16. SPARTAN BASE AND THE DESCENT INTO MADNESS
After finally getting an air conditioner and making our tent semi-habitable for the first time in months, we learned we were going to move again. This time to a small outpost in the middle of Kandahar City. We would be replacing a unit that was going home. Again, our mission would be to work, live with, and train the Afghan police.
Thankfully, this time command decided it was a good idea to scout out the area before blindly moving us in—unlike the Chap Stick 25 debacle. So, with Gunny leading the way, we got in our trucks and headed out.
The downtown area of Kandahar City was incredibly built up. Not like a real modern city or anything, but it was a decent third-world metropolis.
We were flanked on all sides by recently constructed, foreign-bankrolled skyscrapers. All of them had obviously cut corners during their construction. Windows were missing and in one case an entire building was just a hollow shell. Electrical wires were hung up from anywhere and everywhere with no apparent plan.
Wires hung low over the street, and we tore them down as we drove by. Open-air sewage channels ran on both sides of the street right next to stalls that sold food. The accumulated stench stung your eyes and lingered in your very soul.
The base, which we decided to name Spartan Base after our platoon, was located smack dab in the middle of all this. It was lined with tall concrete barriers and Hesco baskets. Guard towers were at every corner, and a parked truck acted as the base’s main gate. We parked our trucks inside the base’s cramped motor pool, just barely fitting in.
We were met by an older guy, a sergeant first class named Johnson, and his medic Rick. They looked tired and worn out and were clearly happy to see us. All the team leaders went with Johnson into the command building. The UN had originally built the building for the Afghan police as a shower and bathhouse. A big blue plaque out front proudly proclaimed the showers were built by the international community for the betterment of Afghan law and order.
The rest of us went with Rick, who started showing us around the base.
Rick showed us to the rear side of the command building where they had set up a sleeping area. Inside were the shower stalls built by the UN. Each of them was so narrow I wouldn’t be able to extend my arms all the way if I stood in the middle. Each of the ten stalls housed at least two soldiers, with a bunk bed shoved inside it and disconnected plumbing fixtures sticking out everywhere.
“Y’all live in fucking shower stalls?” Cali said, taken aback.
“Yeah, but at least we have electricity now.” Rick shrugged.
Our tour then took us to the single, sad-looking shower trailer that was tucked into a corner of the base. The trailer was obviously broken. Several pipes and fittings littered the ground around it as if someone had once tried to fix it. Clearly they had failed.
“This would be the shower trailer if it worked…now we just use it for storage,” Rick said. “It probably has something to do with the cholera outbreak we had a few months back.”
“Did you say fucking cholera?” I sputtered in shock. I tried to remember if cholera was one of the hundreds of vaccines and shots I had received before I deployed.
“Yeah, it got pretty bad. Couple guys got sent home,” Rick responded, like a goddamn cholera outbreak was no big thing.
Without another word, we moved on with our tour. We went through a small gate and started walking through the Afghan police portion of the base.
They hated each other so much they built a wall straight through the middle of the base like some kind of war zone version of an 80s sitcom with feuding roommates.
“This is their side,” Rick said lifting an arm. “We try as much as possible not to come over here.” While Rick was telling us this, he high-fived a child who tottered by, carrying a tea tray in his other hand.
“Why are kids wandering around?” I asked.
“They’re chai boys,” Rick said, pointing to several other small children who were serving tea to Afghan policemen. “They are the Afghans’ slaves.”
“I’m sorry, did you say slaves?” Nan asked.
“Yeah. They kidnap them off the street and turn them into sex slaves and tea boys,” Rick said, giving another kid some candy.
“Sweet Jesus! Why haven’t you stopped that?” I asked.
“We tried. Reported it to every level of Afghan and U.S. command. No one cares. We tried banning them from the base, but the police smuggle them back in. We just gave up.”
“You gave up…on child sex slaves living next door?” I was baffled. I had seen some seriously messed-up stuff in Afghanistan, but never something like this.
Rick looked irritated that I was blaming the atrocity on him, which I was.
“Sorry, I know it’s not on you,” I said through gritted teeth.
Rick just nodded. He lit a cigarette and moved on with our tour.
