From the news, Afghanistan seems like a war zone where U.S. troops are constantly fighting Taliban fighters and face the threat of improvised explosive devices on a daily basis. However, there are two different worlds for the GIs in this land of conflict. One experience is the relative serenity of life on a Forward Operating Base (FOB), and the second is the one we call “outside the wire,” outside the protective blast walls lined with razor wire that surround our bases.

Espy at the wheel in Kabul.

The FOB experience is mainly reserved for combat support and combat service support personnel who assist the combat arms who take the fight to the enemy. Troops on the FOB may be deployed to a war zone, but they enjoy many of the same luxuries of home, minus their family. Coffee shops, Dairy Queens, massage services, wireless internet and enough quality food from the contractor-run dining facility that only the most die-hard gym rats lose weight in-country. When walking around the base, one may not feel that they are in a war zone until they make the observation that everyone carries a wide assortment of weapons at all times. This is a perspective on life in a war zone that most civilians don’t see and can’t quite comprehend when thinking about life in Afghanistan or Iraq. The occasional rocket/mortar attack or accidents are the only risks encountered by “Fobbits,” or those who never leave the base in-country.

The line of demarcation between safety and the real Afghanistan is simply a series of barriers and walls that make up the base’s force-protection posture. Every soldier who crosses that threshold wears body armor, gloves and glasses, and carries a rifle that makes them resemble Robo-Cop as they enter the Afghani badlands.

Humvees and armored SUVs slowly creep toward the FOB’s exit while their anxious occupants prepare themselves mentally for the upcoming mission. In the distance, a lone soldier manning the last checkpoint between sanctuary and war nonchalantly waves the vehicles through to the unknown reality that awaits American soldiers outside in the “real Afghanistan.” The final act of preparation for combat is the subtle metallic clank of magazines entering rifles and pistols while the convoy radios crackle to life.  Being deployed to a war zone can mean many different things to individual servicemen and women, but the constant reality is that danger lurks everywhere outside the wire, no matter how benign the mission. 

The United States’ primary mission in the Afghan theater of operations is to deny al-Qaida and Taliban fighters a sanctuary to prepare attacks on U.S. and coalition partners while also training the Afghan National Security Forces to become a self-sustaining combat force so they can protect their country. In order to accomplish the strategic objectives, some troops conduct operations against insurgent forces while others devote their time to training Afghan forces.

I’ve been in-country for three months and work for a staff that trains and equips the Afghan army and police to fight enemy forces alongside coalition troops.  My job is to track the status of the Afghan Nation Army’s combat readiness by collecting readiness, logistics and personnel data for eventual presentation to our military leadership. This is primarily a desk job that allows me to enjoy the perks of FOB life. However, when I’m required to go to meetings, training events or do any other travel outside the wire, fear of the unknown is a constant companion.

What does it feel like to be in a place where the enemy is everywhere and nowhere at the same time? On a scorching June morning , I put on my body armor and prep my weapons for a map reconnaissance mission around the city of Kabul to familiarize myself with the combat environment where we’ll be operating. I silently walk to the pre-mission briefing with the extra 50 pounds of protections weighing me down.  After learning the specifics of our mission, our team loads into vehicles and departs the base.

The view from the window of a street in Kabul.

My heart pounds a little more rapidly as I watch my concrete safety blanket slowly fade into the background and our vehicles enter the slums of Kabul. Cramped in the backside of the second vehicle, I intensely observe local nationals for any abnormal behavior, even though I don’t know what that really looks like. I fear that every vehicle that swerves near me is a potential vehicle-borne improvised explosive device (IED). My mind contours to a reality where the smiling local kids that we pass might be threats; in the past, they have been used by the Taliban to throw grenades at coalition vehicles. Every traffic jam we encounter becomes a potential ambush. The man on the bicycle with his face covered could be a suicide bomber; I’ve seen video of it. The Taliban become phantoms that are everywhere, laying in wait among the shadows. Each time we stop, I step out of my vehicle and my eyes nervously dart left and right. I keep visual awareness of every Afghan civilian even if they are innocently heading home from the market or going to the mosque for worship.  I can’t help but wonder: What if they really want to kill me and are hiding an AK-47 or bomb under their clothing?

Then there are the threats from hidden IEDs—pressure plates, command wire, remote controlled and explosively formed projectiles, to name a few. Servicemen and women are taught that IEDs can be placed anywhere and be disguised as anything. How do I protect myself when common trash, a broken-down vehicle or dead dog can potentially be hiding a one-way ticket to heaven? All of the counter-IED training makes my mind work in overdrive as I scan for signs of impending danger. Is that bridge a threat? That culvert is the perfect spot for a strike. Is this dirt trail safe? I know the enemy is watching my every move and waiting for the perfect opportunity to strike.

I only begin to breathe easier when the gates of the base come into view.

Frederick K. Espy “outside the wire” in Afghanistan.
Frederick K. Espy (Col ’05) is a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy currently serving at Camp Phoenix, Afghanistan.