Soldiers' small talk in the Afghan war: Geography, grad school and Rocky IV
Even on Memorial Day, when the nation stops to honor and remember the fallen men and women in uniform who served in wars past and present, it is easy for the U.S. military to remain an abstraction. The troops toil at distant bases and fight far-away battles, becoming real to their fellow citizens mainly when they lug giant rucksacks through America's airports at the beginning and end of their leaves.
It is particularly easy to forget that the majority of the men and women fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq are just a few years removed from high school. As a military reporter, I've had the chance to see them as they really are, in those odd moments between boredom and heroism, when they're waiting for a helicopter, killing time on outposts or starting to bump down a road that may or may not be laden with explosives.
In these moments, the troops can be goofy, brave, profane, loyal and wickedly funny. In these moments, they are often just kids.
I witnessed one such snapshot last month, as I sat on one of the last U.S. helicopters preparing to fly into eastern Afghanistan's violent Korengal Valley. American commanders were only a few weeks away from shutting down the base there, ending a bloody five-year stalemate with the Taliban.
A machine gun punched a nickel-size hole in the Chinook two nights earlier, and everyone paused to inspect it as they got on the big black whale of a helicopter.
It was just after 9 p.m., and streaks of lightning flashed against the black sky. Fifteen minutes passed. The copter was grounded. It was then that two of the soldiers from the 4th Brigade of the Army's 4th Infantry Division launched into a profanity-laced argument over a burning question:
Is Connecticut in New England?
The first soldier gamely insisted that Connecticut couldn't possibly be part of New England because everyone from Connecticut cheers for New York sports teams: the Giants, the Jets, the Mets, the Yankees, etc.
"Do you even [expletive] know where Connecticut is?" the other soldier demanded. "I mean, could you even find it on an [expletive] map?"
The first soldier didn't answer. It was pretty obvious to all that he couldn't find Connecticut on an [expletive] map. Instead he reeled off the states that he thought were in New England: Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine and Rhode Island.
A third voice from the darkness suggested that Long Island is also in New England. But the first two soldiers -- both from Boston -- told him to shut up, because Long Island is definitely in New York, and New York is not on anybody's New England list.
The lightning kept flashing. Still grounded. In about 90 minutes the moon would rise and illuminate the sky, making it far too easy for whoever shot the Chinook last time to hit it again.
The soldiers' geography debate shifted to another topic: whether Brockton, Mass., is more dangerous than the Korengal Valley, where more than 40 U.S. troops had died over the past five years. One of the New England soldiers insisted that five of his relatives had been killed in Brockton, so he was pretty sure it was more dangerous than the Korengal.
The Chinook still hadn't moved. In the front of the helicopter, two captains talked about the pros and cons of letting the Army pay for graduate school. Toward the back, a sergeant started a monologue on how he cried watching "The Lion King" when he was 6. "Oh, Mufasa!" called a plaintive, mocking voice.
Someone asked a Russian-accented specialist named Egerov whether he cried when Sylvester Stallone knocked out Dolph Lundgren in "Rocky IV." There was a five-minute debate about who was really the better fighter, before Egerov pointed out that Lundgren isn't even Russian -- he's Swedish.
The helicopter sat in the darkness. A few soldiers climbed out of the back to stretch their legs, grab a smoke and swap stories about the tarantulas, lizards and monkeys in the valley. "Thirty-three days," said a soldier just back from leave. It was the time that had passed since he last set foot on the Korengal outpost.
A little before 10 p.m., everyone got back on the bird. Seat belts clicked. The engine revved, and soon the soldiers were airborne. As they hurtled toward the Korengal, a full moon rose over the mountains, and the rivers below glowed silvery-white. It was getting awfully bright.
The Chinook touched down at a different base about six miles from the Korengal. The pilots had decided that flying into the jagged sliver of a valley with the moon lighting up the sky was too dangerous; the hulking helo would be too easy for the Taliban to spot. The soldiers stumbled out, ears ringing from the noise of the engines, and searched for a place to sleep.
The next evening, they'd try again.
Greg Jaffe is a military reporter for The Washington Post and a co-author of "The Fourth Star: Four Generals and the Epic Struggle for the Future of the United States Army."