Sunday, May 13, 2012

YOU SEE IT, YOU OWN IT

"We were sitting on an IED for two days one time," the soldier tells me, "and we didn't have anything with us but water and baby wipes. Those are the only things you need anyway. That and bullets."

He's in his mid-twenties and seated across from me as we travel down a dusty road in Afghanistan. I can guess his age because I met him before we loaded up and headed out on this mission. He is fair skinned, just under six feet tall, probably dark hair, but the short haircut and blazing sun makes it hard to tell what anyone here really looks like.

Now, in the back of the heavily fortified MRAP (Mine Resistant Ambush Protected), the only parts of him I can truly see are his nose, cheeks, mouth, and a bit of his chin. Everything else is covered by heavy, protective and camoflaged battle gear. Besides the young soldier and myself, there are seven others dressed the same way in the 17 ton vehicle. I am the only civilian.

Before asking questions, I am constantly trying to decipher what is being said around and to me. Embedded with a military unit means a steady barrage of acronyms, words, points of reference, jargon, and terminology that are useless to a civilian. It means I have to spread my questions out carefully and cautiously. Too many basic questions and your status as an "outsider" becomes glaring. Go too long without asking anything and you'll always be in the dark.

I decide the time is right to use one of my precious questions because I've heard the term "sitting on an IED," too many times to go on without knowing what it means. I already know IED's (Improvised Explosive Device) have killed  thousands of US  soldiers over the past decade plus of war both here and in Iraq. "Sitting" on one doesn't sound like a good idea.

"Tell me what you mean by sitting on an IED," I say over the noise of the enormous diesel engine that's pushing us and the MRAP further away from the safety of the  FOB (Forward Operating Base) where this unit and I are staying. As soon as the words leave my dry lips, I know I've asked incorrectly.

"Well sir, an IED is an Improvised . . . "

"I know," I say cutting him off. Exposing my civilian ignorance, the patient soldier naturally thinks I don't know what the entire phrase means, including "IED." And in Afghanistan, not knowing the meaning of IED is like being in America and not knowing who the New York Yankees are.

"Oh, okay," he smiles, realizing I don't want him to think I'm completely in the dark. "It means when you find an IED, it's yours. You have to call it in, guard it, protect the locals from it. You are completely responsible for it until the thing can be disarmed. You stay with it. So you gotta be prepared to sit on it because if you see it you own it."

"If you see it, you own it." Nothing can prepare you for the things you see in Afghanistan. As we drive to our destination, a school construction project, I think about what I had seen the day before. An Army Chaplain at one of several FOB's (Forward Operating Base) here took time out of his day to show me around the Base's exceptional emergency medical facilities. Along with stories and photos of injured local children who were treated at the hospital, he told me about his personal duties of counseling both to patients and to those who treat them.What they go through can never be forgotten. Once they see the horrors of war they own them.

As we were leaving the hospital I asked about a square, yellow tent, about 20' by 20', which sat isolated from all the other buildings and vehicles.

"Yes," the Chaplain says. "That is the last place are fallen heroes rest before their journey home." That's when I noticed the large generator and refrigeration unit adjacent to the tent. This was the morgue.

"Here, I'll show you," the chaplain says as he begins walking in its direction. I'm not sure I want to see this, but he wants to show me the inside so I follow.

He unzips the tent door and we step into a small room with a desk, phone, and chair. Then, through a heavy plastic "door" to a much larger room with two empty gurnies.

"The soldiers are brought here," he explains. "I spend a few minutes with them, in prayer. Then, they wait in hear for the transport home." He turns to an enormous metal refrigerator with three doors. Opening one of them, he continues, "This unit can hold 15."

Three aluminum racks capable of holding five bodies each. The racks are, of course, empty. The first thing I notice is the cold coming from inside. It's almost freezing and it cuts through me.

But the thing I notice the most its utter blackness, so void of light that I cannot see the far end of the racks meant to hold the bodies of American soldiers killed here in Afghanistan. It's as though I'm looking into their eternal loss. Everything they were. Everthing they could have been. Gone. All their wives, children, fathers and mothers back home. Alone.

It is the darkest thing I have ever seen. And now I own it.

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