For eight months in 2008, U.S. Army Capt. Matt Zeller served as an embedded combat adviser with Afghan security forces in Ghazni, Afghanistan. Watches Without Time is a compilation of the emails he sent home to family and friends during that period—so that, as he writes in the Preface, "should anything have ever happened to me, they would know what I went through."Watches Without Time gives a granular account of the challenges Zeller and his men encountered in Ghazni, and of the complex missions they undertook there. Written in clear and searingly intimate prose, it highlights the many emotion-laden experiences he underwent both during his tour and after his return to the United States.
|Publisher:||Just World Books|
|Edition description:||New Edition|
|Product dimensions:||9.00(w) x 5.90(h) x 0.80(d)|
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Watches without Time
An American Soldier in Afghanistan
By Matt Zeller
Just World Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2012 Matt Zeller
All rights reserved.
Birthday Shots and Camp Funston
Monday, January 21, 2008
The day has finally arrived. Tomorrow my unit and I head to Fort Riley, Kansas (located in Manhattan, Kansas, of all places; don't let the name fool you, we're told the town shuts down after dark), to begin two months of unit-specific training for our upcoming yearlong deployment to Afghanistan.
I officially went on Active Duty this past Sunday, arriving in the frozen, barren landscape that is Syracuse, New York. I feel as if the temperature of 13 degrees (with a windchill of 10 below) was an appropriate weather welcome for where we're about to spend the next year of our lives. We've spent the past few days packing, filling out a plethora of paperwork, and, most importantly, bonding as a team.
I'm proud to say I'm deploying with some of the finest officers and NCOs I've ever had the privilege to work with. At this point I think we're all anxious to get to Fort Riley, complete our training, and see what Afghanistan has in store. We've got a great mission: training elements of the Afghan security forces and serving as their mentors, instructors, and, hopefully, friends and allies. My personal job is as my team's Operations and Intelligence officer. I'll be responsible for training the officers and soldiers of an Afghan Army unit in all matters concerning intelligence gathering and analyzing and all matters concerning operations planning. I'm not sure where we'll be located when we get to Afghanistan, but if and when I can tell, rest assured, I'll pass along that info.
Tonight some of the guys and I are heading down to Syracuse University to visit a few of my old stomping grounds — two or three beloved bars on our last night of "freedom" for the next few months. We've been told we'll have two four-day passes (four days in February and four in March) before we leave for Afghanistan.
Finally, I want to thank each and every one of you whom I've visited, seen, or talked with over the past few weeks. Your words of encouragement, your friendship, your love: This is what drives me to do this. You are my inspiration. I couldn't do this without you. I hope each and every one of you knows just how much you all mean to me. In a word: thanks.
* * *
Thursday, January 24, 2008
The birthday messages I received from friends and family were the bright spots in an otherwise bummer day. We spent today in-processing, doing lots of paperwork, filling out wills and power of attorney, and everyone's favorite: shots! That's right, the army loves me so much that on my birthday, it gave me vaccinations for anthrax, smallpox, hepatitis A and B, typhoid, and influenza! Even more exciting, while in Afghanistan, I get to take a daily antimalaria pill. At the moment, I'm literally a walking biohazard.
We began our day at around 5:30 ("O'Dark Thirty") and just finished around 8:30 p.m. (2030 to my military brethren). I'm very impressed with how smoothly things are running out here. The training is thus far extremely professional and yet laid-back, especially when compared to other army training I've been through. The "no B.S." nature of this whole place is outstanding and greatly appreciated by all. The overall commander of our training is the same gentleman who wrote the book Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife (recommended reading!), Colonel John Nagl, and the training environment clearly reflects his leadership philosophy.
