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.


October 18, 2006

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.


Just remember guilt is not owned by you alone. The person is thanking you probably, because they have their own guilt to deal with. You are a hero, a returning hero from a war that the other person did not sign up for. I feel a tremendous amount of guilt and embarrassment, uneasiness whenever I see one of you guys in uniform. But I've come to understand that we all have our own path in life. Mine led me on to graduate school, and motherhood of three little hell raisers. I stand before a returning soldier full of apprehension, because I did not serve. But also full of gratitude, because you did. I also stand in anticipation and curiosity, because my oldest son, whose 11, has a destiny waiting in the military. That's all he wants to do or be. I am terrified for him, but he has his mind made up. His father and both grandfathers were in the military, so I am destined to be a military mom. I didn't sign up for that, either, but He has to follow his heart. So next time someone says thank you for serving, please try not to feel too guilty. Those of us who are not serving are truly, honestly thankful, and filled with guilt, too.

When I was reading what you wrote I couldn't help but realize that everything you were describing is exactly how I (and I’m sure many other people) have felt when we see you guys (and girls) who have served our country and all we have to offer you is a "Thank You" and a smile. You fought for our lives, sacrificed more than we could probably ever understand and our comments are a very small token of how much we appreciate it. It doesn't matter what your job was when you were there or what you feel you did or did not accomplish the fact that you were sacrificing your life to help save mine and many others lives means more than you could ever know! I'm just grateful that there are people like you who have the courage and heart to go fight for our country! The next time you get those feelings of embarrassment or guilt just remember that the person who approached you is probably feeling the same way and for good reason because most of them (including myself) aren’t half the hero you are regardless of whether or not you feel like one!

I think Anne and Kasey just about covered it...THANKS.

This is a war that many of us strongly opposed. But, now we are there. You went there and you did your job. No one knows how this will all turn out in the end. But you have nothing to regret or feel guilty about. The people who should be feeling guilty are the ones who started this mess. I am just very happy that you came home safe. You and all your fellow soldiers have my grateful thanks.

Your perspective was very illuminating to me. I am so angry and frustrated about the neocons who got us into this war. However, my anger about those guys does not extend to the people like you who are on the ground in Iraq. I suspect that many (maybe some) of the folks who speak to you have similar thoughts but do not want that anger to be transferred to folks like you as it did during Vietnam. Please do not feel embarrassed and fully accept and appreciate the thanks coming from those of who never have experienced your situation.

When I see a soldier at the Airport I get a pang of guilt. I joined the Army in 1975, went to Germany and had a great time traveling Europe. Yeah, we trained hard and spent lots of time in the field during exercises, but we never really experienced the hardships our soldiers and their families are suffering now. Most of my NCO's had come up thought the ranks in 'Nam and I heard the stories of what they went through. But we never thanked them for their service. It just didn't occur to us, that we should be thankful for the men and women who serve in our Armed Forces, especially those who are put in harms way. Today America is going out of its' way to thank our soldiers, and that's a good thing. No one should feel guilty. They should simply feel proud that Americans have come to appreciate the sacrifice that soldiers make our our behalf.

Just by saying you feel guilty when people say "Thank you for serving our country" shows that you are indeed a true soldier who has long ago realized that only death is a sacrifice for serving, everything else is duty. Or in other words, "Just doing my job."

So let me interpret what "Thank you for serving our country" means.

It means I feel helpless to stop the insanity. I feel helpless to convince our government to bring you all home. I feel helpless when I see articles about vets who have PTSD or who are amputees that I want to help, but have no way or means to do so. I feel that as a citizen, there should be some way I can I can impart to you how selfless, brave, dutiful and heroic you appear to me. I want to tell you how great it is to see one of you in uniform, instead of just a picture in the news. I want to tell you that I hope you haven't been hurt physically or emothionally by the war, but am too afraid to ask because of feeling inadequate to help you if you have. I want to tell you that everything you have done will be recognized and supported or rewarded by our government, but I know it won’t be. And I want to tell you how happy I am that you are alive, and I am praying that you stay that way.

