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.

EMBEDDED TRAINING TEAMS |

November 30, 2006

EMBEDDED TRAINING TEAMS
Name: CAPT Doug Traversa
Posting date: 11/30/06
Stationed in: Kabul, Afghanistan
Hometown: Tullahoma, TN
Milblog url: http://traversa.typepad.com
Email: traversa@gmail.af.mail


I’ve never taken the time to explain, in detail, what our actual tasking is while we are in Afghanistan. So in 1000 words or less, here is why we were sent to Afghanistan. My fellow Airmen and I stationed at Camp Phoenix and Camp Eggers are Embedded Training Teams, or ETTs, which means we are embedded with the Afghan National Army (ANA). Our job is to "mentor" our ANA counterparts, in an effort to rebuild the ANA and make it self-sufficient  Unfortunately, there is no textbook, no regulation, no course we can attend, on how exactly we are supposed to do this. As you may imagine, this makes our jobs challenging, exciting, and frustrating, all mixed together with a large serving of the unknown.

Even though "mentoring" is poorly defined, we do have a plan of attack. I work with fourteen other Airmen at the Central Movement Agency, the only transportation unit for the ANA. Our job is to make sure CMA can run convoys throughout the country and maintain their vehicles properly. We oversee the maintenance shops, and train the ANA on proper maintenance procedures and record keeping. We also oversee convoy operations, and train drivers until we can get the ANA to start their own training. Maj Apple and I work with the Commander and his staff, trying to teach everything from the importance of wearing the uniform properly to trusting NCOs with more responsibilities. The most basic principles of our military are strange new concepts here.

The challenges are many, and not quite what you might expect. First, we are Airmen lent to the US Army for a year, working with a foreign army. You can find many Air Force and Navy personnel taking on traditionally Army roles, as we help to relieve the Army of some of its taskings. Fighting two wars simultaneously has stretched the Army too much, and we are helping to relieve some of the pressure. But that means we need to learn how the Army does things, and then try to teach the ANA the "Army Way" to operate.

Secondly, we have to adapt to life in a nation torn apart by war. Afghanistan is one of the poorest nations in the world. Even the capital, Kabul, only has electricity a few hours a day. Military installations must have their own generators for electricity. Roads are in terrible shape, and as winter approaches, we swear we can see potholes getting bigger each day. There are no traffic laws, no driver's licenses (well, none that anyone really cares about), no lanes, and no traffic lights. We share the roads with pedestrians, bicycles, donkey carts, and herds of goats and sheep. The water isn't safe to drink, the air is polluted, and many people have tuberculosis. Poverty is everywhere.

The ANA is being rebuilt from the ground up, and many officers have been demoted from ranks they held in previous armies.This leads to the unusual sight of captains and majors wearing colonel rank, as they refuse to wear the lower rank. It's been a long battle getting everyone to wear their uniforms properly, to clean their buildings, to wash their hands. Nothing is easy here.

There are some major religious impacts here too. For instance, for a month at the beginning of fall, they celebrate Ramazan. During this time, Muslims may not eat or drink during the day. So during this month, the only meaningful work that gets done is done before noon. After that, the work day is pretty much over. Observant Muslims pray five times a day, and must perform a ritual washing beforehand. This means the lunch break is 90 minutes, to allow for both the meal and the prayer.

The importance of our interpreters cannot be overstated. They risk their lives even working with us, as the Taliban have placed a price on their heads. They keep their true occupations secret from friends, family, and neighbors. They have become our friends and partners in our task, and also educate us daily on the many facets of Afghan life. It would be impossible to be here without them.

The ride back and forth to work is always a little worrisome, as Kabul has had a fair share of suicide bombers lately. You might imagine that we drive around in tanks or armored cars. You’d be wrong. Still, it is a very interesting job, despite the risks. We are the fortunate few who get to go out and experience Afghan life every day. This immersion into a truly alien culture has been a great experience for me. It also looks like one that more and more Air Force personnel will get to have. This is a totally different Air Force than the one I joined 18 years ago. Never in my wildest imaginings did I think I might end up in an Army position, embedded with the Afghan Army. In an Infinite Universe, anything is possible.

REST IN PEACE |

November 29, 2006

REST IN PEACE
Name: Grunt MP
Posting date: 11/29/2006
Stationed in: Southern Afghanistan
Hometown: Western Massachusetts
Email: gruntmp31a@hotmail.com

Saturday night I got a phone call from my team chief. He was calling to see if we were okay. They were in a blackout down there (no calls out, no internet) because someone had been KIA (killed in action) and they didn't know who it was. Yesterday morning we heard that it was a USSF (Special Forces) that was KIA up near TK, one of the Forward Operating Bases up north in Oruzgan. I didn't think much of it because I hadn't worked with any of the teams from TK, so I didn't feel directly connected. Well, last night I found out that it wasn't an SF soldier that was killed, it was an ETT (Embedded Training Team). That changed the whole picture for me, because I know at least one ETT at each of the FOBs up in Oruzgan. I couldn't find out who it was through the channels that were open to me last night, but I was able to confirm that it was an ETT. A little uneasy, with a desire for morning to come so I could make some calls and shoot off some emails to get some info, I went to bed. 

