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.

DOHA |

October 31, 2006

DOHA
Name: CAPT Matt Smenos
Posting date: 10/31/06
Stationed in: Afghanistan
Hometown: Santa Maria, CA
Email:
msmenos@hotmail.com 

Shimmering monoliths of glass and steel towering over the white sands of Qatar reflect in the lenses of my sunglasses as I climb out of tour bus number three. I gaze up at the skyscrapers, so mysterious and conspicuous in the middle of the great desert nation, and I let out a little "Wow." I have seen cities; I was born in one. But this city is unique. The city of Doha is alive tonight. The pent-up energies of 100,000 people buzz in the humid, evening air. Great throngs of citizens, dressed in ceremonial finery, are gathered to recognize the last day of Ramadan. "EID MUBARAK" is sprawled across banners and posters and street signs as far as the eye can see. As the local clock strikes 8:00 pm, the city roars with joy. Amid the song and cheer the night sparkles from all sides with flash photography, glittering confetti, and streaming color ribbons and silk. I am thrown and shoved and trampled by crowds blind to the infidel on this, the first night of Eid, the holiest time of the Muslim year. Though not a Muslim, I can appreciate the release from a month of hardship and am, in my own secular way, celebrating a night of freedom.

As the sun goes down, my companions and I set out from the tour bus to explore the eye-popping diamond capstone of one of the richest nations in the world. This is the first of our four days of pass, an Army R&R program allowed to six-month deployers. We come together from all corners of the Middle-Eastern theater of operations, and yet we share a common disconnect from a place which bears so much painful resemblance to home. We recognize the cars, the lights, the decoration and festivity, yet we are the invisible people. We pass like ghosts or shadows through the dancing and parties. We feel like crashers, or unwelcome guests. Our drab t-shirts and track pants identify us as military to a wary crowd, who nod cautiously, if they take note at all. Though we have become used to being the relatively rich ones, here the petty contents of our wallets pale in comparison to the wealth doled out by a nation of millionaires unleashed from a month of sacrifice and starvation.

I swear that Benjamin Franklin frowns and looks around nervously as I hand him over to buy a Christmas gift for my daughter Jade. The man receiving him shoves the bill into a cardboard box under his register, apparently where dirty, foreign monies are hidden away until they can be reckoned with and converted. He mouths a quiet "Thank you" in English and flashes me a subtle, gold-studded smile. He knows I am using my Western cash to buy a heathen gift for my infidel child, and daring to do so on this night of nights. He will keep my secret as long as I move along quietly and promise to keep spending.

The combination-punches of familiar and unfamiliar continue. We drink Starbucks coffee, seated on huge pillows on the floor. I eat a grilled chicken salad at Applebee’s, where a great smiling Mickey Mouse poster points at me and laughs. When the check comes to the black-robed ladies at the next table, they pay it with neat stacks of multicolored Qatari cash from a shared briefcase doubtlessly given them by a shared husband. The stacks of cash fill the case, and it strikes me as not unlike a scene from a gangster picture, or a ransom caper with a character waiting to make “the exchange.” Is individuality and identity worth a briefcase full of cash? Though their faces are completely veiled, I can sense they have noticed me staring at their allowance. I hastily make an exit. 

I hide in a Mazeratti dealership and quietly stave off the nine attendants who descend upon me. No, I don’t want any Chai, or a massage, or a cigarette while you sell me a sports car. I head back out to the streets and try to blend. I feel like a giraffe amidst the march of the penguins. I see a buddy of mine trying to buy mascara from a street vendor. The vendor keeps grabbing her arm and pulling her back to the mirrored shelves of colorful bottles and jars. He urges her to smell, feel and sample. He dabs at her cheeks and hair with drops of oils and lotions. She ducks and weaves like a prize fighter before finally pulling away with a polite backpedal and an apologetic nod. She sees me leaning against a kiosk speckled with Dari and Arabic flyers in tatters, and rushes to my side. She grabs my hand with an iron grip and smiles in a way that says “Let’s get out of here,” and drags me onto the sidewalk.

We walk and share our experiences and the wonderment of being in an alien place for a strange celebration, and we discuss the way that buildings and pavement and glass only make a setting. It’s the people that define a life. As we sit on a bench at the bus stop, a final display of cultural variety blows past. A fluttering wave of colorful, translucent robes settles around me like butterflies, and the smiling faces of a dozen children, boys in ceremonial caps and girls with their first veils, who have discovered a white-skinned giant with yellow hair and mirror-eyes. They pet my skin and knead my shoulders. They poke hesitantly at my lenses and chatter at me with earnest questions I do not understand. They giggle and push each other at me, as if I might swallow one of them. I smile back and tell them my name, and with dark eyes and furrowed eybrows they stare intently at my lips moving. The boys puff out their chests and jab with their thumbs to inform me of their names. The girls avoid eye contact and just tug at my fingers and sleeves. When I stand to catch my bus they gasp in unison, and giggle and blow away with the warm, evening breeze. “Eid Mubarak!” I call after them. I think I made their Christmas (so to speak).

The rest of our pass was quiet. We stayed on the R&R post, tanning and swimming in the pool. Doha is an amazing place, a random utopia of wealth and progress in a literal desert of starvation and desolation. It’s a break in the monotony and a surprisingly rich experience. Some people skip their passes. Don’t ever do that. I don’t think I’ll ever forget mine.

ROBBIE |

October 30, 2006

ROBBIE
Name: SGT "Roy Batty"
Posting date: 10/30/06
Stationed in: Baghdad, Iraq
Hometown: Yellow Springs, Ohio

I am sitting on my camp chair in the corner of my room, the laptop on my bunk, Ipod inserted deep within my ears. Hedley Moose is asleep next to me, exhausted after another night of avoiding the restless bulk of a snoring ex-Marine. The bed is cluttered with a 1:50,000 scale tactical map of Baghdad, my black cordura wallet, everpresent Camels, a bright yellow Arabic for Dummies book, and Chuck Klosterman's awesome novel, Killing Yourself to Live. After finally putting down Neil Stephenson's bulging Quicksilver for the hundredth time as being brilliant but absolutely unreadable, I picked up Chuck's tome and have been reading it every chance I've had for the past 24 hours. Which means that I am about halfway through it. He writes almost exactly the same way as I hope to, except for the fact that he is actually funny.

Peter Gabriel surfaces on the tiny scratched screen of the Nano, singing quietly about Mercy Street. I close my eyes and the white-tiled ceiling disappears as I slowly rise through it and drift away to somewhere vaguely Celtic, full of dark rain clouds over coal tailings, thick with the wet smell of distant sheep. Amber scotch-colored water pours over my hands as I dip them in a cold Northern loch somewhere in the memories of my childhood in England.

I don't have anything to write about. We'll have to see what happens tonight on patrol. Baghdad has a way of throwing inspiration into the path of your HMMWV, either with the wet plop of over-ripened fruit, or with something considerably denser and unfortunately louder in volume.

Actually, it just did. Resigning myself to writer's block, I put down the Ipod and went outside to smoke a cigarette. Schrader and Smith were out there, so I went over to say hi. We were just starting to talk, when we were interrupted by a weird whirring noise, sort of like a radio-controlled car in low gear.

We turned to see what it was, and a short black robot trundled around the side of the building on little round all-terrain tires. The intruder was just under a foot high, and about three feet long. A tiny, two-inch silver camera was mounted on the top of the front bumper, and two spring-loaded antennas bounced along merrily at its rear. This was one of our newest toys; something I had heard about, but had not actually seen yet. It's an EOD robot, but a cheaper version just for MPs. Designed to investigate possible roadside bombs, but small enough to be carried in the back of a HMMWV.

Robbie the Robot trundled oblivously past us, turned right, and drove underneath a parked semi, its antennas bouncing and scraping the undercarriage of the truck. He then cruised off in the general direction of the Battalion TOC.

The three of us looked at each other, wondering if we had actually seen this mechanical apparition. We had, so we peered around the building, expecting to see whoever was controlling the cute little thing, but no one was visible. I don't know the range on the radio controller, but it must be pretty far. No telling where they were hiding.

Robbie was disappearing in a small cloud of gravel dust, and, on a whim, I ran after him, following the bright little blue LED mounted on his rear. I caught up with him, got in front, just to the side, and got down on all fours on the gravel. As he rolled by, I leaned over, mouth wide open, right in front of the TV camera. I would have loved to see the view on the distant TV screen. Understandably, he stopped instantly.

I laughed to myself and stood up, looking at him at him from the side. The robot paused for a minute, and then lurched forward, and then slowly started circling around me. I was amazed to see the little silver camera start traversing back and forth. Obviously he was trying to find out what halitosis-ridden monster had just tried to bite his head off. Robbie did a slow 360-degree turn around me, and I stepped in front of him, blocking his escape. The camera shook for a second, and then raised up on an articulated arm that had been hidden inside his body. I leaned over, and pointed a finger at him, like a boy admonishing a wayward puppy.

"Go home! Go home now!" I mouthed at him. I don't know if there is a microphone on the camera, but I couldn't see one. The camera raised up another inch or two, and then, amazingly, slowly shook its head left and right. No.

I burst out laughing, absolutely delighted. Apparently whoever was on the other end of the video feed had a decent sense of humor, too.

Robbie lowered his head, backed up, slowly rolled around me, and headed off on his exploratory journal. The last I saw of him, he was headed off in the dust, antennas bouncing joyfully, silver head checking out the scene, trundling off in the general direction of the showers. The female showers.

Ah, to be a bored soldier in Iraq, with million-dollar toys. These are your tax dollars at work. At least he made my day, so it was worth it, I hope.

MY FORK |

MY FORK
Name: CH (CPT) Brad P. Lewis
Posting date: 10/30/06
Returned from: Iraq
Hometown: Sacramento, CA
Milblog url: http://chaplain.blogspot.com

I can't imagine that there is anyone over here that does not want to go home. It's very fulfilling to be a part of something so big and to play a role in the freeing of an entire nation. But it's like Dorothy said, "There's no place like home." They treat us pretty well here, but there are some things that just can't be replaced. As I sit down for meals and talk with soldiers about life, service, home, girls, boys, families, etc., everyone misses something. For one it's coffee out of his favorite mug. For another it's the morning newspaper. One guy will miss the smell of his children or the taste of mom's lasagna. Everyone misses something. Everyone looks forward to getting back to that something. Everyone dreams of normalcy. That's where the sacrifice of these great people is most clearly seen -- in the little things they willingly give up, to live and work in a rat hole. And they don't complain or blame or whine. They just keep fighting and working and dreaming of going home. These are truly great people.

Like the next guy, I too want to go home and hold my wife and my kids, to sip coffee from my own mug, to work in my yard. But having been deployed to several locations in a very short period I miss one thing more than any other. For me, plastic is the problem. It's those silly plastic forks with the hollow tines, where everything you eat gets jammed in there and it just feels funny in your mouth. I miss real silverware. Ah the feel of smooth aluminum or steel or tin or whatever they make silverware out of (maybe its silver). I'm no utensilogist, but I know a good fork when I see one. Knives and spoons are not an issue. Forks are what I miss. Like I said, I'm no different. Just like the next guy...kinda.

You see, unlike the next guy, I have the perfect spouse. She knows me, and loves me anyway. She's perfect. So, recently I was home just long enough to drive my kids to school a couple of times and kiss my bride. And just before taking off again for parts unknown, she bought me a fork! It's not a very fancy one. Neither is it a girly fork. It's perfect. It has a nice big handle that’s a manly black and silver; it’s easy to hold on to, with perfectly straight and smooth tines. I love my fork. So now when I go to eat breakfast or lunch or dinner or just an afternoon snack, I reach into my pocket and pull out my little friend...and we enjoy a meal together. There's no place like home, even when it's the size of a fork.

WRITING LETTERS |

October 27, 2006

WRITING LETTERS
Name: CAPT Lee Kelley
Posting date: 10/27/06
Stationed in: Iraq
Milblog url:
http://wordsmithatword.blog-city.com
Email: wordsmith16@excite.com

Yesterday was a good day. I had a lot of work to do, the minutes sped past me unnoticed, and I was able to do something to strengthen both mind and body, which means I did some writing and hit the gym when I went off shift. No one in my unit was hurt or killed yesterday, no mortars or rockets hit the FOB, and I fell asleep with a satisfying sense of fatigue and a firm optimism about the days to come. Before bed I sat at my desk -– an ugly thing made of plywood and two by fours –- in the light of a small lamp and composed some letters. My eyes welled up because it’s difficult to write letters that you only want to be read if you die.

I started with one to my Dad, sounding formal, even though we never talk like that:

Dear Dad,
I know you raised me well, and I appreciate that. As a parent, I know it's not always easy...

To my dear wife,
If I don’t make it from sunrise to sunset today, please know how much I always loved you...

To my beautiful daughter,
Chloe, you have been such a light in my life, and I hope that you continue to shine as you grow into an adult. Know that I will be by your side always, and...

My son,
Why this day was my last we’ll never know. Why I decided to write this letter is yet another enigma. But I believe there is a reason for it all, and I wanted you to know that I love you so much, buddy...

I have been wondering why I haven’t written this type of letter before. We all know mortality can strike us at any time. We can be the unwitting target of a drunk driver, our hearts can simply stop beating, or we can be diagnosed with cancer. I could have written them back home, in the long hours of the morning, when the sun vaults from the horizon and suburban America rouses itself with percolating coffeemakers and the dew-covered newspapers cover the lawns like dead animals. Each minute can be our last, no matter who or where we are -- it’s the human condition.

In the Sunni Triangle, even though statistically fewer people get killed in combat here than die daily on America’s highways, you feel like death is closer, breathing down your neck, taunting you. And you laugh at him. You live and laugh right in his dark foreboding shadow, because what else are you going to do, cry about it? You just focus on the mission, and contribute the best you can. I don't think about death all the time, but I do find myself getting philosophical about it more often than ever before.

All these years I could have been composing a letter each day, once a week, or every month to my loved ones. But I didn’t write those letters. I never have, until last night. I am over three-quarters done with this deployment and I feel confident that I will return home and chase my dreams as I never have before. I know in my heart that I will wrap my arms around my two wonderful children. Still, these letters will be sealed, and on the envelopes I will write:

To:     ____________________
From: ____________________
OPEN ONLY IN THE EVENT OF MY DEATH

I'm thinking those who read this will find it saddening. But it's not. It's a very good thing. I have been thinking about mortality a lot lately, and I am the kind of person that wants to leave words to certain people, not only memories. This is important to me. Leaving my writings, my blog, and my journals and notebooks is simply not enough. I want them to know I composed a letter directly to them, in my own handwriting. I like thinking that if something catastrophic should happen to me out here, and I never make it home, the people I care about the most will know exactly how I felt about them before I died.

They can sit down and look at the envelope in their hands, run the letter opener along the edge, listen to the soft rip of the paper. One likes to think that our actions in life demonstrate our appreciation for those we hold dear, but this is unfortunately not always the case. My loved ones will have no doubts as to how much they mean to me and how proud I am of them. I will make it very clear. Will I write more letters, now that I’ve opened myself to this line of thinking? I don’t know. But after these were done, I felt better. I let it all out. Got it off my chest.

When I return from this war, I’ll take care of these letters. I won’t even read them again. I’ll have a nice glass of red wine, or a dark beer with lemon in a frosty mug, and then I’ll burn them in my own little post-deployment ritual. I’ll smile at the flames as they eat away the now-muted possibility of my death in a combat zone.

For I will be home.

"When you were born, you cried and the world rejoiced. Live your life in a manner so that when you die the world cries and you rejoice." -- Native American proverb

ONE THING |

ONE THING
Name: Steve Bauer
Posting date: 10/27/06
Stationed in: Iraq
Hometown: Fort Hood
 

There are so many things to say, but since I am now short 30 days from leaving this mess, I can only say one thing: I can now truly appreciate living in the USA. We may disagree on religion, politics, race, but we don't blow each other to pieces because of it (well, not normally).

AHHH |

AHHH
Name: Cmacjake
Posting date: 10/27/06
Returned from: Iraq
Hometown: Florida

I was in the drive-thru at Starbucks after returning from a deployment. Ahhh, coffee smelled great. When I got up to the window the Starbucks guy said it was free! Someone the day before had left a gift card for any military person to use. It was their way of showing appreciation. That meant a lot to me, as it does when strangers walk up and say, "Thanks for serving."

THE IRAQI ARMY |

THE IRAQI ARMY
Name: Sacrificial Lamb
Posting date: 10/27/06
Stationed in: Iraq
Hometown: Anytown, USA
Email:
sacrificallamb@hotmail.com 

I serve as an advisor to the Iraqi Army. These people don't take the war seriously. It is all about what the U.S. can give them. The average soldier in their Army gets 13 days of leave a month -- that is, if they come back on time, which they don't. When they are here they only work half-days. All of this is approved by the Iraqi chain of command. That is what policy is based on; people who work maybe nine full days a month. No one is addressing that.

