Sunday, March 8, 2009

Purgatory Continues...

After a seemingly mind numbingly endless four days at Camp Virginia, we
each packed a few things in our backpacks and headed out to the Udari
Range. The Udari Range is even more desolate than Camp Virginia. There
are about a dozen strong back tents, a small arms range, a couple of
port-a-potties, and the wide open desert used for convoy training. The
strong back tents are used as class rooms during the day, then when
instruction is over; the chairs are stacked up in a corner so we can put
down our sleeping bags and spend the night on the floor. There are no
showers or sinks, nor any running water at all. Personal hygiene is
accomplished by baby wipes and bottled water, or not at all, since we
would only be there for three days and two nights. We would be issued
MRE's to eat for the duration. Our class was divided into two groups,
those going to Afghanistan were in one, and those going to Iraq were in
the other. We would stay split up for the entire three days in Udari.

The first day was spent in the class room learning how to detect, avoid
and respond to IED's and suicide bombers (both the walking and driving
types). After classes were over, we ate MRE's, and laid out our sleeping
bags on the classroom floor. I had brought a paperback with me to help kill
time. I was reading Inside Straight by George RR Martin. It's a
bit cheesy and predictable, but interesting enough to pass the time.
After sunset, and reading for a few hours, I got bored and went for a
walk. When I exited my sleeping bag and went outside, I stepped into
cold sand and realized I had forgotten to put my boots on. I almost
turned around and went back inside, but the sensation of my bare feet
sinking into the sand let my mind conjure up images of other times and
other places; Ocean City, Myrtle Beach, Solomons Island, Diego Garcia,
family and friends, so I kept walking. Over by the port-a-johns there
was a group of about ten trainees standing in a circle laughing and
talking. It had the feel of folks sitting around a campfire, drinking
beer, and telling half true stories; except there wasn't any beer and there wasn't any campfire. I avoided them, and walked out and over the top of the twelve
foot sand berm that surrounded the site. Once I started down the other
side, I was clear of the ambient light of the compound, and in complete
darkness. I walked half way down the berm, plopped into the sand, and
leaned back so that I was lying flat out lengthwise staring at a
cloudless desert night sky. There was very little light pollution, and
once my eyes adjusted I could see a thousand pinpoints of light
overhead. I scanned them and found both dippers, Orion, the North Star,
and what I thought was Mars. If I had paid more attention in astronomy,
I would have easily found dozens more. As I sat digging my bare feet
into the sand, staring off into space, I thought of home, past mistakes,
possible futures, and pondered how an insignificant speck of life like
myself fit into the enormous infinite universe spread out above me. My
reverie ended when I noticed I was shivering. It was about forty
degrees, and I was lying barefoot in the desert, flat on my back,
wearing nothing but a tee shirt and cammie trousers. When I stood up, I
couldn't feel my ass. It had grown numb from the cold sand.

I scurried back up and over the berm and was greeted by curious glances
from the guys still standing in a circle laughing, gossiping and
complaining about life. I guess I may have looked a little odd
scampering over the top of a berm barefoot in the dark wearing nothing
but a tee-shirt, since most of them were wearing fleece jackets and
boots. I joined them, pretending not to be the least bit cold. They
were a mixed bunch, a few from both the Iraq and Afghanistan groups.
The Iraq guys were ridiculing the poor sap who had been chosen to be the
convoy commander for their group, but when I walked up the topic changed
to scorpions, snakes, poisonous spiders, rats, mice, and packs of feral
dogs, as one of the guys glanced at my feet, and reminded us all of the
safety brief we had gotten earlier on the hazards in the desert. As the
memory of the class slowly came back to me, and as my ass began to thaw,
I had an almost uncontrollable urge to start patting and slapping the
back of my legs and torso to brush away the tens of spiders and
scorpions that I thought now must be crawling all over me. Instead, I
jammed my hands into my pockets and tried not think about creepy crawly
things running up and down my back. One of the guys offered me a
cigarette, and since I was cold and silently obsessing about my
impending death from a multitude of spider bites and scorpion stings, I
accepted. After a pull or two from the cigarette, I brought the topic
of conversation back around to the other convoy commander and why they
were all mocking him earlier. Apparently, he and some of the others
from the Iraq group had been discussing and planning their convoy
mission for the last several hours, and were really, really getting into
it. Some in the Iraq group got annoyed and just went to sleep, while
others (the ones I was talking to) had come outside to vent their
annoyance to their friends in the Afghanistan group, who replied that at least
they had the cool convoy commander. I mumbled something unintelligible
through a clenched, almost chattering jaw in response, looked away,
noticed that the cigarette in my fingers had burnt most of the way down,
unsmoked, and nonchalantly dropped it in the sand. I was getting cold
again, so I bid them goodnight and walked off towards the tent.

As I rounded the corner and got out of sight, I quickly pulled my tee
shirt over my head, shook it vigorously, and then, in the cold,
hurriedly used it as a whip and a brush on the backs of my legs, neck,
and torso to get the hundreds of imagined creatures off of me. When I
was satisfied that I was bug free, I put my shirt back on, went into the
tent and crawled into my sleeping bag. I thought about earlier in the
day, when I had pulled one of the instructors aside and asked if there
was something I could do to get the group ready for convoy training. He
had replied that, no, it could wait until tomorrow, after we had
finished a couple classes on convoy operations. Was I missing
something, or was the other group just a bunch of over analytical dorks?
I was pretty sure it was the latter, but as I lay curled up, shivering
in my sleeping bag, drifting off to sleep, I mentally reviewed all of
the lessons learned from the convoy exercise at Camp McCrady, just in

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