I got up and started making phone calls. I didn't get ahold of anyone until a little after 8am. The person I talked to couldn't remember the soldier's name, but he thought he was a 2LT, he was from Utah and he was a big ol' boy. This last statement was the first jab in a series that in a very short time would end with a KO punch I already knew was coming when it hit. I kept making calls. Dex came into the internet cafe and sat down next to me, and I told him what I had heard.  He said he had gotten a call last night and been told it was a 2LT from Utah and he was 35. Two hard shots, a cross and a hook. Now I knew, goddammit I knew, but I didn't want to know.

My phone rang and I saw who it was. He was calling me back to let me know what I already knew. Before the bearer of the news said anything, I asked, "Hey Sir, was it 2LT Lundell, Scott Lundell?"

"Yeah."

"Thanks sir, I went to Officer Candidate School with him and I was with him up at DR. Thanks."

"I'm sorry."

"Thanks, sir. Bye." 

I closed out the windows on the computer and walked out of the cafe, trying to get up off the canvas. So what do you do when you find out you're now in another club, a club you knew one day you would become part of, but not a club you look forward to becoming to a part of -- the one of Combat Veterans who lose a personal friend in a firefight. At first I kind of walked in a shocked, saddened state. Then I called some people that I love and are close to me, because I just need to tell someone and talk, but once I get them on the phone I realize that what I need is to just be alone and cry. I pull up some pics off my external hard drive with Scott in them and watch the last video I made up, as Tycz and I go into Scott's room while he's on the computer and we have a witty little exchange. Then I stop the video and just cry and want to kick a hole in the sky and drag Scott's soul out of heaven or wherever he may be and put him back here on earth so he can go home to his wife and children. But I can't, I know I can't.

I remember the last conversation he and I had. It was the morning I left DR. We sat in his room and talked about how we both felt that the approaches being taken to Afghanistan and Iraq were wrong, lacked military might and resolve and were overly concerned with public/international image. We left that conversation open-ended, with the intent of picking it up again sometime in the future. It will remain open for eternity. Scott was one of the few people who was on the level with me when it came to my view of our nation's inability to properly conduct military actions, and the undue danger it puts the lives of US soldiers in. I've been trying through a couple different channels to find out, for my own peace of mind, what exactly happened. I have yet to get any details. What I do know is that he was wounded by small arms fire, it took some time to recover him and medevac him, and he ended up succumbing to his wounds while at TK, where they were working on him. What I also know is that he's gone and I will miss him. 

I'm up off the canvas. I've had a pretty good day, considering. Scott's been on my mind a lot, as would be expected. He had a lot of heart. He was built pretty similar to me, but on a 6'4" frame, so I am pretty sure that whatever wounds he suffered they knocked him out of the fight and he probably wasn't conscious from the time he got hit until the time he passed. I decided to connect with whoever I could from my OCS class, so I sent out an email to the addresses I had, to confirm the intended recipients were correct. I'm still getting confirmation from that email. Once I get a few more I'm going to let them know what happened to Scott. As far as I know he is the first soldier from my OCS class to be KIA. I  am still raw on some level. Writing this email has brought tears to my eyes, but the reality is I still have six months and some change left here, so my head is back in the game and I'm ready to roll out whenever we go next. 

Interestingly, even this series of unfortunate events has not led me to hate my enemies. I might have more of a desire to hunt, kill and destroy them then I did before, but I won't let myself begin to hate them. I fear that if I allow myself to hate them I wouldn't be far from beginning to hate all Afghans, and I am too intelligent and honorable to fall into that trap. But I will say that when the chance does arise to kill some of the fighters that are affiliates of the fighters that killed Scott, I'm going to engage and destroy as many as I can. Will it bring Scott back? No. But it will serve two purposes. The more of them I kill, the fewer of them there are shooting at me. And in my head, heart and soul, every one of them I drop is a message that for every one you take from me I will take ten or twenty or as many more of you as I can. It's about settling up. They took a brother from me. That doesn't and won't go unanswered. One thing is for sure though; I won't allow myself to get so wrapped up in settling up that I make tactically unsound decisions that will put me at any unneccessary risk. Given the chance, I will pick my fights wisely and at the time of my choosing, so I can maxmize the damage I inflict upon my enemy while minimizing the risk to my soldiers and myself. Well, I'm sorry that this has devolved into an angry rant, but that's part of it I guess...

Rest In Peace Scott Lundell
KIA 25NOV06 Tarin Kowt Disrtict,
Oruzgan Province, Afghanistan
A Brother In Arms, Who is Loved and Missed
The Debt Will Not Go Unpaid
I Love You, I hope it was painless.
"Follow Me"

SLOW MOTION LADDER |

November 28, 2006

SLOW MOTION LADDER
Name: CAPT Lee Kelley
Posting date: 11/28/06
Returned from: Iraq
Hometown: Salt Lake City
Milblog url: http://wordsmithatwar.blog-city.com
Email: wordsmith16@excite.com

We recently had a problem with one of our satellite dishes. Since I am in charge of communications, my section was responsible for troubleshooting the system. In the end, it took one of my NCOs, SGT M, to painstakingly move the dish 1/8 of an inch to the right and left every thirty seconds for almost two hours to get a signal lock. But his patience paid off. Now he’s the local satellite repairman.

