Archive for August 2009
Nathan Geist is currently serving as a Chaplain Assistant in the Army. He is a 2005 graduate of Zion-Benton Township High School, has studied for 3 years at Southern Illinois University, and recently appeared in the film The Promotion. Sgt. Geist has been a periodic contributor to The Seeker since September, 2008 as he fulfills a tour of duty in Afghanistan.
Welcome to the wild, wild west! I’m at Camp Stone in Herat, Afghanistan where the heat is the fiercest combat that most soldiers face. If you want to feel how hot it is here, one soldier suggested trying this: start your oven and set it to 400 degrees. Then, while it’s warming up, go stick your head in your freezer. When your oven hits 400 degrees, open it up and stick your head right outside of it. Because in Herat, a “cool” day is a 95-degree day.
But, Herat is by no means the hottest place in Afghanistan. Bandee can testify to this after he went on a mission to Farah, which is south of Herat. He says that Farah makes Herat feel like a winter wonderland. Bandee was outside for just 30 minutes in the shade and he felt dizzy. He claims it was the hottest he’s ever been in his life, and that his entire body was covered with sweat. But, he said he’s glad he got to go on a mission down there because he got to experience a “combat landing” on his flight back to Herat. The purpose of a combat landing is to land in a manner that it would be very difficult for an enemy to shoot the plane out of the sky.
“Our descent began not with a little light flashing, advising us to strap our seatbelts, as is done on commercial airlines. Instead, our descent began with our entire aircraft nosediving towards earth. It felt less like we were in the process of landing and more like we were in the process of crashing.
“After a few minutes of nosediving, the plane began circling around in the air. If you looked outside the window, you’d see that the aircraft was nearly on its side. We continued circling towards the ground in a fashion similar to that of a bug that was caught in the swirling flush of a toilet. The G-forces kept us in our seats; meanwhile, the aircraft was creating a Fibonacci sequence in the sky.
“I looked across at some of the other passengers, and one of them held a tissue to his mouth as he vomited into his hand. Others just closed their eyes, unwilling to appreciate this moment that made every roller coaster I’ve ever been on seem very dull.
“When the wheels finally hit Herat ground, everyone was rattled around because of the impact. By the time all the passengers got off the flight, many of us felt like kissing the ground, a la the Pope after a flight.”
While Herat is much hotter than Gardez, it does have one upside for soldiers: it’s remarkably safer. When I arrived, I was told that Camp Stone hasn’t been attacked in years, and the combat deaths are very minimal compared to the other parts of the country. The majority of the roads are paved here, unlike in the east, which lessens the likelihood of an IED attack tenfold because there are fewer spots to hide the bombs.
The reason that Herat is so safe is because the Afghans here are more worried about tribal wars than the Global War on Terrorism. We are near the Iranian border, and so any violence that goes on is usually between an Iranian tribe and an Afghan tribe. The war on terror isn’t condoned nor condemned by most of the people here, it’s just a fact of life, and they choose to stay out of it.
That being said, that doesn’t mean that there are no Taliban here at all. They still roam around here, but they are considerably undermanned compared to some of the hotspots around the country. If the Taliban attacks in the west, it is usually very calculated because they know they don’t have many men to lose.
However, as safe as Herat is, there was one aspect that has upped the ante recently– the Afghanistan national elections. The elections in any country that harbors terrorists are always an ugly process, usually concluding with a leader being elected at the price of many innocent locals and several American troops’ lives.
I could tell you all about how the elections went around here, but instead, I’ll leave it up to the man himself who had a front row seat to the election’s combat operations to recount the tales of what occurred. After requesting to go out on missions to support the elections, Bandee was charged with the duty of securing an Afghan National Police (ANP) base so operations could go smoothly for the elections. For about three days before the actual elections, he was constantly going out on missions to reconnaissance the area he would be securing, as well as patrolling an area where enemy activity had been reported.
“As our team left Camp Stone yesterday morning for the recon, we weren’t off the base but just a minute when we found a dead Afghan lying in the middle of the road. Because I was the gunner, I got a good look at him as we passed. He was face up, and his arms and legs were spread apart. The peculiar thing was that the death was like a “Disney death,” as in there was no blood or gore. His face and body was completely intact, yet he was dead. As we slowly drove by, a group of ANP scooped him up off the side of the road and dumped him into their vehicle. All of us on the security team hoped that this wasn’t an omen about the coming days, but we all feared that this was a message from the Taliban about the violence that was going to erupt over the next week.
“We drove by a woodline where there have been reports of bright lights at night, and we scanned the area as best we could without thrusting ourselves into danger. We kept a distance as we monitored the area, looking for anything suspicious. We knew that there was enemy activity in the around there, and one of our primary duties on election day will be to suppress attacks that may come from there.
“As we continued monitoring the woodline under the blistering Herat heat, a bomber swooped down just past the woodlines we were observing and dropped a flare into the thicket. When we decided that there was nothing we could do today without inadvertently walking into a danger zone, we continued patrolling our area. We didn’t find anything else, except for a firefight between several Afghans that we opted not to get involved in.
“Judging by our short soiree, we knew that the elections in a few days were going to be dangerous, but at the same time, we knew that we had to pull the security in this area, otherwise the Taliban would be able to take control of it, and we weren’t about to let that happen.
“After we returned back to Camp Stone from our day-long patrol, the team offered to let me lock up my armor, helmet, and ammo in the vehicle so when we had to go on our next mission, I wouldn’t have to lug all that equipment from my tent to the vehicle again. Because we could get called out on an emergency mission during at any time, I thought it best to keep my gear locked up in the vehicle anyway. After all, Camp Stone hasn’t been attacked in years, what were the chances that that streak would be broken tonight? Besides, even if there was an attack, I was confident that it wouldn’t last more than a few minutes at most. After all I’d been through, the thought of an actual dangerous situation on Camp Stone was laughable.
“After I locked up my gear in the vehicle and returned to my tent, I tried relaxing, knowing that the next few days were going to become very serious business. By the end of the night, I was more than ready to rack out until my body would wake me up the next morning.
“It had been a long day, so I laid my head down on my pillow and closed my eyes just after the stroke of midnight. I began my daily ritual of talking to God about my day when I was interrupted with a familiar yet unwelcome sound: Whiiizzzzzz…. BOOM!
“I gave God a raincheck and ran outside to see if I could see any damage. There was smoke and dust in the air; whatever was just launched at us had hit within the confines of the camp.
