Golden Mortars

Updated: Nov 4, 2020

The first time I heard the loud speaker shout out “INCOMING INCOMING” I nearly fell off the couch in the clinic where at least I thought I was enjoying a fairly peaceful meal.  This was my first IDF attack in Afghanistan. IDF stands for Indirect Fire, basically bad guys run around in villages outside of the base and indiscriminately launch mortar rounds towards all the shiny lights without much care for aim. Unfortunately they are a fairly common occurrence, but this was my first.

The grizzled veteran medic sitting next to me on the couch didn’t seem to adjust from his slumped position, and reassured me that the siren would shut itself up soon enough. Shortly after the initial alarm another alarm sounded recommending everyone to put on body armor and find shelter. Typically what is meant by shelter is going outside and hiding in one of the nearest concrete sandbag reinforced bunkers, and not the 2 inch plywood roof that we currently find ourselves under. “Shouldn’t we go to the bunker” I asked, “If you want to, it probably already hit anyway, if it’s your time, then it’s your time dude, just have to get used to that here”.  I sat there on the couch trying to accept my fate, waiting for the room to explode I did the only thing I knew how and made humor of the situation by grabbing a magazine, crouched on the ground and put it over my head like we used to do for tornado drills in elementary school.  The truth is that often times it’s too late when the sensors go off and the mortar, which is typically big enough to blow about a foot diameter hole in the ground and send shrapnel about 50m in every direction has already impacted somewhere, or missed the base completely. So, you learn to say Inshallah and if it's your time it's your time.

Several years back a guy was walking around base and a mortar struck him directly on the head, no amount of body armor was going to save him. In the flying world there is a similar metaphor of the “golden bee-bee” that represents the AK-47 round flying around the inside of the back of a large aircraft that the guy 5,000 feet below took a crap shot at. If the golden bee-bee hits you there was nothing you could have done about it. Similar I suppose to the drunk driver on the freeway, the freak lightning bolt, or the asteroid that falls on your head.  I think when you can define a said risk to a repeating tangible event it becomes far more pervasive to the psyche than say the seemingly intangible risks that we put ourselves though everyday in civilian life whose consequences can be equally as dire.

As nights turned into more nights and routine set in so did complacency with IDFs. The alarms would sound multiple times per week and always at the most inopportune times. We would either be stuck in the chow hall and not be allowed to leave until the all clear was called, or wanting to go to chow and not be allowed to leave. The part of the base I was on was all special ops and seemed to follow their own rules, but the rest of Bagram followed protocol like they were born to, unwavering, and unquestioning. Reflective belts on during the day!  Yes Sir! Never walk with your hands in your pockets! Yes, Sir! Always run to the nearest bunker when the alarms go off! Of course Sir! No, not us, maybe it was apathy, maybe stupidity, maybe knowing there was nothing you could really do about it, maybe a mix of everything, but IDFs just become inconvenient to my eating schedule.

One time we were stuck in the chow hall sitting there for 30 minutes waiting for the all clear to be called, we needed to get back to open clinic and collectively said screw it and started walking to the car. As we passed a bunker full of people on the way to the parking lot a puff chested Army Colonel steps out of the bunker and proclaims to us “Hey! Get in here! Don’t you know we’re under attack!” As we sat in this dark bunker choking on the smell of exhaust from the jackass that left his truck running next to a closed off bunker I couldn’t help but think the only person that attacked me was this Colonel that’s clearly trying to asphyxiate me.

I think anyone that stays on a large military base that’s frequently attacked will eventually develop some degree of complacency. However, if you stay on that base long enough the “golden bee-bee” will inevitably make itself known to you and all doubts of seriousness will be cast aside when you become closely familiar with the term “overpressure” and gain an appreciation for the chaotic ballistics of shrapnel…to be continued…

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