On the Regarding War blog, soldiers, veterans, and journalists will share their stories from Afghanistan, Iraq and other war zones. It will feature personal stories and opinions from those who have first-hand knowledge of past and current conflicts. Those at home directly affected by a family member serving in the military will also contribute. The blog is meant to be a place where ideas are exchanged and experiences are related in an effort to gain a better understanding of the realities and effects of war. Share your thoughts, raise a question, and join the conversation by leaving comments on the posts.
My platoon sergeant and I stared at the map of our Area of Operations in our platoon tent. Our eyes were not fixated on points or grids. We were done with the planning process. We had already delved into our platoon's task and purpose, nested within the company's mission statement. Now, it was time to take a step back and look at the big picture.
"Wow, this looks like a giant clusterf---," I chuckled, trying to be at least mildly humorous.
"Well," Sfc. Nix responded calmly, "It is what it is." He nodded and returned to preparing his gear for the mission.
"It is what it is," I replied. These five words have become the catchphrase for our deployment as we attempt to draw some sense, some sort of explanation, for how "Higher" (the amorphous black box of Army brass that tells us what to do) comes up with its great ideas.
"Hey Brooks!" I yelled down the tent.
"Roger, Sir!" Spc. Brooks jumped sarcastically off his cot to a comical position of attention, nostalgic of a rag-tag soldier from a MASH episode. His lips quivered as he did everything he could to avoid cracking a smile.
"Get me the President on the phone, NOW!"
"Roger, Sir! I'm on it!"
I'm not sure if I mentioned it to my readers yet, but my platoon has a direct phone line to the President of the United States in our tent on FOB Ramrod. Yep, we sure do. The phone is a bulky black touchtone that was probably purchased before I was even born. It's quite possibly the most random thing Brooks could have received in his most recent care package from home, but we decided to make good use of it anyways.
The phone rests on a wooden shelf in the middle of our tent. Two 10-inch straps of duct-tape hold a DNC campaign photo of Barack Obama on the wall next to it. In the top left-hand corner of the photo, scribbled with a black sharpie marker, are the words "Direct Line" with a giant arrow pointing to the phone from the President's protruding ears.
Brooks grabbed the phone viciously, feeling the weight of national security upon his shoulders. He dialed in his Super-Secret White House access code number. "Get me the President," he said in a dire tone, "It's Lieutenant Srinivasan calling for him!"
"Sir," Brooks looked up at me as he hurled the phone in my direction, "They're getting him for you right away, Sir." I stared at Brooks with a spy-movie look in my eyes as I held the receiver to my ear. The suspense was so thick, you could swim in it.
"This is Srinivasan," I began, "Okay Barack... listen man, I need you to talk to Stanley... Yes, I know he's been very busy, but I don't care, I need you to tell him to stop trying to impress me with these redonkulous powerpoint animated missions. It doesn't make it look any cooler."
I started waving my fist in the air (after all, it always comes down to the dramatics).
"Tell him to take the week off, get a drink, and relax a bit... I dunno, tell him to go see a movie or something... What? Say that again? There are no movie theaters in Afghanistan?! Dude, are you effing kidding me?!"
I flung my arms in the air, "Have that fixed pronto... Well, I don't care if healthcare is in shambles, we need a movie theater in Afghanistan now... C'mon, man, support the troops! Okay, good." I smiled at Brooks as he gave me an enthusiastic thumbs-up.
"Hey, thanks B-rock! You da man... yes... don't worry, I'll be there for your Christmas party. No, I'm not going to bring the keg this time... I don't know, Barack... Well, then just get Hilary to do it."
I covered the microphone with my free hand and whispered to Brooks, "God, POTUS just won't stop talking!"
Brooks just shook his head, "Typical." he chided.
"Wait!" I continued on the phone, "I almost forgot, the mess hall ran out of hot chocolate yesterday, and I really wanted some hot chocolate, dammit!" Brooks and I looked at each other and nodded in agreement.
