Three months with US military chaplains in Iraq and Afghanistan
Reporter on the job: Rockets in the shower, gravel in the rollers, and a mouse in the guard tower.
Bagram air base, Afghanistan
It was 4 a.m. when my partner, Terry Nickelson, and I landed at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan last March to begin a three-month embed with the military. We'd spent three nearly sleepless days traveling to Afghanistan from Atlanta via Frankfurt and Kuwait. The Kuwait transit camp had eaten up most of our energy. That was where we first encountered gravel – not the small, friendly kind that crunches delightfully underfoot, but a big, fat species of gravel that the military has imported by the ton to keep down dust and drain away rain. The downside is that even a short walk feels like a workout on a low-budget beach. (First mental note to self: at any future embed, no suitcases with wheels.)Skip to next paragraph
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At Bagram outside our quarters – two windowless cells in a one-story building – Terry and I met to plan for the next day. Our proposal to make a documentary on military chaplains had received approval and our access also extended to a series of chaplain profiles I would spin off for The Christian Science Monitor. It was hard to believe, after many months of planning, that we were actually here, staring at the shadowy presence of mountains in the distance.
Suddenly, light bloomed over that dark outline – and we thought we were seeing the war ... until thunder rumbled. Truth is, it was often hard to remember we were in a war zone, especially on big bases like Bagram. The cafeterias served just about everything from chili to surf and turf and hand-dipped ice cream – not to mention a never-ending supply of chunky peanut butter cookies (and my family worried that I would lose weight). Given the plethora of contractors, there seemed to be almost as many people in civilian clothes walking up and down the main drag as there were military. And the buffer zone separating us from the outside was so large that my husband and brother back home knew far more about what was going on in the rest of Afghanistan than we did. (Note to self: Thank them for their news-filled e-mails.) We had not yet found the supply of "Stars & Stripes" newspapers, and though TV screens played CNN and other channels in the cafeterias, the background noise was so high we had to rely on the crawl at the bottom of the screen. The news anchor might have been talking about the war; we were reading about Anna Nicole.
Probably the most surreal incident in that connection was looking up at the TV at lunch one day to find Stephen Colbert arching an eyebrow, his irony garbled by the bad acoustics. The soldier at the end of my table was straining to hear and having better luck than I. But he wasn't laughing.
Even news that directly affected us was sometimes hard to get. Again in Bagram, Air Force personnel at the hospital asked us one day whether we'd heard that the base had come under attack the day before.
Really? Yes, mortars rained down just inside the perimeter for about four hours – or was it six? Accounts varied, and nobody we spoke to could tell fact from rumor because, though we'd all been right there, we hadn't heard or seen a thing.
By contrast, when rockets hit Salerno, a medium-sized FOB (forward operating base) south of Kabul, we all knew it. I'd just spent two days hopping in and out of Black Hawk helicopters, shadowing Air Force Chaplain Gary Linksy as he traveled to seven tiny outposts to say mass. I'd already discovered that the dust, whether whipped up by nature or the whir of rotor blades, acts like those old dry shampoos that absorb the oil in your hair, leaving it technically clean but feeling dull and gritty.
When I got back to Salerno, I headed straight for the shower trailer. I had the place to myself and was all lathered up when I heard the first big boom. It felt like the world had taken a convulsive in-out breath.
People talk about the fight or flight response – my response was freeze and focus. I stood still, water pouring over me. Then my focus narrowed: Rinse off. Get dressed. Gather toiletries. Poke head out of trailer.
I could see the walls of various structures coming in at angles to one another, as deserted and stark as a De Chirico painting. Another boom. Do I leave? Stay put? Someone is speaking over the loudspeaker, but I can't make out the words. Then laughter – guys must be playing cards over in that tent, so how bad can this be? But, wait, that's not a tent. That's a bunker. A bunker. I need to be in that bunker.
The thought propelled my legs, and the next thing I knew I was staring up at a man with an open, kind face and a body so massive the largest size neck armor was too small. I took one look at Sgt. Robert Walker and stuck to him like glue. When the next rocket hit, those of us near the opening of the bunker saw the dust kick up 300 yards away.