HAMID |

October 26, 2006

HAMID
Name: CAPT Doug Traversa, USAF
Posting date: 10/25/06
Stationed in: Kabul, Afghanistan
Hometown: Tullahoma, TN
Milblog url:
http://traversa.typepad.com
Email:
traversa@gimail.af.mil

Today was the usual half-day of a Thursday. Our interpreter Hamid and I spent a lot of time waiting for meetings, and we worked getting the ANA troops paid for their convoy duty. I was the approving officer for four convoys, so they had to write up the approval letters, Hamid had to translate, and then I signed them all so they could get paid. The personnel officer was very happy that I was taking an interest in helping. Franz Kafka could not have written a more twisted and convoluted system than the ANA pay system, even he had a hangover, a toothache, and just had his leg gnawed off by a rabid hamster. Nothing is easy here. Falling off a chair requires three different forms, signed in blood, and approved by the Ministry of Defense.

Hamid and I had lots of time to talk, which he really enjoyed. I learned just how awful his life is. He is an earnest, serious man, 27 years old, and never gives the impression of being irresponsible, or not taking his religion and culture seriously. He lives with his mother and two brothers on a hillside overlooking the capital, and he says his house is very nice. It is conveniently located in relation to everything except work. He would love to have us over for a meal to meet his family and I would love to go, but I doubt we would be able to. No one knows he works for us except his immediate family. They don't want to get attacked by insurgents or angry neighbors.

Further questioning revealed that his house has only two rooms. It used to have four, but the house was divided and his uncle owns half of it now. He only has electricity for two or three hours in the evening, and so their house gets pretty warm. In the winters they have a wood-burning stove, but the house gets very cold. He loves eating at our chow hall because there is such variety. At home they eat a rice and meat dish that rarely changes from day to day. He does not like it very much, but the rest of the family does. I've seen Hamid wear exactly three different shirts in the five weeks I've known him. It's probably all he owns. He gets paid good wages by Afghan standards, but I know he supports his mother with some of that.

We discussed funerals, as Col R. and many of the ANA troops were heading to one. Death is common over here, and the life expectancy is in the upper 40s. Muslims are not supposed to cry at the burial, as it can send the dead person to hell (as best I understood Hamid on this point).  Despite this, there is much weeping and screaming of anguish at funerals here.

He also told me that the police had just arrested a man who had been posing as a woman and hijacking cars, and kidnapping women. Men would pick him up, thinking he was a prostitute, and he would chloroform them and steal their cars. This whole thing was pretty amazing to him. So I told him all about America, sex-change operations, breast implants, transvestites, etc. I explained that when you live in a free country, there is a lot of weird stuff that can happen too.

At lunch we discussed his hopes in life. He would like to get married, but his mother must arrange it. First his older brother must get married, and that is in the works. The brother's wife will move in with them in the tiny house. He also explained that wives and mother-in-laws fight a lot, because sons must pay equal attention to their wives and their mothers. After his brother is married, Hamid may ask his mother to arrange meetings with a girl. However, Hamid must first go through all his cousins and tell Mom that he doesn't want to marry them. Then he can look to marry outside of his cousins. At this point he asked if we married cousins in America. I said in many places you could, but generally we did not. I tried to explain about in-breeding and recessive genes, but who knows how much he understood. I did make it clear that for health reasons it was usually better not to marry a cousin.

Hamid does indeed have a girl he is "impressed by." That is Afghan for "she's so hot!" He rarely gets to see her, but once his brother gets married, he can start hinting to Mom that she might be a nice girl to set him up with. Despite this, Hamid is very sad. He wants to get married, but it is at least two years off, and at 29 a good chunk of his life is over.  Most of his friends are married and have kids. I told him lots of Americans wait until they are over 30 before they get married.

"Yes, but you can have sex any time you want. We must be married," he replied.

Well, I can hardly blame the poor guy for being frustrated.  He's going to wait for marriage, and it's killing him. I told him that plenty of Americans wait until they are married to have sex, and we aren't all having nightly orgies. Plenty of guys never have sex (I suspect there is a significant number of guys so afraid to even talk to a girl that they never get to first base). Hamid gave me a look of skepticism, but I told him there are plenty of religious people in America, just as there are in Afghanistan, and they wait for marriage. I think he finally believed me.

I will close with a story he told me which is poignant and heart-breaking. I will write it as closely as I can to the way he told it, which was very moving. This was about his life in Pakistan, shortly before coming back to Afghanistan.

"Pakistan was so green, so beautiful. When it rained in the spring, it was warm and lovely. I remember once it was raining and I put on my raincoat, and my friends and I walked three miles in the rain to a cafe. It was dark, and there were lights everywhere, and they shone off the water, the rain, the streets. We sat and drank tea and watched the beautiful girls go by. But here in Afghanistan there is nothing. We must be inside by 8 PM. There is no electricity. There is nothing to do. I wish I could leave."

"Why don't you go back to Pakistan?" I asked.

"My family was with me there. Now they are here, and I must take care of them."

When Pakistan is your Garden of Eden, you know you are at the very bottom of what life has to offer.

Our day was over. He needed to go to the front gate to catch a taxi, and I walked him out. "Today was a very good day," he said. "I am glad we had so much time to talk. Normally we are in too much of a hurry. But I enjoyed it very much."

As did I, my friend.

SOME EVENTS |

October 25, 2006

SOME EVENTS
Name: SGT Brandon White
Posting date: 10/25/2006
Stationed in: Afghanistan
Hometown: Ohio
Milblog url:
http://www.gwot.us
Email: soldierboy101st@yahoo.com

Some events have transpired within the past 24 hours that I feel compelled to blog about. Yesterday evening an SF (Special Forces) guy comes into our building, all huffy-like, and explains to us that a local warlord has just been slain, and warns that we should be in a heightened-alert status and expect some sort of attack on our FOB. This local warlord's name is Amanullah Khan, or as we affectionately call him, AK. I didn't realize how far-reaching this man's influence was until today.

In our heightened-alert status, we prepare our humvees for quick-takeoff in case anything happens. I am selected to be in the QRF (quick reaction force) team that is to depart in those humvees should the need arise. Well, our team sits there in full-battle-rattle for a good two hours, simply waiting for the word. Then in walks the same SF guy, who proceeds to explain that it isn't just AK that was killed, but 31 other fighters as well. And that this was a clash between two local warlords' armies.

He goes on to tell us that we need to depart immediately to secure an airfield near our FOB for incoming medevac helicopters. Around 11pm we depart for the airfield to secure it. It's one of those totally black nights and the moon is nowhere in sight. I ponder this as I lay prone next to my humvee, seeing nothing in the blackness, wishing I had brought my night vision goggles. The birds come in, they pick up four casualties of the day's clashes, and take off. The mission goes without incident. As soon as we arrive back at our FOB, our commander informs us that we will be departing the next morning, at 0600, to pull security on the funeral proceedings of the slain men (funerals in Afghan culture happen immediately). "Expect to be waked up at 0500," he says. I check the clock on the wall, and it reads 0104. That gives me a little less than four hours of sleep. The next morning I am awakened by my Sergeant Major, telling me to prepare the vehicles.

We roll at 0600 towards Shindand proper. During the trip I ask my Lieutenant why we are getting involved in this clash between two local warlords. He replies simply, "It's the Taliban. Don't believe all of this shit about 'warlords'. It's the Taliban, fighting each other." I ponder this for a few minutes while we pass scores of people on foot, headed toward the funeral. We are still several miles away from where the funeral is to take place (just outside of Shindand, in the village where the battle occurred), yet we are seeing all of these people, and I mean a lot, lining both sides of the road, headed the same direction we are. "How is this the Taliban? It's Amanull..." I start to ask. "No man, trust me. It's the Taliban. The Taliban is all around us. They infiltrate the Afghani society, so any clash among people is a clash among the Taliban." I mull this over, trying to make sense of his words: "The Taliban is all around us." I keep repeating it to myself, until it hits me. I've heard this phrase before. "The Matrix is all around us." I start going over some lines from the popular movie, and they perfectly describe what the Taliban is. The Taliban is an organized group, yes, but they are within the society, in every single facet of it. Here is one of Morpheus' key lines from the movie, in which I have replaced the word "Matrix" with the word "Taliban":

"The Taliban is a system... That system is our enemy. But when you're inside, you look around, what do you see? Businessmen, teachers, lawyers, carpenters. The very minds of the people we are trying to save. But until we do, these people are still a part of that system and that makes them our enemy. You have to understand, most of these people are not ready to be unplugged. And many of them are so inured, so hopelessly dependent on the system, that they will fight to protect it."

We arrive at the funeral site to find dozens of ANA (Afghanistan National Army) soldiers around the perimeter of the area -- at least a two-mile area -- which they have secured. These are the soldiers that we are training here in Shindand. Immediately after taking up our fighting position we receive radio-traffic from the ANA indicating that fighters (from one side or the other, I have as yet not figured out which side is whose), are still attacking the village, on the western side. So we U.S. soldiers move our positions to that side of the village, after finding out that our "enemy" had either dispersed back into the population or had retreated. For the next four hours, we simply wait in the heat. I am eager to get done with this "security detail", I am dog tired and hungry. We start getting scattered reports over the radio from higher up that vehicles are speeding through various checkpoints, all around Herat province, heading directly toward where we are. We stare off into the bleak landscape for another hour. Then up walks one of our interpreters, telling us that the ANA has a member of the opposing side's warlord's clan on the cellphone. "The ANA wants me to tell you guys, that the warlord's army is on the phone telling us not to move any closer to the village (referring to the village which the other clan is from)."

All of this sound confusing? It was. All I knew is that two groups of armed villagers, from rival villages, were killing each other, and now we were right in the middle of it. The "terp" (interpreter) comes back minutes later, while I am scanning the horizon for any sign of the "enemy" with binoculars, to say that the "enemy" has 1,000 men waiting for us, just over in that village there (he points off toward the opposing village, which looks a good distance away). I put the binoculars to my face and point them toward where his finger is pointing. Sure enough, I see clusters of men with weapons, scattered throughout the village.

So what we have is an old-fashioned standoff. Immediately, vehicles start shifting to form a line, all facing toward that village. I can't help but think how stupid this is. It reminds me of so many Civil War movies that I've seen -- two lines, facing each other on a battlefield, each waiting for the other to strike first. Which is exactly what both of us do. We wait. And wait.

I start getting irritated, and ask my Lieutenant why we don't just go into the village and kill them all. They would be no match for us (even though we number maybe 100 men combined, we have superior firepower). He informs me that the U.S. in this country is pretty much a third party. That we are here to train the ANA, and that the ANA must make the decisions about what is to be done. We can only provide guidance. I again ponder why the hell we are even here, sitting in this heat, actually staring at the Taliban, yet not being able to do anything about it. Apparently, what the ANA "decided to do", was have a staring contest, because that's all we did, stare at each other through binoculars.

It's getting into the afternoon hours when my commander finally decides on a plan for us (American Soldiers). He tells us that he is going to leave half of us out here with the ANA, and half are going back to the FOB for a night's rest, only to come back out tomorrow morning (0600) to relieve the guys that stayed the night.

Luckily, I was not among those that had to stay out there. I came back to the FOB and started typing this blog post. It's now 1730, I am tired as hell, and I wish to simply get some sleep for tomorrow's festivities -- going back out to the "battlefield" to stare our enemy down.

HAIKU |

HAIKU
Name: Jeff
Posting date: 10/25/06
Stationed in: Baghdad
Hometown: Montana

The sun is setting
Leisurely strolling along
To my sweet trailer

Barbed wire and dirt
Tanks and armored vehicles
Wear your safety belt

Who will be in charge?
Six bosses for each worker
An army of one

Pictures of rainbows
Covering the concrete wall
Damn hippie chow hall

What's this chow hall food?
Thirty dollars, KBR?
Powdered milk and eggs

Feeling faint, dizzy
Luckily the sign tells
Me to drink water

I sit on my ass
On this very secure FOB
A bronze star I'll get

ROADSIDE BOMB |

October 24, 2006

ROADSIDE BOMB
Name: SGT “Roy Batty”
Posting date: 10/24/06
Stationed in: Baghdad, Iraq
Hometown: Yellow Springs,Ohio

There is a Chinese proverb we all know: "Be careful what you wish for." Apparently the action gods are familiar with this homily, have been listening to my complaints about boring combat patrols, and last night decided to pay up, in spades.
      
We were scheduled to do another night patrol, assessing the various checkpoints in Eastern Baghdad; another night of looking at trash on the edge of our headlights and asking the same questions to the same bored, indolent Iraqi cops, awakened from their roadside slumber. It was also the first time going outside the wire with SSG T., a squad leader who I have butted heads with before, largely due to his apparent ignorance of tactical matters, and his delicate and childish ego. A difficult mixture anywhere, and a potentially deadly one in Iraq.

So it was with a certain amount of misgiving that my team and I started loading up our HMMWV in the cool dusk of the early evening. The good thing is that SGT G. and her team would be with us. SGT G. is the other team leader, along with me, from 3rd Squad, and she is good people. If things went bad, it would be reassuring to have a familiar face next to us.

Things started going a little astray right from the beginning. SSG T. did a surprisingly good, very thorough operations order (OPORD), briefing for us in our PCC room. The PCC (pre combat check) room is a briefing area complete with huge maps, aerial photographs, sand table, IED mockups, and all sorts of pictures and diagrams and intelligence reports that are made available for mission briefs. For some wierd reason, our 1SG (hissss!) and Commander were present for the brief, in retrospect a sure harbinger of trouble ahead.

That, and the fact that our clueless lieutenant would be riding along with us, and worse still, in my truck. At the very least, a long night of inane questions and babysitting was in store for me. I was actually pretty impressed with SSG T.'s brief, but both SGT G. and I were concerned about the route that he wanted to take to our Area of Operations. It went along a series of small roads that had been hit a lot lately by roadside bombs which had killed several US soldiers, just within the last few weeks. My own squad leader had made a point of avoiding these roads for just that reason. I brought up my concern at the end of the briefing, but to no avail.

Immediately after the briefing, I got lit up by my Platoon Sergeant SFC Y., as the 1SG had gone to him, apparently pissed off that SGT Q. was "sharpshooting SSG T. during his briefing". My Platoon Sergeant is not a good man to have angry at you, and he wanted to see me at the end of the mission, due to finish at 6:00 a.m. My night was going bad to worse, and it had just begun.

No sooner had he finished yelling at me, than there was an almighty BOOOOOOM, immediately behind us, followed by a deep, bassal WHHHHOOOOOOOOSSSHHHHH, right over our heads. Clearly we were under attack, it was close, and more was coming in on top of us. I did the usual crazed-dog-chasing-his-tail 360, located the nearest bunker, and took off for it, leaving a dust trail behind me while simultaneously yelling for my soldiers to follow me. Later SFC Y. commented, "If I could get you to run that fast on a Physical Fitness Test, you would have one of the best scores in the company."  I was convinced that the rushing noise of the round overhead meant that it was coming straight for us, and, in fact, there were a series of deep WHUMMP-WHUMMP-WHUMMP explosions nearby, fortunately heard by us from inside the dark, fetid safety of the bunker.

After half an hour of sweating beneath the layers of concrete and sand bags with thirty people, most of whom I don't know, we were told that it was all clear, and out we piled, thankful to be breathing the comparatively cool and body odor-free air.  As usual, it was hard to find out exactly what it was. Mortars? Rockets? There was even the  suggestion that the M1 tanks on the back of the FOB were firing, which would explain that horrible whooshing noise overhead, although they had never done that before. Who knows, and in any case, we still had a patrol to do. Eight hours to go, and we hadn't even left camp yet.

Finally we got everyone together and headed out into the Baghdad night. A stop by the clearing barrels, the reassuring "shee-tunk" of a gold-tipped high explosive grenade in my M203 launcher, red-tipped tracers loaded  into the rifle above it, a quick check of the radios and various electronic gizmos, and off we went.

Because we were now running late, SSG T. decided not to take the controversial route he had initially planned on. We all felt much better about this, preferring the wide, familiar breadth of Route Pluto to the shadowed street of the mahallahs (neighborhoods) to the east. Twenty minutes later, we were approaching the turn off to FOB Loyalty, looking forward to the promise of midnight chow and Loyalty's famous swiss-and-mushroom burgers.

KA-WHAAAAAAAM!!!!!!!  I just happened to be looking right at the patch of road to the left of our lead vehicle when it erupted in a pillar of brown dust and gray smoke, accented with a smattering of dull yellow sparks. My electronic headphones cut off the initial sharp hammerstrike of the exploding bomb, just as they are supposed to, but it didn't matter, as the concussion from the blast hit our truck a micro-second later, jarring the HMMWV's boxy six-ton frame; forcing an expletive out of my lungs.

"Stopbackupgogogo!" I was yelling to my driver, as he and my gunner were shouting their own heartfelt reactions to the scene in front of us. I was extremely concerned about the possibility of secondary IEDs. The insurgents have taken to planting these around the initial roadside bombs, with the express intent of blowing up soldiers coming to the aid of their injured  buddies.