But all I can do is say “Thank you for serving our country”, and feeling like an idiot because I realize it doesn’t impart anything of what I am feeling. However, I am so eternally glad I got to say it.

After seeing The Ground Truth , I'm just thankful for every one we can bring back alive and in one piece. The other side of that coin is how sorry I am for every one we lose to our war. With the warring factions escalating their operations, and with no apparent attainable military goal left for us, I am really hoping we can get our soldiers and the inevitable hordes of Iraq refugees out of there.

My son came home from Iraq healthy and whole as one can be when one has seen what you have all seen. For that I am thankful for you. For the job that you do. I also feel guilty for all those whose sons and daughters haven't come home and won't come home. I feel guilty because all I can do is to send a few cookies and maybe some silly string to lighten the long days away from home. I can't know how this affects you and the way you feel about yourself or the world. You can't know how this war affects those of us at home. We long to be more. More help, more supportive, more active politically. Just more so that you have the leisure to be less if you choose. WE worry even when you are not ours to worry over and we pray that you will come home safely. We weep when you don't. We thank you because we care. We want you to know you are not alone unless you choose to be. From me to you. . . Thank you.

thank you for opening my eyes to what seemed like a harmless enough way to greet you. I had no idea as to how much those words could seem so bothersome to you. I have found this Sandbox site such addictive reading. A better understanding of how tense and emotional time it really is.
From now on I will say to you , God bless and keep you safe...

Why do you think you ahve to come up with some snazzy response?
A nod in reply will be good enough for any decent person.

The rest can go to hell.

Sir, as the wife of a serving WO in the Sand, I can only say thank you. Your job kept our friends safer.


I was coming back from Vietnam, and it was 1971 and a woman with daughter and husband stopped by my seat on the airplane and thanked me for serving our country. I was speechless, she had no idea and I didn't think there was anyone in America that cared about my service. I have always wished that I had said "thank you for your kindness", that moment was engraved in my mind deeper than most of the days I spent in Vietnam. Someone took the time to reach out and try to touch me, a stranger, and I didn't know how to gently touch back.

Just say:" Your Welcome and Thank You for saying so" That makes them feel like part of your team, and we are all on the same team.

Bob Baker
Vietnam 1971-73

In March 1991, shortly after the Gulf War ended, I stopped at a McDonalds to grab some lunch. I was in the Guard then but hadn't been in one of the units called up for service. I happened to be in uniform and as the guy at the counter handed me the bag he told me that it was "on the house, no charge." I was flabergasted and tried to hand him the money explaining that I hadn't served and was just doing a drill. He refused to take the money and thanked me for serving. I was embarrased to receive this token of appreciation when I had done nothing to earn it but I knew that if I protested further I would only embarass him and spoil his spontaneous gesture of support for guys I knew who had been on the line. I took the meal and thanked him walking out of the resturant shaking my head in disbelief. I'd been on campus when Cambodia was invaded and I remember being an object of ridicule in ROTC.

Bottom line I felt I accepted this gesture of gratitude for all my buddies in uniform who might never have gotten a thank you or a word of appreciation. I did the best I could that day to sustain the human connection and honor the debt someone else felt. It wasn't about me at all.

Thanks for everything you and so many others have done.

From one vet to another, I know what you mean. Remember one thing, you are home and you are a survivor. Live your life like you are living it for those who didn't come home. Keeping the demons at bay takes some time and a lot of patience, this I know first hand.
We both know what the true definition of courage is.
Courage is not being fearless but realizing something is more important than fear.
Welcome home and thank you for being a warrior and coming home safe.

Thank you for this post and thank you for serving our country. The funny thing is when I see someone in uniform I never know what to say. I want to say thank you but I also want to say I am so sorry that you had to do things in my name that you may have not wanted to. I am sorry that our country has given you this job to do, I am greatful that you are there to do it. So if I see you and I say thank you please know that I don't expect any special answer from you, I just want you to know that beyond words I am greatful to you. I will think good thoughts for you and your family. Peace, Kim

You should feel honored when someone thanks you. Being a soldier myself, these people come up to you because they are proud of the mission you and your soldiers have accomplished. You have not only successfully deployed your unit and bought them back safely, you have trained your teams to save present and future lives; No matter where you are in Iraq, Afganistan, Bosnia or in our own country the USA.

