Life on the FOB – Day 32 in Afghanistan: “They jus’ turn rounds into cassings.”
Its 0730 when the infantry advisers start tossing their gear into their vehicles and making the 1k drive to the ANA base. The FOB requires that every vehicle be “ground guided”, i.e. someone has to walk in front of the vehicle until exiting the FOB. The general rule of thumb is that members of a vehicle take turns ground guiding. It is my turn so today I am walking ahead of the vehicle when another of the white, dusty, Toyota Land Cruisers drives alongside me. SGT U., from New Zealand, pokes his head out of the vehicle, waves, smiles and shouts, “G’day Brian! You know the word of the day?” “No, you mean the challenge word?” “Nah, mate,” SGT U. continues, “Its, ‘Don’t let the Afghan’s wear ya down,’ bro! Have a good’un!” And SGT U. speeds past and leaves me in a cloud of dust.” At the time I had thought, “wonder why he says that.” But it was something of a sign of the day to come. The down turned heads of the advisers seemed to define the days comportment. High heat, disorganized ANA, missing equipment, denied access, uncooperative instructors, late starts, partial finishes: these things seemed to define the day.
When we get to the “cottage” it appears, at first that all will go well. There is ammunition for the students and the students are on time and have already headed out to the range with their ANA instructors. SGT P., CPT H., and I pile into a Toyota with one of the “terps”, named Skinny. Skinny is not very skinny, but he is not too overweight either. He is one of the more Americanized Afghan interpreters and he tells me, “I’ve been working with the Americans for years so I picked up some of the lingo.”
With the recent celebration of the Russians leaving Afghanistan, the threats of an upcoming Taliban “Tet Offensive,” everyone is anxious about security. That means concern for the safety of the interpreters. Typically the interpreters refuse to where body armor. Today, the combat advisers tell Skinny that if he wants to work today he has to wear body armor, especially because live ammunition will be involved in the training. Skinny usually dresses in a dapper manner. So he complains bitterly about how the body armor makes him look. An adviser jokes, “come on Skinny, not like your cruising for a date!” Skinny reluctantly puts on the body armor. But because he is not skinny, he has some difficulty reaching around and adjusting the armor so that it fights right. CPT H. ends up having to tug and lurch Skinny around until he can get the armor situated properly. CPT H. slaps Skinny on the back after sucess is reached, only to realize that Skinny is only wearing soft armor. “Where are the plates?” CPT H. asks. No one knows. CPT H. searches through the vehicles for the plates. Skinny finally says, “Fuck the plates, man. Its hot.” SGT P. says, “At least it will stop shrapnel. Better than nothing. Lets go!”
We head out to the 25m range and immediately encounter a problem. The Personal Security Detail instructors are out on the 25m range with their students. There is another range next to it, but it looks unused. CPT Y., the ANA officer in charge of the group to be trained today, comes down from the 25m range to speak with us. CPT Y. tells us we can’t use the range because it has already been booked. SGT P. frowns and says, to CPT Y. via Skinny, “Yeah, but you were supposed to book this range for us. Its on the POI [program of instruction].” CPT Y. says something and Skinny says, “He says the infantry advisers are supposed to book the ranges. I don’t know, he’s crazy. I think he’s just lazy.” Skinny then steps over towards me and whispers, “later when he is gone I will tell you about him. He’s crazy. I don’t like him much.”
SGT P. and CPT Y. get into an argument about the procedures for booking the range. But what is already apparent is that the PSD team is training and we likely will not get them thrown off the range. So SGT P. calls up the range master, another captain, and asks him to respond to our locations so that we can hash out why we have 40 students sitting idle in the back of an International Truck when they should be learning how to group shots on the 25m range.
