Brute Force And Ignorance

Winning Hearts and Minds with Taskforce 2/7

1.

In movies, whenever they drop a bomb or there’s artillery incoming, you always hear a whistling sound. I don’t know about bombs or whatever, but I can tell you that it ain’t like that with rockets. When you have rockets incoming, first you hear the air sizzling, like the noise you’d hear if all at once fifty guys each slowly tore a sheet of paper in half. And when they’re close, you don’t really hear a whistle. What you hear is a low-pitched, muffled shriek, like whale song, if the whale song was stadium-loud and fucking terrifying. Then, maybe you’re lucky, and you hear the impact. Or maybe you don’t. Whatever, right? What can you do?

2.

My first ever rocket attack was on beautiful Kandahar Airfield, or KAF, a multi-national cluster-fuck of military cooperation just outside of lovely downtown Kandahar. Like most cities in the Muslim third-world, Kandahar was a maze of narrow streets and sandstone buildings thrown down and stacked on one another haphazardly like the blocks of some child-God throwing a tantrum. It was a wretched hive of scum and villainy (that’s for all you Star Wars nerds out there), full of small shitty cars and a swarm of white pickup trucks, which were perfect for filling with Semtex and driving into American patrols. If you’ve ever seen “generic Muslim city” in the Call of Duty or Medal of Honor video games, there you go. Formerly the Taliban stronghold in southern Afghanistan, since early 2002 Kandahar had been a main focus of the International Security Assistance Force, the cute euphemism the western world was using for the coalition of Brits, Danes, Italians, Poles, Russians, Estonians, Canadians, and Americans currently attempting to bring civilization to this particular benighted shithole. Now, in 2008, the Marines were back in town, and I, Cpl. James Collins, was there with 2/7 (that’s 2nd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, for those of you who don’t speak military) to “train and advise” the ANA (Afghan National Army) and ANP (Afghan National Police).

Kandahar itself wasn’t our mission; it was the biggest base in the region, and hence the place you first arrive when choosing Afghanistan as your vacation destination. Spread out around the runway in a sprawling neighborhood of concrete bunkers, sandbagged tent cities and plywood shacks, KAF offered a cornucopia of new and exciting experiences for the sophisticated traveler. The first thing you noticed is that the air literally smelled like human shit. All the time, the slight stench of sewage hung about like a fog, thick enough to taste, enriching every meal. No matter where you went, from the chow halls and recreational facilities at one end of the base (complete with a ramshackle Burger King for us and a Tim Horton’s for the Canadians) to the local hajji bazaar at the other (where you could buy fake watches, fake antiques and Chinese bootlegs of your favorite movies and TV shows), you couldn’t escape it. The second thing was the dust. Southern Afghanistan is one of the driest regions on the planet, so the sand (which is everywhere; there’s only one paved road in the entire country) has the consistency of baby powder. It gets into everything, including your lungs; for the first two weeks I had the kind of sore throat that normally means you’re about to get a cold. Add to this the oven-temperature heat, which routinely reaches 135 degrees for most of the year and you have a recipe for a five-star resort like no other.

The Marines on KAF had created a little separate fortress on the base, a temporary village paved with jagged golf-ball-sized stones to keep the dust at bay. Approximately 1500 men lived in the tan tent city, waiting for their chance to head west out into the untamed desert of Helmand Province – bandit country. Inside one of these tents on the fourth evening in country, I was sitting on my cot, waiting to get the hell out of Kandahar with the rest of my detachment. We were intelligence Marines, a small POG (Person-Other-than-Grunt, shorthand for anyone not in the infantry) unit attached to the infantry battalion; fifteen of us lost in a sea of hard-charging, steely-eyed grunts – Real Marines, as they made sure to remind anyone who would listen. Inside the long tent, a row of small fold-out cots lined either wall, with Marines trying to find something to occupy their time, their gear laid out in orderly piles. In the next cot, over my best pal in the unit, Cpl. Mike Jennings, was out cold, sweating it out in his sleeping bag (nobody wanted to sleep directly on those nasty cots, and the heat was still bearable at night).

