Kandahar

Girl + Gun(s)

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Guns are every day objects here, this being a war zone and all. I see them all day, slung across the chests our Gurkha guards, dangling from belts, holstered at the waist, clasped in hand by men walking along the hallways. It’s inevitable of course, that I will have one put into my hands, eventually.

This is the only job I’ve had where it is a requirement to be familiar with guns. They give us classes on guns. We have Safety Day activities that demonstrate weapons handling, unloading, and dry-firing. The first class I had on weapons familiarization was taught by our lead gunner, a huge guy with a shiny bald head. He taught us how to dismantle, load/unload, and aim guns. I have broken down and put back together again an M4 and an M9, whatever good that skill will do me. My dad was thrilled to hear about the experience though, so it makes for an interesting story. I remember that class, I was the only female there and we were fumbling around with a pistol and a rifle. Those things are heavy, what can I say. There was a point in the class where we were told to get your rifles and lie down on the floor.

Of course I was the only one that asked, “Why?”  The instructor explained that we should learn how to fire from a prone position. I couldn’t resist teasing him, I said, “But the floor is dirty, I don’t want to get myself all dusty.” He went red in the face, trying not to laugh and not to show any reaction. He said that we were all required to do it, the standard answer to everything. One of the guys in the class, my friend since high school who knew what trouble I could be, pleaded with me, “Just get down on the floor, please.” I did, after all, I’ve had my bit of fun.

They all do take their guns seriously here, I must point that out. As they should, these things take away life at the pull of a trigger.

There was a break-in once at the camp, a raggedly band of Taliban launched a rocket that hit right next door to us, rattling my office windows with such force the blinds shook off most of their dust. A few insurgents were able to breach the wall and the ground attack alarm was sounded. We all went into the bunkers to wait it out in relative safety. In a ground attack of such close proximity, everyone on camp that was authorized to carry a gun had to go into the armory to get one. Gunners and medics were patrolling the camp grounds constantly, most everyone had a weapon. Some of the guys that I am friends with dropped by my bunker to see how I was, telling me to stay inside. All of them had weapons, the glint of the metal reflecting the same glint in their eyes. I thought it was excitement, and it disturbed me somewhat.

My radio, in crackling bursts of static, sent out the announcement from the FOB manager that if anyone breached our camp gates and if that person was not recognized as one of us, they were to shoot on sight. Shoot on sight.

I listened to it, I listened as the message was repeated and I sat still, just sat there looking at the radio. That was the moment when it really became real to me that this is a place where people actually get killed, that a gun here was not just for show, it means death to those at the opposite end of the barrel. Most of all, I realized that here, those who hold a gun are ready to kill.

 

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All Quiet on the Afghan Front

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Friday is everyone’s day off, and most of the guys here, exhausted from the 10- to 14-hour-day work week, would shut themselves up in their rooms and sleep it off. I’m the only one that takes the day off on Saturdays, so on most Fridays it’s just me out on the camp and the few gurkha guards that rotate and stay on security duty all days of the week. Fridays are time sheet days, that’s when I spend most of the day going over the hours everyone logged flying planes and choppers, repairing them, or doing other support work that is necessary in getting our birds to fly.
As a brief diversion, I like to take my coffee mug and sit outside at the little gazebo where we have our barbeques and gatherings. On Friday afternoons such as this, at 1400, with no missions, no flights coming in or out, no one else is around. I have the entire sweep of the view to myself. The camp looks abandoned, everything seems at a standstill. The gates are closed, the hangar doors are shut, the helicopters are still. Even the dust seems to have stopped its incessant swirling. I sit still and enjoy the quiet. No one will be in sight for hours, if I am lucky.
After a week of being attentive and tending to people’s needs, I feel relief just sitting here, no one to talk to, no one to listen to. Kandahar is home to such contradictions–a frenetic pace all week, and then suddenly you have this pocket of absolute quiet. The sky above is a cloudless blue, so crisp and clear it makes me think of the hidden island beaches of my hometown. Looking out on the flight line, I can almost believe there is a sliver of blue out there on the horizon, a secret beach with waters warm as milk. Almost.
I think about everything and nothing in particular, letting my mind drift and relax for a few minutes. A lot of times, I hear people complain about the bleakness of this place, how there is not much to do or see, how nothing much happens. At times like this, in the stillness of the moment, I don’t mind the bleakness as much. In fact, it is a welcome respite from all the noise of the week that was. I miss the quiet that allows for a little bit of introspection, sometimes I think I crave it.
This is my second year here, and I admit there are times I curse the luck that has brought me to Afghanistan. But for most times, strangely enough, I am grateful–glad even–to be here.

In Your Face

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There are days when I do get to turn the tables on these guys, and then it’s pay back time!

We were outside the office, grouped in noisy clumps, trying our hand at socializing. One guy keeps interrupting me, teasing and making what he must think to be funny comments. Now, I can take more than my share of ribbing, and I do take a lot of abuse from these guys, but I also like to dish it out. I decide this is just too good an opportunity to pass up.

So I compose my face into a quiet, somewhat pained expression and interrupt him in the middle of a joke.

Using my formal, I-mean-business voice, I say “You know what, you shouldn’t say those things to me. I’m Asian, and you know we take loss of face very seriously.”

He is taken aback, and begins sputtering and stammering out a string of profuse apologies. I let him stew for a while, and then I was laughing so hard, I could hardly say, “I’m just messing with you, big guy.”

