Driving can be unnerving. Driving in Afghanistan can be horrifying. Driving a HMMWV in Afghanistan can make you psychotic.
I have had the misfortune to be designated as the driver on several missions lately. Between vehicular malfunctions, hazardous roads and driving at night (with and without lights), I can safely say I’m lucky to be sane. Others on our team have been reduced to inventing new curse words from this experience.
First of all, we have become nearly full-time mechanics from HMMWV breakdowns. All of us have had to crawl under one of our 12,000 pound behemoths to do maintenance, especially “Sgt Rock.” He alone has enough hours under the hood to qualify him as an expert mechanic in almost any shop in America. Despite his lack of training for this distinction, he has replaced flywheels, oil pumps, transmission pans (along with filters and fluids), brakes, wheel bearings, air conditioner compressors, starters, tires, turret gears, ball joints, and serpentine belts - all on just our two vehicles. Most of these repairs have been on just one truck.
I helped him with the flywheel replacement, a two-day ordeal which involved taking the transmission bell housing and pulling in away from the engine. This primarily involved laying on our backs in the dirt under the truck. My part was to take apart the inside of the truck to get to the engine, then to work from the top while Sgt Rock worked from below. The flywheel itself is only about an inch thick, with about three inches on either side for working space. Many choice words and cut knuckles were involved in removing the damaged one (several gear teeth were worn down, making starting very difficult) and installing the new one. We all felt better when it was done, knowing our vehicle would actually start if we needed to move out in a hurry - I felt more secure knowing that our vehicle would do more than just make grinding noises if we were trying to get the damn thing started if we were suddenly shot at!
It’s not just our vehicle that seems to be possessed - all HMMWV’s here take a beating, and don’t manage to hold up well. It’s easy to understand: the original design was for a non-armored vehicle which would weigh about 6000 pounds. When all the body plate armor is added, the weight doubles, but the original engineering has not. In Iraq, where most of the roads are paved, this doesn’t seem to create too many problems. But here in Afghanistan, where the only paved surfaces are in a few major cities, traveling cross-country over rocks, huge dips and crevasses, and stream beds creates stresses on the suspension system and drive train, reducing most of our trucks to junk heaps within a few months. So we travel with tools and parts to repair as best we can, wherever we may happen to break down, which is usually in the middle of nowhere on some desert path that serves as a main road here.
The Army unit we work closely with, part of the 82nd Airborne, has had wheels fall off while driving, much to their consternation. It makes for a rather sudden stop, alarming the Soldiers inside and creating even more damage on the vehicle. Having a spare tire is not enough in situations like this - usually, one of the other trucks on the convoy has to go and get parts, while everyone else waits. Sometimes, if the repairs cannot be done by sundown, the entire convoy will have to stay there, sleeping as best they can inside the HMMWV’s, until they can begin repairs again the following day.
Besides vehicle breakdowns, driving can present other issues, especially driving at night. On Afghan dirt roads, where clouds of dust can cloud your view of the road easily by day, clouds of dust obstructing your view of the same roads at night can cause you to drive off the road and into a ditch if you’re not careful.
I have had a couple occasions to drive a HMMWV at night, and both occasions left me with a deep sense of fear, and great relief when I was done and safely home. Driving behind another HMMWV trying to peer through the cloud of dust to see where the road was, and which way the driver ahead of me went, had me clutching the steering wheel like a man crazed. There were times I had to stop, because I could not see anything - the lights shone into the dust cloud in front of me, leaving me blinded. Several times I had to shout up to my gunner in the turret on top to ask which way the road went. Sometimes, he didn’t wait for me to ask, because if he waited, I would have been off the road. He would shout, “Turn Right! Turn Right!” without any prompting from me for directions. One time, if he didn’t yell for me to stop, I would have plowed into the truck ahead of me without seeing it.
But this was not nearly as bad an experience as trying to drive with night vision glasses. I have had to drive without any lights, using a monocular device that allows a Soldier to peer into the dark. Everything turns to shades of green, and depth perception and peripheral vision are completely lost. Of course, the normal problems of driving at night in Afghanistan remain - terrible roads which twist, turn and go crazily up and down over rocks and streams, with clouds of dust in between. During this driving interlude, my night vision device got clouded up, first with sweat (we don’t have functional air conditioners in our vehicles, even though air conditioning is installed in every HMMWV - they just blow hot air), then with road dust. It took me some time before I realized that the reason I had a problem seeing was because my NVG’s (night vision goggles) were coated with dust on the lenses. With that realization came a problem - I couldn’t stop and take them off and clean them, because the convoy was moving, and I needed to, as well. So I swiped the lenses of the glass with my finger to clean it as best I could, then I wiped of the inside of the windshield as well. This helped a little, so then I wiped the lenses of my eyeglasses off to complete the dust removal, and was much better able to see, and therefore better equipped to drive. I still had to call out to my gunner several times for directions, though.
On one small hill, I couldn’t see over the ridge to follow the road. As I crested the hill and started to proceed straight ahead, I heard an entire chorus of my teammate passengers yell, “Right!” in unison, letting me know I was in error. At that point, I again began asking the gunner how to move forward, and he had to tell me specific directions, as if the driver was blind. For all intents and purposes, I was.
I actually began praying and thinking of hymns in my head to keep us safe: “Be Thou My Vision” and “Open My Eyes, That I May See” came instantly to my mind. My team chief at one point became concerned as to whether I would be able to get back to the FOB safely, and asked if I was OK. I replied, “I believe so, sir.” He was content to let me continue, and we returned to our base without mishap. I considered it an answer to prayer.
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The Rev. Charles P. Henderson is a Presbyterian minister and
Executive Director of CrossCurrents.
He is the author of God and Science (John Knox Press, 1986).
A revised and expanded version of the book is appearing here. God and Science (Hypertext Edition,
He is also editor of a new book, featuring articles by world class scientists and theologians, and illustrating the leading views on the relationship between science and religion: Faith, Science and the Future (CrossCurrents Press, 2007).
Charles also tracks the boundry between the virtual and the real at his blog: Next World Design, focusing on the mediation of art, science and spirituality in the metaverse.