SGT Stevens, using diesel to burn barrels full of human excrement, a daily part of combat life in more remote areas of Afghanistan.
Around March 2012 the weather started to clear up and air assets were able to fly to our AO once again. For us, this meant that we finally were able to get mail after a two-month dry spell. Unfortunately, it also meant we were able to get command visits. On both of my deployments to Afghanistan, my unit was always in a completely different province from our Battalion level command team. During my first trip to Afghanistan, it was particularly difficult because we saw more contact than any other company in our Battalion and allegedly out of anyone in theater at that period of time which dramatically set us apart from the rest of the unit. This was compounded by what in my opinion was a very weak and out of touch command team.
Now, I’d like to preface all of this by saying I think it’s a really cheap shot to demean someone for their actions while at war. When I was a much younger man I had an extremely black and white point of view, people were good or bad, decisions were right or wrong and not much middle ground existed. As I grew older and became more seasoned as a warfighter those views were dramatically altered. I participated in events where the rules said one thing and anyone with half a brain knew the right thing to do was not what the rules said. At the same time, I’ve been in situations where at face value it appeared that the right thing had occurred, only to realize months later as the ramifications of that “right” choice manifested that what we thought was right at the time was actually a horrible mistake.
This is a normal part of growing up for most people, but the problem with growing up in a war is that the consequences of such choices are often times life and death. When you’re staring at bloody civilian chunks in an IED crater agonizing over all the "by the book" choices you made the lead up to standing there, you realize life isn’t cut and dry. You also discover that in war, sometimes no matter what you do shit happens, the best laid plans can all be for naught simply because in war nothing is guaranteed. I say all that to say, war is crazy, and having seen and done all the things I have, I am very hesitant to pass judgment on anyone.
I once had a Pastor tell me that people are like tea packets without a label on them. You can set them on the table for years and their flavor will never become apparent. You can hold them up to the light, smell them, weigh them and you might have an idea of what flavor they could be. But until you place those tea packets in hot water you’ll never know for sure. War just like any stressful situation brings out the best and worst in people, some dudes are perfect soldiers stateside but stick them in an ambush and they fall apart. Me personally I had a lot of issues with authority which made me something of a loose cannon early on in my career, I also was an adrenaline junky which lead to me engaging the type of behavior that 1SGs give weekend safety speeches about. But shoot some bullets at me and I was a calm, collected, soldier that enjoyed the rush of battle.
The reality is that some people are not cut out for war, some people are, a few people REALLY are, and a few people REALLY are not. Generally speaking, though you need both types, a soldier with good administrative abilities can save a unit just as quickly as a steely-eyed killer. In most cases, the symbiotic relationship works out and you never hear of it. The same is true of leadership some dudes are amazing soldiers on the individual level but turn into toxic hot garbage the second they’re given a bit of power, other dudes just exude leadership from the second you meet them and are often placed in roles well above their rank because of it. You have no way of knowing who these people are until they are placed in the situations that will test those abilities. For me personally while I had a successful career I wasn’t some super soldier, I had my strengths and I had my weaknesses same as anyone else.
My point is this, no one soldier or leader is good or bad, they’re all just people, and while yes I’m sure there is some dude out there in uniform that is just pure evil personally I never met one throughout the 10 years I was in. I just met people, Americans that had one day for whatever reason decided to become part of something bigger than them and because of that ended up in a war zone. You’ll notice throughout this book I go out of my way to avoid using names unless it’s to talk about someone in a positive way. That’s intentional because I’m not here to sling mud, like any soldier that has been around war long enough I’ve gotten my hands plenty dirty over the years and one day I’ll answer for it all. In the meanwhile, quite frankly it isn’t my job to judge any one person. So while I do intend to be blunt and honest in what I write I can only tell things from my perspective, I don’t know the inner workings of a lot of stuff, I wasn't privy to the big picture in a lot of cases, and I often had no idea what was going on with people on a personal level.
At the end of the day, I have a great deal of respect for anyone that will show up to a combat zone and do their job, it’s hard, scary, life-changing work that in reality no one from my generation had to do. We were all volunteers and while I don’t think any of us knew what we were getting into we did have some type of idea and did it anyway. That fact alone is admirable.
But back to Afghanistan, our BN level command team spent the first 6 months or so without ever checking up on us save for one quick visit on Thanksgiving day to drop off our first meal in months that wasn’t an MRE bag. Which was fine with us, they had devolved a poor rapport with my company during our train up for the deployment and the general consensus was that the more distance between us and them the better.