I began sprinting towards the chaplains’ building, not stressing about the attack because the shells had landed nowhere near me.
“Had I only known what the next two and a half hours had in store for me…
“I ran into a bunker near the chapel, trying to find either of my two chaplains. Neither was there, so I sprinted across to another bunker. Again, no luck. This happened a few times, and I certainly didn’t like the hide-and-seek because my armor, my helmet, and all of my ammo were still locked in the truck from earlier that day, and so I was very vulnerable to an attack.
“It was the third bunker that had the surprise of a lifetime waiting for me. I ran inside, and instead of finding either of the chaplains, I found a naked Italian soldier whose head was gushing blood. He had a red trail from the top of his head, down his cheeks, into his goatee, and across his shoulders. He seemed very frightened and said to me, “Help me. I’m hurt.”
“I ran from the bunker and into the open under the night sky and yelled at the top of my lungs, “MEDIC!”
“The commander of the base’s Security Forces (SECFOR) and the supply sergeant asked me where the casualty was. They were seconds away from investigating the Northern Expansion of Camp Stone for personnel, but instead deemed that the wounded soldier was more of a priority, and so they followed me to the bunker.
“We began assessing the Italian soldier’s injury, and it seemed that it wasn’t critical. He had been in the shower when the mortar exploded, and some shrapnel had broken through the wall and cut his head open.
“While the two soldiers I waved over administered care to the soldier, I continued my search for my chaplains. After searching two more bunkers, I found CH Pace and told him there was a wounded soldier that needed care.
“As I escorted CH Pace over to the bunker, I heard a very distinct launch, followed by a shrill whistle. A second mortar was headed towards us, and was going to explode in a matter of seconds as the chaplain and I stood outside in the wide open with no armor on either of us.
“The soldiers screamed for us to get into the bunker, and CH Pace and I dashed for safety. The mortar was flying right over our heads; I even felt the wind vibrations on my face. Just like something straight out of an action movie, the chaplain and I dove into the bunker as the mortar exploded within 100 feet of us. We made it just in time.
“We all remained in the bunker, realizing that the attack was far from over. The SECFOR commander was told over his radio that the mortar had exploded in the Northern Expansion.
“He looked at me and said, “Sergeant, thank you. You just saved my life. Had you not called us over to this casualty, we would be in the Northern Expansion right now.”
“The supply sergeant agreed, “Really, sergeant. Thank you. You saved us.”
“The sentimental moment was cut short when another launch was heard. Everyone in the bunker ducked down and we anticipated another explosion as we heard a mortar hiss towards us.
“ssssssss… BOOM! Feeling the ground shake, we knew that it hit close, but we were all still alive. Then another launch, another hiss, another deep breath, another miss, another exhalation of relief.
“The next time we heard a launch, it became obvious to us that we were in for a long night. The whistle sounded like it was going to right on top of us, and I huddled with those nearby me in the bunker. There I was, my left hand holding onto the Afghan next to me, and my right hand holding onto the hairy back of a naked, blood-soaked Italian, meanwhile a mortar ruled with authority over the nighttime sky, trying to find someone to land on. In that 10-second period, all sound ceased to exist, and I prayed the most beautiful prayer I’ve ever prayed in my entire life. It consisted of two words: “God, please.”
“Sssssssss… BOOM! We jumped at the explosion and looked around, instantly recognizing that we were still alive. But would we be so lucky next time? We remained in that bunker for what seemed like forever, but eventually we were given the “all clear,” indicating that the attack was over.
“We emerged from the bunker and surveyed the damages on the base. Though I knew CH Pace was okay, I still had to find the chaplain that was organic to Camp Stonee to make sure he hadn’t been killed. Fortunately, the chaplain met up with us right outside the chapel, and then we went inside our sanctuary to see the damages.
“The chapel wall had a hole in it, and there was debris all over the pews. It had been hit by some pretty fierce shrapnel, but it certainly wasn’t anything irreparable. Immediately after levying the chapel, I ran over to the team I had gone out with earlier that day and asked them for the keys to the truck so I could grab my armor. To my dismay, they had somehow lost the keys to the specific truck that had my gear in it. There was nothing they could do about it, and if we were to be attacked again, I’d again be without my armor, helmet, or ammo. I just crossed my fingers and hoped the previous attack was all that was in store for us tonight.
“I heard one building had been blown up from the first explosion, and so I found it to see for myself how bad it was. It wasn’t hard to find… about 30 people were crowded around it, taking pictures and videos. I shined my flashlight on the obliterated building, completely in disbelief that nobody was killed or maimed, save for our naked Italian friend.
“As the group of us gathered around the building, dread overcame me as another launch was heard. Someone yelled “Here it goes again!” and everyone scattered.
“Hsssssssss…. I ran looking for a bunker, knowing that if a mortar dropped anywhere near me while I didn’t have my armor, then I’d quickly find myself with an undesired Purple Heart on my uniform. But as I ran ……sssssssssss…… I couldn’t find one because it was so dark. I continued running like a madman ……sssssssssss…… and when I realized I just passed a bunker, I turned around as fast as I could ……sssssssssss…… but I fell on the ground because the rocks under my feet were loose ……sssssssssss…… I got up as quickly as I could, but I knew it was too late. I wouldn’t make it into the bunker ……sssssssssss…… so I pressed my body against a concrete wall and braced myself for impact .…BOOM!
“They missed me again by a few hundred feet. I sighed in relief and strolled into the bunker. The mortars and rockets continued coming. Each time, the whistles sounded like they were so close that we were certainly going to get one dropped on us. Yet each whistle sounded closer than the last, as if the Taliban somehow knew where our bunker was and they were closing in on us. It quickly became frustrating because we were so helpless… we couldn’t fight back, we were just sitting ducks. Even worse, these Talibs seemed to have better accuracy than anyone I’ve ever encountered before. They were dropping their rounds almost right on top of us.
“Everyone in the bunker except me were either American contractors or foreign military, and so I told tried encouraging them by telling them a little-known fact about mortars: if you can hear a whistle from a mortar coming, at least that means you aren’t on the exact location of where it’s going to land. That being said, it wasn’t exactly a “comfort” to hear those whistles. I remember one time after we heard a launch, I didn’t even have the energy anymore to fret, and I simply whispered under my breath, “Incoming,” knowing I had no say over fate and where that mortar was going to land. We were becoming emotionally fatigued by the attacks. Where was our air support? Why was the Quick Reaction Force not lighting them up? How did these terrorists catch us with our pants down?
