Worst Thanksgiving Ever by Cadre Mike
What is there to be thankful for while you are deployed? What significance could Thanksgiving hold if you are in a place that is basically the worst place you could be in your entire life? One can grow quite cynical of Thanksgiving if it is associated more with suffering then with family cheer and bountiful amounts of turkey and strong drink. My memories of turkey day are flooded with fond visions of freezing cold and blizzards at 9000ft. You ever eaten goat leg for Christmas? Think you would care after eating MRE’s for 2 months? Yes, you are probably right. You wouldn’t care and neither did I when I bit into that delicious meaty goat leg (with fur still on it), my first real food in 2 months since being inserted into the (I can’t tell you) Valley in Afghanistan in the winter of 2004. Allow me to regale you with what was the worst deployment/ time in my military career / life.
We were told to pack for a 3-5 day mission and this involved us doubling up since space was limited and we weren’t supposed to be there for long. One ruck per buddy team and since my team leader was so fond of me as his primary SAW gunner and new Tab Spec 4(that’s an E-4 with a RANGER tab), I was picked to buddy up with him. Guess how much of my shit made it into that Ruck? If you can quantify jack and shit into and actual physical measurement, perhaps by a stretch of the imagination, you can see my TL stuffing the ruck with his things and I get a poly-pro top and luckily a camping stove (this camping stove will bring much happiness later).
The place we were headed to was some of the most prime Afghan real estate in existence. Sitting around 8000ft nestled in the mountains was a wonderful little valley where we were supposed to meet a horde of Taliban fighters in an epic battle that would live on forever in Ranger history. This was my only comfort given the bleak outlook of the availability of comfort items; extra warm clothes? Nope, don’t need it (we will only be there for a few days, its extra weight, and I’ll be too busy killing Taliban to care). Morale snacks? Ain’t no one got time for that. Hand sanitizer so I reduce the risk of infection from unheard of Afghan stomach bugs? Don’t worry about it Ranger, you will just adapt. You can see what I had to look forward to. For the most part, I was just stoked to be running a mission before winter closed everything down. I mean even the Taliban doesn’t like to fight in the winter.
Our big night is here and we load up after our usual series of rehearsals and pre-combat inspections. The plan is sound and we are bringing the full might of A company 1st Imperial Ranger Battalion. Some background here. A co 1/75 are the same guys, in fact I am in 1st platoon A co, that conducted a 17 hour firefight on a little place called Robert’s Ridge. It’s worth a google. I am with the best, about to be inserted once again (this is my 4th combat deployment) into harm’s way. I was so unprepared for what actually happened. And not just me, I think the next series of events caught everyone so off guard in my company that Dr. Seuss couldn’t have made something up this crazy. Although it is more of a dark comedy so maybe it’s a Hunter S. Thompson or Chuck Palahniuk novel.
We get the 1 min call on the bird. This is the time where your heart rate increases and the game face comes on. The 30 sec call comes out and I can hear the pitch of the rotor blades change and the bird’s nose start to come up, indicating wheels down is imminent. We touch down and 40 barrel chested freedom fighters come pouring out of the helicopter ready to bring total annihilation to our foes. We deploy in a perimeter as the helicopter takes off. Its noise now fades in the distance as we now realize that we are not leaving, our ride is gone, and we have a job to do. We watch and wait as we observe the village before us. It is old and strong and it has been here for 1000’s of years and will be here after we are gone. It has withstood Alexander the Great and the might of the Soviet bear. We all focus our attention as a villager approaches us, our ears strain in the night silence. We wait…and we wait…and we wait…I am now freezing my balls off as the temperature drops. I am in full kit, which means any sort of warm clothing is ditched due to the possibility of extreme physical demands. No sense in over-heating in the middle of a fight, even in the coldest situations. The sun starts to rise over the quaint Afghan village, and I am still wondering when and how the bad guys will hit us. We have mountain peaks on all side and a river to our backs. The only way is to assault forward through the village. My senses continue to stay peaked even though I am ready for some serious sleep and a hot meal. Then we finally get the word. We are…staying. What the hell just happened? Oh the bad guys forgot to show up, and now we are stuck here.
