At some ungodly hour of the morning we landed at Kandahar Airfield. The sprawling Air Force base was the headquarters of our wonderfully failed allied mission in southern Afghanistan. Even at two in the morning, the temperature was already in the hundreds and the air was choked with dust, human waste, and jet exhaust.

Kandahar smelled like shit. It smelled like some celestial septic pipe in the sky had emptied every single toilet in the world onto its streets. In some places, you could even taste it. It was dried up and atomized into the dust that blew through the air and into our mouths, noses, and eyes.

It was our new home.

Airmen packed us into rickety old Russian buses and drove us slowly across the base. They were giving us the grand tour.

Even though the air field was technically in a war zone, the people there were so far from any real danger they may as well have been in the States. Most of the people who were deployed there rarely went outside the gates until it was time for them to go home–and even then it was by plane. They weren’t even allowed to load the weapons they carried with them all over the place.

The war was some abstract thing they mostly heard about on the news–even though it was going on all around them. Kind of like rich suburban white folks who complain about the conditions in the inner city, even though they never go there.

The buses stopped outside of our building. One of the few actual brick buildings that we saw on the base, it almost looked brand new. Time barely crawled by there. There was literally nothing to do except breathe and eat. There were no amenities, no TV, no internet, and no recreational activities. It was just a massive brick building full of badly made bunk beds. The whole base wasn’t like that, just where they stashed us. Like in some kind of shitty, Afghan version of section eight. I figured it couldn't get any worse than sheer unrelenting boredom. I was wrong.

It only took a few days for the collective irritated gastrointestinal tracts of a company of soldiers to overwhelm the plumbing in the building. Jetlag, combined with having to eat army food full-time, sent everyone running to the bathrooms. The poor, substandard plumbing didn’t stand a chance. Because the next nearest toilets were over a mile away, people just kept using the clogged mess that was in our building.

Soon the bathrooms looked like something out of your worst nightmare. Shit and piss overwhelmed the broken toilets and spilled out absolutely everywhere. The whole building we were living in quickly turned into a HAZMAT zone and smelled like a third-world refugee camp. We resorted to pissing into bottles and chucking them out the windows. To make the situation even worse, our overtaxed air conditioning unit broke, and shit-infused vapors started snaking up through the shower drains. Our brand new building had quickly turned into a shit-stuffed hot box.

Our commander, Dweebly, saw that morale was plummeting faster than our sanitation levels. He made some long, drawn-out speech about how he understood we were unhappy with our horrible living conditions and he felt for us. He must have really been “feeling for us” from the nice, air-conditioned officers’ building where he was staying–the one down the road with working toilets and showers.

After several days at the airfield, my platoon was being sent out to some place called the Provincial Reserve, a tiny outpost far away from any major civilization. Slim and I were excited. It was exactly where we wanted to be. During our last deployment we were also on our own, and even though the living conditions out in the boonies always sucked, no one was breathing down our necks. We were free to operate as we saw fit without commanders telling us how to live and work. It was as much freedom as anyone could ask for while deployed.

We rushed back into our building and began packing our stuff into our duffle bags. Our soldiers immediately started asking questions about what it was going to be like out there—living in a part of the country where we only controlled the area we happened to be standing on at that very second.

I didn’t want to share any old war stories because I was afraid of scaring the young blood. Slim didn’t have the same qualms and quickly launched into a story about him being stuck on a mountainside in an ambush for an hour. Our young soldiers’ faces looked like mine had when, at eight years old, I watched Stephen King’s IT for the first time.

We managed to finish packing our bags in between war stories and piled them all up outside near the helicopter-landing zone. According to our commander, a Chinook helicopter was supposed to pick us up and fly us to the Provincial Reserve. A few hours passed but no helicopter showed up.

“I’m getting this feeling our flight is late,” Grandpa sighed.

“What gave you that idea?” I asked.

“Maybe he got lost?” Nan shrugged.

“Yeah, I guess he could have gotten turned around at that other massive American airbase in the area.” I laughed at my own joke.

Finally, after what seemed like forever—and long after the sun went down—the deafening chopping sound of a Chinook came over the mountains. Chinooks look as if someone tried to build a helicopter modeled after a bumblebee and then decided to make it as agile as one to boot.

The army had been using Chinooks since the Vietnam War, and they had been doing an excellent job of lumbering slowly over war zones and getting shot down by whatever tribe or warlord we were fighting at the particular time.

While we had been in Afghanistan, half of SEAL Team Six was killed flying over Afghanistan’s endless mountainous landscape while flying in one of these brain-damaged bumblebees.

The fat, awkward form of the Chinook plopped down in front of us on the tarmac.

