23 June 2011

Dressed Not to Kill, Part II

"Bring two laundry bags for laundry exchange," Archer advises me via e-mail, before I leave for Afghanistan. "Dennis Hopper crazy photographer clothing works. You can buy stuff here. About a 72-hour turn around on laundry."

I appreciate the "Apocalypse Now" (1979) reference and enthusiasm. Apparently, Taliban don't surf, either.

Developing my personal packing list, I plan for approximately three changes of clothes, figuring that should last from 6 to 9 days. I'll be doing laundry by hand in a borrowed 5-gallon bucket. No lost clothes that way. And no damaged fabrics--my war-togs are delicates. Best of all? Same-day service.

I start my with three UltraViolet-blocking, quick-drying, breathable, long-sleeved shirts. A mix of ExOfficio and REI brands, in slate blues and olive greens. I figure that changing my colors every so often will offer the illusion that I'm changing my clothes.

I wear my shirts untucked, partly to conceal that I'll be wearing uniform trousers, complete with military "rigger's belt." I opt for tan-colored pants, because rules for embedded media explicitly state "no camouflage." Otherwise, they're identical to those issued to U.S. troops.

While I had previously purchased matching "blouses"--the long-sleeved uniform shirt worn over a T-shirt--I ultimately decided to leave these at home. Wearing a matchy-matchy tan uniform seemed to be against the rules for embedded media: "Clothing and equipment will be subdued in color and appearance, but non-military in appearance."

Besides, I've seen other downrange types of U.S. civilians--Army Corps of Engineers employees, mostly--adopt the all-khaki look. I'm not entirely sure it's respectable, or respected by the troops.

Wearing G.I.-style pants means I have drawstrings, which allow for easier tucking of the trouser into the tops of combat boots. I soon confirm what U.S. troops in Afghanistan already know, however: Ankle-height footgear, such as the military's Mountain Combat Boot (M.C.B.), isn't tall enough to allow for proper tucking. I use large safety pins to control the drawstrings, and let the pants hang straight, over my well-worn civilian hiking boots. I see a lot of this look in Afghanistan when I get there.

The pants, of course, are all about the pockets. Two big cargo pockets on the hips, and two smaller ones on the calves. Unfortunately, the pockets close with hook-and-loop fasteners--Velcro--rather than buttons. According to recent news reports, newer uniforms will soon feature more buttons than Velcro. Velcro is loud, and sticks to stuff, and wears out too easily. Of course, unlike the sticky stuff on my old Army Combat Uniforms, I only need these patches to last a few weeks.

Here's what I pack in my pockets:
  • Right cargo pocket: Cargo-pocket organizer, black, one each. Contains ear plugs; metal-body ballpoint pens in black, red, and blue inks; waterproof notebook; red-colored L.E.D. light.
  • Right calf: Travel-size alcohol-based hand-cleanser.
  • Left cargo: Fire-proof aviator gloves. Travel pack of anti-bacterial baby wipes.
  • Left calf: Clif bars, available as snack items at fashionable Dining Facilities (D.F.A.C., pronounced "dee-fak") everywhere. My favorite in country: "Chocolate Chip Peanut Crunch." My all-time favorite, which I take pains never to admit in a combat zone? "White Chocolate Macadamia Nut." While delicious, it just isn't manly.
For headgear, I toy with the idea of wearing a floppy "Stetson" similar to the one I'd been issued for a multinational peacekeeping mission in Egypt. These hats have a broader brim than the military "sun hats," which are still more commonly called "boonie" hats. While the so-called Stetsons we'd been issued in Egypt were burnt-orange colored, I'd also purchased a civilianized one that was hunter green. I figured the long, beefy chin-strap and built-in neck protector might come in handy, particularly if I wanted to geek out in front of the troops. Plus, it has a "peace dove" patch affixed to the hat. Can't get much more non-combatant than that, can you? Sort of like Private Joker in "Full Metal Jacket" (1987), putting a peace symbol on his body armor?

