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.

WELCOME TO THE SANDBOX |

April 30, 2014

Name: David Stanford, Duty Officer
Email: themanagement@doonesbury.com

Launched as a milblog (military blog) by Doonesbury creator Garry Trudeau in October 2006, for seven and a half years The Sandbox served as a forum for service members stationed in Iraq and Afghanistan (and a few other GWOT locations), and for veterans who had returned, their spouses and caregivers. Throughout its run The Sandbox was a combination of original writing sent directly to us and posts gathered from existing milblogs. Some contributors only wrote one piece, others contributed dozens through multiple deployments. Some continued to weigh in long after their return home, chronicling the transition back to civilian life, including in some cases dealing with their wounds and losses.

A major goal of this project was to help connect people on both sides of the gap described in this 2007 post:  THE CHASM.

The Sandbox contains over 800 posts by more than 150 contributors. It is a vast body of work -- the equivalent of three-and-a-half Lord of the Rings trilogies. You will be rewarded for roaming and exploring its depths.

DSC_0004

Some of the posts from the last few months were written by longtime contributors in response to our LAST CALL, and at the end of each of those are links to older posts by the same writers. These offer one way to begin exploring the site. You can also navigate around using the calendar links in the right margin. In future we hope to add the capability to search by author.

 

 

 * * *

Garry Trudeau announced the launch of The Sandbox with this Doonesbury strip:

Doonesbury Sandbox Sunday 10-8-06

 

A few months later, he followed up with another Sandbox strip:

 

Doonesbury Sandbox Sunday 1-7-07

 

In the fall of 2007, the publishing arm of Doonesbury's syndicate published this anthology of Sandbox writing, which contained posts from the first 42 contributors:

 

Framed SANDBOX COVER

 

BOOKS BY SANDBOX CONTRIBUTORS:

Welcome to Afghanistan: Send More Ammo; The Tragicomic Art of Making War as an Embedded Trainer in the Afghan National Army, by Benjamin Tupper

Kaboom! : Embracing the Suck in a Savage Little War, by Matt Gallagher

Fire and Forget: Short Stories, Edited by Roy Scranton and Matt Gallagher

Fire in the Night: Creative Essays from an Iraq War Vet, by Lee Kelley

When I Wished I Was Here: Dispatches from Fallujah, by Derek McGee

Here, Bullet, by Brian Turner

Northern Disclosure, by Toby James Nunn

 

(Please let me know if/when there are other titles to add to this list.)

 

 * * *

 

Lieutenant G gives it a shot. Hilarity ensues:

 

 

The Sandbox has been one of the most satisfying projects of my 35-year career as an editor. To all who contributed, thank you, for your service and your words. I am grateful for the friendships made here.

Onward!

SANDBOX CONTRIBUTORS |

April 29, 2014

@WR
1SG James L. Gibson
1LT Taylor D. Traversa
1SG Troy Steward
1st LT Will Mangham
A Capt in Fort Hood
A Nurse
Adam Tiffen
Adrian B.
The Afghan Battle Fox
Air Force Wife
Alex Horton
America's 1st Sgt.
Andi
Andrew Kaufmann
Anthony D. Pike
Army Girl
B.C.
Brandon Lingle
Brian Turner
C. Maloney
C.J. Grisham
CAPT Beau Cleland
CAPT Doug Traversa
CAPT Lee Kelley
CAPT Marc Rassler
CAPT Mark Martin
CAPT Matt Smenos
CAPT Mike Dunn
CAPT Mike Toomer
Captain Dave
CH (CPT) Brad P. Lewis
Chaplain CPT Dr. Father Tim
Charlie Sherpa
Citizen Soldier Sojack
Charles
Cheese
Chris Misner
Christina Steward
City Girl
Cmcjake
Colby Buzzell
Combat Doc
Daniel Gade
Deployed Teacher
Derek Eland
Doc in the Box
Don Connolly
Don Gomez
Doug Templeton
Edda 2010
Eddie
EOD Officer
Eric Coulson
Eric Fair
Eric Jones
Eric Wolf
Gabriel Russell
Garrett Phillip Anderson
Genevieve Chase
Ginger Star Peterman
Grunt MP
Gruntshit
Guard Wife
Ian Wolfe
I.A.O.
Jacob Sorrell
James Aalan Bernsen
Jason Payne
Jeff
Jeff Clement
Jenn Neuhauser
Jennifer M. Pierson
Joe Roos
John
Josie Salzman
JP
J.P. Borda
K
Kellie Coy
Kerrie Drylie
Kevin
Kyle McNally
Lisa Wright
LT Carl Goforth
LT COL Patrick
LT G
LTC Robert Bateman
Lurch
MAJ Andrew Olmsted
MAJ B. Tupper
MAJ Gian P. Hernandez
MAJ Michael Irwin
MAJOR Dan
MAJOR Mark Duber
Mart Gallagher
Michael
Michael C.
Michael Brameld
Michael Fay
Mike Guzman
Mike T.
Mikey Piro
Molly Pitcher
MSGT Ken Mahoy
Nicole Powell-Dunford
NCO at Campbell
Old Blue
Owen Powell
Paul McCollom
Rob
Robert
Roman Baca
RN Clara Hart
Rocinante
Ross Magee
Roy Scranton
Sacrificial Lamb
Sarah
Scott
Scott Kesterson
Sean Dustman
SFC Toby Nunn
SGT Allen
SGT B
SGT Brandon White
SGT de la Garza
SGT Derek McGee
SGT "Roy Batty"
SGT Sack
SGT Salamander
Sharon Swanke
Sideways
Simon H.
Six Foot Skinny
Skip Rohde
SPC Beaird
SPC Freeman
Anne Freeman
SPC Ian Wolfe
SPC Jami Gibbs
SPC J.R. Salzman
Soldiers Wife
SPC O
SSG Emily Joy Schwenkler
SSG Glenn Yeager
Steve Bauer
Stephen Canty
Tadpole
Anthony McCloskey
Teflon Don
T.T. Carnehan
Toby Nunn
Uncle Jimbo
The Afghan Battle Fox
The Dude
The Unknown
The Usual Suspect
Vampire 06
Virgil Harlan
Yambo
Zachary Scott-Singley

