Guam Army National Guard
The Decision to Join: Yo’ña, 2006
Angelina first taught second grade in 2000 at Juan M. Guerrero Elementary School. It’s a grade she loves to teach. She is a dedicated teacher, and she takes pride in the work she is doing. She jumps in on her second graders’ conversations with jokes, and she sorts through stacks of paperwork, checking on the work of her students. She also makes sure her students get the extra help they need. It’s a very demanding job, one in which she mentally drives herself forward through challenge after challenge, and it is exhausting by the end of the day. But she enjoys it. She loves it.
“FUN,” Angelina says, “I mean, just a lot of fun. I always wanted to teach since I was little, because I was such a good reader and I had really interesting teachers.” Angelina began college at the age of 32, late compared to her other peers, but she was determined to get that degree and she did, two of them: a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree.
After nine years of teaching second grade, Angelina finds out about a new curriculum being implemented in the Guam Public Schools, a program called Direct Instruction. Angelina is fascinated with the new curriculum because she feels it’s one program that is going to help the many second language learners that enter the Guam public school system. One of the main challenges teachers face is teaching English to non-English speakers. Direct Instruction is implemented and Angelina goes on to become a reading coordinator for the Direct Instruction Program.
When Angelina turned forty years old, her own children are getting ready to leave the nest—one of her kids has already moved out of the family home. She’s not physically fit, and she feels dissatisfied with her fitness. As the paperwork for Direct Instruction piles on, she finds herself growing more disinterested in data-driven teaching and re-analyzes her career field.
“I always felt there was something more,” Angelina says.
In the Pacific Daily News, Angelina learns the Army has raised the maximum enlistment age for persons with no prior service, from 40 to 42. She decides to take the ASVAB—the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery Test—with the Guam Army National Guard, just to see what her chances are, and she passes.
She thinks, this could be beneficial to me in so many ways.
She thinks, if there’s anything that will keep me in shape, it’ll be joining the military.
She thinks, this will make me a different person, or I can stay the status quo.
“I said, ‘You know, if there’s an opportunity for me to take,” Angelina remembers, “‘I’m going to take it, no matter what it is.’”
Boot Camp: The System
Fort Jackson, South Carolina, 2007
As soon as Angelina enters Basic Combat Training at Fort Jackson, she discovers how fearful she is of not being able to think for herself or make decisions for herself; she didn’t anticipate this.
She finds in boot camp that every behavior is set in a system. The way you move, the way you breathe, the way you form up in a line, the way you hold your food tray: so much of what you do is set in a system that you need to follow. If you don’t follow the system, there are consequences.
Angelina is forty years old, and she expects to be with teenagers at boot camp, she expects noise. She expects to have to prove to everyone else that she is worthy of being there. But the main challenge for her at boot camp turns out to be a mental one: how to operate in a strict, systematized environment, and how to stay grounded in a place that is, every minute, chaotic and challenging.
“I couldn’t think for myself,” Angelina says, “and I didn’t cope with it that well.”
As Basic Combat Training continues, Angelina finds herself becoming more and more withdrawn. Her motivation to be an Army soldier weakens as the days go by. Standing in formation at 4 a.m. in shorts and a t-shirt, exposed to miserable February wind chill, Angelina finds herself internally melting down, thinking of the 80 degree weather she’s lived with most of her life. What she begins to look forward to most is being released for the day and heading back to the Bay. There, the recruits have some down time before lights out. She is able to take her uniform off, take a shower, get squared away in case of an inspection, and have a little peace. It feels like a 180 degree turn from her life in Guam, her career teaching, her time with her family.
“I was really sad, so sad,” Angelina remembers. “All I kept saying was, you know, what did I get myself into and am I going to survive it?”
She tries to remain positive and she’s grateful for her battle buddy, an African American recruit from Arizona in her late teens who had just finished school. They learn about the other recruits, some of whom were homeless before joining, or who wanted to get away from where they came from. They share stories about their lives, their families, and the places they are from.
“She would always try to put a smile on my face,” Angelina says, “but at the same time I was just trying to pretend things were okay when they really weren’t.”
Boot Camp: The Top Bunk
One night, Angelina is lying in bed at boot camp.
“I remember, I just couldn’t be there anymore,” Angelina says. “I kept saying, ‘This wasn’t for me, what did I do?’”
She has the top bunk, and in the dark, she thinks, I’m going to throw myself over the bed.
She breaks out into a sweat. Suddenly she’s sweating so badly, but the thought is still there: I’m going to throw myself over, and if I crack an elbow, then it’s grounds for me to go home.
She feels so desperate; boot camp is taking a toll. This is it, her breaking point.
Then she thinks, You know what? It’s going to hurt so bad, there’s no way I’m gonna do it.
“When I thought about hurting myself, and I couldn’t do it, I eventually went to sleep, I was so tired,” Angelina remembers.
“When I woke up the following morning, I said, ‘Okay, I’m not going to do that anymore, and I can’t think that way, I can’t keep pitying myself,” Angelina says.
“I said, ‘You either snap out of this and get better and deal it with, or succumb to hurting yourself,’ which I couldn’t,” Angelina says.
At boot camp, Angelina focuses more on running. It is unstated pact that she makes with herself, and she finds that her dedication to her running makes her stronger mentally and physically. She looks forward to her morning runs, and her time in boot camp becomes much more bearable. As she trains, she sees that her running time compares and even exceeds the run times of the 19-year-olds and 20-year-olds beside her.
“Running helped me focus on the training, and I didn’t feel the cold anymore,” Angelina says. “Running and I survived boot camp.”
- Preparing for Deployment, Part 1: Mobilization Orders
- Preparing for Deployment, Part 2: Family Ties
- Preparing for Deployment, Part 3: Game Face
- Preparing for Deployment, Part 4: Weapons Training
- AFGHANISTAN Part 1: IED Alley
- AFGHANISTAN Part #2: The Wait
- AFGHANISTAN Part #3: Tower Duty
- AFGHANISTAN Part #4: The Friendliest Soldiers
- AFGHANISTAN Part #5: Smoke and Dust
- AFGHANISTAN Part #6: Blue Force Tracker
- AFGHANISTAN PART 7: Disney Drive
- AFGHANISTAN PART 8: Dead or Alive?
- AFGHANISTAN, Part 9: Calling Home
- AFGHANISTAN, Part 10: The FOB
- AFGHANISTAN, Part 11: Security Patrol
- AFGHANISTAN, Part 12: Almost Home
- AFGHANISTAN PART 13: In the Open
- AFGHANISTAN PART 14: Rational/Irrational
Angelina believes in doing her duty. It is part of her teaching: duty and respect mark the beginning of every school day in her classroom, when her students say their pledges to the flags.
“I don’t even want them moving because we have to pay so much respect to what the flag represents,” Angelina says.
When Angelina’s platoon sergeant announces that their unit will deploy in a few months, Angelina thinks, If they are going to deploy me, I’m going to have to do it. Because it is part of my duty.
Later, in formation, the announcement comes: the unit will be taking names of soldiers who are interested in deploying. Angelina had been under the impression that the deployment was mandatory. She feels some uncertainty, because she doesn’t know what Afghanistan will be like. She doesn’t know what kind of environment she will be in.
“I just said, you know, ‘This is a war that everyone has to get involved with,’” Angelina remembers. “That is just the way I saw it.”
Angelina’s oldest daughter, Sherri, is married to a soldier. Sherri understands far more about a soldier’s life, a military life, than Angelina wants her to understand.
When the time comes for Angelina to tell Sherri that she is bound for Afghanistan, she wants to assure her daughter that she is in good hands. That she will be protected by the best trained personnel at her side. But her daughter understands what is at stake.
Bringing up the subject of deployment, Angelina tells Sherri that she was selected to deploy.
“You know,” Sherri says, “you’re our only mother.”
“Mom, I don’t know what midlife crisis you’re going through,” Sherri says, “but would it help if you spoke to a therapist?”
“Sher, I’ve been doing that,” Angelina says. “This is not a choice I have.”
Sherri is upset. And Angelina can see it, that her daughter can’t accept the idea of her mother going into dangerous territory. And that for Sherri, life had been as normal as could be one day, and the next day, her mother had joined the Army without telling her and her siblings about it.
“I don’t want to know what you’re doing out there,” Sherri says. “Go ahead and tell Papa, but I don’t want to know.”
Angelina can feel her own fear for herself on the deployment rising. Sherri knows that people die out there.
“I just don’t understand. You’re our only mother, we don’t have another one,” Sherri says. “It’s not like we could just replace you.”
Angelina wants to dispel her daughter’s fear. To lessen her worry. But she knows what Sherri knows, that what is ahead is dangerous.
“I understand,” Angelina says.
Later, on a forward operating base in Afghanistan, Angelina is on a call with her husband.
Training in Barrigada, Angelina is preparing for deployment. She and the other soldiers who have never been deployed hear from others who have already deployed to Iraq:
“You gotta put your game face on.”
“Stop fooling around.”
“You gotta take this seriously, because one of you standing right here will die.”
Angelina thinks, I don’t think you should be putting that into our heads.
At the same time, she thinks, These are the guys who came back and survived, right?
She says to herself, You know Ang, this is the reality of a war zone, you gotta take this seriously. This is them—soldiers. They’re telling you, you might die, so you might really die.The thought begins to scare her. She goes to bed on training days and she thinks, they’re not just talking about this because it’s a “what if” scenario. They’re saying it because we’re going to a place where it’s inevitable. People go there, and they do die.
Everyone is talking about it: you’re gonna die out there.
The conversation repeats itself in every formation, every weapons training, in the showers, on short meal breaks. Angelina begins to own the thought of dying. It’s something that she can sense in the soldiers around her—it’s easier to accept her fate because they all together are accepting their fates, that they are a distinguished group bound for a dangerous place, for missions where they might kill or be killed.
“If you’re not gonna kill,” Angelina’s platoon sergeant says, frustrated as he corrects the way a soldier is holding his weapon, “keep that muzzle where it belongs.”
There is a change happening in Angelina’s mind: she is shifting from peacetime to wartime, from a civilian’s mindset to a soldier’s mindset. She internalizes what she hears in training, thinks about it again and again:
If you feel like you cannot kill another human being, think about this: your brother and sister in arms are depending on you to protect them. Your children and spouses are depending on you to come home safely. So get that thought out of your mind and leave it here, gone, erased!
The combat training on Guam is intensive and physically challenging, and lasts for months. Preparing for deployment, Angelina’s no longer a mother, a wife, a grandparent. She is a person trained to look for enemies. Enemies who could be mothers or wives themselves—ordinary people doing ordinary things. She is a person trained to be mission-focused, to never let her guard down. With all the physical training that they are doing, she continues to lose weight no matter how much she eats; she feels like she’s already in a war zone.