The days went on well past the 5-day mark. We were continuously told one thing. Hold until relieved. In historical context this usually meant a unit was holding a key position under a withering barrage of enemy assaults and intense fire. For us it now meant sitting on our asses, un-showered, and eating MRE’s. Killing only boredom and time. We break up the days with “presence” patrols through the small village, which meant busting your ass climbing 5ft terrace farms, and walking through human/animal feces. No worries, I don’t have any additional uniforms to change into nor do I have a way of cleaning myself along with the other 100 assholes that I came here with. Reality sank in and we all realized that A co was about to have a holiday vacation in the mountains. At least it hasn’t snowed yet.
Thanksgiving approaches and we look forward to what was rumored to be the possibility of a real meal flown in by helicopter. I guess the room full of Patton juniors that sent us here realized this place was devoid of enemy and was worth risking lives delivering Turkey to the savages, us, living in this shitty valley. Our other meals had to get air dropped into the valley by air force cargo planes. The best part was watching physics in action as pallet after pallet was miss-dropped into the side of a mountain or a chute failed and crushed a house or dropped into the river. Oh, what did we do? Well those were the only meals we were getting for the time, so we had to go bust our asses climbing black diamond mountain faces and wading in ice cold mountain rivers shrinking your manhood and any dignity you had let to nothing. Needless to say morale was always high and every day was another great day in the army.
The day had come and I watched the birds land and the aircrews off load the green thermal containers that held our thanksgiving meals like little Arcs of the covenant. I had to look away as they were opened because I couldn’t believe what I was seeing and the potential for my face to be melted off was a possibility I couldn’t exclude along with my disbelief that I may actually get a hot meal. I could smell that meal from the goat infested hovel my squad used as our shelter. This meal was going to make it all ok. Families back home were arguing with each other at the table, plates of food were being tossed in the trash, and even homeless crack heads were living better then me. Can you imagine how good that meal tasted? Well so could I, because I didn’t get a fucking chance to eat before the other platoons had gone through and devastated the supply of food. I boiled with rage as I watched them pack up the food and lift off. I was not the only one in this situation. Most of my platoon didn’t get to eat that day so my buddy and I made a sign out of cardboard and posted it so the others feasting could see. “GOD HATES US ALL”. You can guess the chaplain (who was stuffing his face) didn’t enjoy that holiday message. Just to make it better in the next few days it started snowing and it didn’t stop. We continued to fight boredom and disease. A few lucky guys got rocky mountain yellow spotted fever and got a trip home. Others just got diarrhea with simultaneous vomiting and just had to deal with it.
We stayed there un-showered and filthy until Christmas day. Helicopter crew chiefs that picked us up were dressed as Santa Claus. I could have thrown them out of the helicopter after the shit I had endured but I was just happy to be leaving what was the worst deployment / holiday season of my entire life. When I got back to Bagram I took my first shower in months. I removed my first layer of warm clothing (this got air-dropped to us BTW) and along with it the dirty layer of dead skin that I had accumulated having lived in them for the last 2 months. I reflected back on Thanksgiving and what it now meant to me. I basically had just lived through a National Lampoon movie except I didn’t get to enjoy any crazy adventures or 1980’s nudity. I could only laugh at the terrible experience and how many Thanksgivings I had spent wanting to be somewhere and getting just what I asked for. My family would never really know what I went through. I was not fired upon during that time. Some days I almost wish I had been. However, it was a deployment where we brought everyone home. I could be thankful for that. So if you find yourself moaning and groaning about attending another Thanksgiving at the in laws or having to listen to one of Dad’s stupid stories again, realize that it really isn’t that bad. You could be sitting around getting explosive diarrhea in the mountains of Afghanistan without even a baby wipe to comfort you.
So what was the moral of the story? We all suffered together. I can only share my point of view and when stories are re-told, they often are embellished. But take what you read from my experience and consider there were 100 other guys in that valley all going through the same thing. I got through it and kept most of my sanity because I had great guys in my squad and platoon. When we saw someone starting to let it get to them we did something to cheer them up. This could be jokes, stories, or the Risk board I made from MRE packages (yeah I had a lot of time). They were my family and when I look back at it, I wouldn’t change a thing. I would do it all over again just to be with those same guys.
Surround yourself with good people, be it your family or friends. They are the ones that keep you going. They push you to be better than you were yesterday, and to live well. This Thanksgiving I am thankful to have, at one time in my life, walked with giants and to have suffered alongside these great men. And while some of these men with whom I served have given the last full measure, I can be grateful that they have given me the chance to be here now with my family. I will forever strive to live well, to do things to make life better for others, and to struggle to better myself because they no longer can. RLTW.