I was reading a fictional book about the war on terrorism in Afghanistan and in the story the enemy was planning a most unexpected strike… then we were attacked. I always say ‘life is either a satire or a tragedy…’
I was sitting in the small library situated down in the basement of one of the headquarters buildings. I was lost in the story, curious to see how the enemy could pull off what they had planned; seemed unlikely. The alarm went off, “This is not a drill!” I closed my book and looked up alert. I came back to reality; not that I could have so easily forgotten I was in Kabul.
I stood up and grabbed my weapon, which was leaning against the worn black leather recliner. I wasn’t nervous. I suspected there was an attempt to attack the compound which would soon be resolved like the single attempts before. I was in one of the safest posts in Kabul after all, so what was the worst that could happen?
I moved with haste out of the library, swinging doors open as I went towards the stairs, holding my weapon high even though my magazine full of ammo was still in my pocket. I was ready to follow protocol, ready to be what I am if necessary, but I wasn’t expecting much. Through the next door I went at the top of the stairs and I held the door open for a couple civilians who were rushing up behind me. The alarm was sounding, and the voice on the intercom was instructing everyone to engage in putting on their armor. (I had just returned from a mission less than five minutes before I decided to go down to the library and read my book; I had transported a couple Officers to the military airport earlier that morning with the drivers training instructor and NCO. My armor along with my Kevlar helmet was still in the vehicle out in the front parking lot of the compound. I thought of heading to the Drivers NCO to obtain the up-armored vehicles’ keys, and then proceed to running out to grab hold of my gear. Then the next announcement blasted over the intercom saying, “Take cover and do not exit the buildings!”
I continued down the hall and went towards the office where a couple of my Units’ Soldiers worked. I was concerned somebody was going to lecture me on not having my gear. I didn’t realize that this would be the least of my concerns this day.
I entered the office and gave a quick smile to my NCO before heading towards the back cubicle, hoping to be out of sight and out of mind. I took a seat and propped my legs up. I leaned my weapon against the desk and took my book out. I believed whatever was happening outside the compound would be resolved soon, so I started to read, getting lost in the fiction again.
No one gave me any shit about not having my armor or my helmet, even though the other five around me were in their proper attire. They knew I was only on this base for drivers training and they probably assumed my gear was left in the locked up vehicle. (I was only meant to be on this compound for a couple weeks of training). This was not my original station of duty...I didn’t know how in that moment my own station was under attack as well, and so was the U.S Embassy near my original place of duty. If I had known this was going on I would have been much more appreciative of my present circumstances… at least for the moment, because in the next one I closed my book for the day.
There would be no time for reading, and no escape from reality this day.
The front door to our building opened, just down the small hallway outside our office. The sound of gunfire was heard, (not the most alarming sound). Surely this was Ally fire against a single crazy bastard about to blow himself up well outside the compound? Nope, I was wrong. This sound echoed down the hall before the door slammed shut, and was then followed by the sound of a female Soldier hollering out.
“We’ve been breached! The compound has been breached!”
We all heard the frantic tone of her voice, and the gunfire from outside became much more alarming in that second, along with the resonance of her footsteps as she ran down the hall and past our open office.
My book was face down on the desk in front of me and my hand resting on the back cover as I took in a deep breath. In the next moment many thoughts rushed through my mind and then seemed to become one thought; like many violent currents of water flowing through multiple streams and each leading down to one river. I was up out of my seat, I reached for the top of the solid wood cubicle and grabbed the armored vest of a Soldier who was thankfully on leave (lucky him). I put his vest on so fast that the motion was as fluent as taking a step. I also saw this vacationing Soldiers’ helmet under the desk and put this on also. My weapon was locked and loaded in my next breath, and then I took in my immediate surroundings, trying to read those around me.