“We eventually heard bombers and helicopters patrolling the skies for a few minutes, but after they left, we were under attack again. Each launch was followed by us holding our breath as we tried to anticipate how far away the mortar would land, and it was the most unpleasant feeling in the world.
“As the attacks continued, I began to realize something. About 75% of the explosions were all within the same vicinity of us… not one rocket seemed to land over 400 feet away from where we hid. So, I devised a quick plan. I told everyone in the bunker that the next time they called “all clear,” that they should get to the other side of Camp Stone, the side that hadn’t received a single rocket or mortar. Everyone acknowledged my advice, but I knew there were several other bunkers that might not have known what I knew. After all, I had spent the entire attack in the same 500-feet radius, and nearly every rocket and mortar landed right on top of me. I knew better than anyone.
“I knew I had to tell the others in the nearby bunkers. I walked outside my bunker and looked at the sky for flying objects, and very carefully listened for the sound of a whizz or a whistle. When I saw and heard nothing, I ran to the next bunker with my head down and told the bunker’s occupants what I knew. From there, I made a ducking sprint across the impact zone and repeated myself at the next bunker. I continued to do this until I had told all five bunkers that had been getting the brunt of the attack. When I found the fifth and final bunker in the area, I remained there until the attack was over. And, just after 2:30 in the morning, we were given the “all clear.”
“I was the first to follow my own advice. I quickly made my way away from where we had been getting peppered and into a safer area on the base, which so happened to be near my tent. I figured it would be safe to try and get to sleep… though I knew that if a rocket or mortar hit anywhere near my tent, everything inside of it would be annihilated. But, I didn’t have much of a choice. I couldn’t very well stay awake until the sun rose and then still somehow conduct combat operations efficiently the following day.
“Before I went to bed, I looked at the sky and marveled at its beauty. It was, in fact, the most beautiful and clear sky I had ever seen in my entire life. Yet, it was simultaneously the most frightening sky I’d ever seen. There were shooting stars galore, which on any other occasion, I would’ve stayed out all night and gawked at. But tonight, that wasn’t the case. Each shooting star I saw made me hit the deck as I expected it to be a mortar that was blotting out the sky. Similarly, each passing car outside the base sounded like whizzing rockets, making my heart skip a beat.
“I knew I couldn’t spend my entire night being paranoid of all the what-if’s and could-be’s, so I did my best to ignore it all and decided to go back to sleep. I laid my head down on my pillow and finished my prayer to God that I had started hours earlier. After all, there was a lot to thank God for. Throughout the entire attack, not a single person was killed, and the only injury was that of a naked Italian with a piece of shrapnel that grazed his head. In a two-hour period, I had almost gotten killed a handful of times, and I began to recognize how astronomical the chances were that I’d survive an attack where so many mortars were dropped on my backyard. The thought gave me a renewed desperation for God and His goodness to me, because without His existence, I could’ve just been a grease stain on the back corner of Camp Stone tonight.”
But, the election wasn’t over yet, and so Bandee still had a job to do the next day.“The day after the attack, our team went out on another recon at the same location we went to before. The route was overly eerie, as the town that had been so populated just the day before was now a ghost town… this is never a good sign. Also, along the way, we came across a group of Afghans huddled around a jingle truck at a gas station. When the Afghans saw us, they all panicked and quickly loaded up the truck and fled from the scene using their feet, the truck, and one motorcycle. That same night, we all anticipated another attack on Camp Stone. But, there was no attack. I think the Taliban probably knew that we would be on high-alert and well-prepared to counterstrike any offensive they launched this time, and they were right. So on Tuesday night, there was an unspoken truce between us.
“On Wednesday, I was a gunner with the 240B weapon system as we traveled to a small base run by the ANP. As the sun went down on Wednesday, which was the night before the election, we heard several firefights here and there in the distance, and one soldier even witnessed a firefight between Afghans right before his eyes. But, our mission was to protect the soldiers on our base, not to chase down any skirmishes, so we let the firefight be.
“Most of the soldiers had to pull gunning shifts during the night to provide security. My shift ended up being from 0200 to 0500, and so I tried going to bed around sundown the night before. I was luckier than I had been when I traveled to the middle of nowhere in the east back in April, because this time, I didn’t have to sleep on the ground. I was given a cot, and because this place is crawling with camel spiders and scorpions, I really appreciated its usefulness.
“I didn’t get much sleep, though. We knew going into this thing that we were probably going to get attacked, and that if we did, the situation would not be good: we had no bunkers to find cover in; we only had the vehicles to hide in. And because we were sleeping out in the open, if an attack happened like earlier in the week, then there would certainly be American casualties. The shrapnel resulting from such an attack on uncovered soldiers such as ourselves could’ve easily turned deadly in a matter of seconds. The anxiety from that potential circumstance kept me from sleeping. Every noise I heard caused me to jump in my sleep. Also, there were well over ten shooting stars that I witnessed, each one bringing me to full alert on my cot.
“At one point during the night, I woke up to a very bright light hovering in the sky. It looked like a mortar, and I was alarmed when I saw that it was coming straight down on top of me, and I wasn’t hearing a whistle. It was so close that, at best, all I would’ve been able to do was roll off my cot and hide under it and just hope that the mortar overshot me. But, I soon realized that it wasn’t a mortar at all… it was a flare shot by one of our own guys who thought they saw enemy activity in the woodlines. They had shot the flare in the wrong direction, and that’s why it was coming straight to me. Fortunately, the flare fizzled out, and I rolled over and tried getting back to sleep.
“The first hour of my shift was very quiet, but it wasn’t long after that that I was alerted to what I thought could be enemy activity. Through my night vision goggles, I saw lights moving around in the woodlines. I called it in on the radio and continued to monitor it. It didn’t worry me at all, because I was more than equipped for an attack: I had a .50 caliber gun, an M249, and two M4’s at my disposal. Any Talib that wanted to mess with me would be given their opportunity to see their Allah.
“I quickly found that the lights weren’t flashlights as I had originally thought, but were headlights from a convoy. However, I doubted that they were American trucks because it was 3 in the morning, and most missions don’t start until 5am at earliest.