The look on his face was priceless–shock, disbelief, a momentary feeling of faintness, I think.

He blurts out,”Oh my god, you’re a mean, mean woman!”

I smile and get the last word in: “You’d do well to remember that.”

Trouble Me

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In yet another one of those politically incorrect, sexual harassment-fraught episodes that make my little life here so interesting, one of our gung ho guys comes into my office asking for help. After some Q & A and a bit of explaining, it turns out he wants me to do a creative interpretation of the rules so that he could buck the system, so to speak.

Me:  No, Muscled Guy, you know I can’t do that. Against the rules. You’ll get me into trouble.

MG:  Oh no, I wouldn’t get you into trouble, no Ma’am. I won’t mess with your work [pause]. But…  let’s say I take you out on a date, then that’s when I’ll certainly get you into a whole lotta trouble [big grin].

Me:  [Roll eyes. Shake head.] You should be so lucky.

MG:  Oh, I wish [Shit-eating grin, all the way out the door].

All in a day’s work, my friends.  All in a day’s work.

Doing The Two-Step

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Here, there are times when even the most ordinary of days offers up a surprise. Case in point: I had a minor dalliance at the PX store today. I was standing in line along the candy aisle, waiting my turn at the cash register. A trooper walks in front of me, wanting to cut across the line so he could go to the next aisle. I step to one side, he does the same, I step back, and he steps back too. We do this two-step routine a couple of times, until finally, I stand still and motion for him to pass through.

He looks at me, smiles, and then says, “What? Oh, I thought we were dancing.”

What I Am Is Brave

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“I’m not funny. What I am is brave.”  ~ Lucille Ball

It feels as though I braved a lot of airports just to get back here. I barely made it through two airports in the Philippines (oh the horror!), slept on stiff chairs in Singapore, suffered disorientation in Chennai, then rushed madly out of Dubai into crazy Kabul, and finally, this last sunrise ride to Kandahar. After 6 plane rides in 5 days, I am back in my little dust bowl. That long break already seems like a vague memory.

In Kabul, I woke up early to catch this 6th flight, and I was glad to find out that there would only be two of us on board the B1900. I’m so over the rock star feeling of being one of the few on board our B1900, I was just happy because it meant I could get some sleep. The guy on the same flight as me, blond and blue eyed with one of those painful-looking Caucasian tans, chats amiably for a few minutes, and then turns away to read a book when the plane is at cruise speed. Good man, I think, as I slump my head to the side, adjust my headphones, and drift off to much-needed sleep.

It was a smooth ride for most of the hour, until the pilots decide to swoop the plane’s nose sharply down as we make the descent into Kandahar Air Field (KAF). I think they do it on purpose, have a little fun in a day’s work, why not? I wake up to the sight of jagged mountains glinting in the sunlight. I still find it all strangely beautiful, the sharp edges and the deeply carved valleys of this Afghan landscape. Eventually, the horizon levels out and morphs into row upon row of military planes, helicopters, trucks, hummers, and other war transport arranged precisely on the ramps. Soon enough, our little corner of the flight line comes into view–I see the Logistics warehouse, a few of our helos, the little fuel truck. My sleepy heart skips, a little thump of excitement to see home and all that it holds for me.

This is a happy return, in more ways than one. I would be coming back to a life that I have developed a liking for, despite the unusual circumstances. I would be coming back to something other than just my self.

Kandahar is a place I want to come back to, imagine that. A year ago I wouldn’t have dreamed of writing that line, and now I am amazed by the simple truth in it. We make our home in the strangest places, when we carry home in our hearts. And God help me, I do put my battered heart out there on the line–again and again. My heart has found a home here, in a place of grays and browns, amid the swirl of dust, desperation, and death.

Dark thoughts to begin another year, yes. But I am not being pessimistic, I just see things more clearly now. With one year under my belt, I think I understand life here better than I did when I first arrived. It has been a most interesting year, to say the least.

Marking the end of this year, I understand that bravery is defined as beyond being able to endure the sound of blasts day or night, when you’ve never heard that awful sound before in your life. It is keeping calm in the midst of unfolding turmoil, even as the men around you arm themselves and get that tight-eyed look to their faces, their minds clicking back to terrible memories of combat you know nothing about, but can sense from the gleam in their eyes. It is bravery to befriend solitude, to embrace the bleakness that permeates everywhere, to be able to live with the terrible stillness that descends at the end of certain days. It is also bravery to be able to withstand the endless loop of days that seem exactly like the ones before, the sameness that can slowly but surely drive you mad.

I know another kind of bravery now–the kind that goes beyond facing one’s mortality. This year found me in a place where shedding all sorts of baggage was necessary. It spurred me to leave behind the wounds of the past and turn to face a new possibility. It required a measure of bravery I always knew I had, but have not quite put to the test. It was scarier than IEDs, ground attacks, rocket blasts, even the threat of Taliban invasion. But I am nothing if not brave, I always tell myself, and so I plunged in head first.

Do I get rewarded for this act of bravery? I’m not sure. I don’t know if there is a prize for falling head first into something, but I think the little bursts of happiness I get is more than enough reward for bravery. Whatever the outcome, whether or not I win this battle (or the entire war), the feat alone of going into it the way I did–open-faced, heart in hand–is an exhilarating experience, a powerful rush not soon to be forgotten.

And so I am back.