There was more gunfire, the noise being toned down now that the doors were closed. The intercom sounded off again and the announcer was telling everybody to load their weapons and stay under cover. Our Colonel, COL. Bud we called him, came down to our office, looking far too calm considering the circumstances, but I quickly understood his demeanor. He gave orders and we followed, as his very tone and motion seemed to calm our nerves somewhat. And thankfully one of my primary concerns only a moment ago was no more; there seemed to be no cowards or fools in the office. We were all Soldiers’ and nothing more in that moment, being ready this day to face the reality of what this meant. More gunfire was heard and an explosion which didn’t sound too close. Colonel Bud had Sergeant Bee, and an Airman they called Fia up near the open office door. A female Sergeant in our office named Corona was behind them ready to cover down when it came time to switch out positions.
We were all in the office for a good hour or two, and we were positioned in different places throughout the room. Colonel Bud had a couple of us move anything flammable off of the desks and then throwing these into the steel trashcan, so that if any rounds were fired off there would be no flames. Also anything heavy enough to knock somebody out was moved to the floor. We switched out positions after so many minutes. Eventually I was at the office door staring down the hall with my weapon at the high ready.
I was ready to shoot to kill just like everybody else in my office. ‘I wasn’t ready to kill for any other reason but to ensure I get home alive along with my brothers’ and sisters’ around me’. There was still gunfire being heard every so often, and when I was looking down the hall a funny thought crossed my mind. (More gunfire was heard, but it didn’t sound like it was coming from inside the base). I felt sweat dripping down my nose, coming from under the helmet I was wearing, (which was too small for my head and starting to give me a killer migraine). The thought I had was of a scene in Star Wars, when the rebel Soldiers are posted in a long white hall, and they are just waiting for the enemy Storm Troopers to burst through the door at the end of the hall. Following an explosion the enemy comes rushing in, firing their weapons. Every rebel Soldier in the hall fires back at the enemy, but soon every good guy is taken out, and then you see this hallway full of dead Soldiers’. The enemy strolls down the hall after the slaughter, stepping over the good guys bodies with Darth Vader walking at the front. I pushed this thought aside and then wiped the sweat off of my nose. I held my weapon up higher, staring down the hall, and listening.
I heard the door at the front of the building open again followed by more shouting; a man’s voice this time and he sounded angry.
“Friendly,” he shouted out, making sure no trigger happy Soldiers would shoot him; the big guy with the beard upon seeing him turn the corner. (He was one of the security personnel, probably Black Ops, we all assumed). He wore a white tee shirt and a bullet proof vest over this. He was built like a body builder and held an M4 in one hand. Soon there were others like him walking around and giving instructions to Soldiers. Those of us in sight followed their orders because they just had that, ‘I know what the Hell I’m doing,’ look to them, and the “follow me if you want to live”, look also. (At least this is the impression I had).
His heavy footprints were heard as he walked down the hall and before I saw him he shouted out again, “Friendly”! I gave him a nod when I saw him turn at the end of my hall. He just glared at me and then looked forward. He strutted down the hall as if the stale air molecules were pissing him off by being in the way of his broad shoulders. As he passed my office he shouted out a brief announcement just to keep everyone in shouting distance up to date on the situation.
“There are snipers in the building that is under construction across the street!” He said, “They are firing down at the front of our building! Stay in your positions! Where they are will be cleared soon! The U.S Embassy is under attack also and the enemy has taken over a building there!”
His voice trailed off as he turned at the other end of the hall. He flipped the light switch off once he reached the other end, and although the hall was dark the lights from the offices remained on. This action made me nervous because I knew why he turned off the hall lights; once the enemy enters the building they will need to adjust their vision to the darkness, and they will be easier for us to kill. ‘Was it expected this was going to happen?’ Another bigger guy in civilian clothes with dark skin, a weapon, and a tanned bullet proof vest started walking down the hall. He laughed for some reason when he passed my office; he also stuck his tongue out and appeared to be having a grand old time. I didn’t find this unnerving, on the contrary I found his confidence reassuring.
An hour or so passed, and we switched out positions a few more times. I popped a couple Advil which Sergeant Corona gave me for my lower back and head.