When she comes home at night, and her husband asks her to go to dinner or a birthday party, she can’t enjoy the evening without thinking: will I have enough sleep? Is my gear ready to leave in the morning? What is the mission tomorrow?
During combat training, Angelina rehearses scenarios, practices seeking out cover and concealment, trains herself to anticipate being fired upon.
She is most focused on absolute accuracy in firing her weapon—zeroing her rifle, hitting her targets dead on.
She passes her weapons qualification, but continues to train. She completes the course again, to have more time on the firing range to practice shooting.
She doesn’t want to miss a shot.
She hears from her fellow soldiers, “Q, Q, aren’t you tired of being out there?”
But she doesn’t stop. She trains until she has open wounds on her knees and elbows.“I wanted to make sure that even if it was hurting me on the ground,” Angelina says, “my weapon was going to do what it was supposed to do.”
Paktika Province, Afghanistan, 2008
Sometimes travel in Afghanistan is by Chinook—a twin-engine heavy-lift helicopter delivering small groups of soldiers from their forward operating bases (FOBs) to others or to Bagram Air Base and back. But most often for the soldiers of the third platoon, Guam Army National Guard (GUARNG) Element, Joint Force Headquarters, travel is by convoy, along roads made of dirt and moon dust.
Angelina had trained to drive armored vehicles for the Army. This is her job on deployment: driving humvees in convoys through the country’s mountains and valleys and wadis—riverbeds or stream beds that are dry in the absence of rain. Angelina is a driver in the third platoon, one of four GUARNG Element platoons deployed as a company to Afghanistan. Each platoon was sent to a different FOB down range; the third platoon is based at Forward Operating Base Kushamond. From FOB Kushamond, she and her fellow soldiers drive in convoys to conduct security patrols in the nearby province, search for insurgents, bring back supplies, and travel to other FOBs for training, all along roads of earth and sand and silt.
They drive, knowing improvised explosive devices, IEDs, may be buried beneath or ahead, hidden beneath the moon dust.
Outside the wire—outside the boundaries of FOB Kushamond—is a road the soldiers call IED Alley. The third platoon trains on IED Alley, getting to know the terrain, and they use the road to conduct many of their missions. To travel ten miles down the road can take as long as three hours. One of their convoys—usually a mine-resistant ambush protected (MRAP) vehicle and a line of humvees—travels at 25 miles per hour, sometimes slower. The drivers need to slow even more and put their brakes on when crossing a wadi. The soft ground of a river bed is prime ground to bury an IED. Angelina cringes every time she crosses a wadi; she never knows if a bomb will detonate right then, beneath her. The convoy also needs to stop whenever one of the gunners calls out about an object ahead—a piece of trash on the side of the road that could be potential ordnance. When this happens the drivers shift their vehicles into a defensive formation and the entire convoy pulls security: all eyes on possible attacks, scanning the area for insurgents, gunners at the ready. The soldiers in the closest humvee need to confirm that the object is trash and not an IED before the convoy can move on, continuing further down IED Alley.
Sometimes they pass a few Afghan citizens on bicycles, but when the men see the convoy they usually move automatically—they know to stay at least five hundred feet away from a convoy. The men who don’t move out of the way quickly enough sometimes throw their hands up in frustration as the convoy passes, and look sternly at the soldiers as they go by. On patrol, their convoy is alone on the road, for the most part. And there are many times, on missions crossing this wadi or that wadi, when IEDs detonate near them. Three hundred feet away. Further on. Closer by. Usually at a wadi, but sometimes on the main road, having been buried deep into the ground.
The buried IEDs can be as large as fifty-gallon drums filled with explosives. When IEDs this size explode beneath the road, they can blow open a crater the size of a twin bed. Sometimes the holes in the road aren’t as big, meaning the IED was smaller, or a fifty-gallon drum was used but was only partially filled, or the IED hadn’t detonated in its entirety. When Angelina is driving and she can see that an IED took out a part of the road ahead, she can’t help but think to herself, We’re headed straight to the same road. What are the chances another IED has been placed beside it or near it?
These IEDs, the fifty-gallon drum IEDs, can destroy an armored humvee. Humvees that are hit are placed at the center of their FOBs. They are mostly burnt, charred up. The tires are gone, some of the metal doors are gone, or an entire side of the humvee is missing. It’s frightening for Angelina to look at: standing by the exploded humvees, she knows that the vehicle that is supposed to protect her, that she drives and will continue to drive, won’t be able to save her. The humvees are there as a reminder: Be vigilant. Stay at the ready. It can happen to any one of us.
The images stay with her, and they’re especially on her mind when she’s driving through IED Alley, following the tire tracks of the vehicle ahead of her in the convoy. The moon dust of the desert is everywhere, hampering her view of the road. The dust is kicked up in clouds by the humvees ahead of her. The tires of her own humvee, hitting potholes and small wadis layered in the dust, send up blasts of the fine, fine silt; the entire convoy is covered with it. Angelina needs to follow the tire tracks because they mean that section of road ahead is clear—nothing detonated when the vehicle ahead of her passed over it. When she occasionally loses sight of the tracks, her heart races—she can’t be off track. She just keeps pushing through, because they can’t stop the convoy.
Paktika Province, Afghanistan, 2008
Three soldiers travel in each humvee: the driver, the gunner, and the vehicle’s convoy commander. For Angelina’s first three months in country, the convoy commander for her humvee is her squad leader, Sgt. Leon Guerrero.
Sgt. Leon Guerrero is seven years younger than Angelina, and when they share stories, he treats her like an older sister. But on a mission, in the passenger seat of the humvee, he is strict, serious, mission-focused. He’s a stickler for little mistakes that other soldiers pass off as nothing to worry about. He critiques Angelina’s driving, asks her why her neck protector isn’t strapped on, and tells her that the nozzle of her weapon should point down and not up. He reviews every mission the night before with his squad, and he expects his squad members to rise earlier than the other soldiers to inspect their vehicles and double check their PPE’s—personal protective equipment—before departure. They need to take the time to prepare extra food rations. Extra water. Extra ammunition. Extra charging batteries. They need to check and recheck their equipment. They need to be ready.
The critiques often get on Angelina’s nerves, and at first she doesn’t understand why they’re always up so early re-checking everything. Then one day, on a mission to familiarize themselves with the area east of FOB Kushamond, their convoy comes across a 20 ft. shipping container on the side of the road.
The shipping container doesn’t belong there. From what the soldiers can tell, it’s been robbed and left behind.
Insurgents are reported to be in the area, and the container is a potential site for an IED. The soldiers need to pull over, call an Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) team, and wait for them to arrive to inspect the container.
The wait for EOD can sometimes take hours, or as Angelina comes to learn, can take days. The EOD teams use an armored vehicle that travels at 15 miles per hour, and they’re often needed at multiple sites at the same time. The wait depends on how far away a team is and how busy they are responding to other units. The convoy is in the middle of nowhere, and the soldiers can’t leave anytime soon. They don’t know how long they will be staying.
They need the extra food they had taken time to prepare. The extra water. The extra charging batteries. They may need the extra ammunition.
For Angelina, the mission is a life-saving lesson.
Sgt. Leon Guerrero’s preparations are a way of looking out for them, for the squad. He cares because he knows what can happen, she thinks. She doesn’t take it for granted anymore.
Paktika Province, Afghanistan, 2008
Soldiers on tower duty keep watch at one of the two towers on either side of FOB Kushamond. Scanning the FOB and the area beyond, they’re looking for people walking near the base, or for possible insurgents planting IEDs in the ground.
One evening, Angelina and Sgt. Leon Guerrero have tower duty together. Wearing heavy battle gear, they hike up the twenty steps to the top of the tower, and settle in for the watch.
It is so quiet. It is incredibly dark. And worst of all, it is cold, so cold, a sharp desert cold that Angelina hates. She’s miserable.
Sgt. L.G.’s been Angelina’s squad leader since pre-mobilization, and he knows her well enough to know that she hates the cold. To distract her from it, he starts to tell her about the first time he met his wife Emely. Angelina had met Emely at a family day at the Guam Army National Guard Readiness Center in Barrigada. She still remembers the way Sgt. L.G.’s face lit up when she told him later that day that Emely was beautiful.
At the tower, keeping watch for insurgents with night vision goggles, thousands of miles from home, it’s Angelina’s turn to tell a story. She tells Sgt. L.G. about how she met her husband, Tony. Angelina likes to crack jokes when telling stories about her relationship, but Sgt. L.G. is always serious when talking about his marriage and family. He wants to be the best dad and husband he can be. Emely is pregnant, and the time away from his family makes him more serious about life.
They share stories like this when they are stuck on the road waiting for EOD, or when they have tower duty—long conversations about their lives back home. The plans they’re making for when they get back to Guam. The stories make the time go by more quickly, and it’s one of the ways that camaraderie grows among the soldiers of their platoon, how they come to know each other well.
Another night when Angelina and St. L.G. pull tower duty, they find a wooden bench to sit on, made by soldiers from the Polish Battle Group. It’s three feet high, tall enough for the soldiers to be able to sit on and look out on from the tower. Sgt. L.G. is using his night vision goggles and he keeps getting up from the bench to look out into the desert. The battle gear they’re wearing adds an extra 50 pounds of weight to the bench. When Sgt. L.G. gets up again, the bench gives weight and crashes to the floor. Angelina, who is still sitting on the bench, crashes to the floor with it.
They’re both startled.
It’s pitch black. Sgt. L.G. doesn’t seem to know where she is. He keeps yelling for her, “Q, Q, where are you?”
He sounds worried, more worried than Angelina would expect, and she starts cracking up with laughter. Sgt. L.G. sees her hand reaching up from the wreck of the bench and starts to help her. It’s hard for Angelina to stand; she’s wearing heavy gear and there’s a broken bench on her legs and she keeps laughing. The more she laughs the more worried he sounds. He has to take off his battle gear to help her up, and then he radios the Tactical Operations Center to let them know Angelina’s been injured. They need to send a replacement for the tower.
The next day, Sgt. L.G. stops by Angelina’s living quarters with a form she needs to sign to acknowledge the incident. He tells her she’s flying to Bagram to get checked for injuries.
She signs the form and he stands up to leave. Suddenly he starts laughing. Laughing really hard. Tears are falling down his cheeks.
“Oh, now you think it’s funny,” Angelina says, surprised.
“You know what my first thought was when that bench collapsed,” Sgt. L.G. says, laughing, “I thought you went out the door and down the stairway!”
In the FOB, Angelina starts to recognize when Sgt. L.G. is around because he loves CHamoru music—it’s always playing from a tiny white speaker he has plugged into his phone, not too loud, outside the billet or around the base. Or he’s playing the guitar he loves, or trying his harmonica, or refusing the fried rice that Angelina makes for the soldiers, telling her he’s already eaten. It happens so often that one day Angelina asks him, “Sergeant, do you have anything against fried rice?”