Mike was 21 years old and a San Diego native, which was convenient for him seeing as how our parent command was based out of Camp Pendleton, just north of San Diego. He came from a military family; both his father and his older brother were former Marines, although you wouldn’t have guessed it from talking to him. He had the habit of starting sentences with either “Dude,” or “Bro,” or sometimes both, resulting in him sometimes being referred to by the rest of us as “Dude-bro” or just “The Dude” (in honor of Jeff Bridges). Fully committed to the stereotype, he was a surfer, and in his off time back in the states he dressed like he was an extra in a commercial for the X-games. You know the type: Vans, hoodies, knit scullies and backwards caps, pants halfway down his ass whenever he figured there were no Staff-NCOs to chew him out. He still said “gnarly.” He didn’t say, “let’s go get something to eat,” he’d say “Dude, let’s go get our grind on.” His dream was to get out, grow some white-boy dreads, and spend his days smoking the sweetest of cheebas. Like I said, a real SoCal stereotype. That’s not to say he wasn’t a good Marine. He wasn’t all that happy about being in the Corps any more (Dude, I thought it would be so much more chill, you know? Like an old boys club or something), but he could shoot straight, he was good at his job, and when I got put on this deployment he’d had the balls to volunteer to come to Helmand with me when he didn’t have to. That was good enough for me.

In a combat zone you spend most of your time doing the old “hurry up and wait” routine, and when you’re still in transit it’s even worse. On KAF at night we were in stand-by mode; there weren’t any gear re-checks or other made-up busywork to attend to. So I was sitting on my rack, spending a little me time listening to my iPod and thinking about tits, when I heard a muffled thud in the distance. As I was taking out my ear-buds, the thin wall that bisected our tent flew open; Marines wearing flaks came rushing through, yelling nonsense and sprinting for the far wall, and I heard another thud, closer this time. Something in my brain clicked (most likely the realization that the only reason to come through our side of the tent was that it was the quickest way to a concrete bunker outside); incoming. I jumped up, throwing on my flak and yelling for Mike to get the fuck up. Mike woke up from a dead sleep, forgot he was inside his sleeping bag, and promptly fell on his face as he tried to jump up and run out of the tent. I grabbed him up and we hit the door, running barefoot across the rocks to the bunker.

“Dude, bro… holy shit.”

“Yeah man, those fuckers are getting close. Way to make shit interesting, right?”

“Whatever, bro. This is some bullshit.”

There were about forty of us in various states of dress, huddled in our little bunker, listening to the thumps of the rocket impacts. The first ones hit about 150 yards out, and were moving closer with every shot. I never thought the phrase “you could smell the fear” was a literal one, but it turns out its true: it’s a mix of sweat and adrenaline, and it was potent inside the bunker. Everyone was silent except for the occasional muttered exclamation; we could see the impacts now and hear them screaming their way toward our little concrete refuge. Great flashes of light and sound punctuating the darkness like a fireworks display for homicidal lunatics. Men made eye contact with one another, wild-eyed and jittery, registered the fear there and then smiled and quickly looked away (what are you, a pussy?) It was how I’d imagine an ant would feel if it was watching someone swing a hammer at it and repeatedly fall just short. I heard someone slowly whisper, “Mother-fucker” under his breath; although honestly that might have been me.

And then, as suddenly as it started, the barrage ended. About fifteen rockets in all, old Russian 107s, the closest impacting about sixty yards away. Turns out these Taliban pricks liked to sneak up, plant a bunch of rocket tubes on a delay and beat feet. The rockets don’t have any kind of guidance, they just land wherever. It really introduced some wonderful spice and variety to our lives.

After about thirty seconds of silence, everyone began excitedly talking at once. It was all smiles and bravado, the courage of young men who’ve just had their invincibility confirmed once again. I looked around the bunker, with all of us professional killers wearing silkies (small green satin shorts, doubling as PT gear and underwear), flip-flops and flak jackets and hiding in a hole, and had to laugh.

