Chakra Discussions

Memoirs of a Modern-Day Ksatriya: Part Four

by Jaya Govinda das

Posted July 21, 2004

The mortars

The first ones hit just after midnight. Ever since we got to Camp Anaconda, mortars had become a daily occurrence and didn't affect us all that much. We'd hear them hit, and sometimes we'd feel the impact slightly, but it wouldn't really phase us. We had gotten quite used to them after the second or third day. But when these ones hit just outside our motor pool, it was a little closer than we were used to.

The insurgents like to use mortar rounds for a number of reasons. For one, they are easily accessible. During and since the last Gulf War, Saddam Hussein had been burying stockpiles of ammunition (provided by the former Bush administration) in the sand, and throughout the years, Iraq's desert has become literally a storage house for his arsenal. All one has to do is walk out in the desert and dig a few feet down, and he'll be rewarded with free firepower.

Another reason is that mortars are virtually undetectable, as no one knows that they've been launched until they hit. This provides the offense the opportunity to fire and run, and by the time the mortar hits, the enemy is gone.

The down side to using mortars is that there's really no way to aim. They can be directed to a certain degree, but where it hits is pretty much the luck of the draw. The insurgents have their intel, just as we do, and they find out where each one hits and adjust their aim accordingly.

This night, the mortars happened to have found a target. The building a hundred meters across the street from us was hit. I'm not sure if it was hit by one or two mortars, but the impact was severe. Our building shook and lost it's power, and we were sure that the other building was demolished.

For two hours, the response team worked to put out the fire and assess the casualties while the alarm wailed over the loud speakers, notifying the rest of the post to remain indoors.

Another mortar hit just down the road, avoiding contact with anything but the road itself, which was left with a good size crater in it's center.

At the same time, we could here the impact of a couple mortars on the other side of the air field. We felt as if we were being bombarded on all sides. In fact, we later learned that all four sides of Camp Anaconda had been hit that night. We also learned that the attacks were random and unrelated to one another. Mortars had been fired from two miles away to the north and a mile away to the northwest, as well as some from the east and the northeast.

Camp Anaconda is situated right in the middle of the Sunni Triangle, and these attacks confirmed that we were surrounded by our enemy.

As a result of this and similar attacks, every soldier on post was required to wear all of our protective gear, all the time. This included vest with steel plate inserts and a kevlar helmet. Combined with the weight of my weapon (I carry an M-249 fully automatic machine gun, the Army's heaviest small-arms weapons), I was lugging around an extra thirty five pounds.

The mortars were a constant over the remainder of the week and cement bunkers were constructed throughout the installation. A new protocol for reacting to incoming fire was implemented, and we were required, from then on, to take shelter in the bunkers at the first sound of the alarm.

Camp Anaconda remained a target for incoming mortar rounds which became increasingly closer . Other buildings around our motor pool were hit, as well as other tents and structures nearby and around the installation, but we managed to stay in the clear.

That's not to say there weren't close calls. There were many. Unfortunately, a couple of them proved fatal for some troops.

While we were shopping at the PX (Post Exchange) one day, a mortar came blasting through the front of the building, sending window glass, concrete and shrapnel flying in all directions. As the uniform policy had changed just two days prior, no one was wearing their helmets or vests. The impact was such that everyone was knocked on to the floor and the room was filled with dust and smoke almost instantly.

When the air had cleared, people lay strewn about the floor, some bleeding, some not moving, others buried under rubble or shelving, or something that they had thrown on top of themselves for protection. The scene was solemn and humbling, and another reminder of the uncertainty of life.

By the time the medics arrived, two soldiers were dead. Another three would die in the hospital that night. Twenty six others were wounded, many of them severely. My colleagues and I had been spared of injuries, but the recollection of that incident would remain with us indefinitely.

I guess you could say we were in the right place at the wrong time, for if we had been ten feet to our left, our outcome might not have been as lucky.

