The Sandbox

GWOT hot wash, straight from the wire

Welcome to The Sandbox, a forum for service members who have served or are currently serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, returned vets, spouses and caregivers. The Sandbox's focus is not on policy and partisanship (go to our Blowback page for that), but on the unclassified details of deployment -- the everyday, the extraordinary, the wonderful, the messed-up, the absurd. All correspondence is read, and as much as possible is posted, lightly edited. If you know someone who is deployed who might have something to say, please tell them about us. To submit a post click here.

MINeD JOURNEY |

April 14, 2014

Name: Andrew Kaufmann
Returned from: Iraq
Hometown: Montpelier, VA
Email: turtle@warriortalkradio.com

 

AUTUMN FALL

Inside the tree's movement
Of thought, it weaves new dreams
Like the spider spinning
A silken thread
From which he falls slowly in the wind

From high branches
The memories persist
Some good, some bad
But all intact - they conquer every space
Every synapse, every second

As the branches sway
So does the spider
His web, stretched from strain
Snaps and recoils from pressure

 

THE BAG

An ordinary object - longer and colored
It hopes to stay empty
For as long as possible

Unfortunately it gets filled
By a brother or sister
Who has fallen

You unzip it slowly to reveal the black
You may notice hair or lifeless eyes
You may not recognize any of the contents

Some are partially full
With parts in no particular order
A piece, a torso, a head, a hand
It's still your comrade

What's left leaves a mark
Not for them - but for you

As you close your eyes later
You see them as they are now
And try to see them as they were

It is hard - it is scary - it is reality

 

THE ROSE OF JERICHO

Rolled up in a tight little ball
I picked some - out of curiosity

It was odd to see
Life in a barren place

Nestled in a cropping of rocks
On the Syrian border

A tangled mess
Death it seemed
Had come to this

I left it on a shelf
And spilled some water on it

Almost as if by magic
She opened

And proved
That what may seem dead
Can always live again
Whether tangible or not

It brought a smile to my face
And reminded me that those gone
Will always live inside

 

SALAH

Just a boy
Innocent

Friends to all
Insistent

Smiles all day
Friendship

Reminds us of family
Far away

Deception from his family
He is gone

Death was his reward
A head in a box

Why did they do this?
Thrown at the gate

Why did he receive that terrible fate

Salah - you are remembered.

 

SAND FAR AND WIDE

Tasting the grit
Feeling the sting
Sand all around

Fast in a blur
Slow in the sun
Blistering to touch

Burning the eyes
Tears in the rain
Lips chapped and raw

There is no reprieve
From the tiniest grains
That invade every space

Sanctuaries are scarce
Arms cannot shield
Sand far and wide

 

The above poems are from the unpublished collection MINeD JOURNEY. Kaufmann (aka Turtle) and GI Jenn are co-hosts of the Warrior Talk Radio podcasts, and partners for "HEAR Our Veterans" on Facebook.

CODA |

April 07, 2014

Name: Major Dan
Returned from: Afghanistan
Milblog: AfghaniDan
Twitter: Mayordelmundo

  Framed Afghanidan CODA 1
 
Glamour shot, Mazar-e Sharif, 11/7/10
 
 
Right from the start, I wonder if I should prattle on about the myriad of reasons I don’t write anymore. About why such a significant period of my life, spanning two Operation Enduring Freedom deployments and beyond, will mostly remain boxed, gathering over time the type of dust and cobwebs that blur and warp the memories that aren’t already erased. I won’t prattle, not too much anyway. But I’ll restate something I’ve said before, at least once: It gives me no satisfaction to write about the experience of being in Afghanistan when I’m not in Afghanistan. Many literary types manage to do that, but I’m not James Joyce. Hell, I’m not even a writer. I’m just someone who absorbed what he could, and passed on as much as possible, while in the midst of some experiences. When those experiences were done, my urge to write about them was done too.
 
I write now, after a deliberate stop to the post-post-deployment entries a couple of years ago, because the good people at The Sandbox have given me the opportunity to add a new post from AfghaniDan as they wind down that impressive collection of essays and milblog posts from the past two wars. Not to sound like an acceptance speech, but I give them enormous credit for ending their valuable web site in such a way.
 
 
Framed Afghanidan CODA 2 ANA
 
ANA cadets await a concert, Kabul, 10/21/10
 
 
For the purpose of a standard timeline check, and just to make this feels even more as if I’m in a confessional, it’s been more than three years since I returned from the last deployment and four exactly since I was heading to Camp Lejeune for another inprocessing cluster---k. It was eight (!) years ago this month that I took part in Operation Mountain Lion in Kunar Province during my first deployment to Afghanistan. And just for the heck of it, it’s been 14 years exactly since I was in Kosovo with the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, reinforcing a thin NATO peacekeeping contingent amidst a nervous population, thinking that was the hairiest thing we would be doing for a while (in fairness, most of us thought that).