“Nice move inside the tent there, dickhead. That was some real smooth man of action shit. Seriously, they might give you a medal. How’s your face?”

“Fuck you, dude.”

One of the grunt Gunnery Sergeants (who hadn’t looked nervous at all) had ended up in our bunker; he looked all of us over and with a look of disgust on his face said, “You assholes look like a sloppy bucket of fuck in here. Get out of my bunker, put on some Goddamn pants and get with your units for a head-count. Welcome to Afghanistan, ladies.”

3.

We caught a C-130 west out of KAF to Camp Bastion, the huge base in northern Helmand the British Ministry of Defense had constructed in the middle of nowhere to be the base of operations in the heart of heroin country. Afghanistan didn’t produce anything except fanatical tribal fighters and drugs, and Helmand was where a large portion of the world’s poppy supply was turned into heroin. The heroin trade was how the Taliban made most of its money, and that made this wasteland the new focus of our anti-Taliban efforts. Everything had to be flown or convoyed in, from food and water to heavy machinery and ammunition, but the Brits had done a decent job, and now we were showing up to poach some space there. Dude and I, along with SSgt Jeff Smith, arrived on site a few days before the rest of the detachment to prep our site and set up. SSgt Smith was our EM tech (the guy who fixed our electronic gear) and also our “get what you need” guy. He was some kind of savant with maintenance and requisition forms, a subject he’d talk about at great length to anyone within range. We called him White-Noise (although never to his face). He was from southern Indiana and had a quick, run-on style of speech that sounded remarkably similar to Boomhauer from King of the Hill, so when he spoke, which was pretty much all the time, you had to just let him fade into the background. However, if you were showing up at a foreign base and the site where you’re supposed to give intel support to an entire Battalion of Marines is currently nothing but a bare patch of dirt, he’s the guy you want on the case.

We pulled our vehicles off the transport and drove over to the spot on base where the Marines were setting up through a maze of concrete barriers, Hescos and wire. A Hesco barrier, for the uninitiated, is the modern answer to sandbags. Some British guy invented them, and his company must have made a fortune, because they are everywhere in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Imagine a giant paper shopping bag, about five feet tall and made of burlap, supported by a wire frame. Now bring in a front-end loader and fill it with dirt, rocks and sand, and what you have is the building block of every wall you see in coalition areas. Walls two and three high, completely impenetrable, and every bag with a big “HESCO” printed on the side.

Bastion, like most all of Afghanistan, had only one color: brown. The hard packed sand was a light tan. The Hescos were burlap. Our tents (and that’s all there were, tents of all sizes, no real buildings) were tan. The surrounding landscape was brown and completely featureless; there wasn’t a tree or change of color for miles all around the base, just flat, brown hard-pack sand, with only some brown mountains off in the distance to break up the view.

When we got on site, White Noise went off to pester the shit out of the camp supply officer, and Dude and I got to work unloading the massive amount of gear even our small crew needed to live our daily life here on the moon. Comm truck and gun truck, tents and razor wire. A small shipping container full of radios and SIGINT (signals intelligence) gear, and another full of office supplies, like we invaded an Office Depot. A couple of 240s (that would the M240G medium machine gun, firing a 7.62 x 51mm NATO round, for those that care) for the trucks, along with a whole mess of ammo. Computer equipment, cables, thermite grenades for destroying our classified materials. Spare parts for the trucks. Spare parts for our generators. Spare parts for everything else, and on and on. All total, there were four whole shipping containers of stuff, all carefully itemized on a detailed manifest, which White Noise had lovingly compiled. The bad news was that all this crap had to be unloaded and squared away when the rest of the detachment got on site. The good news is we didn’t have anywhere else to be or any pressing social engagements for about eight months. After what seemed like a never-ending day, the Dude and I set up our fold-out cots in the tent that had been reserved for our detachment, unpacked our personal gear and racked out.