* * *
Tuesday, January 29–Saturday, February 2, 2008
This week has been a veritable roller coaster of activity. Monday was a very wonderful 73 and sunny, but on Tuesday, winter arrived. Tuesday was cold — really cold — Antarctic cold. Around 5:15 a.m., I was rattled from a deep slumber by a howling 70-mph-plus wind. Its anger at not being able to reach me was apparent with each crash against my window. The wind when combined with single-digit temperatures made for a most miserable day. We walk pretty much everywhere, and the headgear for our uniform is also the ultimate in winter-climate absurdity — a black beret doesn't really provide all that much protection. The worst part is that the army, in its infinite wisdom, issued us these wonderful fleece caps that are literally a pillow of warmth upon one's head; too bad we're not authorized to wear them on base while in uniform. I must extend special thanks to my Aunt Bonnie and her Daughters of the American Revolution chapter, who provided us with wonderful knit wool caps that can be worn with our uniforms; our heads were thankful for the lack of frostbite and your generosity!
Wednesday was an exercise in boredom. In the morning, the brass paraded themselves in front of us to tell us how hooah (it's army slang for just about anything; in this case, they used it to mean awesome) our training would be. In the afternoon, we sat in a church, of all places, and listened to three hours of a multimedia presentation on Survival, Evasion, Rescue, and Escape (SERE). This is a very important topic, but the best way to present it is not a mass briefing to hundreds of soldiers who have already spent the morning listening to speakers drone on and on. The army has two types of training: hands on and sleep mode. Hands on is interactive, participatory, and invigorating; it's also usually done in small groups. Sleep mode is also known as Receive Mode, as in someone blabs on and on in a corny video or an awfully long PowerPoint, and we do our best to pay attention and stave off sleep, all while remaining dutifully silent. This briefing was the embodiment of sleep mode. I maintained consciousness only through the numerous coffee breaks, during which I found a piano in a side room and started taking requests and jamming away. I even found a major who plays the trombone and who wants to try to start a regular jazz band while we're deployed — how very WWII!
Thursday was like Christmas. The day we get issued our gear is one of my favorite days in the army. Not only do I get loads of cool new stuff, I'm constantly active, and I get to joke around with my guys in line. Next to a day's worth of hard training in the field, there's nothing quite like it. And wow, did they give us a lot of stuff: four duffel bags' worth! After our issue, which took the majority of the day, we spent the rest of our time in frigid temperatures, packing and loading trucks into the wee hours of the night.
Friday (today) was moving day. Once again, the army in its infinite wisdom had us all get up, clean our barracks, and move the rest of our stuff out by 0600 (6:00 a.m. for you civilians) so that we could sit around and wait till 1300 (1:00 p.m.) to actually do anything. That's right: Your tax dollars paid me to watch ESPN's sportsCenter and CNN all morning. Once 1300 came along, we loaded up on our buses, moved to the base's armory, and were issued our weapons. Specifically, we're carrying the M4 assault rifle and the M9 pistol into combat. I take my earlier statement back; the day we get our weapons is my favorite day in the army. There was something strangely familiar and comforting about feeling the weight of my M9 pistol in its holder and my M4 resting silently against my chest. In the military our weapons are an extra appendage, so the day you get issued your weapons is like being reunited with a long-lost friend. In a way, you almost feel naked without them.
After picking up our weapons, we moved to FOB (Forward Operating Base) Funston. This is where we'll live and train for the next two months and where we'll eventually depart for Afghanistan sometime at the end of March. I went from my own personal room, with a shared kitchenette and bathroom, to a 40-man open bay, with 20 communal showers and 10 shared laundry machines. Personal space and privacy are pretty much at a minimum, but I also argue it's the best kind of military living, as nothing breeds camaraderie quite like open-bay barracks living. It took forever to unpack all our stuff and get settled.
Tomorrow will be a day of exploration, as we arrived on our FOB too late to do much else other than move our gear to the barracks, eat chow, and unpack. I'm told the gym and MWR (morale, welfare, and recreation) center down here are actually far nicer than the ones on main base.