Not wanting to separate myself from the Red Bull herd too much, however, I instead choose a generic olive-drab ball cap, Velcro-ready for patches and name tapes. During the course of my travels, I exercise great restraint in attaching funny stuff to my headgear. Patches such as "Infidel Media" or "Pork: The Other White Meat."

I buy a small S-shaped carabiner. I attach this to a belt loop, and use it to hang my hat when I'm at the DFAC and other indoor locations. It also serves to dummy-cord my point-and-shoot camera, so it doesn't drop out of my front right pants pocket.

In addition to designing my own "uniform," I have to worry about Personal Protective Equipment (P.P.E.). This includes:
  • Kevlar vest with plates. Similar in style to the Improved Outer Tactical Vest (I.O.T.V.) currently worn by U.S. troops, my non-military vest plus "Small Arms Protective Inserts" ("SAPI," pronounced "sappy") weighs about 35 pounds. Without the SAPI, the vest can theoretically stop 9mm rounds from a pistol. With the plates inserted, the vest can theoretically stop up to 7.62mm rounds from an AK-47 or medium machine gun. I have no plans to test either theory. I skip the groin protector, for no particularly good reason. Insert your choice of groin-protector joke here. For example: Perhaps I couldn't find one in a size large enough?
  • Eye-protection: Rather than spend the budget on prescription ballistic glasses, I opt for $70 goggles that are rated to the required A.N.S.I. Z87 safety standard. I wear these over my prescription sports glasses, which are rated more for shuffleboard safety than for shotgun blasts. They are also photochromic, so I use them as sunglasses. Later, however, I find my ballistic goggles are also UV-blocking, so my lenses don't darken when I have the goggles on.
  • Ear-protection: Standard Army-issue triple-flange ear plugs. Useful for aircraft, and for snoring bunkmates.
  • Hands: Flame-retardant aviator-style Nomex gloves.
Prior to leaving for Afghanistan, I paint my nickname and blood type on back of my Kevlar helmet. (In keeping with the no-camo rule, most non-combatants do not place cloth covers on their helmets.) On the helmet's front edge, I paint the word "Press," rather than "Media." I figure that I've been a dinosaur print journalist for more than two decades, yet have never put the word "Press" on any hat. Might as well play the stereotype. Inside the helmet, I write my real name, my blood type, and the last four of my Social Security Number.

My body armor is "Coyote Brown" in color, which turns out to be hard to match when purchasing accessories. You can customize your vest by attaching items via a standardized system of straps and snaps called "Modular Lightweight Load-carrying Equipment"--"MOLLE," pronounced like the female name.

Turns out, however, tactical-gear manufacturers don't offer every type of pouch in every color or camo-pattern. For example, I had wanted to purchase an "IFAK"--an "Improved First Aid Kit," filled with such life-saving goodies as tourniquets and blood-coagulating trauma bandages. There are two problems, however. First, I can find it only in Universal Camouflage Pattern (U.C.P.), which violates the no-camo rule. Second, it also contains needles and blades, and non-combatants such as media aren't allowed to carry sharp objects. We aren't supposed to run with scissors, even in a war zone. Even if we're running away.

I end up with a patchwork of items on my vest: a sage-green camera case, and a brown medic-style pouch that proves too small for anything but a few Band-Aids and some aspirin. I promise myself that I will be near a medic or Combat Lifesaver (C.L.S.)-trained soldier at all times. Heck, I'll carry one around on my back, if I have to.

Despite all my packing and planning, I realize too late that my free-breathing outdoorsy shirts are probably all made from petroleum products. They're not exactly fire-retardant. If I were to be in a vehicle hit by an Improvised Explosive Device (I.E.D.), I would probably melt into a flaming puddle of well-ventilated, non-groin-protected comfort.

I do not tell my wife about any of this.

20 June 2011

Dressed Not to Kill, Part I

One of the great advantages about uniforms is that they are uniform. One of the great disadvantages of recent U.S. Army uniforms is that they haven't been. When it comes to camouflage, Uncle Sam acts like a drunken tailor.

