Not everyone deployed has the luxury of this consistency, but it is many deployers’ experience: a mundane daily life much like that of home, constrained by circumstance. Here was mine. Or at least as much of it I’m allowed to publicly talk about.
A blackberry by my head rings a default tone, and I find the little button in the middle to kill it. I lay silently, staring at the sleep I just came from. There’s two minutes calculated into my routine for this. When I realize I’m awake, I curl up to the end of the bed until my head gently bumps the light. It’s been like this since the first accidental bump, and I continue it out of habit. Right hand on the bed post to my left, I rotate while sliding down the side of the bed. If its a good wake-up, I’ll dress in the pitch black, in silence. If its a bad one, I find my headlamp, and with the red filter on, I’ll fumble noisily through the motions. This is 1840 for me. Everyday.
It’s about a three minute walk to work through two control points, through a series of connected tents until I get to my workplace. On the far side of the tent I find the back of Pete’s head and make my way over. Sometimes there’s a bit of work he needs my assistance on, sometimes there’s not. Sometimes he tells me what happened during the day, and I warm my brain up to gossip. What we’re officially doing is a formal turnover of duty. Pete is my daytime counterpart. We share a desk. Together, we make 24/7. He logs out, I log in, and then we go to my breakfast and his dinner.
My favorite is scallops on Sunday, and like Pete, curry on Thursday. Is it Thursday or Wednesday? I don’t remember what day’s what. I only know Sundays because Pete hate’s the surf-n-turf. They boil the steaks.
There’s a small tent for washing hands, and then I walk into the big circus sized tent. There are three main course lines, an alternative line, sandwich line, and two fast food lines. And a desert line. Sometimes they have ice cream. I think its arbitrary when, but its usually a couple times a week. I have trouble eating a full plate of dinner for breakfast, but usually can put down a small bowl of ice cream despite. I pour Coke or Pepsi into the bowl and watch it fizz up, and mash down the erroding edges of the vanilla. I like that.
There’s a small path alongside the compound on the way to and from the chow hall, but other than that, everywhere is covered in fist sized rocks, designed to keep the dust down, give the trucks traction, and provide cause for sprained ankles. I return to work and Pete goes home.
Real work starts with a cup of coffee, and then I check my email. You know, like all that stuff you’d do for an office job. Except in Afghanistan. And except that I aid in expediting Taliban deaths. Sorry for oversimplifying. The cat behind a fish bowl mouse pad needs to be re-lodged under the keyboard slightly so it won’t slide around. It’s more sentimental than functional, but only to Pete. To me it’s only dysfunctional but I’ve enough respect for him to not complain about it. There’s not much else to say about this. I get another cup of coffee.
I’m an augmentee, which means I was borrowed from another unit to support this one. It means I more or less have to earn my keep as the outsider. It helps that I filled a valuable position, managing a branch of our operations on night shift, but it doesn’t help that that branch is largely foreign to the rest of the shift. I’m the new guy who runs his own program at his own pace, and all they know is the product they get from it. It works that I’m logistically detached from the rest. I get another cup of coffee. Just kidding, that’d be overkill. But really, sometimes I do.
For the first half of the deployment, at about 2330 I’d leave my desk and go workout, and then eat at about 0045. I used to go with Nick the football fanatic, but he’s old and he started using his knees as an excuse to miss days, so I went alone for a while. For the second half of the deployment, I’ve been going to eat at about 2330 and to workout at about 0230 with another Marine, Mongoose. That’s not his real name, but it’s close enough. The new schedule helps break up work monotony better, and Mongoose had less excuses to ditch out. It seems superficial to avoid work by going to the gym, but it’s more than that. Physical exercise really helps rebalance sanity. Especially when working through the night.
At mid-rats, 2330- 0100, they serve leftovers from lunch and dinner, usually meatloaf and dried out chicken, but sometimes extra chicken cordon-bleu, and even some well simmered beef curry. If you miss mid-rats you can still get a decent grilled sandwich. The Nepalese cooks ask me if I have a girlfriend, and tell me I’m handsome after I say, “No, I don’t.” I learned this is not their way of hitting on me, but envying a dating society. I don’t linger to find out for sure though.
We like to sit in the far tent (out of two), and watch a movie on AFN, muted. We don’t like the muted part, but that’s not a choice. After a good lunch, it’s important to grab a few energy drinks. If you think a mid-afternoon nap attack is bad, try surviving a midnight nap attack. I fail occasionally. There’s only so much work you can do staring at your keyboard before boss gets suspicious.
[The following paragraph is boring, but somewhat integral to my schedule. I don’t feel like spicing it up, so feel free to skip it.]
Around 0400, it’s an hour before dinner. You’re getting the idea of what gets me through the day. At about this time, I’m typically best primed to expand my knowledge base, and usually socialize with George and the other civilians, or Spinich or one of the other Marines who have a lot of experience and readily accessible information. The nature of our work is that most of the resources are in coworkers’ heads, and it’s a wasted resource to not take advantage of it.
[Skip this too, for that matter]
Throughout the course of the shift, I have to make the trek across and between a few tents to “the box” where a surplus of civilians work, largely unsupervised. Because they’re all the way out there, they’re naturally ostrasized and left out. Pretty much literally. I check to make sure they’re still working, or if it’s a bad day, if they’re still there. Even the patriotic like their time off. Altogether, it’s good to have them, even if they’re the isolated weird ones. George has friends there, and coordinates breaks with them. Sometimes they coordinate leaving work early. Unfortunately in a warzone, replacing them isn’t an easy task, but we probably wouldn’t anyway, because they do do largely decent work.
[Don’t skip this paragraph]
Sometime before dawn, I walk across the field of rocks to go to the bathroom. It’s nearly as ritualistic as anything else to the shift clockwork. (Maybe motivated by the ritual of drinking three cups of coffee.) The night worker bees come around at about 0300 and empty the septic tanks directly under the steel boxes, briefly filling the air with near toxic fumes. Joe pointed out that the toilets are identical to the ones you see in RVs. But instead of in a cramped corner of a vehicle, they’re studded on a raised steel platform, and across a narrow aisle are pump-action sinks. I bring a book. It smells pungently of disinfectant, something I know I will probably never have to smell again and human waste, but I read for a good ten minutes after I’m done with my business, putting up with the smell. Why? Because this is the only place in Afghanistan with lights, silence, and privacy.
“Dinner” kicks off at 0500, but I’ll wait as late as 0630 some days, or just make some oatmeal if I’ve got a lot of work. Eggs, bacon, biscuit and lots of gravy. That’s my breakfast. Almost everyday.I used to do bagels but it took too much time waiting for the bagels to toast. It’s slightly undercooked one run through. Then you try to cook it once more, and even turn the conveyor belt up to really fast, but your bagel comes out inedibly black. Biscuits and lots of gravy can’t go wrong. (Except for the past week. They changed up the recipe, but I’m still hopeful it’s only a short-lived accident.)
The highlight of my day comes at about 0720. At this point I’m just about in bed. I’ve got my laptop open and headphones on. In the dark, amid scattered sleepers and a few about to start their work day, I finish a movie, start a blog, and or listen to some music. I have two to three hours of this personal time while propped between my towel and my sleeping bag liner with my pillow under my stomach, to enjoy these three things. It’s plenty. By 1000, if I haven’t already, I’ll roll on my right side, my laptop tucked in the upper left corner of the rack, an earplug in my left ear, and make my way slowly to the next evening.
Continue reading: 15. Lead me home
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