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.


November 17, 2006

Name: CAPT Lee Kelley
Posting date: 11/17/06
Returned from: Iraq
Hometown: Salt Lake City, UT
Milblog url:

A year ago, there was no running water on my base. It was just a pile of dirt and debris, with a few old buildings here and there. Some of the buildings may have been nice once upon a time. I hear they used to be part of an agricultural college. But now they are nothing more than dirty, sand-bag-covered husks which we try to make feel like home. When the Engineers dug the place in, they pulled up the bones of many bodies buried during the Saddam era and before.

The topology of this base is a perfect xeriscape (a
trademarked term for a landscaping method that employs drought-resistant plants to conserve resources, especially water). There are not many trees. The horizon in all directions is a brown smudge where sky meets the curvature of the earth. A base not that far from here is quite lush and green all around, but we live in a true dust bowl, with nothing more than a few palm trees and weeds fighting for the water below the surface. Photosynthesis has slowed to a crawl, evolution is taking a break in the shade, and the palm trees are all in a state of shock.

Driving around on the roads creates a lot of dust. Thus, we have a dust-abatement program, as you might find in a small town in rural Kansas. Decent water is a scarce resource, so you don't see trucks spraying water on the roads very often. But you do see them occasionally. Another answer to dust is gravel. Cover as much dirt as you can with gravel and you reduce the dust. We’re not just talking about a little dust here -- we're talking brown stuff the consistency of talcum powder, all over everything.

Some genius who preceded us had a grand idea. He decided to use all the oil they collected from vehicle oil changes for dust abatement. They sprayed it all over. Since we are close to the confluence of two rivers (though we can’t use that water), the water table is not far below the surface, and when it rains the ground is quick to turn muddy. Now it's also saturated with petroleum products. This makes for very sticky and persistent mud, I can assure you.

As you walk, rocks and mud cling to your boots and you grow a few inches taller until you can get to some wood or concrete or a grated surface with which to scrape the mud off. But of course you never get it all off, so it ends up in your office, in your hooch, in the gym, and in the chow hall. In the morning, there is oil-based black mud everywhere. As the sun heats up the ground, it's dry and dusty once again. I've always associated the word "dust" with the word "detritus", which Merriam-Webster defines as "a product of disintegration, destruction, or wearing away."

As we walk across this ancient land as soldiers, the detritus of temples long before fallen and the dust of cultures long ago extinct clings to the soles of our boots. It’s symbolic that in some form or another -- through the grinding of stones by the elements, the upheaval of the earth by man's weapons, and the powerful erosion wind and rain inflict on a desert -- the dust of the ages is still our dust.

Death and life recycle. When our bullets sink into the earth, they become part of that detritus, a relic that thousands of years from now some child will pull from the ground and hold up to the sun and then carry around in his pocket. As our blood and the blood of our enemy seeps into the soil, we make a communion with some of the richest history in the realm of mankind. Our footsteps kick up the dust of old, our weapons disturb the ghosts of ancient tombs, and our blood becomes part and parcel of this land.

Long after American forces have departed, we will be embodied in the heart and soul of this frightening and awe-inspiring place. Our blood will dry and become "a product of disintegration, destruction, or wearing away," as the cycle of  life continues, and time marches on, and the people of Iraq begin to pen their own modern history books. I wonder if the minds that read about us in those books will fill with resentment or appreciation at the dust we left behind.


Your reflections on dust are haunting and exquisite.The phrase "dust to dust" comes to mind.May a cool oasis be your reward when the dust settles.

There are very few people who could take the topic "dust" and make it sing but you stand tall among that select group.

An elegiac reflection on the inexorable march of history. You take a simple description and zoom out to give a very broad perspective. Thank you.

If I may suggest, the Herald Journal in Logan, Utah sometimes prints short essays . Here is the email address of the publisher. Bruce Smith I think your work is worthy of larger circulation. Who would have thought dust could be such a poignant topic?

I appreciate the "long view" you have...finding yourself in a time and place and seeing it as a point on the continuum.

One of the things that bothers me is the loss (to put it euphemistically) of the libraries, museums and artifacts for the very reason that it was evidence of the others who had come before. Sure, it is evidence of how ephemeral we all are, but it was still more than dust.

Thanks for your wonderful writing.

Be well.

Thank you for the interesting essay. It was good to read your thoughts.

A lot of people on this website write about boredom and desolate bases. Yet I have never seen any mention of gardening. That is what I would do if I had a lot of time and lived in a barren place. Are you allowed by poolicy to plant trees, vegetables, etc? Or does the climate prohibit this?

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