But I digress. Recently our CNN reception was out, and MSG R and I decided to do some troubleshooting by examining the setup of an identical dish that was known to be working in another building.
 It had been a long day, and it was now 2200. We walked across the road in darkness to our Headquarters, a small two-story building such as you might find at a community college, except every single last window is covered with sandbags, there are bunkers and fighting positions on the roof, and dirt and grime and dust everywhere.

We went into the offices downstairs and borrowed a flashlight from the Sergeant on duty. We joked around with him a little, in the way one might joke with the car repairman, and told him we’d be on his roof for a minute. To get up there, you have to go up the stairs in the middle of the building, follow the open-air walkway around to the rear corner, then climb up a homemade 2x4 ladder to the roof.

It was very dark. I climbed up first and pulled myself onto the roof, and MSG R followed. It’s disconcerting to be up there, because you’re close to the wire and you know there is a highway and some empty houses and buildings nearby. Your mind has a way of imagining snipers in every window, mortar men in every darkened lot.

We checked the dish, the wiring, the hardware, and made our assessment. We looked around for just a minute from that vantage point: a glow from the burn pit on the other side of the FOB, HMMWV lights cutting through the dust as someone came off shift, red and blue flashlights bobbing up and down as people ran a few miles in the relative coolness of the night.

MSG R was halfway down the ladder, and I was still standing on the roof when BOOM! A mortar fired by the enemy landed just outside the wire near the highway. You never know if there will be more impacts, so everything goes into slow motion. MSG R turned and looked at what I had already seen: a yellow-orange explosion lighting up the darkness that was way too close for comfort. My height above the ground, the lit-up desert, the sound of the explosion, my reflexes, and the distinct misfortune that I was standing on a rooftop in Iraq all were assimilated into one movement -- a crouch.

I looked down and MSG R froze on the ladder for a millisecond. He gave me a questioning look that said, “Should I keep going down the ladder or get back up there and take cover?”

“Go, dude, go!” I yelled, still crouching down behind a lip of concrete.

He did. I waited another few moments, and then scurried down the ladder myself. We stuck to the cover of the concrete walls of the building and made our way back downstairs. By this time, the big guns were shooting back at the enemy.

A small cluster of soldiers was standing outside under cover and asking, “Incoming or outgoing?” Sometimes it is hard to tell.

MSG R said “Oh, trust me, it was incoming, we were up on the roof.”

You could hear the retort of our powerful artillery guns fire. It made you want to cheer, and in fact some did, to hear the actual projectile whistle overhead. And then a large explosion as our rounds impacted in the area the insurgents had fired from.

It’s a sad day when men wish death upon other men, but that is the nature of war. Men put aside some measure of empathy when we are being shot at. Not all empathy, but some. You hear the rounds explode and you hope that they kill whoever just tried to kill you.

This is not the Civil War. They don’t want you to see the whites of their eyes. They will never organize a thousand men in the desert and sound a horn and march up to our FOB to fight us, bugles blaring, Iraqi flags and headscarves whipping smartly in the desert wind. Instead, men in sandals will wake up at a pre-determined time and drive to a pre-determined location to drop a few rounds in a tube and run off into the night. It’s akin to leaving your pole in the water and walking away from it. You’re not actively fishing anymore -- feeling the pull of the waves on your line, the snags that might be nibbles, the big fish, the fight to get him in the boat –- you’re just passively trolling for a catch, like these cowards who pray to Allah before they launch each mortar aimed to kill an American.

So we fixed our satellite and got back to watching CNN. It’s a lifeline to home, a portal to a day when we can sit on our own couches and watch the news and judge it according to our own beliefs. Sometimes we see images of soldiers in Iraq projected on the international news, and when we hear some of the stories we think, “These people have no idea…”

And some nights, when we least expect it, mortality strikes our consciences like lightning electrocuting the endless Middle Eastern sky.

WHEN MATT GETS HOME |

WHEN MATT GETS HOME
Name: CAPT Matt Smenos
Posting date: 11/28/06
Stationed in: Afghanistan
Hometown: Santa Maria, CA
Email: msmenos@hotmail.com

When Matt gets home...things are gonna happen.

When Matt gets home...it’s gonna be great.

When Matt gets home...we’ll all be happy.

When Matt gets home, Matt’s kids are going to shout and imagine and play. They’ll hug their mom and tell her secrets. They’ll never let anyone tell them they’re not good enough.

When Matt gets home, Matt’s wife will forget the past, live in the now and see what a bright future lies in wait for her. When Matt gets home, he’ll go anywhere she goes. 

When Matt gets home, Matt’s mom will sit down, take a breather, have a cocktail (or five), have a laugh and enjoy herself and her success. Matt’s mom will stop and look at the palm-tree majesty and white-sand dreamland she has earned. She’ll realize everything is gonna be okay.

When Matt gets home, Matt’s dad will unfurl his sails, put on his sunglasses and ride the waves with his son. Matt’s dad will lean on his mast and crack a beer. He’ll sip it and survey the clear, blue majesty of his world, once only a dream expressed in trinkets and tacky wallpaper. Matt’s dad will be content to be a pirate a few hundred years too late. Matt’s dad will watch his sun set on the ocean.

When Matt gets home, Matt’s brother will keep doing what he’s doing. Matt’s brother will keep kicking ass, living his dreams and being Matt’s hero.