Afghanistan has just held a presidential election, and Taliban attacks intended to disrupt it have failed, though they’ve brutally slain innocents and beloved patriots. As our international coalition sharply draws down its numbers there, it is finally true that Afghan national security forces have the lead. March closed as the first month in over seven years with zero American fatalities, while still we have military personnel and civilians heading over (the media rarely bother to explain troop rotations). Welcome to 2014, the "year of transition."
 
 
Framed Afghanidan CODA 3 AEA

 
Afghanistan Electoral Alliance (source N/A)
 
 
I’d like to say the world has watched, or at least our nation has, as this era of American/NATO intervention in Afghanistan has flowed, ebbed, flowed, and ebbed again -- but if you’ve paid attention, you’ve been in the distinct minority. That’s one of the reasons it’s bracing to hear the chattering class bring up “America’s longest war” when a milestone is passed, because only the very few and far between have maintained any awareness of their nation being “at war.” Over there, of course, it’s a different story, but in many settings, including the most populated ones, daily life generally has a normalcy to it. A normalcy that’s often closely related to the presence of large numbers of international forces, if not directly feeding off the odd system that seemed as if it would retain semi-permanence for decades, but a normalcy nonetheless. I tried to highlight that as my observations shifted from those of a fairly clueless newcomer to those of a more attuned participant, and one located mainly in Kabul in the advisory go-round.
 
  Framed Afghanidan CODA 4 Fruit
 
Fruit vendors, Kabul, 10/31/10
 
 
Was it worth it? Gen. Jim “Chaos” Mattis (ret.) -- he who commanded the initial Marine Expeditionary Brigade that swept into the south of Afghanistan in 2002, before achieving far greater responsibility, fame and notoriety in Operation Iraqi Freedom and eventually at US Central Command -- opined recently on the question of whether it was “worth it” for those who served in these conflicts (as my readers may recall, I’m not a fan of lumping the two together, but that’s apparently how it was asked and answered in this case). The “Warrior Monk” went on to break down his answer in terms of national strategy and personal considerations, and while it’s all worth a read, it’s the latter that truly resonated with me. These are summaries by the piece’s author, not direct quotes:
 
For veterans, "Was it worth it?" should be intensely personal. The focus should be on experiences while deployed and since returning home. What sorts of relationships were formed at war? How deep and rewarding were they? How have you stayed in touch with your buddies since returning home? Have you been able to integrate into civil society in a healthy and sustainable way?
 
You have some control over the answer to these questions, even if doesn't feel like it a lot of the time. This is where the ultimate judgment must reside for each of us. We claim -- or lose -- that mantle through our actions.

  Framed Afghanidan CODA 5 Mattis
 
 
Iraq and Afghanistan vets pull no punches with General Mattis
 
 
Without subjecting you poor readers to a point-by-point breakdown, my reflections confirmed what I’ve long felt; that I’ve failed pretty miserably at reintegration, i.e. becoming a civilian, and that I’ve led a transient postwar existence. I wasn’t exactly sticking to one career like glue before a return to service and the subsequent deployments anyway, so if it wasn’t serving in Afghanistan twice (and in a few other scattered commands) as a Marine, who knows what my job(s) might have been. But that jolt, that incredible jolt, of being on high alert and in incredibly heady situations for months on end, only to return to some place you idealized but instead seems to be fraught with uninteresting choices -- that has played quite a role in my lack of a healthy and sustainable reintegration.

This reflection business is harder than I even thought it would be. I won’t say every day is a struggle, the way it is for so many brothers-and-sisters-in-arms, because for me that’s not always the case. I get to escape the doldrums, sometimes through my ongoing positions through the Reserve, sometimes outside of it completely, and not everyone is so lucky. We’re all dealing with different shit, and as I was recently reminded, just about every single veteran refers to those who had it worse. Still, it is never far from my mind how easy I have it, compared to the challenges in adjusting to postwar life that must be faced by the war's casualties: the multiple amputees, the traumatic brain injuries, the PTSD sufferers who struck an IED one day, or more than once…
 
 
Framed Afghanidan CODA 6 Daybreak
 
Daybreak at Camp Mike Spann, 11/8/10
 
 
It was a welcome break from my issues, and a distinct honor, to spend two weeks recently augmenting the staff of the USMC Wounded Warrior Regiment as they staged the Marine Corps Trials in Camp Pendleton, CA. The event is an extraordinary international competition among teams from the regiment’s east and west battalions, nine allies ranging from Colombia to the Republic of Georgia, as well as Marine Corps veterans who’ve been discharged but still qualify to compete. I can’t imagine another experience that could be so simultaneously humbling and inspiring as this one was. If you’re looking for the true warrior spirit, you need look no farther than the wounded, ill, and injured service members and veterans of these games, or of the more widely known Wounded Warrior Games.
 