We've seen a mix-and-mismatched Army for nearly a decade now. Even after getting rid of woodland- and desert-specific camouflage patterns (remember the alphabet-soup of BDU, DBDU, and DCU?), we've still been mixing "digital sand-tiger" with "mountain-colored monkey."

Remember Garanimals, the line of color-coordinated children's clothing launched in the early 1970s? Kids could mix-and-match shirts, skirts, and pants as long as they stayed within the proverbial lions--categories labelled as "monkey," "tiger," "rhino," and "bear."

Perhaps, the U.S. Army should draft some Garanimals. If everything in your rolling footlocker is one color--currently Universal Camouflage Pattern (U.C.P.) or MultiCam, take your pick--it doesn't matter how much of "Fashion Don't" you are in your personal civilian life. Through the magic of Government Issued clothing, even the chronically Worst Dressed Joes can still put on the right pants when we get up. Even in complete darkness. One camouflaged leg at a time.

Nothing that simple can be allowed to remain that simple in the Army, however. Even in those historic moments when the whole Army is on the same bolt of fabric, we like to work harder, not smarter. Senior sergeants, for example, often make seemingly arbitrary specifications to the day's dress code and packing lists. "Your poncho will be folded neatly and placed in the left-most exterior pocket of your assault bag," for example. " Or "your medical kit will be placed over the left shoulder." Each decree results in a flurry of packing and repacking.

Believe it or not, however, there can be method to this obsessive-compulsive madness. If anyone needs to find someone's poncho or med-kit in a hurry, for example, they know exactly where it should be.

For other Army leaders, however, it's less about such practicalities, and more about discipline. Consider this 1943 quote from U.S. Army Gen. George S. Patton Jr., known for his pit bull tank tactics during World War II, and his slap-in-the-face treatment of the troops: “It is absurd to believe that soldiers who cannot be made to wear the proper uniform can be induced to move forward in battle. Officers who fail to perform their duty by correcting small violations and in enforcing proper conduct are incapable of leading.”

Actor George C. Scott memorably played the general in "Patton" (1970), an Academy Award-winning biographical movie that allegedly contains more truths and truisms than it does historical traps or tripwires. From that movie, even a casual viewer will learn three sartorial facts:
  • Patton was deadly serious about the proper wear of uniforms. In the movie, for example, he advises a physician to cut holes in a combat helmet, so that the doc could employ a stethoscope while still protecting his noggin. In real-life, Patton imposed fines of non-helmet-wearing personnel. His soldiers came to call the steel pot a "$25 derby" hat.
  • Patton himself sported a variety of idiosyncratic garb and gear, including two mis-matched ivory-handled revolvers. "They're ivory," the movie character corrects a visiting reporter. "Only a pimp from a cheap New Orleans whorehouse would carry a pearl-handled pistol."
  • After he proposed a flashy redesign of tanker uniforms--a green-tunic with gold football helmet that looks like something from Star Trek's Romulan collection--Patton's stylings reportedly earned him nicknames such as "Flash Gordon" and "Green Hornet."
What's sauce for Patton is sauce for the press, however. When you get to pick your own clothes, how do you avoid looking like you're from a different planet? Or from the future?

What happens when Mother Army stops telling you what to wear, and offers only minimal guidance to the newly non-combatant on what NOT to wear? Here are some excerpts from the International Security Assistance Force ("ISAF") / NATO media embed application packet:
All visiting journalists must possess their own helmet and body armour (bullet-proof vest). Any journalist arriving without this equipment will not be permitted to visit ISAF in Afghanistan. Journalists are strongly advised to gain experience and training for operating in harsh and hostile environments and are expected to come equipped and clothed appropriately.

Accommodated media must wear their media credentials in a clearly visible location at all times.

Accommodated media are responsible for procuring / using personal protective gear, to include as a minimum military-grade helmet and body armour. Clothing and equipment will be subdued in color and appearance, but non-military in appearance (i.e. camouflage).