The characters of my life

There are some decent people in the military, though I've yet to meet another vegetarian besides whatever other devotee soldiers there are out there. The "vegetarians" I've met are either those who consider themselves to be vegetarian because they don't eat red meat, or those who used to be vegetarian but decided not to practice the discipline while in Iraq, in fear that they'd "get sick or lose too much weight", as one colleague of mine put it.

There also seems to be a lack of spiritually-minded individuals, at least in my experience, with the exception of a small group of born-again fundamentalists who decided that I'm going to hell because I've got tattoos and I haven't accepted Jesus as my personal lord and savior. But there are some decent people in the military.

Then, there are the guys I work with:

Sergeant G:

Sgt. G, our motor sergeant, is a disgruntled man who's been in the Army twenty years too long and is still living in his old days with the 82nd Airborne.. Physically, he's thirty eight going on seventy, and mentally, he'll be twelve next spring. He joined the Army fresh out of high school and, with that being the only job he's ever known, learned absolutely nothing about the real world of civilized human interaction and courtesy, or of proper management (management in the military is quite a different thing than management in the civilian world). Suffice to say, he cannot interact with another person without yelling, and he treats all of his subordinates with sheer disrespect.

On top of that, he 'dips'. I don't know if I can recall a single time when I have seen Sgt. G without a mouthful of dip (tobacco) pocketed in his lip. The entire motor pool grounds are covered with his remnants in the form of red spit. God forbid he gets up close to talk to you. You're sure to catch a little spray in the eye.

And his leadership skills are pathetic, at best. He hardly ever knows what's going on, and when he does, has a near-impossible time explaining it to us. His only way of communicating with anyone is to put on a tough guy persona, even though we all believe that his intentions aren't always for the worst. He makes fun of people to hide from his own insecurities and, although he has no qualms with me as a soldier, has taken up scrutinizing my lifestyle very enthusiastically. After all, vegetarians must be gay and religious people are freaks, right?

But that's my boss, god love him.

Sergeant K:

Sergeant K's position of leadership is newly acquired, and so are all the power-trips that come along with it. Having joined the Army at the ripe young age of eighteen, he, too, lacks the necessary people skills to function properly as a leader. Weight lifting, womanizing and watching television are his favorite pastimes.

Though intelligence is not his strong point (he could benefit from reading a book or two), he can be a decent guy at times and he shares the mechanics' common disdain for Sgt. G, but his kindness is only directed to those who praise him and shunned from those by whom he feels threatened. He believes in the importance of doing the right thing, as long as it doesn't affect him, and is a staunch supporter of mass punishment (everyone suffers for one person's faults).

My lifestyle is often the brunt of his jokes, as I'm just not a cool guy by his standards. Maybe if I were to start going out with him and the guys, swiggin' down brewskies and pickin' up chicks, he'd afford me some respect and courtesy. Until then, I guess I'll just have to make do.

Sergeant C:

Hailing from the Philippines, Sgt. C is fairly new to our unit, and has never been fully accepted by the other mechanics. Personally, I don't think he's a bad guy, but the majority of the crew seems to have a problem with his leadership style. His accent and under-developed grasp of the English language, as well as his slightly older age of forty five, are often the butt of ridicule, providing him with a short temper and an even shorter tolerance.

I didn't care for him too much when we first met but, after having worked with him for a while, have come to realize that he reciprocates with people according to the way they treat him.

When being asked about my religion, I was surprised to learn that he was quite familiar with the Hare Krsna movement, and even knew the maha mantra, in a matter of speaking:

"Hare Krsna, Krsna Krsna, Rama Rama, right?" was how he put it, but that was the first person in my unit I had ever heard chant the holy names, and, right there, he did it six times.

During the 1980s, he had been involved with Ananda Marg, a group whose philosophy differs from ours but whose lifestyle has many similarities. That was also the time that Krsna consciousness was taking off in the Philippines and he had encountered devotees on several occasions. He later converted to Catholicism, immigrated to the United States and joined the military.