“No,” he says. “Give it to the younger guys, ‘cause they don’t know when to stop eating.”
Angelina thinks that much is true; they both laugh.
Angelina will think later that this is just like him, how much he cares for the younger soldiers and worries for them all.
It’ll be something that, later, she’ll wish she could tell him: that she appreciated this about him.
Paktika Province, Afghanistan, 2008
In line at the DFAC—the dining facility—getting breakfast or lunch, soldiers from other units say to them,
You’re the friendliest soldiers I’ve ever met.
How do you all get along with each other and eat together?
There’s a strong sense of camaraderie among the soldiers of the 3rd Platoon, which persists through the exhaustion of their constant training and missions. There are forty soldiers in this platoon; eleven soldiers are women and the rest are men. They all cook together and eat together on deployment, and they get to know each other through mission after mission, watch after watch, training after training.
Sometimes it’s hard for Angelina to feel close to the others. Most of the soldiers are fifteen to twenty years younger than she is, and she’s too exhausted by the constant training to think of doing anything else. But sometimes outside the billets, where they have their living quarters, Sgt. L.G. or Kilafwakun or one of the other soldiers will start playing guitar. And the atmosphere among the soldiers will change. One of them will start singing badly with the music to make a fool of himself or herself as a joke to the others, or start dancing. In spite of the exhaustion, their moods will lift, and they’ll feel better.
Early on at FOB Kushamond, Angelina becomes close friends with Sgt. Cameron, a soldier who’s tough no matter how hard anyone tries to break her down. Sgt. Cameron has a strong spiritual belief in God that is hard to break. Angelina admires how she finds ways to rise up and conquer even the most difficult days, and she comes to think of Sgt. Cameron as her savior in the FOB.
The soldiers from Guam are the only ones who seem to walk into the FOB DFAC as a group. They sit together and talk and laugh with each other, even after they have disagreements, or yell at each other, or it seems like a couple of soldiers are beginning to hate each other. There are a couple of soldiers Angelina doesn’t particularly care for, but once they get together they can’t help but converse and laugh together. In the 3rd Platoon, the soldiers think of each other as belonging to a brotherhood, a sisterhood. They all know each other well. And it’s understood among them: even when they disagree, they still should try to get along, and look out for each other.
En Route to FOB Waza Khwa
The convoy has been on the road for hours. They are on their way to Forward Operating Base Waza Khwa, to train with the 1st Platoon. The soldiers are five months into their deployment. In the line of vehicles—a Bradley Fighting Vehicle, an MRAP, and six humvees— Angelina drives the fifth humvee from the front. Together with her are Sgt. Boonie, their vehicle’s convoy commander, and Elliott, their gunner. They travel along a long stretch of dirt and moon dust between mountains and valleys.
It’s about noon. The sun’s blaring down on them. It’s hot outside and it’s warmer by ten degrees inside the vehicle. They need to keep the windows of the humvee shut; if they don’t, the moon dust will cover every single thing in the vehicle. Even with the windows closed, their faces are white with dust. Elliott doesn’t look well. He drank moonshine with the Polish Battle Group the night before, thinking they wouldn’t be called out on a mission today. His eyes are red and he’s been thirsty and dehydrated in the humvee since the sun came up. He’s been throwing up the liquid he’s been drinking since 10 a.m., and now he’s sitting in the back seat, becoming more nauseous as the drive goes on.
The convoy carries half of the third platoon, over a road that is empty except for the dead wild turtles that their humvees and other convoys have run over.
They are in the middle of nowhere when an IED explodes.
At first, all Angelina sees ahead is a huge puff of smoke and dust. I hope it’s the Bradley, she thinks. An explosion wouldn’t damage the Bradley as much as one of their humvees; the soldiers inside might still be okay. Then she sees the Bradley: it’s tilted to the side at an angle.
It’s quiet. Everything is quiet.
Then she hears the platoon leader over the intercom, asking if everyone’s okay and telling the convoy to get in formation. The convoy commanders are calling in, confirming the hit on the Bradley. They’re saying to watch for secondary hits. Their convoy is vulnerable now that they’ve been stopped, and they have to anticipate insurgents coming in for a secondary hit with mortars or gunfire.
Angelina and the other drivers move to reposition their vehicles. They’ve trained for this; they need to provide coverage and concealment for the wounded, and they need to make sure the gunners are in position to produce gunfire. They need to respond to the situation without knowing how the soldiers in the Bradley are doing. The humvee carrying their medic drives in close to the Bradley, but no one can leave their vehicles until the all clear is given. Adrenaline is coursing through Angelina: she’s scared, not so much for herself but for everyone in the convoy. Face death, or fight.
The gunners fire. They fire at every mountain top and open space in the valley they’re in.
The three soldiers from the Bradley report in: they say they’re fine, no serious bodily injuries. Angelina hears this and suddenly she feels the need to cry so badly, but nothing comes. She’s numb and exhausted from the grueling drive and the fear and the adrenaline and the weight of battle gear on her body, and she can’t feel anything more. The gunners continue firing, to clear the area of any insurgents planning a secondary attack.
Elliott, lying down in the back seat, throws up. Angelina goes to check on him and sees that his vomit is red. It looks like there’s blood in his vomit.
“Okay Q,” Elliott says, joking, “if I die here, tell my mom—her name is Maria—that I love her.”
“Elliott, you’re not going to die!” Angelina says.
She can’t help but think to herself, By the time somebody comes for us, or by the time we help Elliott, he will die.
After fifteen minutes, the gunners stop firing. There’s no secondary hit.
Song, the medic, leaves his humvee to check on the soldiers. In the Bradley, Ananich and Mondia have major headaches, ringing in their ears after the explosion. They’re stable, so they’ll need to wait until the convoy gets back to FOB Kushamond to be transported to the Bagram hospital to be checked out. Elliott needs an IV. Angelina finds out he’d been drinking red Kool-Aid that he made and packed for the mission.
The convoy can’t leave. They need to wait for the Army’s Explosive Ordnance Disposal technicians to get to them, to inspect the attacked humvee and the site of the explosion. They know they’re not leaving any time soon.
The soldiers in the convoy pull security. There are some hills nearby but no manmade structures; they are in the middle of nowhere, out in the open. Because only Angelina and Sgt. Boonie are in their humvee, they take turns sitting on the turret, keeping watch over the convoy and looking out for insurgents: three hours for Angelina, three hours for Sgt. Boonie.
They can’t leave their vehicle, they can’t stretch, except when they call a code yellow—a call that means they need to step outside to urinate. Each time someone calls a code yellow, it requires coordinated effort. A few other soldiers need to dismantle and, wearing fifty pounds of battle gear, lift themselves out of their humvees and provide protection as they walk away from the vehicles. Nobody complains; it’s something they do for each other.
Day turns into night.
Night turns into day.
The EOD team arrives and it’s clear that they’ve been on the road for much longer than the convoy has. The team needs time to inspect the Bradley and the site of explosion, so the soldiers continue to pull security.
Angelina calls more code yellows, to stretch her legs and get some air. Three hours on watch, three hours off.
Day turns into night.
The plan is to travel back with EOD and the damaged vehicle. Traveling at night is risky, and they’ll be going at a slow pace with EOD, but it’s even riskier to stay. Staying would give insurgents in the area more time to plan and coordinate, to gather into larger numbers and potentially outnumber the convoy’s soldiers in an attack. They need to leave. They just need to finish loading up the damaged Bradley.
As the minutes crawl by, it’s harder and harder for Angelina to stay awake on the turret. Suddenly, Sgt. Boonie, sitting below in the passenger seat of the humvee, hits Angelina’s leg.
“Ey, I’m up, I’m up!”Angelina says.
“Q,” she hears through her headphones, “I can tell you’re sleeping up there because, you know, you’re very quiet.”
Sgt. Boonie continues to say things he knows will piss her off. He tells her he loves her. He wonders out loud what it would be like if they dated when they got back home.
Angelina says,“Yeah, and if this weapon was loaded, like really loaded, I would just shoot you right now so don’t be the enemy.”
He’s trying to keep her awake, Angelina realizes. And she needs to stay awake, to keep watch over the convoy.
Paktika Province, Afghanistan, 2008
Soldiers from GUARNG Element’s 2nd Platoon, based in FOB Ghazni, are on their way to FOB Kushamond. Some have arrived already by Chinook, but most are heading down in humvees and MRAPs, a two-day journey for the soldiers. They’re going to be training in FOB Kushamond’s IED Alley for the first time and conducting missions with the 3rd Platoon.
The 3rd Platoon’s planning a big feast for the soldiers from up north. Some of the soldiers have gone around the FOB to collect the wooden pallets that their water bottles and supplies arrive in, to burn for the barbecue. Some are barbecuing, and others are cooking food from home. They’re doing what they can to make the 2nd platoon feel welcome.
Angelina arrives that evening from Bagram. She’d been on R&R in Guam for two weeks, and stopped in Bagram before catching a Chinook to FOB Kushamond. The soldiers are all gathered around outside their billets; she can smell the barbecue, and food is everywhere. Offloading her things in her billet, she comes across the care package from Sgt. L.G.’s wife, Emely. Angelina had talked with Emely at a Family Readiness Group meeting, and told her if she wanted to send anything back for Sgt. L.G., to give her a call. Emely had shown up at the airport with homemade cookies for him.
Leaving her things behind, Angelina heads over to Sgt. L.G.’s hooch. He looks tired, but happy.
“Hey Sergeant, I have your stuff,” she says, handing over the package.
“How is she?” Sgt. L.G. asks. Emely’s pregnant and he’s worried for her.
“Oh, she’s good, still as pretty as ever,” Angelina says, smiling.
Sgt. L.G. smiles and takes the package. He’s excited for the homemade cookies. He lets Angelina know she’s on the trip ticket for the mission tomorrow morning—they’ll be on a convoy headed for Kent, together with soldiers from the 2nd Platoon. She’ll need to prepare and pack her gear.
That evening, the GUARNG soldiers at FOB Kushamond welcome the 2nd Platoon with a feast. Whenever soldiers from the 3rd Platoon visit one of the other three platoons deployed from Guam, or whenever those soldiers come to FOB Kushamond, there is a swell of warmth and good feeling in the reunion, in their hugs and handshakes and big smiles on their faces. It’s a collective sigh of relief that they all made it safely, that they’re all still alive and together. It’s comforting for Angelina to see more Chamorro soldiers; she feels safer, more able to put her guard down. The soldiers can all recognize in each other that they are all willing to risk their lives; it’s how they are all here, in this part of the world that isn’t safe. They know what it means, and what it feels like, to be here in Afghanistan, and it’s comforting to suddenly be around other soldiers from home who share in that.