One of those big security guys came moving down the hall with a purpose again and he was shouting, “Give me two bodies!” Both Fia and Sergeant Bee were positioned at the office door at that moment, so they silently volunteered when they heard the need. I moved back towards the office door when they left and stood guard. I was staring down the hall again at the wall where I imagined the Storm Troopers would be breaking through.
Colonel Bud was still strolling back and forth in the small space in the office, speaking encouraging words to his troops and trying to ensure we remained stable minded. Our Colonel had been in combat before and he trained hundreds of infantry soldiers. I wondered how he felt in these moments being in an office with us personnel soldiers, who've only ever fired their weapons on the range.
Sergeant Corona asked me if I needed a break, and I told her I needed to use the restroom. She said to move and hurry. This wasn’t too much of a concern since the bathroom was only the next hall over. So with all my gear on and weapon still in hand, I moved down the hall. I saw Sergeant Bee when I reached the corner and gave him a nod. I pushed open the bathroom door at the end of the next hall, situated near the front doors where both Sergeant Bee and Fia were standing guard. I placed my weapon against the tile wall and managed to avoid pissing on myself, as the sweet release was most appreciated. Maneuvering around my heavy armor, and with a helmet squeezing my head like a walnut in a steel nutcracker; these irritations were not enough to take away my gratitude in being able to empty my filled to the brim bladder.
I washed my hands in a hurry and then picked up my weapon and rushed out of the restroom. I went towards Sergeant Bee at the end of the darkened hall and asked him if he was okay. He said he was and then he took a quick drink from his bottle of water. He placed the bottle back down on the floor and then held his weapon high; aiming towards the side entrance to the building. He looked focused and steady, and I was thankful to have him by my side this day. (Colonel Bud had been walking down the halls on the first floor, bringing bottles of water or Gatorade to anybody who needed a drink. He touched my shoulder when he passed, and I gave him a nod to let him know I was okay, and focused.) I moved back down to the other end of the hall in a hurry. I had just turned the corner to head back towards the hallway where my office was when a door opened and a familiar voice called out.
“I need two bodies now!” The Special Ops security guy who I saw earlier on this long day was shouting again. “I need two guards at this side of the building now!”
I heard more gunfire coming from the open doorway where this man was standing. When that door opened the light shined down the hall, as if spotlighting me, and I was the only one in the open. I saw the heads of Airmen, Navy, and Army Soldiers’ pop back into their offices. Nobody volunteered. ‘You really see what a person is truly made of in these circumstances.’ I had come to the realization in that moment that each of these offices were full of armed forces personnel, and most of them were cowering in there corners hoping others would protect them. (Only a few Soldiers’ or Airmen were positioned down the few halls on this floor, standing guard and watching the different exits). The moment wasn’t too long, as I recognized that “no body” down this hall I was standing in was rushing to fill the needed guard posts. I turned and glared at a couple faces I saw of those hiding in the offices, and then I headed on my way down the hall towards the security guy standing in the doorway. I picked up my pace, feeling my adrenalin pumping, being fueled some by the anger rising inside me. As I approached the Special Ops guard, Fia ran out from the last hall before the open door; he heard the call for two guards, and I was thankful to see him.
We didn’t say a word as we rushed out through the door which was being held open for us. The security guard gave us a look and nodded with respect before instructing us. One of us was told to guard the doorway from the outside on one side of the building, while the other was told to watch his back and guard the entrance behind him. After several hours the heavy armored vest I wore was starting to bring increased pain to my lower back, and the helmet was still squeezing my skull. The Advil was not helping, but the recent change in my position was a good distraction and did help ease my mind from the physical pain. ‘If this was going to go down, I didn’t want to be hiding in the shadows; that’s not how I wanted my loved ones to remember me.’