It’s always been fascinating to me how quickly the tribe mentality sets in while on deployment. It seems like the second your boots hit the ground it’s us versus some form of them. Be it Alpha Team vs Bravo Team, 1st Squad vs 3rd Squad, 2nd Platoon vs 1st Platoon, or everyone vs those damn support bastards. Division quickly becomes apparent as cliques are formed. I’ve seen it were dudes set up their own little turfs and will jump dudes from the “them” group or go out of the way to screw someone over because he wasn’t part of the correct tribe, at times the level that things get to can be really wild.
Normally this is a good thing, that tribe mentality is what keeps people alive as adversary forges some of the deepest bonds. During this particular deployment, my company felt that we had been given a shit mission with minimal support. This lead to very strong Bravo Company vs everyone else sentiment, it was intensified by the fact that we saw more combat than any other company but because we were so far off the beaten path we almost became the forgotten company, almost zero official photos of us exist because we were so far away, our guys got the least amount of awards compared to other companies, and we received very little recognition for what we did. By March we’d become a completely demoralized unit that held our BN and sister units in utter contempt.
The command visit started off with the command team showing up and inspecting the small outpost before taking our company level leadership into our Tactical Operations Center (TOC) and giving them a massive ass chewing over the state of things. You have to understand we were living on the side of a mountain with two generators for power, no running water, and we’d just made it through a particularly bad winter with no real heat and rudimentary living conditions. The sad fact is that this was an improvement. When we first showed up the Afghan National Police (ANP) unit we had partnered with gave us an unfinished concrete building that had been used as a prison. The floor was covered with a 2-3 inch layer of human shit and piss, we only had our trucks for power, and the “base” had no security.
While running constant missions that normally resulted in at least one firefight normally lasting on average 1-3 hours, avoiding IEDs, and dodging mortar attacks, with full kit, in 90-100 degree weather we’d managed to build up a fairly respectable living area and we were damn proud of it.
After three months with no showers, or laundry you can actually smell the laundry detergent and soap on a person and it’s a glaring reminder of just how well off they are. Ironically when I hear someone talk about privilege, I think about the way a clean person smells after living in austerity for months. They are completely oblivious to how good they have it, something so simple, and taken for granted we would have given just about anything for at that point. To have that same person deriding leaders that have become parental figures in your tribe for doing the best they could with essentially nothing was a massive slap in the face. For many, the contempt turned to pure hatred right there.
But the ride was just beginning.
Our leadership had been told that due to their fuck ups the BN command team felt they probably weren’t adhering to unit standards and decided to do a full battle rattle open ranks inspection of the two platoons currently at the outpost and we’d better be dressed according to the unit Standard Operating Procedures or SOP. Our unit SOP was something of a joke within the unit at that time. Because we were still a relatively new unit it was a few PowerPoint slides on some sheets of paper that changed on a whim at any given point in time and mostly contained arbitrary information that someone on staff back in garrison had come up with safety being the main concern. It was frankly a useless piece of paper that we’d all forgotten about the second we left the main big base (FOB Shank) in the area.
The first thing we had to do is figure out what the SOP currently was which meant our XO made some calls and got a copy sent over. The next thing we had to do was try and get all the stuff to meet that standard. Ultimately we had two big issues, knee pads were part of the required “combat uniform”, and a bunch of soldiers did not have uniform pants without rips or tears in them. The knee pad issue was interesting, Army issued knee pads are bulky and while they work they don’t work well, take up a ton of space, and make it hard to walk. When your patrols consist of at least 10k dismounted movements with some running around and getting shot at thrown into the mix anything that isn’t 100% necessary for survival gets thrown to the wayside. Also because most of us lived out of a single rucksack for months at a time space was at a premium. Priority was given to ammo, comfort food, electronics, 1-2 uniforms, sleeping gear, and then anything else. For me personally and a bunch of other dudes knee pads didn’t make us feel good, kill bad guys, or make us sleep better so they got left in the rear with the gear.
But we adapted and overcame. Out of the two platoons that would be inspected, we managed to find enough knee pads for one platoon, since only one could be inspected at a time the one being inspected would get all the knee pads and then give them to the other platoon real fast as we swapped out. But we had another problem most of the knee pads had never been used. Meaning we had all these well-worn uniforms and gear after 6 months of fighting and brand new knee pads, which we knew would prove we hadn’t been following SOP.
To this day I can still vividly remember rage smoking shitty Afghani cigarettes while watching Joes power sliding in knee pads on the gravel behind our HESCO wall where we couldn’t be seen while the PLs and PSGs kept the BN leaders distracted. For me personally, the biggest insult was the fact that we all had to be awake. We ran 24-hour operations if you weren't on mission you were on guard, and if you weren't on guard shift, then you were either some poor bastard on a detail, prepping for a mission, or asleep. It got so bad due to the Obama era Troop caps that we at one point had dudes only getting 4 hours of sleep every 16 hours. Having what little sleep we got taken away so we could make useless knee pads look used for some petty inspection infuriated me.