During the dinner, Angelina catches up with Spc. Santos from the 2nd Platoon. They know each other well; his wife and Angelina work as teachers at the same school in Guam. Spc. Santos will be on the mission tomorrow. They’ll be taking seven humvees through IED Alley on the way to Kent. Angelina and the other soldiers enjoy the reunion; it’s a nice get together.
The next morning, the soldiers rise at 4 a.m., to be in formation by 5 a.m.; when Angelina sees Sgt. L.G. there, he tells her, “You know, Q, go ahead and unpack because you’re not going. They’re taking you off the trip ticket.”
Sgt. L.G. explains that the directive had come from their platoon sergeant; drivers for the trip to Kent need to have twelve hours of rest, and Angelina had just traveled in. She’ll be assigned instead to admin duty in the TOC. Another driver from the 2nd platoon will take her shift. Angelina wants to finish unpacking anyway, but she’s not too thrilled—time seems to move more slowly when she spends all day in the FOB.
The Tactical Operations Center is hot and quiet later that morning, except for the foot traffic in and out of the office—soldiers from other 294 divisions in the U.S. Army and the Polish Battle Group, looking to track information on their convoys’ whereabouts, come and go. The TOC is filled with communications equipment; a huge blanket printed with the Guam seal hangs in a corner. The office looks like a large bedroom that never had panels installed to cover its 2x4s. Fans blow but do not help the heat; moon dust collects on the plyboard floor and blows all over the place.
Angelina’s in the TOC with Sgt. Diaz. He’s a sergeant who’s always joking around; he’s never serious. On administrative duty, Angelina is monitoring the BFT, the Blue Force Tracker, which tracks the vehicles from their unit’s convoys and also picks up on other military vehicles in the area. The BFT screen displays the layout of the land and vehicles moving and stopping; if she clicks on a vehicle, its name—Ayuyu 66, for instance—will pop up if already in their FOB’s BFT database.
It’s close to 10 a.m. and the convoy Angelina was supposed to be on is preparing to leave. She can hear the chatter from the different vehicles. Once all the vehicles in the convoy let the TOC know they are good to go—ALL GREEN—the convoy rolls out. In the TOC, Angelina starts tracking the vehicles on the BFT as soon as they leave the wire.
An hour goes by.
Then on the BFT, messages begin popping up.
Be advised AYUYU 66, stopped possible IED
Need air support, attack at location *******
“Wow, where is this? Ey,” Angelina says, turning around to look for Sgt. Diaz. “There’s something popping up.”
“I don’t think this is us,” she says to herself, and sees Sgt. Diaz reenter the TOC. “Sergeant, there’s something on the message.”
Sgt. Diaz walks over to her and looks at the BFT screen. And something changes.
“Move!” He yells, loud and sudden.
She stands and he grabs the chair, sits and starts typing fast, really fast—he’s in high adrenaline mode. He’s on the radio at the same time, listening and confirming with the Polish Battle Group and other divisions for positive identification on the trackers. On the BFT, messages sent don’t come in quickly, and questions and messages are coming in from everywhere, including the main TOC in Bagram, Guam Guard Element’s headquarters in Afghanistan.
“Q,” Sgt. Diaz says, “go get Lt. Fejeran.”
“Why? Is that us?” Angelina asks. Her mind is racing. KIA. Killed in Action. Who could have gotten killed? Was it our platoon or the platoon that came to train with us? How does anyone confirm that someone is dead?
She can’t move.
“God damn it, Quinene! F*cking run!”
“Really? This is really happening?”
Sgt. Diaz is still responding and listening to other people on the radio, and Angelina can see the look on his face—fear she doesn’t normally see from him. She can’t move.
And then she runs. She finds Lt. Fejeran and brings him to the TOC. More people are there and the soldiers from the entire FOB, all the divisions, are making their way to the office. In the TOC, everyone is on their tracker.
Angelina finds herself outside the TOC office, talking to other soldiers, wondering who got hurt. She’s scared of knowing who it will be. There are too many soldiers who would be devastating to lose. She feels for the women who are mothers, but the devastation of losing any of one of them is hard to accept.
They don’t say who it is, where. They just keep saying, “Two died.”
It’s not long before the confirmation comes in on the KIAs: it’s Spc. Mora from the 2nd Platoon and Sgt. Leon Guerrero.
Sgt. L.G. and Spc. Mora were killed in an IED blast. They had been in a humvee when the IED detonated beneath them—the humvee couldn’t sustain a huge blast like that. Spc. Echang from the second platoon was their gunner; he was sitting in turret when the IED exploded, and was ejected out. Angelina learns later that the explosion set the humvee on fire and live ammunition was exploding; Sgt. L.G. and Spc. Mora were trapped in the vehicle and couldn’t get out. In such a scenario, no one could have saved them.
When Angelina hears Sgt. L.G.'s name, she drops to her knees.
All she can say is “Oh God no,” over and over again.
All she can think is that it isn’t true: Sgt. L.G. is a fighter, and of all of the soldiers, he is the best prepared.
He was so looking forward to seeing his new baby. To returning home to someone he loved and needed. He had told Angelina that for the first time in his life, things were right.
AFGHANISTAN PART 7: Disney Drive
Bagram Airfield (BAF)
Bagram, Afghanistan, 2008
For Angelina, Bagram Airfield is a point of transit. A way station, an in-between space. She travels to BAF on her way home for R&R, or on her way back from Guam. If she is assigned to a mission at another FOB and the roads are too dangerous, she’ll head first to Bagram on a Chinook, and then on another Chinook en route to the FOB.
Inside the helicopter, it’s hot and loud. Through the open tail end of the Chinook she has a clear view of the country below, the houses made of mud clay, the desert colors that look lifeless to her. She’ll fall asleep and wake up to a ratatatatatatatat, a gunner on the Chinook shooting at something or someone below them. The gunner doesn’t appear to be aiming at anything in particular, just sending a warning to possible insurgents—we are armed. She’ll fall back asleep, thinking of how life doesn’t make sense any more. How she can feel herself changing. How she doesn’t care if her life has any value. How in the same uniform, day after day after a hundred days, nothing feels normal anymore.
Arriving at BAF, Angelina’s disconnected from her original unit. She’s automatically in the hands of the busy unit stationed in Bagram. Travel out from the air base can be unpredictable, dictated by sandstorms, the visibility available for the pilots. Deployment days can pass here exploring Disney Drive, the air base’s main stretch, and visiting different DEFACs while waiting for the next operations order.
While Angelina is waiting for orders at BAF, it’s not uncommon for an FCC, a Fallen Comrade Ceremony, to take place. The bodies of soldiers killed in Afghanistan are normally flown here, to this central point of transit, this in-between space, before departure for home.
The FCC’s happen at any time of day or night. Soldiers sleeping in their billets can wake at 2 a.m. to hear that an FCC is about to take place, that they have ten minutes to get in gear and present themselves on Disney Drive. They walk out, weary, sadness in the air as a loudspeaker announces the FCC.
Throngs of soldiers will line either side of Disney Drive, looking down the road for the approaching humvee. The humvee rolls down Disney Drive, slow and solemn, open at the back, carrying the coffin draped with the U.S. flag. The throngs of soldiers salute, a tribute to the unknown soldier.
When she sees the humvee, Angelina says to herself, “Whoever you are, I am so, so sorry.” She says, “I'm sorry you're going through this out here in the middle of nowhere. No family to escort you down and nobody to greet you when you get pulled out of the humvee.” She watches until it’s out of sight.
Dying here is different. It’s different from what Angelina knows at home. Dying in Guam means dying where there is always family within reach, people who’ve always known you, who love you and understand you. People who understand the life that you’ve lived. Who can comfort you, who can be with your body as you pass on. Who can make sure that you don’t die alone.
In death, at home, your body is never far from the people you love. They are in the hospital, holding your hands. They are in the morgue. They are praying at the rosaries. They are in the slow procession of cars winding the island’s roads, following your coffin to its grave.
Dying here, in Afghanistan, is different.
The thought that no family, no one is here for this soldier, haunts Angelina at the fallen comrade ceremonies. But she also thinks,That’s not entirely true: he or she has so many, many brothers and sisters in arms who are here to say goodbye, to thank them for their service.
Still, she can’t shake the feeling that the soldier died alone. That she is a stranger to the soldier in the casket in the humvee; the soldier is a stranger to her.
She can’t shake this thought either: We’re all just going to die here and nobody’s going to know.
If I die out here, Angelina thinks, no one is gonna be here for me.
The fear eats at her. The fear is there as she fades into sleep, that she will die in Afghanistan, alone. That she won’t be able to say goodbye. That no one will comfort her and tell her goodbye. That at every point of transit for thousands of miles, her body will be in the hands of strangers.
If she dies here, her squad might be there, the members of her platoon, but who else?
If she dies here, she hopes that a few of the soldiers in her unit, the soldiers who are there when she perishes, will stay with her body as they transfer her out of the kill zone. Will be with her when she’s transferred to the morgue, maybe be with her as she’s put on a humvee for the FCC on Disney Drive—someone who knows her. Someone who knows who she is, who spent time with her in a team. So she won’t be alone. She doesn’t want to die alone.
But she also knows the reality of deployment in Afghanistan. After the convoy attack that kills Sgt. Leon Guerrero and Sgt. Mora, their platoons can’t be there for their Fallen Comrade Ceremonies on Disney Drive in Bagram. They can’t bring their caskets back home to Guam.
They do what they can. At FOB Kushamond, only the third squad—Sgt. L.G.’s squad—is allowed to attend his Fallen Comrade Ceremony. Only a select few from the second platoon can attend the Fallen Comrade Ceremony for Sgt. Mora in FOB Ghazni. The soldiers aren’t allowed to talk about the convoy attack with anyone, not while there’s an active investigation into the attack, but Angelina wants to talk to somebody. She attends the memorial for Sgt. L.G., feeling bad for the other soldiers who were close to him, who aren’t able to be there.
At the memorial, Angelina sees the wooden cross. Boots. Kevlar hanging on the cross. Angelina’s seen images of the cross before, but now, knowing who they belong to… it is surreal. It is heartbreaking. It makes no sense.
Angelina feels anger and resentment welling up inside of her. Remembering the day of the attack, the way they must have suffered in those last moments—the wave of emotion is so enormous and so crushing it takes over. A good man who had a whole life ahead of him, taken away. The plans he had, all gone.
Standing there, sorrow mixes with her anger at the insurgents who carried out the attack. The anger and the resentment grow and grow and swell past the insurgents, flooding out to include the Afghans, the people of the country, of the world they’re in. Here we are trying to win their hearts and minds, Angelina thinks. It was insurgents who killed her brothers in arms, she knows. But being in this world, in the country of the Afghans, she can’t help but think—in this moment, in her sorrow—makes them a part of the killing.
