I assume the watch at 9pm on May 22nd.
Brand and I pulled the van up to one of the roads leading to the front of the hospital. With flashlights and rifles we stop each vehicle to ensure that it is driven by a friendly and that it contains a legitimate patient for the docs to work their magic on. Half an hour prior to this a rocket hit the boardwalk, not 50 yards from our barracks. The round shook the walls and made my stomach turn.
Our hallway quickly filled with refugees seeking shelter from the rain of Chinese rockets, mortars and RPGs coming over the wire. The sirens blasted every few minutes until we had reached three rocket attacks in less than half an hour, an unprecedented amount in such a short time. As civilian’s and unfit soldiers cower in our hallway we hear the call, “Ground attack everyone! Mass Casualty. All hospital personnel prepare to move out.”
In the glow of the emergency lights I see Watkins throw on his flak. The sounds of Velcro ripping and rifles locked and loaded echo through the hall. I prepare mine with an extra magazine, a flashlight and my knife. I am not medical, I am logistics. I know my duty tonight will be security related.
As Brand and I stop cars and demand identification from drivers we notice the snipers on the roof across from us. At least someone has our back. Tactical vehicles pass with great speed on their way to vanquish the foes who are trying to breach the wire.
“I have to piss so bad.” Brand informs me. I tell him to go on the side of the van, no one will see or care. As soon as he finishes a Chief arrives to check on us.
“You boys need some water?” I can hardly understand his words beneath his deep southern accent, but I assume he has brought us water since there are three bottles in his hands and only one of him. The water is hot but it serves a purpose. We start to lay out our check point procedures to chief when the rocket siren blares again. We dive onto the gravel road and I find myself staring straight into Brand’s face. We have both eaten dirt a couple of times tonight but he seems concerned.
“You alright?” I ask.
He whispers, “I’m fine…but I think chief just dropped in my pee puddle.”
After a few hours of yelling at people for trying to drive up our road we are relieved. They tell us to head back to the quarterdeck and we can go home. Sleep sounds nice.
3 am. The road from the flight line to the hospital is pitch black. The only light comes from the fighting taking place a mile from where I stand. Every so often a flare goes up and shots ring out as the Force Protection fights back the threat to the main gate of our base. I am alone out here, there is no one else to guard this entry point. I am certain that I see movement across the flight line and that before daylight breaks I will kill a man with my rifle if it means getting home alive to my family. My eyes strain to make out the terrain. I’ve never seen this area in the daylight, now I must guard it in the dark. I think I see a trench 5 yards in front of me. If someone tries to breach my guard station I will jump down there for cover.
My flak jacket is heavy. The weight increases every minute I stand there. My rifle is fully locked and loaded and I pray for accuracy when the time comes as I desperately try to remember when I cleaned it last. In training the weight of the armor gets heavier the longer you wear it. The first day it is pronounced to be 30 pounds of added weight. By week three it is called 50 pounds and by the time you leave Kuwait for Afghanistan someone will insist that you are wearing 75 pounds extra on your back.
I sit down to give my back a rest from the armor, almost immediately I start to fall asleep. I stand back up and continue to man my post. I can sleep sitting up if I am tired enough. I remember that now. In boot camp I could sleep while marching, sitting up is no great challenge.
There are eleven general orders of a sentry. They are pounded into your brain during boot camp. I can’t remember any of them now. “I will not quit my post until properly relieved.” Of all the orders to remember that had to be the one…
I am on my sixth hour on this four hour watch. I could have gone home, but they needed another guard and I was one of the few who had eaten before the attack. It felt wrong to make someone else stand out here.
Jets start to take off, their engines are deafening. Someone out there is about to get it bad. I see someone running at me, I stare through the blackness to try to make out the shape of this man (or men) who are about to try to breach my sector. This is more than I bargained for, but it is my job. I am ready to kill. I close my eyes and prepare for the impact of battle, preparing to dive into my trench of safety.
I open my eyes and there is no one. I start to stretch and walk around to get the blood flowing. If I fall asleep out here I will go straight to captain’s mast and rightfully so. My watch reads 5am. 8 hours standing in this body armor. Double the shift I was told I would stand. At least it is daylight now and people are starting to move about the base again. The threat has seemingly been held off for the night.
Apache helicopters are hovering around the mountains in the distance. Every so often one of them stops in mid air and blows a hole in the side of the mountain. The explosion is terrific. My knees are about to give out from the weight above and the rocks below.
Someone comes to check on me. I have been standing watch for 9 hours. They promise to find relief for me and disappear. Another sailor finds me and promises the same. When my watch has reached a total of 10 and a half hours I am approached by a third sailor who informs me that all watches were secured two hours ago.
I am told I may take the day off. I inform them that they couldn’t get me to stay at work if they tried. I look back at my trench of safety. It is filled with razor wire. I would have killed myself jumping into that thing.
Truly I am no warrior. I am a shore based sailor biding his time to the end of the contract. I will do what it takes to end this commitment with honor. Tonight was the hardest night of military duty in the last five years. Surely there will be more to come.
I am properly relieved.