We got it done, and in short order, we lined up for formation. At that point, we were so undermanned that our “platoon” was maybe 20 soldiers gaunt from surviving off MREs, stinky, dirty, and wearing well used ragged uniforms I’m sure we looked awful. The fact that we’d spent the last 6 months stacking bodies and now were filled with pure hatred I’m sure didn’t make things better. Our CSM sat there impatiently waiting for us to form up. Finally, he walked up to the front of our ragged formation and made a show of looking at the first rank mumbling corrections and pointing out deficiency after deficiency. I don’t think he made it to the end of the first rank before he huffed back up to the front of the formation.
I’ve never been in a full-blown riot but I can imagine the mood right before one starts would be similar to the mood of my platoon standing there exhausted, dirty, and receiving complaint after complaint, over things that we had no control over. The CSM picked up on the mood and quickly attempted to take control of the situation. It is hands down the oddest speech I’ve ever heard a military leader give. He started by asking us if we thought the US Army was the best in the world. After some grumbling and uncertainty everyone more or less agreed, the situation more or less diffused by confusion he got started.
“So if we’re the best fucking Army in the world then why are you guys living like this? This is bullshit, our Army is the best in the world because of our logistics, if I wanted to I could have a fucking bowling alley on that HLZ tomorrow, 8 fucking lanes no problem. Oh, you guys don’t believe me? You think I’m full of shit huh? Well, let me tell you with everything I’ve seen since I was a private I can tell you it wouldn’t even be hard to do. Now I understand you guys are having some supply issues getting new pants, that problem is over, I don’t know what the fuck your chain of command has been doing but fucked up pants are bullshit. We’re the best damn Army in the world, tomorrow I’ll go to BAF (Bagram Air Field) and pick up some pants for you guys myself if I have to. Matter of fact PL get me everyone's sizes they’re all getting new fucking pants by the end of the week.
Now I also see you guys don’t have proper latrines, your commander tells me you have those wooden shacks and you're still burning your own shit? Fuck that, Vietnam ended back in the 70s, you shouldn’t have ever been burning your own shit in the first place. We’re in the best fucking Army in the world, you should at least have porta-jons out here like the rest of Afghanistan.”
At this point everyone is getting pumped, new pants were something we’d been asking about for months, and honestly the only thing we actually wanted. Shit burning detail, on the other hand, was the single worst detail we had, often reserved for dudes that lost bets, or soldiers being punished for some mistake in most cases. The idea no matter how far-fetched, of not having to do it filled everyone with hope and the shenanigans of the day started fading away. The CSM I guess picking up on our new found faith in the greatest Army in the world concluded his speech with this.
“You know what, fuck porta-jons, when I get back to battalion I am going to talk to our supply people and see what we have to do to get you guys some actual porcelain fucking toilets out here, fuck burning shit, none of you should be living like this and I am going to get it taken care of.”
With that, he told us to go back about our day. Everyone quickly dispersed and got our pants sizes to the PL before clustering in our little cliques to discuss the viability of the whole speech. Most of us were still pissed but I think out of desperation we clung to the idea of not having to burn shit anymore. After all, if he could build a bowling alley on our HLZ then porcelain toilets wouldn’t be a big deal at all. A week later when we didn’t get new pants that hope slowly started dying.
In the end, we never did get those pants which were all we really wanted, and we definitely didn’t get our toilets. For the remainder of the deployment, porcelain toilets became a running joke about bad leadership and things that would never happen. Want your buddy to swap you his Beef Ravioli MRE for your Mexican Rice with Beans MRE, yeah sure right after the porcelain toilets get here. Meet a leader that impresses you, he’s probably the type of dude that could get a porcelain toilet.
I learned two important things about leadership from that whole debacle. Never get mad about something without fully understanding the situation, and never promise anything I couldn’t deliver.
To this day when I see or hear about that particular CSM I instantly remember the porcelain toilets and seeth inside. The reality is that while he had no idea what was going on out there or the logistical challenges that particular area had both from the terrain and the enemy activity. His lack of understanding was because he had no idea what was going on out there in that little valley because he’d allowed himself to become so far removed from us. Ultimately he wasn’t a bad dude, and I do feel he had the best intentions he just didn’t know what he was talking about and because of it lost the faith and loyalty of an entire company completely undermining his ability to lead that unit.