Doha, Qatar, summer 2010. My bottle of frozen water is warm after the 100-yard walk from the chow hall to my tent. My flight to Afghanistan leaves in fifteen minutes. I won’t return for six months. They issue me my weapon and body armor. They give me my final instructions. I walk across the runway and feel the heat resonate up my legs. The C-130 lowers its cargo door and we shuffle inside.
-65.2° to 176° Fahrenheit
The operating temperature of the 5.56mm round that goes into my M4 Carbine. I have ninety of them hanging on my vest. This means that when everything else breaks, I can still shoot something.
I haven’t shot anyone yet. Most of us haven’t. We awkwardly sling our rifles over our backs and slam them into doorways and kneecaps. We attach scopes we hope to never use. I make sure it’s in the background whenever I’m on Skype.
The temperature at which my iPod officially stops working. I throw it across the room and it bounces off the plywood wall. I’m on a random mountain in Afghanistan. I haven’t slept in 32 hours. I curl into my sleeping bag and try to shiver myself to sleep. My M4 is a foot away. It’s loaded. I stare through the bullet holes in the tin door and see the full moon outside.
The amount the temperature drops with every thousand feet of altitude. The loadmaster opens the Blackhawk doors so the gunners can respond to any threat during takeoff. The wind whips through the helicopter and smacks me in the face. My helmet is the only reason is doesn’t rip off my cap. I shove my hands into my pockets and fold my legs into my chest. I left my gloves in the tent.
I look at the soldier across from me. He’s carrying a sniper rifle. He looks up and smiles – he’s just as cold as I am. The higher we fly, the colder it gets. I look out the door and see mountains. They’re covered with trees. In the distance I see taller mountains covered in snow. The sun rises over the range and everything is colored gold. I’ve never seen a more beautiful landscape.
The steeping point of Rooibos tea from Teavana. Someone must have sent it in a care package. I don’t care about the perfect cup – I just want something warm. I pour boiling water over the tea leaves. I set my stopwatch for 5-6 minutes and look around. I just landed back at the front office and I’m the dirtiest thing in this room. I unsling my M4 and lean it against my desk. I take off the forty pounds of armor and drop it to the floor.
I need a shower. I need sleep. I need to slow down before I burn out.
I log onto my computer and start responding to emails. The phone rings. My colleagues come back from lunch. I don’t get to sleep for another fourteen hours. I forget all about my tea.
The operating temperature of the human body. The temperature of the blood that flows through your veins. The temperature of the blood that pours from shrapnel wounds and seeps along the floor of the Heath Craige Joint Theater Hospital in Bagram. I’m here to get an infection on my foot looked at. Two soldiers are being medevaced to Rammstein after an IED went off during a routine patrol. The ambulance idles outside. The flight crew is fueling a C-17 on the runway. Angry passengers walk out of the air terminal complaining that their flight was being rerouted to Germany. I step over the trail of blood and fill out the sign-up sheet for sick call.
My plane leaves in a month.
For more wartime writing, please see Daniel Britt’s notes on traveling overland through Iraq and Afghanistan.