We sat down inside the dining tent that was also their internet tent. Two huge picnic tables were in the middle, and the sides were lined with a few incredibly old desktop computers. Somehow they had managed to get their hands on a large flat screen TV and hung it on the wall. They even had a crappy U.S. military version of cable hooked up to it.
It showed every major sports game, though the service would cut out randomly. Instead of typical commercials for whatever stupid product Apple was selling in between shows, there were Pentagon-approved commercials. These commercials were skits starring soldiers talking about things like how not to be a rapist, please don’t beat your wife, and don’t spread top-secret info to the enemy.
The network was laughably bad. I wasn’t sure what was worse, that the commercials had to exist or that someone had joined the military and picked the job whose duty it was to run a bullshit government cable network.
With our tour complete, we walked back to the motor pool and waited for our team leaders. The place didn’t seem so bad. Sure, at one point they had a full-on third-world disease outbreak, no working showers at the same time they were, ironically enough, living in showers. It had to be better than living in Grizzly Base with the looming eye of Walt’s stupid camera making our lives miserable all the time.
The team leaders finally came out of their meeting and we headed back to Grizzly Base.
I packed up all my worldly possessions. All of it added up to one whole duffle bag, a backpack, and a box overflowing with workout supplements. We were all just as excited about moving out to Spartan Base as we were about the Reserve. We would be out on our own, far away from everyone else.
We happily tossed our bags into our trucks and headed back out, this time permanently. By the time we got back to Spartan Base, the outgoing soldiers were already packed and ready to get the hell out of there.
We picked out where we were going to live. Second Squad got the infamous shower bay while First Squad moved into the right wing of the bathhouse. It was a large bay with a few more of the tiny shower stalls lining the walls. The outgoing soldiers had hand-built rickety wooden bunk beds that filled the middle of the bay and had hung some sheets up for some measure of privacy.
I moved into a shower stall with Cali and claimed the bottom bunk. I tossed my sleeping bag across the old stained mattress I would be sleeping on and noticed there was a whole shower piping system and showerhead sticking out of the wall right next to my bed.
“Fuck, let’s switch, man,” I complained to Cali. The damn pipes took up half my bed space.
“Hell no, dude, you called bottom bunk; now you deal with it,” he said, laughing. As he moved around, the shoddy metal bed frame creaked and moaned. I noticed most of its welds were cracked or totally broken.
Before we were settled in, we had to take over the guard rotations in the various towers. This was also when the horrible realization set in about our undermanned platoon: We did not have enough people to effectively run Spartan Base.
There were six guard towers, each requiring two soldiers. This effectively meant an entire squad was on guard at once while the other one would be out running a mission with the Afghan police. And those were only the planned missions, of course.
We could be ordered to go out of the gate at any second on the whim of three entirely different command cells. Our own at Grizzly Base, the one at Camp Nathan Smith, or another unit’s at nearby Camp Walton. It was a convoluted mess that we had no control over.
Cali and I moved into a tower that overlooked a nearby market. The market was surrounded by the slums. The slums didn’t look any worse than any other part of the city, but they happened to be built in the shadow of towering skyscrapers.
The skyscrapers had no working plumbing or trash system. The skyscraper residents just tossed their trash and waste from the upper floors onto the hovels in the slums below. Cali and I watched this happen more times than we could count.
The walls of the guard towers were filled with scribbles and graffiti produced by hours of boredom. Almost every one was a variant of penis doodles or commentary on how much they hated Afghanistan. There was a scorecard full of tick marks titled “Tower Six Jerks,” next to which there was a pile of porno magazines. It had sixty-five tick marks.
Rules were also laid out on the tower wall for a game called the “Tower of Power.” It stated that you had to masturbate every hour on the hour during your tower guard shift. The scores that were scribbled underneath the rules defied biology. I had to wonder if they had two-man tower guard shifts like we did.
Hours crawled by in the tower with nothing to do except stare off into space. That was technically your duty while you were there anyway. Cali and I talked about all the plans we had for leave. We were both coming up on our leave dates.
While you’re deployed, you get two weeks of leave. The army will pay for your plane ticket anywhere you want. I’d made plans with Bugsy to go with him to Tampa Bay, Florida. I had never really had a vacation before, so I decided that two weeks of sun and beaches sounded just right.
