Rockets Can Be Boring – Episode 1

August 2006

 I wrote this following my first experience with incoming, after being in country two weeks. It was all new …it’s tempting to completely re-write history, but I kind of enjoy the honesty of this account written while I was still green, well-rested, and reasonably careful.

Just after retreating into my trailer to sprawl on the bed in front of the A/C fan this evening, I’m interrupted by an explosion loud enough to shake the ground and trailers. Without thinking I roll off the bed, scrambling to grab my armor vest and Kevlar helmet (thirty-two lbs of steel plate in this heat – ug). I think, wait a minute; get a grip! I take a deep breath to apply a bit of reason to the situation. Assuming reason can be applied to rockets and mortars. Hm. 

Calmed down by some oxygen actually penetrating my brain, I cautiously sneak out the door and duck between the trailers, heading toward the nearest bunker. Another rocket explodes while I’m on my way, though with less ground concussion than the first. I have no idea where they actually land. The first rocket had set off a serious shot of adrenaline, but I have to admit that when the second lands I’m at least as interested in the richly layered sound it makes exploding than I am intent on getting to the bunker.

Possibly not an entirely normal reaction.

The bunker is a long narrow affair, a U-shaped concrete structure set with open side down and banked with sandbags. The inside measures perhaps ten meters long by one or one and a half meters wide. A wood bench runs along one wall, set low enough that heads won’t hit the ceiling when butts are seated on it. Concrete T-walls stand at the two ends of the bunker, about one meter out from the openings, placed to block the opening from stray shrapnel yet still allow us entry.

Eighteen people show up in this bunker tonight, many straggling in griping about being dragged out of their beds on a hot night. It’s still over 100F and today is humid, so we were all drenched in sweat within minutes. Some are wearing their body armor; some are dragging their body armor; some come without it.

The darkness is broken only by small red and blue LED flashlights, so faces are lost in the shadows. Being that I don’t know anyone but Anna Lee from Georgia (Administrative Assistant) and Jake (who arrived with me from Tallil), voices are disembodied. Remarks are largely meaningless to me, anyway, being new. Someone harasses Anna Lee for being so slow to reach the bunker and for not bothering to wear her armor, then bossily demands a pencil from someone else and starts jotting down our room numbers on a tablet as we call them out one at a time.

Bunkers are scattered all over camp, so when rockets or mortars come in we just run for the nearest. Each bunker is assigned a number. As we arrive, someone – Bossy Man, for instance – starts writing down a list of room numbers on a tablet to use for a head count report. The information is transmitted via radio to the security office. The reporting of all bunkers, one at a time, takes at least an hour and often two, although the rocket attack itself is generally over within a couple of minutes. If someone hasn’t been accounted for, we sit sweltering in the bunkers until the individual has been located.

Common reasons for ‘missing’ people:

1. being out of camp while records show the individual as present in camp

2. being in a bunker alone with no radio

3. sleeping through the rocket and siren.

In our bunker no one talks much while the radio roll call is being conducted. After fifteen minutes I slump low, allowing armor to ride up so I can rest my head against its stiffness, absent-mindedly tracking the radio chatter. For a few minutes as I sweat in the dark, Jake and I quietly discuss the general nonchalance of the people around us, wondering how explosions that rock camp could become mundane enough for some to sleep through.

I guess we’ll find out.

A disembodied voice in the bunker tells me that this is the first attack on base in ten days. The Brits have radar that hones in on the rockets, tracking them back to their source. Helicopters (helos) supposedly deploy immediately to destroy the source.

Brit PSD men later tell me that no one tracks back to the source to destroy anything. Defensive action is shackled by concerns of collateral damage and British Rules of Engagement (ROE).

One hour passes. We sit and sweat in silence. The concrete wall behind me radiates heat. The steel plates in my armor grow hot. Perspiration streams down my back, my stomach, soaking my shorts. Someone shifts and swears, setting off a brief cascade of quiet cussing from everyone.

arifjan bunker 2 -smAlmost two hours after the last rocket landed, security has finally accounted for all souls. By the time the siren sounds the all-clear signal, we are all soaking wet and terminally disgusted. It only takes one night like this to understand why people don’t hurry to the bunkers … rockets can be boring.

I wait my turn to shuffle out of the bunker, then wander back to my room where I strip and wring out my clothes in the shower.

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