When it is her turn to go up to the cross to say goodbye, there is so much she wants to say.
But all she can say is, “I’m sorry Sgt. L.G., I'm so so sorry this happened to you.”
She’ll remember this pain for years to come.
AFGHANISTAN, Part 8: Dead or Alive?
Paktika Province, Afghanistan, 2008
After the deaths of Sgt. Leon Guerrero and Sgt. Mora, Angelina begins to think, to always think, that she will be next.
She’s had the thought before, after seeing blown-up humvees, and after leaving FOB Ghazni, where all she heard all day was boom boom boom, IEDs blowing up or gunshots or mortars landing in the province, the earth shaking when the mortars landed near the FOB. After the convoy attack, the thoughts intensify. All day—leaving her billet, heading to the DFAC, taking a shower, and especially on the long walk to the outhouse—she finds herself thinking: there is no way I am gonna go back home. If it’s not today, it’s going to be tomorrow. I still have how many more months here. I am gonna die.
The third platoon continues on at FOB Kushamond. The unit at FOB Kushamond is responsible for protecting the province nearby, and Angelina continues to go out on security patrols, driving a humvee in a convoy through the province. The convoys out on security demonstrate their presence in the province—they are near, they are providing security to the people here—and they respond to intel about insurgents. When insurgents are reported to be in or around the area, the soldiers move out and start security patrols; the mission is to locate the insurgents, and show them that the platoon is ready to fight and has enough manpower and weapons to protect the province and the FOB.
One day, not long after the IED attack on Sgt. L.G. and Sgt. Mora’s convoy, Angelina has tower duty with a fellow Guam Guard soldier, Naputi. She and Naputi are at the top of one of the FOB’s two towers, scanning the area around the FOB with binoculars, looking for possible insurgents planting IEDs in the ground, or for people walking nearby.
Sitting next to Naputi, Angelina’s staring out at the desert, at nothing. There is no grass. No trees. Nothing seems to be alive in the vast valley before them, except for the wild turtles that survive beneath the moon dust of the desert, dust so fine that when kicked it spreads like baby powder.
“Okay,” she says suddenly, “this is what death looks like.”
She speaks softly to herself, but her heart is beating in her chest at what feels like a hundred miles per hour.
Angelina has always been Catholic. A faithful churchgoer. As she was growing up, her mom woke up at 4 a.m. just to pray, every day. Angelina has always believed that there is a God—that we need to die to go to heaven, that we were put on this earth to serve God in the best possible human spirit.
But Afghanistan is another world.
The Afghans who live in the province near FOB Kushamond dress in white robes or thick wool clothing, the dust swirling on the ground as they walk. The sheepherders carry long sticks as they herd the sheep to water or grass. Angelina thinks of biblical attire as she observes them, and wonders, Is this what the earth looked like during Jesus' time? The people who live in this rural area have no running water, no heaters, and Angelina wonders where they find wood to cook or make heat—there are no forests or trees as far as the eye can see. She feels that she’s losing her sense of what humanity should be. Is God punishing these people? she wonders. Why are we put on this earth to suffer?
Angelina can sense the people around her changing. The more insurgents try to kill their soldiers and try to blow up their convoys, the more the male soldiers in the unit become more savage and brutal in their language, in the belief that their duty is to go out on missions and kill whoever comes their way. As if, Angelina thinks, the laws of the universe don’t apply to them anymore.
It feels like she is living on another planet that she never knew existed. That she’s in the middle of a bad dream that will get better once she leaves Afghanistan.
You know what, Ange? she thinks to herself. There isn’t even a heaven. Why would you even think there’s a God when this place was created with all these people living here who live in a world that just isn’t normal?
Her heart continues to race. Her entire body shifts into overwhelming fear. She jumps off the bench and yells, “Stop it! Stop it! Stop it! Stop it!”
Naputi, startled, jumps up. “Wait, wait, wait—Q, what the f*ck? Did you see something?”
“No,” she says.
“Oh man, I was having a bad dream.”
But she hadn’t been sleeping. Or dreaming.
She was wide awake.
A month later, lying in her bunk at the FOB, it happens again. An awful fear overcomes her—the fear that she isn’t going to live.
She thinks to herself, You know, Ange, once you die, that’s it. You know, that’s the end of the world. You’re never going to see your kids. You don’t know, you know—that’s it.
It’s her worst fear.
She jumps off the bed. “No!”
She hears her roommate, Lizama, from the other bunk two feet away. “Q?”
“Are you okay?”
“Yeah, I had a bad dream,” Angelina tells her. But she hadn’t been sleeping.
She’d been awake.
AFGHANISTAN, Part 9: Calling Home
Paktika Province, Afghanistan, 2008
Angelina tells her husband, Tony, that if there’s one thing that will make her feel safe while she’s deployed, it’s being able to talk to him or the kids.
Throughout Angelina’s deployment, Tony never misses a phone call.
It’s not easy for Angelina to call home. FOB Kushamond has no internet connection, so the soldiers can’t use their cell phones. Angelina needs to walk to the MWR to make a phone call, and when she gets there, the phones are usually occupied—everyone wants to call home. The time difference between Afghanistan and Guam makes things all the more difficult.
Angelina and Tony’s three children are grown and living with their own families. She calls them, but only once in a while. When she calls, it hurts to hear their voices. Immediately, on a call to one of them, she’ll start to cry. Then they’ll start to cry. They ask her if she’s okay. They ask how she’s holding up in a war zone. It becomes so difficult that she starts to avoid calling them.
Tony sleeps with his phone beside him, in case Angelina calls. When he’s at work, on shift for 24 hours at a time as a firefighter, he makes sure his cell phone is being monitored. Each and every time she calls, he answers. He knows how important it is for her to be able to talk to him.
Sometimes satellite communications shut down for security reasons and the MWR closes for days or weeks at a time. When this happens, Angelina feels so angry and helpless. The only thing keeping her sane and grounded is being able to use the phone, to listen to someone on the other line tell her that she is going to be okay. When days become weeks without Tony’s voice or a connection to the outside world, Angelina starts feeling resentful of being a soldier. I feel like I am doing everything to survive out here, Angelina thinks. Why are we being punished?
Unable to talk to their families with the MWR closed, all of the soldiers around Angelina feel angry and bitter. The soldiers complain to the S-1 soldier in the TOC about what feels like a lack of concern for them as a unit—they don’t ask for much. They just want to hear from their families that they’re all okay. They want to let their families know that they’re alive.
At the same time, the unit sees “phone access” as a deterrent to being mission-focused, and a safety hazard. This at times is true. Calling home could make things harder for the soldiers to cope with—calling could be a reminder that the soldiers just want to be home. Or things could be harder to cope with when they hear bad news, or when the outside world is just as brutal, such as when husbands and wives threaten divorce over the phone. The soldiers live two realities: the reality of being a family member far from home, and the reality of being a soldier deployed to a forward operating base, with a mission to stay vigilant and remain focused on keeping the FOB safe, and keeping insurgents from attacking innocent people.
Paktika Province, Afghanistan, 2008
Of the forward operating bases that the platoons from Guam are assigned to on this deployment, FOB Kushamond is the most remote and desolate. The FOB is in Dila District, a rural district of Paktika Province, in southeastern Afghanistan. The roads of the district are for the most part unpaved, and there is no electrical grid or infrastructure for running water. The villages are sparse, with the exception of the district’s capital, Dila Village, where the soldiers can visit the bazaar for essentials.
Blast walls made from HESCO barriers—wire and fabric containers filled with desert sand—surround all sides of FOB Kushamond. The HESCOs enclose an area about the size of a football field. Inside are the watchtowers, the TOC, the MWR, the DFAC, space for the humvees, MRAPs, and other equipment, and the outhouses, showers, and living quarters. The 3rd Platoon shares FOB Kushamond with units from other brigades; about 200 soldiers live in the FOB during the platoon’s deployment. The soldiers live in wooden billets or tents, and their days are punctuated with kabooms and ratatatatatats—the sounds of weapons training, or an IED going off nearby. When Angelina stands still by one of the watchtowers, she can feel the ground shake from a blast somewhere. In the sky above, she can see crows flying, or just hovering, in groups of five; they are so big that the first time she sees them, she thinks they are vultures.
The 3rd Platoon first arrives at FOB Kushamond after a month of training with different units at FOB Sharana, a busy, crowded garrison FOB. In FOB Sharana, Angelina felt as though she was re-living boot camp all over again, in the middle of the Afghanistan winter. This FOB hosted several levels of military leadership, and scrutiny of the soldiers’ conduct was intense. Angelina and her fellow soldiers maintained strict military discipline. The units trained every day, engaging in combat training exercises and weapons training. The battle buddy system was mandatory and strictly enforced. Wherever she went in the FOB, Angelina needed to be with a battle buddy; if she or the other soldiers were caught without one, punishment in the form of an Article 15 could be imposed. Everywhere, there were lines of soldiers, and vehicles, and mud, and outhouses, and the smell of sewage from the latrines, and trash, and hungry black crows drawn to the trash.
In comparison, FOB Kushamond is less crowded, and more laid back. The soldiers aren’t required to have battle buddies accompany them inside the FOB, although this is still recommended at night. This relieves the pressure of finding or being a battle buddy; Angelina is able to walk anywhere inside the FOB by herself. Soldiers aren’t driving their humvees on random paths throughout the FOB, as they did in FOB Sharana, and no one is doing PT at odd hours of the day. Angelina’s spirit lifts when she learns the FOB has an MWR, and though it’s small and there is a 15-minute time limit per call, it’s less crowded than the MWR at FOB Sharana.
Living conditions in this remote FOB, though, are tough. FOB Kushamond is almost entirely taken care of by soldiers: everything in the FOB depends on the soldiers to clean, fix, and protect it.
Like the rest of Dila District, FOB Kushamond has no running water. On arrival, at the tail end of winter, the 3rd Platoon shelters in tents while they prepare their living quarters. The platoon is assigned empty 20’ x 40’ plywood structures on the FOB, which they need to partition into individual rooms. Angelina will share one structure with seven other female soldiers, and they section the empty plywood billet into private 8’ x 8’ billets. Luckily some of the soldiers in the platoon are skilled tradesmen and carpenters; they help Angelina’s group construct their tiny spaces. For additional privacy, they build doorways for these spaces that can be covered with long swaths of fabric, which some of the women soldiers have purchased from the nearest bazaar. The overall structure protects them from the elements but can’t retain heat or cold, so the soldiers keep warm with “mink” blankets from the bazaar.
Once Angelina has a room to herself, she’s happy that she no longer has to live out of her duffel bags, and she begins to feel more optimistic about living conditions in the FOB. She buys a tiny used refrigerator from another soldier whose term is up in Afghanistan, and she feels like she’s won the lottery. The little refrigerator is a hard item to find in Afghanistan, and she uses it to keep water bottles cold, and to store uneaten fried rice.