The next day the rest of the detachment arrived, and setup commenced in a serious way. SIGINT work is very particular; everything you work with is classified at the highest levels, so your average Marine isn’t allowed access to the stuff. This meant we had to build ourselves a secured compound within our base to restrict access to only intel Marines and senior Battalion staff, and that meant HESCO walls two high, topped with razor wire and with a single point of entry controlled by a cipher lock. This little compound is known in the business as a SCIF (pronounced “skiff”); explaining the acronym would be tedious and boring, but that’s what it’s called. Anyway, we couldn’t operate at all until the SCIF was set up and our gear was functional, so everything had to wait until the tents were up, our perimeter was secure, and our local network was online (pulling encrypted Top-Secret internet from space, because that’s how we rolled; we were undoubtedly the most gangsta nerds ever). Working straight through wasn’t too bad; you’d be amazed what you can accomplish with fifteen Marines when no one gets to sleep until the job is done. What we ended up with was a walled compound about 80’ x 50’; two large tents in the center housed a workspace consisting of plastic tables and folding chairs, with computer workstations and a floor-mounted server rack. Out of the side of one of the tents stuck our comm truck, with its satellite dish pointed at the sky and its mounted encryption gear and routers forming a wall of the tent. Network cables were slung from the tent ceiling in a crisscrossing grid, with fluorescent lighting hanging down below; radios and comm gear were stacked in the corners. Everything was powered by two huge diesel generators that sat out in the compound (and need to be refueled daily), and power cables snaked under the tent walls to junction boxes scattered around the workspace. We had just built from scratch in a little over a day the dingy little Shangri-La where we would be spending the majority of our lives for the deployment.

4.

We were a small detachment; like I said there were only fifteen of us, at least initially. We worked twelve to fourteen hour days, seven days a week, with no days off, splitting the shifts so that there was always someone to man the watch floor and monitor the constant flood of incoming data. There was me and the Dude, who were the chief nerds of the detachment (we kept the network running, kept the comm channels open and dual-hatted as analysts when required, along with any other bitch-work that could be found for us, for such is the life of a combat sys-admin), one at night and one during the day.

There was White Noise, who we’ve met; as I said, he was our radio repairman and general maintenance tech.

There were our actual analysts – the heart of our operation; four in total, two at a time hunched over their keyboards in the back, caught up in the matrix and emerging only to sleep, eat, and shit. There was our four-man collections team, who would be based out at one of the FOBs (Forward Operating Bases) with a grunt platoon and feed us data.

There was Cpl. Tommy Direnzo, who wasn’t an intel Marine, but a diesel mechanic (and a damn fine one) we’d brought along to fix our trucks. Tommy was a great mechanic and a great shooter, but not the brightest dude you’d ever meet; he was a redneck from rural Washington State, and proud of it.

There was SSgt Eddie “Rambo” Ramirez, our Magic Mexican, who was an electrician and combat engineer by trade; he kept our generators running, kept our power lines hot and was just a generally handy motherfucker to have around. Although only a Staff Sergeant, he’d been in for twelve years and bled Marine Corps green. Rambo was from South Texas; he was born in the US to immigrant parents (legal ones, he was always quick to add), and he was constantly talking about how he hated illegal immigrants. He would say that if he wasn’t in the Corps he would have joined the Border Patrol so he could “shoot some beaners.” He had a thing for Irish girls, and he’d married a plump, pale-skinned white girl named Misty.

Finally, there was GySgt Ed Goldman (or just “Guns” for short) and Captain Mark Hightower (our commanding officer), who split shifts running the watch floor. Guns was in his late thirties, had been in the Corps for about seventeen years and was a couple of years away from retirement. He was an easy-going Jewish guy with a penchant for big girls and shitty vampire novels, the ones where either the gutsy female protagonist is a half-vampire/demon/werewolf, or she falls in love with one. I have never seen one man with such a huge collection of pictures of girls with big asses either; Guns would talk at length about how Kim Kardashian had achieved perfection in the female form, and alternately about his dream of becoming a dentist after he retired from the Corps. A Jewish dentist, right? He just figured it was the thing to do.

