Saturday, February 20, 2010

Iron Mike Merkel

It is tradition that when you promote a Soldier, you rip off the old rank (it’s velco) and, after affixing the new rank, punch the Soldier square in the chest, atop the rank. I believe this dates back to the concept of “blood wings” where a pin with no backings would be smashed into a Soldiers chest upon his completion of airborne school, resulting in bloody airborne wings. After a Soldier has been promoted, and thus punched once, the rest of the company will file through to shake his hand, punch his already-sore chest, or both.

We were still back at Campbell when we held an afternoon company formation to promote one of the young Soldiers from the UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) platoon. As an officer, I was at the back of the handshake/punching line. Most of my Soldiers had already gone through the line and had returned to the formation. As I stepped up to shake the Private’s hand, the Sergeant in front of me slammed him in the chest, leaving him unable to speak and doubled over in pain. While I didn’t realize it at the time, my proximity led my Soldiers to believe that I had hit the Private. As I stepped away, they cheered. In the day - no days – that followed, I have tried to convince my Soldiers that I was not the cause of what was certainly a severely bruised sternum, but perceptions can be reality and my Soldiers still claim that I hit the Private.

Upon his arrival in Afghanistan, several weeks after mine, one of my Soldiers told me that they had devised a new nickname for me in my absence: Iron Mike Merkel. I’ve given up on proving my innocence and embraced the new me. I’m also having a lot of fun with my Soldier who is up for promotion next!

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Too Fat for Ice Cream

There I sat, in the DFAC (dining facility), innocently eating my ice cream. Baskin Robbins dark chocolate ice cream, specifically, topped with chocolate shavings and whipped cream. Indeed, in the immortal works of General William Tecumseh Sherman, war is hell.

I was accompanied by my CO, XO and a fellow LT from the S4 (logistics) shop. As we ate, I noticed the Brigade Commander, striding down the isle. RUMINT (rumors intelligence) had held that he had arrived, but I’d not realized he was on the ground until now. “Hey Ma’am,” just a heads up, the Colonel is coming this way” I warned while glancing downward like a guilty child, hoping to avoid eye contact.

My fellow LT and I had spent much of the meal teasing our XO about joining the military while we were toddlers and being the only man at the table, so he decided to have his revenge. Halfway standing up at the table, he hailed down the Colonel. And with the Command Sergeant Major in tow, the BCT Commander set his plate with ours. The relaxed air of the table immediately evaporated at we sat up straighter, mentally checked our uniforms and began framing our sentences with “sir.” Both men left momentarily to grab drinks and I took the opportunity to tease my CO “So, what’s it worth to you that I behave like a proper officer while he’s here?” My CO responded with a threat to my yearly evaluation, but little did we know that the damage had already been done.

I was playing the role of a 19th century child, only speaking when spoken to when the Colonel glared at me and interrogated “LT Merkel, are you going to eat ice cream like that every night?” Surprised, I responded negatively. He then continued on to talk about placing a guard at the ice cream counter to prevent fat people from getting desert. Ironically enough, I've even lost weight since arriving here.

The people in my shop have been calling me Ice Cream Girl ever since.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Bon Appetit

If they hadn’t said it was chicken, I wouldn’t have known. It looked more like something that one would find crusted over on the side of the highway, after a couple days in the summer sun. Closer inspection determined it to be several chicken carcasses, diminutive versions of their hormone-fed American cousins. The pan of chicken sat atop a tank of propane while whisps of blue flames reached for the bottom of the pan. Greasy newspaper, in a Germanic language I didn’t even recognize, served as a lid, pressed down upon the chicken.

The flat bread was in sweaty stacks, crammed in a plastic grocery bag. A pressure cooker full of the longest grained rice I have ever seen sat in the corner. A pot of pinto beans was proffered. I have now realized that every poor country, be it the jungles of Belize or the desolate hills of Aghanistan, seems to consist on beans and rice. Throw in a little flat bread and maybe some protein for a special occasion and you have a meal acceptable throughout most of the developing world, the only variation is the spices.