Fortunately, all of our other vehicles were still moving, and surged forward as their drivers hit the gas. Everybody made it out of the killzone without being confronted by any other exploding banana boxes (which is what the first one had been hidden under), so I told my driver to floor it and catch up.

Thirty seconds later we were rolling through the front gate of Loyalty.  We pulled into the staging area just inside the massive steel gates, and everyone piled out. Ten cigarettes were instantly lit in little flares of yellow butane, ten extremely animated faces illuminated in the process of excitedly retelling exactly what they saw and felt a minute ago.

Turns out that no one was injured, thank God. The roadside bomb had exploded between the first and second HMMWV, blowing a handful of quarter- and silver dollar-sized holes through the left rear tire and quarter panel of the first one. The second truck took a couple of holes on the left front quarter panel and hood, and one ominous chunk had been blown out of the gunner's turret armor. The rest of the trucks, including mine, just had some tiny chips and scratches.

The vets of previous Iraq tours explained that this was a "small" one, probably a wired up mortar round, maybe 60 or 82 mm. If that was a small one, I have no wish to see a big one at the same viewing distance.

While we were standing there, sucking down nicotine like it was alpine spring water, posing for the obligatory photos, inanely grinning for the camera while poking our fingers through the shrapnel holes, the combat engineers rolled out in their specially constructed de-mining vehicles to clear the area around "our" bomb. An hour later, and they were back with disturbing news. There were secondary bombs planted around the area, and not just one but two. One similiar device on the southbound lane, and another bomb, this one a dreaded EFP, carefully disguised as a painted brick, hidden in the underpass just north of us. Both were clearly designed and placed to hit anyone coming to our aid. Luckily, "our" bomb had been detonated just a tad too late or too early to do any serious harm.

The thing that really bothered a number of us was that this occurred right in front of FOB Loyalty, in full view of the guard towers, and almost exactly at the same spot where a car bomb had detonated two days prior. The bomb was command-detonated, by a wire instead of a radio, which meant someone was sitting out in the leafy darkness around the canal that separates the north and southbound lanes of Route Pluto. Sitting, waiting, and then pressing the button on the detonator -- an interesting thing to contemplate, when you are in the vehicle getting blown up. More importantly, somebody else, on our side, was asleep on guard duty and had missed the whole thing being set up.

Still, we were all happily and vibrantly alive. I had one of the best cheeseburgers of my entire life in the chowhall that night, slurping down ice cold root beer with a big smile on my face. SSG T. came up to me and said, "You know, we've had our differences, but I'm glad you're alive."  We shook hands, patted each other on the back. He had handled his baptism of fire well, had not missed a beat, and immediately was on both radios, making sure his soldiers were okay, and advising our company TOC of the situation. I told him he had done a great job, and he beamed like a schoolboy. We were changed.

MY MISSION |

MY MISSION
Name: The Unknown
Posting date: 10/24/06
Stationed in: Iraq
Hometown: Ohio

This is my first deployment to Iraq, and I am not afraid to say that I am scared to death every time we leave the wire. We got hit with an IED about three weeks ago. The powers that be "grounded" me for three days. Since I started going back on patrol, I have noticed that my nerves are more unsettled than they have ever been. Every time we go out, I know there is a chance we may get hit or shot at. I accept that. That is part of my job. No, my duty.

What makes me angry is that some people, both Soldiers and American civilians, don't understand that most of us are here because we see that there is good in the Iraqi people. I, for one, respect the local nationals. They have lived in this hell all of their lives. What tugs at my heart are the children. When we go to the outer-lying villages the families are so poor, it breaks my heart to see people like this. The children are very happy to see us. They flock to us for candy, soccer balls, water, attention.

I try to make a difference. I have my family and friends send me snacks and other goodies to give to the children. I feel that if I can make a child smile for a day, I have completed my mission. That mission is to win the hearts and minds. The hearts and minds. My fellow Soldiers are here to make a difference. The ones who complain and say that they don't want to be here, the ones who say this isn't their war, the ones who say they don't want to be in the Army, the ones who say they don't care -- aren't really Soldiers. Being a Soldier means that you are proud of who you are and what you're doing. These "soldiers" knew what they were getting into when they swore in.

All I have left to say is: respect us, respect yourself, respect the locals. This will all be over one day. Until then, suck it up and drive on!!

CARING FOR THE WAR WOUNDED |

October 23, 2006

CARING FOR THE WAR WOUNDED
Name: A Nurse
Posting date: 10/23/06
Stationed in: a military hospital
Hometown: Illinois
Email:
smknva@yahoo.com 

As I read everyone's postings here I thought of my own experiences as a civilian nurse caring for the war wounded. Idealistic as it may sound, I somehow wanted to help, to do my own "duty" for this country. To me, helping was not only caring for the wounded's physical injuries, it was caring for the emotional ones too.

I will always remember the evening I held a 19-year-old man in my arms while he cried because he had lost both of his legs. I will not forget the twenty-something man who rolled out of surgery so badly injured I was amazed he was still alive, and yet this man still cracked smiles at my off-beat sense of humor and my attempts to take his mind off his pain. I'll remember the woman who I helped calm after a book fell off a counter and the loud bang instantly transported her back to the day of her injury and who, from then on, always looked for me when she came out of the OR because she said she felt safe when I was around.  I'll never forget my soldier who lost both legs and an arm, who I later watched get married, downhill ski, and, driving his big truck, head off to college. I'll remember the night I chuckled after one soldier, under the influence of pain medication, asked me to marry him and have his children, and the following day, when he was so worried and apologetic for "being out of line".  For as long as I live I will remember the day I ran the Army 10-miler with nine amputees, five of whom I had taken care of.

There were so many times I held their hands, wiped their brows, their tears, and reached down into beds and stretchers to give them the hugs they so badly needed. I sat and listened to their stories of fear and horror because they needed to talk. And because I could do nothing more than listen, I would go home and cry for the ones who could not cry for themselves.

Mixed with the physical and emotional pain I have seen tremendous perseverance, courage, and determination. You have amazed me, you have made me smile, you have made me laugh and you have made me cry. I will always remember my time spent with you. To the many Soldiers and Marines I have cared for, I wish I knew where you ended up, how you are and how life is treating you. I hope and pray all the best for you!

THE ENEMY |

THE ENEMY
Name: Adam Tiffen (AirborneJD)
Posting date: 10/23/06
Returned from: Iraq
Milblog url:
http://www.thereplacements.blogspot.com
Email: airbornejd115@yahoo.com

The front gate of the Alamo opens up into the sprawling town. A mass of triple-strand concertina wire and Jersey barriers block out traffic and channel incoming vehicles thru a chicane of concrete blocks. The front entrance is reinforced by an up-armored HUMMWV, a gunner sitting in the cupola manning a long-barreled .50 caliber machine gun. The gunner scans oncoming traffic looking for signs of trouble, while the driver sits patiently and monitors the radio. The vehicle must be moved for any traffic to enter or exit, and is a last ditch effort to prevent a car packed with explosives from slamming into the Alamo and reducing the building to fire and ash.

Nearing the front gate and stepping around the wire, I wrinkle my nose as I catch a fresh draft of hot wind from the city. The sewer stench of the city permeating the air is something I will never get used to.

At the front gate a man stands patiently, waiting to talk. He is wearing a dark blue robe and worn brown sandals. His rolled-up sleeves reveal faded swirling tattoos and Arabic markings on his skin. His unshaven face is rough, made up of sharp angular planes that are hardened by hooded, expressionless eyes. Looking into those dark brown eyes, I can tell that he wants me dead.

Without taking my eyes off his, I motion for the interpreter. Steve walks over and stops suddenly, as if sensing the tension between the stranger and myself.

"What does he want?" I ask.

Steve begins hesitantly, stumbling over the first few words of his normally flawless Arabic. The man replies so softly that Steve has to lean forward to catch his last few words.

"He says he has come for his brothers."

"Who are his brothers?"

"He says that one of his brothers was killed by Americans yesterday, and that the other brother was taken and arrested."

Unconsciously I nod my head. I know who he is talking about. The day before, an IED had hit an American patrol. Immediately after the blast, the soldiers had spotted a blue bongo truck fleeing from the scene. The patrol reacted quickly and gave chase. The truck fled until its tires were shot out. As it ground to a halt, two armed men had jumped out and started running. My patrol had arrived on scene just after one had been shot dead and the other had surrendered.

The two brothers had been insurgents. This one likely is as well.

Standing before me is the enemy.

The bastard is trying to stare me down.

Resting my right hand on my pistol, I feel an involuntary rush of adrenaline.

"Tell him that he can have his brother's body. I will show him where it is."

At the mention of his brother's body, his gaze cracks. For an instant, the corners of his eyes tighten with grief, and then his features return to the intense, hate-filled stare. Motioning with my right hand, I turn and walk over to the Iraqi police station. Behind me, the man follows, shadowed by two of my soldiers pulling security. They have picked up on the lethal atmosphere and are moving with extra care, their eyes scanning for trouble.

I can feel his gaze on the back of my neck.

Walking into the comparative cool of the police station, I step thru the shadowed concrete corridors and into a back room. There, on a wooden pallet, is a body bag with his brother's remains. An Iraqi policeman walks in and Steve quietly explains what the man is there for. There is a slight stench in the air that no words could properly describe.

The man steps around me and walks up to the bag. I can see him grip his blue robe with his right hand, holding the material so hard that his knuckles have turned white. After a long moment, he turns to face me.

"And my other brother, the Americans arrested him. Where is he? How can I get him?"

I look at him for a moment, not saying anything.

"Your brother was arrested after he attacked an American patrol. He has been confined and they are doing an investigation. If he is guilty of terrorist activity, he will be charged and sentenced by an Iraqi court of law. If he is not guilty of terrorist activity, you have nothing to be afraid of. If he is innocent, he will be released and you will see him again. If however, he is guilty, he is going to be going to prison for a very long time."

The man looks at me, his jaw working in anger. For a brief second, I get the impression that he is going to attack, and then suddenly, as if the energy has gone out of him, his shoulders slump slightly and he looks down at his brother's body.

"Can you help me move him to my vehicle?"

I can tell that it was painful for him to ask me for assistance. Looking steadily at the man standing before me, his face half cloaked in the shadows, I consider his request. Part of me goes out to the man in sympathy. For the loss of a brother.

And then I remember all of the bodies of innocent civilians that my men have found rotting in the sun, their hands bound behind their backs, and their eyes blindfolded, before they were shot in the head by insurgents that had suspected them of helping us. This man is an insurgent. His brother had tried to kill Americans.

My resolve hardens, and I shake my head to clear my thoughts. I will get him what he needs. "Tell him that the Iraqi Police will help him carry the body." The policeman in the corner nods, and leaves the room to get a colleague to help. For my men will do no such thing.

IN THE CHECKOUT LINE |

IN THE CHECKOUT LINE
Name: Kellie Coy
Posting date: 10/23/06
Husband stationed in: Camp Taji, Iraq
Hometown: Marion, Ohio
Email:
coyclan@roadrunner.com

I'm standing in the checkout line with my eleven-year-old daughter, thankful that the twin ten-year-olds are not with me. I'll have enough questions to answer due to the women in front of us. "I can't believe we're still over there," the bleach blonde says to her friend. "It's not doing any good!  We should just get out!"

My daughter, smarter for her age than I wish she was at this moment, knows these two are talking about troops in Iraq. How do I explain that her father's work is not a waste of time? That all the pain we've felt from his absence, all the tears we and others have cried are not in vain? How can I convince her of this when people like these two women are all too often what she and her siblings hear?

Oh, yes, there are those that say, "You tell your Daddy that I said 'Thanks.'" And even a few that recognize the sacrifice the children make, and go as far to tell them "Thank you. I know it must be hard." But those are hard for kids to remember when the negative people speak so loudly. I look down at my daughter and see she's watching for my reaction. This is a crucial moment. A time to teach her a life lesson. So I bite my lip, literally. And I hold back the urge to speak in anger. 

After we're settled in the car, she looks at me and asks "Mom, I know you wanted to say something to them, why didn't you?" I look her in the eyes, smile and tell her "Daddy's working in Iraq so that one day the Iraqi people will be able to speak their opinion, like those two ladies, without fear." Then, like most mothers do, I start to go into more of an explanation than is needed, when she interrupts me with..."I know, Mom." And gives me a look of understanding.

Later that night, after the kids are tucked into bed, I'm sitting on the couch thinking. Thinking about the day's events, and what tomorrow will bring. I send up a prayer of thanks that my husband is safer than most, along with a prayer for those who aren't as safe as he. 

And I don't forget to thank God for my children, who so completely believe in their father and what he's doing that I don't need to worry so much about what other people say. Because what's in their hearts is a blind love and belief that only a child can have.

A life lesson was taught that day, but I believe I was the student.

I WONDER |

October 20, 2006

I WONDER
Name: Mike Guzman
Posting date: 10/20/06
Stationed in: FOB, Iraq
Hometown: Kearny, NJ
Email:
vampiresoldier@gmail.com

I wonder if anyone back home in the US has any idea what is really going on here in Iraq. For some reason the media has to change everything to suit someone's interests, and I wonder if they even care about us over here. On this past Memorial Day, one journalist and her cameraman died. CNN ran the story and did about a five-minute piece on her. What made me so mad was that in that same incident a soldier also died, but I guess CNN only had 10 seconds left at the end of the story to say that a soldier had died. I wish they would actually do what they say they are doing and report what is actually happening. After I got back home the first time, in 2004, I told one of my friends that the longer we stay here the worse it is going to get, and I prove myself right.

I wonder if people back home know about the nightmares we have while we are awake, the trauma that we have in our heads because of what we have been through. I jump, watching movies that I've seen 1000 times, when there is shooting in them. I wonder if I will be able to drive back home without getting in trouble for driving in the middle of the road, and try to explain to the cops that I'm worried about roadside bombs. It happened to me once two years ago. And this time it will be worse. I've been hit multiple times by roadside bombs and not long ago a car bomb. I don't know if i will ever be able to have a normal life again.

I wish I knew what our mission in here is, too. Politicians say "Stay the course until victory." What victory? We aren't fighting anyone, we are driving around hoping not to get blown up. I'm guessing victory is when there are no more bombs to worry about? Or when we don't find anymore dead bodies on the streets every day? I wish I knew. I wish our leaders knew...

OUR TIME |

OUR TIME
Name: Army Girl
Posting date: 10/20/06
Stationed in: Afghanistan
Milblog url:
http://desertphoenix.blogspot.com/

I have received an incredible outpouring of email from so many people in response to PLEASE, DON'T INSULT ME on The Sandbox. It truly has meant a great deal to know that there are so many people out there who care. The emails that I've received from Vets and prior service members are the ones that hit the closest to home for me. They remind me that there are those who fought so that I could be here today, and that that is why I fight, so that tomorrow others can say the same. I had taken for granted my eligibility to serve. My age, my drive. And focus. This is our time, and I'm proud to be a part of something bigger than myself. I don't always agree with the way things are handled, but at least I'm part of the process and not the problem. That's the way I see it now.

For our vets: You did your time. Now relax. It's our turn.

For those who want to serve but can't -- your letters, emails, thoughts and prayers of support keep us going. Just as there have to be soldiers out here, there have to be people back home taking care of things, living life. Otherwise, what are we really fighting for?

For those who don't want to serve -- that's OK, too. The military is not for everyone, and frankly, we don't want everyone in it. It takes a different mindset and a unique individual to do what soldiers do. Just as some office jobs are not for me, the military life is not for everyone.

It is what it is.

Our time here is dwindling and you can feel it in the air. The intensity of what we're doing is almost gone. The fight is still in everyone, but we're not as wired up as we were before. We expect bad things to happen. We're not so complacent. And we're certainly no longer so cocky. This is in fact...a war. We've lost friends and comrades, we've earned purple hearts and combat action badges, we've taken care of injured people, seen the remains of suicide bombers, administered first aid and we've spent countless hours of unending days under fluorescent lights in buildings no one should have to spend an extended time in. These kids have given so much of themselves. And for every hour an infantryman spends rucking in the field, they've spent two behind the scenes, working tirelessly to keep the wheels in motion. What we do is perhaps one of the most diverse jobs in the military.

I'm amazed by their sacrifice, awed by their commitment and dumbfounded by their tenacity. I'd serve with them all over again, anywhere. I secretly hope though, that all of them will leave the unit, and go off to better things, as this unit will be rotating back out within the year. It's neverending for them. I've been asked to stay on when we redeploy, which is a compliment beyond any that I would have expected. It says more than any award or medal. It says that I, a Reserve soldier, have proven to these guys, after all that we've been through, that I can hang. Sounds silly, but it's true. I've proved them all wrong about me. And despite all of the issues and prejudices I dealt with in the beginning, I've come through it all unscathed and the better for it.

