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Gulf War Memoirs

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Gulf War Memoirs
...I guess I should tell the "shit-burning" story. A lot of veterans out there probably know what this sort of thing is all about, but if you've never served in the military you may have been kept in the dark about what could possibly be the real cause of the mysterious "Gulf War Syndrome." I swear to God I'm not making this story up. When you're stuck out in the middle of nowhere (whether camping or on a military operation), one of the most important things is keeping clean. Keeping clean means keeping the chance of illness down. Makes sense, right? The Army calls this field hygiene, amongst other things, and it covers more than just making sure soldiers get a shower every 2 weeks at the minimum (I can't recall the actual regulations, but I know that it's a different amount of time for men and women; shorter for the women). It also covers where you're going to throw your dirty water and...yes, human waste. If you're in one place for a really short amount of time, the Army says you can just dig a 1'x1'x1' "cat hole" and take a dump in it there. There are three disadvantages to this: 1.You need to dig your hole before you really need to shit. 2.You're going to be squatting above a hole in the ground. 3.If there are a lot of people in your group, you're eventually going to run out of places to dig. When we got to Saudi and rolled out into the desert in October 1990, we stayed in the same spot for about three months (during the big build-up of forces in the region). Digging holes wasn't a practical solution for a battalion of50+ people because we'd eventually have to walk all the way to Syria to find a place to dig a hole. Thus was revived the grand tradition of the "Latrine burn", more commonly known as the "shit-burning detail" (a "detail" is military-speak for a job or task given to low-ranking people who haven't found a way to get out of it). I believe it originated in Vietnam or perhaps the Korean War, but I may be mistaken. The government (either ours or the Saudis) contracted the local labor (usually Pakistani) to make hundreds of cheap wooden 4-seater outhouses, under the holes of which halved oil drums were placed. Theoretically, the "cans" would be removed daily and the contents would be burned, thus eliminating tons of American shit that would otherwise have to go somewhere and would probably result in a major ecological disaster. Note that I said "theoretically." You see, shit doesn't burn well. Even the Army knew this, so we were told to douse the contents of the shit-cans with gasoline. Unfortunately, I think shit ranks right up there with asbestos in terms of non-flammable materials. We would pour at least five gallons of gas for every two cans' worth of shit, and the stuff would only partly burn. What was worse, it was often hard to get the fire started because most of what we had was diesel fuel. If you've never worked with diesel gas, let me give you a brief summary: diesel burns hot, but takes a lot of heat to get it going. I have seen lit matches drowned in diesel. So we usually had to mix regular gas (used in the Humvees) with the diesel...the regular gas would ignite and in turn ignite the diesel, which would burn hot enough to incinerate some of the shit. While it was burning (and it would usually take a couple of hours for the stuff that was going to burn, to burn out) you would occasionally have to stir it...usually with a metal pole used for holding up camouflage netting (we had plenty of these poles so we didn't have to replace them at the end of the day -- thank God). Now if you think regular shit is pushing the extreme limit of foul, you've never seen, smelt, or heard burning shit. It produces black smoke that doesn't rise very high but drifts for miles and smells like...well, burning shit. It sounds like a deep-fat fryer...you know, what they put french fries in at Burger King. But like I said, shit doesn't burn. And even after burning the contents twice, you often had as much as 50% of the original material left. So...what the hell do you do with the rest? That's right, you bury it. In a hole. Sound familiar? So after doing all of that, you would still have to dig a hole and pour the pudding-like remains in there (which made a "blorp" sound), then burn the can again to get rid of anything that refused to be poured out. As awful as it sounded, shit-burning detail was actually one of the more popular jobs to be "stuck" with, once the benefits were actually realized. I know, I know, you're wondering "what the hell is good about burning shit?!?" Well for one thing, because they didn't want you burning shit in the middle of camp, you had to load the cans up in a Humvee or a truck and drive a mile or so away. This meant that you were able to get away from the officer-induced, gearing-up-for-war bullshit that was taking place. Instead, you could just light the cans and relax with a book or headphones for a few hours. As long as you were upwind, in the shade and had plenty of water (remember, we're in a desert) you were set. Other than a few disgusting minutes, it was the closest thing to a day off we had over there. The rituals of other Army units differed, but this was the norm for Headquarters company,12th Military Intelligence Battalion, 1st Cavalry Division. I hope you've enjoyed being grossed out almost as much as I've enjoyed grossing you out.
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Entered on: 09/19/2006
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