It’s Gonna Be a Long, Long Time

Illustration by Phil Disley
The alarm was wailing again, followed by the sultry, disembodied British lady’s voice, calmly repeating “Rocket attack.” Her deliberate delivery made each word sound like a complete sentence. “Rocket. Attack. Rocket. Attack.” I had heard her voice so often, I was beginning to develop a crush on her.

It was August 2011. Summer was the worst in Afghanistan — upwards of 125 degrees and the height of the fighting season. My mother was not too happy that I was in any sort of place that had a “fighting season.” I wasn’t too thrilled about it, either. This was my third deployment since joining the U.S. Army Reserve after Brandeis, and I wasn’t really sure that my English/theater degree would be all that useful here.

Kandahar Airfield was getting rocketed every other day — sometimes, on a really bad day, half a dozen times by indirect fire, or IDF. We had gotten so used to taking IDF, some service members would go right on with their regular routines — sometimes to an absurd degree. We had to implement a policy explicitly stating, “There will be no mail delivery during rocket attacks.”

The incessant rocketing had thankfully become just a nuisance, simply disrupting our days and nights — and sleep. Morale, Welfare and Recreation services tried to help alleviate the stress with regularly scheduled activities. On this particular night, probably 60 or 70 of us were crammed into one of the many cement bunkers scattered around the base, waiting out the attack that was interrupting one such scheduled activity: karaoke. There is something very comforting about karaoke in a combat zone. 

Just a few days earlier, I had been on the side of a mountain in southern Afghanistan at a small combat outpost near Tarin Kowt. We were coordinating a helicopter drop of essential supplies to our Australian and Afghan National Army partners. They didn’t have a karaoke night on the side of the mountain. Yet the Afghan soldiers broke into spontaneous song several times during the supply drop. I thought about how much more productive it might be to try to establish an international karaoke coalition, bringing people together by belting out Bon Jovi tunes. I guess it’s in my nature to see things in a slightly skewed way. When I’m not serving my country, I’m a comedian. I’m always looking for the humor in a situation.

More time passed in our bunker. Still no “All clear” from the British lady. “They’re on my time now,” griped a young specialist. An older sergeant snapped back, reminding him that we were in a war zone, that there were more important things than karaoke. “What are you going to do to fight the terrorists?” he barked at the specialist. “Sing at them?”

A dull thud. Another alarm, quickly followed by an explosion. It was close, but it had missed us. Stuck in a bunker during a prolonged rocket attack with a horde of increasingly disgruntled troops ready to brawl, a small group of us suddenly did the only thing that seemed rational at the time: We burst into a rousing rendition of Elton John’s “Rocket Man.” By the third or fourth refrain, even the grumpy sergeant was singing along. “This is why the terrorists will never win,” I quipped.

Our joking around didn’t just break the tension; it helped us exert control over an uncontrollable situation. Maybe jokes couldn’t stop the rockets, but humor certainly took away the enemy’s power to intimidate or threaten us. If I had wondered just how we’d find the strength to continue fighting for a better future in Afghanistan — despite the seemingly overwhelming odds against us — our impromptu singing and defiant laughter gave me hope that we were more than up to the challenge.

That night, by the time the British lady’s voice cooed “All clear” over the loudspeaker, we were laughing. When you’re laughing, you can get through just about anything, because laughter brings hope of a better tomorrow. It’s a basic lesson of any good drama.

I guess my English/theater degree turned out to be pretty useful after all.

Benari Poulten is a writer and a comedian, and a master sergeant in the U.S. Army Reserve. A veteran of Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom, he recently returned from Afghanistan.