Life on the FOB – Afghanistan Day 34 , The “PT Rebellion”
As I head out the door, 0728 hours, to meet up with the Brits, a colleague of mine shouts out, “Osama is dead!” All I can say is “What?” “Yeah he is dead, I just got woken up by my cell ringing. My brother says he’s dead.” My colleague can’t tell me how or whether their is any official statement, so I push out the gate and link up with the Brits by our vehicles. I see Smudge, one of my friends loading up a vehicle with ‘kit’ and I mumble, “I heard Osama is dead. You hear anything?” Smudge, SGT U. and CPT H. are all standing nearby, all say they have heard nothing about Osama. We load up and go on as if nothing has happened.
At the “cottage” someone asks CPT M. if he has heard whether or not Osama bin Laden is dead. “Someone said they heard it just now on BBC when I called back [to the infantry advisers office]. Don’t know anything else. Guess it could be true.” And so we go on with our day, not really knowing whether or not Osama is dead, and, I guess, it doesn’t really matter given practical challenges everyone is immediately confronted with.
The problems start almost immediately, so there isn’t time to reflect on the meaning or impact or even the veracity of the claim that Osama is dead. I am with the .50 cal heavy machine gun (HMG) course today. The problem seems to be that the Ministry of Defense has closed down all heavy weapons because they worry that the sound of grenades, RPGs, and the SPG-9 will get an already jumpy military to mistakenly engage with ANA that are simply out and about training. The spring “tet offensive”, as some call it, has the various garrisons on high alert and the security forces are out in force.
To the advisers, heavy weapons invovles some kind of ordinance, but it does not include the HMG. Unfortunately, for the advisers, while they had planned not to do RPGs and SPG-9, they had planned on doing live fire exercises with the HMG. The ANA at the garrison have interpreted the order from MOD to mean that the HMG cannot be fired. They say, “it is a ‘heavy’ weapon because it has the word ‘heavy’ in it.” The British advisers take pains to try and explain that the weapon should not be classified as a heavy weapon simply because it is called a “heavy machine gun.” That is not what MOD or the Brits mean by “heavy weapons.” “Heavy weapons” are explosives. However, the garrison staff does not see it that way. The lead adviser to the HMG course goes and speaks to the 2IC (abbreviation for Second in Charge). They brainstorm options like calling ISAF and MOD but in the end the 2IC says, “bottom line is, even if we get a letter from MOD it will be to late. The letter will only get us on the range tomorrow so we still have to figure out what to do today.” CSGT B. decides the best course of action is to try and do “range cards” on the dry fire range. I go with CSGT B. and a Gurka sergeant, SGT M., to one of the ANA officers offices. CSGT B. convinces the ANA officer to let him take the ANA students out to the dry fire range to fire.
We load up a Toyota pick up with several HMGs, and a couple of ANA and we roll out to the range…and wait…and wait.
About half an hour later, the ANA instructors and ANA students finally appear SGT N. watches as the ANA students unload the .50 cals from the back of his pickup truck. “They aren’t very big you know. You don’t see any really fat ANA guys. Its diet. Not like the PT [physical training].” I remarks, “I would guess, that given the ANA don’t show up most days on time that there would be a bit of resistance to PT.” SGT N. says, “You can call it that! One of the chiefs tried implementing PT a couple of months before you got here. It was a full on PT rebellion. The Chief made everyone come in early, like 6 o’clock. He and a couple other guys ended up, pistols out, hiding behind one of the burnt out Russian tanks. The ANA students, they were throwing rocks and whatever else they could get their hands on. The guys thought they were going to get overrun and were ready to start shooting. They’re lucky it didn’t turn into a bloody mess. That’s why I don’t know why they are planning to try it again. The ANA won’t have it. They’ll just revolt again! Their daft! They want to do PT at 0500. It’ll never work!”
SGT N. tells me that he has been lucky his ANA instructors. He points at a couple of them who are off helping the ANA students lug their heavy machine guns into place. “See these guys we can advise. They show up, they listen, and they teach. Some of them are just lazy bastards though. They don’t show up and they don’t ever listen to you.” No sooner is SGT N. done crooning about his HMG instructors than SGT M., a short, sturdy Gurka, comes walking down the hill. He has been doing range cards with the ANA up atop another hill comes down shaking his head. “They don’t understand range cards. They draw their emplacements and then draw trenches! But they aren’t going to be digging any trenches. This isn’t the Soviet army! I tell them this and the instructor tells me, ‘how are we to get ammunition between the HMGs?’ I tell you can walk it. That’s why you have to do a range card and set up sectors of fire so you can use cover fire to allow movement, and communications. But the instructor, he just wants to teach that they will dig trenches. But they never dig trenches! That’s not this war!”
We stand and watch as the ANA practice crawling and dragging the HMGs up and down hills to practice tactical set ups. Soon it is time for the ANA to break for lunch. They disassemble the HMG and begin walking back. And then, SGT N. notices one of the squads, “Are they skipping?” I turn and look and sure enough, half of a squad is skipping down the kill. Several others are on their cell phones. Two are holding hands, common among men here, their arms swinging back and forth as they trot down the hill. SGT N. says, “They look old. They have wrinkles and beards but they really are still kids. You forget that sometimes. They are just peasant kids who can’t read. Its a hard here, they look 10 years older than they are. Its like using meth [methamphetamine]. Look at ’em We have to make them into soldiers. But they still are here skipping down the side of the hill like this is a game. Down south they will learn the hard way that it won’t be a game. No more standing up and walking with your HMG. Once the lead starts coming they will understand why you have to crawl.”
And so, Osama bin Laden is killed, the roads here are “black,” the threat from insurgents as well as within the ANA and ANP all remain. It remains hot, dusty, and the advisers must plod on, nonetheless. Back at the DFAC or “chow hall” the contrast between the scenes on television back home in the US of A and the scene at chow is stark. Whereas the images of folks back in DC are that of celebration the chow how is largely mute. Groups of soldiers sit together as usual exchanging the normal witty ripostes, the occasional acknowledgment that “the fucker is dead,” and how cool it would have been to be part of the “op.” But, no high fives. No celebration. Just tired soldiers ready for “scoff,” and looking forward to a few hours of R&R ( a movie if lucky), a phone call home to loved ones, and, if lucky, a solid nights sleep before getting up to start the daily grind all over again.