By Jay Kirell
Sometimes the odds of survival in war come down to the smallest details. Details that begin, appropriately, in the beginning.
After graduating basic training, like sea turtles hatching from clusters of eggs on the beach – hundreds of brand new soldiers spread out across the country towards their first unit.
In my case, I was at Fort Benning, Georgia for basic training – where all future infantrymen go to learn how to do infantryman things – basically everything you see in a movie about war (nobody really makes war movies about the cooks and supply guys).
Four years ago this month I graduated from Fort Benning. Originally I was assigned to the 10th Mountain Division in upstate New York, but my orders changed at the last minute and I was reassigned to the 101st Airborne in Kentucky.
I graduated on May 7th and didn’t arrive at Fort Campbell until May 13th. Two days later nearly every brigade on post deployed for Afghanistan. What was left behind was a skeleton crew of civilian workers, injured leadership, soldiers medically-unfit-for-deployment, and guys who had just returned from Iraq and had to wait a few more months before they were allowed to deploy to war again.
This is what I, and about seven other recent basic training graduates walked into when we arrived in “The Big Army” for the first time.
The rear-detachment company we ended up in was run by an injured Staff Sergeant, with one sergeant on dwell time from Iraq and five medically-unfit specialists waiting to be separated. One of them was supposedly facing charges from some incident in Iraq involving a family and a few young girls, and looked like the type of guy who would have been involved in something like that.
The first three weeks I spent in the rear-detachment unit consisted of physical training in the morning, cleaning the company area in the afternoon and waiting around to leave at 4:00 every day. All the while the specialists and the sergeant who were there did their best to torture us with questions about Army knowledge that eight privates straight out of basic would have no clue about.
When Memorial Day weekend rolled around myself and another new private were tasked with Brigade CQ duty (basically sitting at a desk, answering phones for 24 hours straight). We awkwardly fielded phone calls from guys in Afghanistan who were calling back to their wives on base. They just wanted to let them know they were okay.
The first few weeks after our Brigade landed in Afghanistan they started taking casualties. Being in rear-detachment the whole time during the initial push into Kandahar, we would get reports of two soldiers being blown up in an IED attack here, another three getting shot over there. One company lost six guys alone before the first month of fighting was over.
They were calling it a “meat grinder” already, the specialists who were with us. They liked to play mind games with the new guys, saying some of us wouldn’t last a month over there.
The Tuesday after Memorial Day weekend the new guys and I came in for first formation. On the whiteboard behind the conference table in the company were eight names.
My name, and the names of the seven other new guys. Beside them were their corresponding odds of being the first to die in Afghanistan.
- Thomas 30-1
- McKiver 40-1
- Greene 30-1
- Alexander 10-1
- Nichols 40-1
- Perez 30-1
- Davidson 20-1
- Kirell 2-1
Yes, I was the overwhelming favorite to die first. I was the oldest, slowest, weakest and most un-infantry of all the new privates.
I can’t really blame them. I probably would’ve picked me too.
When the staff sergeant came in that morning he told us to get ready, that we’d be leaving in two weeks for Afghanistan. I had to go around to the Central Issue Facility and get all the gear I’d need to take with me. I had to go fill out a will and a power of attorney and life insurance stuff – the mundane fine print of going to war.
Two weeks later I was on a plane headed for Germany, and then Kyrgyzstan, before finally arriving in Afghanistan.
It would be the start of my year-long war experience, an experience I’ll remember as the year I defied the odds and didn’t die, thereby not being one of the many honored on this Memorial Day.
In fact, nobody in my platoon died during our tour in Afghanistan, making us one of the few infantry platoons in Kandahar that didn’t suffer a loss. Talk about defying the odds.
The same can’t be said of the 10th Mountain Division unit that replaced us. From what I heard they suffered massive casualties when they took over our outpost after we switched out. The casualty rate was so high the outpost was eventually razed to the ground because it couldn’t be adequately defended.
That 10th Mountain unit ended up limping through the rest of their deployment at the nearest FOB.
I bring that up because, as I mentioned earlier, the odds of survival in war come down to the smallest details. That unit that replaced us in Afghanistan, the one that suffered more casualties in the first six weeks than we did all deployment…
…was the unit I was originally assigned to coming out of basic training.