Life at Combat Outpost Zerok
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.
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.
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.