The Range Master arrives and steps out of his pickup with a piece of paper in his right hand. He walks over to SGT P., Skinny, CPT Y. and a couple of ANA sergeants who have gathered around us. In perfect ANA form he asks SGT P., “Do you have your range form?” SGT P. argues with the Range Master that it is not the responsiblity of the advisers to book ranges and that the forms are irrelevant since the POIs are approved by COL Z., the garrison commander, and the POI dictates when the infantry school gets the range. The Range Masters calmly and quietly asks SGT P., again, “do you have a range form?” SGT P. turns red, and quietly says, “No.” The Range Master just shrugs his shoulders, pats SGT P. gently on the shoulder and says, through Skinny, “I can do nothing. But, for you. For today. I will let you go to the 100 m range. But tomorrow I need the form.” SGT P. thanks the Range Master, and grumbles to me and CPT H., “Fucking form. They don’t need it! This is the first time they have asked for it and its only because they let it get double booked and they don’t want to fix it or take responsibility.” The Range Master, even though he doesn’t speak English, seems to understand that SGT P. is rather pissed off. He walks back over to SGT P. and says, in very broken English, “You come, sit down, have tea, we talk.” SGT P. thanks the Range Master and waves at all of us to load up into the Toyota. As we get into the vehicle, CPT Y. comes over and says to Skinny, “You need to give us targets.” SGT P., says, “Its not our job to give you targets. Why don’t you have targets.” Skinny asks CPT Y. and CPT Y. reiterates, “We have no targets, you must give us targets.” SGT P., exhasperated, says, “We don’t have targets for you. Can you just get some white paper?” CPT Y replies, “But there is not target on the paper.” SGT P. says, “You have markers, right? You can just draw some “x’s” on them so the students have someting to group around. That is all you need.” CPT Y. frowns, “We need paper.”
SGT P. is clearly angry. I ask him how he manages his temper and he says, “Well it does no good if I shout or get pissed at these guys. They know I can’t do anything.” Another adviser, SGT M. had told me something several days prior on the sharpshooter course. “Years ago I would have gotten mad. I used to have some real anger management issues and I got some counseling. Now, when some little shit like this gets on my nerves, I just push it aside. Getting angry won’t make him a better soldier and if I go off on him all its likely to do is make him more of a threat. It pisses me off but I just brush it off.”
We head back to the “cottage” and start making phone calls to try and locate targets. None can be found. We try to find paper. None can be found. So we head up to the 100 m range to join the instructors and students. They are already shooting… at blank pieces of wood. SGT P. sighs, ” They jus’ turn’n rounds into cassings. They have nothing to target so they can’t group. They can’t cover up the last guys shots so you can’t tell which holes are yours and which are the other guys. They are just shooting to shoot. Guess its familiarization.”
Since we are on the 100m range the advisers constantly have their heads on a swivel. “Encounters” with shooters had become more frequent, and though none of the shots fired were in any danger of hurting ANA or otherwise, the rash of shootings of advisers and killings of ANA in the recent week were enough to keep everyone “frosty.” CPT H. and SGT P both stood with rifles raised, to use their scopes to scan a low ridge, after CPT H. spotted the movement of two distant figures on a low rising ridge, just at the edge of shooting range and in the general direction of where shots had been fired in the past. The advisers decided that figures were too far away to worry about, but periodically they re-checked the area to see if anyone moved up closer.
As we watch the instructors “teach” grouping, largely by shouting at and/or kicking their students, CPT H. observes that an increasing number of goats are surrounding us. Several minutes later, two goat herders from a nearby village pop up over a draw. CPT H. turns to me and says, Goat herders. Huh. Think I’ll go have a chat.” As he starts walking over, Skinny runs after him, “Water, water. Take some water bottles with you. They won’t have any.” CPT H. stops by the Toyota and grabs a couple bottles of water. But as he starts back toward the herders, the ANA captain, CPT Y. intercepts. CPT H. briefly talks to CPT Y. about the lack of targets. He asks him about a pile of what appears to be discarded wood behind the cottage. “Do you think, maybe, you could the scraps to build frames for targets? You know, so something like today is prevented?” CPT Y. seems uninterested. “No. That belongs to the S4 [logistics]. Impossible. We have no nails.” Then in what caught CPT H., Skinny and I by suprise, he says via Skinnhy, “Give me a water.” He sticks out his hand, palm up, fingers waving toward us– what looks like an impatient gesture. Skinny turns to me and says, “That’s what he said. He is rude!” CPT H. explains the water is for the herders. CPT Y. looks briefly at the herders and simply says, “Water” with his hand outstretched and waiting. CPT H. gives CPT. Y the water and then immediately goes back to the previous conversation. Later CPT H. tells me, “I just gave him the water, otherwise he wouldn’t let me finish talking to him about the targets.” CPT H. makes the following proposal, “If I talk to the S4 and get his permision and get you some nails, can you get a carpenter to put together some target frames so that in the future you have what you need to train and aren’t shooting at bits of plywood? Would that help with how you want to train?” CPT Y., nods his head yes, “If, you talk to the S4 and get us nails.” He then nods his head once more and walks away. Skinny shakes his head, “I tell you! He is crazy!” I ask Skinny what he means. “He only cares about himself. He wants the water. But no please, no thank you. He doesn’t care about the students. He wants CPT H. to do all the work. He is lazy.”