Sunday, we plan to order an ungodly amount of pizza and wings and wash them down with delicious beer as we cheer on our beloved NY Giants to victory! I only wish I could be at home with my dad to see it live.
Monday will finally bring our first day of real training (good-bye paperwork and in-processing monotony; hello challenging physical and mental training). I cannot wait.
With that, I'm off to bed; this means putting in earplugs and placing a pillow over my face (as the lights are still on, music is blaring, and guys are sitting around telling jokes and "so-there-I-was" stories).
* * *
Sunday, February 3–Sunday, February 10, 2008
Monday: We spent the day in two of the worst classes I've ever had in the army. This is a thinking-man's war. We should not and cannot reduce our teaching of Islam and Afghan culture to base generalities. The instructor at one point began listing terrorist groups known to be in Pakistan to illustrate the potential threat if the country were to be destabilized. Included on his list were the Sikhs, who are pacifists and have nothing to do with Islamic Fundamentalism. I felt the need to argue this point; I know it's only our initial training on fundamentalist Islam and that my level of understanding probably well exceeds the norm here, but we're going to hamper ourselves if this is what we're teaching our soldiers. Soldiers are going into combat with this gross misrepresentation of the religion and culture that will take that much longer to undo, when we could be using the time and energy to actually make headway on our mission. Thankfully, the army provided us with a block of phenomenal instruction on Friday from some Special Forces guys who helped correct much of Monday's misinformation.
Tuesday: We had our first "key-leader engagement" meeting on Tuesday. A key-leader engagement is a simulated meeting between U.S. Forces and some Afghan entity (the Afghan Army, police, a tribal leader, village elder, mayor, governor, etc.). The U.S. forces are played by soldiers, while the Afghans are played by actual Afghans. I was selected ("volun-told") to be the first person in the "hot seat." The hot seat represents the leader of the U.S. delegation and assumes primary responsibility for the success or failure of the meeting. The scenario was as follows: We were meeting with elements of the Afghan National Army, having just arrived in the country and replaced a team who had worked with these forces for a year. Our goals were to build the foundations of a positive relationship and ascertain the Afghan commander's immediate needs. We surpassed these goals. My men and I walked into the room, and, in my struggling Dari (a language of Afghanistan that is primarily spoken by the army), I attempted a formal greeting with all the customs that accompany an Afghan greeting. These customs include only using your right hand, kissing the cheek of the person being greeted three times, and asking a series of questions.
What I attempted to say was, "Salaam aleikum. chetor hastid? jan-e-shoma jurast? Khub hastid? Shat-e-shoma Khub ast? Be khair hastid? Jur hastid? Khane Kheirat ast? Zinde bashi?," which I didn't get all out, but the effort was well received. One of my captains would later exclaim, "I only wish I had a camera to capture the look of shock and happiness on the Afghan's face when you attempted the greeting! He was clearly moved." The meeting went very, very well due to my fellow soldiers' grasp of culture and mannerisms. We drank chai, the local tea, and spoke the entire time through interpreters. The Afghans all actually speak phenomenal English, but for our training purposes speak only in Dari (thus, through the translators). After the meeting, we went to Blue Force Tracker (BFT) training.