The blades whirled overhead, their power blasting my ears and making my eyes vibrate in my head. We slowly picked up our bags and shuffled in a line up the loading ramp and into the thing’s belly. The soldiers embarking the flight piled their bags in the middle of the seating area at the command of the Chinook’s Load Master.

With a title like that—Load Master—I figured there was some kind of strategic plan to the loading of the bags. I was wrong. They were piled haphazardly in the middle and a net was thrown over them. We humans were stuffed along the wall in the small area that wasn’t full of cargo. I think we were treated more like luggage than our bags were.

Slim tried yelling something to me, and even though he was smashed in next to me, I couldn’t hear anything he said over the helicopter’s engines. He pointed to where Kitty was sitting. The mountain of bags in front of her collapsed under their own weight and buried her. We both laughed, though neither of us made any audible noise.

The helicopter lurched, bounced a bit, and slowly lifted into the air. I think it was more beating the air into submission than actually taking flight. The sky relented and we climbed higher. The Load Master stood on the still-open loading ramp, tethered to the helicopter with a thin piece of cord and a machine gun swung around in front of him, pointing down to the retreating view of Kandahar.

We rose a few hundred feet above the dry, cracked earth. Mountains jutted up to our east and west. We were heading through the sole valley in the distance. Afghanistan’s gaping maw was taking us in. The ground below us was uniformly brown and featureless. Stubborn villagers scratched out a living farming whatever would grow out of what looked like the surface of the moon. The Load Master spat a mouthful of tobacco into the wind; it was probably the most moisture the village had received in months.

We slowed down and started descending into the darkness, and before long we thudded to a stop. I couldn’t see it through the thickness of night, but we had landed right in the middle of an American outpost. Confused, I stood up, grabbed two random bags from the pile, and slowly made my way out of the back of the helicopter. Just a few seconds after we had all filed out, the helicopter was taking off again. I looked around. This place looked nothing like the Provincial Reserve did on the map we had studied.

“This isn’t the right fucking place!” Slim yelled over the fading sound of the helicopter.

“Where the fuck are we?” I asked him, rummaging through my backpack for my map.

“Maybe we weren’t supposed to get off yet?” Grandpa shrugged.

“There wasn’t anyone else on the damn flight,” I countered.

“Calm down,” Slim tried to reassure us. We were on a strange outpost in the middle of Kandahar, and we had no damn clue what was going on. None of us were calm.

“Let’s go find their operations center and see where the hell we got dropped off. Kitty, stay with the soldiers, try not to let them figure out we have no idea where we are.”

Slim, Grandpa, and I started wandering around the larger-than-expected outpost. The place was a ghost town. Just uniform rows of tan tents everywhere we turned. I lit a cigarette and blew a cloud of smoke into the chilly night air. Even after six years, the army still found ways to surprise me. I couldn’t believe they could misplace a squad of soldiers in a war zone.

Slim lost what little patience he was capable of and began opening random tent doors and yelling for a commander of some kind.

Slim discovered their operations center in an unmarked tent. There was a fat sergeant first class sitting behind a computer. He was half asleep and obviously confused by our presence. “Who the hell are you guys?” he asked.

Slim told him our unit. The sergeant looked even more confused now.

“Is this the Provincial Reserve?” I asked him.

“What? Hell no, man, you’re about thirty miles away from the PR.”

“Well, our flight dropped us off here. Is there any way you can get ahold of the unit at the PR?” Slim was reaching the point where he could only communicate in swear words and by throwing things.

Grandpa stepped in to handle the rest. “We are obviously in the wrong place, can you help us out?”

“Yeah man, hold on. I’ll see if I can get ahold of anyone. Go ahead and find an empty tent with your soldiers and get some shuteye. I'll let you know what they say.”

We were a suspicious lot; not one of us went to find a tent to crash in. We walked back out to where the helicopter had dropped us off and laid down on the ground. Even in summer, the nights in Afghanistan are brutally cold and windy. I curled up in the fetal position in a vain attempt to stay warm and slipped off into an uneasy sleep.

Apparently someone, somewhere, really missed us because it didn’t take long for a convoy to show up. A slightly overweight, bearded, and filthy sergeant first class whom I called Rambo greeted us by yelling to the sleeping pile of soldiers that was Second Squad, “How the fuck did y’all end up out here?”

“Good question,” I said half asleep. “Are you our ride?”

“Better than just your ride, you’re our replacements.” He smiled.

That is how the deployment cycle works. Each unit gets replaced by another, regardless of what each unit’s job actually is. It’s not entirely unheard of for an infantry unit to be replaced by truck drivers, truck drivers by military police, or even National Guard weekend warriors who only know about a war zone from the latest iteration of Call of Duty. It’s not a perfect system— or one that actually works at all for that matter. That tended to be the reality in Afghanistan when it came to most things.