"Barack, calm down. Hey, listen it's okay man, just don't let it happen again. Listen, calm down, stop crying... don't be so hard on yourself, really... no, you don't have to fire Bob, I'm sure he just got distracted... why? Cause he bought that new Wii for the Pentagon."
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw that Brooks was now sufficiently entertained and was ready to go back to whatever he was doing. It was time to pull the plug.
"Aright Bama, I gotta peace out. Sure, we can do our secret handshake over the phone... no, nobody is watching me, I swear!" I winked at Brooks and went through a random series of hand slapping motions, fist pounding, and gang signs. I would further describe my secret handshake with the President in more detail, but then it wouldn't be a secret anymore.
"You're a Barack-star! Peace out, homie." I hung up and tossed the phone back to Brooks. Like a precision machine, he caught the phone, placed it perfectly on the shelf where he found it, and returned to his hysterical position of attention. My face returned to its dead serious glare.
"Thanks Brooks. Mission Accomplished."
"Roger, Sir." Brooks flung himself back onto his cot.
I turned around, cracked a smile and started giggling to myself as I strolled back to my end of the tent. "I love my job."
Being a platoon leader is the easiest job in the Army when you have amazing soldiers like I do. I really don't do all that much. Some days, I wonder if these guys even need me! But after a dreary four months in Afghanistan, the Holiday season upon us, soldiers missing their families, and another eight months to go before we go home, platoon morale can get a little low.
The absolute best part of my job is being able to tear through a soldier's mid-tour rut, even if just for a moment. Sometimes it means having a fake phone conversation with our Commander-in-Chief about a keg party. Sometimes it means introducing Private Hoff to the wonders of a hot cup of organic green tea. Sometimes it means just having a normal conversation with Sgt. Coolie about his future in the Army. Being a platoon leader really is the easiest job in the Army — when you genuinely love the guys you work with.
After my theatric display with Brooks, I sat down on my cot and realized something. "I'm really going to miss this one day." I am going to miss being a platoon leader. I'm going to miss working with American heroes every day. Platoon Leader time in the Army only lasts for about 12-18 months. After that, an officer's career timeline usually puts him in a staff job before going to the Career Course and taking Company Command. Even as a commander, officers still don't spend all that much time with their soldiers. At that point, we join the "corporate army" with endless hours of meetings and briefings to bear. We become part of "Higher." It just doesn't get much better than what I have now.
As I sit with my soldiers for dinner on Thanksgiving evening, or open up Christmas care packages with them in the December cold, I'll try my best not to sulk around my men for missing my own family back home. Rather, I am resolving now to live in the moment; to find some holiday cheer in the company of the amazing men I live and serve with every day. Spending the holidays with my soldiers will, indeed, be a memorable time for me. We've already been through so much together, but as with all family units, the loyalty and affection we hold for each other often goes unexpressed in the chaos of adult life. Families use times like Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukah, Diwali, Kwanza, and New Year's as opportunities to reconnect with those people who mean the most to us. For my platoon, I hope it will serve the same purpose.
One day, I will look back upon these cold, bitter months in Afghanistan as the final weld in my Platoon's family bond. They may not be Mom, Dad, or Ranj, but my soldiers and NCOs are definitely the next closest thing. Besides my parents' home in Boston, there's nowhere else I'd rather be this holiday season. Only a handful of Americans will ever get the opportunity to bond with their countrymen in the torment of war. For every memorable moment missed at home, there is another memorable moment just waiting to be experienced here in Afghanistan. These are memories that few people will ever have the blessing of sharing, and ones I'll value for the rest of my life. It's memories like these that will keep me warm when my time comes — when I get transferred away from my platoon to the cold, dark staff offices in the black box of "Higher."
1st Lieutenant in the U.S. Army, served as a platoon leader in Kandahar, Afghanistan