I think it's important that these soldiers be given all the opportunities they can be given to further their careers. I can fight my own way through the maze of military challenges and successes. At the end of this deployment, I'm off to new opportunities and my next new adventure. They will still be active duty soldiers, getting manipulated by the government and this war. I can jump on another deployment of my choice, or a six month tour to almost anywhere in the world.They will have to return to their base and endure almost a year of downtime training, and then deployment preparation all over again. I feel guilty because I know I picked the right path in the Reserve component. I can live wherever I want, get a job making more money, and then deploy if I have to, or when I want to. They have to live at a base they can't stand, and deploy every other year. I have some major decisions to make in the next couple days. There are so many choices, and I'm blessed to have them. And blessed to have all my friends and family -- and of course, blessed to know that there are people out there who care about me and about the soldiers I serve, as much as I do.

I've decided. I'm going to keep the cycle going! The next time I see a service member, I'm going to give back what was so unselfishly given to me! Pay it FORWARD! 

FEAR OF REPRISAL |

FEAR OF REPRISAL
Name: NCO at Campbell       
Posting date: 10/20/2006
Returned from: Iraq
Hometown: TX

Recently I read an article that centered on how males don't seek help for mental problems and the like for fear of reprisal from other males. I never realized how true that was until I came back from Iraq and started thinking about it. Look at the facts, and I say facts, because this is truth, no nonsense, no b.s. to it: When soldiers try to get help, especially when they tried to in Iraq, they were shunned, mocked, and treated like a lesser person. And I'm not going to lie and say I didn't do it, because I did. I shunned and mocked with the best of them.

The Army has tried to create this mindset where soldiers should feel that if they need help then they are weak, and that goes up the chain of command. It seems as if the mental health professionals are there just for looks, not actually there to help people. When a soldier does decide to get help, it's automatically assumed that he is falsifying his condition or just trying to get out of a patrol. But is that really the case?

Then when we redeploy back to the states, we have all these soldiers who needed help but didn't get it. When we go through the whole redeployment process we're told about Military One Source, where you can call and seek help, and get six free visits to a civilian psychiatrist/counselor. Now is that private? As with everything else in the military, everything gets out, everyone finds out about what you're doing at some point. All soldiers know that regardless of what you're told about something being private, such as your seeking help for a mental issue, it's not. It will get back to your chain of command and go downhill to the lowest NCO, to the lowest soldier that works beside you. And the soldier seeking help will never get it, will then say he's alright, that there isn't any problem with him.

Now is this right? It's not. This is something the military needs to change. But it probably never will, and you'll see down through the years, where the number of homeless vets increases, the vets that are jailed, violent offenders --  it all comes back to soldiers not being able to get help, no matter how much they wish to.

GOOD NEWS |

GOOD NEWS
Name: SGT Salamander
Posting date: 10/19/2006
Stationed in: Iraq
Hometown: Pennsylvania

So we get good news. Minus forty days and a wake up and our time in this is over. Minus a few good soldiers, who were a few good fathers, who were a few good husbands and friends. They left boxed and flagged months back. So this is the time we start taking inventory of what we have. We count the few rounds we didn't use. Frags, smoke, 40mm's. We count blouses and trousers, measure the tread on our third pair of boots. I watch my privates scrub the piss and sweat from their IBAS, the blackened ring that has inched lower and lower from the neckguard that wouldn't stop a water balloon. We take inventory there in my hooch, bags out.

Everything laid out.

And some of these cats are crusty-eyed, off-mission. Missions I fight to pull them from. Missions attached to other platoons or companies, out from under my umbrella of...whatever I have to give them. Other cats pick at pimples. Mumble about the women in their lives, the women to which I promised the return of their boy. All five appendages.

They all sit there and listen to time hacks and dates, block leave windows: "Don't go blow that blood money on a fuckin' car. Blow it on tattoos. I believe in the permanence of tattoos."

They chuckle because they have to, or want to. But nothing is really funny anymore. It's been a long year and we feel we've failed. Samara to Now and we are in a different film. There are new buzzwords. And we are older. JODY made his rounds through a few of their lives. And yes, we've accepted this.

Warsaw to the Wall, Samara to Now and back again, and I, twenty-five years old, believe I've seen it all. But I know I'm wrong about a lot of things. I am lucky. These little bastards are all I have. They do what I say because they want to, not because they have to. They know when to move, when to cover the other guy, the pre-combat checks. They know that at three hundred meters to aim at the gut, not so much center-mass. The alleys and buildings hug the bullet, and harmonics get screwy, ballistics get screwy. So just go for the meat with the first and a few more will follow. Iraqis are fatasses, Sarn. And if he lives, he'll be back out there shooting again in two weeks, so make sure he dies this time. That's maybe, maybe, one less asshole.

All of this is running through my mind. This inventory of physical things, this gear, this ammo. That little M4. That little squirtgun-looking thing that has been so good to me. We take inventory. And my one guy, my Godson Godsend, my little future something, my favorite Joe says, "Sarn, I'm missing some things, little things. But nothing sensitive."

I take inventory.

"Alright, get this shit out of here, go eat, go sleep."

"Roger..Roger...Check, Sarn. Night, Sarn."

All this laid out here, on my poncho. The same poncho that my squad leader and I piled a decimated Iraqi Soldier inside after a big, big bomb rocked our joint patrol. We balled him up and I carried him to his platoon sergeant, who sat with his tea cup and just nodded his head."I need the poncho back, Irif, get your ass up and go find something else."

I take inventory. I have everything I left home with. Plus faint crow's feet and a few gray hairs. A few scars that will make good stories, fodder for bar girls and that's about all. Stories that will become lies in a few years. Plus fifteen pounds of back and chest from all that gear.

I should have called my parents more than just the once. I should have shucked when I jived. Was that, then, that one time, was that necessary? Do I dig too far for meaning? Yes I do.

And I find, having done the inventory, this being the last, a few patrols, a few raids and OP's left, that's all, this being the city it is, I being who I am, and watching things die and tan and bleach out and young boys grow and harden, listening to myself even now; the inventory, those three bags, is our deconstruction.

We went from what we were then, a year ago, to what we are now. Nothing much has changed, we just know the difference. Having shat out a few basic emotions. The only animals on the Ark who built cities and burned them down. Animals nonetheless. And the souls of those guys leaving my room are saved, having survived this believed once in the purpose.

Everything is accounted for, all things sensitive. We may play damaged or violent, but we're okay. We are these things, it will always be with us, we are just ready to see the difference.

ANOTHER TASK FORCE MISSION |

October 19, 2006

ANOTHER TASK FORCE MISSION
Name: Don Connolly
Posting date: 10/19/06
Returned from: Iraq
Email:
Infantry29@aol.com

This one starts at 0200. I was going to be better this time. Prepared my gear, did everything I needed to, and in bed asleep by 2130 with the alarm set for 0130. I would be, if not well-rested, at least in good shape to go through the mission. Eyes popped open at 2250, and nothing I did would get me back to sleep. Figures.

At 0155, I put on my gear and head out to a now-familiar sight -- my soldiers moving around in the darkness doing the final preparations for the mission. Over the radio, platoon sergeants conduct an unending series of checks and verifications:
"Did you get the _____ team picked up at the CP?"
"Have all vehicles done radio checks?"
"Where the heck is _____, and why isn't he here now?"
"Get over to vehicle _____ and check ______!"

My vehicle this time is an M1114 armored HMMWV borrowed from another company. Looking at it yesterday, it was clear that they didn't loan us their best. This morning, a new gremlin shows up in one of the radios that wasn't there when we did radio checks yesterday. We can't fix it, but figure out a work-around that will get us through the mission.

Final checks for my crew:
"Hearing protection?" Check.
"Eye protection?" Check
"Ammunition for the turret gun?" Check.
"Water?" "In the cooler with the ice."
-- and the list goes on.

Not a problem with my crew, as my driver and gunner are both experienced, and have done it countless times. I check anyway. They check me.

0230 -- We move from our staging area toward the departure gate. On the way, we link up with what to me is a very ironic sight. Most of my military career has been spent studying Soviet/Russian-designed weapons and equipment, and how to defeat it. The unit we are linking up with is equipped with that very same equipment. We are working alongside an Iraqi Army company which is equipped with BMP armored personnel carriers and Kalashnikov rifles.

We stage alongside the IA vehicles and wait. They look nervous, sitting atop their BMPs chain-smoking. After a few minutes, my driver and I get out and stretch. They look on curiously while we discuss a couple of details, then I turn and say good morning in Arabic. A couple of them try out their English, which amounts to "What's your name?" and "My name Hasim".

The word is passed -- "Mount Up!"

0300 -- Out the gate. Driving under blackout conditions with night-vision devices. We receive instructions to keep the speed down, far below normal. The BMPs can't keep up with our normal speed.

By the time daybreak comes, we have made it to our objective and are ready to start. We will seal off a series of small villages and search the buildings and surrounding areas. This will be a "cordon and knock" operation, much more polite than a "cordon and search". We will do what we need to do, search what we need to, take down census information, but we will do it courteously unless given reason to do otherwise.

The first few houses and farms are searched, and I stay with my vehicle monitoring the radio nets. By the time we move to the next area, I get out and move with the search teams. We slowly move into the hamlet, carefully looking at everything because there have been numerous attacks nearby. Sergeant V's team enters the first house. It apparently has not been used for some time.

On to the next. This one is lived in, with cows, goats and chickens in the yard. Everything goes by the unwritten script -- the women and children go into a quiet huddle somewhere in the yard and try to pretend we can't see them. The men stand anxiously, some with a defiant look, others with trepidation. Many are simply resigned to it. Today, most seem helpful.

At the third house, there is an older couple who seem overly helpful. Sometimes this means they are hiding something. Not this time. The man shows us right where he keeps his AK-47 for quick access against the "Ali Babas" who raid at night. The woman scurries about, laughing as she warns us about the low door lintels so we won't bang our heads. They rush ahead of us to open cupboards, doors, the trunk of their car. The rooms are mostly bare with concrete floor. They roll their sleeping mats out at night, but for many, that is the extent of their furniture.

As we leave that house, the man manages with hand signals to convey that he is the patriarch of the small hamlet we are in -- all the houses, all the residents, everything is his.

The team moves to the next house and, rounding a corner, find we have met another part of the platoon. There is a large group of women and children huddled around something in the yard, but present no evident threat. I check with the search team in the house, they have found nothing amiss.

Moving back into the yard, I see what has drawn the crowd -- the medic, PFC N, is open for business. He dispenses aspirin, antacid, antibiotic ointment, whatever he has to relieve suffering. N is a good medic. I have worked with him before. He is young, quiet, competent and caring.

The people are joyful to have that kind of attention. They carry an old woman over to where N works. She is the matriarch of the clan, perhaps the mother of the man at the last house. Whatever the relationship, all show respect for her and concern for her condition. There is something wrong with her feet and legs, I never find out exactly what. N and the interpreter go to work while the platoon sergeant does his own kind of work.

These people are very family-oriented -- it is all they have. They are virtually all completely illiterate. There are no books, no papers, nothing. They are born, grow up, farm, marry, have children, grow old, and die.

They are proud to show off their children, and the platoon sergeant responds by taking out a picture of his baby daughter. The women are excited and pass the picture around chattering away. On the other side of the crowd, I also take out a picture of my three year-old daughter and join in. Now N has plenty of room to work. The platoon sergeant and I have drawn most of the people away.

We are each working the crowd, admiring the children while the mothers (and a few fathers) admire the pictures. Many of the women actually kiss the pictures and then hold them up to heaven with a short prayer phrase. In this culture, it is considered bad luck and invokes the "evil eye" if you admire someone's family member or possessions without giving praise or credit to Allah.

The platoon leader and I have our cameras out and, with the exception of a few younger women, the people are eager to have their pictures taken. The women are interested as the platoon sergeant and I describe, mostly using signs, how many and how old our children are. At this point, I do something I have not yet done since coming to Iraq. A word to the platoon leader and the word goes out over his radio net: "Send Private C. down to where the large group of people is ASAP." A couple of minutes later, Private C. appears, walking quickly but carefully, ever alert and scanning for danger. He has his M4 carbine slung over his back, and carries a shotgun. He has grown even more in the few months we have been here, and now towers several inches over me as we stand together.

He quickly figures out what is going on, but I tell him to bear with me on this. We turn and face the people, and I point to my name tape, and then to his. There is a look of disbelief on everyone's face. I have the interpreter tell the people that this is my son, and that we together made the decision to come all this way to Iraq to help the people as much as we can. After a moment of astonishment, they cry out in a flood of excitement. They have never seen anything like it. We are escorted into the presence of the matriarch, still seated on the ground where the medic was working on her. The relationship between Private C. and me is explained, and she lifts her face to heaven. She looks back at us, and I see a tear coursing down her cheek.

WHEN THIS THING IS OVER |

WHEN THIS THING IS OVER
Name: CAPT Lee Kelley
Posting date: 10/19/06
Stationed in: Iraq
Hometown: Salt Lake City, UT
Milblog url:
http://www.wordsmithatwar.blog-city.com
Email: wordsmith16@excite.com
 
When this thing is over...

Just drop me off on any Arizona or Utah highway, where the Buttes and the red rock canyons create optical illusions in the distance and across the horizon – I'll walk home.

Place me right at the top of a hill; I'll let gravity help me down.

Leave me on a back road in rural America, it doesn't matter where, so long as the leaves crunch under my feet and it is dusk and as I walk the shadows deepen and every so often I can see the lights from someone's house, and smell their cooking, and see families together on their couches watching movies, and hear their laughter.

Airlift me directly into a canoe in the middle of Black Creek in Missoula, Montana. It's fine, just leave me right there. I'll wet a hook for a while, then paddle to shore at dusk, enjoying the sound of the oar splashing in the clear, cold water. I'll clean the fish right there on the bank and cook it fresh over a small fire. Then I'll find the nearest road and hitch-hike home.

Believe me, it's no inconvenience.

Instead of transporting me directly to my home of record, according to my official military personnel file, do something spontaneous for me. When I get back to the States, blindfold me, and then leave me in a Pearl White Corvette Stingray or a rebuilt '77 Jeep Cherokee that has a 3-inch lift, with a full tank of gas, a sleeping bag in the backseat, a compass, and a map.  Don't tell me where I am. Just leave me with my release papers and pat me on the back for my service to God and country. I'll remove the blindfold, crank the engine, turn on the radio, and start driving.

It doesn't matter what state or what city you leave me in - pick one. I’ll have a grand adventure getting home.

Better yet, ask me where I'd like to be dropped off. I'll hop out right in front of my daughter's school. Its only 9:00 a.m. you say? That's just fine. I'll sit here on this nice wooden bench under this tree for a while. Leave me that newspaper, will you? Thanks. A little later I'll stroll up the street where all the fast food places are. I'll get a large fries at McDonalds and I'll put lots of salt on them. Then I'll get a Frosty at Wendy's. And I'll pick up a Whopper with cheese, extra onion, from Burger King. Perhaps I'll browse the shelves of the local Barnes and Noble after lunch and finish up with a cup of Starbucks Irish Cream coffee. By the time I get back to the school, it will be just about time for the bell, and I'll surprise my daughter and hold her tiny hand all the way home.

My son's daycare would be a fine place to drop me off too. I'll go in and check him out early. It may take him a minute to realize that Daddy's back, because he's only three, but I know he'll be very excited to see me. Then I'll take him with me to lunch and the bookstore, and to his sister's school. I'll walk all the way there with him on my shoulders. I'll buy him a Happy Meal with a toy.

Just get me on American soil.

Get me to New Orleans, and then put me in a taxi. I'll have the driver tune to a classic rock station that plays a lot of Queen and Styx and The Eagles and Steve Miller, or a nice jazz station, and bring me straight to my parents' house to surprise them. They'll be very pleased. I'll bring Mom a dozen roses and Dad the American Flag I flew for him in Iraq.

I don't sit around all day dreaming of home. We are too busy, and there is a lot of important work to get done. It's when I sit down to write, and I'm trying not to bore readers with the little everyday mundane things that I do, that I get really nostalgic like this. I can't help it.

I honestly live an inspired life, and I am perfectly content to be here fighting in a war in Iraq if this is God's plan for me right now, but that's because I know this too is transitory. I wouldn't want to stay here. It's not my home.

It is not America.

My children are young enough that they won't realize I was gone for so long until they're older. One day when they are teenagers it will dawn on them, and we'll be sitting around after a barbecue or something like that and I'll get a faraway look in my eyes and realize that they're growing up too fast and that I am having an adult conversation with my children who were just starting Kindergarten when I went to Iraq.

And they’ll say, "Wow, Dad. You were really gone for a year and a half? I don't remember it being so long."

In fact, they're young enough that one more day won't matter. I know, I know, their mother will probably pull her hair out if I wait any longer than I have to.

But still, I mean it.

Open a road map of the United States of America, pick a cozy little town like Kinston, North Carolina or Gig Harbor, Washington or Lafayette, Louisiana or Moab, Utah and just leave me there. It can be rock, asphalt, water, or sand - a busy college campus in New York or an abandoned park in Savannah, Georgia - the noise of a large highly populated metropolis, or the silence of the Appalachian Trail. Put me next to an interstate or next to a campfire - in a library or at a rock concert - in California or Maine. Leave me in a nameless park, on a darkened street, or in a snowy canyon.