Cali was married and was excited about going back to California and seeing his wife. I was single at the time, though Bugsy was trying to fix me up with one of his wife’s friends. The ongoing joke was that I would marry her during the two weeks I was going to be in Florida.
“The first time you guys bang you’re going to fall in love,” Cali said with a laugh.
“Not going to happen.” I shook my head. “She is way out of my league.” She was a model, and I was an awkward, lanky dude who was already balding and had deep wrinkles at the age of twenty-three.
“Man, that’s why you gotta lock that shit down. What other model is gonna let your ugly ass bang her?” He spat out a mouthful of dip spit onto the tower floor. “Better hope your dick game is strong.”
“Hey, fuck you, man. At least I don’t have a lisp.”
“At least I’m not going to marry some hooker,” he said.
“I’ll have you know that is the oldest profession in the world.” We both laughed together, and I stole some dip from out of his can.
By the time First Squad got back from its first mission outside of Spartan Base, fifteen hours had passed. Two incredibly tired-looking soldiers came up and replaced us. We walked down to the gate ready to go on patrol.
By the time we set out on our first patrol into Kandahar City, it was pitch black out. The city was totally dead. Due to an incredibly limited amount of electricity, almost everyone was in bed by the time the sun went down. Or they were at least hiding indoors because of the constant fear of getting caught in the middle of a firefight between us and the Taliban.
It felt strange walking through a city of nearly one million people and not seeing a soul. Like some kind of Discovery Channel documentary about how a city will look after the end of times. The roads were scarred with bomb craters, and the buildings were pockmarked with bullet holes.
“This place making you homesick?” Slim whispered to me as we made our way.
“I keep telling you I’m from the nice part of Detroit, asshole. I bet Afghanistan is making you miss your family, though.” I smiled.
“What?” He looked confused.
“On account of your family tree not having any branches, you white-trash fuck.” Most of the squad giggled in the darkness.
“Fuck you, Kassabian,” he said a little louder than he should have.
After a long but uneventful patrol, we walked back through the gates of Spartan Base and right back into a guard tower. Because both squads were back for at least a little bit, our shift lengths shrank by a little. Cali and I were so tired we no longer had the ability to carry on a conversation.
I was chain smoking and dipping in an attempt to stay awake. At one point I keeled over because I had fallen asleep on my feet and just tipped over. Thankfully, two exhausted soldiers from First Squad came up to replace us, and we slowly shuffled off to bed.
After only a few hours, Gunny came out of the command building holding a piece of paper. “Hey, go start getting the trucks ready. We have to go secure an area for some soldiers from the Tenth Mountain.” He could tell from the look in our eyes we wanted to kill him. “Sorry, guys,” he said before he turned around and walked off.
When our convoy slowly rolled out of the gate, we were all on the verge of passing out. Rip-It energy drink cans rattled around under our feet. At that point, massive doses of caffeine and nicotine were the only thing keeping us going.
Cali was dozing off at the wheel, and Grandpa and I were loudly singing country music to fight back sleep. The mission was a blur to me. There is an excellent chance I just passed out and didn’t notice.
We rolled back to the gate after about six more hours and started shuffling back to bed.
“Hey, where are you guys going? It’s your shift on guard!” Thad yelled at us.
“Man, fuck that. We’ve been awake for over a day!” Perro cursed.
“Second Squad in the towers!” Gunny yelled.
I spun around and dragged myself to the tower, Cali close behind me. This time, there was no fighting it. We both fell asleep on and off throughout our entire shift in the tower.
Grandpa kept bringing us energy drinks and whatever nicotine products he had on hand to try to help us, but it was no use. Nothing short of smoking meth could have fought off the level of exhaustion we felt. At one point, we took turns stripping our gear off and lying down on the floor of the tower and sleeping while the other one watched for NCOs.
Strange things start happening when you’re operating on no sleep whatsoever. You feel high, but not in a good way. Like that point of a party when you’re incredibly drunk, but you want nothing more than to be sober. You see things, and when you’re standing guard in a warzone the last thing you want to do is hallucinate.
I could have sworn I saw a squad of Taliban fighters advancing on my position. I dove toward the M240 machine gun that was mounted on the tower and pulled the charging handle back as hard as I could. When I looked up, the streets were empty. There was not a single Taliban fighter in sight. I didn’t bother waking Cali up for that.
