Wartime Reflections: Showers, Port-a-Potties, and the Affliction of Men

by | 24 Aug, 2017 | 11 comments

My daughters confronted me as my deployment drew near. They demanded to know why I never told them any war stories. Their questions caught me a bit off guard and I assured them that I did have a few war stories but certainly none as amazing as this one, or this, or even this one. 

I’ve been surrounded by war heroes for the last 17 years, men who have repeatedly taken the fight to the enemies of righteousness even sacrificing their all. I consider myself fortunate to even be counted amongst their numbers. Yet, sometimes when I recollect upon my wartime experiences, some different thoughts come to mind. 

Things get amplified in combat and other than the destruction of the enemy, all things take a backseat to the pursuit of a measure of comfort. Frequently, comfort revolves around the most basic of needs…sleep, food, and yes, where we use the bathroom.

Rinsing Off

The shower trailers at Balad were an absolute abomination. The shower curtains were made from the thinnest possible material and as they’d been there for some time, were stained a ruddish brown/off white type color. Who knew what manner of microbes occupied their filthy surface. For some strange reason, the airflow of the trailer placed you in a persistent vortex as the curtains blew inward, into the shower stall. You had two choices, retreat until you literally had about a third of the shower stall to use and risk incidental contact with the shower wall or engage in a series of punches, driving the offending curtain temporarily out of the shower. Woe be the unwitting soldier who found himself with a shower curtain wrapped around his leg or draped across his back or worse. One of my comrades secured two large butterfly clips and would clip both sides of the curtain to the stall walls prior to showering. Pure genius. 

For some reason, every shower trailer had significant drainage issues. Now, we figured this out years ago in the states but for some reason, the second you started the water, the drain would begin backing up into the shower stall floor. My guess was improper venting. Your shower shoes would shield you, depending on their thickness, for a few minutes until you found yourself straddling the stall floor desperately trying to finish washing while staying out of the rising tide that contained all manner of unmentionable filth—body hair, urine and other, ahem, bodily fluids, dirt, grime. (Okay, I’m going to yack if I continue) I always wanted someone to invent platform shower shoes. 

The shower trailer at Kandahar was a monstrosity. Crafted from an old metal shipping container, it was dark and musty. The moisture continually condensed on the rusty ceiling and fell in a never-ending shower of contaminated droplets. I discovered this during my first shower as I turned my face skyward only to receive a direct hit to my mouth. Whoever designed the trailer installed extra wide shower stalls, a bonus, until you assessed the remaining space between the showers and the wall. This fact confronted me as I stood at the sinks preparing to exfil and eyed the squad of naked Rangers in various stages of drying off between me and the trailer exit. Front or back, which side do I expose and which is the greatest risk of incidental contact? I don’t remember which I chose. I must’ve blocked that memory out. 

I made a horrific mistake on that trip and actually forgot my shower shoes. Showering involved wearing my combat boots to the trailer, removing them, and standing on the tiniest edge of my feet that I could muster, quickly drying off, donning my combat boots before trudging back to my tent to remove them so I could finish getting dressed. A few days later, I secured replacements. I never made that mistake again. 

Early in the war, I was showering in the Baghdad tent when the local cleaning crew barged in and turned on all the sinks to over-flow so they could mop. “Hey,” I shouted. “Someone’s still in hear!” They continued jabbering in Arabic, oblivious to my naked presence. “Hey!” No response. Finally, I did the only thing I could think of. I marched out, naked as the day I was born, and angrily confronted the crew letting them know I was not quite finished. Eyes wide, they practically knocked one another over exiting the tent, chattering excitedly. After drying off, I went out and confronted their escort and informed him in so many words that he ought to consider checking the shower tent before sending in the crew in the future. 

The fire support officer possessed a wonderful, purple bathrobe. He’d emerge from the shower tent, regal in his comportment, pause for a second as if to say, “Check me out,” before strutting to his tent, leaving all astonished at his princely affectation. 

The Mad Crapper struck that very same shower tent. I’d always assumed it was a Ranger though I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s because crapping in a shower tent was something I thought a Ranger might be capable of. Ostensibly, this was the third or fourth place he’d struck and he became the subject of much urban lore. Sir, if you’re out there, much respect. 

Urgent Business 

The pee tubes at Baghdad were pretty interesting. Someone of brilliance had driven a collection of PVC pipes at odd angles into the ground. They terminated at just the right height so that at any particular time, you might look and see four or five grown men looking like their junk is glued inside of large, slanted PVC pipes. Quite an interesting scene though their use quickly fell from favor. I never saw them again. 

One just cannot appreciate indoor plumbing until you are working nights and have to wake up in the middle of the day to pee. You quietly open your tent flap so as not to awake your tent-mates and then stumble 100 feet across the gravel lot, squinting in the bright desert heat, to the nearest port-a-potty.  

I never appreciated some of the decisions I’ve been confronted with. Do you brush your teeth where men crap or where men shower? I’d debated this topic for some time before deciding that at all cost, I would not brush my teeth three feet from a dude taking a dump. I’d read about airborne particulate matter and in no way did I want any contamination on my tooth brush. I could merely avert my gaze if in the vicinity of naked men. They possessed no capacity to influence my toothbrush. 