RESETTING PTSD SYMPTOMS |

April 27, 2014

Name: MSG C.J. Grisham
Returned from: Iraq and Afghanistan
Hometown: Texas
Milblog: A Soldier's Perspective

In 2009, I had the opportunity to interview then-Vice Chief of Staff Peter Chiarelli. We talked at length about his efforts to reduce or remove the stigma associated with a diagnosis of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). During that conversation, I made a conscious effort to challenge his assertion and began my journey to healing.

To paraphrase John Stuart Mill, “PTSD is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things.” Failing to seek help by those that are afflicted, and mocking those have it by those that don’t, are worse.

Seeking help was a difficult choice for me. I was a First Sergeant at the time on a glide path to earning Sergeant Major rank. I was one of the fastest promoted Master Sergeants in my field and I didn’t want to ruin it. But I believed that this was just the old-school thought process. General Chiarelli assured me the Army was changing the way it looked at PTSD.

So, with a heavy heart, I gathered my troops around and tearfully explained to them that I was stepping down as First Sergeant. 

“If I’m going to stand up here and tell you it’s okay to get help,” I told them. “I have to be willing to get help myself.”

I’m forever grateful to my commander at the time, who understood and supported what I was doing. And my wife couldn’t have been more supportive.

It had been six years since I was attached to 3/7 Cavalry in the 3rd Infantry Division (Mechanized) for the main assault into Iraq on the evening of March 19, 2003. Our task was to perform a hook maneuver and scout ahead of the division. We raced northwest to Al Salman, then made the sharp right turn towards As Samawah. Salman was a hilly, peaceful place. It was apparent the Iraq military never thought we’d head that way. We had a few small skirmishes, but no damage or injuries were sustained. The biggest problem we had was getting our vehicles through the rugged terrain.

Samawah would be the first time I had to fire a weapon at another human. It wasn’t pretty either. The mujahidin were infesting Samawah. We had outpaced most of the Division, so the fighting largely rested with us. They played dirty, using human shields as they fired their AK47s on full auto while resting the weapons on the shoulders of women who were bleeding from their ears from the sound. It’s hard enough to kill a human enemy; it’s even harder having to kill an innocent person in order to do so.

At one point, we were stuck on a raised roadway on highway 28 to the southwest of the city. In the distance, I heard loud booms -- incoming! The rounds fell well short of our position, but forward observers were walking them in on us. The tanks and infantry fighting vehicles had no problem turning 180 degrees around to retreat, but we didn’t have that luxury. Our unarmored HMMWVs with trailers needed to perform very difficult, multi-point turns without tumbling down the high embankment. 

BOOM! BOOM! One vehicle took a near direct hit near the canal. We were working hard to haul ass out of the kill zone. Then, I spotted a problem.

Just down the embankment, we had set up a hasty enemy prisoner of war (EPW) pit where my two interrogators were busy deciphering the defenses ahead of us and within the town. Geneva Conventions require us to protect EPWs to the best of our ability, but we didn’t have the space to take them with us. We couldn’t just leave them there to be blown to bits, no matter how much we wanted to. The guys we captured had surrendered without a fight because they were taken from their farmlands and forced into service by Saddam Hussein.

As I ran towards the cage, a round landed near me and blew me off the road. When I landed at the bottom of the embankment I felt a sharp pain in my back. Miraculously, there was no blood and didn’t appear to be any shrapnel. Through the stabbing pain, one of my interrogators and I gave the prisoners strict instructions to run south and surrender to the next unit they saw, or they would be killed.

Once we were out of artillery range, we began tending to the casualties. I was checked out by the medic who saw what happened and noticed I was limping. He asked for my casualty feeder, but I refused to give it to him. 

“We need that to submit for your Purple Heart,” he explained.

I looked around at the other troops who were injured, some badly.

“It doesn’t seem right. I’m able to walk and I’m not bleeding,” I replied. There was no more conversation. He issued me some ibuprofen for pain and I went back to my truck.

