Bombs Bursting

Dodging Rockets in Afghanistan as the Taliban’s Fighting Season Begins

Rockets are raining down on bases in Afghanistan as the Taliban’s fighting season begins, and one military officer is taking extra precautions while he dodges the incoming fire.

Franco Pagetti / VII

Don’t let anyone say that the war is almost over. There’s no almost in Afghanistan. The Taliban’s spring offensive kicked off this week and attacks are up all across the country. More often now, rockets fill the sky with the Taliban’s lethal messages announcing that the war won’t end quietly. The ground explodes and for us, the last troops left to finish out the war, we dodge the deliveries but understand the message.

Living with the threat of random death raining down leads to a strange way of life, a pathology of indirect fire.

As my trips to war zones stack up, I’ve become more cautious with nearly all I do. Everything becomes a sort of calculation against the geometry and parabolas of the IDF. I stay close to the t-walls when walking around base. I take mental notes of the nearest bunkers just like emergency exits on airplanes. I minimize time in crowds and chow halls and take meals to go more often than not. I maximize time in hardened buildings and only return to my thin-walled quarters for sleep. I give fuel trucks wide passage. I steer clear of the shit trucks, black water tanks, and port-a-johns. I’d hate to get blown up and covered by sewage. One of my greatest phobias is getting rocketed while showering or using the bathroom, so I keep those trips hasty. It’d be a tough decision to hunker down on the piss-drenched linoleum or, worse yet, naked in the standing water, soap, and man scum of our community showers.

Maybe I’m a little more superstitious. When a colleague says, “We haven’t taken any rockets for a while,” I knock on wood and reply, “Don’t jinx us, bro.” Then we usually laugh, at least until the next alarm sounds. Any break in the daily routine makes me suspicious. During family milestones, like my son’s recent birthday, I’m especially careful. I couldn’t imagine ruining my kids’ birthdays for the rest of their lives if something happened. And, I lay low on holidays since the bad guys tend to lob rockets to help us celebrate.

These habits don’t affect my ability to do my job. They aren’t too obvious, and potentially not all that effective, but they provide an illusion of some shred of control, so that’s worth something.

The warning sounds just like the iPhone “Alarm” tone punctuated by an urgent male voice saying “Incoming! Incoming! Incoming!” There’s something about the panicked pitch of that guy’s voice mixed with the old-school horn that gets me. It’s seared into my brain and generates an instant reaction anytime I hear it.

At home, my wife knows not to not use that tone, and here I’ve asked my roommate to make another selection for his wake-up call. When that warning sounds, people are supposed to lie flat on the floor, cover their heads, and wait. Sometimes there are explosions and other times there’s only silence. But, there’s always the adrenaline rush tingle and a tsunami of ever-changing images in my mind: a camera flash of my wife and kids in afternoon sun; an escape to the pines on a snowy peak in the dim winter light; a slow-mo of the wall opening up to dozens of ragged hunks of cartwheeling shrapnel; the thud of the rusty 107mm round punching a hole in the ceiling and landing impotent to my side; a slow jog on a fogged California beach; or maybe a terrible light, then nothing.

When people are together and a door slams, or something bangs on the floor, everyone shuts up and whips their heads toward the noise. Some people flinch. Then there’s a split-second pause until the sound registers as benign and life resumes. Usually people laugh at their colleagues’ jumpiness. Morbid humor is often the best way to deal with this absurdity. Some people call a nearby base that takes a lot of incoming fire “Rocket City.” Others joke about the rocket man, rockets’ red glare, bombs bursting in air, sky rockets in flight—afternoon delight, and Taliban 21-gun salutes.

Sometimes the rockets find their way into my home via a Skype or telephone connection. When the alarm sounds, I do my best to shield whoever I’m talking to with a quick, “Hey, I gotta run, love you.” My wife has only heard the alarm once through the phone, and that was during my last deployment. I explained that it was just training and then fessed up when I got home. Before this trip she said she wanted to know the truth. People have different views on telling loved ones about these realities. The vast consensus is we shouldn’t trouble them with the details. I haven’t made up my mind yet.

A friend of mine said, “Getting hit by a rocket is like winning the lottery, except the opposite.” And, statistics probably show that people are more likely to be run over by a vehicle than killed by an enemy attack. Getting prone often saves lives and plenty of stories exist to back that up. But, the reality is that if the rocket is coming for me, there’s little I can do. Plenty of stories back that up too. In June 2013, four soldiers—Sgt. Justin R. Johnson, 25, of Hobe Sound, Fla., Spc. Ember M. Alt, 21, of Beech Island, S.C., Spc. Robert W. Ellis, 21, of Kennewick, Wash., and Spc. William R. Moody, 30, of Burleson, Texas—were killed when a rocket hit their bus stop.