“I counted between 6 to 9 vehicles in the group, and they were somewhere between 800 meters and 1000 meters away, heading towards us. Eventually, they drove to the woodlines we had scanned a few days prior, and then they parked and turned off their lights. I couldn’t spot them after that until, 30 minutes later, another 3 vehicles came down the same road and did the same thing: they pulled up to the woodlines, parked, and turned off their lights. So, I estimated there were about 9 to 12 vehicles in the woods with their lights off. I couldn’t tell what they were doing, but I figured that they were offloading equipment for a future attack, or rendezvousing at the spot, underestimating the functionality of my night vision goggles.
“It was near the end of my shift at 5am that the trucks all turned on again and left the area. I still don’t know exactly what went on in those woodlines, though it may have just been friendly forces out extra early for election day.
“At 5am, a new gunner came and took over, but I kept my equipment on and stood on top of our truck with binoculars, scanning for threats. The sun was coming up, and if we were going to get an early morning attack this election day, then it was going to happen within a few minutes. But, to my surprise, no attack occurred.
“On election day itself, we had no drastic activity go on, either. We remained vigilant all day, and after the polls closed and the sun began setting, we headed back to Camp Stone. The ride back was very nostalgic for me: it would be my last time I’d ever be a gunner for a combat mission, and, in fact, it would be my last combat mission at all. As strange as this may sound, I was a bit disappointed that this was going to be the last time that the Taliban would have a chance to try and kill me in their home country. To sit up on top of the turret, scanning the streets for enemies, knowing that a bullet could pierce you at any moment… it makes a man feel alive; in a way it rejuvenates the soul, and this was my last chance for that feeling here. This was my last moment of feeling like a true soldier. This was my last hurrah.”
If Bandee’s account of election day seems anticlimactic compared to the assault on Camp Stone, that’s because it is. We had all anticipated lots of carnage as the Afghans voted all day, but no blood was ever spilled in our area throughout the entire day.That being said, this is one story where I can appreciate the anticlimactic ending.
Finally, for my faithful, I ask you to prayerfully consider the future of Afghanistan. This country was torn apart by the Russian invasion of the 1980’s, and all that was left behind was a perpetual state of laziness, corruption, and poverty. These things have become a zeitgeist in Afghanistan, an inconvenient but insurmountable blockade to the nation’s success. But even though that’s what was left of this country after it was torn apart, the Afghan people have constructed an inner desire to rebuild their country, and they have welcomed America’s help to achieve that dream. The Afghans have been commendable in their efforts to make their country a place they can be proud of, and yesterday’s elections are proof: to know that the Afghan people knew the dangers of voting, and then saddled up anyway and went to the polling stations so their voice could be heard indicates a true longing for a free country where they can live without fear.
So there you have it. The polls are closed, and the results are in. If you’re curious as to who won, they’ve already announced their winner: it’s the people of Afghanistan for believing in and fighting for a free country of their own.
As for myself, like Bandee, supporting this election mission was the last important thing I had to do before I come home. At this juncture, I have one and only one mission left to tend to: it’s called Operation: Return to Joanna. Speaking of which, I’m sure you’re wondering about my status regarding getting home. I’ll put it this way: I’ve been told that I will return to Camp Phoenix in the next week and begin outprocessing. On September 6th, I am scheduled to be on a flight to Manas, Kyrgyzstan, and I could be there for up to five days waiting for a flight to Fort McCoy, Wisconsin, where I will continue the demobilization process for up to three days. From there, I’ll get on a bus and drive to an armory in Illinois and spend a day finishing some paperwork and finally heading home. So, according to Big Army, I can anticipate being in my home between, at very earliest, September 10th and, at latest, September 15th.
But to me, I shrug these dates off. I don’t care if the Army tells me that it’ll take at least three weeks for me to get home. After all, it only took my God seven days to create this entire world. I faithfully believe that He has the power to easily get me home much sooner than what the Army has told me.
The kind folks in customer service for K-Mart never called me, as they promised they would after I took the time to fill out their survey at http://www.kmartfeedback.com/. I specified that I could be reached after 8PM; somebody from Biloxi, Mississippi tried to call me late the next afternoon. I wonder if it was them. If you’re reading this and want to take the survey and see if they call you- go ahead. I’d be glad to hear what they have to say.
As I mentioned previously, I have long-standing resentment towards K-Mart that goes back to a horrid summer I spent working there. I used the experience early on at Northwestern in workshops as I was earning my chops as a writer. Since this recent episode with K-Mart makes for a natural transition into that story, I’m going to serialize that story here for the next few weeks. Spoiler alert: K-Mart wasn’t the only problem in the summer of 1988.
Nathan Geist is currently serving as a Chaplain Assistant in the Army. He is a 2005 graduate of Zion-Benton Township High School, has studied for 3 years at Southern Illinois University, and recently appeared in the film The Promotion. Sgt. Geist has been a periodic contributor to The Seeker since September, 2008 as he fulfills a tour of duty in Afghanistan.
Hello friends! We’ve arrived in August, and as I’ve said all along, I’ll be home before this month fizzles out, despite the Army still telling me otherwise.
Gardez has been quiet for the most part since my last email, probably because of the upcoming elections this month. Right now, the Taliban are planning their attacks, not executing them. Elections are a dangerous time in any Muslim country, and this country is no different. Come August 21st, Afghanistan will make international headlines because of the elections. It is most likely, too, that 2009 will surpass 2008 as the deadliest year on record here since the turn of the millennium.
There has been one day that was the exception to Gardez’s quietness: July 21st. I imagine some of you were reading about Gardez in the news when you woke up that morning because the city was riddled with suicide bombings throughout the day. The American forces responded by launching bombers to watch the city for any kind of terrorist action. By the end of the day, several terrorists had been killed (as well as some of our friends from the Afghan National Army), but there still were about 7 suicide bombers at large. You can imagine that it was not a good day to be in Gardez. In fact, in the early evening, I was advised to be ready for a potential large-scale attack, as several intel reports indicated that the FOB was going to be a target for terrorists that night. The threat was so serious that the soldiers on the Quick Reaction Force were all staged and ready to react.
I didn’t want to get caught in an attack while being incapacitated like I was a couple weeks ago, so instead of going to bed, I stayed up in the chapel with my body armor and weapon, trying to stay vigilant as late as I could. Fortunately, Mother Nature was on our side, forcing a ceasefire on all potential Taliban activity by threatening a thunderstorm throughout the night. There were constant flashes of lighting nearby, and though it was pitch black outside, you could still tell the sky was overcast. It was around 1:30am that it began to pour rain as a thunderstorm pulled through the city. I figured that was Mother Nature’s way of telling me I could go to bed, so I retired to my tent as the storm raged.