“I thought, ‘I need to get out of this funk. The world’s not going to stop moving, I need to get out and do something with my life,’” Sears said.
 
 
Framed Afghanidan CODA 7 MC Trials
 
 
Battling it out at the Marine Corps Trials, 3/11/14
 
  
Marine overcomes obstacles, becomes mentor to peers
 

 
“Try and make it far enough…to the next time zone.”
                                                      -- Son Volt
 
One of those lyrics that just stays in my head, after many long drives across and around the country over the past few years...
 
 
Life isn’t bad in Colorado, despite constant indecision that has me stuck spinning my wheels. If this was a video post, I’d probably do a voiceover with scenes of my energetic jackal-dog Daly playing, with the Rocky Mountains beyond. It wasn’t bad on balance in the self-imposed exile to Miami either, or back in New York City before the western spirit succeeded in calling me out here. But when it’s too much to unpack your boxes, filled as they are with smaller, more compact collections of notes, contacts, receipts, gifts sent to you overseas or ones you bought for others but never sent, reminders all -- you’re left to wonder if normalcy will ever arrive.
 
Was it worth it? I guess “Mad Dog” Mattis is right (gotta get every major nickname of his in there). It’s intensely personal. How Afghanistan does in the next few years will certainly factor into my answer, as mission success has been defined for a good while now as a stable and secure nation. But even if it’s deemed a "failed state" once again, that would be due to so many more factors than how ably U.S. and allied troops performed their given missions. For me it was worthwhile.
 
 
Framed Afghanidan CODA 8 Ride
 
Cramped ride, Herat City, 11/4/10
 
 
If you’re enough the empathetic type, or just ever the overthinker, or especially both, you understand more and more why some adrenaline junkies (be they security pros, aid workers, journalists, many others) never stop traveling to the latest conflicts. You also understand how the least fortunate lose hope entirely, how all the goddam flailing just gives way to morose resignation that some get left behind. No matter how empathetic or not you may be, you don’t want to see another one go down that awful road. And you definitely understand the pull of returning to a place where you fought for something, worked your tail off for something, sacrificed for something, and bonded with those who’d give their last breath for their country -- or a stranger’s country -- to make it.
 
Tonight I attended an event called "Failure to Communicate: Homefront Myths of Veterans and Civilians," put on by Veterans Helping Veterans Now (VHVN), a group with which I was unfamiliar. I usually avoid veterans’ organizations entirely, likely to my detriment, but I was compelled to check out this discussion. With a new approach, its stated goal was for community members and veterans to come together and break down reintegration stereotypes. Interesting concept, I thought, all the more so because of my difficulties in moving beyond Marine duty orders and becoming a part of the fabric of a community, whatever that means.
 
 
Framed Afghanidan CODA 9 Krak
 
Krak and me, 8 years later… Boulder CO, 4/2/14
 
 
A bonus feature was that the guest speaker would be Jon Krakauer, the bestselling author I’d met in Afghanistan as he began the embed for what would become Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman. Reconnecting with him was great, but what really stuck with me is what he pointed out in his humble remarks: that after volunteering for years now with VHVN, he couldn’t believe how many veterans described coming home and adjusting to "normal" life as much harder than anything they experienced over there. In the group chats that followed, I expressed a similar sentiment and seemingly for the first time, saw that fellow veterans -- of a few different eras -- fully understood and could relate. 
 
Up until that moment, I was still gripped with fear of telling a few strangers that I’m still figuring out what to do with myself after Afghanistan -- but once I did, and found no judgment there, the relief was extraordinary. It was a fitting ending to the days I’d spent contemplating what I’d write in this space in order to sign off as AfghaniDan. 
 
 
 

Major Dan's numerous Sandbox posts include Ramazan Observed , Commando, Riots, Rockets and an Election, and The Pull to Return.
 