For the next several weeks we followed the Euphrates River northward. The fighting was steady, at times intense, and at times barely worth the bullets.

On March 25th, we had to actually dig foxholes because the armor was needed to head off a column of Iraqi tanks headed our direction from Karbala. Every Soldier in the unit was needed to create a defensive perimeter to protect the TOC from small arms fighters while the M1 Abrams Tanks and M2 Bradley Fighting Vehicles positioned themselves for the battle. Visibility was barely a few feet as a major sandstorm had blown in that turned the sky dark and eerily orange. Bullets whizzed by, mortars landed all around us, and an RPG missed our windshield by inches. We were shooting towards the gunfire, but couldn’t see our targets. After reinforcing our position and laying claymores along the woodline, we settled into our foxhole, trying to keep warm in the frigid temperatures throughout the night.

I wrote in detail about what happened to us thereafter, and during the rest of our deployment, on my military blog, A Soldier’s Perspective.

When I finally got to come home in late 2003 after fighting into Baghdad with 1-64 Armor and then over to Fallujah with 3-15 Infantry, something didn’t feel right. I first noticed it a few days after I returned when I went to a Subway restaurant to get a quick lunch just outside Fort Stewart, GA.

The man in front of me ordered his sandwich and asked the young kid making the sandwich to cut it into thirds. He ended up cutting it into quarters and the man started berating the Subway employee.

Was this guy really complaining about how his sandwich was cut, making a scene in the process? If that was the worst of my problems, I’d have been overjoyed! I had made it home by surviving brutal combat in which I had made my peace and accepted my death on three distinct occasions, only to come home to a society whose biggest problems in life were how their sandwiches were cut. I pushed on and tried to ignore the fact that I just didn’t fit in with society.

As time went on, I became more and more angry. I pushed people out of my life because I didn’t want to get close to anyone. Friends die. If I don’t have friends, I don’t have to worry about losing them. I questioned how God could allow such misery, pain, suffering and loss of life. Why was I allowed to live and people like SPC George Mitchell and SSG Stevon Booker allowed to die? I continued to “suck it up and drive on," pushing through the constant battle in my head over my self worth, and a constant stream of violent imagery that plagued me all night and when I least expected it during the day. I needed help, but I didn’t dare ask for it.

Since 2009, I’ve made great strides. I’ve learned to let go of the survivor’s guilt and found ways to deal with the sights, sounds, and smells that are triggers for my anxiety. I largely self-medicated through my writing and blogging. Thankfully, I never turned to drinking or drugs, though I thought often of just wanting to down a bottle of the cheapest liquor I could find to let go for awhile.

The problem with being honest and writing about PTSD successes and failures is that people who either don’t understand it or have an axe to grind will use it against you. Both types of people are dangerous to efforts made in helping troops overcome their demons of war.

Last year, I was accepted into the Warrior Combat Stress Reset Program here on Fort Hood. Reset is a three-week, outpatient program for qualified active duty troops suffering from extreme PTSD. The therapy combines both individual and group therapy with complimentary alternative medicine (CAM), like reflexology, deep tissue massage, yoga, Reiki, and more. 

That three weeks did more to help me successfully deal with the complications associated with PTSD than the previous four years of counseling alone did. Not only did the program address the mental pain associated with combat and living in a combat environment, but it also addressed the physical pain I have suffered since that day I was blown off the embankment. For the first time in over ten years, I got up off that bed feeling like I was floating. I felt virtually no pain at a time when my “normal” pain level was about a five on a scale of one to ten.

Unfortunately, because of the time and space requirements, each three-week program can only accommodate 10-12 troops. The groups are broken down into seniors and juniors, keeping senior NCOs and officers together and junior enlisted troops together to foster openness and trust.

For the first time in ten years, I no longer feel like a leper in society, constantly on guard seeking a hidden enemy in the bushes or the median of a highway. I can better control my anger, depression, and guilt. I’ve also accepted that I’ll never be able to forget the evils and perils of combat, but I can learn to live peacefully with them. In other words, I feel human again.

I’d like to take this opportunity to thank The Sandbox for all the hard work it has done to tell the story of our military through our eyes. Encapsulated within the confines of this site is more honesty and reality than we will ever see in the media. For many years, The Sandbox has told the stories that simply weren’t being told. It will be missed and its presence was appreciated.

 

C.J. Grisham's numerous Sandbox posts include Huggy Lady, Kaf-Tastic Killer Bunnies, How To Keep Your Soul, SSG Brian Cowdrey, Infinite Progress, SFC ZekeA Second Knock at the Door. and An Unwelcome Christmas.

 

 

 

THE GIFT |

April 18, 2014

Name: RN Clara Hart
Formerly stationed in: a civilian military hospital in the U.S.
Email: clarahart2@yahoo.com

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.

Framed NURSE AND BABY

 

 

Susan's numerous previous posts include:  The Vigil, The FacesVIPs, Incoming Wounded, End of Life, Carnage of the Mind, and If I Could Speak to General Kelly.

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


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