When Matt gets home, Matt’s friends will party like rock stars. From the wine tour to Megan’s floor they’ll be in celebration. They’ll smile, and invite each other to lunch and fight over the check. They’ll sneak out the turnstyle at 8:47 for coffee. They’ll decide, together, that this place has too many damned stairs and all take the elevator. They’ll be cool. They’ll realize that sometimes, just sometimes, every now and then, things truly happen for a reason, and a bunch of people in drab buildings become more than just individuals. They become full-color, moving pieces in a divine plan that helps a man get up in the morning. They’ll realize that some days just don’t start until he hears their voices. They’ll realize how unbelievable they are, and that no matter what happens, he’ll never forget them.

When Matt gets home, Matt’s co-workers will realize that the rockets will launch anyway, eventually. When Matt gets home, maybe they’ll clock out just a little bit early once in a while.

When Matt get’s home...it’ll all finally happen.

Want Matt’s advice?

Don’t wait for Matt....

(NOT SO) MAGNIFICENT DESOLATION |

November 27, 2006

(NOT SO) MAGNIFICENT DESOLATION
Name: Teflon Don
Posting date: 11/27/06
Stationed in: Ramadi, Iraq
Milblog url: acutepolitics.blogspot.com

Today was bleak. The temperature hovered near 55 degrees all day, and dipped down to 40 with the sunset. "Sunset" is a terrible word to describe it -- today was windy, and the recent lack of rain gave the breeze an abundance of fine dust to toss about like some mockery of snow. The sky was grey and hazy, and faded down into a greyish hue of tan as it dropped to meet the horizon. The sun didn't so much set as slowly disappear into the miasma. I never knew I would describe a sunset as regretful, but that's how it seemed to me today. Before the sun was ready to go, the wind grabbed him and dragged him down, stretching tentacles of dust across his face. At the last, just before he finally submitted, he was pale and grey like the world underneath him. More like the moon, and not at all brilliant, glorious, and full of color, as a sunset should be.

If the sky was dreary and grim today, the city was worse. The divorce of color from the sky betrayed even the piles of rubble of their former character. Nothing moved among the gaunt shells of buildings, save a few tatters of refuse lifted by the breeze. Not even the prowling packs of dogs ventured out of whatever holes they call home. As I stood and looked about, a gust caught the ash from my cigarette and tossed it away. The fire quickly dimmed, and a few more specks of grey drifted down to meet Iraq.

JINGLE TRUCKS |

JINGLE TRUCKS
Name: CAPT Doug Traversa
Posting date: 11/27/06
Stationed in: Kabul, Afghanistan
Hometown: Tullahoma, TN
Milblog url: http://traversa.typepad.com
Email
: traversa@gimail.af.mail

One of the first things that struck me about Afghanistan, besides the stunning levels of poverty I saw everywhere, were the glo
riously colorful trucks I saw everywhere. The style of the art reminded me of India, and they had many chains with pendants hanging from the bumpers. I would soon learn that these were called "jingle trucks". I did not immediately learn why, but I spent many days trying to get good photos of them.Jingle5 We are never allowed out of our vehicles unless we are on a base, and jingle trucks never seem to come on base, photos must be taken from inside our moving vehicle. Despite these difficulties, I managed to get some clear pictures.

The most striking thing about the artwork is that it depicts beautiful landscapes, usually with woods, grass, lakes, rivers, and many exotic animals. There are often beautiful cottages or new, modern buildings. All of this is done in bright colors; no pastels here. The poignancy is that the artwork depicts everything these people will probably never experience. The area of Afghanistan I've seen is uniformly brown and  trees are rare, and grass almost non-existent. The only animals I ever see are endless flocks of sheep and mangy dogs. Jingle trucks are the only bright color in an otherwise drab landscape, expressing the hopes of all for a land of beauty they can only dream of.

I finally had a chance to learn the secret of why they are called "jingle trucks" when one came onto the Afghan Army base where I work. It was parked, but there was a good breeze blowing, and I heard wind chimes. It was the chains and pendants hanging from the front bumper. This had to be the answer; surely the jingle referred to the music from the pendants! But I had to nail it down, so I took my interpreter Hamid with me to find the driver, and asked him why they hung all the pendants from the bumper. Was it for the music, or for decoration? He shrugged and said, "Who knows? Both, probably." So much for an authoritative answer. Of course, it's not really important. I just appreciate seeing them. I never tire of looking at them as we head to work or back home. They are my favorite works of art, living testaments to the hopes of a people beaten down for over 25 years. And to think, they pay me to be here!

THE GREAT BLOG SCARE |

November 24, 2006

THE GREAT BLOG SCARE
Name: Tadpole
Posting date: 11/24/06
Stationed in
: Afghanistan
Milblog url: armysailor.com

I have been reading reports about a 10-man Virginia National Guard team that has been stood up to keep track of blogs, and that the DoD is going to start looking more carefully at blogs. I've noticed a lot of military bloggers seem to be a bit worried. Some have even gone so far as to voluntarily shut down their blogs. This sort of self-censorship scares me. It should scare you too. Don't get me wrong, I certainly understand the need to maintain OPSEC. I carefully review my posts to ensure they don't violate any OPSEC guidelines. The last thing I want to do is aid the enemy. However, it strikes me that the DoD may be making a huge mistake by putting enough of a scare in military bloggers to cause some to silence themselves.