THE PASS IN REVIEW |

April 03, 2014

Name: Charlie Sherpa
Previously embedded:
with former unit in Afghanistan
Hometown:
Boone, Iowa
Milblog: Red Bull Rising
Email:
SherpaatRedBullRising.com

Framed PASS IN REVIEW cover

Editor's note: The poems below are from the first issue of a quarterly magazine called The Pass In Review, which features stories, poems, paintings and photographs by veterans from all services. Edited by Alexander Zapata, it is based in Lindenhurst, Illinois. Its website home page explains that it is "focused on destroying stereotypes and misconceptions about the military veteran," and invites "veterans of all nationalities and conflicts to share their artistic visions with the world." It's Mission Statement and staff bios are here. The submission guidelines are here. We thank them for permission to reprint these poems by a longtime Sandbox contributor.

 

QUIET AS TOC-RATS

the talk in the TOC is just talk
and the sergeant major wants it quiet --
more church than circus tent.

we're not the brains of the operation;
we're more like a nervous system.
we keep things running, and people reacting.

we pass traffic by radio, Jabber, and MIRC-chat.
our burble and babble is hushed
by the air-conditioning and fluorescent buzz.

we tell stories on boards
and paint pictures for the commander.
we are Houston to his Mars.

through our bright projections, he squints
to pierce the fog of war. He will see his glories
only as shadows on our cave wall.

track the battle.
track the battle.
track the battle.

we no longer run to the sound of guns.
instead, we phone it in
and listen to reports.

our only fear is half silence:
the constant rush of static that signals
an end to our connections.

 

***

 

CAFE SESSRUMNIR

everyone knows about Valhalla:
the eternal time-share
for weary warriors gone
berserk with roidal rage
and Monster drinks.

not all appreciate, at first,
the monastic joys found elsewhere,
in this twilight hall of clockwork meals,
reflective belts,
and indoor plumbing.

but Mother Freyja claims
half the dead,
and there are many seats
here in her playground
behind the wire.

besides, why await Ragnarok
with kettlebells and grunts,
when you can work
your pickup lines
in this Fobbit coffee shop?

 

***

 

COMBAT PATCH

Another enlistment.
Another war.
Another deployment.
Another separation.
Another patch of sand.

 

Previous poetry posts on The Sandbox include:

Haiku, by Adrian B.
Lost In Thought, by Simon H.
Here, Bullet, by Brian Turner
Dispatches From The [War] Hospital, by Jennifer M. Pierson

HEY BRAH |

March 29, 2014

Name:  1SG James L. Gibson
Stationed in: Afghanistan
Hometown: Forest Grove, Oregon
Milblog: The Life of Top
Email: James.l.gibson@afghan.swa.army.mil

On 17 May 1996 I arrived to my unit in Schweinfurt Germany. After pulling a slick one (story told in an earlier blog entry) I was assigned my room on the 3rd floor of building 9A, Conn Barracks. Everyone remembers their first roommate when they graduate from Basic and get to their unit, and I will never forget mine. Laid back surfer would be putting it mildly. He took me in and showed me the ropes like we had been friends for a lifetime. We were in the same platoon for a while, and both held a serious disliking of our Platoon Sergeant, SFC. Although he would get fired up and pissed about the way our Platoon Sergeant treated him, after work, he was the same, laid back surfer...

“Hey Brah” was his name for everyone. With his trimmed mustache and outgoing personality, he was always smiling and showing off his nicotine-stained front tooth (which he later had fixed). He got along with everyone, and became a friend of my wife and her friends. No matter the situation, or what club we would go to (hard core techno, house, rock, country), he fit in, but didn’t care if he did. He had an awesome Roadrunner F1 tattoo on his arm. He purchased an Ibanez Performer guitar and really wanted to learn but gave up after a few months and sold me the guitar. It’s still in the family (gifted to a cousin). Guitar playing he said “wasn’t for me Brah.” Laid back surfer...

For the first two years of my career, my laid back surfer buddy was always around. We deployed to Bosnia together, and although we ended up being in different platoons, we kept in touch. Returning from deployment, he was with me when I met my wife. We remained close friends but as my priorities turned to my wife, we drifted apart. Laid back surfer…

He loved the Army, and loved Germany. His ability to pick up on the language was much better than mine. Nothing like a surfer speaking German. A laid back surfer…

He remained in Germany when I moved to Ft. Hood for a year. Upon my return to Schweinfurt Germany a year later, he was still there but had moved to Alpha Company. By this time, I was married and had moved into an apartment with my wife. Although I would see him around Battalion, I was usually busy and unable, no, unwilling to take time out of my day to talk with him. The laid back surfer…

He deployed to Iraq in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom II. Kicked ass and took names. We were in different areas of the country, attached to different units. I think I ran into him a couple times. We returned from deployment, both of us had done what it took to stay in Germany. We didn’t keep in touch as much as we should have. The laid back surfer…

Getting ready for Operation Iraqi Freedom 06-08, he was selected to serve on the Personal Security Detachment (PSD). We were once again in the same company. I would run into him, this time on a more frequent basis, but again I wouldn’t take the time to spend a few extra minutes hanging with the laid back surfer.