They say rockets explode up and out in an upside-down cone shape, and that’s why we’re trained to drop to the ground. In theory, someone could be relatively close to the explosion and survive since the shrapnel would zip by harmlessly overhead. But, the precaution falls flat on the upper floors of thin-walled barracks. Variables like weather, azimuth, elevation, crude launchers, and rocket viability quickly add up. More often than not the rockets prove ineffective, but it only takes one—a golden BB—to change everything.

On these bases there’s a lot of swagger and bullshit bravado, and some people don’t react when the alarm sounds. They’ve adopted their version of my dead Grandma’s fatalistic perspective, “If it’s my time, it’s my time.” Some have been combat-hardened, like Robert Duvall on the beach in Apocalypse Now, while others are simply too comfortable or ignorant.

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Some didn’t even know it was coming. The last people to die on this base in a rocket attack were two civilian contractors on Thanksgiving 2013. Albert Haas, a Vietnam veteran and airplane mechanic from Belleville, Ill., “did not believe he was in danger,” according to his younger brother Kenneth Haas, who told the Belleville News-Democrat, “Al used to talk about it. He goes, ‘But the rockets are from the old Russian era […] So the motors are still good, but the warheads are usually duds.’” Al’s colleague, Kathleen “Kitti” Pennell, a flight coordinator from Pungo, Va., also died when the rocket struck their barracks. Pennell’s husband, Joe, told the Virginian-Pilot, “They tell me she never knew what hit her, I hope they’re not just saying that to make me feel better.”

One evening I was dropping off laundry when the alarm sounded. I dropped to the floor, embraced my skull, and crossed my legs (they tell you to do that to protect your groin arteries), and whispered “fuck, fuck, fuck,” as I always do when the rockets come. After a couple distant explosions, the alarm stopped, and I heard the contract workers run out of the building. I held tight on the floor. A minute later, the workers came back in, and I asked where they went. In fragmented English, they replied, “The bunker, this no good for rockets,” and pointed at the thin ceiling. I was pissed they didn’t call for me as they dashed to the damn bunker right outside the building that I hadn’t noticed. I said, “What the hell, why didn’t you guys tell me?” They stared at me silently, then I smiled, and said, “Maybe next time.” Tally one for the superstition list… no more laundry at night.

A couple days ago, when the alarm went off during a meeting with a chaplain, we paused, looked at each other, said, “Really, it’s noon,” and went to the floor. Thankfully, I held off on my “fuck” mantra in the chaplain’s presence, and it was only a false alarm.

When the alarm sounded very early the other morning, I awoke and for a moment thought it was time to start the day. My roommate and I bullshitted as we lay on the floor. I listened to the sirens and chirping birds outside. Things continued longer than usual, and soon we decided to wear our body armor. I started texting a friend in L.A. He told me about a new job he was taking in the rainforests of Peru. I climbed back into my bed, laid under the weight of the body armor, and pictured the Amazon flowing deeper and deeper into the darkness.

The rage I feel when the rockets come surprises me. In that moment, I feel I would have no problem killing those trying to kill me. Sometimes coalition forces are able to capture or kill the rocket men in the aftermath of the launches. When I hear the after-action reports, I’m glad to hear of the enemy’s demise. The attacks feel personal, but I have to remind myself they’re not. I remember this classic conversation in Joseph Heller’s Catch-22:

“They’re trying to kill me,” Yossarian told him calmly. “No one’s trying to kill you,” Clevinger cried. “Then why are they shooting at me?” Yossarian asked. “They’re shooting at everyone,” Clevinger answered. “They’re trying to kill everyone.” “And what difference does that make?”

A couple weeks ago, I found a pea-sized shard of shrapnel from a past attack in a parking lot. Light-grey, jagged, and harmless on the pavement, I cradled it in my palm and imagined the carnage it intended as it blazed through the air.

They say you don’t hear the one that hits you. I don’t know if this is true, and I don’t want to find out. Some people over here say we shouldn’t worry about these attacks, that there’s little to be done, but I think I’ll listen to that old bit of war advice to keep my head down.

“Rockets often fall in the night sky of the skull, down long avenues of the brain’s myelin sheathing, over synapses and the rough structures of thought, they fall into the hippocampus, into the seat of memory— where lovers and strangers and old friends entertain themselves, unaware of the dangers headed their way…” — Brian Turner

Nick Willard is the pen name of a military officer currently serving in Afghanistan. Read all of Willard’s dispatches where he chronicles his deployment to Afghanistan to close out America’s longest war, here. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defense or United States Government.