacks. We are a support unit that hangs out inside the wire and behind the walls with all the gear, and so we don’t face ambushes or any other sort of traditional military threat from a guy with a rifle, but they, whoever “they” are, can and do shoot rockets at us. The chances of being hit are pretty long: “It’s like winning the lottery,” one sergeant told us back in the States.
While the odds of becoming a victim of a rocket attack and the odds of winning substantial sums of money in a government-operated gambling scheme may be similar, the final results differ somewhat, and, every time I hear the rocket alarm, I cringe. When they hit, the warheads — depending on distance — sound like a car door being closed if the blast is far away or a big heavy door being slammed shut if it’s closer. If you’ve been out on avalanche-control day, you know the sound. The alarm makes a haunting noise and then, once the siren stops, a pretty British female voice comes on and says “rocket attack, rocket attack” in a truly delightful way, as if we’ll all be heading out for a spot of tea later.
And to call these events “attacks” gives the “attackers” way too much credit. An attack implies some sort of coordinated effort aimed at attaining some sort of objective. An attack has military significance and is planned so that it meshes with the overarching strategy of the entire campaign. Attacks involve large numbers of personnel and substantial amounts of materiel. Based on the above criteria, our so-called rocket attacks occupy a spot on the mischievous — rather than military — scale about four rungs up from kids shooting bottle rockets at cars.
The military minds in charge of the base have cooked up a detailed procedure for responding to rocket attacks. The rules are very serious, and the copy I am most familiar with is taped to the doors of the stalls in the latrine, which ought to indicate the preposterous position our Army has maneuvered itself into here in Afghanistan. The mighty United States Army defending itself against the local pranksters by posting its defensive tactics in the crapper.
We are to lie on the ground for two minutes when the charming voice tells us we are under attack. Then we are to move to the nearest hard structure or concrete bunker and wait for the all clear announcement from the same charming voice. We can find ourselves standing around in the bunkers for an hour or more. There is a procedure for those in cars and yet another procedure for those in armored cars. The Army covers all bases.
As difficult as it can be to take the “attacks” seriously, it’s just as easy to feel a real threat, especially when the shells fly overhead and explode less than a thousand yards away.
The closest call so far was a rocket that hit about 30 yards from our platoon office. The warhead exploded in front of two vans in the street. No person sustained any damage, but the vans were mortally wounded. Their spilled oil stained the ground black. The shrapnel sliced through their painted skins, and a combination of concussive force and flying metal broke their bodies, which sank, lifeless, on their flattened tires. The emergency response team arrived, discovered it was too late and had the vans hauled off to a boneyard somewhere.
You might guess that my fellow soldiers and officers may have felt a bit cursed. Perhaps they were shaken by the close call and thought themselves lucky to be alive. Maybe they felt scared and on edge as they realized that this place is full of people trying to kill us, however ineffective their methods appear to be. The hours after a close call seem like a good time for some sober reflection on the fragility of our lives, the severity of our situation and the dangers we face.
Instead, my fellow soldiers were celebrating their good luck at having a rocket explode 90 feet away. They would all win the Operation Enduring Freedom lottery and qualify for a Combat Action Badge! Giddiness dominated everyone’s emotions as they composed their sworn statements attesting to the fact that they fell under enemy fire.
Being shot at seems a strange thing to celebrate, but everything seems a little strange in Afghanistan.
Ex-Colorado High Country dweller Sgt. Mike, still with no Combat Action Badge, hopes his string of bad luck will continue.