The showers are in a separate area from living quarters in the FOB, but as winter begins to fade and the warmth returns, Angelina can walk there in just her PT uniform, a shirt and shorts. By the time she arrives at the showers, she’s covered in the moon dust of the desert, from head to toe. The showers are make-shift shower stalls, made with tents that have holes in their fabric. Because there is no running water, the showers use water from a refillable tank. If the tank runs out of water, the soldiers use cloth wipes or water bottles. On the days they don’t run out, Angelina brings back an extra water bottle to rinse off the dust that accumulates on the walk back to the billet.
Without running water, the soldiers have outhouses—sh*tters—to use as toilets. When Angelina first learns that it’s their duty to burn waste from the outhouse tanks with diesel every few days, she thinks, Life here can’t get any worse. As time goes by, as part of her survival, Angelina accepts the harshest duty she has to follow in the FOB, and burning the sh*tters becomes a normal routine.
Walking to the outhouses alone in the middle of the night is not safe. It’s also very cold, and the moon dust blows more steadily at night. For emergencies, if they’re unable to find battle buddies to walk with them, some female soldiers keep boxes of sandwich bags at their disposal, in the same way that some of the male soldiers keep empty water bottles around.
When Angelina isn’t on combat missions outside the wire, she still has duties that keep her busy in the FOB. Her squad collects trash bags from the different billets housing soldiers, driving Gator utility vehicles around the FOB before dropping the bags at the fire pit for incineration. Angelina sees black crows everywhere, bigger and nastier than the crows she’s seen in America. She notices that the soldiers from Guam have the most trash. A Guam soldier will never starve, Angelina thinks, looking at the empty USPS Priority Mail Flat Rate boxes that fill the bags.
The burn pit is about a mile from the 3rd Platoon’s billets. Everything they drop off at the fire pit burns. The smell is unbearable—tires burning, plastic burning, spoiled food burning, dead crows burning. Back at her billet, Angelina finds herself staring at the fire, the smoke. No matter where she is in the FOB, she can’t escape the smell. It’s there all day, every day. She tries to stay positive. You’ve always had a good life back home with all the comforts, she tells herself. This is a trial for you to appreciate what you don’t have now.
It’s going to be okay, she tells herself.
At night, she cries, though no tears come. She finds herself in so much pain, fearful that the life she chose will get worse, or become more difficult to bear.
The Guam soldiers live in a cluster of billets off to one side of the FOB. Nearby, a unit from the Polish Battle Group (PBG) lives in similar billets. The collection of plywood houses set on desert sand makes Angelina think of a little village in a western, on the frontier. The 3rd Platoon is friendly with their neighbors in the PBG unit. The Guam soldiers are known in the FOB for their friendliness and hospitality, for sharing their snacks and cigarettes with soldiers from the other units. Angelina thinks the Polish Battle Group is a pretty interesting unit; she and the other Guam Guardsmen trade army t-shirts with the PBG soldiers, and share fried rice with them. In return, the Polish soldiers give Angelina and others apples and oranges and dried fruit. The PBGs collect a lot of fruit because they make their own moonshine; everyone in the FOB knows that they’re really good moonshiners. They’re also interested in the Guam soldiers’ coins and bills. The PBG unit is always on patrol outside the wire, providing weapons support to other FOBs, and Angelina worries for their safety as well as for the safety of her own unit.
The Afghan interpreters work in the FOB during the day, but leave for home by nightfall and come back the following morning. Angelina feels uneasy around the interpreters, finding it difficult to dismiss the thought that there might be an enemy in the FOB who is there to hurt them. She has to learn to trust them and put her guard down. Still the thought, the possibility of an enemy, floats up when she sees an interpreter enter the DFAC or when an interpreter rides in a humvee with her. She often thanks a higher power for not allowing this to happen.
Soldiers in other units have other duties in the FOB. “Sappers,” soldiers from the South Dakota Army National Guard, maintain and cook in the DFAC. For main courses, they prepare huge pots of boiling water to heat frozen bags of ready-to-eat meals. When heated, the bags are cut open and the food is placed in serving trays at the dining facility. For the most part, the soldiers from Guam stay away from the pre-frozen meals. They grab the milk, bread, cakes, fruit—anything that hadn’t been re-heated in a pot of boiling water. Angelina sometimes barters food for FOB duties with some of the male soldiers in her platoon, who clean the latrine on her shift in exchange for instant noodles or canned goods from Guam. By cooking a decent meal, she can skip two shifts in a barter exchange.
When the soldiers need toiletries and women’s health products, they travel by humvee for hours to the nearest military store, in FOB Ghazni. Angelina envies the soldiers who live here. They have running water. The toilets flush. They shower in private stalls. Afghan workers cook warm meals, clean the DFAC, and clean the toilets—no latrine duty for the soldiers here. There is a prayer hall and a Chaplain at this FOB, unlike FOB Kushamond, where Angelina often wishes for a chapel to pray in. Angelina wants to stay. She cries when they need to leave.
Back at FOB Kushamond, when FOB duties are complete, the Guam Guardsmen play tag football, clean weapons, and exercise for modified PT. Barbecuing is everywhere. In lieu of visiting a prayer hall, Angelina reads the Bible.
Paktika Province, Afghanistan, 2008
In her room, in her billet in FOB Kushamond, Angelina prepares for a security patrol. She double checks her IBA OTV vest, the centerpiece for the Interceptor Multi-Threat Body Armor System she will wear on patrol. She makes sure the ceramic armor plates, which shield critical areas of her body from bullets, are in place in the vest. She checks her throat protector and collar, and reaffirms that all of her protective gear is securely attached. She’s already pre-packed her weapons cartridges, her first aid kit, an extra case of ear plugs, and other safety items. She doesn’t pack photos or mementos with her combat gear—just a single rosary bead. Depending on what she is carrying for the day, her IBA system and packed gear weigh between forty and fifty pounds.
The other female soldiers can hear Angelina preparing, securing straps, and maneuvering the heavy IBA from their own rooms in the billet. They know Angelina’s heading outside the wire today; their platoon sergeant had announced that 3rd Squad was assigned the day’s patrol mission during morning formation. During final checks, Angelina’s thinking of how long the mission will be, and how, despite the danger, she’s happy to be getting away from the FOB. For so much of the day, she can’t see beyond the HESCOs that enclose the FOB, and after a while the walled-in base begins to feel like a prison. She’s also looking forward to seeing the Afghan people, the homes they live in. It’s a privilege for her to see this land and its people, so vastly different from where she comes from. So many people can only imagine life here from seeing pictures or watching television; not too many people have the privilege of being here. This is a place only I can understand, she thinks to herself, because I see it. But the danger she’s heading into pushes her back to reality. This is not a vacation tour or tour destination, she reminds herself. It’s a place that doesn’t want you impeding on their land or their religion.
Angelina puts on her IBA; her shoulders and lower back take the weight of the gear. She secures the vest, adjusting the straps so that it fits more comfortably, but she knows that throughout the day the straps will loosen, and then the ceramic armor plates will cut into her hips. She picks up her weapon, an M4 carbine, as well as her water and pogey baits—packs of candy, chips, and other snacks that she’ll eat on patrol. Then she heads past the fabric door of her room.
On her way out of the billet to the humvee, Angelina can hear the others calling from their rooms:
“Take care out there!”
“Good luck on the convoy!”
“Do you have enough water? Pogey baits?”
Angelina knows that if she sees one of the women just outside of the billet, they’ll hug one another, with the thought that the hug may be the last one.
The mission is a routine security patrol, a show of force that demonstrates that the soldiers are providing protection for the area, and are on the lookout for insurgents. Today the convoy will head to a district less than ten miles away, but the convoy will travel slowly, assessing potential threats—probable IEDs or insurgents appearing on mountaintops, or on nearby roads and alleys. The amount of time the soldiers will be outside the wire is always unpredictable.
At the wheel of her humvee, Angelina sits next to Sgt. Boonie, the vehicle’s convoy commander. He’s been deployed before, to Iraq, and he shares his wartime stories in Iraq with his squad—what he saw and went through that he doesn’t want any of them to go through. He cares and worries for everyone’s safety, and as soon as they exit the checkpoint with the FOB Kushamond tower guard, Sgt. Boonie double checks that Angelina’s weapon is ready, and that the safety lock is set. He reminds Angelina to keep the nozzle of her weapon pointed down, in case of an accidental discharge that can occur when they hit a wadi—they will drive over so many of them.
Spc. Elliott, the humvee’s gunner, is up in the turret, looking out for pieces of trash or mounds of sand or dirt that could potentially hide a buried IED. As she drives, Angelina strains her eyes to see through the moon dust, searching for tire tracks ahead of her. When she drives over a wadi, she finds herself closing her eyes for a moment, with the thought that she might have set something off to detonate. She feels calm, almost expecting a detonation. What’s the use of worrying about something that is inevitable? she thinks to herself.
No detonation happens, and she drives on.
On her headset, she hears the second vehicle in the convoy calling about a possible sighting. It’s an object on the side of the road, about thirty feet ahead. The convoy pulls over and moves into formation; they check the debris. The object is trash, nothing to worry about. The soldiers in the convoy continue on.
To get her mind off of the possibility of being blown up, Angelina carries on a conversation with Sgt. Boonie. They are only a few years apart in age, so it’s easy to connect and find interesting things to discuss. They talk about their grandchildren and spouses and the food that they miss back home—chicken kelaguen, kadon pika, the red rice their moms make. They pull out their pogey baits for the patrol, but Sgt. Boonie doesn’t snack on anything. From the turret, Elliott asks for a snack, and Sgt. Boonie passes him a few Twizzlers. Talking and snacking, Angelina feels more safe, but they’re not out of the kill zone yet.
After a few hours of patrolling, it’s time to head back to FOB Kushamond. Angelina needs to urinate, and the need intensifies even as she thinks about the hassle of removing her combat gear to do so. Over the intercom, she calls a Code Yellow. The convoy pulls over, and the vehicles move into a secure formation. Other soldiers leave their vehicles to pull security, stretching their legs and scanning the area.
Angelina steps outside of her humvee, staying near her door for coverage, and places her weapon beside her. The soldiers on foot outside and in her vehicle look away from her to give her privacy. Unless Angelina takes off the whole system of gear that she’s wearing, she can’t bend down to urinate. Only the female soldiers need to do this. The combat gear they’re wearing was designed for men, and the male soldiers don’t need to take any gear off when they urinate standing. Angelina removes her IBA. Now fully exposed without armor, she tries to urinate as fast as she can. Her heart’s beating quickly and she feels so unsafe, but she’s so relieved that she doesn’t care about using the ground.
