by Andre Rembert
I woke up to some bastard on a forklift dropping a metal container. There was the boom and I was awake. Probably the garbage guy. Damn thing shook the entire hut. Except then I heard popcorn popping. And that made no sense, until I realized it was gunfire and the boom was an explosion and not someone dropping a dumpster.
I threw on my helmet and bulletproof vest and emerged from my B-hut into the early morning on Camp Phoenix, a FOB on the outskirts of Kabul. The gunfire was louder, but still distant, and from what I could tell, seemed to be in the direction of the front gate, about two hundred yards away, though, thankfully, there were buildings between me and it.
If we get mortared or rocketed, they have large concrete structures, shaped like five feet tall upside-down U corridors to hunker in. I sure as hell wasn’t going to get in one on a ground attack. If whoever was attacking the front gate managed to get in and found us all huddled up in there, it would be a barrel shoot.
I started over to my office, in another B-hut not one hundred feet away in the other direction. Surprisingly, I saw some soldiers with the same uncertain-what-to-make-of-any-of-this looks on their faces that I had. They seemed to not know if they should keep on doing what they were doing and let the gate guards handle it or if they should run to the front gate to go shoot or be shot. Whenever I made eye contact with them, I shrugged and kept moving. They shrugged back and kept moving too.
B-huts are made out of plywood, so being inside wasn’t going to keep me safe. But if bad guys got on the base, nowhere was going to be safe anyway. After I got to my office, I wedged my desk against the door because the door had no lock, and got on my computer. Well, first I called my boss, who was three doors down and asked him if he knew what was happening, but he said he was about to call to ask me the same thing.
The world has changed since I was in Iraq as a soldier nearly half-a-decade ago. We had the internet then, but nothing like now. Then, they shut the internet down at the drop of a hat; here, that’s inconceivable. Everyone here has cellphones and data plans and internet that they buy from local companies, even though we’re fairly certain that the local companies sell data and info to the Pakistanis and Iranians.
So I went on the computer and went to cnn.com and sure enough, I found a report, using a source with NATO in Kabul, saying that two to four men had thrown grenades at a gate and driven away. Of course, I was still hearing gunfire and I know what grenades sound like, and that sure as hell was bigger than a grenade. Probably a veebid. I hit refresh every few minutes and then checked other news sites, but they all were using the same source, though the updated story said that there was a first car that threw grenades and then a second car that drove up and guys got out and started shooting.
Eventually, the popcorn sounds stopped and I used the phone to call my buddy, Big Ern. Big Ern is the king of the firefighters. Here, firefighting is done by the military, but the company hires civilian firefighters to be fire-safety/prevention officers and so they go and check fire extinguishers to make sure they’re not expired and to make sure that people aren’t plugging everything they own into individual sockets. Because of that, everyone knows the firefighters and, thus, Big Ern. He’s the unofficial mayor of the base.
Everyone also knows Big Ern because he’s 6’3”, 280lbs, bald as a cue ball, and has a thick red beard and blue eyes. He looks like if Plato conjured up an Irish Giant. He’s also one of the nicest guys ever.
“Any idea what’s going on?”
“C’mon over to my container! A few of us are talking about it.”
His container was not far away, so I started over there and then I heard the popcorn start back up. I wasn’t quite to them, but I could see Big Ern and a couple of guys were standing out front of his container and they weren’t wearing their vests or helmets.
“Didn’t take you for a pussy, Bobby,” he hollered and laughed.
“Ha! ‘A pussy!’” his buddy Tony laughed.
The two other fire fighters, Chris and Don, just looked at me.
“I’d rather look like a pussy than catch a stray that could have been prevented by looking like a pussy,” I offered.
“You keep your damn logic,” Big Ern laughed.
Then a stray round ricocheted off of a building next to us and they all dove into Big Ern’s container and I ran back to my office. I went back in and wedged the door shut again.
Once the popcorn had stopped and stayed stopped for an hour, I made my way back to Big Ern’s. He and Chris and Don were all wedged in on the couch that he’d crammed in there, next to his desk. I didn’t see Tony anywhere.
I was still wearing the helmet and vest, until I got in the container, but they didn’t bust my balls about it again.
“Wondered when we’d see you again,” he smiled.
“Figured I’d wait to make sure it was over this time,” I answered. “You got any idea what happened?”
“Actually, we just got back here. We went to find out.”
Don, a mousey little guy from Massachusetts, spoke up first, “Talked to one of the gate guards. Said that an SUV drove up to the front gate like it made a wrong turn, but then all four passengers and the driver got out; then the front passenger ran towards the gate and detonated a vest and the others dove behind the SUV before, eventually, two of the other guys managed to run away and the one that was left blew up his own vest. They’re cleaning up body parts now.”
“Naw,” countered Chris, a Good Ole Boy from Alabama, “I talked to the captain of the guard and he said that there were two SUVs. The first one drove in the entrance lane like it had made the wrong turn and the driver was raising his hands like ‘What do I do?’ to the guards, and then behind him, another SUV tried to gun it and drive through the exit lane, but our guys opened fire and that SUV detonated. Then the three guys in the first SUV threw grenades at the gate, but then our guys in the towers started lighting them up and pinned them down, and, eventually, they shot them. The captain was complaining that it took thousands of rounds to kill three guys.”
“Y’all are either bullshitters or you’re talking to bullshitters,” Big Ern laughed. “Because that’s not what happened at all. I talked to the base commander and there was one SUV and it tried to run the gate and detonated, and when our guys went out to check the mess, that’s when a team of fighters started shooting at the front gate from buildings across the road and they tried to mount an assault, but our guys were able to kill them before they made it across the road.”
“I’m not a bullshitter,” Chris complained. “What the hell would the base commander know? He wasn’t up there. I talked to the guy who was up there.”
“No you didn’t,” Don countered, “The guy you talked to wasn’t the one actually firing at the guys who was at the gate. That’s who I was talking to.”
“Yeah, but you said there were two explosions and I only heard one,” I said.
Don got defensive.
“I heard two!”
“I heard one,” said Big Ern.
“I can’t recall,” said Chris.
“Internet said it was grenades before,” I offered. “Big Ern, what’s cnn.com say now?”
He went over to his desk and looked on his computer it took him a moment to find the article and read through.
“It says there was a complex attack where two suicide bombers detonated and then were followed by fifteen to twenty attackers in full combat gear.”
“I don’t know which one of you is right,” I interjected. “But that’s definitely bullshit.”
“So, at the end of all this, do we have any idea what happened?” I wondered aloud.
Big Ern was just taking his cup of coffee out of the Keurig machine that he had on his desk. He smiled, and with a twinkle in his eye, he said, “Yeah, we know. Fuck them; they’re dead. That’s what happened.”