Tuesday, August 12, 2014

The Banya

I entered this story in a Veteran's writing contest at the University of Iowa. I received a polite rejection letter. Good thing I have my own blog. Enjoy!!

The moon was playing peek a boo behind the mountains surrounding the former Soviet military base in Bakhmal Uzbekisatn. I could hear the wind blowing through the pine trees surrounding the small brick building that housed the based sauna or banya. I watched as several of my teammates wrestled their Uzbeki counterparts in the snow that had drifted between the trees.
In November 2001 I was the Team Sergeant on a Special Forces “A Team” in 10th Special Forces Group. We had deployed shortly after the attacks of  9/11/2001 to the country of Uzbekistan to provide counter terrorism and humanitarian training to Uzbeki special operations forces or Spetznatz. We had been required to utilize a series of civilian flights as the War in Afghanistan had just begun as had priority of all military flights to the region. Our operation was a sideshow to the main effort.
Back at home base we had packed all the gear needed for a six month deployment in boxes weighing less than 75 pounds so we could meet the airline weight restrictions. We looked more like a bunch of college kids heading on spring break than a elite military unit deploying on a real world mission. Except for the crates of weapons and all the camouflage. The flight from Ft. Carson, Colorado to Tashkent,Uzbekistan took almost 24 hours . This did not include the 6 hour layover in Paris where I hired a cab and did a quick sightseeing tour of Notre Dame cathedral and the Champs Elysees. I managed to drink some coffee at a café within sight of the Arc de Triomphe, very bohemian.
Once we landed in Tashkent we cleared customs and hooked up with our liaison at the US Embassy. We procured some SUV’s and interpreters and took a 200 kilometer road trip through bandit country, eventually arriving at the military base in the Bahkmal region. Bahkmal was mountainous and primitive. To get to the front gate of the base you had to ford a wide stream that had no bridge. Our barracks had cots and cold running water. Our medic hooked us up a shower utilizing a bucket and hose. The heat was steam and would go off frequently. Power interruptions were common. The snow was deep as winter came early in the mountains.
We spent our days training the Spetznaz soldiers in marksmanship, close quarters battle, land navigation, patrolling techniques, and human rights policies. In the evenings we busied ourselves with more training or leisure activities like writing letters or reading.
One evening, after we had been in country a month or so, our counter parts invited us to go to the Banya or traditional Russian sauna. We jumped at the opportunity to experience this tradition. Not only would it cement our relationship with the Uzbeks it would let us experience our first hot water in a month. It was on like Donkey Kong!!
After training was over for the day and we had eaten our fill of the mystery meat served by the mess hall, one of the Uzbek platoon leaders came by and gathered us up for the trip to the banya. We grabbed our towels and wearing flip flops and running shorts we followed the LT down the snowy dirt road to a small brown brick building. There was no sign of its purpose other than a sheet metal stack coming out of the roof.
When he opened the door we could hear the Uzbek soldiers conversing in Russian and Uzbek as they lounged on plastic patio chairs in the combination dressing room and lounge area. Our hosts had smuggled in some beers and were busy inspecting the contents as they waited for our arrival. My teammates soon joined them as I explored the banya.
The banya consisted of three rooms. The aforementioned lounge and dressing area, the sauna, and a small pool that was about 10 feet long, 8 feet wide and 8 feet deep. Our host told us that after sitting in the sauna it was healthful to jump in the pool. Eventually we piled into the sauna. Once we entered and sat on the hot wooden benches the doors was closed. A small brazier with hot coals and rocks sat in the corner producing a heat so hot and dry it took your breath away. Sweat instantly poured from my body in great rivelets falling to the floor as it dripped off my elbows and any other right angles my body had produced.
I am not sure how long I sat in the sauna but it seemed like a long time. Once I could stand no more I went to the next room and jumped in to the pool. That is when I discovered that the water was ice cold. My lungs spasmed and I swallowed some water until I got my bearings and calmed myself. The opposites of hot and cold were supposed to have a healthful and therapeutic effect on the body. I repeated this cycle 3 or 4 times until I decided to take a break and step outside.
It was when I stepped outside that I discovered the wrestling match going on amongst the trees. Several of my teammates had been convinced by our counterparts to experience the banya in the traditional way. This involved running from the sauna and diving into the knee deep snow. Eventually this activity combined with the beers devolved into wrestling. I stood by the building enjoying the evening, gazing up into the mountains and thinking about my family half a world away.
We would leave Uzbekistan within a month, in six months we would be in Kosovo, in eighteen months I would be infiltrating behind the lines in Iraqi Kurdistan. But that was in the unknown future, at that time and in that place I was living for the moment.


  1. I was there from April to July of 2014. That is exactly how I remember it, except our HN counterparts were nice enough to make sure our barracks quarters had actual beds and our common areas had gym equipment (albeit outdated) couches and squat toilets in the latrines. Our 18C hooked up the bathrooms with actual sit-down western toilets, a nice hot water heater with an in-line filter, a sizeable generator wired to the main breaker of the electrical panel in the building, and eventually brand-new CHIGO HVAC units throughout the barracks area. We also had to build a 30-foot tower to put our SATCOM radio and communication antennas on since the gorge was so steep and close on both sides. We also got really good at knife-throwing since that is a required skill in their military. Overall was a fun trip. Spent some time in Samerkand and Tashkent immersing the culture.