Returning to the FOB is risky. By now, the insurgents are bound to have received word of the convoy’s whereabouts. The soldiers in the convoy become more hyper-vigilant; they treat every sighting, including sheep herders, as a threat. More voices come in over the intercom, calling out every object and piece of debris that they see. The gunners are especially keen, watching what’s ahead of them, calling out.
Angelina looks at the humvee’s Blue Force Tracker, and sees that they are still a few hours away from FOB Kushamond. She can feel a headache coming on—from the bumps and jostles of hitting the wadis, the lack of water, the moon dust she’s inhaling, the stress. She tries to brush off the headache and continue a conversation with Sgt. Boonie. Now though, he’s not much for talking. He knows the danger they’re in. He doesn’t say what he thinks, but Angelina can see in his eyes that he’s worried.
Angelina drives on.
Two more hours in the driver’s seat go by before Angelina sees the HESCOs and the tower at the entrance of FOB Kushamond. Her headache continues to pound, but the sight makes her feel more at ease. She wants to just drive into the FOB, but the mission is not yet over.
A thousand feet from the entrance to the FOB, the convoy stops. From each vehicle, either the gunner or the vehicle’s convoy commander steps out. They need to walk their vehicles into the FOB. For the convoy, it’ll take another 20 to 30 minutes to enter the base. Angelina’s head continues to pound. They head to the gas attendant to refill their gas tanks. They park and secure their humvees. They walk to the weapons clearing section, each soldier placing their rifle in a clearing barrel and squeezing the trigger to ensure no bullets are left inside. Angelina feels like her head is about to split apart.
The soldiers head back to the billets, covered in moon dust. Angelina feels like she can barely walk from the weight of the combat gear strapped to her body. The others in the FOB know they’re back from a mission. Angelina waves to some soldiers, and they wave back, happy to see them alive. Angelina walks into her billet and straight into her room. She pops a Motrin. She looks at the tiny refrigerator in her room. Her heart feels happy. She has cold drinks and leftover fried rice that she can eat. She’s alive. She’s lived to survive another day.
En route to FOB Kushamond from FOB Ghazni
There are more than thirty vehicles in the convoy that sets out from FOB Ghazni, the Afghanistan headquarters for Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 294th Infantry Regiment, Guam Army National Guard. The company has been in country for nine months, and is preparing to exit Afghanistan. As part of the exit, the soldiers have loaded the company’s equipment and sensitive items from FOB Ghazni into fifty-foot containers, to be hauled by trucks in the convoy. Afghan workers drive the trucks, and soldiers from the 2nd Platoon and 3rd Platoon provide security for the trucks, in humvees and MRAPs. Moving at a slow and safe rate of speed, with stops and breaks, the journey ahead will be at least two days long. Angelina’s humvee is the fifteenth vehicle in line.
The convoy stops periodically throughout the day to honor religious practices: Afghan workers disembark then for prayers. Angelina stretches her legs during these pauses. Then she’s back behind the wheel of the humvee. Rosario, a quiet soldier from the 2nd Platoon, sits in the turret as the gunner. Sgt. Boonie sits to Angelina’s right, smoking like a chimney; he is the humvee’s convoy commander.
Though Sgt. Boonie appears neither tense nor worried for this mission, he always anticipates an attack whenever they are outside of the FOB. He asks soldiers on his squad to talk to him about being scared or worried on patrol—he wants to look out for anyone who might be too scared to react or defend themselves. Lately they’ve been receiving intel, almost daily, that FOB Kushamond could be attacked soon. Inside and outside of the base, the soldiers don’t go anywhere without their weapons. Angelina’s M4 carbine never comes off her body unless she goes to sleep, uses the latrine, or takes a shower. Even then, her weapon is always right beside her. Sgt. Boonie’s always double checking that Angelina and the others frequently clean their M4’s, even when they’re not on patrol; he wants to make sure everyone on his squad goes home alive. In the humvee, Sgt. Boonie scans the area as Angelina drives, and checks on Rosario in the turret, making sure that he’s okay and hasn’t fallen asleep as the journey stretches on.
Every now and then, figures on motorcycles appear on the mountaintops along the routes—likely insurgents, watching the convoy go by.
Angelina drives on, over the tire tracks of the vehicle ahead of her, over moon dust and the wadis. She thinks often of the IED the Bradley hit a few months back, on the way to FOB Waza Khwa. The Bradley had been following tire tracks, but when the vehicle needed to make a wider turn and move off the tracks, it triggered the explosion. Angelina knows that guiding her humvee directly over the tire tracks is safer; the tire tracks are a lifeline. Whenever her humvee hits a wadi filled with fine, soft sand, and the humvee’s windshield floods with dust, Angelina’s heart races. She feels it pound until the dust clears and she can see the tire tracks again.
Over the intercom, Angelina can hear other soldiers talking about dangers ahead of them—empty bottles on the roadside, other possible planted IEDs. Every sighted object on the road that can act as a detonator is relayed throughout the convoy. I’ve been through this many times before, Angelina thinks to herself. She thinks of IED Alley, notorious for IEDs planted in the ground. How many times did we go on patrol through IED Alley? We always made it back to the FOB alive and intact.
The convoy stops for every possible IED scenario. They assess, and once they have the green light to go, they drive on.
One day passes on into the next. The sun rises; the sun falls. Over her headphones, Angelina can hear Chamorro music playing in the humvee. No one talks. Sgt. Boonie smokes. The cigarette smoke mixes with the moon dust in the air, floating through the humvee’s interior.
Five miles from their destination at FOB Kushamond, following pre-existing trails, their route takes them through an abandoned area. The sun’s gone; it’s the convoy’s second night on the road. Angelina’s tired. They’re all tired. They drive past empty mud houses. There’s some chatter on the intercom between the convoy and the Tactical Operations Center (TOC) at FOB Kushamond: soldiers are relaying the current coordinates, the whereabouts of the convoy.
“Almost home,” Angelina says to herself.
She looks in her rearview mirror. In the darkness, the only lights Angelina can see are those glaring from the trucks and vehicles in their convoy. They seem to stretch for miles behind her. Ahead, there is a small narrow road leading up a hill. The convoy’s speed slows as they pass empty houses on the left, on the right. Beyond the glow cast by the vehicle lights, the desert is pitch black.
As her humvee climbs the small hill, flanked on either side by mud houses, Angelina suddenly hears over her music: RATATATATATATATATATATATAT!
The convoy is under attack.
Rosario’s firing. Sgt. Boonie’s yelling. Angelina’s praying. Rosario keeps firing. The sound of the gunfire is piercing—Angelina’s not wearing her earplugs. Chaos outside. Rosario’s covering their left side and Sgt. Boonie’s firing out of the little side window on the right, yelling commands, telling Angelina to keep driving, to follow the vehicles ahead of them. Angelina keeps driving. Outside—red flares are going by, bullets are going everywhere. She’s driving over wadis, the humvee rattling and jerking this way and that as they pass over.
“Where are we gonna go?” Angelina asks Sgt. Boonie. “Please tell me where to drive, how to get out of here?”
Sgt. Boonie is laughing his head off. The attack he’d been expecting is here. “We’re gonna die, motherf*ckers! We’re gonna die!”
Angelina looks over at Sgt. Boonie—he’s excited, validated, high on adrenaline.
After ten minutes, the gunfire dies down; the sky’s lit up from flares. The convoy commander’s reported the attack to FOB Kushamond; the TOC’s requested air and ground support for them. Rosario sits silent, tired from being up on the turret, from all of the energy expended in firing his weapon continuously. The insurgents have stopped shooting, but now the convoy’s anticipating what can commonly follow gunfire—a secondary attack, something bigger, something more damaging. Mortars. More firepower. Usually an IED. Possibly buried in the road, just up ahead of them.
Sgt. Boonie says, “Q, this is it! This is it! We’re gonna die here!”
He’s losing his mind, Angelina thinks. But she’s also thinking about Sgt. Boonie’s previous deployment, the stories he shared with them about Iraq—the things he went through, that he never wanted them to go through. He knows the likelihood of a secondary attack.
The convoy keeps moving. Angelina keeps driving.
Angelina doesn’t think they’re going to get out of there alive. At night, where can they go? Where can they hide? She thinks of the convoy being on the road so long, the figures on the motorcycles on the mountaintops, how they must have planned this attack. She doesn’t want to die in an explosion, blown up into pieces. She’d rather be shot; at least her body would still be intact.
“F*ck it, f*ck it, Quinene!” Sgt. Boonie says, laughing to himself. “That’s it! We’re just gonna die here!”
Oh my god, this guy’s had it too, Angelina thinks.
She’s scared for him—she’s starting to worry that he’s having a hallucination, that the attack is awakening a memory from his deployment in Iraq. It begins to seem possible that he could suddenly start shooting everywhere and end up shooting one of them.
She shakes the feeling off. This is the same Sgt. Boonie who is always saying he will make sure his squad goes home alive and intact. Who is always making sure that her neck brace, vest, kevlar, and helmet are properly secured. Who is always reminding her to clean her weapon so that it won’t jam from the moon dust in case she needs to use it. Who cares and worries about them all. He would die for us, Angelina thinks, not the other way around.
Then Angelina accepts that what he’s saying is true: that they’re going to die in the attack. That this is it.
We’re just—that’s it, she thinks. Nevermind. What’s the use?
There are still miles left to go.
Angelina drives on.
Sgt. Boonie calms down. He talks with the lead convoy commander. Angelina listens to the chatter over the intercom, between the TOC and the convoy. The gunners in the convoy continue to fire flares to light up the sky. At FOB Kushamond, soldiers are also firing flares into the sky—a message to insurgents that soldiers are being summoned to provide more firepower for the convoy, that it won’t be long before air support moves in. A ground support unit from FOB Kushamond, made of soldiers from throughout the FOB including the PBGs and the Sappers, is heading their way to assist them.
Over the intercom, the lead convoy commander reassures the convoy that the attack is over. The attackers took off after the soldiers in the convoy started firing back. The convoy’s closer to FOB Kushamond and the soldiers on tower duty are watching the convoy through night vision goggles—they can’t see anyone on motorcycles near the trucks and humvees either. Corroborating with the TOC at the FOB, the lead convoy commander calls off air support.
Angelina sighs with relief. She listens to Sgt. Boonie over her headphones; he is calm and relaxed, and she begins to worry for him again. How will this attack make him sleep at night? she wonders. Everyone knows he doesn’t get enough sleep to begin with. She feels like crying for Sgt. Boonie, or for herself, or for what they all have just gone through, but at the same time, her emotions are stuck. She can’t feel.
They make it back to FOB Kushamond. They’re safe. Out of the kill zone. The insurgents must have been a small group: the attack hadn’t lasted long, and no one in the convoy had been hurt.
By the grace of God, Angelina thinks. She needs a shower. She has a piercing headache.
