34. CLOSING THE BAR AT MANAS
There we were, all lined up in our full combat gear, standing in front of the massive plane we were about to get on. We were finally going to leave Afghanistan. It was actually happening. But we weren’t going home yet; we had one more stop in the middle. A tiny Air Force base called Manas in the former Soviet country of Kyrgyzstan, a country whose name is nearly impossible to pronounce with an American tongue.
We marched in two single-file lines into the belly of the Air Force transport jet. The walls of the jet were lined with steel bench seats and in the center was the seating section of a passenger airline bolted to the floor. A few ratchet straps secured the section to the walls for good measure.
We filed into the seats one behind another with no regard to how big any individual soldier was. I was squeezed into one of the center seats. It was an area that was too small for someone even half my size. My knees were in my chest, and the ballistic plate from my vest pushed down on my groin where my rifle was also smashed. My legs started to go numb before we even took off.
The plane taxied for a few seconds, and the big jet took to the air. Unlike an actual passenger jet, which is nice and quiet on the inside, the big Air Force jet was just a few octaves quieter than a Chinook helicopter. Everything shook and rattled as we lifted into the air. I don’t think there was any sort of sound insulation between the passengers and the roaring jet engines. It didn’t feel like the jet was taking flight as much as it was stumbling accidently into the act of flight.
When leaving a combat zone, a jet doesn’t do a standard take-off. It rockets straight up into the air going as fast as mechanically possible and zigzags through the clouds. It was meant to dodge ground fire and possible surface-to-air missiles that routinely target flights out of Afghanistan. I don’t know if it worked, but I do know that it did a fantastic job of making everyone vomit into their mouths.
After fighting through the air to our cruising altitude, we settled into what was mostly a normal flight. It was a long couple of hours to Manas, during which my legs transformed from being merely numb to burning with pain. I didn’t care. At some point during that flight, the jet was going to leave Afghan airspace. I was getting the hell out of there, my legs be damned.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” crackled the voice of the flight captain over an intercom. “We are officially outside of Afghan airspace.”
The cargo hold erupted with cheers. We all pumped our fists into the air. We high-fived and hugged each other. Our time in Afghanistan was finally over.
A few hours later, the jet landed with a bounce on the runway in Kyrgyzstan. The jolt suddenly brought life back to my dead limbs. We slowed to a stop, and the rear ramp dropped down. I tried to get to my feet, but I was wedged too deeply in my airline seat prison. The guy next to me dropped his shoulder and gave me a boost to my feet. I stumbled and had to lean against the wall for support while my legs tried to remember how to function correctly.
I struggled off the jet and onto the tarmac. The air was so clean in comparison to where we had just come from that I had to stand there a minute and breathe it in deeply.
We were surrounded by huge snow-capped mountains, and the sky was a flawless blue. Far behind me was the brown palette of Afghanistan and its hazy air. Manas could have been heaven on earth.
We were pushed into a building that was cooled by the best working air conditioning system I had felt since we had left proper civilization.
An Air Force airman was standing in front of a big pull-down screen with a PowerPoint slideshow playing on it. The airman clicked a button on a laptop and cycled through some slides. They were the rules of Manas. No weapons anywhere, and because we were slated to be flying back to the States, we weren’t allowed to leave the base. And the base bar had a two-beer limit.
“Did he say beer?” Nan shot forward in his seat.
On my last deployment to Afghanistan, I had passed through Manas. I remembered that the rule at the bar was a two-beer limit—if your commander actually let you drink. But the rumor around Manas was that no army units had ever been allowed to drink when they came through. The combined destruction that would have visited Manas had they let a whole company of soldiers just back from Afghanistan get drunk would have shocked the Air Force’s delicate sensibilities.
“Drink up, boys,” Rocky called from the back of the room.
We all erupted into cheers and high-fives so loudly that the Air Force guy giving the rules briefing gave up trying to talk and walked away.
“Oh, man, he’s going to regret that.” Slim shook his head.
“So when does these pussies’ bar open?” I asked.
“Well, it’s like four in the morning, so I’m assuming not right now,” Nan said, glancing at his watch. We filed out of the building and found our way to the tents we would be staying in. The Air Force’s massive, modern barracks complex towered over our ratty tents.
It was a huge tent lined with bunk beds. Unlike the ones in Afghanistan, there was plenty of room for everyone. The bedframes weren’t just ramshackle handmade pieces of shit, and the mattresses looked and felt brand new. In the middle of the room were weapons racks equipped with locks for us to store all our weaponry.
I changed and went into the shower building that was next to our tent. Individual shower stalls with frosted glass doors lined the walls. Every surface was gleaming white tile. I climbed into the shower stall and turned it on. Without hesitation, piping hot water blasted against my face. It had been so long since I’d felt actual water pressure. I looked around and thought about how much more comfortable these shower stalls would have been to live in.
Showered, I collapsed into my bunk bed. The mattress was the most comfortable thing I had felt since Tampa. I tried to close my eyes, but it didn’t do any good. None of us were sleeping. We were all way too excited, even though we still had no idea when we were actually leaving for the States.
Once you arrive in Manas, they just shove your unit on the next flight going out, whenever that might be. It could be a day or a week. The wait made minutes go by like hours and days go by like weeks. I took my watch off so I wouldn’t obsessively glance at it. I gauged the passage of time by what meal we were about to eat.
The base had several entertainment buildings. They were packed full of airmen, video games, and computers. Bugsy and I were sitting in one of them waiting for our turn to use the computers when we overheard an airman complaining that the chow hall had run out of ice cream. Bugsy and I gave each other furious looks.