Accommodated media are responsible for their own personal and professional gear, including protective cases for professional equipment, batteries, cables, converters, personal protective equipment, etc. Each media representative is responsible for carrying his own gear.
To recap for would-be embeds:
  • Body armor and helmet.
  • No camouflage.
  • Change it up color-wise, but stay subtle.
  • Media badge visible at all times.
  • Carry your own stuff.

15 June 2011

Chasing the Red Bull

The U.S. National Guard and Reserves claim lineage dating even earlier than the Minutemen (and women, too) of the American Revolution. It's the image of an Average Joe in a tri-cornered hat, however, that sticks first in the hearts and minds of our countrymen.

No longer do we immediately drop our plows to pick up muskets, however. As part of an operational reserve to our nation's defense, our individual paths to war are often much longer than a moment's notice.

In late 2008, for example, some 3,000 Iowa National Guard soldiers and I were nominated for duty in Iraq. In 2009, our units were alerted--one official step up from "nomination for deployment"--instead for Afghanistan. In January 2010, I was put onto stateside active-duty in preparation for mobilization. Our unit wouldn't be "mobilized"--placed into service of the federal government, rather than that of the state--until July.

My role in the 2nd Brigade Combat Team (B.C.T.), 34th Infantry "Red Bull" Division (2-34th BCT) had been a new job position: "Battle Command Knowledge Officer." Also known as the "Knowledge Management Officer" (K.M.O.). As the KMO, My assigned tasks included integrating and optimizing Army computer systems, archiving organizational records, as well documenting and disseminating "lessons-learned." Lucky for me, I'd previously worked as a lessons-learned integrator within the Iowa National Guard.

What's "lessons-learned integration"? I'm glad you asked:
  • A "lesson" is knowledge gained through experience. ("The oven is hot.")
  • A "lesson-learned" is knowledge gained through experience that results in a change in individual or organizational behavior. ("Next time, I should really use an oven mitt to protect myself when working with the hot oven.")
  • A lesson-learned is considered "integrated" when it is shared with others. ("I recommend that everyone start using oven mitts. Don't have one? Here's how to make your own!")
An additional, implied task for an Army lessons-learned guy? Unit historian.

Two weeks before "M-day," my name dropped off the deployment list. I saw my buddies get on a bus, then found myself still on temporary active-duty, but in a support role--one that wouldn't take me overseas. I followed them first to Camp Shelby, Miss., for 45 days of post-mobilization training. Then we moved to the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, Calif. for a couple of weeks of realistic combat training exercises. Guess what? Southern California looks an awful lot like Eastern Afghanistan.

In November 2010, the Red Bull finally took over the mission in Afghanistan. The 2-34th BCT is the second National Guard unit ever to "own battle-space" in Afghanistan. That means that "Task Force Red Bulls" (they prefer the plural, because they're a team) is responsible for everything that does and does not happen in the Afghan provinces of Parwan, Panjshir, and Laghman. (Parts of much-contested Nuristan, too!)

In addition to other missions around Parwan, the 1st Squadron, 113th Cavalry Regiment (1-113th Cav.) is also responsible for security around Bagram Airfield ("BAF"), the largest coalition military installation in Afghanistan. It's not a sexy mission, but it's an important one. Imagine a military base comprising 30,000 souls--the population of Ottumwa, Iowa. Now, imagine doing everything possible to prevent bad guys from strafing Ottumwa with nightly rocket attacks.

Most of the "town" is run by a smaller Red Bull task force, "Task Force Archer," which combines elements of 334th Brigade Support Battalion (334th B.S.B.) and the 2nd Brigade Special Troops Battalion (2/34th B.S.T.B.).

Laghman is "Task Force Ironman" territory, the overseas home of 1st Battalion, 133rd Infantry Regiment (1-133rd Inf.).

