Lombard soldier's intro to war: 10% violence, 90% excruciating boredom
Editor's Note: Army Lt. Matt Spartz, a lifelong Lombard resident, is a 2008 journalism graduate at University of Illinois. He recently was deployed to Afghanistan with the 101st Airborne Division. From there, he will be submitting occasional reports for the Daily Herald.
When the suicide bomber and squad of reported Taliban dressed in U.S. Army uniforms used grenades to breach the gate at Bagram Air Field, Afghanistan, the morning of May 19, my eyes shot open. I pulled one ear out behind my Bose headphones and listened intently, as if my hearing could zoom in like a sniper scope through the thick silence and pick out the specific noise.
After a year of firing more than 2,000 artillery rounds as a fire direction officer at Ft. Campbell, Ky, and multiple combined live fire exercises with our infantry units, I was used to the low thud of indirect fire. But now that I was in Afghanistan, something didn't feel right about the crunching bass booming so close.
I put the headphones back on and closed my eyes. There was another thud. Then some indistinguishable noise. I slowly opened my eyes this time and looked around the half football field-sized tent with aluminum-framed bunk beds stacked 28 deep, seven wide, with barely 18 inches in between. The sun had yet to crest the jagged mountain peaks that surround the base like a bowl. No one stirred.
At this point I figured some shipping containers were being moved across the base, or someone was getting in some early morning training. Only later would I learn that a group of Taliban on a suicide mission would almost get passed U.S.-trained snipers, wounding nine Americans in the process.
Once the official reports got to the tent where more than 300 other soldiers and I were staying, the collective blood pressure rose. Laptops closed, boots were tied, and magazines of ammunition were passed out.
The only problem was the 68 soldiers in my unit had a collective 12 rounds. The other units weren't much better off.
A few captains in the tent came up with a hasty plan to pull security around our tent with the combined firepower we had until more information came our way. A group of soldiers were given three rounds a piece and sent to the corners of the concrete slab of our domed tent.
We hurried to our positions, and then we waited. And waited.
A few privates carved tic-tac-toe in the dirt. Others sat at a picnic table in their T-shirts and smoked nonchalantly. The sun was hot and a quick wind blew wispy dark clouds from the north over the snow-capped ridgeline.
Soldiers joked about having to stand guard in buddy teams in order to have enough fire power to take out the enemy.
The next tent over was the local national living quarters, which was a diverse as any Chicago neighborhood. But now anyone not in uniform looked suspicious. Their darting looks and the way they walked around any group of soldiers gave away their new uneasiness with our heightened status.
An hour or so passed by. My stomach growled at the noon sun boasting above. I dreaded the thought of the dining facility staying closed more than the actual threat of a suicide bomber sprinting across the street in front of me, past the 12-foot concrete blast barriers, and taking me with him to meet Allah.
Slowly, more buses appeared on the road; the Kiowa and Apache helicopters were no longer buzzing in circles, and we got the word that we were "all clear."
Luckily, I thought, it was the middle of the night in the states and no one knows that I'm in the middle of CNN's breaking news. Then I realized that this was my initiation with the real war, and that it fulfilled the stereotype many people experience -- war is 10 percent horrible, frightening violence and 90 percent horrible, excruciating boredom.