Don’t ask me why. I don't want to explain it, and I can't explain it. But it will be fun and completely un-planned and I like the idea of that very much. I'll have time to be utterly alone and think about a few things as I journey the last leg home to the life I left behind. And I'll have a lot to think about.

So just drop me off, and let me drive out of the past, through the present, and into the unimaginable future of this crazy life.

A HARD PLACE TO BE |

October 18, 2006

A HARD PLACE TO BE
Name: SSG Glenn Yeager
Posting date: 10/18/06
Stationed in: Afghanistan
Hometown: Sandy, Oregon
Email:
gyeager76@aol.com

It sucks that the Afghan National Army is being targeted only because they're standing up for their country and what they believe is right, and we're being targeted only because we're here trying to help the ANA stand up for their country and what they think is right. What does the enemy want?  Well, they want to be free to roam the country and do what they do best: terrorize. As far as the civilians in this country, some support us and try to help us out by giving us intelligence on what's going on. Others either turn a blind eye to what the enemy is doing, or they're too scared to do anything but help the enemy, whether they support them or not.

It's a hard place to be, Afghanistan. It's not like wars we've fought in the past, wars when you knew who the enemy was, where they were, and knew how to hit them. Now, you can't tell who's who, where they're hiding -- or when you do know where they're hiding, it's a place we're not allowed to hit. It's frustrating to all of us.

Some people back home either don't support us being here or maybe just don't understand. Others do support us no matter what the reason. That's what we have to rely on to keep us going, knowing that there are people back home that are behind us, each in their own special way -- whether they send words of comfort and support, wave the American Flag proudly, send care packages, or just keep us in their thoughts and prayers. We as soldiers appreciate those people. And, as far as the other people, the ones who see it their own way and the way they want to...well, we're still proud to wear the uniform for them, too.

Generations before us have come together in times of war and hostility. Those were times when the entire nation stood behind their military. We were a different nation back then. Here's something to think about as I close this: What would they think of how this country is now? One thing is for sure, they would still support the troops. Because none of us would be here today if it wasn't for our military men and women, who are over here just doing their job. A job they volunteered for. It's not something that deserves disrespect or a cold shoulder.

When you hear of a soldier dying, either here or in Iraq (or anywhere for that matter), bow your head and think of the families of that soldier. And then remember them always. Remember the soldiers, both home and abroad, no matter what they're doing. Never forget them.

GOING TO AFGHANISTAN |

GOING TO AFGHANISTAN
Name: CAPT Doug Traversa, USAF
Posting date: 10/18/06
Stationed in: Kabul, Afghanistan
Milblog url:
http://traversa.typepad.com
Email: traversa@gimail.af.mil

My life in brief: I am 44 years old, have been in the Air Force for 17.5 years, passed over for Major (that means I am still a Captain) but allowed to remain in the Air Force until I can retire at 20 years. I have a wonderful, lovely wife, Jancy; three terrific kids, Taylor, Elise, and Ryan; five dogs; live in Tullahoma, Tennessee; and am a Logistics Readiness Officer at Arnold AFB in TN. My passions include soccer, science fiction, dog rescue, and ice tea (with lemon). As of April 2006, going to Afghanistan had not even crossed my mind. Iraq, yes, Afghanistan, no.

My job at Arnold AFB is (or was, and hopefully will be again in a year) to prepare the military personnel stationed there for deployments. Yes, I would be in the mix too, but my next window of deployment availability (we actually use the term "vulnerability") was the summer of 2007 (it was April 2006 when the fun started). In the Air Force there are two types of deployments, the shorter 4 or 6 monthers, and those that last one year (called "remotes"). The one year deployments are treated like an actual move, as though you were transferring to another base, while after a short one, you'd come back to your home base and continue with your job there. This is, of course, a very simplified explanation, for those of you not in the military. For my military readers, you know all too well how much more there is to it.

In mid April, give or take a week, I found out that I was number five on the list for getting tagged with a remote. Fair enough, I had never done one, and it was certainly my turn. A brief discussion with the guy (who will remain anonymous; let's call him Captain X) who handled these remotes lead to the conclusion by him that I would probably go on a remote tour in the spring of 2007. OK, plenty of time to prepare and wrap my brain around going to Iraq for a year. But wait, there was more. Before going away for a year, as an added bonus, I would get to do two months of Army Combat Skills Training (CST). The fun never stops hitting you full in the face, usually with a large, aluminum bat.

At least I knew nothing would happen for a while, because I was number five on the list. Even if someone say, broke a leg, during CST, there were four other guys ahead of me on the list. So I had a little breathing room. (If you aren't familiar with the literary device known as "foreshadowing," pause here, dig out your dictionary, and look it up. It's important you know this, because I'm laying it on thick, in multiple layers, with a side order of foreboding. Look that one up too). As I was saying, plenty of time to make that list of things Jancy would need to do if I died. Plenty of time.

Has everyone looked up foreshadowing? Good.

The very next week, Captain X calls me up, and the conversation goes something like this:

Captain X: Hey, Doug, how are you?
Me: Since you're calling, probably about to be very bad.
Captain X (laughs evilly): Remember what we talked about last week?
Me: We talked about many things, none of them good. They did all have heat, sand, and impending death in common.
Captain X: Remember when you asked what would happen if someone got injured in training?
Me: Yes, I do, but I remember even more vividly that I was # 5 on the list, not # 1, so why have you called me? Did the other four already decide to leave the Air Force?
Captain X (ignoring me): We had someone get medically disqualified mid-way through CST, and you are going to be the short notice replacement. We may need you to leave next week.
Me: Let's go back to the part where I was #5 on the list.

Captain X went on to explain that I would be #5 on the list in September, but was #1 right now. Seems all the other guys who would eventually get ahead of me on the list did not have one year on station yet, so could not deploy. So I had a choice, go or get out of the Air Force. After having put in 17.5 years, and being able to retire at 20, I could, as a fellow Captain once said, stand in quicksand and eat dirt for a year.

The assignment was to Afghanistan for a year, with the delightful additional two months of CST training first. A fourteen-month, all-expenses-paid vacation. The only question was, how fast could they get me over there? My group had already completed a month of training, and they needed to figure out how to get me there ASAP! Thus began three weeks of being jerked back and forth wondering whether or not I would even deploy, or what base I would train at (or, to spare my former English teacher pain, "the base at which I would train"). I was told a total of four different training locations, and also told that my assignment might only be for six months, in which case I would not go at all. I wasn't #1 on the six-month list, only the one-year list. I received final confirmation three days before my flight would leave. I was going to go to Fort Sill, Oklahoma, and only for 3.5 weeks instead of two months.

Did you follow all that? If not, go back and read it again. There will be a quiz next week.  Let's pause and critically analyze the situation, looking for good points. I can think of a hundred of them.

1.  My training would be one month instead of two.
2.  I wasn't going to Iraq.
3.  The weather would be cooler in Kabul than Iraq.
4-100. I wasn't going to Iraq.
    
There, 100 reasons why I was a very lucky guy and should be grateful. Which I was. And am. Next post we'll see how much fun I had at Fort Sill. I'm sure the anticipation is killing you. Fort Sill almost killed me.

NOT SURE HOW TO RESPOND |

NOT SURE HOW TO RESPOND
Name: EOD Officer
Posting date: 10/18/2006
Returned from: Iraq
Hometown: Buffalo, NY

I should have had enough practice by now, but I'm still not sure how to respond. I just got off the plane a week ago, finally home again. It was my third trip to the Middle East since 9/11, and my second to Iraq. I know by now how to reunite with my wife and kids. I know not to argue with my wife about chores or bills, and to take my place as the outsider in the home for a while. I know how to play with my kids so they become used to me again, and I don't push myself on them too quickly. I know how to have a couple beers without having too many, and I know how to quit smoking again, a habit I always seem to pick up deployed. Having gotten good at all those things, the thing I still don't know how to do is to respond when a stranger says, "Welcome home. Thank you for serving your country."

I did not have a good tour in Iraq. I did not come home confident in the rightness of our cause. That may be because I have no personal stories of building schools, handing out candy to children, or watching a fledging democracy take shape. As the commander of a small Explosive Ordnance Disposal unit (the military bomb squad) trying to cover an entire province in northern Iraq, my men and I only saw the worst humanity had to offer. We disarm fewer and fewer roadside bombs. We save fewer and fewer lives. Instead, we do more and more "post blast analysis", where we conduct a crime scene investigation after an attack and try to reconstruct what the bomb was made of, and how it was used. That took us daily to car bombings of Iraqi clinics or police stations, and attacks on American convoys. We saw far too many Iraqi victims of the indiscriminate violence destroying what's left of the country's infrastructure. And we saw that every day, with seemingly no ability to stop it.

When that suffering is the only thing you see outside the safety of your base while doing your job, you start to develop a different mission. The mission stops being about disarming the bomb, and starts being about bringing your troops home safe. We had a saying: "It takes five things to go home in one piece: luck, training, luck, equipment, and luck." My teams would subconsciously develop a "Catch-22" mentality, counting their missions and playing the numbers game. I would have my team sergeants come up to me and say, "Sir, I've been on 125 missions already, and I haven't gotten hurt yet. But this can't keep up. Do too many missions, and the numbers say you're going to get killed." My team leaders would know; they were disarming the bombs and doing the post blasts on the blown up HMMWVs. I made the safety of my teams my number one priority, and counted the days for them until we could all go home.

So when I get off the plane in Baltimore, and am suddenly surrounded by America again, in all of its glittering excessive glory, what do you say when a complete stranger walks up to you and says thank you? I usually mumbled an inadequate "Thank you for the support", or "I appreciate it", wishing that I had come up with a more sincere or meaningful response. I always think that I should be happy. During Vietnam, soldiers were blamed for the policy decisions of elected officials. Our country learned from that mistake, and I believe most Americans, no matter their feelings on the war, now make it a point to support the average soldier. But instead of warming my heart, when someone says "Welcome Home" and "Thank You",  I feel embarrassed and guilty. Embarrassed because my service was no greater than others, and only I know our mission was more about survival than success. And guilty because I am coming home to my wife and children, and so many other soldiers are either still there, or not coming home at all.

NOT MY GRANDFATHER'S WAR |

October 17, 2006

NOT MY GRANDFATHER'S WAR
Name: SGT Sack
Posting date: 10/17/06
Stationed in: Iraq
Hometown: Omaha, NE
Milblog url:
http://sackiniraq.blogspot.com
Email:
sack77@cox.net

This is not my grandfather's war.

One of my grandfathers was in a naval ship steaming towards Japan as part of the ground invasion force when WWII ended. He was saved from forcibly liberating the country by the decision to drop two atomic bombs. My other grandfather was a Navy Corpsman who was decorated for defending his Marine platoon during an ambush in the Korean War. He treated his wounded comrades while simultaneously defending their position against an ongoing attack, as most of the leathernecks in his unit were too badly injured to fire a weapon. They awoke in the morning surrounded by their own wounded and piles of enemy dead.

I wondered aloud the other day what my grandfathers would think about this war. 

What would they think about the 50 pounds of body armor that we wear, when they wore not much more than a steel pot? About our only being allowed to move tactically in armored vehicles, when they had forced marches of large groups of soldiers? About fewer casualties in four years of fighting than in some single days of WWII fighting? About wearing a reflective belt at night on a Forward Operating Base? About Baskin-Robbins in the DFAC, daily phone calls home, email and internet access, when they didn't eat for days upon days and the best they could hope for was a three-month-old letter from home? About two-man air-conditioned rooms, air-conditioned offices, and air-conditioned Humvees, when they slept in the mud?  About two-week leave back to the States in the middle of our one-year tour?  About the four duffel bags of gear that I've been issued, when they often had boots with holes in them or no cold weather gear in the middle of the European winter?

I think that my grandfathers would understand the advancements that our military has made in the last 50-60 years. 

I think they would even understand the constant complaining by soldiers who have living conditions infinitely better than they could have dreamed. After all, it is every soldier's right to complain about the hand they've been dealt, while at the same time sacrificing countless nights away from their spouse and kids, missing irreplaceable births of children and deaths of parents, sacrifices that even for a staff NCO like myself are greater than most at home can fathom. All for an idea that is America. 

All for the same reason my grandfathers fought. 

All for freedom.

A COMMENT |

A COMMENT
Name: SGT de la Garza
Posting date: 10/17/06
Stationed in: 101st Ft. Campbell
Hometown: TX
Email : perfectworlddistorted@yahoo.com

A relative of mine once made a comment that has stayed in my mind for years. I can't remember who it was that said it, but both my grandfathers were in the Marines during WWII, and the majority of my family is currently in the military. The comment was, "Those who tell war stories have never seen the true face of war." In all honesty I think that's the brutal truth. Those who have been through more than just the concept of war, more then just being deployed to Iraq, or Afghanistan, or Vietnam and the like -- those who have done more than their duty on an FOB, those who have seen their buddies die in front of them, or seen how far a person's body parts will fly after a suicide bomber has blown themself up, they are in no hurry to tell that story.

Think about it. I myself have been deployed to Iraq twice -- in 03-04, 05-06 -- and I'm in no real hurry to validate my wartime experiences to anyone. Stories are stories, experiences are a part of life, and I'm not saying don't share them, but don't let them validate you, don't use your comrade's death to enable you to be the person you wish to be. I know this is something hard to understand for a lot of people, and it's taken me a lot of time to be able to work to this point, but here it is:

To my comrades still out there, keep the faith. After all, without faith in anything, without believing in anything, including yourself, who are you.

THE "WHO HAS IT WORSE" GAME |

October 16, 2006

THE "WHO HAS IT WORSE" GAME
Name: C. Maloney
Posting date: 10/16/2006
Husband: deployed on float...somewhere
Hometown: Seattle, WA
Milblog url:
http://corpsdjour.blogspot.com

Between deployed Marines/Soldiers and their spouses it's easy to play the "who has it worse" game. Being the even-keeled person that I am, I am okay with saying we both have it hard...an example:

THE DAY HE LEFT

Him: riding out on his floating steel chariot, heart thumping, adrenalin rushing, the adventure starting.

Me: holding his hand as he prepares to leave, keeping my patience when his superiors come to chat with him, cutting into our last few seconds together. Waving goodbye as he rides away. Driving home to the big empty house, seeing his dirty laundry, the empty Monster can he'd finished off the night before, not quite bringing myself to throw it away, not just yet.

I'd rather be him.

CHRISTMAS DAY

Him: probably stuck in the middle of the desert, maybe out on a mission, receiving stale crushed gingerbread cookies in the mail, waiting for a Christmas gift that hasn't made it yet, singing "Jingle Bells" in his head to drone out the chanting blasted from every loudspeaker on every mosque in town.

Me: sitting at home with my family, opening up gifts by the fire, making butter-ball cookies with my mom, waking up to Santa Claus-stuffed stockings, clinging to my cell-phone hoping for a phone call from my husband.

I'd rather be me.

Yes, we've both had it tough -- we've been separated from each other before our new marriage has even had a chance to solidify, for holidays, birthdays, and anniversaries; if we speak, it's in the middle of the night in 15-minute increments, forcing us to trust that the other is thinking about us, loving us, even if they can't let us know.

But let me also tell you why we have it good. We have a little more perspective. We squander our minutes together a little less, knowing that they are limited. We have an opportunity to write each other love letters. We learn to be proud of one another, and proud of ourselves. And when we say "I love you," the small crack in the voice shows that we really mean it...and, for me at least, the silver lining that I don't have to watch a single football game this whole season.

While I don't always love this life, while I wish that I knew right now where my husband is and what he is doing, while I sometimes feel alone, sacrificing so much for something that most people find an inconvenience to their pocketbook or a nagging annoyance on the evening news, while we both have it hard and it's easy to slip into the "who has it worse" game -- I find it helps to focus on what I have learned, how this has helped us, and how lucky I am to really know it.

COMBAT EXISTENTIALISM 101 |

COMBAT EXISTENTIALISM 101
Name: SGT "Roy Batty"
Posting date: 10/16/2006
Stationed in: Baghdad, Iraq
Hometown: Yellow Springs, Ohio

This is your midterm exam for Combat Existentialism 101. Please ensure that you use a Number 2 pencil to answer all questions. Completely color in all answer bubbles; do not check or tick the answers. Please answer all 'Other' questions using ten words or less. Reaction time is a factor in this test, so please pay attention and answer as quickly as you can. You may begin.........now.   

1. It is the morning of the day on which you will die. For breakfast, you:
      (a) have a hearty breakfast of bacon, eggs, toast and coffee that your wife cooked for you in the kitchen of your Victorian townhouse.
      (b) enjoy eggs benedict on a rice cake with a side helping of tofu granola and wheatgrass, and a steaming mug of soy latte double decaf.
      (c) smoke five Camel Light cigarettes and chug a lukewarm can of 'Columbian taste' coffee that was really made in a factory in Saudi Arabia.
      (d) Noon is too late for breakfast.

