Thursday, March 31, 2005

Hey, GI, your number one?

Warning - if the pointy rocks story bothered you, this one won't help.

I'm not sure why so much of the stories I have from Afghanistan revolve around excretory functions. Part of it is probably because it's just a guy thing: The same sort of sophomoric humor that was funny at a Boy Scout Camporee is still funny in the outback of Afghanistan. (In fact, an old saw asks, "What's the difference between Special Forces and the Boy Scouts? Boy Scouts have adult supervision.")

And part of it is probably because for some reason, the change in bathroom habits comes to symbolize all of the other privations a combat tour in a third world country bring about. Until you've done without them for an extended period of time, you don't really appreciate how nice a warm bathroom with sit-down porcelein facilities really is. It's bad enough to go without the Internet for months at a time, or to not have TV, or even electrical power at night - but not being able to use the bathroom without having to walk to a PVC pipe or a wooden outhouse 50 yards away from the sleeping area just seems like more than a modern American should have to bear. It's like turning your back on everything that Western Civilization, Capitalism, and the Industrial Revolution has accomplished for us.

But that's exactly what we had to do: Indoor plumbing is almost non-existent on Army outposts in Afghanistan, and is rare even at the bases at Bagram and Kandahar. While the level of sophistication varies from the simple "piss tube" ( a PVC pipe set up out in the open and routed into the ground) common at A-camps to more rare full-blown porcelain experience with private stall (no waiting) at Kabul or Bagram, the common factor is that latrines are located in a separate facility, and are some distance from the sleeping areas. And woe betide the soldier caught pissing against the side of his tent or hut. We've all done it, in extremis, but it really does quickly stink up the area - not to mention the flies it attracts - so it's a rare act only justified by extreme emergency.

So, to avoid the long late-night walk to the latrine, many soldiers used "piss bottles." (Let me interject here that the following comments only apply to the male of the species - I don't know how the women handled the same issue, and I'm not sure I want to. I do know that I don't have the courage to actually ask on who was over there how she dealt with it.) At any rate, among the men, bottled water bottles or other drink bottles were pressed into service to recycle beverages late at night right there at the bedside, without requiring getting dressed and venturing out for a brisk, sleep-disturbing walk.

Gatorade bottles were particularly prized for their relatively wide mouth. Bottled water bottles were more tricky, since they had a relatively narrow mouth that required precise aim, usually involving direct skin to bottle contact for maximum success. Accurate aim was critical, which was sometimes difficult in the dark. It was important, though, since the results of even a near miss could be tragic - if the stream was directed against the side of the bottle opening instead of straight down into the bottle, there was a real risk of developing too much backpressure, which disturbed both the operator and those nearby, since the swearing which accompanied spraying oneself or one's sleeping area often woke everyone else up.

Also, it was very important that the cap still be present, so the bottle could be neatly sealed for disposal the next morning. It was a definite etiquette violation not to get rid of the bottle very first thing in the morning. One of our guys used to say "There are two kinds of people in the world, those who use piss-bottles and those who don't. And there are two kinds of people who use piss-bottles, those who throw them away and those who don't." Peer pressure pretty quickly took care of those few people who weren't assiduous about getting rid of their bottles, but there were worse things that could happen to them.

During the period that we were temporarily assigned to Asadabad,we ended up sharing a hootch with one of the Army doctors who was up there doing medical care for the civilians in the area. One night right before bedtime, we had just cut the lights in the tent off and those of us who were still getting ready for bed were using our headlamps or flashlights to deal with last-minute activities before turning in. Doc Hagan was in his rack, getting ready to turn in for the night, and was taking a vitamin pill before going to sleep. He put the pill in his mouth, reached down for the water bottle he had beside his bunk, uncapped it, and took a deep drink to wash the pill down.

Suddenly, there was a fit of spraying, gagging and hacking coming from his bed. Doc Hagan lept up from his bed, and rushed outside, flipping the light on and grabbing several water bottles from the stack by the front door of the tent as he went by. There was a great sound of gargling, hacking, and spitting coming from outside the door. After a few minutes, the gargling became interspersed with swearing. Doc Hagan came back in, still swearing, grabbed a few more water bottles, and headed right back out. Yet more swishing and swearing came from outside. Finally, he walked back into the tent, looking about as disgruntled as I've ever seen a man look. What had happened, of course, is that he grabbed the wrong bottle in the dark, and tried to wash the pill down with last night's leftover urine instead of the much fresher bottle of water he had opened that evening.