I look back and kick myself in the ass for not spending more time with him. This earth needs more kind, considerate, and friendly people like him. On January 30, 2007 his life was taken from this world. The PSD was reacting to a large cache of weapons that were found in a building by another element. As his vehicle rolled down an unfamiliar route, a large IED went off, killing him instantly. As the date of his death approaches I am ashamed for not spending more time hanging out with him. He was good people. From this day forward I will make it a point to spend that extra few minutes to chat with friends and to not let them drift away like I did with him.

Rest in peace Sergeant Corey Aultz, you are missed by many. I will see you at the Fiddlers Green where I am sure you will greet me with a wide toothy grin and a laid back surfer “Hey Brah!”

 

1SG Gibson's numerous Sandbox posts include The Battle of Donkey IslandGetting Chilly, NightmareDon't Expect What You Don't Inspect, Music!, and What I Miss.

ON MIL-BLOGS, LESSONS-LEARNED, AND WHY WE WRITE |

March 25, 2014

Name: Charlie Sherpa
Previously embedded:
with former unit in Afghanistan
Hometown:
Boone, Iowa
Milblog: Red Bull Rising
Email:
SherpaatRedBullRising.com

Framed SHERPA milblogs 1I remember my parents exchanging through the mail these little 3-inch reel-to-reel audio tapes while my dad was flying into and around Vietnam. He was a navigator on a C-130 Hercules cargo plane during the war there. As a father now myself, I often wonder what it must have been like for him, to hear my tiny little voice for the first time that way.

When I got word in 2009 that I was soon going to deploy to Afghanistan, I decided that I would start a journal — in part, because I wanted to leave behind my own time capsule, my own snapshots, a version of my own set of audio tapes. I also wanted to be able to one day explain to my children — after they got older, of course — just what was so darned important that I had to leave them and their mom for a whole year of their young lives.

I published those journal entries on the Internet, as a military blog. I was a citizen-soldier, and my Army job involved technologies such as blogs and social media. My bosses in uniform kept asking for my opinions, and I needed some first-hand knowledge. I figured that there's nothing like learning by doing. Besides, it's always better to ask forgiveness than to ask permission, right? 


Still, because Army attitudes and policies about bloggers were mixed at the time — indeed, that's why my bosses kept asking for well-grounded opinions — I started writing under a pseudonym. And, as a further experiment in organizational awareness, I didn't tell my bosses about the blog. It was only months later that some of my buddies figured it out, after they recognized a story in which they'd been involved.

What I didn't realize at the time was that I was also creating a useful persona — one that didn't let politics, bad jokes, or rank get in the way of telling good stories. "Charlie Sherpa" wasn't out to get anyone in trouble, or to laugh at anyone's expense but his own. To my surprise, I also found that many of my readers were spouses and families. "My husband doesn't tell me about his day when he gets home from training," one reader wrote. "Thanks for helping explain what he may be going through."

After years of making physical, mental, spiritual, and legal preparations for Afghanistan — and just days before the unit was to leave — I got bumped off the deployment. I decided to stay on the figurative roller coaster, however. I would continue to write a journal, for my buddies, their spouses, and their kids. I followed the Iowa unit as a citizen-solider, and later as a civilian writer, to Mississippi and California and then to Afghanistan. I'm still writing today.

That shouldn't come as a surprise. You see, parallel to my 20 years with the National Guard, I was also a newspaper and magazine editor. I'm now a freelance writer. I even have a specialty, backed up by a graduate degree in architectural studies, in writing "how to" articles about architecture, home remodeling, technology, and neighborhood planning. That's the reason my former commander used to joke about me writing for "Better Hootches and Gardens."

In my military career, I was an Army communications guy. Not public affairs — that's something else. I was all about radios and computers. On weekend drills and active-duty deployments, I was a messenger, rather than media.

Late in my time with the military, however, I fell into a couple of longer-term but temporary active-duty gigs as a "lessons-learned integrator." I was, in effect, a "how-to" writer for Uncle Sam, part of the first state-level National Guard lessons-learned integration ("L2I") team.

My teammate was an Army-trained broadcast journalist. Our mission was to "document and disseminate lessons from deploying and deployed soldiers," in order to inject them back into our state's training efforts. In a fantastic display of laissez-faire leadership, our bosses even empowered us to invite ourselves to any meeting or training event we thought would be relevant.

