Every Time I Think…Old Blue | Monday, February 20th, 2012 | 5 Comments »
… that I’ve seen everything, Afghanistan surprises me again. Today is the worst day, weather-wise, that I’ve ever seen in Afghanistan. On my first tour, it rained on me a grand total of six times. On my second tour, which was 15 months long, it rained enough to surprise me. I even got rained on several times in Helmand. I think it has rained about 50% of the time that I’ve been here this time. Before yesterday, we had several nice, dry days. A couple of them would qualify for beautiful days.
Yesterday, all that came to a needle-across-the-record stop. The morning was warm. I was actually over-dressed a little while I was over working with the Afghans. In the Chief of Staff’s office, I shed my jacket because I was actually sweating. Later in the afternoon, it started to rain. It has rained steadily since.
The weather reports say that some areas are getting hammered with snow, but here it is cold and rainy. It is a soaking rain. Today is the first day that I have ever covered myself in Gore-Tex from head to toe in Afghanistan. I’ve never seen so much precipitation in Afghanistan. This is probably a good thing overall, because Afghanistan has suffered from persistent drought for well over a decade. Perhaps that is changing, and that would be a good thing for the long term.
For today, it sucks. Gore-Tex is my best friend. I really have to thank Al Gore for that stuff which, judging by the name, he must have invented along with the internet. What an awesome dude. Kinda like Stephen Hawking without the wheelchair and the robotic voice. Except that the robotic voice would make him more interesting to listen to. Still, Gore-Tex is some really great stuff.
The day before yesterday held a new surprise for me as well.
Over the years, we have changed the way that we travel in Afghanistan. In the early years of the mission, American advisors often traveled in Ford Ranger pickup trucks. By the time I first arrived in ’07, we usually traveled in armored Humvees. During that year, the armor on the Humvees got heavier. By the time I was leaving, the first MRAP’s were arriving in theater. Most of them were going to the Route Clearance Packages that sought out IED’s, hoping to find them and render them safe before they got a chance to kill anyone. By the time I arrived again in ’09, Humvees were restricted to the FOB’s, having been deemed unsafe for road travel in Afghanistan. The great lumbering ugly MRAP’s had become painfully ubiquitous; rolling FOB’s.
Humvees work great against bullets, and it took a straight-on hit from an RPG to penetrate one. But the bottoms were flat, and when a large explosion goes off directly beneath one, it doesn’t manage that energy well. As they added more armor to the Humvee, it became more and more top-heavy. The armored turret especially contributed to raising the center of gravity. Rollovers became more of a problem. MRAP is a catchall name given to a whole set of vehicles that share the same qualities; they are slow, freakin’ huge, very ugly and they are very top-heavy due to the high ground clearance enhanced by the armored crew compartment that has a “V”-shaped bottom which helps deflect the energy of a blast. This feature makes it sit even higher. The vehicle itself can be blown apart, and the crew stand a pretty good chance of surviving.
They will, however, get their bells rung.
Rollovers are an all-too-often occurrence with the MRAP’s, and one of the most potentially deadly things that can happen to soldiers as they make their way across Afghanistan in these mechanical elephants. This is such a problem that there is a tilt guage right up front between the driver and the TC, so that they can tell if a sideslope is too dangerous to traverse. Rolling over in armored vehicles is such a danger that, starting with the Humvee, training in rollover simulators is mandatory. We have all been rolled around in giant MRAP hulls-on-a-spit in Mississippi, Manas and even here at Marmal. It’s that big a deal.
Yes, all of this is prelude to a story…
MeS can be very smoggy, especially in the morning, and Saturday was a very smoggy day. As we rumbled into the outskirts of MeS, everything was going smoothly. The radio traffic was precise, businesslike and succinct. Each situation was handled with aplomb and tactical patience. The convoy was as professional as any I’ve seen. MeS was… MeS on an Afghan morning, with Afghans doing ordinary things in their Afghan way. Zarang carts, three-wheeled creatures constructed around a motorcycle, tooled along the street, loaded with passengers.
