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posted: 8/25/2010 12:01 AM

A Spartan existence at combat outpost

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By Lt. Matt Spartz

Editor's Note: Army Lt. Matt Spartz, a lifelong Lombard resident, was deployed to Afghanistan in May with the 101st Airborne Division. A 2008 journalism graduate of University of Illinois, he is submitting occasional reports for the Daily Herald.

Life on a combat outpost is a modern day Sparta. Far from the "flagpole," or larger bases with high ranking officers, daily life revolves around one maxim - training for battle.

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Without delving too deep into the existential, the similarities are pointed out by nearly every soldier who has experienced this warrior's haven.

A common misconception about the legendary "300" at Thermopylae is just that, that there were only 300 warriors. But each warrior had at least three supporters or future warriors with him to carry and service his gear, his food and his medical supplies. One of the books on our brigade's predeployment reading list was Steven Pressfield's "Gates of Fire," which beautifully illustrates the warrior culture of the Spartans and their stand at the Hot Gates. But I never expected the comparisons to our modern battlefield to run so true.

Despite the relatively small size of many outposts, the population is distinctly separated into warriors and their supporters. Like the Spartans, the warriors serve one purpose - to fight their fight. Whether that be standing watch in a guard tower, patrolling the long-forgotten mountain villages, or firing a howitzer cannon, every day's purpose is to increase the warrior's proficiency in his fighting tasks.

The supporters may be other soldiers, but they are mainly civilian contractors or local workers hired from nearby villages. There are Russian contractors who keep the water pumps and generators working, Indian contractors who clean the chow hall and bathrooms, and local Afghans who transport trash, build new buildings and help cook the food.

Like the Spartans, the warriors eat, sleep and train together. They wake up early and conduct missions in the dead of night. Their refrigerators are stocked with scientifically formulated Gatorade and protein shakes; their gear is made from sweat-wicking, flame-retardant material; their weapons allow them to see at night.

To local, rail-thin Afghans, we must seem like prototypical Spartans on steroids. We may complain that our Army rations compare to American prison food. But as a chaplain told me after traveling to many outposts in Afghanistan, "There are no small soldiers." The local workers' eyes grow wide with wonder when they enter our sacred temples filled with dumbbells and barbells. Their faces are filled with suspicion as to how pieces of forged iron could grow necks and arms so thick, while these warriors still climb their mountains so vigorously.

Every day the warrior stretches his legs to the rosy-fingered dawn; his food is hot, his laundry is ready to be picked up, and fresh ammunition is descending from heaven on fat, white helicopters. All of the supporters exist to ensure that when the enemy knocks at his door, the warrior's legs are strong, his fingers are as quick as his wits, and the lead is readily available.

There are parts of Afghanistan that I'm sure can be compared to the fight at Thermopylae (holding off insurgents before the evacuation and closing of the remote Combat Outpost Keating, for example). I'm sure more philosophical points can be made comparing the debate over the 2011 proposed draw down to the decision whether to fight the invading Persians (didn't they visit Afghanistan?).

But the daily, sweaty, dusty life of a Spartan existence at a combat outpost is fairly black and white: Come back with your shield, or on it.

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