C’est la routine qui tue. *
Never have truer words been spoken. My last blog entry (a whopping two weeks ago - my sincerest apologies) whined and moaned about the deceleration of activities and overall esprit here at our FOB in Afghanistan. It seemed that both sides of this conflict had relaxed the plotting and scheming, taken the foot off the pedal and opted for a break in hostilities. A break in hostilities? Do such things exist in modern warfare? Well, evidently not.
Towards the end of January my team and I found ourselves filling the roles of QRF (Quick Reaction Force) Cowboys on a regular basis, staying fully clothed and close to our vehicles should the call come to rush out and save the day (or rather park ourselves on some hill overlooking the action until the order to return to base came through). Inevitably the call came. An IED had been discovered not far from the FOB on a frequently travelled road. Local Afghan forces were already on the scene, ready to direct us towards the exact location of the device. An unfortunate and primarily unfounded suspicion constantly and rather accusingly hangs over the discovery of any improvised explosive device by the local Afghan population (their armed forces included). You see, the correct identification of an IED and subsequent alerting of coalition forces to its whereabouts results in a monetary reward. Therefore the more cynical observers ("realistic" is how they prefer to consider their own mindsets) tend to insinuate the deliberate placing of viable devices in the environment by the very people who later come knocking on the gates of the FOB leading the way to the devices’ discovery (and to the helpful citizen’s sudden improvement in finances). Personally I tend to lean more towards the "innocent until otherwise proven" side of the house, others might argue that a certain level of paranoia is necessary in the fight for survival out here. It’s a murky time in a murky place (both geographically and metaphysically).
Off we went, as our orders dictated, in search of the IED in question, and low and behold a juicy unexploded mortar round lightly covered in the sands of the region and connected to two separate containers with electrical wiring lay in waiting. The full installation of this crude yet ingenious frown former had not yet been completed and once some partial uncovering had been achieved by our engineering outfit, the specialists then stepped in to remove each of the components in plastic evidence bags for further analysis later on. All very CSI if you ask me. At least it spelled one less obstacle in the battle to, well, arrive back in France in three months time with our arses still attached basically. Perhaps higher up the hierarchy the view stretches further, offering a greater sense of progress. But for us grunts on the ground, feelings at the end of each mission fail to spill over in to anything beyond relief at having scraped through unscathed. We tend to count days on the calendar while the top brass focus more on counting the square metres of ground won, lost or blown to smithereens.
Of course one can’t be expected to find every IED dotted throughout the landscape here. That’d be far too easy. February had barely the chance to show off the colours of its calendar pages when a prime example of what we’re up against presented itself. Our lads had been out on an overnight mission while myself and the driver held back at the FOB. Collection for the guys was due before lunchtime, but at about 8.30am word reached us at base. A VAB had hit an IED. The reports came flooding in but only in random patches. No deaths. Positive news. It was the medical team’s VAB that was hit. Shit. In less serious circumstances the irony would have registered a significance with me, but all anyone could think of was the different guys in the medical team whom we’d gotten to know over the course of both this mission and the preparation that had gone before it spanning almost an entire year. Who had been involved? Were they OK? Questions ricocheted around the base with no discernible answers making themselves known. We awaited further news with bated breath.
The time had come to collect our troops down in the valley, word of the IED quickly spreading as they lumbered towards the vehicles and onto the seats. By the time we arrived back at base, the medics’ VAB was sitting alone in the vehicle maintenance area. A rather sorry sight it most certainly was. The front wheels had been completely blown off, one hurtling almost fifty feet through the air before coming to rest in a field. The gun turret on which the .50cal machine gun rests was also unceremoniously detached from the vehicle, finding itself flung to the ground like a wet sock. The driver, a young French girl, suffered a broken ankle, a broken collarbone and spinal damage. It’s believed that the shock of the blast threw her upwards against the unforgiving metal roof with considerable force. The gunner beside her had miraculously escaped with minor injuries to his arm. Reports state that for some reason or other, he had ducked down into the vehicle just as the device was detonated. Had he been up top manning the .50cal, he might have found himself included in the afore-mentioned wet-sock simile. Despite the relative lack of severity concerning his injuries, both he and the driver were immediately repatriated. Reports have since confirmed that both are doing much better in hospital back in France. Theirs was a lucky escape.
Unsettling as it was to hear (and witness the effects) of an IED blast on one of our vehicles, slightly more disturbing was the location where it happened. Situated right before a more-than-frequently used bridge crossing the main river in the valley, the device had been buried under a pile of earth which had remained indisputably undisturbed for more than 2 months. Apparently it required no more than to be « plugged in » and BOOM - Bob’s your uncle. Needless to say we each began fixatedly replaying every single time we’d passed that fateful spot on various missions, coming, going, stationed nearby, how easily it could have been our vehicle that fell victim to it’s pyrotechnic prowess. Best not to dwell though, sure we’d never get anything done otherwise.
A recent and uneventful five-day mission came to a close a few days ago where, yet again, myself and my trusty Bulgarian chauffeur waited it out like true professionals in our cosy bunk-beds while the rest of our group roughed it in local compounds and on rain-soaked rooftops. While they manned the guard posts and scraped clean their trusty ration tins of tuna salad, I enjoyed morning runs (whenever it wasn’t raining - rain resulted in hedonistically lengthy lie-ins) followed by steaming hot showers, three square meals expertly prepared by the kitchen staff, the entire four seasons of The O.C. on my laptop as well as several newly-delivered books. If I’m making this sound like the imbalance between soldiers’ functions here in Afghanistan is slightly too much, rest assured that in a few days time the guys head out once again for little under a week to brave the elements once again, and yours truly shall be accompanying them. A rotation of duties was decided for the longer missions to allow as many of the guys as possible a rest, manning the trusty .50cal and trying to decipher the mostly inaudible and incomprehensible transmissions on the radio their only responsibilities aside from eating well, sleeping even better and of course expanding their literary accomplishments. Just watch out for the IEDs lads, eh?
* It’s the routine that kills