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.


April 18, 2014

Name: RN Clara Hart
Formerly stationed in: a civilian military hospital in the U.S.
Email: [email protected]

It’s hard to believe it’s been two years since I left my career as a civilian nurse in a military hospital. Nine years I spent caring for war wounded troops and their families. So many memories; wonderful, encouraging memories and others filled with deep, heartbreaking sorrow. The names of the dead float through my mind as I write. This story is a tribute to all those who have given their lives, for those they left behind, and to those who look in the face of their war-given disabilities and find success.

Many months before I actually left the ICU, friends had begun asking if it wasn’t time I took a break, did something different. They would mention how sad I seemed or how stressed I was, or how often I cried. They didn’t know about the nightmares that plagued my sleep or the knot in my stomach that never went away. Despite those things I wasn’t ready to leave; I loved what I did and knew I made a difference. I was staying until they didn’t need me anymore. Then one day I no longer had a choice.

For some months I'd been assigned a patient, and was caring for him and his family. He was a young service member injured in the line of duty, with no chance of meaningful survival. He had an equally young, naïve wife without any idea how to care for herself, their two-year-old daughter, or the baby she carried. Yet, when the time came, she somehow made decisions at 20 years of age that those decades older are unable to make. She chose to honor his wishes and allow him to die. She stood up against his family, who cursed her decisions. She carried herself with her head high even as that same family abused her to the point where the sight of military police became common in the ICU. For months I watched this, caring for him, encouraging and supporting her, hugging the bright two-year-old when she came to see her dada. 

One day the wife asked me, “Will you be the nurse who is with us when we stop everything?”

Many times I have been asked that exact question. It’s a double-edged sword really, for it shows the deep connection made with the family, their need for you to be there with them in one the worst times of their lives, and in some ways it is an honor. Few are allowed into that particular circle. The other edge of the sword is the one that cuts you to shreds as you struggle to do your job. A job that requires you live up to the expectations of a grieving family and show the compassion they require, when all you want to do is curl up in a ball with your own sorrow.

The night before the end, I encouraged a young wife to snuggle up to her husband’s side, and watched as she wrapped her arms around him and fell asleep. The following day I returned, only this time it was my arms that held her as I softly told her, “Yes, he is dead.”  

The funeral followed, and as I stood in Arlington National Cemetery I thought about how the many times I had been there, honoring and remembering as Honor Guards carried flag-draped caskets, the other nurses and hospital staff standing side by side as we continued to care for our patients the only way we now could -- by supporting their families and friends.   

In the following two months, we had to withdraw care for two additional warriors and allow them to die. I began to cry every day, and for the very first time I didn’t want to go to work. I was irritable and angry and rarely slept through the night. One day I inadvertently slighted a junior physician, and suddenly the choice to leave or stay was no longer mine.

I didn’t look for another job, I didn’t work; I took care of my family and I healed. One day my phone rang and the young wife, now a widow, asked for my help. I struggled with her request because, as nurses, as professionals, there is an unspoken rule that says “Do not get involved with patients and their families outside of the work environment." But my faith dictated I help her, for my Christian beliefs and God said "Help the widows and the orphans." This young, courageous widow did not know how to care for herself, and, encumbered with grief, loneliness, and despair, was hospitalized with malnutrition and a baby in distress. My church family came alongside her, encouraging, supporting, teaching life skills, having baby showers for the unborn youngest daughter and birthday parties for the oldest daughter. 

One day the widow asked me, “Will you be the one with me when the baby is born?”

And so a trauma nurse, with no experience in labor and delivery, ended up in a delivery room. We placed photos of her husband around the room and the nurses were told all about him and their life together. She told them how I had been with her on the that day. Hours later, I was the first one to hold the youngest daughter of my former patient. As I looked down at her tiny face I saw her daddy’s. Tears streaming down my face I handed her back to the nurse and fled the room. In the hallway I slid down the wall to the floor sobbing. One of the other nurses sat beside me, holding and rocking me as I cried. Through my tears I explained, “I was with her when he died. I disconnected the ventilator, shut off the medications, took out the IVs, and it was me who had to tell her he was dead. And now I got to hold his baby daughter.” Framed NURSE baby 

I had endured countless withdrawals of care and watched life end, but now I watched life begin. What a wonderful way to end my career as a civilian nurse in a military hospital. God has given me a gift; a gift that has been instrumental in healing my heart. 

My gift is two years old this month. She and her mom and sister no longer live close by, and she probably wouldn’t know who I am. But I know, and every time her mom sends me a photo of her, I see her daddy’s face and in that I see my successes.

Framed NURSE Blurred_NURSE The GiftMy life is very different these days. Aside from friends, my military contact is limited; I miss it tremendously, miss the environment, the relationships with coworkers and battle buddies. My sleep is only infrequently plagued by death. Now my days are spent as a nurse case manager and an occasional ER RN. My church has started a medical missions ministry and medical missions are in my future. My first one will be this month, to El Salvador, and another to the Dominican Republic later in the year. If you’d like to follow along, two other nurses and I have started a blog called MBC Nurses on a Mission. I will warn you though, unlike my friend and fellow Sandbox contributor Troy Steward, who seems to post twelve times a day on his milblog Bouhammer, I am not an every day (or even an every week) kind of blogger. 

One last thing before I sign off. Through The Sandbox I have met wonderful people who I now call my friends. Friends who have kept my true identity a secret for years, coming up with half truths or boldfaced lies when people asked how we met. I came up with the name Clara Hart as a symbol of my profession. “Clara” after Clara Barton who nursed innumerable soldiers in her lifetime, “Hart” as a play on the word ‘heart,' because nursing is about compassion, and you cannot be a truly good nurse without a heart of compassion and a willingness to share it.

My name is Susan and I am so very happy to have met you and shared my journey with you. May God bless you richly.






April 14, 2014

Name: Andrew Kaufmann
Returned from: Iraq
Hometown: Montpelier, VA
Email: [email protected]



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



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



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



Just a boy

Friends to all

Smiles all day

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.



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.


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.


April 03, 2014

Name: Charlie Sherpa
Previously embedded:
with former unit in Afghanistan
Boone, Iowa
Milblog: Red Bull Rising

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.



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.





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?





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


March 29, 2014

Name:  1SG James L. Gibson
Stationed in: Afghanistan
Hometown: Forest Grove, Oregon
Milblog: The Life of Top
Email: [email protected]

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.


March 25, 2014

Name: Charlie Sherpa
Previously embedded:
with former unit in Afghanistan
Boone, Iowa
Milblog: Red Bull Rising

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.


March 21, 2014

Name: Robert
Returned from: Iraq
Email: [email protected]

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.  

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