The ramp opened to a spring breeze and a view of snowcapped mountains. I ignored the engine noise and the dull ache for what I’d left back home, and took in the view. I stepped off the plane, caught that first groggy whiff of jet fuel and my body instantly registered where I was. I was back in Afghanistan.
We all grabbed our gear, lined up, and walked across the tarmac. Personnel specialists divided us up by service and unit, collected orders and identification cards, and led us to a bare-walled room with airport seats. We watched a welcome video, sort of like a corporate video for new hires but this one spoke of the mission, rules of warfare, and what to do during attacks.
From there, I became “my replacement.” For the next couple days, that’s how the guy I was replacing introduced me. For the bosses, the conversation typically went:
“Hey sir, I’d like to introduce my replacement.” “Alright, welcome, we’re glad to have you. You been here before?” [Firm handshake, eye contact, smile] “Yes sir.” “Good, good, well, welcome to the fight. You have big shoes to fill. We’ll see you around.” “You bet, sir. Good to meet you.” [Firm handshake, eye contact, smile]
I endured dozens of these conversations as the replaced took me around. I spent hours shaking hands, completing paperwork, situating equipment, and orienting myself. Exhaustion from the 9-time zone difference harassed me. They say it takes one day per time zone to fully adjust.
On day two, I was ready for the replaced to go. The quarters and work areas were too small for both of us, and after he gave me the rundown I wanted to get started on my own. Midway through Day Three, I said, “Dude, you should cut out. Head over to the gym or BX or something… we’re good to go here.”
I was pissed the first few days. My body and mind rejected everything about this place… the unclear future of larger Afghan endeavor, the countless petty rules, the fact that my tour had just begun, the difficulty of even the most minor tasks, the inefficiencies, the fractured flow of information, and the vague yet ever-present threat.
I adapted and my irritation turned into indifference, then strangely, acceptance. As the days wore on, the constant noise of aircraft, generators, and vehicles faded. I became numb to the barrage of smells: citrus disinfectants, burning trash, sewage, sweat, and diesel. Typically, I feel half-nauseous for the first week and this time was no different. I drank 7-Up and ate just enough of the blandest food. My gut slowly adjusted to the dining hall offerings.
There’s an overarching pressure to accept, or at least not publically acknowledge, the weirdness of these deployed bases. Most people try to act cool, like nothing is awry, when nearly everything is tilted. Only here does a computer screensaver say “Got Bleeding? Use a junctional tourniquet!” or “Whole blood and platelet screening,” or “Salsa Night Every Saturday,” or “Controlled detonation in five minutes.”
Troops dine with machine guns and pistols, amidst the civilian contractors and foreign nationals imported into Afghanistan to cook and serve the food. World Wrestling or UFC streams on the TVs in the background. Civilian computer techs and other workers sport beards, ball caps, and tactical cargo pants mimicking the special operator look. A friend of mine called this “deployment chic, the carefully cultivated look of the war-time contractor.”
The other night a group of surgeons sat behind me, and I caught one shred of their conversation, “You take the diaphragm out and the body opens like a book.”
I’ve come to expect the most random and ironic experiences in these places. Odd convergences no longer surprise me. One day, I’m sharing a table with guys who could be Navy SEALS. Minutes later I’m joking with a group of young motor pool soldiers. I’ve crossed paths with several people I hadn’t seen since before the wars started. In conversations here, it usually doesn’t take long to find common ground.
The T-walls, bunkers, sandbags, concertina wire, guard towers, floodlights, gates, and tactical vehicle parking have faded into normalcy. I’ve learned to appreciate the rainbows of Conex containers punctuating the base’s primary colors of concrete, tan, and olive drab. Coalition forces have occupied worn Russian hangars and office buildings for more than a decade now. Some bear scars of past battles, bullet holes and shrapnel marks, and I’ve wondered if the halls impart their lessons to those inside. In one, a display of rusted Soviet weapons, unearthed from around the base, recalls a war museum… a war museum within a war.
I’m amazed at how polite people are in warzones. I’ve chalked this up to the fact that nearly everyone is armed. Or, maybe it’s a sense that we’re all locked down in this compound together. Despite technology, there’s a tangible isolation within each base’s walled perimeter. Events in other parts of this country, such as the recent assassination of three doctors or the British helicopter crash that killed five, might as well have occurred on the other side of the globe. Regardless, people make an extra effort to open doors and offer help. Drivers stop traffic to wave pedestrians across. Everyone smiles and says, please, thank you, sir, and ma’am.
But, despite the appearances, this isn’t the Afghanistan of ten, two, or even one year ago. The signs of a dying war are everywhere. Rows of MRAPs that recall Star Wars vehicles await their fate in fenced yards across the base. Forklifts shuffle weathered pallets of gear lining the airfield in a super-sized game of Tetris. Teams manage and sort the constant flow of surplus riding in on semis from closed bases. Temporary buildings from years ago lie bulldozed into two-story rubble piles within view of new construction rising from the dust, the products of half-decade-old contracts.
These days, there’s more talk of standards, Article 15s, and stories of people getting sent home for minor infractions. When I arrived, I wore a patch from a previous trip, and a senior NCO barely introduced himself before telling me the patch’s border was the wrong color. I said it was the right color just last year, and he said things change. Later, another senior NCO chased me down the hall to gripe about how my pants met my boots. Another thought I needed to shave better. I’ve been corrected more in a week here than in my entire career. These beefs aren’t worth the fight. It’s better to smile and say okay, thanks.
When the mission becomes murky, and operations slow, bureaucracy creeps in to fill the gaps. The young troops I’ve worked with are motivated, positive, and doing amazing work in spite of all this. At a meeting, a chaplain said “Morale seems to be up… at least for those headed home.” People in the room chuckled, and he may have been joking, but I’m not sure.
The key to mitigate this noise is to get into a routine, or battle rhythm as they say, and I’m nearly there. The days are beginning to blur, each one an echo of the last.
I’ve settled in for the duration and found a rhythm for the war’s end.
Editor’s Note: Nick Willard is the pen name of a service member serving in Afghanistan during the closing days of America’s longest war. He will write what he sees in an ongoing feature for The Daily Beast. Biographical details have been changed to protect his identity.