He was bitching up a storm, of course, and the rest of us were pretty horrified. Dan finally asked him, "Hey man, was it your bottle?" "Well, yeah," Doc Hagan replied, "It was the bottle I left under my bed last night." So, Dan told him "Well, then, it could have been worse. It could have been someone else's bottle."

"Yeah, I guess it could have been." With that, Doc brightened up considerably and we settled back down to go to sleep, the quiet of the night broken only by sudden fits of suppressed laughter coming from nearby bunks. Oh, yeah, and the mortars that went off right behind our hut at about 3am. But, one good thing came out of it: Doc Hagan was religous about getting rid of his used bottles from then on.


Blogger Chevy Rose said...

Laughing with tears in eyes over your description of using bottle. I took g-son on road trip to Florida couple years back, and as happens with 8 yr olds, he needed to 'potty' in middle of no-where on I10. Being the old Girl Scout that I am, I pull over to shoulder and dumped the homemade cookies out of the small zip-lock bag. Then while instructing him from the front seat, he partly zipped it onto himself and filled it. No dropping it or spillage. He was so 'relieved' and pleased that he told the family on his call that night what we did. It's a "Special Forced" memory for us. I really love your posts. Press on and God bless.

2:33 PM  
Blogger Subsunk said...

Sometimes it's the simple things in life we miss. I try to stay focused on those things when times are bad. I'm breathing, not hungry, and got some sleep. I'll survive.

Press on, youngster. The rest of us are loving your descriptions of the rest of the world.


4:08 PM  
Blogger Major Mike said...

While deployed to Aviano in '94 and living in the tent city, the "Major's" tent was conveniently located as far away from the head as phyically possible (Junior Officer antics at work here?). Anyway, I, having superior discipline refused to participate in the bottle method, but one of our tent mates was found to be stashing over 20 full bottles, a clear violoation of establishe protocol. After a serious flogging, they were all properly disposed of...interesting, he just got picked up for BG.

4:13 PM  
Anonymous Lilly said...

That's hilarious. You definitely have the gift of story telling. I know that you'd much rather live here than in Afghanistan, but the first few weeks or so after you came back, did you miss being out there or was it pretty easy to get used to being back?

5:56 PM  
Blogger Toni said...

Yes, bathroom humor is a guy thing and I know cause I have 5 brothers. That said, that was a great story. I burst out laughing as soon as 'Doc' lit up and ran out of the tent.

6:14 PM  
Anonymous Lorilei said...

Oh, how funny! Well I'm not in the army, but as a female that has gone tent camping, I've used a coffee can with the plastic lid to top it off. Don't have to worry about mistaking it for the water bottle that!!

9:34 PM  
Blogger devildog6771 said...

I loved you story. Now let me tell you one a little to the left of topic.

A friend of mine in the Corps grew up on a farm. Every year at Halloween the young boys waited for a neighbor to go to the outhouse after dark.They gave him enough time to be properly seated then turned over the out house.

Well, the old guy decided to get even. One year he waited until just before dark, when the boys couldn't see him and moved the outhouse over beside the hole in the ground.

After dark he went to the out house and closed the door and sat down and waited. The next sound he heard was, "oh my God help! pull me out of here!" "Uh! Uh! I'm not gonna touch you!" "Come on guys, please, help me out of here?"

The guy's out house never hot turned over again after that!!

7:32 AM  
Blogger Sobek said...

That was just way too funny. Keep the stories coming, and stay safe.

6:13 PM  
Blogger Sean from DocintheBox said...

Hah hah hah! Yeah, I make it a point to turn a light on every bottle before drinking out of it, specially when it's really hot or cold ourside. Yuck! Happened to one of my Marines last time out there, wish I had my camera out, well maybe not, he would have thought it was a set up and I'd probably still be trying to remove it from my rear.

12:06 AM  
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4:15 PM  

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