I wanted to say something. Without warning, I was almost thrown in a rage. I wanted to explode on the kid. I wanted him to know that while he spent his time drinking beer and playing video games, good kids were getting torn to shreds on some shitty Afghan street thousands of miles away from home. He enjoyed hot showers and a warm bed while guys not even old enough to buy beer were at Spartan and Grizzly and the Reserve just wanting to call their parents and let them know they were okay. They just wanted to live another day.
I didn’t say anything, though. I stopped myself. That place, Manas, was that kid’s war. That was his deployment. I couldn’t be mad at him for some shit he would never understand. Instead, Bugsy and I got up and left the building. We paced around Manas, chain smoking cigarettes and avoiding human contact.
The sun slowly inched down behind the towering mountains, and we went out into the night hunting for the bar. We followed a massive horde of Marines who were hooting and hollering their way down the street. If anyone knew how to hunt down Air Force booze and women, it would be a group of Marines.
A weird tropical hut-looking building with neon lights had a huge line of airmen, soldiers, and Marines outside of it. Crowds of soldiers milled around on a big wooden deck that surrounded the tropical hut. I noticed big brown bottles in everyone’s hands.
“Jesus, those things are like forties, man,” Nan smiled looking at the massive beer bottles.
“It took five years and a few too many deployments, but I think I found something about the military that doesn’t completely suck.” I stared in awe. We waited our turn in line down into the bar area. It looked like a regular chow hall with a bar in the middle. A huge projection screen stood against the wall with cable TV playing on it.
A squat-looking Asian woman wearing colorful clothes stood behind the bar at a register. She looked pissed—the way anyone tended to look after dealing with a bunch of soldiers. “What you want?” she barked at me. There was no menu, drink list, or anything. I honestly had no idea what to order.
“What kind of beer do you have?” I asked.
“One kind beer,” she snarled at me. She slammed a huge bottle of beer on the counter. The bottle was dark brown and had a red label with Cyrillic letters scrawled on it. A giant number eight was in the middle of the label. “Six dollar.” She held her hand out.
I fished around in my pocket and found some money. I walked off with my beer and found Slim sitting at a long table in the middle of the room. I sat down across from him and noticed the big projection screen wasn’t just playing cable TV; it was playing a WNBA game.
“Enjoying the game?” I asked.
Slim winced as he took a drink from his bottle of beer. “It’s just like the NBA.” He shrugged.
“If you take away any of the reasons you would watch an NBA game,” I said, motioning toward the screen.
“I don’t know, that chick kind of looks like LeBron,” Slim said and laughed.
I finally took a sip from my massive bottle of beer. It tasted exactly as you would expect a Soviet bloc country’s bad Budweiser copy to taste. I made a face and Slim laughed.
“What? It just tastes like Bud.”
“If they brewed it with burning tires.” I shook my head.
It didn’t take long for most of the squad to empty their beer and go back for another one. We were all feeling more than a little drunk. Our tolerance wasn’t just low, it was practically nonexistent. The warmth of the booze flooded my body. Nan wasn’t handling his booze well and was calling every girl who walked by our table a whore or a slut.
We made our way outside to the deck area where people had started blaring music from their laptops and had turned the place into some weird impromptu dance club.
People’s cigarette smoke added to the atmosphere of loud music and flashing lights. Soldiers, airmen, and Marines started emptying onto the deck area and joining the party. Including an army major who looked like she was about fifty years old and walking with a cane.
The major was dancing her ass off. She was swinging her cane around in circles and breaking it down. Two massive black Marines sandwiched her, air fucking her so hard they probably should have been wearing protection. Air Force girls in short PT shorts were grind-dancing all over Marines and soldiers. Soldiers from my unit were just kicking over tables and shattering beer bottles on the ground.
A Marine near the laptop that was blaring music had stripped off most of his uniform and was vigorously humping the face of some Air Force girl, and she wasn’t coming up for breath. Other Marines stood around cheering him on. Eastwood, one of the most poorly tempered senior leaders I had ever met, jumped into the party and was humping some army girls on the dance floor with a beer in his hand.
“I love sluts!” Nan cheered and sent his empty beer bottle flying into the crowd of dancing people. I didn’t hear it shatter. I put some distance between myself and the massive amount of repressed sexual energy that made up the deck dance club. I’d just sat down at a table near the entrance with Slim, Nan, and Cali when Rocky emerged from inside the bar.
Rocky’s lip was bulged to its limit trying to contain a massive amount of dip. He spat a fat wad of spit, and it splattered on the deck.
“You know, it’s funny,” he growled, “we are acting like this is some insane party, but to these people, it’s just another day. It’s a different war around here.”
“What fucking war?” Slim cursed. “These faggots make the same paycheck as us, get to drink, and don’t even have to carry weapons.”
I shook my head. “I joined the wrong branch.”
“I thought you had a dick, Kassabian,” Rocky laughed, and a little dip spit came out.
“My reputation precedes me,” I said.
“Only bitches join the Air Force.” Rocky spat again. “Someone has got to go to faraway lands, meet a different culture, and kill it. That someone is us.” After dispensing his wisdom, he staggered away without another word. I found out later he went outside and dominated the cornhole game against any and all comers for the next couple hours.
I lost count of how many third-rate Russian beers I had and went back to the bar for another. The tiny, angry Asian woman told us she didn’t have any more beer. We had drunk them clean out. I gave up and started walking back to our tent.
Nan and I staggered across the shifting rocks and attempted to find our tent. I was too drunk to successfully light my cigarette so it dangled uselessly from my lips as I tried my best not to fall over. In our drunken stupor, our tent seemed much farther away than it had a few hours before.
I collapsed into my bed, drunk and tired. As fun as that night was, none of us wanted to be there. We got drunk, broke things, and nearly started fights. We screamed, yelled, and fantasized about being home. As happy as we all seemed, our heads weren’t out on that deck. They were in Fort Hood, Texas.