Operation Your Mum: On the ground in Tarin Kowt
Writer, comedian and Can of Worms reporter Dan Ilic visited Aussie diggers in Afghanistan last month to perform a series of comedy shows. He writes about his time in Tarin Kowt in this second part of a two-part report. Read the first part here.
The next stop on the trip was the Australian stronghold of Tarin Kowt.
We flew there on an Australian Chinook, a large transport helicopter that can fit about 40 soldiers and gear. This was an amazing journey. Flying tactically, we buzzed across the Afghan terrain only about a hundred metres off the ground, hugging the valleys and mountains for cover.
In the back of my head I knew that only a few weeks before an American Chinook got shot down carrying 30 Special Forces troops. But somehow this was suppressed by the sheer excitement of being in a big loud flying machine.
I was handed a headset so I could hear what the crew were saying. Only then did I realise this was no joy ride we were on, but quite a serious mission. We had to provide cover for another Chinook while they picked up some Australian soldiers who were done building a Patrol Base (PB) and needed a lift back to a nearby Forward Operating Base (FOB).]
I was impressed with how professional the crew were in the mission that they were undertaking. Safety at all times was the number 1 priority, but jokes a close second.
While the crew were scanning for potential threats I heard over the radio: “There’s a guy on a bike…” said one voice.
“He looks clear,” said another.
“There’s man in blue moving behind that hut…” said the first voice again.
“He’s clear,” repeated the second.
“There’s your mum…” “She’s clear”.
Tarin Kowt, or TK, is a place that I always wanted to get to if I had the chance.
My little brother was deployed here a few years back and through his emails, photos and stories TK had a grown strangely familiar to me..
The base has grown since he was there in 2008. Before this trip, I assumed what I’d find in Afghanistan would be a pissy little conflict with a few outposts of civilisation here and there. But being “in country”, it doesn’t take long to realise that this operation is huge, and Australia’s part in it is just a small slice of a much larger piece of the International Security Assistance Force pie.
In some ways it reminded me of working at the Olympics or going on a hyper-glorified scout jamboree. So many nations investing so much in a place that on first impressions appears not to have any kind of development at all. As we travelled around, it seems like the only development “in country” had been trucked in from the rest of the world.
The landscape in Afghanistan is incredibly beautiful, but also sparse. Miles of poo brown marscape, are broken up by patches of life. Oases in the valleys called “green zones”.
It’s a code synonymous with the secure space in Baghdad, however the “green zones” in Afghanistan are anything but. Here they’re patches of green vegetation in the middle of the desert occupied by poppy farmers and bad guys.
In TK I got to chat with lots of people. There seemed to be two kinds of solider. Those who were still fresh into their deployment who were happy to be there. Then there were those who were a few weeks off from leaving Afghanistan and didn’t want to be there, no longer cared about the mission, and just were trying to survive until they could get back home.
It only took a few sentences of conversation to work out which was which. The newbies knew and cared about the mission. The oldies just wanted out and could no longer see why Australia was there.
This was a bit of an eye-opener for me. The tipping point seemed to be around the 4 month mark of their deployments, about halfway through the average deployment. A negative feeling seemed to rear its head then for soldiers who’d been there that long.
However, everyone I spoke to missed their families and mates back home. That feeling was universal, no matter who you spoke to.
Having worked my material in Kandahar (albeit poorly), I had re-worked a few jokes and wrote a couple of new ones, but my brother had given me a hot tip.
He told me before I left home that if I were ever stuck for material to go to where ever the telephone container is and write down the graffiti on it and just read it out.
The afternoon before the show in TK, I wandered up to the welfare hut where the phone booths are and transcribed some of the foulest slander I had cast my eyes on. It was a comedy gold mine.
That night in TK 700 people, mostly Australians, packed into beer garden. The feeling in the room was electric. They were hungry and we performers were pumped up. The Funny Shui of the audience couldn’t have been better.
All the jokes that failed the night before killed at Tarin Kowt. Using the urine colour chart in my renovations, how all the places in Afghanistan sound like places from the Lord of the Rings, army acronyms and Tanya Zaetta. But the highlight was when I spent 5 minutes reciting the dank graffiti from the welfare hut walls.
Some was absurd, some was hilarious, some was just healthy inter-unit rivalry. Most however was just plain disgusting. In one of the telephone booths there was a gloriously detailed drawing of a penis that could’ve been out of a Year 10 textbook.
Then someone had added to it in red colour pen a drop of blood at the tip. “Shouldn’t that be a more mayonnaise colour”, someone else wrote. “I love mayonnaise”, added another.
Other notable scribblings included:
“God I miss you” “God Doesn’t exist”
“The Commanding Officer is a cum spray”
“Hey 2RAR I can see why your (sic) number 2”
“The Cav Suck cock”
“Hey girls how does it feel to know you’re going home soon, and going to be ugly again”
There’s something powerful in comedy in being able to say what everyone is thinking, but is too afraid to say out loud. A private thought that’s taken public.
With the latest deaths of Aussie soldiers at the hands of ANA trainees, it’s hard to think that is what our best and brightest signed up for.
The TK show was simply electric. The roars of laughter from the crowd were overwhelming.
Then to watch Amy Meredith put on first class show, and see John Schummann play Only 19, Khe Shan and Behind The Wire, and see the respect in the eyes of the crowd was one of the most moving shows I’ve ever been in the audience for.
It was truly one of the best gigs I’ve ever had the privilege of being apart of. I’d do it again in a heart beat… and the good news is I have 15 minutes of military jokes that are already worked in.
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