The Seeker

A Meta-Cognitive Journal About Writing… Plus Other Stuff

SGT. Danger: The Last Hurrah

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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.

Do you?

love,
Nate

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Written by seeker70

August 30, 2009 at 10:49 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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