Meanwhile, our brother Bandee finally got to go on one final mission he’d been itching for. We found out that while all the 33rd Brigade soldiers may be out of the east, there was still a company of soldiers from another brigade from Illinois, the 333rd Military Police. They were in Salerno, and so Bandee hopped on a bird and immediately was put on a mission with the MP’s.
“The mission was straightforward: the MP’s were going to patrol around Salerno, drive up to a small ANA outpost to drop someone off, swing over and stop at an Afghan National Police (ANP) compound to train the Afghans how to do a military vehicle search, and then head on back to the FOB. We wanted to complete this mission as quickly as possible, because it was a Thursday afternoon, and the Afghan “weekend” starts on Thursday afternoons and their “Monday” starts Saturday morning. Therefore, because their “weekend” just began, there would be more Afghans present than usual, not to mention Khowst province is a historically volatile region for Americans.
“Everything went smoothly for the first ten minutes of the mission. We were about five minutes away from the ANA outpost when we found ourselves on a bridge in Salerno. It was a vulnerable spot in which attacks could come from a several areas: rooftops, under the bridge, or even our flanks. The bridge spanned a 30-foot deep ravine. Though that may not seem overly dangerous, when you consider you’re in a vehicle that weighs 14 tons, that dropoff can be quite deadly.
“We turned the vehicle onto a road perpendicular to the bridge, all except the rear passenger wheel, the one that I was seated directly above. It was hanging in mid-air. We had missed part of the turn. The vehicle started rolling on its side, and we braced ourselves to roll into the ravine. We were taught at Fort Bragg that after a vehicle is at a 45 degree angle, a rollover is imminent. Though we couldn’t be sure that we had surpassed the 45 degree mark, we grabbed onto whatever we could to minimize the impact. We knew that we would probably have injuries from what was about to happen, but it would be unlikely that any of us were about to die. The gunner probably wouldn’t be as lucky, but we were too far away to help him at this point.
“We continued to tip sideways. The only sound we heard was the vehicle’s engine struggling to push forward… 15 degree angle… VROOM… 20 degree angle… VROOM!… 30 degrees… VROOM!… 37 degrees… VROOM!… 40…. VROOM! VROOM!… 41…. VROOOOOOOOM!… And just before our freefall, with our teeth clenched and eyes shut, we stopped moving. We weren’t moving forward, but we weren’t rolling down, either. We remained there motionless, on the brink. The three of us in the back began looking around at each other, anxiously remaining steady so as not to cause the vehicle to tip.
“First, a moment of tense silence was shared between us, and immediately after, laughter flooded the vehicle. The medic cried out, “THIS ISN’T FUNNY!” I couldn’t help but agree, yet the laughter continued. The medic finally chuckled, and one of the passengers said, “This ain’t funny, I thought we were rolling.”
“I agreed, “Yeah, I thought it was a rollover.”
“As our nervous laughter continued and our vehicle teetered, we recognized that we were as stable as we were going to get. We took off our harnesses and busted the door open , crawling out the back of the vehicle and swiftly into the streets of Salerno, like a pack of ants whose sanctuary in the sand had been disrupted. We knew we weren’t in a good situation. Here we were in the middle of Khowst province, surrounded by Afghan onlookers, and a million-dollar vehicle was inches away from rolling down a steep ravine.
“The vehicle’s commander announced that he needed a volunteer to pull security on the far street, and within seconds, I was at the edge of said street with a weapon, eyeing the crowds for potential threats. There was a large metal box close to me. It would be my sole cover in case we got ambushed.
“An ANP officer pulled security with me at the edge of the street, and in an attempt to win over any nearby guerillas that might be in the area, I began a dialogue with the locals using the simple Dari and Pashtu words I had learned from the interpreters. I called out to the children, asking “What’s up?” I conversed with the elders, “How are you?” and “I am also fine, thank you.”
“As I maintained my sector, reinforcements rolled up to our location and began working on pulling the vehicle’s wheel back on solid ground. I continued scanning for danger, seeking out hateful eyes amidst the children, adults, and oxen walking around us.
“After about an hour of frying under the Khowst sun, I looked over to our vehicle to see it getting pulled forward. The wheel that had missed the road was now back on the road. We had successfully recovered. I shook hands with the ANP officer, thanking him for his assistance, “Tashakur, sir. Tashakur, tashakur very much.” I hopped in the back of our vehicle, and within minutes, we were driving off to continue the rest of our mission, which went fine after that.”
For Bandee, that will certainly be the last mission he goes on here in eastern Afghanistan. The reason for this is because of something you may have heard about in the news: A few days ago, another Marion-based soldier was killed in Herat, which is on the west side of the country. But SPC Gerrick Smith wasn’t killed by an IED or a rocket or a rollover . He was killed by a bullet from another American soldier’s weapon. If you think it’s unbearable when a soldier is killed by an enemy, imagine how it must feel when you find out it was friendly fire. The details of the situation are sketchy, but an investigation is currently being done to figure out how this accident happened. As a result, the soldiers in Herat that were formerly in the east are having a very difficult time coping with the tragedy, and so the religious support team has been requested to move west to support the soldiers out there. And so tomorrow, CH Pace, Bandee, and I are scheduled to get on a bird to get to Kabul so we can catch a flight over to the west.
I personally am excited about this transfer because I believe that I will be much more useful in the west than I have been here in the east since most of the 33rd Brigade has transferred out of here. And so, for the rest of my tour, I will be in Herat, Afghanistan. But exactly how long is the rest of my tour? Well, I asked the same exact question to the higher-ups at Camp Phoenix, and none of them have any idea. But either way you look at it, we know that it’s soon. Even if it turns out I’m a madman who claims to be able to hear God’s voice but in fact is absolutely insane, then I’m coming home fairly soon. And if it turns out that what I believe is right and I get sent home earlier than anticipated, then I’m coming home extremely soon. Hence, it’s only natural for me to mull over my time spent here in Afghanistan.