Stew, from unknown whereabouts, was set on the tiny stand that served as a table. Observing the others, I grabbed at the contents with bread-wrapped fingers. Large chunks resisted my efforts to chew. Trying to be discrete, I pulled what appeared to be a piece of a spinal column out of my mouth. After several iterations of the same experience, I gave up on the stew.

All tea in Afghanistan is known as “chai” and chai is not a beverage, but a relational experience. In preparation for chai, I watched an Afghan man, crouched on the ground, wash the cups. He poured the boiling water into one cup and swished it around, before dumping it into the next cup. Brief swirl and down the line of cups.

Chai must be served with approximately half a bag of sugar. No less. Course-grained Afghan sugar is poured a centimeter or two deep across the bottom of the cup. Chai is then poured atop. The sugar never fully dissolves and swirls around in the bottom of the cup, until the final sip is undrinkable.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

I fought through the fog of jet lag imposed sleep to a tent that was oddly awake. It was almost midnight and the gargantuan tent, intended to hold around 180 women, lacked the somnambular quality indicative of the hour. At the far edge of the tent, a small huddle of women chirped nervously. The pre-tremor environment spoke of an earthquake to come. Suddenly, one woman withdrew from the group and squawked down the hall “Ladies, wake up. We are expecting a rocket attack. You need to get to the bunkers, now!” I scanned the bunk next to me, home to my lone female Soldier. Not there. Scrambling into my combat boots, which accessorized stylishly with my gym shorts, I continued looking for my Soldier. Nothing. Grabbing my weapon, I followed the covey of women to the door, but cut away as we emerged from the tent. A yell into the latrine produced my unknowing Soldier, and following flight I found the bunker. It was little more than a 3 sided concrete tunnel, about 4 foot high. Protection against shrapnel alone, and then only for those lucky enough to be in the middle. The eight inches of concrete would prove little cover if hit directly. As women flocked together amidst the pressing walls, it was clear that there was not room for all. As I considered the situation, the MPs pulled up. “It’s a false alarm. Go back to bed.”

Monday, January 25, 2010

Cleared by Occupation

All Soldiers coming into Afghanistan begin at Bagram, taking mandatory classes and waiting anxiously for a flight time to their final destination. During one classes I learned that the confines of Bagram include 20 active mine fields, a remnant of a cruel, indiscriminant, 10 year Soviet war that targeted populations centers and children. One can be sure that mines sown from thousands of feet aloft, never venture outside prescribed fields, right? The most active area of Bagram, home to the gym, dining facility, head quarters buildings, etc. is known as a mine field cleared by occupation – a nice Army way of saying “well, we’ve been walking about for a while … no one’s been blown up yet … I’m sure we’re fine.”

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Good Morning, Afghanistan

I knew something was off. The flight from Ramstein, Germany to Manis, Kyrgyzstan was only expected to take 7 hours, but we’d been in the air for at least 9. I was cocooned in my poncho liner, sleeping on the hood of one of my trucks with the intercom buzzed alive “we have been diverted from Manis due to heavy snow fall and are headed straight to Bagram Air Force Base. We will be on the ground in 30 min.” Only minutes later the intercom lectured again: “we are coming into Bagram faster than expected and are beginning our decent now.” And there I found myself, without any time for contemplation, in Afghanistan.

Bagram AFB, I discovered, sits in a valley, surrounded my mountains on almost all sides. Only one area strikes me a passable by vehicle, and I am fairly certain this is the route to Kabul, the capitol of Afghanistan. We trudge across the runway into a small, fenced in areas. As the leader of the chalk, I am directed to move the group into a small tent. As my eyes adjust to the dim, I realize that the tent is full of prostrate men. As Soldiers are want to do, they sleep in any area that even resembles comfort. As we enter, they begin to stir, nudging one another. I scan their uniforms, trying to determine which of the many coalition partners they call home. Romania, their uniforms say. Their sleep-tarnished minds become clear as they realize that one of the American Soldiers in their midst is a woman. I receive word that we were to move inside and shout across the tent to alert my Soldiers, shaping Romanian interest in to shock through a display of female authority.