2. It is the morning of the day on which you will die. After breakfast, you:
      (a) decide that you are going to have a good day.
      (b) decide that, once again, you are going to have a shitty day and vow to make the little bastards at the office / in the classroom / upstairs pay accordingly.
      (c) take your usual choice of antidepressant and hope for the best.
      (d) Other (explain)_____________________________________

3. It is the morning of the day on which you will die. You are deciding on what to wear for the occasion. You:
      (a) put on your best suit and tie, and pick a really nice boutonniere from your rose garden in the backyard.
      (b) remember that today is casual day at the cubicle farm.
      (c) put on the same tan and gray digitized uniform you've worn for a week, accented with 240 rounds of 5.56mm ball ammo and three 40mm grenades.
      (d) The ashram has only one kind of robe. 

4.   It is the morning of the day on which you will die. You spend the day:
      (a) at the park with your children, making sure they know how much you care about them.
      (b) making passionate love with your significant other.
      (c) blowing the $2345.75 in your checking account on beer and hookers.
      (d) briefly looking at an old Polaroid of the wife you haven't seen in four months, before you go cruising through an Arab neighborhood filled with raw sewage and foreign people that would like nothing else than to gleefully chop your head off.

Okay, I could go on with this for some time, but I think that will do.  Just something strange that popped into my head on patrol yesterday, inspired, I think, by a Harlan Ellison short story and a John D. MacDonald book which I read years ago when I was a kid. Not sure why they are reappearing in the cramped interior of a HMMWV in Baghdad, but they did. I think the message they were trying to get across is this:  What would you do differently if you knew that you were going to die today? Really knew it?

In the 'normal' world, we may wonder about death every so often, usually after watching a disturbing movie, or maybe after we see an obituary of someone we once knew in the paper. But unless you are grappling with a serious illness, or wondering what that semi is doing crossing into your rain-soaked lane at 4 a.m., or have decided that skydiving this weekend might be a great way to "bond" with your new girlfriend, it probably doesn't seem like a real possibility to you.

It struck me a couple times recently, waking up in the afternoon of Day 4 of the midnight patrol schedule, and looking at the bleary world with the uber-clarity of the terminally sleep deprived -- what if this really is the last day I'm here?  Would I talk to the guy behind the counter of the store where I buy my morning coffee the same way, if I knew I would die in 4.5 hours? Would I choose to spend the last few hours on Earth 'reading the articles' in a dog-eared Playboy in the stifling and odoriferous comfort of a porta-john, or yelling at a co-worker because his TPS report is late (again), or haranguing my daughter over the phone on the crucial and therefore expensive details of raising her children? Yeah, I know, we've all heard this crap before, and probably better enunciated than this, but it has been a bit of a revelation for me when thinking and feeling it in real terms.

THE SEARCH |

October 14, 2006

THE SEARCH
Name: Adam Tiffen (AirborneJD)
Posting date: 10/14/06
Returned from: Iraq
Milblog url:
http://www.thereplacements.blogspot.com
Email: airbornejd115@yahoo.com

She is handsome, rather than beautiful. Her black dress covers her from head to toe, with only her face showing under a black head scarf. Still, her open, expressive face is attractive in a motherly way, as she smiles and looks down at her curly-haired baby, the child's fist crammed firmly into his mouth. Sitting on the woven carpets in the bare room are her other children. A slender girl with her back against the white plastered wall, perhaps 14 years of age and wearing a red dress, smiles shyly up at me. The third child, a young boy, sits quietly beside his mother, his dark eyebrows and pale skin forming a striking contrast. Children's books and white notepads filled with children's drawings are scattered on the carpets that line the floor of the room.

We have come to raid their house.

Standing in the room with the mother and children, I feel slightly foolish as I post a young, serious soldier with a squad automatic weapon to guard them. He is to prevent them from getting up and moving around the house while my soldiers conduct their search. For both their safety and ours, I can take no chances.

Turning to the boy, I have my interpreter ask him where the family's weapon is. Throwing a quick glance at his mother, he gets up and walks into his parents' bedroom. There, behind a curtain covering an opening into a cupboard, is a well maintained AK-47 and a 40-round Banana Clip magazine. Each household in Iraq is allowed to have a single AK-47 and one clip of ammunition. Reaching into the cupboard I take out the weapon. It takes only a second to remove the magazine, clear the chamber, and place the weapon back on safe. One less thing to worry about.

"Are there any more weapons in the house?"

"No" he says, and shakes his head.

"Alright, go back in the room with your mother."

Walking into the hallway, I stop next to my squad leader and give him the go-ahead to begin searching the house. He moves up to the top floor and out onto the balcony with his search team.

Turning, I survey the house. As houses in Iraq go, this is a relatively nice one. The small refrigerator and freezer in the hallway appear to be new, and the house is neat and well kept. As in all Iraqi houses, almost none of the rooms have furniture, just mats and rugs on the floor for family members to sit on.

In the kitchen, what is left of the afternoon meal is sitting on a large metal platter. Cut cucumbers, white rice, and what looks like curried beans are each sitting separately in small metal bowls on the platter. When the family eats, they place the platter on the ground between them, and scoop the food out of the communal dishes with their hands. My stomach gives a little flutter. The food is covered in a crawling mass of flies.

Walking up the staircase to the roof, I come across a growing pile of electric cables and copper wires. The squad leader and one of his men are collecting the spools from a corner of the rooftop, and placing them into a pile for removal. These are the kinds of materials used to manufacture and detonate IEDs. This is exactly what we are looking for.

From the rooftop I can see my soldiers securing the perimeter of the house. To the north and east, armored HUMMWV's are staged, giving the gunners good sectors of fire. In the event that we are fired upon while conducting our search, the gunners will be able to return fire and suppress the enemy. In the distance, to the west, looking out over no-mans land and past the Mosque, I can see the rooftop and gun positions of the Alamo. We are just a stone's throw from home.

Walking back down the stairs and out of the intense heat, I re-enter the room with the mother and her children. Behind her, a color television sits on top of a large cupboard, an Arabic soap opera loudly and emotionally playing out on the screen. I notice that the outfits and hairstyles look like something straight out of the 1960s.

The woman is looking at me expectantly, her dark eyes smiling as she plays with her child. She asks me something in Arabic and the girl behind her giggles.

"What did she say?"

"She wants to know if you want to take a picture with the baby."

Caught off guard, I smile briefly down at her pleasant face, but then my smile begins to fade. The woman does not know that we have arrested her husband on suspicion of being an insurgent. He is currently out in one of the vehicles awaiting transport to a holding facility. With a sinking feeling, I try to shut out my emotions. I know that what we are doing is going to be bringing a lot of pain and suffering to this friendly, motherly woman and her delightful children. I tell myself that it is part of the job. Still, I don't have to like it.

My squad leader appears behind me and beckons me back into the hallway. "We've completed the search. We found a mess of wires and cables, and a couple of boxes of documents."

"Alright, good work. Go ahead and move everything into the back of my HUMMWV. I'll go talk with the CO and let him know the search is complete." I walk outside into the heat. In one of the vehicles, my commander sits talking on the radio. He is coordinating events with another platoon searching a different house just down the road. The Captain looks at me thru a sheen of sweat on his bright red face.

"Okay, good work. Bring him inside and let him get some toiletries and a change of clothing."

I walk back to a second HUMMWV and open the back door. There is the woman's husband, his hands bound behind his back, and a pair of dark goggles covering his eyes. Surprisingly, he is an older man, his salt and pepper hair and moustache accenting a strong, stern face. The soldier guarding him is sitting beside him.

"Take him out of those cuffs and remove the blindfold. She doesn't need to see him like that. Oh, and when you guard him inside the house, try not to look like that is what you are doing." The soldier nods. This is going to be emotional enough.

The man rubs his wrists as he steps out of the vehicle, briefly stretching his legs. On his face, I can see that he is steeling himself to face his family under these circumstances. It is a struggle for him to keep his face emotionless while he walks towards his home. Following behind him, I can see him square his shoulders and muster his dignity.

As I let him lead me into the house, I can see his wife on the floor, no longer smiling, as she looks at her husband with shock and concern all over her face. Trembling, she turns to me and starts asking me questions in Arabic. "What has he done? Where are you taking him?" Clasping her hands together she is almost pleading with me.

"Ma'am, we are just taking him over to our base to ask him some questions about a few matters that need clearing up."

"How long will he be gone? Can he be back tonight?" The pain in her voice is obvious. She is terrified for her family and for her husband. The soldiers have come to take him away, and for all she knows, she may never see him again. My heart is in my mouth.

"Ma'am, I am afraid that this is not possible. You should expect him to be gone for a few days at least."

She glances down at her children and then looks at her husband. He speaks to her in Arabic and she moves into the bedroom to pack some belongings for him. With a nod, I send a soldier in after her to keep watch.

The man asks permission to gather a few papers that he wants to take with him. He walks over to the cupboard and under the watchful eyes of his guard gathers what he needs.

Within a few minutes, his wife enters the room clutching a plastic bag filled with clothing and a towel. She looks at her husband as if she wants to say something, and then she turns back to me as he is getting ready to leave the room.

"She wants to know if she can keep the AK-47."

"Tell her that she can. Each household can keep a weapon for their own protection."

She looks relieved, and then she continues hesitantly. Her hands clasped together as if in prayer. "What will I do? How long will he be gone? I cannot stay here alone. It is dangerous here. Please bring him back tonight. If you do not, where will I go? Who will protect us?"

Behind her, I can see that her daughter has tears in her eyes. I turn away from their stricken faces. Glancing at the soldier behind me, I can tell that this is as difficult for him as it is for me. In a quiet voice, I give instructions to the private standing behind her husband.

"Alright, take him back out to the vehicle, and let's get ready to go. Let the CO know that we are done here."

Accompanied by the subdued young soldier, the man leaves the room and walks outside without so much as glancing at his wife or his children.

"Ma'am, do you have family you can go and stay with? Is there someone you can live with until all of this is resolved?"

She thinks a moment, and then replies: "Yes, my husband's family lives in Baghdad. I could take the children and go there." I nod my head and attempt to look encouraging.

"I recommend you do that. I honestly don't know how long your husband will be gone."

She looks at my face as if trying to read something, and then she glances down at her children and clutches at her infant's chubby little hand. Turning away, I address the other soldiers still left in the room.

"Alright, let's get moving. Go ahead outside and mount up. Let's get out of here."

As the soldiers file out, I turn and place her AK-47 on the ground, and ask her not to pick it up until we have left. Then after all of the soldiers have left the room, I stop in the doorway and turn back.

"Steve, tell her that if she chooses to stay here, I will patrol near the house and check in on her from time to time to see if she and the children are okay. Also tell her that if she leaves and goes to Baghdad, I will try to stop by and make sure the house is okay."

She listens and then nods her head quietly.

It is the least that I can do.

MORTAR MORNINGS |

October 13, 2006

MORTAR MORNINGS
Author: SPC O
Posting date: 10/13/2006
Stationed in: Iraq
Hometown: Washington D.C.

You're frozen. For a split second every muscle in your body tenses, and your mind draws a blank. Was that incoming? Wait for the alarm. If it was an incoming round, the siren blares off with a recorded voice and electronic bell "Incoming! Incoming! Incoming! Bing bing bing. Incoming! Incoming! Incoming!" Stay calm, get to cover, listen for the splash, look at your buddies and smile....Wait.

Everybody has their own "So there I was getting mortared" story. I was once pulling gate guard on my little FOB with a young infantry private I had never met before. We sat in a 113 (Armored Personnel Carrier) that acted as the gate. If someone needed to get on or off the FOB you just started the vehicle and threw it in reverse, let them drive by, then pulled back into your place. So there we sat one morning. I was in the driver's hatch and Pfc. L was behind me in the crew compartment with his SAW. We heard the first round strike about 100m's away, inside the FOB. We looked around for someone to tell: "There's incoming!!"

Another round strikes, this one closer, only 50m's away. We heard it whistle before it hit. I looked over "Dude, get your fuckin' hatch closed!" So there we were, an Infantryman and a Scout, neither of us having been on a 113 before, pulling punching slamming and smashing these hatches that refuse to come down over us to help aid in our protection. The familiar whistle is coming, I hit over his kevlar "Just get down!"

Just as we got our heads below the armor, the round struck not 10 meters from us, the dirt and shrapnel sprayed the vehicle and a cloud of dust descended on us. As me and this guy I've never met before huddled in our convertible armored vehicle we laughed with each other as he gave me the requisite "I love you, man". I dusted some earth off his helmet as we heard the next round whistle over. It landed farther away. That was it. We poked our heads out of our shelter to survey what was left of the earth, and our backup, about 20m's behind us came running up: "Medic!!! Are you guys okay in there? Oh holy shit, we thought you guys were done for sure!" Our gate took a nice peppering, but that was it. We all sat around and had a good laugh about how the 113 had instantly vanished from their eyes in a cloud of dust and black smoke. I've had some close calls, but in all the times I've been mortared that was the closest one.

Well, that's my opener for stories. If anyone back home reads this: If you're too far right to make any sense, leave me alone, and if you're too far left to make any sense, leave me alone. It's easy to say "WE have to go to war" if you're not WE, and it's easy to say "Bring home the troops" if they are not your brothers getting left behind on the return trip.

OUR INTERPRETERS |

OUR INTERPRETERS
Name: SSG Glenn Yeager
Posting date: 10/13/2006
Stationed in: Afghanistan
Hometown: Sandy, Oregon

I sat down with two of our interpreters today. We sat and BS'ed for a good 30 minutes or so. They told me stories about other teams they've worked for before us, the Afghan National Army, things they've seen since they've been here, and some of the people from the other teams.

One thing really struck me at one point during the conversation. One of the terps, Javied, was talking about why we were here. He said that he understood that we were here to protect our country from terrorists, understands what we went through (which made me remember that these two guys, and a whole hell of a lot more like them, lived the nightmare that we only had a taste of), and that he also understands that we're here to help the ANA stand up and protect their own country like we do for ours. He was looking right into my eyes and was completely serious about it, too. And the other terp, Shah, nodded in agreement.

It's like I said before about the ANA, these guys are putting a lot on the line by doing what they're doing. Any one of these guys, including any of the ANA soldiers, could get killed at any time if they're on leave or walking in public without protection. All because of what they're doing, or trying to do. This whole group is not doing this for the money (because, as for us, the money is minimal compared to a lot of other jobs outside the military). Our terps and the ANA soldiers are doing this because they want their country to be like it was decades ago. And they believe in what we're doing and why we're here. They know we're here for them. This isn't the first time I've heard this, either. Different ranks of ANA soldiers have told me this before, too.

It just made me even more proud of what I'm doing and what I'm a part of. And it doubled the amount of respect I have for all of these guys I'm with. They've become my brothers. And we tell each other that each time we see each other in the morning at formation. We shake each other's hands and we hug as a gesture of friendship and respect. Another sign of respect for another person in this country is after you shake a person's hand, you place your hand over your heart. You see it everywhere. I've learned the various greetings in their language, too. As another sign of respect towards them.

I'm honored to serve with these soldiers and I'm honored to have our terps. I feel safe and secure around any one of them. And I will hate to leave them when it's time to go home. They will always be my friends...and my brothers. Because of what they are doing and what they are standing up for.

MAIL BECOMES PARAMOUNT |

October 12, 2006

MAIL BECOMES PARAMOUNT
Name: CAPT Lee Kelley
Posting date: 10/12/06
Stationed in: Iraq
Hometown: Salt Lake City, UT
Milblog url:
http://www.wordsmithatwar.blog-city.com
E-mail: wordsmith16@excite.com

When you’re in Iraq, mail becomes paramount.

No longer do you grab the stuff in your mailbox with the monotony that consumes after years and years of junk mail and coupons you’ll never use. The walk to the mailbox is not a mechanical part of your day anymore. No more is your mail a constant trickle of companies reminding you that you owe them money. Mail becomes a miniature Christmas, a small token or package or gift from a magical land far away that now seems kind of fuzzy in your memory, like Santa and his reindeer through the glass of a child’s globe which has just been shaken and presents you with a snowy winter-scape. A quickening of the spirit occurs when you receive a letter or package from your friends and family back in the United States. It must be how one would feel receiving a message in a bottle after being shipwrecked on an island for years. This simile may be a stretch, but you get my drift.

Whether you are a true patriot, and you bleed red, white, and blue, or you are simply here because duty came knocking at your door, and you have some honor and some pride in what you do, it feels really good to receive thoughts and prayers from all of you back home.

You may be cooking one of us some home-made brownies this morning in a snug little town in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, as you sip your Colombian coffee and enjoy watching the fog rise up off the slopes through your window, thinking about your son or daughter who is deployed in the Middle East.

You may send a photo of yourself snowboarding at The Canyons in Park City, Utah, and write “I missed you on the lift tonight,” or some other inside joke in black marker right across the mountainous scene in the background to your friend in Iraq.

