Why Soldiers Miss War
Nolan Peterson / @nolanwpeterson / January 06, 2016 / 6 Comments
Army Sgt. 1st Class Jeffrey Martin parked the truck outside the concrete slabs arranged in a defensive perimeter around the tactical operations center at Forward Operating Base Shank, Afghanistan.
A layer of fine brown dust hung in the air. Out in the distance, high, snow-capped mountains ringed the combined U.S.-Afghan base. C-130 transport planes and Apache helicopter gunships roared overhead at regular intervals.
“You wanna see where the rocket landed?” he asked me.
“Yeah, of course,” I replied.
“How you doing?” he asked, knowing what was in store for me later.
“I’m fine,” I replied automatically, not knowing if it was a lie. “I’m sure it’ll sink in later.”
He said nothing.
It was December 2013, and I was embedded with the U.S. Army in Afghanistan as a foreign correspondent for United Press International. Due to the frequency of Taliban attacks, at the time FOB Shank was jokingly called “rocket city” by the U.S. soldiers stationed there.
Hills and urban areas dotted the enormous bowl valley within which the base sat in Logar Province, offering plenty of places for Taliban militants to hide and lob one-off rocket and mortar shots.
Consequently, the place was constructed like a medieval castle. Reinforced concrete and rebar bunkers lined with sandbags and stocked with first aid kits were never more than sprinting distance away.
When the air raid alarm went off, as it did several times a day, you had two choices.
If you weren’t near a bunker, you just dropped to the ground, covered your head with your arms and prayed silently that the incoming round didn’t hit anywhere near you.
You kept your eyes down and stared at a seam on the plywood floor of the room you were in, or at a pebble or blade of grass in the field into which you dove.
You focused on the sound of the alarm and waited for evidence of the exploding Taliban weapon, hoping that it was a distant thud and not a flash of red and white and heat and then darkness. Survival is reduced to a few seconds of waiting and pure luck.
If you happened to be near a bunker, then you went for it. You stopped whatever it was you were doing and got your butt under cover.
The entrances to the bunkers were open to the outside, with another vertical concrete slab a few yards away, ostensibly to block horizontal shrapnel.
You usually could see blue sky out the entrance, though, which always made me wonder what would happen if a well-placed mortar found its way into the little space between the open entrance and the protective shield a few feet away. Such a scenario would turn the bunker into a death trap.
But the odds of that happening were low.
Martin and I left the truck and walked over to a 3-foot-wide crater in a gravel clearing about 20 yards beyond the walls of the Army compound.
It was mid-afternoon, and we had just eaten lunch. A standard meal from the DFAC (a military acronym for chow hall) of some indescribable meat and soggy vegetables, topped off with a few Rip-Its for an afternoon caffeine kick.
“Jesus,” Martin said as we looked at the charred crater where the destroyed Taliban rocket had hit the earth. “We’re so [expletive] lucky to be alive.”
‘He’s Long Gone’
As if on cue, we both looked up and in the direction of the rocket’s flight path. Along that line of sight there was a tall radio antenna inside the Army compound, about 100 yards from the crater.
A few hours prior, Martin and I had been standing underneath the towering steel structure, chatting while we sipped on Blue Monster energy drinks. When the attack came, we survived by diving into a concrete bunker that, as luck would have it, was only a few feet away.
Farther out in the distance behind the antenna, slightly obscured in the valley’s eternal brown haze and well beyond the base perimeter, was a low bluff covered in typically drab Afghan buildings. Apache gunships still patrolled the skies above this area.
“That must be where they [expletive] shot from,” Martin said. “Although they always put the rockets on timers and run away before they shoot. Don’t know why they’re still looking for him. He’s long gone.”
Martin estimated that the Taliban militant had aimed the rocket at the radio antenna, since it was an easily identifiable landmark at that distance. It was a good shot, he said.
The rocket might have hit the tower had it not been shot out of the sky by the Phalanx Close-In Weapons System that guarded FOB Shank from indirect enemy fire.
“We killed off most of the experienced Taliban fighters long ago,” Martin said. “That one obviously had pretty good aim, so he’s probably been around a while. It also means he knows how to disappear, because we’re very good at killing whoever shoots at us.”
‘That Was Close’
That was how Martin convinced me that I probably wasn’t going to die in a rocket or mortar attack when I first arrived at FOB Shank. The Taliban didn’t live long enough to get very good at aiming its rockets or mortars, he assured me.
The Taliban refilled its ranks quickly, he said, but lacked experience.
I felt so relieved.
After the attack, we inspected the exterior of the bunker within which we had sought shelter and found it pockmarked by nickel- and dime-sized shrapnel holes. Any one of those supersonic, molten metal bits would have been lethal.
It was a miracle that Martin and I were alive, and the gravity of our near-death experience was beginning to weigh on me. My head was spinning as if I were drunk; time and emotions operated at some other speed than normal as I dealt with the what-ifs and the nauseating reality of how close I had come to dying.
“That sound,” Martin continued, referring to the laser Doppler sound that bullets or shrapnel make when passing overhead, similar to quickly running your fingernail down tightly stretched nylon. “I know that sound. That was close–too close.”
It’s a distinctive sound that, once you’ve heard it in the context of combat, will trigger the primal part of your brain that guides reflexive life-and-death responses.