Meaningless Medals: Infantry in Afghanistan

Journal of Political Risk, Vol. 8, No. 1, January 2019 

Heath B. Hansen

U.S. Army

Circa January 2006, during a mission on the way back to Gardez, Afghanistan. An IED was planted in the road on the K-G Pass (Khost-Gardez). The author, SPC Heath B. Hansen, is in the turret of the humvee, behind an M-240B machine gun. In the background, 1st Platoon, C company, 2/504 PIR, 82nd Airborne inspects the site of the IED explosion from moments prior.

March 2006. My tour was over. I had survived. No more fire-fights. No more IED’s. No more raids. No more rocket-attacks. I was going home. Many servicemen spend time in-country without ever leaving “the wire” (the safety of the walls, fortifications  and/or razor-wire of their base). As an infantryman, I basically lived outside the wire. Being shot at, getting hit by roadside bombs, capturing Taliban fighters, etc., was just part of the job. There was no special recognition, accolades or atta-boys conferred upon me. Infantrymen just do what is expected of them.

We had flown out of Bagram Air Base and landed a little over an hour later at Manas Air Base located in Northern Kyrgyzstan. Our plane touched down and we were escorted to large, white, “clamshell” tents, designed for units in transit. My squad found cots immediately next to each other and dropped our gear. It was official, we were no longer in Afghanistan. We had completed the first leg of our journey back to Fort Bragg, North Carolina.

I woke up to a dark tent the following morning. Small, ambient lights pierced the darkness from laptop computers on soldier’s cots randomly distributed throughout the clamshell. “Hansen, grab your weapon, we’re gonna get chow,” my team leader loudly whispered. “Roger that,” I replied. Even though we were no longer in a combat zone, we had to have our sensitive items (weapons, night-vision goggles, optics, etc.) with us at all times. I grabbed my gear and headed to the chow hall with my fire-team. I was hungry.

We entered the dining facility and headed straight for the serving line. During my deployment, I had lost about 10 pounds humping the mountains of Afghanistan- it was time to put some weight back on. Manas Air Base was well stocked with everything I craved, so I decided to help myself. I loaded my cardboard food tray with eggs, bacon, sausage, toast, butter and gravy; steam rose from the food as I made my way through the serving line. Moisture from the gravy soaked into the tray and the weight of the food caused it to bend. I tucked my plasticware into my pocket and grabbed the other end of the collapsing platter with my free hand as I made my way to the table. I was going to enjoy this meal.

As I sat down, I noticed three officers approach the table to the left of me- two majors and a lieutenant-colonel. “Great. Three field-grade officers decide to sit two feet away from me,” I thought to myself. They were all wearing tan flight suits. I greeted them with a monotone, “Good morning, gentlemen,” as they sat down adjacent to me. I quickly returned to my food.

The guys in my fire-team conversed while I watched the Armed Forces Network (AFN) broadcast on the television mounted to the wall near my table. The officers had sat down and began eating their morning meal and talking amongst themselves. I was completely content, eating my huge breakfast, watching the news, not being bothered by anyone. It was exactly what I wanted- enjoying my food in peace.

My buddies continued chatting and I continued eating and watching the news. I heard someone say, “Hey, soldier,” but I was sure whichever soldier that person was addressing, was not me. In my peripheral vision, I saw the lieutenant-colonel face me directly, and repeat, “Hey, soldier.” I figured he was going to scold me for something I was, or was not doing, or comment on the plethora of things wrong with my uniform. I prepared myself for an ass-chewing.

“Sir?” I replied, questioningly. Getting ready to pretend to care what he had to say about my shortcomings as a serviceman, I looked him right in the eyes and stared, intently. “You’re an infantryman, right?” he asked. Maybe it was the worn out soles, and torn canvas, on my boots. Maybe it was the faded, fraying, and ripped uniform. Maybe it was the exposed metal from excessive cleaning and use on my weapon. Maybe it was the 82nd Airborne patch on my shoulder. Maybe he could just see it on my face; but somehow, he knew, I was a grunt. “Roger that, sir, I’m infantry,” I replied.

The lieutenant-colonel stared for a couple of seconds and said, “I just want to tell you that its guys like you who are the heroes out there. You guys on the ground, in the dirt, in the mountains, fighting the Taliban, are why we, as pilots, do our job. The infantry is the reason the rest of the military functions; it’s all to support you. Thank you.” I was taken aback. This was not what I expected to hear. I suddenly remembered numerous times I had been in TIC’s (Troops In Contact).  Witnessing bombs go off next to me. Having bullets fly by me. Seeing people die. My buddies and I were absolutely the guys on the ground. This was the first time anyone had acknowledged the uniqueness of our service. It felt good- very good. I thanked him. It was the most sincere gratitude I had ever given anyone. What he said meant a lot to me.

My fire-team and I finished our meals. We grabbed our trays and began to head out of the chow hall. As I left, I made eye contact with the lieutenant-colonel and gave him a nod to thank him one more time. He nodded back.

I would be in transit for a few more days before eventually making it back to Green Ramp at Pope Air Force Base. From Green Ramp, my unit was loaded onto buses and driven back to our battalion area at Fort Bragg. After turning in our weapons and sensitive items to the armory, we were released for the weekend. A year had passed and I was back in the same spot where it had all begun.

My buddy and I began walking to the barracks. “Hey, Hansen, remember the time we had to stop at the air base to pick up vehicle parts and mail, and they gave us one hour to run to the PX and the Burger King, before returning to FOB Gardez?” I replied, “Yeah, what about it?” My friend smirked, and then said, “Do you remember how we ran to pick up burgers, sat down with our food and started eating. We could hear those POG’s talking next to us?” POG is a derogatory term used by infantrymen to describe Persons Other than Grunts in the military. “Haha! Yeah, how that commander was putting in one of her soldiers for a bronze star because he lost weight on deployment?” I replied. We both laughed. My friend responded, “It’s crazy, all the things we did, all the attacks we survived, all the missions we completed, and we don’t get anything. But a POG gets a bronze star for losing weight and maintaining the Army standard?”

We made our way up the stairway to our barracks rooms. I thought about what the lieutenant-colonel had said to me in the chow hall, and how much I appreciated his words. I looked at my squad mate, shrugged, and said, “Yeah, bro, medals and awards don’t mean anything. I’m just glad to be home.” “True,” he replied, “None of it matters. Let’s get drunk tonight.” Grinning, I said, “Let’s do what’s expected of infantrymen.”

Heath B. Hansen joined the U.S. Army in 2004, got orders to the 82nd Airborne Division, deployed to Afghanistan from 2005 to 2006, and deployed to Iraq from 2007 to 2008. He received the Combat Infantry Badge, Parachutist Badge, Australian Parachutist Wings, Operation Enduring Freedom Medal and Operation Iraqi Freedom Medal. JPR Status: Opinion.