I was standing in my tower staring off into the market when a fire caught my eye. A roaring fire was tearing through the ramshackle tin shacks. I panicked and kicked Cali awake. “Dude, wake up, the fucking city is on fire!” I screamed.
Cali rolled over, grabbed his rifle, and jumped to his feet. He peered out into the dark market and gave me a confused look.
“What the fuck are you talking about?” he asked.
I rubbed my eyes, and the fire was gone. Just the same old shitty unburned market.
“I…uh…” I stammered. “God, I’m so high from lack of sleep.” I shook my head.
On another occasion, Nan and Oldies were in a tower together, just as sleep-deprived as the rest of us, and Oldies swore he could see a group of Taliban hiding in a ditch. Nan fired a flare into the air to illuminate the area. It wouldn’t have been a big deal if anyone knew he was going to do it.
Everyone else on tower guard at the time saw a random flare light up the night sky and freaked out. It lit up all our positions like a goddamn sunrise and we ducked behind the low tower walls. In our fragile, delirious states, we nearly started a firefight with absolutely nobody.
“Do you see anything?” Cali screamed at me as everything turned a faint shade of green from the flare.
“Fuck, man, I don’t know!” I yelled back staring over my rifle.
“Should we start shooting?” Cali asked.
“If you do, I will.”
“Let’s wait for someone else to start first.”
“Don’t fucking fire!” The radio screamed at us. It was Gunny. “Don’t fucking fire unless you see something!” At that point, Gunny’s voice was certainly the only thing that stopped us from shooting. We would have rather shot at nothing than missed our chance at getting a piece of the Taliban. Of course, we weren’t sure. We were just waiting for someone else to start the show.
The days all started bleeding together. The first three weeks at Spartan Base, we never once slept more than two hours at a time. Between random missions, planned missions, guard tower duty, and supply runs, there simply wasn’t time. We became masters of falling asleep in any position at any time if we were given more than, say, five minutes without something to do.
More than once I caught people falling asleep while taking a dump. The only reason I was so rude as to wake them up was because they were taking up the only toilet that still had a door attached. More than once, it was me slipping off to dreamland with my pants around my ankles.
Lack of sleep and frustration with the entire situation made us turn on each other. At one point, Slim and I had to be separated after we went at each other’s throats over a cup of coffee. Nan’s sanity took a steep dive when his undiagnosed brain injury, stemming from the grenade attack, was combined with sleep deprivation.
Eventually, Nan started randomly stabbing people with a small pocket knife, myself included. Another time, while Cali and I were giving him shit for being terrible at catch, he found a hand grenade and pulled the pin.
I have had a lot of things happen to me over the years: being blown up, shot at, but I can tell you this was probably the most scared I have ever been. Nan’s crazed eyes and insane laughter—kind of like a Midwestern version of the Joker—while he held a primed grenade in his hand scared the living shit out of me. Hand grenades aren’t the most well put-together piece of weaponry the army has. They’re made by the lowest bidder, and their firing pins are renowned for being unreliable.
“Hey man, just put the pin back in that fucker. This isn’t funny,” I tried to talk him down from whatever plan was swirling around in his damaged head. He wasn’t fazed by my pleas.
“I mean, you guys are so much better at catching than me, right?” Nan laughed.
“Nope! Not even in the slightest. You are the goddamn grand champion of catching. Now, just put the goddamn pin back in that thing!” I pleaded. I thought about making a run for the door of the bay.
“Come on, man!” Cali added, his voice ringing with terror.
“Man, you guys are such pussies!” Nan smiled at us and started putting the pin back in the grenade. Or at least he was trying to. He fumbled with the pin nearly dropping the still-armed grenade, but he managed to wiggle the pin most of the way back in. “I think it’s good,” Nan remarked.
“You know, this is something I’m going to need you to be pretty fucking sure about,” I said with probably too much fear in my voice.
As a precaution, Cali fished some duct tape out of a bag, and we wrapped the grenade in it, forcing the arming spoon to stay on.
“What do we do with it? I’m not putting it back in my gear,” Nan said.
“You figure it out, asshole,” Cali spat.
“Okay, I’ll just throw it into the market.” Nan shrugged and started walking toward the bay door.