The "War on Terror" is not very popular these days. When it does make the news (which doesn't seem to be often), it's usually bad news. Those of us serving on the front lines are much more likely to draw a more realistic picture of what is going on, and are more likely to highlight the positive things we are doing. Every reporter has an agenda. Soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines do not. We only want to share our stories. If anything, I think the DoD should be encouraging Military Bloggers.

The civilian news media loves to over-emphasize deaths, and negative news. Gore sells. But it does not tell the whole story. Now don't get me wrong, I do not mean to belittle the deaths of American GIs. No one is more appalled than I am by the fact that on average we lose one soldier every nine hours. However, if we are to draw an accurate picture of the war, we must also talk about the good things those soldiers are doing. The civilian news media tends not to mention the schools we build, the medical missions we conduct, the clinics we build, the training we give the local populace, the roads we build, the promise of a better future we bring. Our positive efforts in Afghanistan can not succeed unless we have the complete support of the civilian community at home, and we can not reasonably expect to get that support if the only news they hear is negative.

The fact remains that every Major News Outlet in the United States has a political agenda. Their stories are tainted by that agenda. I have an agenda also. Mine is to let the people know the truth, as best I can. I will promise this much: If I am asked to change or remove an article due to an OPSEC violation, I will. However, I will not be silenced, and I most certainly will not voluntarily shut down my blog. Our story must be told, and it must be told in a manner commensurate with the sacrifices we make daily.

MAHN |

November 23, 2006

MAHN
Name: CAPT Matt Smenos
Posting date: 11/23/06
Stationed in: Afghanistan
Hometown: Santa Maria, CA
Email:
msmenos@hotmail.com

Sun-dried brick ramparts and soaring, silver parapets signaled a neck-craning, awe-striking terminus to our dusty, rattling convoy as we rumbled through the gated arches of Kayer Khot castle. A relic of the 19th-century British occupation, this megalithic fortification is actually very simple in design; a few mighty walls and towers lined with gangways and stairs, weather-beaten fighting positions and airy look-out posts, facing defiantly over the seemingly infinite leagues of barren hills and plains. As we passed into a large courtyard, a few gray-clad envoys from the local garrison jogged up to meet us. My breath caught in my throat as I noticed the burnished amber-golds and rich autumn reds of the leaves on trees, the like of which I’d been sorely missing for months on end. The vegetation and fall colors reminded me so much of  home that I soon found myself sitting alone in a cold, parked humvee, stunned, mouth agape.

I was hardly unhappy to find myself alone, as my companion on the two-hour ride from our base had been one particularly gregarious guardsman. He had been, according to his story, to every special-forces school, every kind of combat training and fought in so many battles that it would take far longer than a two-hour humvee ride to relate. But he did his best, to the accompaniment of a bored-silly Air Force Captain banging his helmet against the window in misery.

Left alone with my trees in the blowhard-less silence, I stepped out of the cramped gun-truck and walked toward a low-hanging tree branch. Eyes fixed on the spectacular sight of sunlight diffused through a natural pallet of color, I reverently approached the stand of trees, tripped…and fell on my face. As I threw around in the soft dirt to find the culprit of my calamity, I locked stares with the small, round face of a boy in the dirt beside me. Skinny, with dark hair and eyes, this little guy tried to gather his simple brown shift and straighten his cap while he beamed at me with a huge smile, too rich for such a poor nation. I think I smiled back at him, some stupid grin like a half-drawn squiggle on a dirty piece of paper.

As I dragged myself back up, checking my various pouches and clips, his eyes darted around at the scraps of paper and trash he’d no doubt dropped when the huge, tan man had stepped on him. I tried to kneel down and help, but he was too quick. In a flash, he was on his feet again. With a trained eye and a sure foot he bolted around, retrieving the bits caught by the breeze, scooping and jamming the mess back into a torn plastic bag. As he completed his rapid retrieval, he stopped dead, looked up at me -- there was that smile again -- and snapped me a heroic little salute. I was about to return it when we were interrupted.

“Hey! Wee-Mahn…Get back to work!" I was startled by the close proximity of the sudden shout. The boy jumped and his smile faded from his face. “Welcome to ‘KK', Cap. I see you ‘found’ the help.” I turned to see an old comrade walking quickly toward us. I looked back to the where the boy had stood, but he'd vanished. This young sergeant had worked with me for a few months at another base before being relocated to Kayer Khot as an instructor. He is a good man, in my opinion, and had impressed me. We had spoken frequently, and he really seemed to care about the mission and our responsibility to help the Afghans help themselves. He had a gruff manner, and shared a certain rustic, “old-school” attitude about foreign cultures. Unlike others, who might let that attitude affect their behavior, he had a kind-hearted and surprisingly patient keel when dealing with our counterparts.

We shook hands and exchanged pleasantries, and he led me towards the local garrison’s operations center, a worn but well-appointed white structure. It was simple, square, reminiscent of an old-fashioned, one-room school house. He told me how much happier he was at KK, and that he really felt good about the progress he’d seen in his troops. Ever bored with shop-talk, I asked about the boy.

“He’s a good kid," he said, holding the door for me as we entered the ops center.

“Is he Pashtoun?  From a local tribe?” I asked as I gulped a bottle of water.

“Who knows?  I don’t even try to tell them apart.  He and his brother came with their father, who helps us with carpentry and odd-jobs.”