Outside of Task Force Red Bulls turf, an additional Red Bull battalion--the 1st Battalion, 168th Infantry Regiment (1-168th Inf.)--serves in Paktiya Province. And an attached unit of Nebraska Army National Guard cavalry troopers--the 1st Squadron, 134th Cavalry Regiment (1-34th Cav.)--trains Afghan security forces in Kabul.

Members of Iowa's 1st Battalion, 194th Field Artillery (1-194th FA) have been dispersed throughout the brigade.

Task Force Red Bulls is responsible for helping Afghan national military and police improve security in its area of operation. Sometimes, that means fighting. Sometimes, that means teaching and mentoring. Always, it means standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Afghan allies.

I retired from the Iowa Army National Guard last December, and returned to my civilian career as a freelance magazine writer and editor. I kept up with the war in the news, and with my buddies via e-mail and Facebook.

Last month, I went to Afghanistan to visit my former unit. Not as a citizen-soldier, but as a citizen-journalist. I embedded as civilian media, with an eye toward writing a larger history of the Red Bull. (I prefer the singular, because that's the 34th Infantry Division's official nickname.)

Having trained for the deployment myself, I thought I knew what to expect. Turns out, I was in for multiple surprises.

Granted, I was already a Red Bull fan when I landed in Afghanistan. And--journalism and philosophy students take note of this thesis--the embed process itself skews the reportorial view toward the perspective of U.S. soldiers, rather than Afghan power brokers, or the people they allegedly represent.

That said, here's a sampling of what I witnessed:
  • In Parwan Province, I talked to a platoon of young men that had spent more than 4 hours defending against a complex attack focused on a downed U.S. Army helicopter. After just completing a long night of patrolling by ground vehicle, they responded as a helicopter-borne Quick Reaction Force to Kapisa, a nearby province. Upon landing, they found themselves pinned down, but drawing fire away from Air Force rescue teams. Staff Sgt. James A. Justice was killed during that firefight. Some of the guys shared their stories with me, not because they were boastful or proud--although they have every reason to be--but because they wanted to remember Justice, and the sacrifice he and his family made. They also wanted to celebrate Spc. Zachary Durham, who was injured after deliberately exposing himself to fire while seeking out enemy fighting positions.
  • In Parwan, I saw other Cavalry troopers working to defeat the local network of insurgents that threatens Bagram Airfield ("BAF"). Attacks are down. Morale and motivation are up. They're still seeking out the bad guys around Bagram. 'Nuff said.
  • In Laghman Province, I saw Iowans engaged with a deadly enemy now often unwilling to show their faces in direct attacks. Iowa soldiers there routinely face machine gun and mortar attack, as well as Improvised Explosive Devices (I.E.D.). At the same time, they partner with their Afghan army and police counterparts, U.S. Air Force-led Provincial Reconstruction Teams (P.R.T.), and joint U.S. Air and Army National Guard Agribusiness Development Teams (A.D.T.). The latter specialty are comprised of citizen-soldiers and -airmen deployed as much for their farming-related talents as for their soldier skills. It is a unique mission to the U.S. National Guard. Together, these teams quickly flooded a newly created government district with development projects, after Task Force Red Bulls completed "Operation Bull Whip," the largest helicopter-borne "air assault" in Afghanistan in recent memory.
  • In mountainous but relatively peaceful Panjshir Province, I attended a conference in which local and national officials engaged with adventure-tourism experts and investors. The hard but beautiful land may soon appeal to weekenders from Kabul, which is only 2 hours away by car. Some experts thought the area nearly ripe for international tours focused on climbing, caving, hiking, and even kayaking. Panjshir is a vision for what other Afghan provinces might also one day be.
That's great stuff, but the Red Bull ain't done yet.

These Red Bull soldiers--as well as those in Paktiya and Kabul--have achieved plenty and sacrificed much. There's a National Guard saying that "deployment doesn't end with a homecoming parade." After they return from Afghanistan, many of our citizen-soldiers will be challenged to successfully reintegrate with their families and friends, to find employment (more than 21 percent of the deployed Iowa soldiers indicate they will not have civilian jobs waiting for them), and to overcome physical, emotional and mental obstacles stemming from their service.