My Hats to you EOD guys and gals - you are heros.

Proudly say thank you if not on your behalf for your soldiers. HOOOAHHH

I thought maybe I was alone in feeling as you when someone says "Thank you for your service." There are few who know that I was in Vietnam and it's something that I really, really do not like to talk about. But, twice in the last month, people have said "thank you for your service" to me. Like you, my reply was quiet and mumbled yet I felt embarassed by it. I did what I was asked to do, not unlike a couple million other guys. Nothing I did was extraordinary or what I considered to be particularly brave or courageous. I survived. The small solice I have rests on the belief that by fighting to survive, in some small way I helped the guy on my right and my left survive and come home.

I, as many of our members, understand what you are feeling. I belong to a group called the Patriot Guard Riders. We are of many walks of life with just one simple thing in common. We care. We started coming together cause some ---- started protesting at fallen heroes funerals. We will not stand for that.

We provide non violent protection for the families by providing a wall of American flags between the misguided and the family. We started as a few and have now grown to over 60,000 in only 10 months. Now that we have shut down this group, we still provide escort/honor guard service and welcome home greetings....Some of us have traveled over 400 miles in bad weather to do what we do. We escorted one young Marine from San Diego Ca. to Stockton Ca. with over 200 motorcyclist. Please check out our web site we have many ways of helping people returning home. You or any of your fellow troops can contact us for any reason.

Anyway, enough about us. We do not need a response when we welcome you home. We are there for you. I often find that tears, hand shakes and hugs are the call of the day for even the biggest and toughest amongst us. To us, every one of you is a hero.

I just found this web site and will pass it on to fellow members. You will probably start hearing a lot more about us.

I wish you well.

Brian Hopper
Regional Ride Captain, Patriot Guard Rider's Sac, Ca.
V.P. Dist. 6 American Legion Rider's, Sac, Ca.

In addition to 'thank-you' and "welcome home," I'd want an apolegy for not fulfilling the obligation a citizen has to keep a close watch on its' politicians. Wasn't it Ronald Reagan that said "trust, but verify" ?

"Welcome home" and "Thank you!" And you don't have to reply anything at all. That's for us back here at home to figure out. We will, eventually.

You volunteered for something that you believed in, and which you knew up front could be dangerous. I did not.

No matter what you did or did not do during your service, I owe you gratitude for the courageous choice you made.

As someone suggested a nod of your head is sufficient to the greeting, Thank you for serving. Those of us of an age are mindful that our Vietnam vets were SPIT upon when they came home from war, and that sort of thing is unthinkable now. Some of us are greatful for your service and also mindful of the thanklessness of it. I personally haven't been able to thank a serviceman in uniform, but my heartfelt thoughts go out to them anyway. Be strong. People are wishing you and your family well.

Here is what "Thank You" to you means to me.

I can wake up every day,(and not be scared) go downstairs and make my coffee and come back upstairs to my computer and sit and look out the window at what a beautiful, peaceful day it's going to be. (and not be scared) I can see the leaves changing colors as the season changes, I can take my dogs for a walk (and not be scared), I can drive over and play with my grandchildren (and not be scared), I can go to the grocery store (and not be scared), I can do whatever I want (and not be scared) and that's all because of men and women like yourself who have gone off to fight this war to keep us safe here at home. The words "thank you" may seem small but they are big words to me. And I want to Thank You for something else...I have a son currently serving in Iraq who is EOD. Thank you for keeping him safe over there. Every day I write to him and at the end of my letter I always say "THANK YOU" to you and everyone". So a big THANK YOU for allowing us over here to do what others only dream about. Gods Speed and I am also Thankful that you are home safe and sound.