When I leave this war-torn country, there are three things that I’m going to miss. And it’s not that I can’t get these things in America, it’s that I can’t get these things to the same degree. First of all, I’ll miss the night skies here. Folks, I’m 8,000 feet in the sky in a spot where bright lights are forbidden at night, so you can imagine what the heavens look like after the sun goes down. The moon is beautiful, and when she’s absent, then you have the countless stars in the sky. Watching a shooting star fly over your head is not uncommon, and the clarity of the constellations would blow your mind. In America, I look at the stars and force myself to wonder about their creation, but in Afghanistan, I look at the stars and they force me to wonder about their creation.
The second thing that I’m going to miss is the mountains. Going from a flat state like Illinois and traveling to a mountainous region like Gardez was a real culture shock. From the snow-capped mountains of the winter to the misty mountains of the spring to the bare rocky giants of the summer, the beauty of the mountains here is something that I never expect to see for the rest of my life.
The last and greatest thing I’ll miss from Afghanistan is the hospitality, and specifically the hospitable people. These people weren’t interested in treating me as if I was their brother, they were interested in doing all they could for me because I am their brother. There’s a huge difference between the two philosophies. If America ever sees poverty the likes of which this country has seen for thousands of years, then maybe her people will understand what I mean.
Until then, folks… our wagons are heading west, and only God knows what’s in store for the rest of this journey, or when it’s going to end. I’ll keep serving my time until I’m told that my time is up.
For my faithful, I ask that you please continue praying for us troops. Many have become exhausted and are more than ready to go home, but each day we needlessly stay here is one more chance of going home in a cargo box instead of on a plane seat. May God grant us deliverance, but only when the time is right according to His will.
Thank you, and God bless!
It was a year ago today that I sat in my friend Scott Webb’s basement garage while on vacation in Nashville and finally set up the blog I had been considering for a year or two. Since then, I’ve written or edited 67 entries, hosted 5 different guest bloggers, and seriously pissed off at least one reader who didn’t leave his name (it turns out he took real exception to my Sam’s Club rant on February 3; his comments were so abusive and poorly written that I deleted them).
Outside of the blog, it has been a busy year in writing. I’ve had three stories published and written a thesis to exit the writing program at Northwestern. I’ve been happy living like a writer, and the blog has only added to that. I’ve learned quite a bit along the way, too. First, when I look at my writing patterns, I obviously like to write about movies. I have a couple of movie reviews from throughout the year, and at least one other entry heavily based on film. I’ve always loved film, studying film, researching individual movies, and going to movies, so it’s only natural that would translate to blog content. I also have a few “corporate rants.” Again, that’s a passion of mine seeping through. I’m not a big fan of corporate America, and all too often find fault in what they do and how they handle themselves. On a few occassions this year, I’ve been able to capitalize on that and produce some quality blog entries. My rant against the inept Panera manager last spring received a number of comments from readers who, like me, are fed up with buffoonery.
I’d have to say that I’ve learned a lot about the editing process, too. I’ve handled writing from writers who have little or no experience all the way through to well-seasoned poets. It has been a challenge regardless of who wrote any particular piece, but I’ve welcomed that challenge. The Sgt. Danger episodes in particular have taught me a lot about preserving a writer’s voice while still pushing for quality content. I’m thankful that Nathan has agreed to become serialized and has been a frequent contributor. Don’t be surprised if you hear more from him in the future as he considers his writing options and works on a few manuscripts he has in the works. I’ll be proud to say The Seeker published him first!
Speaking of becoming serialized, I found out early on that this blog works best when it is episodic in nature. That was a bit by accident, really. I was contemplating my thesis last November when the idea hit me. I went on to write 19 episodes about the thesis, and it’s hard to tell who was served more by them: interested readers, or me. They were an excellent way for me to process my thoughts (hence the “metacognitive” part of this blog), and an excellent way to keep people up to date on things. I think a lot of readers, too, were interested in the thought processes of a writer, so I was glad to talk about that. Many great writers kept journals or wrote letters to editors about their writing processes, so I’m glad to imitate that great tradition and use it to serve my own writing. The whole thing worked a second time when I started writing the story about Earl Weaver earlier this summer, and I’m sure it’s going to work a third and fourth and fifth and sixth time in the future.
One thing I haven’t done is recycle. I thought at first that this blog would be a great way to recycle things I wrote while at Northwestern, but I haven’t done that. All the content has been fresh and pretty original, which I think says a lot for 67 entries. But that is all about to end. My recent rant about K-Mart has unintentionally opened a door for me to recycle a piece I wrote about working at K-Mart, so it is due to make a serialized appearance over the next few weeks. Though it works in this context, I don’t foresee a lot of recycling for purposes of providing content for the blog. But I’m also not going to rule it out if something fits and bears revisiting.
I have a couple of ideas that never fully materialized. One was a dissertation about how I would zombie-proof my condo. I put a lot of time into the prewriting process with that one, but never got around to it. Another idea was a list of why teachers hate films about teachers. Again… some time spent in the prewriting stage, but nothing after that. I tried to start a serial by guest bloggers about high school cross country experiences, but couldn’t seem to gather much interest. One thing I’ve meant to do all along is to write more about my job– I have but one entry that deals directly with teaching and education– but maybe what I’ve learned is that at the end of the day I’d rather put my career aside and focus on another great passion of mine. But I think there can still be a happy intersection with my writing and my teaching, and it seems I have more time to find it, so maybe I will. Also, my thesis was almost entirely about my career, so I was writing about it there instead of here.
As I blow out my birthday candle on this cyber cake, I’ll make a few wishes. One is for more guest bloggers. Editing their writing is always worthwhile, and I’ve even opened myself to writing that goes against my personal beliefs (don’t believe me? check out this one! ). If you’re interested, give it a shot. I’m open to all kinds of ideas, and try to keep myself open when it comes to editing (but I will warn you that editing serves the piece of writing, not the writer). If I can’t get more guest bloggers, I would like more commentors any particular blog entry. I have one subscriber who emails be directly on lots of my entries, but doesn’t particularly care to post comments. What’s up with that, Herb?! Also, I’d love to consider suggestions for content. I don’t mind collecting a writing assignment from a reader. As it stands now, content is dictated rather capriciously.
Finally, thanks to those who have been faithful followers for the past year. I’m continually surprised how many people read and enjoy The Seeker!
Nathan Geist is currently serving as a Chaplain Assistant in the Army. He is a 2005 graduate of Zion-Benton Township High School, has studied for 3 years at Southern Illinois University, and recently appeared in the film The Promotion. Sgt. Geist has been a periodic contributor to The Seeker since last September as he fulfills a tour of duty in Afghanistan.
