Best of Freshman Writing
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PSU – Hazleton
A Year in the Sandbox
Arriving in Afghanistan on August 31, 2009, I was introduced to a small airbase that would be my home for the next year; however, I was amazed that there was nothing actually there other than the airstrip and airport. We soon learned it was also our job to build the base we would be inhabiting and working on. I spent the first two weeks lifting heavy roof trusses into place and assembling small buildings with no knowledge of carpentry whatsoever. One way or another those buildings managed to stay together the entire year we were there.
After finishing our small base, which would soon double in size and personnel, I was sent to another small base in the very center of Kabul. I was handpicked to be a Personnel Security Detachment Specialist due to my combat training as a combat engineer. I would be tasked with the trust and care of numerous multinational VIPs, to include several generals, and to transport them throughout the capital and surrounding region. We were not given normal military vehicles for this, as we were expected to “blend in” with the local surroundings, so we were given Toyota Land cruisers and Chevy Suburbans. Initially it seemed fairly safe, although the roads were chaotic as Afghans have no traffic laws. Then on my third day of driving, as I was preparing to drive out the gate, I realized I had forgotten to change the batteries on my radio; when I came out and prepared to leave, a car bomb went off maybe 50 meters away on the other side of the security wall. The wall stopped the bomb from injuring or killing us directly, but it didn’t stop the rain of car parts and junk from falling down as we ran for cover alongside the building, as automatic gunfire rang out behind us. We were unsure who was even shooting at whom. That day was my realization that Kabul, although the capital, was nowhere near as safe as we were originally told.
Over the next several months, and even through several close calls, we fell into a sense of normalcy, however. I was moved back to the edge of the city on the airport, which was almost unrecognizable from how I had left it just three months ago. My squad would wake up and go to the gym, then drive around the city without a thought to the dangers that surrounded us, then go to the gym some more, and finish off the night by hanging around an Xbox 360 and TV we had set up in our common room to play Call of Duty Modern Warfare 2. Being on a NATO base also afforded us several opportunities that most of the American forces in Afghanistan wouldn’t have. We had several European shops on base and around Kabul, so we could buy certain malted beverages that are normally strictly forbidden in a war zone due to US Army policy and regulations. I had civilian clothes sent to me and would walk around base in shorts and flips flops instead of my normal uniform. In short, we started to forget where we were, almost.
Then, with only two months remaining I went home on my two week rest and relaxation leave. It was then that I saw on the news a story about a car bomb in Kabul that had killed eight individuals and injured many others. I immediately recognized it as my team as we were one of the very few teams in the area driving Chevy Suburbans at that time. I instantly called back to Afghanistan, and I was unfortunately correct. Two of my friends had been killed and five others wounded. I had to wait for my rest and relaxation leave to finish up before I could return and by the time I had arrived, they had been flown back and their gear shipped back; it felt odd how I had left with them there and returned to nothing. The rest of the team was still bearing the loss hard, and we no longer had the fun we had been having earlier in the deployment. Now we just wanted to go home without any more trouble.
Luckily, we finished up the last two months with no enemy contact and left the country after a year to return to Germany. I was put on guard duty for almost five months, driving sparingly after falling into trouble for being too aggressive, which in hindsight could have again saved my life. The friends I made in Afghanistan are still my best friends. One by one, though, we would leave Germany for our next assignments, until I finally left one year after returning to accept a ROTC scholarship I had won. I spent an entire year after returning working on a scholarship application that would send me to ROTC at a university of my choosing and upon graduation I would return to the Army for another eight years as an officer. After three years abroad and all I encountered in those three years, it’s nice to be back in America.
Bradley Neighoff's essay appears here with his express written permission and cannot be reproduced in any manner or fashion without his express written permission.