We called the team "L2I Iowa." The Army Center for Lessons Learned ("CALL") at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, even adopted us as their own. We were an Army of Two.

Here's what I learned as an L2I guy. Nearly everyday, I apply these definitions. It's something of a personal philosophy:

  • A "lesson" is knowledge gained from experience.
  • A "lesson-learned" is knowledge gained from experience that results in a change to organizational or individual behavior.
  • "Lessons-learned integration" is the practice of sharing with others that knowledge you've gained from experience. So they don't make the same mistakes you did. And so that we multiply our collective successes.

So, after five years of blogging, including a short stint as civilian media embedded with my old unit downrange in Eastern Afghanistan, here's some knowledge gained from experience, put down on paper and the Internet. The usual L2I caveats apply, of course: "Every story is a sample of one. Your results may vary. Take what advice you need, leave the rest."

*****

Lesson No. 1. Blogging is journalism.

A "blog" is an on-line journal. The words "journaling" and "journalism" share not only a root, but an objective: Document the facts and funnies of the day. Regardless of whether you lock it up in a diary under your bed, or publish it to the World Wide Web, or print it in a newspaper, all that matters is the standards to which you hold yourself as a writer. There are good reporters, and there are bad reporters. And you don't need to call yourself a "journalist" to be a good reporter.

Just remember Sherpatude No. 3: "Never speak with complete authority regarding that which you lack direct knowledge, observation, and/or suppressive fires."

*****

Lesson No. 2: Every deployment is a story. Every story has a beginning, a middle, and an end.

There's a quote attributed to John Paul Vann, who served as a both a military and civilian adviser during the Vietnam War: "We don't have twelve years' experience in Vietnam. We have one year's experience twelve times over." I think about that quote a lot, but I apply it to Afghanistan.

The Iowa National Guard deployments I helped document in 2007 were not the deployments of 2010. Those earlier deployments involved 16-soldier teams of "embedded advisers," who were spread out and partnered up with Afghan troops and police. That whole "advise and assist" theme coming out of Afghanistan today? The National Guard started doing that job in 2003.

By 2010, however, the Iowa National Guard was preparing to send 3,000 citizen-soldiers to Afghanistan as one unit. Army news releases noted it was "the largest deployment of Iowa citizen-soldiers since World War II."

Iowa's 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 34th Infantry "Red Bull" Division (2-34th BCT) arrived in Afghanistan to relieve Vermont's 86th Infantry Brigade Combat Team. Oklahoma's 45th Infantry "Thunderbird" BCT arrived to replace the Red Bull. In each case, state and local media in those states told our respective deployment stories: Beginning, middle, and end. Then, the war moved on. Afghanistan was a moveable feast.

We haven't fought 13 years of war in Afghanistan. We've fought 13 different wars, a year at a time.

The news media hasn't covered 13 years of war in Afghanistan. We've covered the war one state at a time, one unit at a time.

"Beginning, middle, end."

"Wash, rinse, repeat."


*****

3. Everybody has their own war.

In literature, the story goes, every narrative can be reduced to one of two prompts:
  • "A hero goes on a journey."
  • "A stranger comes to town."
I think a deployment is a combination of the two: "A hero goes on a journey" ... but "a stranger comes back." No, I'm not arguing that all veterans are somehow broken, or crazy, or a potential danger to themselves or others. Military experience, however, is like any major life experience. It changes people. Sometimes, that's a good thing. Sometimes, it leaves scars. And, if you want to write about war, you have to write about those changes.

Why did we go to war in Iraq, or in Afghanistan? In the absence of a grand strategic narrative from our national leaders — or reported context from our media — our veterans are left to answer the question of what their war was all about. A hero goes on a journey, a stranger comes to town, and he or she spends the rest of his days trying to figure what it all meant.

"Everybody has their own war" has become a personal mantra. It's a good reminder to be humble, and to first do no harm — whether in your writing, or your everyday actions, or even just listening to people on social media. Everyone's experiences downrange, after all, were different. Everyone left back at home had experiences, too. We need to listen to each other, regardless of age, gender, color, branch of service, or military job.

Because, while everybody has their own war, people shouldn't have to fight theirs alone.

*****

4. Homecoming is a journey, not a destination.

My journey to Afghanistan may have had an end, but the story didn't stop there. I thought I would pack up my body armor and helmet, write my blog (and perhaps a book), and move out smartly. Instead, I've found myself repeatedly returning to veterans issues and military themes — sometimes, in ways that surprised me.