Captain Hightower, on the other hand, was a different story entirely. Standing at only 5’6”, Hightower was a highly capable intelligence officer, but had a bad case of short-man’s syndrome. Constantly aggressive with subordinates, he was an extremely difficult man to work for, and had established a reputation for being a rigid and demanding boss. As the sys-admins, the Dude and I bore the brunt of his temper, and we took to referring to him as Napoleon behind his back. As the deployment would wear on, we’d switch up shifts to rotate who had to deal with him.

Everyone in the detachment had done multiple combat deployments except me; this wasn’t anyone’s first rodeo but mine. But Afghanistan would prove to be something new for all of them.

5.

Within a week, the entire Battalion had arrived at Bastion, and the infantry began moving out to their FOBs in platoon-sized elements (usually around forty to fifty men; more if reinforced with heavy weapons teams). 2/7 had an AO (Area of Operations) roughly the size of Pennsylvania, comprising most of northern Helmand and part of Farah province to the northwest. This meant that there were platoons scattered all over the AO in little FOBs carved out of destroyed towns and abandoned (or commandeered) buildings, often hundreds of miles from the main base at Bastion, and depending on convoys of supplies to sustain them. Our mission, as I said earlier, was only to train the ANP and ANA, so they could eventually take care of the security of the countryside and we could all go home. Considering this, 2/7 had deployed with a significantly lighter footprint that most Marine combat units; we had no organic air support or artillery units with us in theater. Unfortunately, we were to discover that just “training and advising” wasn’t going to cut it. As the platoons pushed out to their FOBs and began to conduct security patrols over the following week, it became apparent that the situation was significantly worse than we had been led to believe. Although the Brits had been in the area for some time and been doing competent work, some of the areas that had formerly been under the control of allied nations had fallen almost completely to the Taliban. The Italians in particular had been making deals with the Taliban in their AO, agreeing to halt security patrols in exchange for the ceasing of attacks on Italian troops. Consequently, as the Marines pushed out into these areas, the local Taliban fighters decided to push back and gauge the strength of the newcomers. After all, most of the foreigners they’d dealt with recently had been pushovers.

For the first three weeks, we had at least one TIC (Troops in Contact, shorthand for a combat engagement of some kind) every day, and the casualties began to mount immediately. We would sit in the SCIF and watch the reports come in in real-time; FOBs that had just received some light small-arms and IDF (indirect-fire, like mortars and rockets) were beginning to come under attack by groups of one to two hundred fighters. Without air support or artillery on station, Marines and the multi-nationals that sometimes shared their FOBs were forced to repel the assaults with nothing but small arms and mortars. And getting a medevac on the scene in time would prove difficult at times due to the distances involved. Honestly, it’s hard to explain the feeling when you see an “urgent surgical” medevac request that gets downgraded to “routine,” and you know it’s because the guy died before anyone could get to him.

In boot camp, a good deal of your time later in the cycle is spent on studying basic Marine Corps customs and traditions. There’s a test before you can graduate, and it covers a wide range of topics; everything from old Corps lore, like Medal of Honor recipients and important battles, to weapon statistics and warfighting doctrine. In true Marine Corps fashion, instruction is conducted by a Drill Instructor intoning a question, and the entire platoon screaming the answer back by rote at the top of their lungs like lunatics. One of those pieces of ingrained knowledge concerned what is referred to as the MAGTF, or Marine Air-Ground Taskforce. Basically, this says that no matter what the size of the expeditionary force being deployed, it deploys as a completely self-sufficient unit, with a ground combat element, an air element, and a logistical and support element. Every brand new, boot-ass, no-rank private that hits the fleet has had it drilled into him over and over again that Marines come to town with the whole show. And here we were in Afghanistan scrambling for allied air assets to get to wounded guys before their life or death situation became “routine.” It wasn’t exactly conducive to high morale.