Specialist S:

S is a former marine of eight years who left the military to try out civilian life, only to join the Army four years later. Even though he is one of the most knowledgeable mechanics on our team, he couldn't find his head if he was holding it in both hands. Despite his years of military experience, he remains absolutely clueless about even the most elementary aspects of military protocol, such as etiquette and uniform policy. It's also not at all uncommon for him, after being shown three or four times what and where something is, to ask the other mechanics for a follow-up explanation.

In the mellow-drama department, he takes things to a whole new level, and takes himself way too seriously. He's quick to over-react and quicker to point a finger, but rarely notices his own discrepancies. About three quarters of his conversation is about women and the other quarter is usually about himself and his various good qualities.

And hygienic, he is not. Typical of a mechanic in a combat zone, his hands and face are almost always displaying signs of his work, that is, they're generally covered with oil and grease. Atypical of a mechanic in a combat zone, he seems to never wash them. Post regulations require everyone to wash their hands before entering the dining facility. S' idea of washing his hands is to hold them under running water for five seconds.

Specialist M:

Aside from his complete disbelief in God, reincarnation or anything metaphysical, M's a pretty good guy. He's easy to get along with and, though he thinks my devotion is a ridiculous waste of time, respects my views and doesn't question them. His extreme liberal views mixed with my fairly conservative views are always good for an interesting conversation, and he easily accepts defeat by way of logic.

Having children of his own, we share a lot of the same feelings about being in Iraq and often share stories and pictures of our families. He never quite understood why I was vegetarian and he fancies teasing me and boasting his meat and potatoes mentality, but it's all in good humor.

Specialist X:

Slightly on the obsessive-compulsive side, X tends to rub the other mechanics the wrong way. She has gotten into confrontations with everyone at the motor pool at least once, myself included. But, despite her nervous ticks and eccentricities, she's alright. Honesty and virtue are two of her strongest qualities, and her conflicts with others are often simply due to her straight-forwardness. She's a hard worker, but not exactly easy to work with.

Descending from the ancient Mung dynasty, she holds tradition and heritage above everything else. Her belief in ghosts and the afterlife prompt hearty discussions, and she's receptive to my explanations in those matters.

Specialist G:

Drama. That's the word that comes to mind when you talk about G. According to her, everything is a conspiracy and, because she's so important, the Army is plotting to sabotage her career. There is also no one smarter than she, nor is anyone as job-knowledgeable.

But, she's one of the good ones, and it amuses me to watch her in action. Being very learned in Army policies and regulations, she is constantly getting away with things based on minor discrepancies in 'the books'. She's one of those people that is going to squeeze the Army for as much money as she could when she gets out. And she'll get it.

Private G:

My roommate, G, has been demoted so many times that his chain of command finally decided to take away all of his rank, making him the only four-year private in our battalion. Somehow or other, I got stuck with him as my roommate, and I could not think of a more unlikely pair.

Aside from his excessively violent temper and inability to accept peoples' differences without fighting first, G has got the brain of a slug and the motivation of a sloth. His pastimes include laying around and watching television, sitting around and watching television, fighting, and watching television. He falls asleep every night watching television, and I can't recall a single time when I haven't had to wake up in the middle of the night to turn it off for him.

In contrast to my clean side of the room, which is decorated with tasteful Krsna-conscious pictures, his side is scattered with dirty laundry and food wrappers, and the walls are plastered with magazine pin-ups of near-nude models.

At work, his only way of relating to people is to criticize and make fun of them, but he more or less leaves me alone, partially because I'm his roommate and partially because I never backed down from him when other people had.

PFC B:

Sgt. G's best friend and most staunch supporter, PFC B recently began learning three-syllable words. He's finally, after months of practice and sincere determination, mastered the word "imbecile".

In other words, B isn't exactly the sharpest tool in the shed. He's a follower in every respect and is one of the gung ho guys who actually wants to get in a gunfight with Iraqis. Religiosity and morals are void in him, but he doesn't impose that on others who hold those two things dear, which is more than I can say for a lot of people in the Army.

B wants to get out of the military as soon as possible so he can resume smoking pot and sleeping in, but at least his goals are in place and the future of our military will not depend on him.