Some of my words, for example, have been published and republished in venues such as Doonesbury's "The Sandbox," and the Southeast Missouri State University Press "Proud to Be: Writing by American Warriors" anthologies. A 2012 Military Experience and the Arts Symposium on the campus of Eastern Kentucky University, Richmond, was a lightning rod for meeting other veterans and military supporters engaging in creative work. I've also participated as a cast member in a theatrical production of The Telling Project, in which veterans and military family members from all eras shared their own stories of service and sacrifice.

Finally, during the annual Iowa Remembrance Run, I've been humbled to read aloud the names of those Iowans who have given their lives during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. (Four were "Red Bull" soldiers who deployed in 2010-2011.) Some day soon, I hope, we'll be able to stop adding names to that list.

Meanwhile, there are more and more literary publications focusing on military-themed writing, whether from veterans or others. The telling of our stories is just beginning.

"A lesson is knowledge, gained from experience." Share yours.

I once had a favorite journalism professor — his name was Bob Woodward, but not the one you're thinking of — mark in red two words of praise in the margins of a term paper I'd written. I try to pass along his encouragement whenever I can, particularly when I'm working with other writers who are veterans or military family members:

"Keep writing!"

Or, like the Red Bull says: "Attack! Attack! Attack!"
 
 
 
Over the past four years Charlie Sherpa has contributed over 30 posts to The Sandbox, including Not In Front Of The Kids, Scenes From A Send-Off Ceremony, Coming Home On A Bungie Cord, We Apologize For The Inconvenient, The Sherpatudes, and Boonie's Haiku Contest.
 
 

THE PRAYER CALL |

March 21, 2014

Name: Robert
Returned from: Iraq
Email: robert_ca_sd@yahoo.com

There was a lull in the battle of Samarra and most of us retreated into the upstairs master bedroom of the safe house we were fighting from. Some threw their kevlars to the ground and sat on the floor panting and guzzling down water. I collapsed face first onto the bed. Covered in sweat, lying there exhausted, I could smell my feet through my boots. It had been days since my sniper team had gotten to Samarra and every day we fought in the blistering heat continually sweating. The sweating only stopped at night when we would then freeze in our wet uniforms as we sat on rooftops enforcing curfew through precision marksmanship.

As I lay there, battling off the after-shock of combat, a prayer call began. There was a window half open just above my head. It was a small window covered in hot dust, but still clear enough to see the city skyline from. As the prayer call continued, the city fell silent. For the first time in months, I began to feel a strong calmness in my soul. The calmness soothed my entire body as the old man in the mosque tower a few dusty streets away beautifully sang the prayer, and the warm September breeze blew onto my face from the dusty window. For this brief moment, I was at peace.  

SIGNING OFF: TWO STORIES |

March 17, 2014

Name: Doug Traversa, Capt, USAF (retired)
Returned from: Afghanistan
Hometown: Tullahoma, TN

Framed TRAVERSA Signing Off DTAlmost six years have passed since I last posted on The Sandbox. I was fortunate to be among the first contributors to the site, and it was my blogging that helped me keep my sanity during a year-long deployment to Afghanistan. My blog, Afghanistan Without a Clue (AWAC) has been deleted, and I have retired from the Air Force, attended seminary under the GI Bill, and am now the minister of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Tullahoma. I’ve used stories of my days in Afghanistan in numerous sermons, and I am often asked my views on the war, which is amazingly still going on.

I am far from an objective observer. Not only did I spend a year of my life in Afghanistan, but I sent my two sons off to fight in the same war. My older son, Taylor, is in the Army, and my younger son, Ryan, is a Marine. They were both in harm’s way more often than I was, and my wife and I had the horrible agony of waiting for deployments to end and our sons’ safe return. 

So what do I think about the war? Well, as villains go, you can’t really come up with anyone more farcically evil than the Taliban. If you were to write a novel, or make a movie with them as the villains, you would be told to go back and make them more believable. After all, they blew up schools and killed teachers who dared educate little girls. They outlawed fun (no, really -- they banned kite-flying, many forms of clothing, music; pretty much any expression of joy). Their thugs walked the streets beating people for the slightest violation of their standards. They destroyed ancient statues of the Buddha. They executed people as half-time entertainment at soccer games.

Framed TRAVERSA Signing Off MM
The Afghanistan Without A Clue crew: Drew Morton, Doug Templeton, Mike Toomer, me.

If they had the technology and the military power of the Nazis, they would have set the new gold standard for universally recognized evil. No one in their right mind would want to be one or live under their rule, or so you would think. And yet they still exist, and they recruit new members, which either says something about our foreign policy, or about humanity’s willingness to submit to thugs. But if all the years we have spent in Afghanistan have not succeeded in reducing the Taliban to irrelevancy, I’d be hard-pressed to call it worthwhile. Perhaps we went about it all wrong. But that’s for the "experts” to hash out.