Bagram Airfield (BAF)
In the waiting room at the Bagram Airfield hospital, Angelina tries to make eye contact with the Afghan women seated near her. They are also waiting for medical care, and some sit with children. Most of them sit separate from the men they arrived with; the men wait in a different area. The women are dressed in burqas, the blue flows of cloth covering them from head to toe. They keep their hands tucked within the fabric. Through the lace openings at their eyes, Angelina can see that they are looking away from her.
Angelina wants to connect.
She finds herself staring, hoping one of them will want to make eye contact.
Angelina wants to smile, and show them that she and the other women in uniform are good women soldiers who are there to help them. That whatever propaganda the Afghan women around her might have heard, Angelina and the other soldiers are there to assist them, not harm them.
Angelina’s not allowed to talk to the women. As a soldier, she and the others have been told by military leadership never to engage in conversations with Afghans who are not interpreters. Everyone that they meet or see is a potential threat to them: children, women, men. And yet, Angelina wants so desperately to talk to the women, to hear about what life is really like for them. Her curiosity is killing her. How are their lives, Angelina wonders, living in clay homes? How do they survive the cold? How do they get food? A few times, Angelina has been allowed inside living areas for extended families: houses built with fort-like walls around them, open courtyards in the centers of the compounds, with goats and chickens running around and kids walking among the livestock. Where do they get the food to feed the livestock? Angelina wondered then; she didn’t see any grass or trees nearby for the goats to nibble on.
In the hospital waiting room, some of the children sitting with their mothers have metal rods attached to their bodies, at their arms, their waists. What happened? Angelina wonders. She’s seen a lot of mine fields on patrol, marked by posted signs: areas where land mines were scattered or planted by combatants from either the current war or during the previous decades of war and conflict. If the kids knew how to read, maybe they would understand to stay away from the area, Angelina thinks, feeling sorry for the children.
Even if Angelina could try to start a conversation with one of the mothers, there would still likely be a language barrier; she would need an interpreter to translate for her.
In any case, no one returns her eye contact. When Angelina looks away, though, she can sense from the corner of her eye that the women nearby are also looking at her, from head to toe.
Beyond military requirements and language barriers, there is a gulf of cultural differences between Angelina and the women that feels impassable. This is a different world, with different rules and customs—among women and men, among people who are not family members. While preparing for deployment, Angelina learned about customs and norms for women in rural Afghanistan from readings and lectures. She’s asked some of the Afghan interpreters questions to verify what she’s read and heard: Are there arranged marriages? Can a woman work? Can a woman go to school?
She’s learned that what is traditional and normal in the rural parts of the country, such as the areas they patrol around FOB Kushamond, is strict patriarchy: the men of the household can move freely—attend school beyond grade school, earn a living for the household—and hold power in their families in the eyes of the community, while the women, who represent virtue and honor for their families, are restricted in what they can do in public life. On deployment, Angelina observes the cultural norms practiced in rural areas: many women keep their bodies completely veiled with burquas while in public, do not leave home without a male family member accompanying them, do not shake hands with men they are not related to, never mind reveal their hands. Among them, Angelina finds herself conscious of movements and gestures she doesn’t usually think about—commanding the attention of men in the midst of conversation to ask a question; applying Chapstick, her face out in the open.
Angelina wants to understand more. Why in this century of our lives, she wonders, are the women in this country still fighting for equal protection and acceptance? She wants the women practicing these customs to see how she and the other women soldiers are able to participate and communicate with others, especially with men, that they have the freedom to do so. That they can freely make decisions about the clothing they wear, that they can walk around with their faces and parts of their bodies showing. The burqas, the way they cover the women from head to toe, give Angelina the feeling of being untethered, disconnected from the world she knows, as if she’s been pulled back in time.
And yet Angelina knows that these are customs and traditions long protected by tribal leaders, community leaders, and that it is difficult for the soldiers to earn trust in these communities, to convince the women and men that they are good people. But our presence is not in vain, Angelina thinks. We do show them that we are here to protect them from insurgents. The soldiers clear the roads of IEDs. They protect civilian supplies from seizure by insurgents. They provide medical treatment to the people.
In the waiting room, the women near Angelina seem to watch her every move. Angelina wonders if they feel that she is being disrespectful. She wonders whether or not they feel hostile toward her. Earlier, leaning against a wall and talking to another soldier, Angelina caught a glimpse of an Afghan woman, her eyes narrowed and angry, her gaze directed at Angelina. It’s something she’s seen in the villages from some of the women, a look of dismay, or disappointment, perhaps at the suspicion that Angelina and the others, who were women too, were there to harm them, or to try to change them.
Angelina wonders what they must think of her, a woman in a uniform.
Paktika Province, Afghanistan, 2008
A few months into the deployment, Angelina can feel her thought processes changing, her mind changing.
She’s tired and weary of the daily routine. She’s been wearing the same clothes for a hundred days, day after day from Sunday to Saturday. She wakes up to put on the same uniform and boots and sling the same weapon over her shoulder, never taking it off except for the shower or the latrine. Two hundred more days to go. She hates her boots—they hurt her feet and cause her a lot of sciatic pain.
Mission dictates, Angelina reminds herself. I always have to be ready to move or to fight.
But what are we fighting for? she asks herself. We’re supposed to win the hearts and minds of these people and yet when we’re on the road, their main throughway, we aim our weapons at them to get them out of the way.
She thinks of patrol days, in the rain and mud, when their humvees drive over muddy holes and splash the Afghans on bikes who have stopped at the side of the road, waiting for the convoy to pass. No wonder they don’t trust us and want us to leave their country, Angelina thinks.
Sometimes Angelina sees stray dogs along the roadways or around the FOB. Angelina loves dogs, but she’s terrified of these dogs. They don’t look like dogs in Guam or the States. They look like wolves, with thin, gray fur, and they seem almost frozen.
How does one animal look so different and pitiful from another stray dog back home? Angelina wonders. Do the dogs know they can be loved and cared for by human beings?
Angelina and the others call to the dogs to give them treats, but the dogs stay far away, just looking.
To these dogs we are different, Angelina thinks, different from what they’re used to seeing. Our faces and heads aren’t covered and we’re all wearing the same colored uniforms.
Are these even rational thoughts? Angelina wonders.
Even the turtles, abundant and wild in Afghanistan, look different—a distortion of what Angelina knows. They’re smaller, and their shells have the same texture and color as brown snails back home. Considering them, Angelina thinks, Nothing is making sense anymore.
Out on patrol, Angelina sees children everywhere. Some children are missing limbs, and have steel rods attached to their arms and legs—impacts from land mines still buried or scattered throughout the country from years of conflict and war. In these remote areas, there are often no schools, or ongoing conflicts make it unsafe to walk or travel to school, so the children stay at home. Angelina sees the kids outside their houses, or along the main roads of the villages they travel through.
When the kids see the convoy, they come running from their houses, waving, gesturing to their mouths as a way of asking for something to eat. After years of the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan, the kids know that the soldiers always throw out rations to them. Angelina and the others stock up on snacks at the DFAC that they can give to the kids when they see them.
Angelina feels sorry for the kids, seeing them barefoot in the wintry cold, asking for food. Traveling to Bagram, Angelina could see that life is different there—the children in Bagram had shoes or slippers, the bazaars were bigger, the Afghans spoke English. But here in the rural, destitute villages of Paktika Province, watching the kids gives Angelina the impression that there is no connection to the outside world. Their lives are what they are and have been for years, Angelina thinks. No education, no chance of being free to have an idea of what they want to be when they grow up? How can they even think of another world if they don't know it exists?
There is a stillness to life here that unsettles Angelina. There are no paved roads, no traffic. No one carries a phone. There are no utility grids anywhere to provide power, to light up roads and houses. There is no running water, only wells that the Afghans fetch water from. No trees, no shrubs, just wind that smells of earth from the dust of the desert. Seeing the long beards the men wear, their long white robes, the scarves around their heads, the women with burqas covering them from head to toe, Angelina can’t shake the feeling that everyone around her is still living in biblical times. Like she’s gone back in time. She’s beginning to believe that sometime soon, a follower of Jesus will appear, somewhere.
She can’t make sense of a world that wants to kill people each and every day for no reason at all. She can’t make sense of a world in which she herself is one of the people who needs to be killed. In which the people around her, including the children, pose potential dangers. To anticipate danger—it’s something she and the other soldiers trained intensively on starting in pre-mobilization. They watched videos to understand what to look for if, for example, women approach too close. They watched videos of children being used by insurgents to blow up buildings and schools. Sgt. L.G. and Sgt. Boonie talked about witnessing this too during their deployments in Iraq: children dying in explosions. To protect themselves, Angelina and the others carry their weapons around with them everywhere every day for months, and for Angelina it feels like she’s entered a wholly different world.
Sometimes Angelina can’t tell the difference anymore—she doesn’t know if where she is is real, or if she’s dreaming.
She starts to feel detached from herself. She stops thinking like a normal person. She’s not a mom anymore. Not a wife, not someone’s loved one. She feels like she’s in a place where there is no one to protect her, because there are no laws to follow. She’s just someone who has to stay alive, and all this means is living to see another day. So she makes it another day.
As her thought processes change, as Angelina can feel them changing, she notices the slide that happens, from rational to irrational thought.
When she’s out on patrol and she sees the children, barefoot, hair matted, dusty or muddy from the moon dust of the desert, she finds herself thinking, They are all in a line like sitting ducks getting ready to be blown up.
The thought is a surprise. When she stops to think about it, weighing it, it occurs to her that it’s not irrational—it does happen out here. It is something they are trained to look out for, to expect. The video clips, the stories. She knows this can happen.
But the thoughts keep moving, into territory that is unfamiliar to her, to her mind:
What is their worth anyway? They’re just like that sheep in the middle of the pasture or that goat that the herders are taking to drink or eat, right? These kids don’t know who they are or what their life is?—why they’re even here in this world, why they are even living this life.
These thoughts, she knows, are not rational or even predictable. They have no purpose or meaning. She challenges these thoughts when they come up in her head.
She tells herself, I don’t even know who they are. I don’t even know what kind of life they’re living.
But all the same, that slide in her thoughts, from rational to irrational, continues to happen. It continues to get worse. She begins to see innocent children as another kind of entity—beings that are unable to have feelings, or even know what they are.
After Afghanistan, back from her deployment and living in Guam, she sees herself the same way: a being who is unable to have feelings, or even know what she is.
She thinks to herself, Why are you even here?
She thinks to herself, You don’t matter to nobody. Nobody cares about what you think or who you are or why you’re here.
The slide into the irrational continues. At home, sometimes she’ll find herself watching a cartoon and think, I bet those characters don’t even know who they are.
Then she’ll think, Isn’t that crazy? Doesn’t make any sense.But that’s where her mind is.
The journey continues.