I’ve been in Afghanistan for about a week now and let me tell you…it’s been surreal. I can tell by those around me that once you’re here for a while, things start to seem more “normal”, sure. But right at first, I have had to remind myself a couple times that this is no training exercise--the things I’m seeing, hearing, smelling, feeling…they are very real. Although it seems almost like I’m on a set of an action movie, I most definitely am not—this is the real deal.
The first night I arrived (via an all-day flight and two other countries), it was late at night and I could not reach anyone to give me instructions on where to go. So I stayed awake all night watching movies in a chair at the USO and eating individual bowls of cereal they had available. I stored my 4 heavy duffle bags of equipment under a near-by tent since it was raining and kept my M-16 rifle with me, as required.
The next morning I met my new co-workers and my boss who were extremely helpful and welcoming and I was taken to my “house.” Let me just say this—I realize this is a combat zone and so I wasn’t expecting much, but—I’ve been living pretty well the last few years and so I was a bit disheartened upon seeing where I was to reside for the next half year. Quite the contrast to my pristine Crystal City apartment with 24-hour concierge and backdoor entrance to Starbucks! If you’ve seen the movie, “District 9,” you can picture what my housing area looks like. It’s primitive to say the least with shared shower/restroom facilities that never smell pleasant and are basically metal storage containers. I’ve been told the detainees’ living spaces in the detention facilities are nicer than the Troops’ living areas and from previous experience at Guantanamo Bay, I don’t doubt that for a minute.
The only “pretty” things I have seen are the looming mountains which provide the backdrop to this dusty, drab environment where everything is covered in a good coating of dirt. The hasty, mix-matched buildings and temporary structures seem to be placed haphazardly not only to deter enemy attacks but also to remind us not to get too comfortable—money is not spent on things in combat areas for a reason.
It was a bit of a reality check to find substantially-reinforced bunkers near my housing, work facilities, and throughout—they are not just there for decoration. And how would you feel if you were told, as I was this week, “Hey look on the bright side, even though you’re kinda close to the perimeter, the rockets and mortar will most likely go over your house.” Nice. Very reassuring, thanks. Over the week I’ve heard different stories from Troops about previous attacks, rockets, shots from outside the wire, infiltrations, attempted attacks and bombings, you name it. These are the things not mentioned on CNN.
Another reminder that I am in a place at war is the steady stream of aircraft overhead. Some of the jets have been so loud I’ve been startled from sleep several times and have even made the noises into dreams that resemble something from “Saving Private Ryan” or “Band of Brothers”. While working near the hospital this week I walked past the real-life scene of a helicopter bringing in a Troop on a stretcher as the medical personnel rushed out to receive the casualty. Again, I was reminded of the fact that I was not watching an old episode of “M.A.S.H.”, but seeing true every-day heroes in action.
And how strange it was to go to the chow hall and later to chapel service knowing everyone around me was carrying a loaded weapon. I had the thought, “this would be a good example for places like Washington, D.C. and Chicago to study. Every single person carrying weapons at all times—and loaded, mind you—and somehow we are not murdering each other and having accidental shootings. Amazing, right?” Carrying the M-16 at all times, to be honest, is a pain--literally and figuratively. I have a good piece of distance to cover several times daily for my job and my back aches regularly from the weight. I’m hoping I’ll adjust. I do not necessarily feel afraid in this environment because the way I see it a) if I get shot or hit with something is will just be bad luck--pretty much being in the wrong place at the wrong time and there’s not much I can do about it and b) I run the risk of being a victim of crime in Washington, D.C. or anywhere else for that matter. But then again, I do recognize where I am and I realize there’s a reason we carry loaded weapons 24/7 for our protection. This is, after all, a combat zone—it’s no Hollywood movie set.
Natosha Monroe is an Army Reserve Mental Health Specialist stationed in Afghanistan. She is a counselor and PhD candidate passionate about increasing Troop access to counseling services. Her blog contents are not representative of the Army or Department of Defense in any way.