TDY

Sorry for the long delay in posting anything, but sometimes life gets in the way of self-indulgent hobbies, which if you’re reading this you most likely understand. We hope you enjoy.

Disclaimer: nothing in this post reflects the views of the Department of Defense, the Army, the Marines, etc. This is the personal opinion of the writer.

Some of my soldiers are going to the bar tonight. I am not. It’s a weeknight. All I can think about is the war I’m missing, the war before, and my wife at home. I’m not in the mood, so I’ll sit here in my room and watch television. We are deployed.

Here in Qatar you’re allowed three drinks a day, every day. There are two bars to choose from: a sports bar and a lounge. The lounge is closer to our dorms, so we go there most often.

I say dorms instead of barracks, or any of the other Army terms I could use, because they truly are dormitories, like at the nice college your parents paid too much to send you to. You share a full kitchen and bathroom with your roommate, if you’re unlucky enough to have one, and the room next door. If you get lucky like me, you could have the whole suite to yourself for months.

The troops call the sports bar “The Fox” because Fox Sports sponsors it. I don’t know what the bar’s real name is. I also didn’t know until I arrived in Qatar that deployed locations with hostile fire pay had sports bars with major corporate sponsorship. A large defense company you have probably heard of has the contract to staff The Fox. I wonder what their personnel in Afghanistan or Iraq think when they find out their company has employees in Qatar whose only job is to tend bar.

Outside the Fox is a large, covered stage and seating area whose purchase was probably justified as a way for senior officers to safely address their troops in the desert sun. What it is mostly used for is concerts. The USO-sponsored concerts are by one-hit wonders you listened to in high school, like Papa Roach and Stabbing Westward. The bands get to support the troops but don’t have to actually go in harm’s way. Sounds like a sweet deal to me.

Other times the concerts are by a band comprised of Airmen stationed here. They play classic and modern rock. They’re pretty good. I wonder about the kind of war that allows a trooper to bring a full drum kit halfway around the world.

The lounge is called “The Kasbah.” It has a quiet side with pool tables and plush couches, and a louder, clubbier side with more pool tables and a disco ball. The disco ball side hosts events like karaoke night, 80’s night, country night, etc. You get the idea. The guys from the unit mostly stick to the quiet side so they can watch sports or just chat. I prefer the quiet side, when I go.

When the DOD tried to cut hostile fire pay for non-combat deployed locations, like Qatar, many servicemen got upset. They had grown used to the extra money and weren’t they sacrificing too, away from home and their families like the troops in Iraq and Afghanistan? Although there is already a specific entitlement pay for family separation, Congress made the DOD to back off. Now the hostile fire pay in these safe locations is prorated so it is less than in Afghanistan, but it’s still something.

It’s easy to support the troops as long as it’s only a little bit of money. There is no hostile fire. One sergeant did die at the brand new gym with the Olympic-sized indoor pool, sauna, two weight rooms, two cardio rooms, CrossFit ™ room and four full-sized indoor basketball courts, but it turns out he was old, overweight and had heart problems. Qatar is too hot for old, fat people with heart problems.

Doha, the Qatari capital, is only a 30-minute drive from the base. We can go there anytime we want as long as we have a driver who has been to the special driving course and a Colonel-or-above’s signature. They don’t serve alcohol in most of Qatar because of Islamic law, but if you go to one of the five-star hotels downtown you can get a drink.

I went to Doha once. We had delicious Middle Eastern cuisine at a restaurant run entirely by Filipino guest workers. They were lucky – they could have been the Pakistani indentured servants dying in the 120-degree heat building the stadiums for the 2022 World Cup, while the construction company held their passports, preventing them from going home to help their families recover from the devastating floods.

The Taliban has an office in Doha. It is around the corner from the U.S. Army base there; you can see it when you drive in the gate. The Qataris have been very helpful in facilitating American and Taliban dialogue, as they did in the release of Bowe Bergdahl. Even with the Taliban there, we can go to Doha. We don’t have weapons, body armor, or tactical vehicles because there is no hostile fire, but we get extra pay for it anyway.

