Life in a war zone
GI Joe dolls, heavy-metal music, and jokes help soldiers at a remote US Army base in Afghanistan cope with the strange bedfellows of war - danger and boredom. This is what day-to-day life was like for the 10th Mountain Division, which just now is returning home.
"Incoming!" a soldier shouts when the first rocket explodes outside a dusty US military outpost near the Pakistan border.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
It's dusk - the guerrillas' favorite time to strike and then slip away.
Moments later, the shrill, descending whistle of another rocket ends with a boom and dark cloud several hundred yards to our right.
Soldiers pull on their helmets and flak vests and bound toward a concrete bunker reinforced with sandbags. After they're crammed inside, nervous energy fuels black humor. "You're a lousy aim!" one GI yells toward the adjacent mountainside.
"Everything's half off tomorrow at the haji market," says another, imitating a vendor at the weekly Afghan bazaar. "You buy blankets, I buy rockets!" he says. The harassing attack drags on for more than an hour.
Life for US troops in Afghanistan's lawless borderlands is often like this, a swirl of danger and drollery, of combat and coping.
Here in rugged Paktika Province, soldiers of the 10th Mountain Division's 1-87 Battalion have spent months operating from small, dark, mud-brick encampments that are some of the US military's most remote and spartan bases.
It's a daily struggle, not just against Taliban and Al Qaeda insurgents, but with loneliness, boredom, and the trauma of losing their own. A handful of soldiers, unable to take the stress, has been temporarily evacuated or repatriated. Yet most show resilience as they grapple with risk, entertain one another, and wonder about life at home.
In December, when a Monitor reporter visited the Orgun firebase, a sign painted in big red letters on the wall of the cramped weight room read: "The Enemy Trained to Kill You Today. What Did You Do?"
Inside the camp's low walls, signs like these - along with paintings commemorating three fallen comrades - are a reminder of dangers lurking "outside the wire."
Sgt. Paul Roberts, a medic with 1-87's Charlie Company, strains to complete another set of bench-presses with 135 pounds. "It helps keep my morale up to keep fit and ready," he says, as one of the battalion's adopted dogs curls up nearby.
Amid the rhythm of rolling out on uncertain missions and coming back to clean weapons and pull guard duty, humor is another constant outlet for the soldiers.
Pfc. Joshua Howe, an infantryman from Newport, N.H., cultivates a goofy image. Nicknamed Clark Kent, he makes a point of driving his Humvee while wearing a pair of glasses that have no lenses."I figure we could die any minute," he says, "so we might as well have some fun."
Like generations before them, many of the soldiers also develop a superstitious side, never leaving camp without certain amulets, coins, or other "protective" charms.
One young lieutenant reaches into his pocket and pulls out a worn silver dollar. "My great-uncle was wounded in France in World War II," says Lt. Johnny Ulsamer. "When he was in the hospital he would rub this," he says, feeling the coin's smooth face.
Veteran Staff Sgt. Michael Raymond finds solace - and an unusual leadership tool - in the form of an eight-inch GI Joe action figure he calls "Ranger Buddy."
"My son wanted to come with me, and he couldn't, so he told me to take Ranger Buddy instead," says Sergeant Raymond of Trout River, N.Y. He carries the figure everywhere in the back of his flak vest and whispers to it during night patrols.
"It breaks the fear and monotony," he says, adding, "I have to have someone watching my backside."