I didn’t write a word while I was deployed to Kandahar in 2010. There will be no posthumous, “Jim Daniels - The Lost Army Diaries,” unless Greg Mortenson’s ghost writers want to conjure up some tales of heroics as fabulous as Three Cups of Tea.
I started to write when I first arrived on Kandahar Airfield after a three day stopover in Kyrgyzstan where I would have my last alcoholic beverages for quite some time to come. I found myself with little to say in terms of observations at the beginning of my residence on a large, dusty extension of an airport that had all the charm of a loading dock: it smells like a toilet, there’s a lot of trucks, my team leader is an idiot, there’s a lot of cricket on TV, wow check it out a TGI Fridays, etc.
By the time I found myself heavily involved in work on a seven-day schedule, I had little interest or desire to write about what was, for the most part, a pretty mundane experience. Once I was involved in the literacy project, and especially when the 10th Mountain boys took over, I had no desire to sit and type at a computer during my precious leisure time. As I’ve said on many occasion, there are no truer words than, “L’enfer, c’est les autres.” Solitude is such a gift, but thankfully I had cool, funny roommates, and I still appreciate their willingness to be an audience for my too-frequent, spastic madball rants.
About a week into the deployment I got into a fight with my team leader, who was a complete moron and deaf as a doornail as well. He had to apply for multiple waivers for his hearing problem to be allowed to deploy, which of course, he was given. Everything you said to this twit was answered with, “I’m sorry?” Think about it. The army is willing to waive someone who can barely hear a nuclear bomb going off outside his own damn window and send him into a war zone where he may possibly command troops in a combat situation. This was who I was going to have to answer to in one of the most dangerous places in the world.
The big sarge with the snide expression and perpetually outward-pointed chin was one of those guys who reaches sergeant rank and thinks he’s the shit even though he’s been in the army long enough to be a general and has had to earn his way to that illustrious E-5 rank after losing his rank twice. There are not enough words to describe the incompetence and obnoxious personality of this pompous ass who carried himself with a ridiculous air of superiority, yet was the butt of every joke and impersonation the second his back was turned.
Mighty Team Leader tried to micromanage every aspect of every move everyone made due to a combination of power-hunger and the fact that he was so grossly inept at managing people and objects in his care. During pre-mobilization exercises at lovely Fort Dix, New Jersey, I was chewed out simply because I was on the same team as this guy, and he had lost a headspace and timing gauge for a .50 caliber automatic weapon. This cost our unit about $300 and Sgt. Nimrod tried to blame it on our supply sergeant, a meticulous, brilliant guy with an engineering degree who I can’t imagine ever doing a dishonest thing in his life. Look at the thing. That’s the spending your small-government GOP hawks think is worth every cent to, you know, protect ‘merica from terr’sts.
About a week into the deployment he gathered the team together to tell us that he was ordering us to eat breakfast with him every morning at 5:30 AM. We had to report to the office by 7, and breakfast was a nice time to get your bearings, have some quiet time to read, or to indulge in some chit-chat with your buddies before heading off to business. I politely pointed this out after Bilko made it seem like he wanted to hear my opinion on the matter. His response was to berate and belittle me with extreme sarcasm, something about how I “didn’t want to be on this team,” or some other inane prattle. I calmly and respectfully said, “Excuse me, sergeant, with all due respect, but you’re not listening to what I’m trying to share with you.” I was then told that I would do as he said, “BECAUSE I’M YOUR FUCKING TEAM LEADER! I’M YOUR FUCKING TEAM LEADER!”
As he moved closer to me in a more threatening manner with each profane outburst I stood my ground, stared him down, and told him flat out, “You do NOT need to get that close to me,” and I eventually told him, “Hey man, back off.” I’m not really sure what kind of protocol I broke or what kind of “insubordination” I was engaging in, but I didn’t care. I had zero respect for this guy, and in the civilian world, I definitely would have taken a swing at the cracker.
His ultimate mistake was challenging me to discuss my displeasure with his superior. With a tight-lipped smirk on my face I looked this chump in the eye and said, “Oh I plan to. You can bank on that.” Little did he realize that I was pretty tight with his higher-up who couldn’t stand him either. Schultz was fired the next day, given a crappy desk job that he hated for the rest of the deployment, and we never exchanged another word for ten months. He was replaced by a young sergeant with two Iraq deployments under his belt - a good guy that I still consider a friend and with whom I would eventually go on to have some fun experiences, including my first trip to Kabul (a story in and of itself.)
Jumping ahead in the chronology of events, I mentioned that the nightmare was just beginning with the logistics of watching over, maintaining, and moving forward with a project the size of the literacy program. Add to the fact that I was just a lowly, enlisted E-4 in the pecking order. In the army, all the really matters is your rank. You parade around like Hester Prynne wearing your little picture on your uniform so people can size you up and determine your worth as a human being.
People have asked me why I went into the army at all, let alone as an enlisted soldier and not as an officer. Joining the army at all was a decision based on a twisted combination of morbid curiosity, a sense of adventure, a calculated belief that military experience would pad the resume for certain career options, and a life-long stubborn need to have opinions about events and situations based on first-hand experience. I also recognized that I was a healthy single guy who could pull my weight and pitch in and “serve,” for however you want to define the concept. Maybe by taking the plunge into the whole military shindig I could free up someone who could go home and be with their kids instead of dodging IEDs in some far off land.
I’m not going to wax philosophically about broad and heated topics like nationalism, war, patriotism, or civic duty, (maybe later!) nor am I going to posture like some kind of hero simply because I voluntarily signed up to take a government job with a rifle. I find the blind adulation and worship of everyone who ever “put on the uniform” almost as tacky and annoying as the pseudo-dissident posturing against “the war machine” that you hear from phony hipster doofuses and 60’s hippie retreads.
People from every demographic and every type of background join the military for a very wide variety of reasons. Some do the job well and find their calling in a military uniform, others suck at it and are a drain on the system. Still others try it, do what they’re asked to do, chalk it up as an experience, and ultimately decide it’s not for them and move on to other things. I definitely fall into this last category.
I had a blue collar notion of doing it “the real way” and not just waltzing into a rank where battle hardened NCOs would have to call me “sir.” There seemed something too hierarchical and unjust in that for me. About two days into basic training and my working class hero act was proven to be a mistake. You could be a private with a master’s degree and it doesn’t mean shit - you still have to listen to what anyone above you tells you to do no matter how big of an idiot they are. Once some characters reach non-commissioned officer rank, you can almost watch the need for their hat to be let out three sizes right in front of you. There are a LOT of idiots in the army, but they’re not a fraction as bad as the ones who are convinced that they’re geniuses. I found the ones among the latter to be the most difficult to bear with any amount of patience. I’m seldom one to keep opinions to myself, so this deployment was truly a test of my strength and patience. Especially when the article was published.