As the high-intensity “getting to know you” period progressed, the tempo began to level off into a more reasonable pace. That’s to say, instead of constant combat, the grunts out on the FOBs were just taking IDF on a semi-regular basis, and they were only in contact most of the time they went out on patrol (as opposed to having their FOB assaulted directly). What seemed at first to be insanity slowly became normal. As everyone adjusted, the pounding noise settled into a continuous dull roar.

6.

In contrast to the non-stop excitement out on the FOBs, life on Bastion for the POGs was a festival of tedium; a mind-numbing, repetitive chore that seemed to stretch on forever. It’s a common phenomenon that’s referred to as Groundhog Day (you know, like the Bill Murray flick). When you work twelve hours every day (usually more like fourteen), and you sleep forty yards from where you work, and there’s nothing to do and nowhere to go except the chow-hall and the British convenience store, every day is pretty much exactly the same. For us, no matter what time we got up or went to bed, the tent we shared with twenty other guys was always pitch black; when you’re on shift work there’s always someone sleeping, so the light never comes on. So you’d wake up, get dressed in the dark, walk over to the SCIF, man your post for twelve or so hours, go get some chow, work out, get a shower, walk up to the British shop and get a soda and some magazines and go to bed. Rinse and repeat, every day. The only thing that really broke up the monotony was furious masturbation and the occasional rocket attack. There’s an old cliché (I can’t recall the source) that war is long periods of mind-numbing boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror, and that sounds about right to me. It’s funny, but no one tells you how fucking boring war is.

We trudged on that way for months, nothing changing, most of us never leaving Bastion except for Rambo and White Noise, who’d convoy out to one of the FOBs to fix gear or deliver parts on a fairly regular basis. Everything began to lose its flavor; even the rocket strikes, while still enough to get the heart going, didn’t produce nearly the same sense of panic as earlier. We’d seen too many, and they always seemed to miss anything important. Both the Dude and I badgered the shit out of Guns to get on one of the convoys out to the FOBs, because even though it would be shitty, at least it would be something different. Plus, truth be told, our team guys had all been in contact more than once and were all due combat action ribbons, and we were a little jealous. But the conversations always went the same way:

“C’mon, Guns, you can spare one of us for a day. SSgt Jones is going out to deliver stuff to the team, why not let me or Dude go instead? SSgt can watch the comms, and you know he’d be happy to give up his spot.”

“Yeah, and who’s going to run this gear if one of you slap-dicks gets his balls blown off rolling around this shithole? What am I gonna do, work the other one twenty-four hours a day until we can get a replacement? Not only no, but fuck no. I’d shackle you pricks to your desk and throw a shit bucket in the corner if I thought I could get away with it.”

“Thanks, Guns. You are truly the wind beneath my wings.”

“You’re fuckin’ right I am. Hey, c’mere and look at this pic. You see how big that ass is? God damn.”

7.

As it so happened, the Dude and I were about to catch a break (or so we thought). Turned out, we had a new piece of gear being sent in special for our team in the field to use, and it required both of us to be on site to set it up. So, at 0500 one morning about five months in, me, Dude and Tommy D (the diesel mechanic) saddled up with the supply convoy headed out to the FOB at Musa Qaleh, where our team was currently located. We had ten vehicles in all; an MRAP (Mine Resistant Ambush Protected, an armored vehicle designed to withstand IEDs) leading the way, with four gun trucks (armored Hummers with a mounted 240 up top), three open top 7-ton troop trucks and two big haulers each towing a cargo container full of supplies for the boys on the FOB. The three of us were in the back of one of the 7-tons with three docs (Navy medics embedded with Marine units; the Marine Corps doesn’t have medical personnel) and two Afghani nationals serving as local interpreters. As we made our way toward the base perimeter, the call came back from the driver, “Go Condition One!” at which point we all chambered a round and the convoy got under way.

