25 May 2011

We Apologize for the Inconvenient

The dining facility lunch lady is saying something in sign language to me. She points to the Camelbak I'm wearing, then folds her hands as if in prayer. She repeats the gestures a couple of times, while saying in English: "No backpacks ... please!" The request is routine, but I find the delivery a little unnerving. I begin to suspect that the lunch lady was bothered by something other than my personal hydration system.

Later, I ask the media liaison whether there is indeed a no-backpack rule, and whether it has anything to do with the suicide bomber threat.

"No," he says. "Just part of the protocol."

Like any communal activity, life on a Forward Operating Base ("FOB") is chockfull of rules. Some of them are unwritten. Others are posted on nearly every available surface. The no-backpack rule? Turns out it was hidden in plain sight, amongst a shuffle of other notices about meal times, proper footwear, and people selling things they no longer need.

Waiting outside the dining facility prior to an evening meal, I happen upon a flag display. Each previous U.S. Army rotation on this FOB has commissioned a marble placard with the unit's emblem, and the name of its commander and command sergeant major. The unit markers are arranged beneath flag pole. Because it offers a quick summary of those units who had come before, I take some snapshots of the display.

Suddenly, a first sergeant appears. We'd worked together for a couple of years while I was in uniform, and he has a familiar smirk on his face. He asks, "What are you taking pictures of?" I point at the display.

"Base Ops just called about some guy who was taking pictures and measuring out distances to the dining facility," he tells me. (There's a big camera in the sky that Big Brother Base Ops uses to keep tabs on things.) I roll my eyes. "Hey," he says, "at least they're paying attention."

Here's a selection of signs posted on various FOBs here in Afghanistan. Some seem to have lost something in translation, or to be overly specific--particularly given illiteracy rates in these parts:

- "No dip or urine bottles." If you don't know what these are, don't ask.

- "Do not defecate in the showers. If there continues to be an issue with defecating in the showers they will be closed." Note: This sign appears in both English and local languages.

- "No dumping, washing, rinsing of coffee, tea, etc.--and pick up your cigarette butts!" This sign is posted on a tree.

- "If you hear 'Rampage' or 'Alamo' over the loudspeakers--STAY PUT! We will come get you." If they say "Oxenfree," you apparently have to find them.

- "Afghan Style Toilet." Note: This sign appears in English only. Which may explain why, on one particular day, the floor of my 'U.S. Style Toilet' is so ... messy.

- "Military personnel are authorized two (2) take-out Clam Shell Trays. NO CIVILIAN is authorized take-out meals." Given the way it's capitalized, I'm pretty sure some military person really wanted to make "Clam Shell Trays" an acronym.

- "Disinfected water. Not for drinking."

- "IAW ["In Accordance With"] Ventcom Circular 40-1 and with the approval of CENTCOM, all shell eggs must be cooked thoroughly. Food service personnel are not allowed to cook or serve "over-easy," "over-medium," "over-light," or "sunny-side up" eggs. Eggs will be cooked or served "scrambled," "fried-hard," or as an "omelet" only." What's with all the underlines?
- "Bottom line: Be alert. Know what sector you are in. Follow your unit's plan. Stay alive!!!!" Four exclamation points? They must be serious!!!!

- "Machine out of order. We apologize for the inconvenient."


  1. I think you now have the title of your book.

  2. Do people there really have that much trouble with hygiene issues and toilets and showers? Is it the locals or some of our own? Sheesh, Charlie, have a good time! And stay safe, man!

    Nancy Davin


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