I knew the moment would happen, sooner or later, but when I went to sleep last night, experiencing my first “rocket attack” was the last thing on my mind. I should have known, after all I had to preach this morning. I should have been ready for my first genuine bunker experience to happen the night before my first Afghanistan sermon. The irony of the whole affair was that I heard the explosions about 15 minutes before the sirens went off. I thought, like most of the noises that float through the thin walls of the tent, it was business as usual.
I must have just drifted off to sleep, thanks to my nightly Benadryl, when the first alarms sounded and a voice from the loudspeaker announced “incoming fire, don your equipment and take cover in place.” The procedure of our base is that, as long as we are in a building, we stay put, crossing our fingers and hoping that whatever happens, the buildings will provide enough stability. Of course, still being in tents, we didn’t have luxury of staying in our beds, but had to head for the bunkers.
For those of you who are wondering about what a bunker actually is, imagine a big hole covered with thick cement walls and roof. Around the cement walls are bags of sand. Apparently, this is enough to keep us mostly safe. Now, up until last night, I had never been in a bunker. In fact, I had no idea where the bunker was. Note to self, next time, locate bunkers before the attack.
I don’t think 10 seconds passed before I was up, wearing my boots, my helmet, and my body armor. I have never put it on that fast. Now mind you, I had been wearing only a t-shirt and shorts in my sleeping bag. But in my great haste, I didn’t take the time to get fully dressed. So, with no socks or under garments to speak of and my shoe laces not even tied, I started running for the tent flap, hoping that finding the bunker would be relatively easy.
Before I go on, I should add that the rest of my tent mates took a little different approach. A few of them were still in their sleeping bags as I went running through, wearing hardly anything but my gear, heading for “the bunker.” Our JAG lawyer set up in her bed, just as I was announcing to the group that we were under attack, and some of the other women were looking for their clothes, knowing better than me that it was cold outside and we were likely going to have to sit out there for a while. I burst through the tent, expecting to see the sky on fire or some evidence of the exploding rounds. Instead, I saw nothing out of the ordinary. I started running down the path, looking for the bunker, when I ran into some of the soldiers in my unit. They looked at me like I had lost my mind. I will admit that my helmet, not even fastened because my hair was disheveled and all over, was a little crooked. But I was “heading to the bunker” so none of that really mattered to me. I can’t really remember what I said, but I had a fleeting thought that if we lived through this “attack” I would not live this down. This was truly the first time that I lived up to Father Mulcahy from M*A*S*H. And, this morning, I have already endured the impersonations acted out by my fellow soldiers. But, even though I looked ridiculous, between their laughter, they all agreed that I had done the right thing by getting geared up and to the bunker so quickly.
I was the first one to get to the bunker, and it didn’t cross my mind that there was probably more of a chance that I would be greeted by a cobra instead of a rocket impact. But I willingly entered into the dark hole, ready for the next ring of fire. I am not sure what I really expected, possibly a full scale attack, but sure enough, the night stayed quiet. As soldiers gathered into the bunker with me, most of them, having deployed before, laid down on the ground and attempted to go back to sleep. I just laughed in my heart, telling myself that I wouldn’t have a real war experience without being startled awake by sirens and rockets. I think my sermon had a little more impact with a few added lines about the hour we spent in the early hours of the morning, sitting in the bunker.
For all those soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines whose work requires that they leave the safety of a forward operating base on a regular basis, my anxiety over a few sirens and explosions will seem almost comical, but we all have to have a first time experiencing, even from a distance, the possibility of harm. The rockets hit about two miles away in an open, deserted field. Because we are in holiday time, we are told to expect more possible attacks. So, we can only hope that when this happens again, their aim will remain less than exact.