I’d like to say my final goodbye to The Sandbox and its readers by sharing two stories. They tell of personal marks the war has left on me, one good, one sobering. Countless numbers of people have been changed by the war. At least in my case, I came out okay on the other end. Far too many others have not. And the sense of betrayal and distrust I feel for our nation’s leadership will never leave me. 

The first story begins when my youngest son, Ryan, was deployed to Afghanistan. As a Grunt, he would be in harm’s way a great deal, or so I assumed. We were able to maintain regular contact via the internet, so we could know pretty much day-to-day that he was still alive. One day, I read that several Marines had been killed in the south, which is where Ryan was. It was also at that time we lost contact with him, not hearing a word for over two days. I was beginning to get worried, as you might imagine. On the second day, I heard a car drive into our driveway, and a door open and close. This almost never happens where we live. We just don’t get unexpected visitors. I was sure it was a military chaplain coming to tell us that Ryan was dead. The certainty was absolute. I hurried to the door and opened it, only to find a man from the utility company had pulled into our driveway to read a meter. Ryan told me later that when the Marines had been killed, all outside communications was cut off until the families had been notified. Then I remembered that this same thing happened to us whenever anyone from Camp Phoenix had been killed. I had totally forgotten about this. 

Not only did I have a brief moment of mistaken certainty about my son’s death, I once had an entire day of certainty about my own impending death. It occurred on September 10th, 2006. At this point our deployment was still in its early stages, and Kabul was relatively safe. We traveled around in unarmored Toyota SUVs, and weren’t required to wear helmets or report our travels to anyone. Each day we traveled to local Afghan bases and worked with Afghan soldiers during the day, then traveled back to Camp Phoenix for the night. If there was any indication of heightened threat, we were told to stay at Camp Phoenix for the day. 

On the afternoon of September 10th, I arrived back at my hut to find one of my hut mates quite irate. He informed me that even though there was intel suggesting attacks would occur on Sept 11th (to celebrate the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks), we would still have to go out. People were, to put it mildly, concerned. Some were writing “death letters” -- the final letter to be mailed home by a friend should you die. It was pretty grim.

At this point I became convinced that I would die the next day. It was not logical, but it was a fact, at least in my mind. I had to decide how I would spend my last hours on earth. I did not write a death letter, nor did I call my wife and say my final goodbyes. I had enough sense to avoid that. If death came, it came. I was not going to spend my last evening writing a letter.

I’ve actually written and given, on numerous occasions, a sermon about this event. I call it Yes, There are Atheists in Foxholes. I had once been a very conservative, fundamentalist Christian, but was now an atheist, and my atheistic convictions were about to be put to the test. Would I return to my former belief in God, praying for protection, or would I remain firm in my belief that life was random, and if I died, no damnation awaited?         

I remember taking a walk that evening out on the running track that surrounded our helicopter landing/sports area (in reality a large flat expanse of hardened dirt and rock). I pondered the meaning of life, and wondered what it would feel like to die. Yet through it all, I remained firm in my convictions. I returned to my hut not to pray and repent, but to finish up an anime series I was watching on DVD. Might as well, since I’d be dead the next day.

Thankfully, I was wrong. The next day, though full of stress, passed uneventfully, and when we pulled in to Camp Phoenix, we all let out a huge sigh of relief. We had made it. Those death letters would not have to be mailed. I could order some more anime. Life would go on.

Framed TRAVERSAL Signing Off sons
My sons: Taylor and Ryan.


This event, inadequately described in a few paragraphs, was hugely transformational in my life. It showed me that convictions firmly held, arrived at through careful consideration, could survive the trauma of war and the certainty of death. After returning home, I discovered the Unitarian Universalist Church in our town, and learned that they welcomed atheists and agnostics, not only as members, but as ministers. So not only are there atheists in foxholes, there are atheists in pulpits too. But that’s another story for a different forum.

So that’s it, my final post. I’m glad I could share my stories with you, and I’m delighted to have been associated in some small way with the Doonesbury comic strip, which I started reading at age 13, and have loved ever since. Many thanks to Garry Trudeau, David Stanford, and the rest of the gang at The Sandbox for getting our stories out.

 

Doug Traversa's 30-some Sandbox contributions include Mongolian Jam Session, Han's History Lesson, The Most Colorful Things in Afghanistan, and The Great Wall. He often wrote about conversations with his translator, as in these posts:  Hamid, and  Bear, Hamid, Mike and Drew Ponder the Universe.

 


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