1st Lt. Robert F. Welch III was walking to his barrack on a warm spring evening when the mortar round fired by insurgents hit nearby, sending shrapnel into his body and severing an artery. Shortly after, an unusual call was put out over the base’s loudspeaker, requesting that everyone with A+ blood type report to the hospital. Nearly 300 soldiers sprinted to line up and give their blood. Nevertheless, Welch died from his wounds later that day. In his mid-20s, the ordinance officer was on his first combat deployment and had been in Afghanistan for a few months, leaving behind his wife and their young baby, Robert F. Welch IV, in Fort Knox, Kentucky. In his book “The Wrong War,” Bing West wrote that death in battle is random. But you don’t have to be in battle to randomly die in Afghanistan. It could happen while you’re taking a stroll with a friend.
Forward Operating Base Salerno where Welch died is so close to Pakistan that people say insurgents can fire their mortars from across the border. Located in the southeastern part of Khost Province, sometimes called the “Parrot’s Beak” of Afghanistan, the base is currently home to the 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division. It was named after a beach on the Amalfi Coast in Italy that the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment landed on in September of 1943. Called Operation Avalanche, it was the first large-scale invasion of Europe by Allied Forces. Almost exactly 60 years later, an Italian light infantry battle group established FOB Salerno in the outlying and verdant wheat fields of Khost City. At first, the base was just a single concrete building with a sandbag perimeter. Today, it operates like a miniature city with a few thousand military and civilian citizens at work, doing errands at the bank or post-office, taking college courses, lifting weights at the gym, or attending church. Around the perimeter of the 300-acre base, people jog in the early morning light, before the sun begins to blaze and the heat sets in the valley floor.
Perhaps it’s just the name but it seems impossible to arrive at FOB Salerno and not think of Italy. A few of the paved avenues around the base are lined with towering eucalyptus trees whose long leaves rustle in the wind. The carefully spaced barracks are painted in pink and lemon tinges of white, evoking a Mediterranean sea-side town. As the base grew from a concrete building into a military metropolis, soldiers cleared acres of old orange and olive groves planted by Afghan farmers. But they left small pockets of trees and amidst the stench of portable toilets and diesel generators the smell of these groves in springtime is bewitching. The heady perfume from the white flowers populating the orange trees became so pungent in mid-April I saw it stop a person in their footsteps.
Despite these smells and sensations at Salerno, it’s impossible to forget you’re in wartime Afghanistan. In the early mornings, Apache helicopters that look like toys on strings flit around the nearby mountains and practice shooting rockets, which explode like lightning bolts. Wounded soldiers from surrounding combat outposts are evacuated daily to Salerno, where their arrival is announced over the base’s loudspeakers in a deep monotone voice in code phrases like “Dragon Red.” The base is hit with mortars so frequently it has acquired the name Rocket City.
A lot of soldiers have a harrowing story to tell involving a mortar.
“I was out jogging in the evening, when all the sudden I heard this whistling and 200 meters away…”
“I finished taking a shit and opened the door and right in front of me, WHAM!”
“I was washing my clothes that day… If I was three minutes late getting my laundry, it probably would have hit me.”
FOB Salerno has an early detection system for incoming fire and warnings are issued frequently over the loudspeakers. Supposedly, a person has about 20 seconds after the announcement and when the mortar will actually hit the base but without knowing where it will strike, this information is pretty useless. Most people seem to ignore the warnings and carry on as usual with whatever they’re doing. At first, I saw this as a denial of risk. But people on bases are 100 percent aware of the risk, and that their lives have become part of a lottery which they have no control over. “If it’s your time to go, it’s your time to go,” I heard people say over and over again
A month after 1st Lt. Welch died there was another death though not from a mortar. According to later reports, 1st Lt. Demetrius M. Frison of Lancaster, Pennsylvania stepped on an IED during a dismounted patrol outside the “wire” and died of his injuries at FOB Salerno. Whenever a soldier dies in Afghanistan, a “hero ceremony” is held, where the deceased’s military brothers and sisters congregate on the runway to salute the body as it is escorted onto a plane. Frison’s hero ceremony took place close to midnight on May 10 under the white light of a half moon. A few hundred soldiers marched onto the gravel airfield and stood at attention, then gave a slow salute as the ambulance carried Frison’s body through the middle of the ranks. As the vehicle came to a stop, the engines on the C17 plane also stopped and total silence descended. It was so quiet you could hear the squeak of the ambulance doors opening, and the footsteps of the four soldiers carrying Frison’s flag-shrouded body into the belly of the plane to be sent home.