Note: I do have photographs to accompany this post. I simply can’t access them on my computer as of Feb. 20, 2012. Check back, please, and I’ll post the photos as soon as I’m able.

At 0500 on Feb. 14, 2012, Sgt. Robert Taylor, 30, from Tampa, Fl., and Pfc. Michael Stein, 23, from Rochester, NY, are one hour into their 0400 to 0800 guard duty in Tower 3 at Khenjakak.

“Happy Valentine’s Day,” Taylor says. “We’ve got a nice romantic Afghanistan night under the moonlight.”

“It’s too cold to get naked,” Taylor says, joking. His breath is visible when he talks.

Joking is one the ways the soldiers pass the time in the tower and keep their minds off the cold. Soldiers from 3rd Platoon, Charlie Co. man Tower 3, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, in four-hour shifts.

On a shift a few nights earlier, Taylor gave Pvt. Fred Resende, 20, from Long Island, NY, a brief dance lesson. In the 6-ft. by 8-ft. box on top of the wall that rings the base, Taylor taught Resende the waltz and the two-step.

Anything to pass the time and chase away the cold.

Tonight, Taylor and Stein are layered against the elements.

“One, two, three, four, five on top,” Taylor says, counting the layers of clothing he donned for his shift. “Three down below.”

“Four up top. Three on my legs and a really thick pair of socks,” Stein says.

Though the night is cold, both soldiers agree guard duty is much better than last fall, when they were building their camp.

“It was a lot worse where we were before. This is Club Med,” Stein says. “This place is a lot safer. No grape rows that they (the “bad guys”) can weave in and out of and pop up and shoot at us.”

When Charlie Co. arrived at Khenjakak in September 2011, they had few defenses or facilities.  No gravel.  No reinforced wall. Just three tents. They built their wooden Tactical Operating Center and raised tents to house and serve the platoon soldiers.

“When we took over this compound, we were by ourselves,” Taylor says. “If you weren’t in the guard tower, you were building this place. That strung us out pretty well.”

“Seventy trucks a day with gravel,” Taylor says. “We had to search every one. Very little sleep was had.”

Building the base built strong bonds among the soldiers. And standing guard together strengthens them.

“Sgt. Summers figured it out,” Taylor says. “Of a year of deployment, we’ll spend four months in the tower.”

During the dark hours, they talk.

“Love, sex, women. It’s totally true since the beginning of time,” Taylor says of one of soldiers’ favorite topics of conversation. “You talk about what you’ve done. What you haven’t done. What you’re looking forward to doing.

“You talk about the girl you love,” says Taylor, who proposed to his girlfriend, Liza, on leave. “Or in Stein’s case–finances.”

At 0535, the local muezzin’s voice fills the air with the call to prayer.

“The hardest part is not looking at your watch every 15 minutes,” Taylor says.

At 0600, it’s radio check.

“This is Tower 3. Got you loud and clear.”

“We look forward to radio check,” Stein says. “It means another hour’s gone by.”

They remember training together at NTC at Fort Irwin, Calif. a year ago in February 2011.  Another time when they battled the cold. The platoon got rained on and they had to huddle together to stay warm.

“It was a pile of snakes. Coiled together. Spooning together,” Taylor says, and laughs at the memory. They needed to fight hypothermia with their body heat.

“Our platoon’s been really fortunate with camaraderie. At the end of the day, we’re more of a family than any of the other platoons. And that’s comforting.”

Though they do fight and let off steam.

“Somebody will be in a bad mood. When you’re pissed off, you just kinda go off,” Stein says. And 10 minutes later, the same soldiers are joking and talking like brothers again. “Everybody’s got their own sh*t to worry about.”

In the last few months, the platoon has settled into a life paced by the potential intensity of patrolling and the boredom of guard duty.

“We’ve got ourselves a battle rhythm,” Taylor says. “A squad pulls patrol three days then the other two squads will pull guard.”

Taylor is with second squad; Stein is with third.

With the darkness lifting, Stein lights a cigarette.

“I didn’t smoke till I got here. Marlboro Reds. High test.”

Taylor drinks Standing Rock.

“Tastes horrible but it’s got caffeine.”

Stein looks at his watch. 0637.

“Once it gets brighter, people start moving around. The jackals are starting to go away,” says Stein, who points to two lean jackals trotting across the desert toward the horizon. “Time starts passing quicker.”

And their thoughts turn to food and sleep.

“The last hour’s always the worst cuz you’re anxious to leave.”

At 0700, the sun clears the clouds.

“Food’s all I’m thinking about,” Stein says. “You go back to the basics around here.”

Taylor said he had a tough time on leave when he heard people complain….about traffic, about their jobs, about the weather.

“I walked three klicks with a f*ckin’ mine sweeper looking for IEDs,” Taylor says. That’s what he feels like saying to the folks who complain. He doesn’t.

And then he speaks again: “All of us volunteered. My SAW gunner, he’s 19. He’s watching The Pacific. He said: ‘We’re pussies compared to them.'”

Both soldiers are quick to acknowledge that even a tough night on guard duty or hard times in Panjawa’i are nothing compared to the conditions soldiers endured in Vietnam and WWII.

At 0730, their replacements arrive, a welcome sight and ahead of schedule.

“Breakfast. Then right to my room and climb into bed,” Taylor says. “We’ll get an opportunity to sleep. We’ll get at least four hours off.”

As he and Stein walk across the gravel toward the chow hall, he turns and fires off one more joke before calling it a night.

“I can’t believe I had a woman in the guard toward and I behaved myself.”

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