A few cars and trucks made their way about. A smattering of pedestrians went about the daily business of their lives. We were part of the morning flow, nothing especially strange.
Our place of work sits away from the city a bit, a newer facility on the outskirts of town. The road that leads there is well-beaten and unpaved. It had been a couple days since it had rained, but the areas off of the road were still quite soft and muddy as a result of all the rain and snow that the area had been subjected to. As we moved towards our destination, several ABP Rangers came at intervals, zipping up the left side of the convoy as we lumbered slowly along. We stayed a little to the right in order to give them room to pass.
I was commanding the second vehicle in the order of march. The young driver, PV2 Rogers*, had been doing well all morning. He had been carefully picking his lines on the unpaved roads, making his way, gingerly at times, among the civilian traffic in a monstrous vehicle that it can be difficult to know where its boundaries are. At this point, he chose a line that was very close to the edge of a ditch on the right side of the road.
“Watch your right,” I said into the headset microphone. ”Watch your right.” My tone was conversational. No need to shout. He heard me just as well as any other time I had spoken to him that morning. He just thought he knew what he was doing.
We were right at the edge of the road, and he was continuing along his chosen line. “Watch your right,” I repeated. At that moment, I could feel the right front tire begin to sink as the vehicle simultaneously pitched forward and rolled to the right.
We were nearing the point at which the vehicle would not stop moving until it rested on its side and expended its energy against the soft Afghan mud.
“Rollover, rollover; Gunner, get down,” I announced. I turned my head and saw that SGT Yurzak**, the gunner, had already dropped down. LTC Deacon already had a grip on his harness. Gunners are the ones most often killed in rollover incidents because they can be ejected and/or crushed as the behemoth slams over on its side in a deceptively slow-looking fall. The two had executed the rollover drill flawlessly. The vehicle continued its inexorable roll and each individual braced for what we were pretty sure would suck.
We stopped rolling and we stopped rolling over. At a very uncomfortable angle, we just stopped. Small items that hadn’t been strapped down and had become mobile settled at the lowest point they could find. I snatched up my coffee cup, too late to save any of the precious fluid.
“Everyone okay?” I asked over the headphones. Three affirmatives. I called over the radio to report that we were all okay.
My head turned to the left and I fixed Rogers in a baleful gaze. Hands still grasping the wheel, he was surveying his tilted world. He must have felt my stare; his head rotated slowly towards mine, a sheepish look in his eyes.
“You’ve spilled my macchiato,” I told him in a mock French accent***. His eyes relaxed a bit and the corners of his mouth hinted upwards.
“Yes, Master Sergeant. Sorry about that.”
“Good job keeping this upright. If you had steered left after it started, we would have gone all the way,” I said as we hung sideways in our harnesses.
“Yeah, I knew that I had to keep the wheels the same direction we were going, and I hung on to keep ‘em there,” he explained.
“Well, good job, Roy,” I applauded. LTC Deacon lauded Rogers from the back of the vehicle. “I bet you listen to me next time I tell you to watch your right though, huh? ’Cause we didn’t really need to do this.”
“Yes, Master Sergeant.”
SSG Pick was already out and looking at the vehicle from the outside, making sure we could get the ramp down without destabilizing the vehicle. Once he was satisfied, the we dropped the ramp and everyone exited. I was last in an ungainly crawl over the gunner’s pedestal. The convoy, only a couple of hundred meters short of our objective, had a new project. The beast was well and truly stuck; but it was not a rollover.
Determining that if we tried to self-recover, we would likely make it worse and actually roll the vehicle and that time was not a factor, we called for recovery assets and walked the rest of the way to work.
*You know the drill; names have been changed to protect the innocent. No matter how much they try to act like they’re not, PV2′s are, in fact, innocent. They are actively working to corrupt themselves, but they are still innocent.
**Also not his real name. He acts very innocent. Not sure I want to know the truth.
*** Don’t tell me you haven’t seen Talladega Nights; the Legend of Ricky Bobby!