We heard another explosion coming from the street just outside our compound. Later I would see on the news how a suicide bomber blew his self up there. When we heard the Apache helicopter flying overhead Fia and I exchanged a glance, we were waiting for this, and it seemed to be a long time coming. The Apache chopper opened fire onto the building in front of our compound taking aim at the enemy snipers towards the top of the under construction building.
“Hell yeah,” Fia said, “Get em!”
After this incident I thought, ‘perhaps things will die down now’. Perhaps the fighting will cease for the day and the voice on the intercom will announce, ‘All Clear!’ Not this day though… This day was different. Later I would hear the details on the news telling just how different this day was. The fighting did not cease, and we heard more gunfire less than an hour after the Apache took out the snipers across the street.
After a little while more Sergeant Corona came down the hall to check on both Fia and me, being concerned because I never returned to the office from the bathroom. I quickly explained to her how Fia and I volunteered to watch the entrance at this side of the building because no one else did at the moment. Sergeant Corona understood, and soon she, Sergeant Bee, and another NCO from our office-Sergeant Harris, took turns guarding this entrance; the position both Fia and I volunteered for. Our circle of Admin Soldiers’ were ready to guard this important post at the front of the Headquarters Building because if not us then who?
A few more hours went by, and soon Sergeant Bee and I started handling even more duties, while Fia continued to give cover at the entrance to the building. Sergeant Bee and I helped escort some Afghan civilians to safety, and this was a pleasant change from standing guard (where I started to not feel very useful after a couple hours).
I hadn’t taken time to think of my children or my wife up to this time, not since first hearing the voice on the intercom back when I was reading my book in the library. Something inside me, perhaps instinct knew that I had to focus on the moment, each one as it passed. I couldn’t afford to think of anything else but my present circumstances and the safety of those around me. On this day the moment was all there was, each one as important as the one before. The past, what I had left, my future even; none of this was as important as the moment. On this day I understood how a moment could be all one has to make the most important decision of their lives. Then came that moment where there was the calm; a moment of silence. I stepped out into the open court yard, and walked several feet out in front of the entrance to the Headquarters Building. I just felt at peace in this moment as I looked up at the darkening sky, taking off the painfully tight helmet which had been squeezing my melon for hours. I heard a sound like an explosion, but I knew this was not an explosion, but was thunder. In the next moment the rain started to pour, and I loved the feeling of the cold droplets landing on my warm forehead and scalp. I smiled as I had the thought, ‘Nobody likes to fight in the rain, and explosives don’t mix well with water.’ I thought of my Jennifer then, and I smiled. I was thankful to her for her love and her prayers. I realized how the reason I was able to focus on the individual moments this day was because of her and the certainty that my children were in good hands.
I went back towards the entrance to the building where I saw Sergeant Bee standing there, watching me silently.
The night was long, and according to the Intel we were still in danger of more attacks. The rain gave me hope though, and represented a cleansing process to me. The following hours were pretty uneventful, but our team remained on duty. I started to take notice there were not so many people in the Headquarters Building during these later hours. Most people; Soldiers, civilians, Airmen, Marines, and even Special Op’s were gone, being either in safe rooms, their barracks, or the basement. They must have trusted the building was in good hands, or they assumed like I did that because of the rain there was less concern now for attack.
It was quite late when we were finally relieved from our posts. I was able to head back to the barracks, remove the armor, and finally having my body relax some. I took a quick shower, and then finally went to a bed for some much needed rest.
Like I always say, ‘life is either a satire or a tragedy ‘. I do not know what tomorrow will bring, but the enemy is still attacking as of right now. Perhaps you even know more about what is going on in these moments then I do. Rest assure though that on one of these bases under fire in Kabul there is a handful of Personnel experts; a couple Army Soldiers’, and a couple Airmen being ready to step up and do our best to get each other home alive back to you.
Reality truly is stranger than fiction… and life is comically ironic sometimes, ‘this thought I have now as I look at my fictional book about the war on terrorism in Afghanistan’. At this moment I am debating on whether I have time to read another chapter or not…