The Sardine Can

This week Jo.Meacham writes about what it is like and how to survive during her deployment with the United States Forces Afghanistan Headquarters. You can read her biography in our first post.

In the United States Forces Afghanistan Headquarters in the heart of Kabul, it seems that you must personalize your reason for serving. If you do, you will succeed and make a difference. If you don’t, you become bitter and mad at the world. I saw both types of people during my six month rotation.

We were in a small dusty compound designed for 800 people, yet our numbers exceeded 1000. Twenty foot concrete walls in the shape of an upside down “T” and topped with concertina wire made our compound fairly secure, with the exception being the so-called sniper zone where the inhabitants of the adjacent hospital and residential hillside could see into our compound. We were expected to sprint through this area, though no one actually did.

Work days were fast paced and long, averaging fifteen hours per day; except on half days, which were no more than twelve. It might be accurate to say that we worked until we gave up for the day. As I trudged back to my tent after a grueling day, I often felt like a knight in shining armor with my head hung low, dragging my shield and sword behind me. Without exception, the victories of the prior day were evident in the light of the morning, as I emerged to fight the Taliban again.

I worked in the joint logistics movement control center, where 13 of us worked to ensure that US movement priorities were met. We were packed in like sardines in a can in the twenty by twenty foot room. Each of us had a least two computer systems at our stations, which was just a 3 foot by 3 foot ply wood desk with no storage areas or drawers. Our motto was “killing the Taliban one click at a time”. We bugged the crap out of each other, got in each other’s way, laughed and fought, but we always helped each other out. This scene played out in countless tents, rooms, and buildings, in a countless number of bases. This is the strength behind each trigger puller that no other nation dares commit.

As high ranking enlisted and officers, our job was to make decisions to ensure sure the highest priority cargo was moving first. Before the fobbit* gets beans and burritos, the war fighter gets bullets and blood. An easy goal, yet some of my peers needed to be told what to do. I, on the other hand, did not wait for the boss to come back from a meeting to brief him and ask permission to do the right thing. I just got it done. In return, I frequently got called a “shim”. The implication is that I have balls. I took it as a compliment.

We had a chronic problem with people falling asleep in meetings. Logistics requires massive coordination, which means that we had a lot of them. I wondered why the boss tolerated it until I caught him falling asleep in one. He was a Marine and a full bird Colonel whose work days regularly approached twenty hours. He was a life-long logistician and tough as nails. I was honored to work for him and gave him my best. I swore to myself that I would never fall asleep in a meeting, and I didn’t. However, I did fall asleep on the toilet once, just for a moment. I woke up when my head bobbed. The toilet stall, with its square toilets, was one of only two times that we could truly be alone. The other was running around the compound. With 10 laps to run 3 miles, it felt a bit like a hamster wheel.

Running the hamster wheel gave time to reflect on the events of the day. Though the headquarters nonsense could make me mad and bitter, the runs energized me because it gave me a chance to reflect on our purpose for being there. The plight of women in Afghanistan gave me a personal reason for using my time, energy and talent to make the world a better place. Afghan women had their rights taken away. If it happened there, it can happen anywhere. If the Jihadist has their way, it will happen everywhere. Just the thought of it made me mad, and made me want to do something. If I don’t do something, then who will? So, off the hamster wheel to the sardine can I would go, again, and again.

* a fobbit (see the Hobbit) is a derogatory term (like REMF in earlier wars) reserved for personal who see little or no combat.

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