26 August 2010

Eastern Adventures

My recent travels have taken me east, to FOBs Lightning, Salerno, and Sharana.  For any interested, those bases are located near Gardez, Khost, and Sharana, respectively.  All of these sites are blackout FOBs, which is to say that no outdoor lights are allowed on after sunset.  Moreover, they lacked cell coverage for a bevy of unique and glorious reasons: Lightning is in the middle of nowhere; Salerno's tower was recently destroyed; and Sharana turns off their towers after 2200 as a force protection measure.  That's about where their similarities end.

Lightning was a small, pleasant FOB, if almost unnervingly quiet.  It, like so much of this country, is bautiful, spare, and somewhat forboding.  Also, due to the blackout, what lights are permitted at night are red.  As I would stumble back to my room at night, the camp was punctuated by an eerie red glow.  I imagined this was what purgatory must feel like.  That, or it was a very strange dream populated exclusively by darkrooms and bordellos.
From the helipad at Lightning

Where Lightning was Spartan and isolated, the other FOBs were sprawling and lively.  In fact, I don't even really understand the purpose of the blackouts there - these FOBs are substantial.  Even a blind insurgent could lob a mortar in vaguely the right direction and would probably hit something.  Shortly before my arrival at Salerno, actually, the Taliban had apparently been quite active, blowing up the local cell tower and shelling the on-base mosque.  While the loss of cell reception was obnoxious, I was more interested in the targeting of a mosque during Ramadan.  When I asked an Afghan national working in the office if there were any special Koranic strictures on such things, he just shook his head and groused about 'those goofy bastards.'

While the activity at Salerno occurred prior to my arrival, Sharana may have been mortared during my visit.  I say maybe, because I remain unconvinced that was actually what occurred.  The warning sirens blared for a bit, and there was something that certainly sounded like an explosion.  That said, the 'big voice' (the camp's intercom system) was never activated, and the Mayor's Cell, from which I was down the hall, was completely at a loss as to what was going on.  They even suggested that it might be a controlled detonation.  Their ignorance was not, I'll admit, terribly comforting, but their nonchalance was infectious.  I ended up going to dinner.  Maybe I'll have to take that back about the blind insurgents.

One of the reasons the personnel at Sharana and Salerno are able to be blase regarding artillery attacks is because of the prevalence of hardened buildings.  These camps are remarkably built-up.  Even the B-Huts I was staying in had real walls made of concrete.  Sure, the walls still didn't reach the ceiling, but I was so happy to be staying in a 'real' room, I didn't even mind that I was sleeping on cots and in sleeping bags.  Really, it's about the simple joys in life.
From my front door at Sharana

Another perk found at each of the out-lying FOBs was self-service laundry.  I can truthfully say that laundry was not something I thought I would miss from home, but being able to wash my cloathes on my schedule is a surprisingly liberating feeling.  Of course, while at Sharana had to get up at 0430 in the am to do so (and I still ended up waiting for 45 min for a washer), but that is neither here nor there.  It still felt nice, and I was able to wear my yoga pants right out of the dryer.  Who could ask for more?

Actually, was I soldier there, I think I could ask for a bit more.  Sharana reminded me of nothing else than a city experiencing massive urbanization and burdened with very poor planners.  The original camp, which was built to house some 2,000 persons, is rather like a European walled city.  It is almost totally contained on a hill top and surrounded by a formidable brick barrier.  This central camp itself is really very lovely.  However, since January, the camp population has more than tripled, and it shows.  Tents circle the original camp nearly a mile in all directions, and the constant construction leaves a permanent haze of dust in the air.  There are enormous queues for nearly everything, including the DFAC, which is only open for three hours each meal and is solidly a 30 min walk from the most distant tents, the MWR, and, yes, the laundry, even at o'dark thirty.
On the flight from Salerno to Sharana

In comparison, Salerno, with its mostly paved streets,s speed limits, and intermittent landscaping (the base had its own orchard!), felt like a country club.  Upon further reflection, I think it's worth noting my standards of living are undergoing a radical upheaval.  I wonder if this means that I'll be willing to live in SE DC when I go back?  The rent would certainly be good...