You may be retired. You may be a veteran, or a veteran of a foreign war. You may have been sitting in your living room just today writing a letter of appreciation on your favorite stationary and licking the seal and sending it to one of your grandchildren over here.

You may be a guy in Detroit who recently sent one of my Sergeants some new boots and a carton of smokes. He signed up on operationac.com to "sponsor" a soldier deployed overseas.

You may be a child, writing a letter in first period to a soldier from your hometown. We love the flags that you draw us in crayon or magic marker, coloring so carefully inside the lines. And we enjoy the intelligent letters you send us, wondering what it is like over here and if we are scared.

Whoever you are, and regardless of your political interests, or your feelings about the military or war or violence or our Commander in Chief, or Iraq, or Muslims, or the current stock market trends, we appreciate your support. Regardless of your favorite color, your skin color, the type of car you drive, your age, the college you went to, your lack of education, or your bad attitude towards teenagers and video games, we still thank you.

Because we are you. We are the American people, temporarily displaced for a spell in the Middle East. We exemplify virtually every race, class, profession, and opinion that you do over there across the pond. We’re just fighting right now, that’s all. We've been pulled away from “normal” life to serve our country as millions have done for America in past conflicts. Some of us believe in the political machines that nudge entire nations into war, and some of us just believe in ourselves and each other and doing the duty we raised our hand and swore to do.

PERSONAL EFFECTS |

PERSONAL EFFECTS
Name: A CPT in Ft. Hood
Posting Date: 10/12/2006
Stationed in: Texas
Hometown: Texas

A few days ago, Vice President Cheney came to Ft. Hood and addressed members of the community and the post, on the eve of the 1st Cavalry Division's return to Iraq. The Vice President was surrounded by purple heart winners and those who had earned bronze stars with valor or higher medals. That was, at least, the initial qualification given to be able to stand behind the Vice President. The cameras were all there, and I have no doubt that the public will see the Vice President and the soldiers. However, I was not there to hear the Vice President's speech, whatever it was. Instead, a fellow captain buddy of mine and I were across post, at the rear detachment headquarters of a 4th ID brigade. I helped him in his duties as the summary court martial officer as he inventoried and loaded up a 23-year-old soldier's personal effects for shipment to her family. As we stood there, looking at three cardboard boxes and a metal futon that comprised the totality of what she owned, many things struck us.

It was a sad experience for us. While we both lost soldiers during our first tour in Iraq, we did not know this soldier, but felt as if we did. It seemed somehow wrong, to be packing up a stranger's goods, not because of anything extraordinary we found, but because of how extremely ordinary everything was. She had a cheap television, a small microwave, some DVDs bought from the PX, a paperback book or two, a few pairs of shoes, a clock radio, and a plastic-drawered dresser full of clothes. We wondered, as we watched the movers photocopy my buddy's inventory of her meager possessions before taping shut the boxes that the soldier’s father and mother would have to open in a few days, whether it would scare or reassure Americans to see this. 

We wondered if it would make people a little less easy about glibly "supporting our troops" if they knew that this 23-year-old woman didn't leave behind copies of the Constitution, books on warfare, or even an American flag. She didn't have any pictures of her standing in front of Old Glory or even any inspirational posters extolling patriotism, valor, and the like. She left behind shoes and a television. She was a normal American, or could have been, had she not been killed in Iraq. She didn't drape herself in the flag in life; we have draped her in death. She could have been anything; she was a soldier, but she never got the chance to be a wife or a mother, never got the chance to pursue whatever interests she may have wanted to when she returned from the Middle East. She loved and laughed just like the rest of us, but she is gone from us now. It is too easy to say "She was a soldier and gave her life doing what soldiers do," but it is a hard thing to say when you stand there and watch what little she left packed up for a grieving family.

I fear too many Americans think of soldiers without truly thinking of them as people -- they may be soldiers, but they are so much more. They are soldiers now, but may not always be -- they will become musicians, and teachers, and businessmen, and journalists, and car salesmen. The difference is, they are willing to die to protect those other Americans who are musicians, teachers, businessmen, journalists, and car salesmen before they go and join their ranks.    

As my buddy and I thought and talked about all of this, we wondered if the press would come away from the politics of it all, and perhaps come to the quiet rear detachment where senior NCOs and soldiers soberly watched yet another young American's effects be quietly packed and shipped to yet another grieving family. We wondered if the Vice President would step away from the podium and see soldiers doing their duty, trying to help one of their own who died doing her duty as best they knew how.

Most of all, though, we wondered about our society at large. We wondered if they could grasp that this 23-year-old soldier who had given her life for them left behind only shoes and a television. It got us thinking about what separates a soldier and society. Finally, we figured it out. What is a soldier? A soldier is someone who leaves behind in death the very things most of us spend our entire lives trying to acquire.

HERE IN BAGHDAD |

October 11, 2006

HERE IN BAGHDAD
Name: SGT Salamander
Posting date: 10/11/06
Stationed in: Iraq
Hometown: Pennsylvania

I had been pulled for an OP here in Baghdad. So I grab a private, my favorite private, and tell him to throw on his gear and leave those books behind.

College was a terror. I went from Protestant and a believer to well-read and subversive. Let's break the mold, son, let's enlist and have things to write about.

So here I am, educated and enlisted, an infantry sergeant enamored with the violence. And to promote, among other things, the development of a good private, I suggest reading lists. I steer these buggers away from pulp and pop and more towards explorations of the dark night of the soul, hoping, somehow, to get these dudes to realize the enormity of their present baptism in world affairs. So this private, the one throwing on his gear and leaving behind the books, is my little project. A social service product, a kid with no home, a kid who tags along on leave; this is the kid I pick for everything. I hammer his genitals into the wall. I want to make him my son and I his father. I want him to trust me.

So we go out, we infil, we lay there on the gun, we whisper and conduct our hourly radio checks. And this kid, this little bugger once soft and pink and now twenty years older than he was last year, this kid who read my list of books, gobbled my list of books, this kid says, "Sarn, we have to personify something, don't we?"

"Kid, we are human beings, we have the luxury of BEING the metaphor."

He thinks a second, shoots an azimuth at a cluster of people there in the haze, adjusts a few million pounds of gear, he says, "Nah, Sarn, I used to have the luxury."

God Bless You, Mr. Palahniuk.

And this kid, this little hero, is about one month from returning home to a country that will fear him, to girls who will desire him. He'll get his miniature round of applause at Atlanta airport, the USO will give him a razor and can of shaving cream and will thank him, impersonally, for being present in another debacle. And sooner or later, this kid, hopefully will thank God for his involvement in the deterioration of Baghdad, the crumbling of American foreign policy, seeing bodies turned to burger, watching a tracer round from his weapon burn a hole through a man's neck, the reading of books, the performance of thousands of pushups, the lack of sleep, the dust in his lungs; hopefully he'll thank God for this devastation.

I know I do. It has brought us away from the luxury of the metaphor. And this rarely happens in my world. And yours. He is exponentially disconnected from nuclear America. And now, a dog of war, now, having read the books and pulled the trigger, having bowed down to the violence, away from celebrity magazines and bad music, away from social formulae; this kid is as fatalistic as he needs to be, being what we in uniform have become.

FORGOTTEN |

FORGOTTEN
Name: Tadpole
Posting date: 10/11/06
Stationed in: Afghanistan
Milblog url: armysailor.com

While I was home on leave recently, all the talk on every news channel was about the 10-year-old murder case of a little girl, hardly any mention of the war at all. When there is mention of the war, it's almost always of Iraq. Many people seem to have forgotten about Afghanistan altogether. Many of us over here feel like the forgotten bastard step-children of war. We get the leftover equipment, and very little recognition. 

Now don't get me wrong, we don't do what we do for the recognition. I recently got into a bit of a tiff with one of my officers over here. I was expressing the fact that I don't really agree with most of what we are doing here, and I definitely don't agree with our methodology. In my opinion it's wasteful, and not very productive. Basically, like all things run by the government, I feel this operation is being run poorly at best. So he asked me why I was over here then. I think I surprised him with my answer.

I am not here because I have to be. I am not here because of orders or a contractual obligation or anything of the sort. I am here to support my comrades-in-arms. I am here to support the man next to me. I am here to help relieve the burden of a soldier. I am here so that a man with a wife and kids can spend a little more time at home with his family. Few others seem to understand that.

What I don't understand is why so many Americans are so apathetic about this whole situation. I really feel like most people look at this war as little more than a television event. How many people have ever taken the time to stop and think about what we go through every day over here? The bullets, rockets and IEDs are not the hard part. The hard part is knowing that life goes on back at home.

(By the way, I am a U.S. Navy Sailor serving with a U.S. Army Special Operations Unit. Some people are not aware that the Navy is contributing a large portion of the effort on the ground, and that we march into combat, side-by-side with our Army brethren.)

CONFLICTED |

October 10, 2006

CONFLICTED
Name: SSG Emily Joy Schwenkler
Posting date: 10/10/06
Stationed in: Baghdad, Iraq
Hometown: Salem, Oregon

It is extremely hard to be here and not question the people and events that led to our being here. I don't question my own personal choice to be here. I ran, not walked, to my local recruiter with the desire to serve my country. And I am much more fortunate than many soldiers serving here. I am on a large, well maintained FOB (Forward Operating Base) located smack dab in the middle of the Baghdad International Airport. I can go to Burger King every day, and I sleep in an air-conditioned trailer with internet access every night.

When I go out on missions, I get to see the way the "other half" lives. I have to wear all my gear, even while I'm fixing trucks in the 120 degree heat, convoy from place to place, sleep outside on a cot, run to the bunker when mortars go off, and experience the horrifying feeling of seeing an IED go off at the front of a seven-vehicle convoy (I was driving the rear vehicle) and wondering for seconds-that-felt-like-hours if someone I worked with and cared for was hurt or killed, while simultaneously breathing a guilty sigh of relief that it hadn't gone off seconds later on my truck.

The "security" problem going on in Baghdad right now translates into my husband, a heavy equipment operator, going out onto the Main Supply Routes and placing concrete barriers at traffic checkpoints leading into Baghdad in order to protect the Iraqi Army that man those checkpoints during the day.

Let me break it down to you as I see it...We tell the Iraqi people when they can leave their homes and for how long, when they can be on the road and when they can't. The majority of Iraqi people have no electricity, except for dangerous generators supplying too many people with less than sub-standard wiring. Iraq is a deeply divided country of people who went right back to hating each other as soon as their common enemy was ousted. Democracy will only give the upper hand to the majority, the Shiites (whose most radical sect, the Hezbollah, already hold 23 seats in the Lebanon parliament).

Meanwhile, the only thing the Iraqi people know is that a foreign army is occupying them to protect them against "insurgents" who, I'm saddened to say, would probably not be here if American forces weren't roaming the streets, searching people's homes and enforcing curfews.

I'm not so idealistic that I think all the conflict would simply vanish if we were to leave. History has proven otherwise. But there is no "winning" here. I can see the signs that our government is beginning to realize the same thing, beginning its modern-day version of "Vietnamization", training the Iraqi Army to take a more active role in its country's defense. (Right now, mechanics in my unit are training Iraqi Soldiers to fix their vehicles, and we've been informed that the training is "priority".) Nixon did the exact same thing at the end of the Vietnam War. After it was well established that we were fighting a losing battle, we slowly decreased the offensive measures, while touting morale-boosting press releases about the South Vietnamese people's ability to defend themselves.

I love the Army, I truly do. It has offered me incredible opportunities, and helped me come a long way from the crank-smoking high school drop-out that I was 15 years ago. And I love our country, even when I don't always agree with the people that run it. I'm desperately sorry to the people that have lost loved ones here.

My husband's job site was ambushed last week, and although no one was hurt, it has prompted a lot of these reflections. It was a terrible question to ask: If, God forbid, he had been hurt, what would it have been for? I read an article in Rolling Stone recently, about a reporter riding with some soldiers here in Iraq. He put it into words perfectly.

Those of us serving here simply can't afford to ask that question.

A DIFFERENT PERSPECTIVE |

A DIFFERENT PERSPECTIVE
Name: American Soldier
Posting date: 10/10/06
Returned from: Iraq
Milblog url:
http://soldierlife.com/

This last month stateside has given me a lot of time to view things from a different perspective and evaluate some things that I might have overlooked otherwise. I made a trip to Idaho and visited my good friend Chad. I opened up a few times to Chad and told him some of the experiences I had over there. The whole trip was worth it.

The day I left something occurred that really topped it off. While in line to get my
tickets, I saw another soldier. We really stick out like sore thumbs. Anyway, I get to the Kiosk and he was right next to me. He asked me if I was coming or going. I told him I had been back for a few months now and I came back early due to being wounded. I asked him his job and he said he was a crew chief on a C5. He said he had just gotten back the night prior. In a stroller he was pushing his 8 month old baby, whom he never seen until the day before. It put a smile on my face.

Well, I kept bumping into this guy along my travels and I swore I knew him from somewhere. I just couldn't place it. The Army can seem very small, but I didn't remember him from any prior bases I was at. While on layover, I saw him and his family. I approached him and ask him about the aircraft he flew in over there. At that point I figured he might have been on the same plane I was on when I was evacuated. I described the flag in the hull and a few other things. Sure as shit that was the same plane he was the crew chief of. He tended to me while I was laid up on a stretcher. I was in and out for the duration of the flight but I remembered his face. What are the chances of that?

We parted ways and I was just happy that I had met him. I really didn't know how to respond. So I went to the terminal of my next flight. He was passing by and he came up to me pushing his baby. The words that came out of his mouth really stuck with me. "In the 16 years of my career I've always wondered about the guys that we flew out. You have made my career come full circle by meeting you." The man had tears in his eyes. He explained that he always wondered about the ones who were hurt. He knew the disposition of the ones in boxes but the ones on stretchers like me, where did they go and how did they make out?

We had some more words between two soldiers who were strangely reunited, one on a trip fresh from the war and another enduring the mental war. It was good to have that experience; it closed a few things that might have hampered a bit longer.

IT WAS MEMORIAL DAY |

IT WAS MEMORIAL DAY
Name: Zachary Scott-Singley
Posting date: 10/10/06
Returned from: Iraq
Milblog url:
http://misoldierthoughts.blogspot.com/

I cried. It was Memorial Day and it hit me so hard, my first Memorial Day since leaving the Army. My wife watched me and felt helpless as I sat there and quietly broke down in long silent sobs as the memories came flooding back and the guilt started again. She didn't know exactly what to do. She made sure my son and daughter were still playing together in the other room and she held me.

She suggested we go to my father's house so that I could talk to him. He had served in Vietnam and I knew he would know what I was going through. I drove without saying a word as I turned on the radio to NPR and listened to vets talk about those they lost. They had one vet for each war since World War I. I drove with big rolling tears quietly so that my children wouldn't know that their father was so weak right then.

I saw my father in his backyard watering the grass and as I walked up to him Tara drove off with the kids. I crumpled in a heap when he turned to me and I couldn't make it stop. Memories I thought I had filed away came flying back hitting me, and without control I finally sobbed aloud as he walked over and extended his hand.

The only thing he said just then was, “You feel guilty don't you?” He knew without even needing to ask. I was so very grateful for him at that moment. Not to have to talk about it and try to explain, just being able to have someone understand without asking anything was like gold. After a few minutes I calmed down and asked him if it was ever that hard for him. He told me it was. The memories, and feeling that guilt for coming back alive while so many others have died, both soldiers and civilians. That was all I could think about that day: Why me? God, why did you let me live when you took so many others? But it wasn't God; it was us, mankind that did this.

My father helped me put myself back together piece by piece until I felt complete again and that it was over. The rest of the day was uneventful, but in the back of my mind I realize that the guilt is still there. It always was, I just didn't see it until that day. I
love you Dad, and I know why you came back alive from Vietnam. You came back because I needed you.

MOST SOLDIERS I TALK TO |

MOST SOLDIERS I TALK TO
Name: Combat Doc
Posting date: 10/10/06
Returned from: Iraq
Milblog url:
http://candle_in_the_dark.blogspot.com 

Most soldiers I talk to fall into one of three groups. First are the die-hard supporters. Guys who claim to "hate the Hajj" but really only do so because they think it's their job to. This is about 10%. Second are the anti-war, Bush-is-full-of-shit, no-war-for-oil crowd. These guys see no good at all even if they were part of it. This is about another 10 or so percent. The rest are guys who do their job and seem to be the most confused. The right is saying "Yay Bush!" but they see holes in the story. The left is screaming "Bring our soldiers home!", while some wear shirts saying "Germans Supported Their Troops Too" and claim to speak for a relatively conservative military. Don't worry guys, there's no draft coming. College campuses and wanna-be hippies take note.

It seems each side is claiming to speak for the soldiers, but the press interviews and CNN stories are only pulling out the bits they want to publish to get their message across. Whatever that message is, Joe isn't getting his out.