I'd like to "Thank you, too", EOD Officer!
My son joined the Army at the age of 21. For over two years the Army trained him as one of their elite EOD's. He has been in Taji, Iraq for three and a half months. He has been blown up, mortared and shot at. Yes, Dad worries every waking hour about him. Other than occasional emails, my first person to person conversation with him was yesterday.
To back up some and relate to what EOD Officer has written and relate to it. His sister and I went to his graduation from Basic at Ft Leonard Wood. After the graduation ceremony he was allowed to spend time with his family. He and I went in search for him a new pair of running shoes at the local shopping mall. As we were just entering the mall, a lady walking toward us looked straight at my son and went out of her way to get his attention. She stopped him and thanked him for everything he was doing, for being a soldier. Just as you, EOD Officer, he didn't know how to take it. I guess he was thinking he hadn't done anything yet to deserve such treatment. A comment he made to me as we walked on was that he hated that. I sure he didn't mean it that way, just that she must have embarrassed him. I stopped him and tried to explain that it wasn't necessarily him, the person she was thanking, but the uniform he was wearing and what it represented. Needless to say, Dad's chest swelled with pride when I heard her words. Since then, any time he has ventured home on leave and I have to guess even off base, he has worn his civilian clothes. I told him, just last night in an email that the innocent young man that drove away from my home after his last visit before deployment, would never return. I let him know that, as EOD Officer eluded to, having to piece together the aftermath of what's left after a IED has exploded, seeing the carnage and death that goes along with it, he will never be the same person that I said "good by" to that dreaded day. I went on to explain that he is now much of a man, a veteran soldier and a highly skilled warrior that I am so very, very proud of.

When I am thanked for my service I respond with, It was not always with pleasure, but it was always with honor.

It is ok to feel guilty. It is ok to not know what to say. It is perfectly understandable and normal to feel awkward when someone sends praise. We are taught to be humble, serve without complaint, or expectations of reward. It really is normal to feel guilty about the bros that you left behind and are still serving. It is understandable to feel guilty about the ones that did not make it back. Of course now you feel that you could have done more, but at the time you probably did. You may carry these feelings for the rest of your life, or time and some circumstance may bring you peace. There is nothing wrong with an awkward silent response. If you can just consider not feeling bad or judging yourself for not knowing what to say. You have earned this measure of peace, but if you can’t, that’s OK too.

Try this. You know how to serve God, country, corp. Now you have a chance to serve civilians. There is not much the non-vet can do other than vote to change the politics of war or say ‘thanks’. When you acknowledge the thank you, you include those that did not serve in the larger group called America. So a simple smile and ‘your welcome’ will have an impact and make the person offering you the acknowledgement also feel a bit less guilty for not being a part of the sacrifice you made. This doesn’t resolve your mixed feelings but you could consider this a form of state side service.

Please don't let the guilt get to you; get help for coping with it. You do not deserve to suffer further for what our government has asked of you. Your guilt will not bring back your friends and peers who didn't get to come home. Be good to yourself and learn to enjoy your life again, b/c it is a precious gift, and so are you. I know about survivor guilt, and it is hell on wheels. It will kill you sure as a bullet will, maybe more slowly, but it's death still stings and stinks and robs others of the love that you were meant to bring to them. Aloha

Survivors guilt can kill you. My Dad did his thing in one too many places and 'Nam was the place that crushed him. I have had coworkers, one of whom was found in a Korean mudfield buried beneath the bodies of his platoon, who led crippled lives because of survivors' guilt.

You are blessed. No more nor less than those who did not come home breathing in a seat instead of still beneath a flag. Blessed. Live the blessings you have. To do less is to cheat those who came home in boxes.

As to what to say to those who thank you, most of whom have no idea what they are thanking you for, just say "Thanks" and keep on walking. You carry enough for now without carrying their baggage.

No matter what, to me, you are a hero. Please accept my thanks for standing in the sand with my own son.....and all your brothers. This deployment choice was not made by you, it was made by your government, you are simply doing what you were raised to do....the right thing. You have honored your committment and that is all anyone could ever ask of you. God Speed

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