Slim went around kicking our soldiers awake and telling them to grab their bags. I was attempting to balance an incredibly large rucksack on my back, a duffle bag in each arm, a rifle with a grenade launcher strapped to my chest, and a pistol on my leg.

I felt bad for Dirty. He was less than half my size but carrying even more because he had our team's M249 Squad Automatic Weapon. Urkel took a headlong fall onto the rocks and all his bags fell on top of him. He was far from the only one who went down as we awkwardly waddled over to the trucks that were waiting for us.

The trucks were truly a sight to behold. They are called Mine Resistant Ambush Protected All-Terrain Vehicles, or MATVs. They looked like semi-trucks that had been loaded down with armor plating and machine guns. They were far bigger than anything you could legally drive on any U.S. road. On the sides of the doors, in big, block letters, it read “Dealer,” their unit’s radio call sign and nickname.

Their trucks had clearly been through some shit. Windows were spider-cracked with bullet holes and bullet strikes, and fragment impacts had gouged every door and surface. Additional chain link fence-like armor was strapped on every flat surface of the truck. I was ordered to jump in the second truck of the convoy and I tossed my bags into the back of the armored monster. I loaded my rifle with a magazine I had to borrow from one of the Dealer guys.

Our company never gave us any ammo before sending us off into the countryside.

The convoy rumbled off into the night. Our lights weren’t on; we were rolling in what is called “black out” driving. All headlights were off, and the driver and truck commander navigated using only night-vision goggles, or NVGs. Unlike in the movies and video games, NVGs are fucking terrible to use. You can't see anything clearly; everything just becomes unrecognizable shades of green.

We do this so that, theoretically, the enemy can’t see the convoy coming. Seeing how we were driving down a clearly marked road in five incredibly loud, up-armored, diesel-powered semi-trucks, it was safe to say there was no mystery about who was driving down the street.

It didn’t take us long to pull up to the gates of the Provincial Reserve, the outside of which was guarded by tired-looking members of the Afghan National Police. They were obviously the meat shields of the base. They had little to no gear, and in some cases, they didn’t even have shoes.

They stood alone out on the only road leading to the Reserve, far away from the American guard positions. This was to guard against both the Taliban and the Afghan police themselves. The police had a tendency to turn their weapons on American forces about as often as the Taliban did.

We made it through the rickety metal gates and parked the trucks in a small, improvised parking lot full of other vehicles in various stages of disrepair.

I climbed out and was greeted by giant, ankle breaking rocks. U.S. forces have a habit of covering the ground wherever they happen to slap together an outpost with giant rocks. The arid terrain of Afghanistan tends to kick up terrible dust storms in the high winds. So people thought it would be a good idea to use gravel to keep the dust down on the outposts. The rocks never really kept the dust down and instead made the simple act of walking from point A to point B an exercise in ankle durability.

The Reserve was a sight to see. Not much more than four tents smashed into four incredibly old brick walls that had been haphazardly reinforced with sandbags and concertina wire. We shared half the compound with the Afghan police, which was something none of us were very comfortable with.

The Dealer soldiers all climbed out of the trucks and wandered back over to their tents. Sergeant South, the truck commander I’d ridden there with, helped me with my bags.

“We aren’t patrolling tonight, so you guys can get some sleep. Tomorrow we’ll probably go out for a while to show you the area,” he said in his thick southern drawl.

“Thanks,” I said, not really paying attention. I was still taking in all the sights. Looming over the compound was a massive ancient castle. Carved out from the same rock centuries before, it blended right in with the surrounding mountains. The Dealer guys told me it was built by Alexander the Great, who’d founded the city of Kandahar in the Hellenistic Era. It was amazingly well preserved, despite being pockmarked by bullets.

South showed me to our tent where they stored random odds and ends. They’d smashed a few cots in there and called it a sleeping area. Our soldiers were bunking with the Dealer guys for the night.

I didn’t realize how tired I was until I sat down on the cot I’d picked out. It creaked under me as I tried to relax. I lit a cigarette, blew out a cloud of smoke, and saw Slim sitting across from me on his tiny cot with his rifle across his lap. My eyelids hung heavy.

“This shit is going to be real, boys,” he said, a smile creeping across his face. He loved being out there in the middle of nowhere and probably surrounded by the enemy—no matter how much he tried to convince people otherwise.

“Seems that way,” Grandpa said, sitting down on a cot that was frayed and torn and barely able to hold his weight. I reached over to my gear. I only had one magazine of ammo. The same one that was given to me for the ride over.

“I think we are going to need more ammo,” I said, laughing. They nervously laughed with me. What we had just gotten into was starting to sink in.

The ground shook with a thunderous explosion from somewhere off in the distance. The shaking made the dust rise from the floorboards and swirl around in the air.

“A lot more ammo.”