“What’s the boy’s name?  Or do you just call him ‘Wee-Mahn’ all the time, like the movie,” I joked, recognizing the Austin Powers reference.

“Kind of, his name actually is Mahn.” The door squeaked on its hinges and the room was suddenly filled with voices as the survey party filed in. Civilian engineers and self-important senior officer types faked gusty laughter and patted each other's backs and began dragging chairs around tables. They were discussing grid locations, elevation, local water supply, access routes and personnel housing facilities. Apparently some high-toned and fancy to-do would be on its way to this poor, innocent castle in the coming months. I liked it the way it was. I took a seat by the window and waited for an opportunity to sneak out. The young sergeant was called away to answer some "critical planning question" about colonels’ parking spaces and whether there was room for a water fridge and a soda fridge. Could we improve upon the volleyball court?  It all sounded way above my pay-grade. And my tolerance. After about an hour, I mumbled something about a toilet and slipped out of the door. 

It was somewhat warmer this far south of my usual base. I caught a glimpse of Mahn, tirelessly hauling plastic bags of trash around the camp. I could still make out the big grin on his grimy face. I wondered if he’d been working like this the entire time since we’d arrived.

The presence of trees combined with the absence of Colonels made the day even more inviting. I took a walk along the inside of one of the huge castle walls. I knew I was wrong to judge my companions so harshly. They had the best intentions, and really did strive to accomplish what they considered great undertakings to improve this nation. I just never agreed with the priorities. Unfortunately, middle-management doesn’t  come with consular veto authority or anything like that, so I frequently wandered off rather than lose another debate. They just seemed so singularly focused on improving the surface phenomena, like worrying about the paint job on a car that doesn’t run. I always felt we should start smaller, focus on fundamentals.

My dramatic reflection was interrupted by an echo of laughter. Behind me, Mahn and another boy, whom I took to be his brother, were following me. Hands shoved in imaginary pockets, heads leaning forward -- a perfect mimic of my "melancholy musings" pose. They were so amused with themselves that they couldn’t help laughing at one another. The laughter turned to playful pushing and eventually they were rolling on the ground in one of the most entertaining battles this ancient fortress had likely ever seen. Their faux-mockery was very funny. It was as if they were telling me not to worry about them. They knew what needed to be done, and although they were just "the help", their voice would count for something someday. I waved to them, and they saluted me again before scooping up their trash bags and running off.

Another hour found me back in the humvee (thankfully, with a new driving companion). My driver and I tested our radios with each other and with our gunner before giving the thumbs-up to the lead vehicle. As we rolled out through the giant walls one last time, all of our gazes lingered on the colorful trees in the court-yard. I looked around for Mahn or his brother but they were nowhere to be seen. As we turned back onto the main road, my driver commented that it was nice to see that the seasons still change in this country. I kept thinking that I couldn’t agree more.

RUSSIANS ARE STEALING MY UNDERWEAR |

November 22, 2006

RUSSIANS ARE STEALING MY UNDERWEAR
Name: SGT "Roy Batty"
Posting date: 11/22/06
Stationed in: Baghdad, Iraq
Hometown: Yellow Springs, Ohio

The day after we got hit with our first roadside bomb I slept all day, the deep, dreamless, womblike sleep of the truly exhausted. I woke up about five in the afternoon, blinking at the Tibetan prayer flags hanging off the bottom of the bunk above me, not sure of where I was, and not really wanting to find out. Eventually I decided I would go off in search of my missing underwear.

I have been convinced for some time that Russians are stealing it. No, this is not some paranoid delusion left over from the Cold War. Our little base is brimming with Estonians, Latvians, Ukrainians, and various other representatives of struggling and unpronouncable post-Soviet nations. They work for Ecolog, the company that runs our laundry facilities, and they usually do an awesome job. You turn in your laundry bags, brimming with toxic greasy clothes, and in 24 hours you get them back, miraculously cleaned, folded, and safely ensconsed in plastic. It's even free.

The problem is, like any tactical gear fanatic, almost everything I own is made by Underarmour. For tough physical work in environments with temperatures that approach that of the surface of the sun, nothing is better. Even if it will melt to your skin when exposed to ultra-high temperatures, like that created by an RPG blasting white hot metal through the cramped confines of your inadequately-armored HMMWV. Underarmour is not issued by the Army, which means I have to buy it myself, and it is not cheap.

I've suspected for a while that someone has been pilfering mine from my laundry. I never seem to have as many pairs as I should, despite the fact that I keep buying them during their furtive, random appearances at the PX. About a week ago I got three duffel bags back from whatever limbo they had been languishing in for the past month, ever since we had loaded them up into a bulging conex in Ba'quouba so we wouldn't have as much luggage to drag along when we flew to Baghdad. A month in a giant metal box in the middle of the Iraqi desert, crammed in with 500 other duffel bags -- you can imagine the condition of my clothes. It probably didn't help that they were not exactly clean when I sealed them in.

So I dropped off three bulging bags of potential biohazard to the grim Estonian behind the desk, and deftly collected the receipts when he flung them at me. I got back two of the bags, but the third, coincidentally full of about 200 bucks worth of Underarmour, was nowhere to be found. Nor was it found the next day, or the day after that, or the one after that. A week and a half later, still nothing.