The fact is that Iraq has both sides. It was a good fight to free a people who have never known what it is to be free. At the same time we went in under a lie and many of the plans and policies have done more harm than good. Cultural and political differences in understanding have created those problems. There have been elections, but what will be the end result? Also the enemy does benefit from your dissent. But soldiers have been used by all. The press on both sides uses stories of convenience to push an agenda, while the government holds to some claims and moves into others to keep the people supporting the war.

In the end Joe isn't being heard by the pro's or the anti's. There is good and bad going on there, but the only one who will tell you the truth is the shooter who handed out bread to the children and lead to the Hajj.

A NEW WAY TO STAND AND WAIT |

October 09, 2006

A NEW WAY TO STAND AND WAIT
Name: Molly Pitcher
Posting date: 10/9/06
Spouse stationed in: Iraq
Milblog url:
http://mollypitcher.blogspot.com
Email:
armywifelife@hotmail.com

Technology has made this a new war both for our soldiers and for those of us who "also serve." I don't often agree with my fellow alumnus's political opinions, but I think the recent Doonesbury series on email and spouses is pretty on target. DH never tells me when he is going out or when he is going to be back. First of all, it is a violation of OPSEC (Operational Security). Second of all, it just produces unnecessary worry. However, I know there are plenty of couples who are constantly online together, and DH and I communicate pretty regularly thanks to the internet.

As Trudeau highlights, the communications technology can be a mixed blessing. When you hear from your loved one every day and then suddenly not for 48 hours, you begin to picture all sorts of horrors. Of course, you remind yourself that your information is up to date -- that you would have heard already if tragedy had struck -- but still you worry, tensing at every noise. Was that a knock at the door?

On the flip side, the technology can play into the soldiers' paranoia as well. It is 10:00 pm there, why didn't my wife answer my IM? Where is she? Much of our force is young (as is usually the case for warriors) and the young tend to be less secure in their relationships.

On the balance, though, I like the webcams and IM-ing -- especially now, so DH can see Lilah's growth. I can't even imagine what life was like for our grandmothers during earlier wars, when they were lucky if a letter made it through once a month or so, and the soldiers were often away for years at a time.

CRANKY OLD PEOPLE |

CRANKY OLD PEOPLE
Name: Doc in the Box
Posting date: 10/9/06
Stationed in: Iraq
Hometown: Prescott, AZ
Milblog url:
http://docinthebox.blogspot.com/
E-mail:
dustmans@gmail.com

After three trips out here you start to notice trends -- what works, and the people who make a difference. There's always someone who goes beyond what is expected of them, doing things that aren't asked, and has that shining moment when they're so pissed or some subject irks them so much that they just have to fix it.

There's a guy in our squadron who worked construction for the decade prior to joining the Marines in his late 30's on an age waiver. He came out here and witnessed the shoddy work that his fellow Marines had done -- primitive benches, shelves that weren't level, lean-to's covering the smoking areas -- in some cases I've seen better construction on a tree house. Hidden behind his mild-mannered bifocals, Sgt Elka started building a deep resentment for all of the crap that these amateurs had built and were displaying proudly.

My own pet peeve was the crappy bookshelves that were up. People who lived in shanties would have made better bookshelves then the ones we were using. So one of our first projects was to make some new book shelves, and I planned to use them to put everything in order. (One of our officers was also getting miffed by all of the books lying around, and was requesting marshmallows in care packages for the book burning, so we had to work quickly).

Then Sgt Elka started in on making these octagon picnic tables and putting park benches all over. As usual, no good deed goes unpunished, and the command started putting in requests too. Soon we had a phone booth built with it's own AC unit. CO's from other units would come by and start talking about wanting such things at their units (and - egad! - having their books put in order!! Glad I'm going home soon. Have you ever had to go through several thousand books that have been through a couple of years worth of dust storms? Very messy!)

It's not the people who do well on their day jobs who make the mark that everyone remembers, it's those cranky old men who get pissed off by the status quo and do something about it. I know those book shelves and picnic tables will be around for a long time after we're gone.

MY ROLE IN THIS |

MY ROLE IN THIS
Name: SGT B
Posting date: 10/9/06
Stationed in
: Washington state
Hometown: Rockford, WA
Milblog url:
http://thegunline.com
E-mail: sgtb0331@thegunline.com

My role in this will be, if all goes well, as a Sergeant in Company "B", 1st of the 161st Mechanized Infantry, 81st Brigade Combat Team. The physical is done (I passed), the paperwork for a few waivers has been submitted, and I should be vaulted into the saddle within the next two weeks. Done deal. I've given this a great deal of thought, and determined that this is the best course of action I can take for all concerned. I've got 13 years worth of USMC Infantry experience under my belt, which means that I'm over halfway to racking up the time needed to qualify for a retirement pension from the government (the Guard, however, works on a point system, with means that I might be able to rack up points faster, or it might take a little longer, not sure).

But that's not what it's about, is it? Not for me, anyway.  This is something I should have done five years ago. I'm just a little late getting to the starting line. There were other things that demanded my time and effort.  But now, I can't think of anything more important than to throw my hat into the ring, and get back in the fight -- a fight that didn't really exist until AFTER I got out of the Corps. Yep. It's the right thing to do...

Why, then, in the middle of the night, do I stare at the ceiling, my mind full of questions? Here I am, 41 years old, married, four kids, with a steady (if sedentary) job, nice house, small town, safe, secure, etc., etc. On the other hand, the Guard deploys to combat zones (my pal the Mad Irishman was derned near blowed up by an IED in 2004 -- two weeks into the deployment!), and to natural disaster sites. What the hell am I thinking?

I've busted my tail to drop the weight I needed to drop to get in, and now I need to seriously work on my physical fitness, if I am to be a leader of war-fighters. Okay, it's "the Guard", but when the scat hits the fan, it won't matter whether you're a weekend warrior, or an active duty soldier -- the balloon goes up, then I will be in the thick of it, and the soldiers who look to me for leadership aren't going to want to follow some aged butterball-looking schmuck. They'll demand a leader in fighting trim, and that's what I need to be ready to give them.

Point Two:  The technology we used back in '97 is almost 10 years old!  I might as well be using flint and steel while the up-to-date folks are using Bic lighters!  Even the weapons have changed.  The M16A1 that I carried has long since vanished from the armory, and the M16A4 sits in its place.  Night vision gear has advanced as well, as has the communications package.  Even the light machine guns we had, the old M-60 "Pig" have been replaced by the M240G!  The field gear is different, the body armor is different, even the bloody UNIFORM is different!

I'm terrified… What in the hell were you thinking, B?

But then again, it's not the technology that I have to concern mysel with, is it? Technology can be learned, and maybe I've forgotten enough about my old gear that transitioning to the new stuff won't be difficult. And a rifle is a rifle, right?  Sight alignment, sight picture, breath control, trigger squeeze -- all universal, right?...

It all comes back to me, in dribs and drabs. In the morning, I open my eyes and think of the thoughts that have bounced around the inside of my brain-housing group. And then KM6 (my wife) chimes in.  She's nervous of what the future might bring, and, her being a little more liberal than I, is worried what the world might drop on us. Her eyes meet mine, and she adds one last thought to my pondering:

"All that is required for evil to prevail is for good men to do nothing."

And then she tells me that she's proud of me...

*grin*

Hell, let's go slay some dragons!

FIRE IN THE NIGHT |

October 06, 2006

FIRE IN THE NIGHT
Name: CAPT Lee Kelley
Posting date: 10/8/06
Stationed in
: Iraq
Hometown: Salt Lake City, UT
Milblog url:
http://www.wordsmithatwar.blog-city.com/
E-mail: wordsmith16@excite.com

We burn a lot of things out here. There is a huge pit where we destroy much of our trash. There is no city dump to drop things off, where trash is divided into papers, plastics, and metals to help with the ever-imminent energy crisis always lurking behind the door. There is also no Environmental Protection Agency. Somebody surely cares, somewhere, but alas, he is not here. Just tonight I walked outside and the air was thick with acrid smoke. It smelled like burning plastic or rubber or something else one wouldn't normally burn back home.

We burn anything that may be considered classified. It could be the address label off of a box that our family has sent us, a personal letter, or an official military document. If the enemy can use it to his advantage, just burn it. Leave nothing to chance.

There are burn barrels and little pits dug into the ground all over. Sometimes at night you pass by an area and see mysterious darkened figures around a barrel alight with orange flame, like hobos in a New York back-alley. Or like robed men in sandals on an island in the Euphrates a mere mile from a large American military base, shadowed figures lost in thought. Add to this the Muslim prayers coming over loudspeakers from way too close, and it hits you just how much your personal reality has changed. The man who is usually praying sounds passionate, and fully enthralled in the words. It reminds me of a Native American prayer, as the vibrato voice rises and falls with a rhythm that is frantic and unsettling.

I think Alfred Hitchcock would have loved this place at night. Without streetlamps, the darkness is complete, and you can find yourself on the walk back from the chow hall after dinner in a strange land of shadow and danger, your perception limited by the power of your flashlight. Fire breaks up the darkness. It is a welcome sight.

As the weeks roll by, I fill up a box with paper I need to burn. I like to go out at night under the stars when I think it's safe and feed my paper into the fire, piece by piece, my eyes scarlet with the flames as my thoughts are reflected in them. I stand close because the heat doesn't bother me much. I have become accustomed to heat. Never again will I stand in America in the summer and complain about the temperature. Conversely, 60 degrees will probably chill me to the bone.

We live our days in a place of harsh realities, of danger, of intense heat, of learning the hard way, of brotherhood, of war, of sacrifice, of bold action, of bitter tears, of love, of hate, of regeneration, and of history. But every once in a while, in the silence of the night, we simply stand around a fire and feed paper into the flames, each one of us lost in our own quiet thoughts.

As September came to a close, I ripped it off my calendar and walked out to the barrel. I felt symbolic as I sacrificed September to the fire -- but it's only paper. Some of us have sacrificed much, much more.

AIN'T IT THE TRUTH |

AIN'T IT THE TRUTH
Posting date: 10/8/06
Name:
SGT Allen
Stationed in: Washington, D.C.
Milblog url: http://www.contactright.blogspot.com/
E-mail: oif3vet2005@gmail.com

This Doonesbury series is the kind of shit that pisses me off.

And it's sad because what I thought was just a team problem is apparently so widespread that it has become a comic. I remember one of the briefings that we received when coming back stateside. It was, "Don't try to compare who has had a more difficult time." And in a way he is right. Each person has a different opinion as to what "difficult" is. And from my lane I think it is the Soldier. So here it goes (you all have just lost five minutes of your day):

The Soldier volunteered for the job. There is an official contract that says the Army owns their ass for X number of years. So it's no surprise when Uncle Sam comes to collect. The Soldier's commitment to his job, his country, and his mission is paramount to everything. There is nothing more important than what he is doing. Most people live their day at the risk of losing only money or their time. A Soldier lives his day to ready to lose his life. Do you really want to distract him? If you do, then you are a murderer. That goes for spouses that want to divorce service members in theater.

I've seen the people that have been "distance abused." Spouses and significant others don't relate to what the Soldier is going through. They want the text message, phone calls, digital pictures, letters, and hell some probably even want sky writing. They think that just because it is available, then the Soldier should jump through every hoop there is to meet their expectations.

Scenario: Female wants to talk at 6:00 pm because that is when she gets off work. Okay, now add eight time zones, and it's 2:00 am Iraq time. The Soldier may have to wait 30 minutes to an hour to get on the computer because of the lines, the people that refuse to get off them, the net going down, the MWR getting mortared, or the net being so damn slow that you can't get to your email in the time allotted. All just to hear about how you are doing fine and you have "met a lot of nice people at work." The other popular conversation is about money. One person is spending more than another. I'm here to tell you folks, living in the desert isn't cheap. Everybody and their brother wants you to send them something Hajji-ish. You buy DVDs to pass the time. You buy your own food so you don't have to walk a mile to the DEFAC when you come off mission. You buy your own gear because the old gear sucks, is inadequate, or breaks.

So I have done a lot of bitching. I am just trying to put a fine point on these comics, because they are true. And you can retract and pull back and say, "I never would have thought" or "Who would do such a thing" but the fact is it does happen. And it happens a lot. Personally I think if you take out the IMs and go back to getting a letter once every three months, people would be grateful for that. People really need to ease up on Soldiers and let them do their jobs. Killing people is what Soldiers do. Very simple. Let Uncle Sam have his killers. And when he is done being a Soldier he can come back and be whatever it is that you want him to be.

So let me boil it down. You don't want your husband to be a killer when he is with you. So why would you want him to be a husband when he is supposed to be a killer. Because if he is, then he won't be for long. The only thing he will be is filling for an aluminum box.

BLOODY, BUT UNBOWED |

BLOODY, BUT UNBOWED
Posting date: 10/8/06
Name
:  Michael Fay
Stationed in: Washington, D.C.
Hometown: Fredericksburg, VA
Milblog url: http://mdfay.blogspot.com
E-mail: mdfay@mail2world.com

At the moment I'm working on a series of portraits of Marines currently undergoing intense medical care and rehabilitation. These images are the result of visits back in mid-August to both Bethesda and Walter Reed hospitals. The project, as it has evolved, will result in four portraits, each depicting a different type of wound. Hopefully they will round out the comprehensive combat art collection exhibit that will grace the grand opening of the National Museum of the Marine Corps.

Sgt_herman Sergeant Todd Herman, USMC

Our first day was spent at Bethesda, and Sergeant Herman was the Marine NCO-in-charge conducting the morning formation. He quickly organized the guys willing to be sketched and photographed, and identified a quiet well lit space to use as a make-shift studio. Sergeant Herman has been enduring almost two years of multiple facial reconstruction surgeries.

We couldn't have crossed paths with a more fearless individual. I remember studying his face as I was doing my initial "you guys are still in the fight and we want to capture your experiences" orientation speech. What really, in hindsight, drew my eye to him was his eyes and the light that rose up in them as I did my little mission brief. This NCO clued in and went to work immediately implementing a plan to accomplish my commander's intent.

In the final analysis what made our trip a success was the fearless and unvarnished emotional availability of these Marines. Sergeant Herman instinctively knew that the history of the War on Terrorism was now written in the bold and unmistakable scars on his face and head, and was unashamed. Let me also go so far as to say that in these scars (which he wryly assured us has not interfered with his romantic life) are writ great words of hope and glad promise for all Americans. At the end of the day our nation, despite the ephemerality and expedience that seem to permeate present times, still produces Sergeant Hermans... folks imbued with timeless values, courage and endurance.

Herman is the personification of William Ernest Henley's poem Invictus:

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

PLEASE, DON'T INSULT ME |

PLEASE, DON'T INSULT ME
Posting date: 10/8/06
Name
: Army Girl
Stationed in: Afghanistan
Milblog url: http://desertphoenix.blogspot.com/

There's something that's been weighing on my mind recently. On my way back from leave, in the airport in Atlanta, the airlines directed me towards the VIP section, where they check your bags and send you through the metal detectors. I picked an off-time to go through the line to the gates and found myself the only soldier among a great number of business travelers. A gentleman next to me asked me a few questions about where I was going, and if I was regular Army or Reserve. I answered his questions but made it a point to let him know that I had volunteered for this tour and I wasn't one of the Reserve soldiers he had to feel sympathetic towards. I didn't get called up. I chose to go.

He thanked me a few times for my service and I said the inadequate "Thank you" over and over again. After the seconds began to creep by in slow motion, the line finally began to move. The man reached out his hand and said, "At least let me buy your last dinner before you go back." A million things went through my head. I really wanted to be alone and not talk to anyone. I didn't want to answer any questions and I was worried that he may have ulterior motives. Was he a reporter? Was he hitting on me? Was he just curious about the state of affairs in AF?

I shook his hand, and in his palm I felt paper. I looked down and saw that he'd given me $10. I attempted to explain profusely that I couldn't accept his money, and that I was very flattered but I just couldn't allow him to do that. He kept telling me to take it, and finally said, "Please, don't insult me…" and walked away.

I felt humiliated and embarrassed. I wasn't there for charity. I don't serve in the military to get freebies. I know my face turned bright red and I just kept my head down after that. I walked to the train, and scanned the crowd for him. I saw him amidst the other passengers but didn't want to confront him again in front of a group of people. The train was packed. He got off at the terminal before mine, and as he walked off the train he said, "Come back to us, safe and sound. Take care of yourself, soldier."

Moments later, I searched for my gate and found the nearest ladies' room. I pulled the bill out of my pocket and saw that it was not $10. It was a $100 bill. My mouth dropped. I could not believe that man had given me $100! I certainly didn't need that much for dinner at the airport! I was overcome with a sense of shame and wonder. Ashamed that I still had the money and wasn't able to give it back, and yet I wondered why, who and what the heck?!

So I still have the $100. Today, I spoke with the JAG office (Judge Advocate General) and they told me to document the incident and I would be okay. I'm going to do that, then donate the money to the Army Emergency Relief Fund. It's an organization that assists soldiers and their families in time of need. I wish I could keep it forever because of what it symbolizes to me. But I know it will be worth more as food on a soldier's table or diapers for an Army baby. I've never had to use AER funds, but I know of soldiers who have.


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