05 November 2010

Crossing the Line

FORT IRWIN, Calif., Sept. 24--Archer finds me by accident, while I'm hanging out in the "RUBA" and all heck is bursting and bustling around me. It is the morning of the big game--or at least that's the vibe. Today, the entire 2nd Brigade Combat Team (B.C.T.), 34th Infantry "Red Bull" Division is bugging out and moving into The Box. He grabs me by the elbow, and says he wants me to take a picture.

He points out toward the dusty horizon, toward the mountains, toward the training area called The Box. In the distance, the trucks are rolling up the roads like convoys of dung beetles. "See that haze? That's why they call this place the 'Dustbowl!'"

Because all the Forward Operating Bases ("FOB") at the National Training Center (N.T.C.) have names like "Seattle," "Denver," and "Reno," it took me a full night's sleep to figure out that the troops weren't calling their dusty little staging area "Aruba." You know--like the island. Turns out, it's an acronym: "Rotational Unit Bivouac Area."

The frustrations of the previous day have melted in the early desert light. I've decided to grind my emotional gears and shift into full military mode. Later, I'll stop by the military clothing store on post, and add yet another set of Army Combat Uniforms (A.C.U.) to my soon-to-be-retired collection. Two uniform sets, four T-shirts, seven pair of underwear, and my Army physical fitness uniform should get me by for two weeks. I'll also bite the bullet and acquire a second bulletproof vest from the Distinguished Visitors Bureau contact. Because it's camouflaged, this one will blend in better with the rest of the herd.

The question of what to carry into The Box is a little more problematic. Because I'm not going to be able to use civilian stuff, I'd prefer not to hump my duffel bag full of expeditionary clothing. That includes my personal bulletproof vest. I'd also prefer to turn in my laptop computer into someone trustworthy--remember, in The Box, there's a prohibition on personal computers and cell phones--but I don't know exactly where and when I'm going to come out of desert in two weeks.

The public affairs officer (P.A.O.) tells me to bring whatever I need to do my job, but the "job" has gotten a little fuzzy. We've talked in vague terms about how I might help out with newsletters and stuff, now that I'm not role-playing as civilian media on the battlefield. He's a little skittish, too, about whether he's somehow crossed the line with the NTC media roleplayers. Because of the uncertainty, I end up choosing to keep all my worldly goods on my person. Now, I am the dung beetle.

Meanwhile, his assistant, Staff Sgt. Katz, has gotten me a seat in the convoy, in a four-seater Humvee that she herself is driving. The PAO will be riding in the same vehicle, she tells me, as will the Deputy Commanding Officer (D.C.O.) of the brigade.

Upon hearing that, I begin to get that sour feeling again. Riding in the backseat of the second-in-command's vehicle doesn't seem like a good idea, if one is trying to stay off the radar. Once I'm in The Box, I figure I'm clear. Until then, I keep waiting for an anvil to fall on my head. Some people think of the glass is half-empty, some people think water in the glass has been poisoned. Guess which kind of person I am?

Katz is checking out the vehicle's lights, fluids, guages, the works. The Army calls it "P.M.C.S." for "Preventive Maintenance, Checks, and Services." That takes about 90 minutes. On the windshield, there's a sign with large red heart depicted on it. Each convoy has a different symbol on it--hearts, diamonds, moons, clovers--to help Military Police direct traffic toward each FOB.

The convoy time start time has gone from 0800 to 1000 to 1800. It will be a long, hot day, waiting in the motorpool with the vehicles, sweating it out as to whether someone will pull the plug on Sherpa's Wild Ride.

I am standing around the back bumper of the Humvee, when the brigade commander spots me. He walks over, as casually as a brigade commander can be said to walk.

"Sherpa! I was wondering how and when you were going to show up again!"

I am either about to be busted, or blessed.

Unexpectedly, he drapes his arm across my shoulders. God love the Old Man--always keeps you on your toes, always keeps you off balance. Still, if I've got any pixie dust or blarney lube left in my toolkit, I figure now is the time to lay it out there.

"Well, sir, you know how you jokingly asked me a couple of times back at Camp Shelby, whether I was going to figure out a way to get to Afghanistan? Well, the Iowa G3 has sent me out here as sort of an embedded historian. I'll help your PAO out with whatever I can, and I'll keep my eye out for lessons learned, too."

Then, I say it out loud.

"And, sir? I plan to visit you and the unit in Afghanistan sometime next year, embedding as civilian media."

The Old Man smiles, and plays along beautifully. Recalling my career as a writer of do-it-yourself home-remodeling stories, he muses, "You know, I have been thinking about Afghanistan as a Better Homes and Gardens article ..."

He continues the good-natured ribbing: "You remember in Egypt and Iraq, how we grew corn in the desert? Afghanistan needs more gardens. We're going to green it up when we get there!"

He does not realize it, but he has touched upon one of my favorite movie quotes of all time. "But, before the gardens, must come the fighting." I fear there will be fighting, and that some of my buddies will be in harm's way.

We joke around a little more, and then he is called away. I realize that I have just been granted a 5-minute audience with the commander of more than 3,000 troops, on what could be the busiest day yet of the deployment. That he came over, called me out, joked around, put my fellow soldiers and I at ease? That's why he's in charge.

"Apparently, Sherpa, you can do anything you want to," mutters the PAO, shaking his head and smiling. I feel like I've just been sprayed with Teflon. "The 'embedded historian' idea was a good one, too."

The rest of the day passes with much heat and light, and little incident. When the unit finally moves out, the sun is setting. The sky turns purple, and then settles into darkness. Our FOB is an hour or so out there, somewhere.

It is only when the Humvee starts moving, however, that I figure I am already on the objective. I have crossed my Rhine and my Rubicon, my personal line in the sand.

There is no going back now.


  1. You know the funny thing is...I liked Baghdad, Fallujah, Mosoul and other places in Iraq a lot more than I liked Ft Irwin.

  2. Based I my admittedly limited experiences with both Irwin and Iraq, can I take a guess that the people in Iraq were ... friendlier?

  3. Now this post is why I like reading here. You made me laugh more than once. Is there a hint of sarcasm or a touch of the cynic? No...Inconveivable.

    As for another vest, at some point, you are going to have to add a "donate" button for Sherpa adventure expenses.

    Hope you stay cool, calm and collected in the box.

  4. i really dont know what synopsis of ft irwin really make it worse, want to go there:)


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