Having braved the oversized bottle-rocket served to us by the Mahdi Army the previous night, I now felt that perhaps I had enough experience to tackle the proletariat masses of the base laundry, and off I went. After 20 minutes of the usual runaround ("What yer number?", "What ko-ler yer bag?") I was ordered by a squat Slav to go around the side of the building and enter the dreaded Yellow Door. In the past I had seen distraught unfortunates enter this portal never to be seen again, no doubt doomed to a life of forced slavery starching prison jumpsuits in some Gulag chamber.

Stepping through the door with trepidation, I was greeted by a surreal scene. Hundreds of tiny European washers and dryers, stacked on top of each other, lined the walls of the warehouse. For some inexplicable reason, every appliance was festooned with blank yellow Post-it notes. Massive alien blue-and-white electrical connections, fresh from the set of Metropolis, hung down from the roof top, great trunks of white cable disappearing into the rows of washers. Massive piles of laundry in gray net bags choked the aisles, spilled from boxes, filled the stairs at the back, and were piled in canvas carts that looked like they were made from the shrouds of dead sailors. An unseen radio, set at a ridiculously high volume, blared insanely-fast balalaika and clarinet music, accompanied by the indescribable wailing of an Eastern European and/or Arabic woman. A veritable army of pastel-t-shirt-clad Russian guys, each with an 80s-style haircut and identical five o'clock shadow, were throwing pieces of clothing back and forth to each other, while older, fatter, and more unshaven men in the corners folded t-shirts on rough, wooden tables. As if on cue, everyone stopped what they were doing and stared at me.

I did not know if I would be loudly greeted as a long lost comrade and force fed vodka, or if I was about to be shanked for the pack of cigarettes in my hand. A very short and rather large black woman waddled up to me. I had seen her before, working at the turn-in window, and she always had a nice smile and something pleasant to say. These are rare and wonderful qualities, seldom found in Military Land, and I had tried my best to be as charming in return, fortunately. She was the only American in this place, and seemed rather glad to see me. I was certainly relieved to see her and I told her of my plight. She turned and led me further into the bowels of the warehouse, and the sea of unshaven Latvians parted before her like a school of sardines making way for large, slow-moving shark.

B.J., as she turned out to be named, led me to back to the inner sanctum of the sprawling depot, the Star Chamber of the laundry world, where the oldest and most austere members of Ecolog filed faded tickets while chewing on the tattered remains of wax-paper-wrapped Siberian cigarettes. The shortest, roundest, hairiest member of this Council of Elders centered himself in front of us, blocking the aisle.

Lately I have been reading Gary Shteyngart's The Russian Debutante's Handbook, a hilarious book set in Prague during the 1990s. Without a doubt, and I now found myself faced with the character known as "The Groundhog". BJ explained my predicament and The Groundhog moved past us, showing no discernible evidence of having heard her, nor acknowledging that we were present in any way. Repeated explanations failed to engender any response more than a barely audible grunt from around his bedraggled, unlit cigar stub. I got the feeling that The Groundhog knew exactly what had befallen my unmentionables, and was less than happy that their legitimate owner had finally come looking for them. Perhaps if he just ignored the Amerikanski long enough, the dilemma would simply disappear.

Eventually, even BJ gave up. We retired to her office, where she explained to me the ways of her world, while checking her email. The Laundry Kommissars never keep any of the items they find in the clothes, even large dollar bills, except for one thing. Pogs. Pogs are paper money that the PX issues for change. Turns out it is too costly to ship actual metal pennies, dimes and quarters from the States to Iraq, so they issue cardboard change instead. The pogs are only usable here in theater, at the AAFES facilities. None of the soldiers ever give them much regard.

Except, apparently, for the Kommissars. They collect them, then turn them in to the PX and have them cashed out -- $80, $100, and more at a time. And what do they buy?  Underarmour underwear. For their kids. Back in Estonia, or Latvia, or Bosnia, or some other ia.

I sat in the air-conditioned office, watching the secret Russian Mafia Underwear Army churning through its machine-like motions on the other side of the plexiglass windows. Stunned. Lord only knew where my skivvies were, or what indescribable fate had actually befallen them.

After a while, some up-and-coming midlevel Ecolog supervisor arrived. His meteroic rise to power was reflected in his hip and with-it dress -- a long dangly silver earring and cutting-edge Cheap Trick t-shirt. He had now hauled in the unfortunate clerk who had taken my complaint in the first place, and started questioning the poor guy, at first in English for my and BJ's sake, but quickly reverting to some indecipherable Baltic sub-dialect, the volume and tone of which quickly grew louder and more unpleasant. Bad vibes.

I glimpsed The Groundhog through the windows, scuttling off behind the washing machines, casting a furtive glance at the office. Was that the slightest smirk on the corners of his tobacco-flecked lips? Behind the scent of fabric softener, I smelled a coverup.

"Guys, guys," I said, standing up, putting my hands on their shoulders, "it is not big deal." Have you ever noticed that when speaking to people that speak pidgin English, there is a tendency to speak it right back to them, in the same accent? "Last night, they try blow me up, big bomb. This just underwear. No big deal. I just happy to live. Okay?"

Big smile from the young, harassed clerk. Look of confused suspicion from the supervisor. Behind us, back turned to us, still absorbed in her email, BJ said "Amen to that."