“Whoa! You are not throwing a live grenade into a crowded market!” I stepped in front of him with my hands up. “Think of how long that bullshit mission would be, man!”
“Shit, we’d be standing out there for hours,” Nan sighed.
I couldn’t help it. I started laughing, and Cali followed suit.
“Can we just put it back in the ammo tent? No one will notice,” Nan offered.
“How did that become our best option?” I shook my head.
“When the fucking psycho decided he would pull the pin on a grenade, maybe?” Cali said.
“You guys are drama queens.” Nan smiled. He walked out of the bay and climbed into the ammo storage tent. He placed the taped-up grenade in an ammo box in the back of the cache and shut the top. “There, I fixed it.”
We all walked away and tried to forget the day that Nan almost murdered us as a practical joke.
The one refuge we had between the never-ending shifts and the missions was talking to our loved ones. But like some cruel joke from the gods, that too was soon taken away from us. A supply convoy stopped by Spartan Base one day to drop off a replacement generator and their truck’s long antennas tore down our low-hanging internet cable.
As the cable snapped it dragged the satellite from on top of the command building and broke it into pieces as it slammed to the ground. Suddenly, I felt bad for all the power lines I’d torn down as I’d driven through the city. More people were pissed about the sudden lack of new porn than about not being able to talk to their family.
“Aw, shit, Joe, your model friend is going to lose interest.” Slim laughed as we stood over the destroyed satellite dish.
“She was clearly only talking to me for my winning personality,” I said. “This could really only help me.”
“Must be for the money,” Slim said sarcastically.
After losing internet, Gunny saw the platoon’s morale imploding in record time, so he cut the guard towers to one soldier each during the day. It wasn’t much, but it would give us a little bit more time to try to sleep. Maybe we could actually take care of ourselves. During the perpetual cycle of missions and guard shifts, no one shaved, bathed, or washed their clothes. We all smelled as shitty as we felt.
I used my first free hour to wash my clothes in an empty paint bucket I’d found. Spartan Base had no washers or dryers. Our still-broken shower trailer meant that after I finished washing my clothes, I had to fill the same bucket up again to wash myself.
I stripped down naked and dumped the bucket over myself, scrubbed up with a bright pink loofa, refilled the bucket, and dumped it back over my head. I felt like a new man. I tried to ignore the half-dozen Afghans watching me.
Boredom was painful. It made the hours feel like days and the days feel like weeks. We became masters of passing the time doing random bullshit. We played a game called “Marry, Fuck, Kill.” One person would name three people, and everyone would have to pick one that they would marry, one they would fuck, and one they would kill.
It’s a pretty straightforward game. At least for the first few hours you play. Eventually, you run out of real women. You go to cartoon characters. At one point I had to choose between Lassie, Betty Boop, and that lamp that was shaped like a leg from A Christmas Story. I married Lassie.
Nan, Guapo, Walrus, and I also invented a new game that could be played in the shower bay. It was a variant of football, baseball, and pure idiocy. One person would be the pitcher, but instead of a baseball, they would throw a football. They would chuck the ball to the batter, who was armed with an aluminum softball bat we’d found lying around.
The batter would smash the football as hard as he could, sending the oblong pigskin bouncing off the walls, ceiling, or whatever else got in the way. The score was determined by committee. Whoever was watching the game would scream loudly whether they thought the hit was a single, double, or triple. The score was based on how much damage the ball caused as it smashed off of things. Nan dubbed our new stupid game “Footsketball.”
The shower bay and command room were only separated by a thin piece of plywood. So every single time we played Footsketball someone from the command cell would barge into the shower bay and scream at us to be quiet. I couldn’t blame them for being pissed because Footsketball was a loud affair. It was a veritable ruckus with the screaming of curse words, racial slurs and insults, and the football wreaking havoc as it slammed off of things.
Eventually, Gunny outlawed our glorious new sport, and we resorted to playing tackle football out in the gravel motor pool.
I tried to put all of this out of my head. If I sat around and dwelled on how miserable life at Spartan Base was, I probably would have driven myself insane. Or pulled an armed grenade on someone the way Nan had. I tried to focus on the fact that I was supposed to be jetting off to Florida in a few weeks.