“I was sitting, waiting, wishing…”
They say war is ninety percent boredom and ten percent sheer terror.
If you ask me, war is also pure misery: humping up and down mountains, covered with sweat in summer or with cold numb hands in winter. But even though the percentages, 90/10, may be off, that saying expresses the deep truth that war is more about waiting than action.
The question is what do you do with the waiting? What can you do? What does the waiting do to you? The waiting can also be a war in itself. The anxiety, and the tension, a personal foe as intractable and stubborn as any I faced on the battlefield; one that endured long after the last shot was fired.
When I first deployed to Afghanistan as a platoon leader, I was constantly on edge. At twenty-three years old, I was in charge of a combat outpost with thirty-five American and twenty Afghan soldiers. The waiting was agonizing. When not on patrol I was nervous, anxious about when the next attack would come. My platoon rarely made contact on patrols, but our base got hit constantly; we were in over 100 engagements in the first three months.
My outpost, called Firebase Vegas, was on the Eastern side of the Korengal Valley. The Korengal, dubbed the ‘Valley of Death,’ was narrow and remote, flanked by steep, razor-backed mountains, sparsely populated but heavily wooded. The population was xenophobic, religious, and violent; it was Afghanistan’s Afghanistan. They fought with neighboring tribes that infringed on their valley; you can imagine how thrilled they were to see us. Firebase Vegas was located mid-way up the Eastern slope, tucked up against the side of the mountain. It was built around an old Afghan farmhouse that had been fortified by successive deployments of American Soldiers.
The farmhouse, with stonewalls a foot thick and heavy wooden beams, was a fortress in its own right. It looked like it could last through anything. That was in sharp contrast to the half a dozen plywood buildings erected by us Americans. The wood was still bright, looking both alien and flimsy. I lived in the farmhouse, in a back room with mud walls near our command post with our radios. At six foot three, I am a bit taller than the average Afghan, and there were multiple times that I would forget to crouch running out of the door from my room, often due to an attack, and I kept cracking my head on the wooden beam of the door frame. Was this the farmhouse, in true Pashtun fashion, seeking badal or revenge for the dishonor it felt from being violated by infidels?
The faint outlines of the terraces that had once held crops were visible, but were now enveloped by the accouterments and scenery of war. The outpost was surrounded by hesco baskets, metal-framed baskets lined with cloth that when filled with dirt can make a ready-made wall. They were arranged as one might have assembled Legos as a kid making a castle. A patchwork built to ambitious heights that sagged under the weight of the earth and always seemed to be threatening to collapse. Large eight foot tall hesco baskets formed the base, but smaller four foot or two foot ones were used to make intricate bunkers and fighting positions on the ramparts. Outside the walls lay rings of concertina wire in razor sharp coils that we almost dared, hoped, the enemy would try to breach, so we could massacre their human waves as if we were fighting in some earlier other war.
The enemy, who were often local Korengalis but were supplemented by fighters from Pakistan, could move into the heights above our outpost, and look down inside the perimeter. Any patrol leaving the base could be observed, but once we had left the base and moved up the wooded slope the observers would lose track of us. Unable to pinpoint our movements and afraid of stumbling into us, starting a close-range shootout they couldn’t win, the enemy would fall back as they saw us set out. Our patrols, loaded down with the things we carried: body armor, ammo, radios, water, batteries, candy to hand to children, and all the other essentials of modern war, were slow and sluggish. As we struggled up the mountain, the enemy would dance away, just out of reach. Once they saw us come back in the wire though they’d move in to attack our little combat outpost.
We played a cat and mouse game with the enemy from the late summer into the fall. We planned ambushes and different tricks to kill them as best we could. Both sides adapted their tactics with a frightening speed borne out of the deadly consequences of failure. But no matter what we tried, no matter how many of them we killed, the sense that they were always watching, always waiting to strike, never left me. My soldiers and squad leaders would take naps, watch movies, surf the web in their downtime (yes, even in the most remote corners of Afghanistan you can get on Facebook), but I could never relax; I spent the time between patrols pacing in my command post even if it wasn’t my shift to man the radios. The most I could force myself to do was listen halfheartedly to my iPod, but I was still alert to the crackling of the radio, the reports trickling in of patrols and intelligence that just might warn of an attack before it hit. I wouldn’t lower my guard or mentally leave the valley until the sun had set, until the chance of attack had diminished.
I left my platoon after three months. I moved across the valley to the larger Korengal Outpost (KOP) become the company executive officer (XO). I didn’t have to go out on patrol as often, and the KOP didn’t get hit as much, but easing up took time. I started to unwind by watching movies at night, in 30-minute chunks. It would take me three days or more to finish a single one, but I couldn’t stay awake any longer than that by the time I pressed play. I never let myself have the treat of a movie while there was still work to be done, so I didn’t start until late at night and was waking up before dawn to oversee patrols going out.
Over time, months, I was able to relax a bit during the day, rather than staying glued to the radio awaiting a call for “troops in contact.” It helped that fighting eased off as we headed into winter. The base had a small gym that I began to use daily. My old platoon’s base also had a ‘gym,’ if you could call it that, a plywood platform with a pull-up bar, bench press, and some free weights. It was uncovered and partially exposed to the mountain, and the enemy. We didn’t go out there in daylight, only dusk or dawn when the chance of an attack was lowest or at night with a red-lens headlamp. I never used that gym; my workout was patrol, humping those mountains day in and day out.