Though I was walking over jagged rocks, it seemed as if I was gliding to my destination. Once I reached my goal, I burst through the door without even knocking and announced my presence: “Natersade! Khatar injast!”
My Afghan friends began celebrating with me, shaking hands and hugging, old friends reunited once again. We thought we would never see one another again,; but it turns out we have some time left together. Adding to the excitement, my friends told me that the Bibles they had acquired back in May had all safely made it into their respective homes. They put themselves in danger to the Scriptures into their homes, yet each succeeded by using the plan we devised before I left. Imagine that: a group of Muslims put their lives in jeopardy for a chance to know Jesus.
Yes, I am back in Gardez. During my stay in Kabul, it was decided that I would be one of five soldiers from the 33rd Brigade left in eastern Afghanistan, while everyone else moved out to Herat in western Afghanistan, or Kandahar or Helmand in southern Afghanistan. The decision to transfer has been unpopular, as every soldier I’ve talked to is frustrated that the 33rd Brigade has transferred them to a whole new area of Afghanistan when there is only but two months left on our tour. Many soldiers arrived in the west, only to find that there was literally no room for them: they had to set up their own tents when they arrived, and there were no missions for many of them. To make matters worse, some soldiers have even been extended as a result of this transfer, while many of the soldiers from our headquarters in Camp Phoenix have been getting sent home early. So, perhaps you can understand the frustration from the ground soldiers who have been in the east with me. Here these soldiers are, fulfilling their tours of duty, and their reward is an extension of their tour. Meanwhile, for the soldiers that found themselves in the safest of spots in all of Afghanistan (i.e., Camp Phoenix in Kabul), they are getting sent home early because there’s no room or reason to keep them here at this point. You see, the Georgia National Guard has already completely moved into Afghanistan to take over Task Force Phoenix. In fact, here in Gardez, besides CH Pace and SGT Bandee and myself, there are two other chaplains and two other chaplain assistants already here replacing us. Yet, we are still aren’t scheduled to come home until September, despite the fact that our mission is complete. I was even told the other day that I should anticipate being extended, a comment that I shrugged off, knowing that it was wrong information.
If this transfer sounds ridiculous to you, then you and I are on the same page. You know who else would agree? The family of SPC Christopher Talbert. He was a medic from my home unit in Illinois who was killed in western Afghanistan last week in a catastrophic explosion. SPC Talbert was one of the medics who conducted a physical on me because of my back problems. And as of last month, SPC Talbert’s mission was done: he had served his time in Salerno, Afghanistan, but was told that he would be a part of the transfer to head west. He arrived in western Afghanistan, probably thinking he had already survived the deployment, as western Afghanistan is remarkably safer than eastern Afghanistan.
As for me, I am not with those guys in Herat, though I, too, am sharing the experience of living in a tent in the middle of a warzone. FOB Lightning is so overcrowded that many soldiers do not have a hard roof over their heads, and because I was believed to never be coming back here, my room was occupied by someone else within an hour of my departure.
I don’t mind living in a tent all that much. After all, I lived in a tent for over two months while in Fort Bragg. But, that’s not to say it’s convenient. Bugs are constantly creeping over my personal space and over me as I sleep. The nights can get chilly. Though, I know things could definitely be worse… I mean, at least I have some kind of shelter! And though the tent is where I lay my head down at night, that’s really all it’s good for. It’s not a comfortable place to hang out, and it would be catastrophic if a rocket landed on such a soft “roof,” so I spend my free time now in the chapel if I’m not with the Terps. The chapel is also a place where I can charge my electronics. And because all of my gear is unsecured in the tent, and because someone already sifted through my belongings and took my wallet, I keep my valuables in a locker in the Terps’ hut. Yeah, it’s good to have friends here.
I don’t tell you this so you feel bad for me, but just to give you a picture of the situation that so many soldiers have found themselves in for unexplained reasons. Like I already said, I don’t mind living in a tent so much. If you want to feel sorry for someone, pity those soldiers who were in Afghanistan back when the war first was launched, those soldiers who had to sleep where they spit, had no bunkers to run to in the case of attack, and had no Internet to send email updates to their loved ones. Compared to those guys, I’m in a five-star hotel.
The reason I am in Gardez at all is because the chaplain felt I would be better used here than in western Afghanistan, though I certainly disagree with that disposition. Unfortunately for me, there is not much of a job that I’m needed for. In fact, I only have two job responsibilities at this point: 1) escort CH Pace to meetings with the mullahs, and then do my best not to fall asleep during the meeting, and 2) report to our administrative office whenever one of our teams leaves the wire to visit troops. I am essentially doing work that could be accomplished by a child, not the kind of work you’d expect to see from a seasoned non-commissioned officer in the Army.
Bandee is enduring his share of frustrations, too. As you know about Bandee, he enjoys going out and traveling the east, but now that’s stopped for him, too. Because there are two new chaplain assistants here, Bandee is no longer allowed to go out and travel like he loves because he is told that his mission is complete, and he shouldn’t be taking any chances at this point. When Bandee found out that one of the chaplain teams was going on a convoy over the KG Pass, he begged them to let him tag along, but they told him that he wasn’t wanted. I can understand Bandee’s sadness: it’s bad enough for a guy like him to be denied some adventure, but it makes it ten times worse to be denied some adventure and instead have to sit on his butt all day, twiddling his thumbs, waiting to be told he can go home.
Bandee did get one more adventure before he was told he wouldn’t be travelling anymore, though.
“The chaplain and I went off to visit COP Herrera, a place I hadn’t seen since April. And, our arrival seemed to be perfect timing: just two days before we landed in Herrera, a soldier from the small COP had been killed in an ambush on a convoy. And though that’s a quite tragic event, when all things are considered, the outcome of it almost seems to be more of a blessing. You see, the ambush wasn’t just your ordinary ambush where a few Taliban get together and attack a convoy; no, this ambush was massive! Dozens of RPG’s were shot at the vehicles, at least 11 Taliban were involved, and the vehicles’ bullet-proof windows were shattering during the attack. To make things worse, the unit had run out of ammo during the firefight. Literally, the soldiers in the attack braced themselves in their vehicles, expecting death. At one point, the Platoon Leader just started laughing out loud, believing that he and his whole team was about to die. The laughing was his natural reaction, and fortunately, it broke the tension a little.