The army uses a GPS-based computer system called Blue Force Tracker: We're blue forces, and the bad guys are represented as red forces on military maps. Basically, it's a program that shows us where we are while in our Hummers and where known and suspected enemy forces and obstacles are on a digital map. For those of us who've grown up with computers, it was easy to grasp how to use the program within the first hour of eight we'd spend using it on Tuesday. Class was supposed to go until 2300 (11:00 p.m.) but was ended early because of a massive snowstorm. On the bus ride back to our barracks, one of my former soldiers called me from his training at Fort Bragg to update me on how things were on his end: not good, in fact, downright awful. Before I was assigned to this embedded training team mission, I was the intelligence officer for a battalion in my unit. The majority of our brigade is training for this mission at Fort Bragg, while only those of us on the embedded training teams are training here at Fort Riley. The guys at Fort Bragg are in tents outdoors, apparently just got hot water for their showers installed last week, and have spent their time in embarrassingly substandard training: How does simply walking an 800-meter path count as counter-IED training? What totally shocked me was that my soldier claimed they had spent two entire weeks counting weapons, over and over again. One of the unusual duties of the intelligence officer in an infantry unit is to act as the unit's security officer, which includes accounting for all weapons. Usually you do one total physical inspection (literally touching every single weapon in the unit, which can be thousands), reading off each weapon's unique serial number and comparing it with the master authorization list. If the serial numbers all match the list, you're good to go. If not, you've got a big problem on your hands, especially if you're missing something. This process normally takes a day or two. My soldier told me they've done more counts than he can remember. Instead of training, the intelligence soldiers of this unit have spent their weeks at Fort Bragg counting and recounting weapons, which every time are all present and accounted for. It frustrates me beyond belief to not be there with them to do something about this. I told my guys that they're gonna have to step up and be responsible for their own training. I went to bed Tuesday night with a storm raging both outside and in my heart.
Wednesday:Hello Winter! Wow ... it was cold, I mean really cold today. So cold a snowman would look around and say, "Forget this! It's too cold out here, I'm heading indoors!"
I decided to let my guys sleep in as we had the morning off and could do our physical training at the gym later in the morning. After PT, I went to Ash Wednesday services and then on to another 10 hours of Blue Force Tracker training. By hour six, I think we were all ready to bang our heads on the table in an attempt to knock ourselves out and end the suffering. Computer training somehow is just not that exciting when you've got meetings with Afghans and weapons to fire.
Excerpted from Watches without Time by Matt Zeller. Copyright © 2012 Matt Zeller. Excerpted by permission of Just World Publishing, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Part I: Training,
1. Birthday Shots and Camp Funston,
2. Tools of the Trade,
3. Salaam Aleikum, We All Want Our NODs Back, and How I Became an Embedded Combat Adviser,
4. Ducks and Turtles,
5. See Ya Later,
Part II: The War,
6. We're Not in Kansas Anymore,
7. Down South, Where the War Is,
8. Leaving the Wire,
9. MRAP Down,
10. There's a Lot of Dumb in War,
11. Memorial Day,
12. Highs and Lows,
13. The Andar Shura,
14. Humanitarian Assistance,
15. Blowing Off Steam,
17. Hospital of Death,
18. A Brother's Suicide,
19. Inside the Wire,
21. Two Sides to Every Story,
22. TIC Magnet and the Taliban Strike Back,
24. Combat Groceries,
26. Listening to Friends Die,
27. Promotions without Rank,
28. Bashi Habib — Grandfatherly Warlord,
29. You Can't Make This Shit Up,
30. Comings and Goings,
31. Ghazni's Rotten Politics,
32. Reflections on 9/11,
33. Why We're Losing, Part 1,
34. Watches Without Time,
35. Roller Coaster of Emotions,
36. Why We're Losing, Part 2,
37. A Case Study in Corruption — Ghazni Governor Usmani,
38. Why We're Losing, Part 3,
40. Up Close with Dead Taliban,
41. War Is Stupid,
42. Why We're Losing, Part 4, and How We Could Win,
43. Telling Off the Governor — A Win for Captain Morriarty,
Part III: Leave,
46. The United States of I Don't Feel Like I Belong Here,
47. Going Back to War Feels Like Going Home,
Part IV: My War Abroad Ends,
48. Burning the Governor's Drugs,
49. Winning the War One Child at a Time,
50. Lieutenant Colonel Clueless,
51. Old Men and Hashish,
52. Leaving Ghazni,
53. The Most Difficult Good-bye,
54. Endless Waiting,
55. Leaving Afghanistan,
56. The Flight Home Nearly Kills Us,
57. Back to the World I No Longer Know,
Epilogue: My War at Home Begins,
Acronyms and Jargon,