During the second half of my Afghan journey, I've been staging out of Bagram Airfield ("BAF"), while crashing out in style. Living quarters are "Re-Locatable Buildings" (R.L.B.)--semi-trailer-sized metal containers that have been stacked two high and 14 wide, and bolted together. Complete with corrugated steel sunshades and sandbag-bunker adjacent, the exterior aesthetic is something close to "20th century American penitentiary."
Each "block" has a central latrine on each level: six sinks, four shower stalls, two urinals and two toilets.
The floors of each "hootch" are wood-look sheet vinyl, and the walls are finished in light-colored paneling. There's one door and one window for each 20-by-20-foot apartment ("compartment"?), and bunk beds enough for up to six or eight soldiers. In the area in which I'm staying, most seem to house three or four soldiers.
I've stayed a couple of nights with some characters with whom Red Bull Rising readers may already be somewhat acquainted: An Army lawyer, a public affairs guy, and The Postman--a combat engineer who does construction back in the world, so we always have something to talk about. Their hootch--nicknamed the "Oak Leaf Lounge"--has been carved into three smaller living spaces. Stand at the center of the compartment, take one step at any diagonal, and you'd be in someone else's "room."
Each guy has their own wall locker and bunk bed. The lower one is for sleeping, the upper for storage. Had I deployed with the 2nd Brigade Combat Team (B.C.T.), 34th Infantry "Red Bull" Division, this is most likely the same type of living situation in which I would have spent my 9 months in country.
The entry has been turned into something akin to a mud room, foyer, and family room. Someone took the doors off of a wall locker, and built from its carcass a combination bookshelf, entertainment center, and pantry. There are also three or four folding chairs, a dorm-style refrigerator filled with pop and bottled water, and a small flat-screen television.
Prior to deployment, back at Camp Ripley, Minn., the guys were plotting and plodding their collective way through entire DVD collections of "The Sopranos." At the time, we joked that it was good counterinsurgency ("COIN") training--after all, what's a mafia story but a narrative of tribal leaders, criminals, and blood ties? During their months here in country, they've branched out, enthusiastically taking on series such as "Band of Brothers," "Rome," "Mad Men," and "Spartacus." Manly men, watching manly things. At the Oak Leaf Lounge.
Sounds almost like an Army-sanctioned gentlemen's club, doesn't it? Make sure to stay for the burka show. Lots of "T and A."
(That's "Toes and Ankles," by the way.)
More importantly, the hootch's name appears on the painted wooden plaque The Postman's wife had made and sent over for his birthday. Apparently, the Postman had once mentioned to his wife the original "Oak Leaf Lounge" after the unit's National Training Center (N.T.C.) rotation back in September. That "lounge" featured a cobbled-together pile of van seats, a broken sleeping cot, and a table of some sort, tucked away in the corner of a mass sleeping tent on FOB Warrior. A snarky public affairs soldier had lobbed the label in passing, like some sort of joke-grenade. But the name stuck.
"It's the best thing that anybody ever sent me," says The Postman. "The other guys wanted their own made, too."
It's become something of a tradition for visitors to have their pictures taken with the sign, and the resulting images are also proudly displayed. It's not exactly Afghanistan's answer to the World's Largest Ball of Twine, but it ranks up there on the short list of Tourist Traps on BAF. Right up there with the "Pink Palace" headquarters building (that's another story), the Post Exchange, the Green Beans coffee shop, and the not-one-but-two Pizza Huts.
This week, the nightly floor show at the Oak Leaf Lounge included viewings of gladiatorial programs like the "Spartacus" series. Lots of blood and gore and orgies--entertainment for the whole family.
The first night I crashed on their floor, the guys caught three rodents with the peanut-buttered mousetraps they set out around the perimeter of their hootch. Apparently, I'm like the Pied Piper of Bagram--a mouse magnet, a rodent whisperer. I'm just glad someone didn't slip me a Mickey. Especially after I made the "I ... am ... 'Sparta-mouse'" joke a couple-hundred times.
Borrowing a line from the episode we'd just watched: "It was a great spectacle of blood." Followed, of course, by arguments about whose turn it was to dispose of the losers and to reset the traps.
War is heck: Living in boxes, fighting the mice. Just another day in paradise ...
Just another night at the Oak Leaf Lounge.