Not too long after, though, air support came in and saved the troops from certain death or capture. Two Taliban were killed, and nine were detained. As for the American forces, they lost one soldier, and several others were injured.As for the nine detainees, they were all released the following day because it was deemed that there wasn’t enough evidence that they had been involved in the ambush… despite the soldier witnesses and the detainees’ hands being covered in gun powder. And where were those detainees released? Right where they came from… just outside the wire of COP Herrera in Jaji.In the midst of our slumber one night, the chaplain and I were woken up very abruptly to the shouting of soldiers running around outside our hut we were staying in. I hadn’t heard an explosion or alarm, so I shrugged it off and rolled over to get more comfortable in my sleeping bag. But, I certainly didn’t get any shuteye then. Instead, an officer came into our hut to casually tell us that the COP had been hit by indirect fire, accompanied by some small arms fire.
I jumped out of bed and threw my body armor on over my skivvies, grabbed my rifle, and went outside to see how I could help. The QRF (quick reaction force) had already made it into their fighting positions. So much of me doubted that we had actually been under attack because I hadn’t heard or felt anything that remotely resembled a rocket attack, nor did I hear gunshots. Within minutes, it was announced over the COP that the situation had been dealt with, and that we could all go to bed.
The next morning, it was found that a rocket had, indeed, been shot at us from the small village in Jaji where the detainees were dumped back into. But, the reason I didn’t hear an explosion was because there was none: the rocket was a dud, and didn’t explode as planned. Though, I spent the rest of the previous night believing that we hadn’t gotten attacked; I went to sleep very annoyed, grumbling to myself that if the Taliban was going to attack us, the least they could do is improve their aim and shoot their rockets over by my hut so I at least knew we were really under attack.”
Bandee seemed to have brought his sour luck back with him, because on the same night he returned to Gardez, FOB Lightning had some significant activity in the area.The chaplain and I were in the chapel late talking when we heard large explosions within the FOB. I opened the door and saw a mortar come flying down onto the FOB, just a few hundred meters away.The chaplain and I hesitated, taking a moment to glance at each other, sharing thoughts that maybe the mortars were just our own soldiers at the range firing mortars. But, the explosions continued to rattle the FOB and sounded like they were coming closer, so the chaplain and I began sprinting to safety. I had just come from the shower, and so I was wearing flip-flops, which made it very difficult to run in the darkness. But, the chaplain and I made it to safety.
That’s when we realized we were the only ones reacting to the situation. No alarm; no soldiers running to bunkers. It wasn’t but a few moments later that we realized that our initial suspicions were correct: the ones firing the mortars were our own soldiers.I breathed a sigh of relief since the explosions weren’t directed towards us. But I was also annoyed that my one moment of bodyguarding had been a fraudulent experience.
I went to bed in my humble little tent not too long after, but the sleep didn’t last very long. An hour into my rest, the FOB emergency alarms began to blare. I woke up, annoyed with the series of training events that were interrupting my night. I wasn’t overly worried about the seriousness of the situation because I had never been attacked while in Gardez and because I hadn’t heard an explosion.
As I threw on my body armor, I asked aloud if my tent mates had heard an explosion, expecting them to not have either. To my surprise, they had heard an explosion.I double-timed to the bunker where my chaplain was supposed to be. I couldn’t see anything because my eyes hadn’t adjusted to the black of night, and so I asked if CH Pace had made it to the bunker. He was in there, so I joined him.It turned out that while we sat in the bunker, just a few miles down the road closer to inner-city Gardez, another base was being engaged with multiple rockets. My FOB had been christened with one single rocket that exploded near my tent, yet I somehow slept through it.
A couple hours later, an announcement was made that we were clear to go back to bed and get whatever sleep we could. And so, just as if everyone had been called in from recess, we emerged from the bunkers half-awake, dragging our feet to wherever we each laid down our heads.
I’ll close out this update with one more short narrative from Bandee. “It seems for me, the only battle I’m going to face the rest of this tour is getting up each morning. And right now, that battle has been the hardest combat I’ve faced yet. I feel like I have no purpose right now, and it has crushed my spirits completely.”
I have to agree. Getting up in the morning, knowing that the only thing I have to look forward to is lying back down and counting one more day off the calendar, is a mini-war itself.
For my faithful, I have a prayer request that may come off as selfish. Today, I’m not going to ask that you pray for our protection. I don’t ask that you pray for the success of our mission. I don’t even ask for your prayers for the future of Afghanistan. Because, in all honesty, I’m too exhausted to even pray those prayers myself at this point, and I’m not going to ask you to pray for something that I’m not committed to praying about with you. What I ask you to pray is the same prayer I’ve been shouting to God for the past weeks: that we are given deliverance from this country. Right now, most of the 33rd Brigade soldiers no longer have a real mission: sure, there may be busy work that’s being done, but for all intents and purposes, our mission is complete. Our tour is done. And instead of being able to celebrate that reality back at home, we’re still here for reasons that are way beyond my comprehension. And, I don’t relent on my promise to you that I’ll be home before September. I can only make such a bold promise because I have a bold God who promised it to me. And though I still believe I am going home early, despite the rumors (and for some soldiers, realities) of extensions, I would really appreciate your help in getting me home early, too. And I don’t ask for your prayers because I am afraid it won’t happen, I ask for your prayers because I want you to be invested in me coming home, early, too. Pray this prayer with me, and you will not only be joining me in this prayer, but you will be joining several brothers and sisters who all receive my emails, not to mention the other Illinois soldiers around Afghanistan who are praying this prayer. So, that’s my request to you: pray that the Lord changes the hearts of the 33rd Brigade leaders, so they understand that we soldiers are too tired to start new missions in different places in Afghanistan. We’ve done our time, our mission is complete, and now it’s time to go home. The Georgia National Guard has things under control. We are just in their way at this point… and Georgia agrees. So, I repeat again, I am asking you to please pray that God softens and changes the leaders’ hearts so that they may understand the unnecessary strain they are putting upon soldiers and their families. With your prayers to God, these hearts can be changed. After all, “the king’s heart is in the hand of the Lord; He directs it like watercourse wherever He pleases” (Proverbs 21:1).
Be a part of this prayer with me, please. Even if you’re unsure of the power of prayer. Take a small leap of faith with me. Together, you and I can be amazed by the results. But I sincerely need your help. God may hear my prayers alone, but how much more will He hear ours together!
Thank you and God bless!