We should give these modern Minutemen more than our momentary notice. They have answered our country's call, and we should stand ready to hear theirs. Their stories, too.


13 June 2011

There and Back Again

The three weeks I spent on Afghan ground last month doesn't automatically make me an expert on what U.S. citizen-soldiers are doing downrange, of course, but it should prove a start toward some greater peace and understanding. I'm excited to see where it all leads. I hope you are, too.

The men and women of 2nd Brigade Combat Team (B.C.T.), 34th Infantry "Red Bull" Division are nearing the end of a more-than-year-long, history-making effort. Politicians and pundits are already arguing how many U.S. troops to bring home from Afghanistan and when: The "Afghan surge" is due to be over in July. Osama bin Laden is dead. Depending on your beliefs and choice of cable news outlet, counterinsurgency ("COIN") strategy is either working in Afghanistan, or it's impossible.

Since my return to Iowa late last week, I've been working to achieve a sustainable daily or weekly schedule--a new "battle rhythm," if you will. Somehow, I've got to find a way to balance my various research, reporting, and writing interests. From my Afghan journeys, I have pages and pages of shorthand notes to translate. And hours and hours of digital recordings to transcribe. Some of this material will be of immediate interest to readers of the Red Bull Rising blog. More will require further development, context, or words than a blog-post may allow.

Still, as I revisit my recent experiences via my notes, I envision any number of blog entries similar in style and flavor to those regarding the Red Bull at the National Training Center (N.T.C.), Fort Irwin, Calif. In that instance, I had embedded with the 2-34th BCT in September and October, but only started writing about those experiences in November. Writing history gives one the luxury of writing with a slower hand. "Torn from yesterday's headlines!"

Fun fact: I retain an entire set of notes from a second week at NTC, which has yet to see the light of either blog or day. I'll have to dive back into those soon, too. The Red Bull experiences "in the box" at Fort Irwin directly foreshadowed its actions and activities in Afghanistan.

In addition to continuing my semi-regular blog-musings about the Red Bull, which I hope eventually to stitch together into a larger historical narrative of some sort, I'll also be pursuing a few side projects related to the organization's Afghan deployment and history. Like magazine articles, book proposals (note plural), movie and book reviews, and other good stuff. I'll keep you posted.

I'd be remiss, by the way, if I did not take this opportunity to thank the citizen-soldiers of the 2-34th BCT, for their hospitality and openness during my recent Afghan travels. Particularly to the "Red Bull Action News Team." These are the public affairs soldiers of Task Force Red Bulls, who have diligently and creatively told the Army story during this deployment, borne witness to both good times and sad, and sought always to be "first with the truth": Maj. Mike Wunn, Staff Sgt. Ashlee Lolkus, Staff Sgt. Ryan Matson, Sgt. Tim Beery, Spc. Kristina Gupton, and Spc. James Wilton.

I also need to thank my wife and kids for managing the home front. I owe them big-time, and not just because I spent this year's summer vacation fund on some bullet-proof camping equipment.

This week, I've updated the "About this Blog" page with a few additional items, as well as the "Help Our Soldiers" page. The latter is a running attempt to consolidate reports of officially announced or otherwise publicized Red Bull injuries. A number of readers have expressed interest in fund-raising on behalf of these and other Red Bull families. Please feel free to e-mail or Facebook-message me with notices of upcoming events and efforts.

Please also keep these families in your thoughts and prayers, as well as the extended family of the 34th Infantry "Red Bull" Division. Just as the 2-34th BCT is returning home to Iowa this summer, elements of the Minnesota National Guard's 1st BCT, 34th Inf. Div. (1-34th BCT) are variously deploying to Iraq and Kuwait, and to Afghanistan.

The Red Bull is on the move!


01 June 2011

Down and Out at the Oak Leaf Lounge

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.