However, as the XO I could workout. I didn’t go out on patrol as much, so there wasn’t the fear that smoking myself in the gym would leave me sore and slow on the mountain. The gym at the company headquarters was more elaborate. It was in a building, had squat racks, a rowing machine, and even mirrors the soldiers used to admire themselves with their shirts off, fantasizing of how they’d impress the girls when they went home for leave.
I could also run. At my platoon’s base we were pressed up against mountain, we couldn’t even get to the latrine during the day without risking getting shot at by enemy gunman hiding in the rocks above the base to the East. The buildings of the outpost themselves looked like they were trying to hide from the mountain, built up against the earthen walls, only their roofs peaking out. We had to wear body armor inside three-quarters of the base; we couldn’t build the hesco walls high enough to shield us from the mountain. The company base still got hit, but it was from across the valley, mainly heavy stuff. DShK heavy machine guns whose gigantic bullets (half an inch wide and nearly as long as your finger) would rip the air just as they’d threaten to rip anyone to pieces who was unlucky enough to get hit. The AGS-17 was a particular menace of mine, shooting bursts of golf-ball sized grenades to thud and pop. Recoilless rifles, an old type of anti-tank weapon, and sometimes a few PKMs, a medium Soviet machine gun, were thrown in for good measure. Lucky for us it was all coming from 800 meters away or more, too far to really aim at an individual just shoot up our base in general and inshallah hope for the best.
A gravel road ran through the middle of the base. It went down the hill from the headquarters to the landing zone. It was only a hundred meter straightaway, and half of it was a hill, but it was enough. My workouts were mainly CrossFit. Short and intense, to try to fit between missions and meetings, but I gradually expanded to longer sessions. ‘Murph’ became one of my favorites. Running up and down that hill, seemingly forever, trying to keep track of my laps until I hit one mile. Standing on top of the hill I could look across the valley to the Sawtalo Sar ridgeline and Abas Ghar mountain, gaze at the heights where Lieutenant Murphy and his men had died almost three years before. It would give me a surge of adrenaline, and keep me moving.
Of course there were plenty of times my workout was interrupted, and I got another sort of adrenaline rush. It always seemed as if I was at the bottom of the hill and almost done with my workout, dragging ass just wanting it to end, when I’d hear the popping in the distance, the automatic weapons fire that always reminded me of woodpeckers back home. I’d turn and sprint back up the hill to the command post, legs straining, gasping for breath. Often it would turn out to be a test fire, one of the distant outposts zeroing a rifle or training a new guy how to work an old .50 caliber machine gun, since if I’d thought an attack was likely I wouldn’t have been working out in the first place.
Other times it wasn’t a test fire. It was one of the platoons, usually at Restrepo that spring, getting hit. The attacks that came as a complete surprise usually weren’t too bad. A dozen or so guys lighting up one or two of our outposts. Shooting would stop almost as soon as it started. Of course, if you’re the one getting shot at, if rounds are whizzing close, any amount of incoming fire is bad.
The complex attacks, when they hit all our positions simultaneously, usually came with some forewarning. Sometimes it was intelligence, but often it was just a feeling in the air. Beautiful days were the worst. The only rebirth Spring brought was renewed fighting. The sun would be shining, warming my skin, but a gentle breeze would roll down the valley to make sure I didn’t break a sweat. It would be a perfect day for a hike, perfect day to shoot at some infidels. I would just know that the peace of the day couldn’t last. That they were going to have to hit us, like they didn’t even have a choice in the matter.
The beautiful days I reverted to my platoon leader self, waiting for the attack, but instead of stalking the command post I went to my roof. I lived in a small plywood shack next to the steel reinforced concrete command post. My shack was pressed up against a ten to twelve foot tall stonewall. From the roof I could look out on the whole valley, and observe the hilltops and spurs the enemy used as attack by fire positions.
Sitting there on a folding camp chair I only had about a foot of wall as protection, but there was a platform used to reach the roof that was only five feet off the ground, so if things started popping I could drop down to the platform with only my shoulders and head exposed and could duck down all the way if need be. I set up a spotting scope, map, compass, and three radios on the roof. It was a complete alternate command post, but one with a view. I eventually started leaving my body armor and helmet there because I realized that is where I would need it the most. I almost died there three or four times.
When I thought they were going to hit us, I went to my roof to wait. Listening to the radios, looking at the valley, trying to spot the oncoming storm. It would finally break, and the tension would disappear into the chaos of situation reports, calls for fire, terse orders screamed over gunshots. In those moments any thoughts or concerns about anything disappeared. My world narrowed to the rounds cracking overhead. My body pressed against the stonewall. I winced and ducked with incoming salvos although it was futile since the supersonic rounds hit before you heard them. But after the shooting was over, after the attack, it always tried to come back: the tension, the anxiety, and the dread.
For me watching a movie, reading a book, or working out was a battle. Every time I was able to do it, it represented a skirmish won against fear.
After a long year, I returned home. The war should be over: the terror, the boredom, and the waiting, but it rages on in my memory. When I think back on the war, I remember the moments of terror, but I can’t feel the intense crazed mixture of adrenaline and fear I felt in those moments. Instead I feel the deeper anxiety, dread, and hopelessness I felt during my hours of waiting as if I can’t shake the feeling that those days are really behind me.
So for me the war is not over. The battle I fought against fear goes on, and every time I go out into the world, live my life without letting the war define me, is a victory.
John Rodriguez was an infantry officer in the U.S. Army from 2006 to 2012. He served in Afghanistan’s Kunar Province from 2008 to 2009.