The poo pond was an entirely different affair. Those who’ve served at Kandahar remember. For some amazing reason, the entire cantonment area had been constructed around a giant pool of processed sewage. I lived about 100 meters from the poo pond and enroute chow, would literally have to circumnavigate its glorious perimeter. Even holding my breath, I could feel the particles clinging to my sweaty skin. You could taste it. If one day I’m diagnosed with the brown lung, I’ll know where it came from. 

Mission Issues

Bathroom shenanigans on mission presented greater challenges. One of our crew chiefs developed a horrid case of the scoots. At the FARP getting gas that night, he frantically grabbed a plastic trash bag and sprinted over by the nearest HESCO to relieve his suffering. Unknown to him, a clever pilot had turned his FLIR onto him and hit record. Following the mission, we mustered all the crews for a viewing of the infrared video. It sees heat! Clear as day, he sprints to the HESCO, urgently drops his drawers, squats over the bag and…okay, it sees heat! You get the picture! These images are seared in my memory. 

A dude I used to fly with became notorious for possessing the uncanny ability to crap in the front seat of a Blackhawk, while in flight! I’ve never witnessed a greater feat of airmanship that I recall. My astonishment that anyone would make such an attempt was only exceeded by my surprise at his successful accomplishment of the act as he handed his double-bagged product over the center console to the crew chief in the rear for safe disposal. 

I still recall the worst smell I’ve had the privilege of experiencing. Rangers again. Inbound to the objective, I heard the JOC crew giving target updates. All clear except for a dog patrolling the intended infil point. Hmmm, never heard that before. After a successful assault, we returned some time later for exfil when it hit me. As the Rangers climbed into the back of my aircraft a powerfully repulsive smell assaulted my senses. “What is that?!” I inquired of my crew chiefs.  

“Sir, they’ve got something in a trash bag and it’s leaking all over the cabin floor. That’s what you’re smelling.” 

“Those sick sons-of-gun killed that dog,” was my first thought. 

Later I learned that while patrolling across an adjacent field, a young Ranger had fallen into a bathroom pit the locals had dug. He had literally submerged entirely in human waste. After dragging him out, they assaulted the objective, secured it, and marshalled the occupants in a single room. The young Ranger disrobed and showered, right there in the local Iraqi home. He then donned a man-dress they commandeered from one of the occupants which he wore for the remainder of the mission. The plastic bag we smelled contained all of his battle kit and his filthy uniform. I’m told that after a number of shots and several days in the infirmary, he made a full recovery. 

Me on the other hand, I’m quite sure. But if I think hard enough, I’m sure I can come up with some better war stories than these…

 

 

 

 

11 Comments

  1. Dustin Herzog

    Who said war was paradise? No one. All of us combat veterans suffered through the same stuff. Would I do it again? You bet!!!!
    I didn’t ask congress to send me to war with a spit shined crapper or shower stalls. Showers????? Didn’t even know what they were. Warm chow? From an MRE heater. Stop complaining!!!

    Reply
    • Bradford Smith

      Sir, this was all meant to be in jest. No complaining. Sorry that you took it that way. I must not have communicated well and I too would do it all again in a heartbeat. Thanks for your service!

      Reply
      • Darsell

        I laughed. Because you have to find something to laugh at rather than remember ing the pain. Thank you for your service sir.

        Reply
  2. Pedro Gonzalez

    All of those remind me of the outdoor showers and poop burning while serving in OIF I. Great read.

    Reply
  3. N. Young

    Enjoyed the article sir! Brings great and vivid memories to the forefront. NSDQ!

    Reply
  4. Chris

    You had showers? With running water? Desert Shield/Storm (back when it was hard): The luxury of gravity fed plywood showers with the water heated by the sun at Camp Eagle, then a 6 week stretch with no showers in our defense/attack positions followed by one session in a WWII era mobile field shower in a GP medium just prior to LD and then another 6 week stretch washing out of a canteen cup. Latrines: use the burn barrel shitters, the piss tubes, or dig your own!

    Reply
    • Bradford Smith

      I joined just after Desert Shield/Storm. Thanks for your service! Things were a little different in OEF/OIF during the initial invasions, probably similar to DS/DS. After years and years of persistent presence, they steadily added things like showers and latrine tents.

      Reply
  5. Kelly

    A great read that captures the “essence” of war. The cartoons at the latrines in Balad always cracked me up. You did leave out the awesome ruling sensation that you would get when you excited your chu.

    Reply
  6. Bill Savage

    As a Vietnam vet (’66), it ‘s interesting to see somethings never change. Yup, I burned barrels of poo, and we had a 32 hole latrine with no walls or roof – flies loved it. Can’t believe, however, you are talking about shower curtains. When I took a shower (cold water only), Mama San was on the floor under me using my shower water to wash someone’s clothes.

    Reply
    • Bradford Smith

      No Sir, some things never change! Thank you for your service.

      Reply

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Bradford Smith

Bradford Smith

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Soldier, Pastor, Author – Bradford stays busy, with his wife Ami, raising their 9 children, serving the nation, pastoring, preaching, and writing books (#3 is due out October ’17).

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