Musa Qaleh is only about fifty miles from Bastion as the crow flies, but fifty miles on a convoy is nothing like fifty miles on a highway. First off, as I said, there’s only one paved road in Afghanistan: Route 1, a semi-highway that makes a giant loop around the country. Unfortunately, none of the FOBs where we had people were on this road, and using dirt roads wasn’t an option due to the ease of planting IEDs on dirt roads, so our convoys went off-road by a different route every time. Second, bad terrain and security checks meant your top speed would average somewhere between five and fifteen mph, depending on if you found any IEDs or not or, God forbid, one found you.

For the first hour or two, we rode mostly in silence, enjoying the dark and the relatively cool weather under the weight of all our gear. One thing you can say about Afghanistan: the night sky is magnificent. There’s almost zero ambient light, and you’re at high elevation, so the sky has more stars than I’ve seen before or since. I can remember some magical moments, jacking off at night in a porta-shitter with the starlight streaming through the vents in the roof and the interior bathed in the soft blue light from the porn on my iPod. Anyway, we rode in relative comfort at the outset, but as the sun came up, the temperature started to rise quickly, and by 7:30 it was up above 100 degrees and still rising. We rode along at a snail’s pace, up and down the wadis (old dried out riverbeds), baking under our gear in the back of the roofless vehicle. The landscape was still as barren as ever, but occasionally there would be a shock of green where a stream or underground spring bubbled through, and a cluster of mud-walled compounds would surround the area. We rolled straight through fallow poppy and marijuana fields, the locals coming out to stare at us as we passed, with the children waving and hoping for someone to toss an MRE or some bottled water from the vehicles. And everywhere we went, there would be locals shadowing the route on little two-stroke Honda motorcycles, carefully making sure to stay far enough away that we wouldn’t shoot at them. Just watching.

“I can’t believe that people live here on purpose. This place fucking blows.”

“Yeah, Tommy, I hear ya. I hate the fucking desert.”

“Hey, Jimmy, these people are all Muslim, right?”

“Heh. Yeah, I’d imagine so.”

“Don’t they have to do that thing where they go to Mecca or something?”

“It’s called the Hajj, Tommy. And yeah, every devout Muslim is supposed make a pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in their lives.”

“Ok, so where the fuck is Mecca?”

“Seriously? Christ, man. It’s in Saudi Arabia.”

“What am I, a fucking geologist?”

“That’s geographer, jackass.”

“Fuck you, how ‘bout that? Ok, so how far is Mecca from here?”

“About two thousand miles I guess, give or take.”

“So how the fuck do these people get there? Do they walk?”

“Christ, I don’t know. Maybe, I guess.”

“Ok, so isn’t Mecca like, halfway to civilization? If they walked all that way, when they’re done why don’t they just keep walking? Why would you turn around and come back here?”

“Dude. Seriously, bro? Tommy, sometimes I can’t tell if you’re the dumbest guy I know or the smartest.”

We rolled onwards, occasionally stopping to dispose of IEDs we found along the way. According to the docs there were more than normal, and that’s why the trip was going so slowly. We finally rolled into Musa Qaleh after nearly twelve hours of roasting under the desert sun. Musa Qaleh was a walled compound built out of the side of the town, with an actual river (of sorts) running right through the center, making it somewhat prime real estate. It was a joint base, with Marines and Brits living in a small tent camp, complete with wooden latrines, PVC pipe embedded at an angle in the ground for open urinals (the ol’ piss tube), along with some field showers and a little impromptu mess hall the Brits had built out of plywood—all this in addition to the HESCOS, mortars and machine gun emplacements, of course.

When we arrived, Tommy went to work fixing the team’s truck and the Dude and I grabbed our new equipment from one of the cargo containers and made our way up to the ramshackle stone building (an actual stone building was a rarity in these parts) that the team had commandeered for its workspace, and proceeded to start our setup. We finally got to take off our helmets and flaks and put down our rifles. Well, Dude did, anyway. Heading up to the roof to get our satellite uplink working, our team leader said, “You need to put your gear back on and take your rifle

—By Henry Murphy IV