CPT H., meanwhile moves to the goat herders who have taken a squat and are watching the ANA train while the goats mill around military vehicles. Skinny catches up and the four begin what appears to be a fairly casual conversation about goat herding. CPT H., for example, asks if the herders are brothers and if so, who is the oldest.” Skinny translates throughout. The one on the right of the photo (bellow) says that he is the oldest. CPT H. then inquires about how many goats the young herder has, where he sells them, and what a good goat costs. The herder answers that the goats are about $60/head, but he only sells baby goats. He has about 60 goats (for now), and will sell the “kids” in Jalalabad. CPT H. then starts asking about the small children that follow the ANA around, picking up brass casings after training shoots. The eldest herder replies by pointing to the village behind us and saying, “They are very fast!” referring to the speed of their hands in picking up brass. CPT H. also asks about how long the herders have been living and grazing in the area, where the best grass is, and, importantly, from an intelligence point of view, who the other herders are and whether or not anyone knew has been in “his” grazing area. CPT H. gets no information on new herders or anything that might indicate who has been shooting at us. After a few more casual questions, and some drinking from water bottles, the group parts ways.
When we return from the short chat with the herders, we go back and watch the ANA instructors and their students. The shooting is, even taking into account that there are no targets up, pretty bad. One ANA soldier shoots the ground two feet in front of face. He is niether in a good shooting position nor does he appear to be looking at where he is shooting. To the point that he appears to be looking around while randomly pulling the trigger. Of course the shot that lands two feet in front of the students face, catches him by suprise, as he is sprayed with a plume of dust and rock. Wahid, the instructor, storms over, shouts and gives the student a good kick the thight. However, this pedegogical strategy seems to not have the intended effect, as yet another shoots ground six feet in front of face, also causing blow back. Wahid also gives this ANA student the personal touch of a quick whack of the hand to the back of his helmet. Wahid, pulls all the students off the line and forms the students up into their platoon formation. SGT P. goes and has a talk with Wahid, as he is also flustered by the lack of shooting discipline he observed. Wahid leads the students in dry fire exercises about shooting position. But fill stands back, head down, shaking and comments, “If we went off to scoff [lunch] right now, they would just stop what they’re doing.” As the sun beats down, the advisers retreat to the shade of their vehicles. Within about five minutes of us disappearing behind the vehicles, the dry firing stops and the students are to be seen, sitting or laying around, listening to music on their cell phones, or making phone calls. SGT P. turns to all of us and utters one word, “Soff?” Three head nods lead to the silent piling into the vehicle.
As we prepare to leave, our vehicle comes to a lurching stop and stalls. After two more tries, SGT P. gets her going and we speed off to “scoff” with the intention of returning in an hour to get back to training. The ANA are eating in the field, and a truck brings them their food: naan, rice, and green onions.
Despite SGT P.’s best intentions, our attempt to return to the 100m range, literally, stalls. As we climb the steep road into the base of the mountains, the engine stalls. Sgt P. starts it again, and we go a bit further before the engine dies again. Finally we get to the top of one of the foothills when the vehicle finally comes to a halt on a steep incline. To our left is the mountain and to our right is a steep drop off into a draw. There is no where to go. Sgt P. radios for Gully ( a nickname) who is driving an armored Land Cruiser in front of us to turn around. We have to tow the vehicle to the top. We stop and crack open the hood. However, no one knows much about vehicles and it appears that there is little to be done. We find an intersection and push the vehicle until it is turned around. The only idea is to get the vehicle pointed down hill, get it rolling, and hope that the manual transmission vehicle will just start. We are lucky, and SGT P. gets the vehicle started as it rolls down the steep road. Unfortuantely, he is unable to slow the vehicle down without stalling it out. So Skinny, CPT H. and I end up chasing after the vehicle and having to jump into it while it slowly continues to move down the road.
“Fuck it. We’re done,” SGT P. says, and the day comes to an early end.