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Life at Combat Outpost Zerok

October 12, 2009 | By Chris Hondros | News

Chris Hondros/Getty Images

The US Army has some of the most modern military technology in the world.  Yet come to Combat Outpost Zerok, nestled in the remote mountains of Paktika province, Afghanistan, and very little of that technology is apparent.  As it turns out, some things in the military don’t change much over the decades, and the basic setup of a remote Army combat outpost is one of them.

Take the perimeter, which in Zerok’s case, is the size of a football field or so.  It’s simply earth, scooped up and packed into wire mesh cubes and stacked to form crude walls.  Inside the base, just about everything is made of plywood.   The men themselves (and it’s all men on a combat outpost like this) live either in plywood shacks, or half-sized shipping containers set down in a series of rows adjacent to each other, or in clever combinations of the two.  Either way these sleeping quarters are fortified with sandbags and dirt mounds to protect against mortar shelling attacks.  The containers are set very close to each other and the resulting maze-like warrens remind me of the crowded side alleys in the souks of ancient cities, like Damascus or Jerusalem.

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Bathroom sanitation is also old school in a place like this.  The larger bases in Afghanistan use white “shower trailers” that are hooked up to plumbing, and supplemented around the base by standard issue porta johns, the same you might find at a big summer outdoor concert in the States.  But those require daily maintenance and cleaning by contracted crews. There’s nothing like that out here, so for these guys it’s simply a row of plywood outhouses perched over open steel drums.  Once a day, a lowly private drags the drums out, pours in diesel fuel, and burns it all away.

There are no showers, but someone has rigged up a hand-sized pressure water sprayer (the kind used to clean concrete sidewalks) to a small water tank, and in theory you can stand in one of the dark, dank containers over a makeshift drain and spray yourself down with ice-cold water, taking care with the trigger so as not to flay your skin off as you do.   (I tried it yesterday; without going into too much detail, let’s just say you need to be very careful with that thing.)   Most soldiers understandably seem to eschew it and clean themselves off with alcohol soaked wipes, day after day.

Food and other supplies are brought in by helicopter.  But this is one of the most dangerous parts of Afghanistan, and over this violent summer several helicopters were shot at as they arrived here, giving a Zerok a notorious reputation among risk-averse helicopter pilots.    So for months choppers would only fly in at night, cutting in half the number of flights and making it that much harder to get supplies onto the base.  (One soldier I met chalked it all up to hyperbole: “They got shot at a few times sure, but they were just potshots that didn’t hit anything,” he said, dismissively.  “And so they stop flying. And I’m like, dude, we LIVE out here.”)  They just started daytime flights again and that’s probably the only reason I was able to get to the base at all.

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Guard towers surround the perimeter and are built, again, out of simple wood.  Soldiers pulling guard duty do just as sentries at military outposts for centuries have done; stare out into the blistering day or lonely night, weapon close at hand.  Long weeks pass without incident, but the threat is real: on July 4th of this year militants struck Combat Outpost Zerok in a surprise attack, blasting the outer permitter with a massive suicide car bomb and then swarming the base with hundreds of fighters.  The soldiers of Zerok fought the invasion in a volcanic three-hour firefight, eventually beating it back but at a cost: twenty soldiers were seriously wounded, and two were killed.  That attack is naturally a seminal moment in the base’s short history, sort of its own 9/11; soldiers talk about July 4 with quiet reverence, and still with awe.  Portraits of the two soldiers killed, Privates Aaron Fairbairn and Justin Casillas, hang in the base meeting room.

That’s the room where I’m sleeping, in fact.  The wooden door still has dozens of jagged holes in it from the battle; in the morning, as the rising sun clears the mountains and hits the base like a spotlight, the sun shines through and dapples the walls and the pictures of Fairbairn and Casillas with glowing spots, like bright yellow stars.

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  • http://www.r4-ds.co.kr/ nintendo r4

    The military is using a pin then air power strategy. Basically they get the Taliban to stay there and shoot back showing their position. The aircraft then comes in with its thermal sights, sees the Taliban and then engages. You can see that some of those guys weren’t even aiming, they were just making noise on purpose. The Apache would have had no trouble seeing the Taliban on that mountain.

  • LaVaughna

    Hey I did a project this year for my senior year project of sending Christmas bags to your base this past year and was just wondering if you were one that got given one or know about what any of the men said about it?
    If you are able to write me back and let me know I would really appriciate it :) thanks.

  • Amy Oddo

    How can I find the mailing address of the soldiers posted at Combat Outpost Zerok? They were interviewed on 60 Minutes this past Sunday and I would like to send them a care package from home. If you know the address please send it along or give me some feedback on where to keep searching. I’ve been all over the internet with not much luck.
    Thanks :) Amy

  • Jacob S.

    Amy,

    My wife and I are sending a care package to a platoon post at COP Zerok. We found them on http://www.anysoldier.com. Reply back to me if you are interested in there address and I can give it to you. Also if you go to http://www.anysoldier.com it gives you instructions on how to mail your package to New York and then they will forward it to the COP. Much Cheaper. Let me know if you have any questions.

    Jacob

  • Dave

    Jacob,

    Are you still sending support to COP Zerok? I just saw a piece on them sunday night on 60 minutes. Cant stop thinking about trying to get something to them to show them we are thinking of them. Looking up your link to anysoldier.com but any other info you have please send our way. Thanks

    - Dave

  • Mike Meserve

    God Bless each one of your that show that your care about our young men. My son will be leaving soon and will be station at Zerok. As I have read your remark it bring tears to my eyes knowing that there are good people like you out there.
    Thank You and God Bless
    A soldier father
    Mike

  • Deborah Wise

    My son is currently posted at Zerok. I am extremely proud of our soldiers and would ask for prayers for each of them as they put their lives on the line for each and every American…God Bless and keep them safe…thank you, A Soldier’s Mom,
    deborah

  • nicholas

    I have been at Zerok twice in three years. The 60 mintues video does not do any justice to what the men of Easy have done over the past year. They have fought very hard and have made vast improvments to the security in the remote outpost. For all of you parents that read this I feel comfortable saying that your kids are much safer than the articles you read or videos you see. If you want to read an updated version go to the new york times and search for cop zerok. It should give you a better idea of what it is like now.

  • Dawn Frizzell

    My son spent last year in Zerok. Easy Co..and many other brave men literally wore themselves out protecting this part of the country. You are all heroes…thank you for sacrificing and for making it a hard for the Taliban to get through!

  • stephen

    If anyone knows a soldier that is in zerok now please send me an email @ bistro1607@yahoo.com. i will be there in a few mths. and would like to be in contact with someone to ask a few questions thanks for all the support.

  • Mike Meserve

    As of May 28, 2012 my son is not longer station at Zerok. My prayer goes out to our solders who are still there. I mean no disrepect to any of our troop, but I did shed some tears of releave and joy to know that my son is out of there. I am waiting to hear that he is back in Germeny.
    My God bless our troops and for those who have love one in harm way may the peace of God guard you heart and mind in Christ Jesus

  • Geoff Goble

    If you visit BooksforSoldiers.com you will find soldiers stationed at Zerok and making specific requests.

  • Greg Buczek

    Mike,

    I served with your son Sam at Zerok as his medic in his platoon. Just wanted to let you know. Solid soldier, friend for life. Thanks for bringing him up so well.