Some of my soldiers went to a beach party at the Qatari Minister of Defense’s house. He throws this bash every year for American servicemen stationed in his country. There were coolers of beer, grilled camel meat, falafel and all the other delicious Middle Eastern foods you can think of, laid out buffet-style. They got to race four-wheelers, swim, take dune buggy trips along the coast and shoot traps over the Persian Gulf. Sgt. Tobin crashed a four-wheeler and got some nasty road (beach?) rash. He better heal quickly because he has to go to Afghanistan soon. All this fun is starting to affect my mission. This is not a consideration I thought I’d ever have to worry about in the Army, certainly not while deployed.

My unit’s mission is in Afghanistan, but because the President reduced the total number of troops allowed there and we didn’t make the cut, we were sent to Qatar instead. We conduct temporary duty, or TDY, into Afghanistan. We are allowed six months of TDY in Afghanistan over our nine-month deployment. I feel like this defeats the purpose of a troop limit. I did 30 days of TDY in Afghanistan when we first got here to ensure a smooth transition with the outgoing unit. Soldiers who I am responsible for are in Afghanistan now and I won’t be going back for another month. I am not happy about this – the Army always told me to lead from the front.

I’m sure they will be fine.

In Afghanistan, my soldiers go on missions outside the wire. They have to wear special Kevlar underwear and groin armor so if they step on an IED their genitals have a chance of surviving. I have that equipment as well, but I haven’t had to use it yet. I wonder how many soldiers and marines lost their genitalia to IEDs before the military developed Kevlar underwear. This line of thought is not conducive to maintaining a high level of motivation.

We are part of Operation Enduring Freedom, or OEF, the official name for U.S. operations in Afghanistan. For a third of our deployment we will support OEF from Qatar, a country that uses slave labor to build stadiums for a worldwide sports cabal. We use the word “freedom” in a lot of our official operation names because who is against freedom, besides our allies?

I fought in Operation Iraqi Freedom as well. Sometimes I find myself thinking about Jon and Greg and how they didn’t come back with us. I wonder if Iraqi freedom was worth it. I think about Sgt. Destin, who had a good friend get stabbed in the neck in Kabul. He died. Someone rode up next to him on a motorcycle and stabbed him while he was trying to help clear a traffic jam. He had a wife and children. I wonder if they think enduring freedom is worth not having their dad. Sgt. Destin tries not to let it show that his friend’s death affects him, but I can tell it does. I’ll have to watch out for him.

I think about how if the armored SUV didn’t break down halfway to Kabul, I would have been standing next to that general when he was shot and killed by an Afghan soldier, one of our allies.  Some of the soldiers wounded in that attack are my friends, if you can consider someone a friend if you’ve only known them for a few hours, but you watched each other’s backs outside the wire. I do. I think about how that mission to Kabul wasn’t my mission, but I went because the patrol leader is a friend and knew I wanted to leave the base if I could, so he got me a seat. I think about how I was disappointed I wasn’t there because my friends needed me and I wanted some action, but also how I was relieved for the same reason. I haven’t figured out yet how to work through that one.

I think about the first base we had in Iraq. It was a small elementary school that we took over and made into an Army base. We didn’t have running water. To get in a workout we used rusty free weights under the desert sky. The rats could somehow get into my thick plastic bin of packaged foods, even though it had a heavy board on top. They even chewed up every single pouch of Beechnut tobacco I had. We bathed using one-liter water bottles, because the Iraqi soldiers we shared the base with would steal the water from the gravity shower’s tank at night.

During the winter, at another base, we had a shower trailer with hot water. I once caught an Iraqi policeman from our base draining the hot water from the tank. This was an ongoing hygiene issue; some days we did not have any hot water for showers. I pointed my pistol at him and knocked the pan out of his hand, then stomped it in. I called him “faggot” and “nigger” in Arabic as I chased him off. Those are some of the only Arabic words I still remember.

In Qatar, there are no rats. We have all the water we need, enough to fill indoor swimming pools. None of the Qataris even come to our side of the base, let alone steal our water. This gym is better than the one at our base back home in America. No children had to stop going to school so we could live here.

I sit in my classy, brand-new dorm room with free (to me) Wi-Fi, free cable and a full kitchen and try to stay motivated. It’s hard to do. When I speak to my wife I try to make it seem that I am busy and contributing to the mission, but I do not lie. She would see through any lies. This isn’t her first war either. We were married while I was in Iraq. She knows the deal, even if she doesn’t quite understand why I would want to be in Afghanistan instead of on a taxpayer-funded vacation in Qatar.

My soldiers in Afghanistan live in large, long, wooden shacks divided into six rooms each, called “b-huts.” I used to know the difference between the types of huts the Army makes, a, b and c, but I have forgotten. I have a b-hut room in Afghanistan, waiting for me to return. It’s not too bad. The worst part is that since they are wood, when the Taliban shoots rockets at our base we are not safe, so we have to run outside into a bunker. This happens in the middle of the night once or twice a week. They are terrible shots, thankfully, and rarely hit anyone. Sometimes the rockets explode close enough we can feel the ground shake. It’s exhilarating.

I miss the b-hut and rockets, my soldiers, the guns on my hip and across my chest, the pain in my shoulders and back from the body armor. I miss the way my helmet rubs my forehead raw when I’ve had it on too long. I miss all the little hardships I never thought I would when I came back from Iraq. Those little hardships are what lets you know you are a soldier doing your job, in a war.

Unlike the hardships in Qatar, the greatest of which is a three-drink minimum doesn’t give you much opportunity for getting drunk, the hardships in a combat zone make you feel alive, like you’re part of something greater. Even the little ones add to the sense of shared sacrifice and brotherhood. In Qatar it gets so hot in the summer some of the other soldiers in our office carpool to the dining facility that is only a half-mile away. I don’t feel a shared sacrifice with them.

I miss my wife. I resent that I was pulled out of my civilian life and away from her for a year to sit here in Qatar, where there is no war. At least in Afghanistan there is a war that ostensibly needs to be fought in which I can make a small contribution. Even though my time in Afghanistan will be far greater than my time in Qatar, I am still resentful. I am a soldier – I didn’t join the Army after 9/11 to deploy to safe resort countries, to visit Doha and ride dune buggies at a Defense Minister’s palatial estate. Let the Air Force do that. I don’t hold that stuff against them. In fact, I think it’s great. Good for them. It’s just not for me.

Nope, I joined up to fight. Never mind that I left active duty and the infantry behind more than four years ago, and that I joined the reserves so I could avoid getting called up for an involuntary deployment. Never mind that I switched from infantry to support because there are no infantry units in the Army Reserve, and the only reason I am in command of a deployed reserve unit, let alone in the reserves at all, is because I transferred my GI Bill to my wife and incurred four more years of service. Never mind all that, because I cannot let go of what made me want to join the infantry after 9/11 in the first place, which is that I wanted to fight in a war.

And I did fight in a war, in Iraq, during the famous Surge even. I left active duty after that war because I never wanted to go back to war and leave my wife. It was all too hard, not to mention the terrible leadership I fell under in Iraq – I never wanted to take that chance again. But here I am, almost five years later, in Qatar, under leadership who don’t give a shit about me or my troops, leadership who I have never even met, pissed off because I can’t spend the entire deployment in Afghanistan, fighting a war.

I joined the Army during wartime because I had something to prove to myself. I wanted to know if I had what it takes to be an infantry officer in a war, leading troops on the front lines doing the most dangerous job the Army has to offer. And I think I did that, successfully enough to not get relieved or dishonorably discharged, successfully enough that I’m still friends with the troops I led.

I had my war. Not nearly as much war as some, and more war than others, but you cannot choose where they send you or how much action you will see. You cannot choose if it’s the type of action where the worst result is a cool story, or if it’s action that leaves you forever scarred. Or maybe no action at all. I accepted that years ago. So why can’t I just enjoy my free vacation?

-Dennis Hatherly

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