I walked out of the office, waved goodbye through the plexiglass, and ventured off into the warehouse in search of an exit, hoping to avoid The Groundhog en route. Life is too damn short to get your knickers in a twist over this stuff. I'm sure you can wash Underarmour by hand.

ROUGH COUPLE OF DAYS |

November 21, 2006

ROUGH COUPLE OF DAYS
Name: A Nurse
Posting date: 11/21/06
Stationed in: A military hospital
Hometown: Illinois
Email: smknva@yahoo.com

This is the third time I have posted here. The two previous times I wrote about the wounded soldiers and marines and the care I have given them. Now I need to be selfish and write about me, as I have had a rough couple of days.

One of my favorite soldiers rolled out of the OR into the recovery room, screaming with anesthesia-induced flashbacks and in pain. I hurried over to his bedside to help the nurse assigned to him. As I approached he saw me, grabbed my hand and screamed for me to help him. Over and over he screamed my name followed by "Please help me" in a most agonized tone I will not soon forget. I had one of the other nurses call anesthesia, retrieve pain medications, and as we worked over and over we crooned to him that he was safe, he was in the hospital, he wasn't in Iraq, he was safe back in the U.S. All without avail, as he continued to scream, in the throes of memories I cannot even begin to fathom. He held my hand so tightly I thought surely every bone in it was crushed, but not once did I let go or try and pull away. Anesthesia arrived and they quickly took him back into the OR to work their magic with pain meds and anti-anxiety meds. I went up to his room after my shift was over to check on him and found him sleeping, with his wife holding his hand, and for that moment he was in peace.

The following day I returned to work, and since it was a weekend we were minimally staffed; myself and another nurse, with me in charge. Weekend days can be quiet or crazy busy, depending on the number of wounded flown in from Germany the night before. This particular day didn't look too bad; only four wounded needing surgery. The other nurse and I were speculating that it might be an easy day, with the patients coming out of the OR quickly and recovering quickly, thus enabling us to go home early. The things we hope for when working weekends!

As I was talking with my coworker the emergency alarm went off. This alarm is pushed by the OR staff when a patient goes into cardiac arrest and they need extra help. I quickly ran from the recovery room into the OR, and as I was passing the pre-op area (where patients wait prior to going into the OR room) I saw two other wounded soldiers on stretchers. They had these looks on their faces, part fear realizing it could be them, part resignation, that once again death tries to steal another. I decided to stay with them until someone from the OR came back, let my coworker know where I was if she needed me, and started chatting with these men. Benign stuff; where are you from, did you grow up there, do you have a family, what's your favorite football team, on and on we talked. When the OR nurse came back I told my new friends I'd see them when they were finished with surgery, and promised them a gourmet breakfast of juice and crackers. They laughed and told me they were looking forward to it.

As our day was coming to an end, one of the anesthesiologists walked in and I asked him what had happened. He explained to me that one of the ICU patients who had been flown in the previous night, critically injured, had tried extremely hard to die on the OR table.  He told me they had been able to resuscitate him, he was back in the ICU, and everyone had their fingers crossed. He then looked at me and said, "I ordered him to live, and like the good Marine he is, he followed orders." I wish it were all that easy. I wish they all listened when you ordered them not to die. 

Lately, I've been thinking about leaving this job. I even have interviews for other jobs. One night as I cried in the arms of my husband I asked him over and over again, "If I leave who will take care of my soldiers?" When I finally stopped sobbing he tilted my face up to his, kissed me on the forehead and said "Who will take care of you?" For as much as I give these men and women I see the toll it is taking on me, and I realize sometime soon I am going to have a decision to make.

THE RULES |

November 20, 2006

THE RULES
Name: CAPT Doug Traversa
Stationed in: Kabul, Afghanistan
Hometown: Tullahoma, TN
Milblog url: http://traversa.typepad.com
Email: traversa@gimail.af.mail

And now for something completely different. Here are some of the more austere rules of Camp Phoenix:

First of all, no alcohol is allowed here. This is not an issue to me, as I have never been drunk, and rarely drink wine, never mind hard liquor. So I couldn’t care less about the booze prohibition, but it wears on a lot of my compatriots.

Second, you always have to be in uniform, either the DCUs or the PT uniform. This is only an issue because our brand new PT uniforms do not include sweat shirts. All we have is a t-shirt and a running jacket. This is not going to cut it in the winter, so I suspect I’ll be wearing my uniform all the time once it gets really cold. This is annoying, but not a huge problem.

Third, sex is absolutely prohibited. Now before you all freak out, let me elaborate. I am not talking about adultery or fraternization, which are forbidden by the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Nor am I advocating for premarital sex. I am simply pointing out that we are at a base full of lonely men and women, many of them young and single. Couples do form. But men are not allowed to enter women’s quarters, and vice-versa. Sex is expressly prohibited in any form here. Yet the PX sells condoms and pregnancy kits. Hmmm. There must be other uses for these items.

Fourth, we can’t even have pets. While this is pretty far down on most people’s gripes, it hits me hard.

Finally, you can’t leave the base except for official business. There are no vacation opportunities, no sight-seeing, no nothing. You can’t go to a restaurant and have a nice meal. I can’t even go over to ISAF and play rugby anymore.

So you take people and put them in a combat environment, take away booze, sex, recreation, sight-seeing, good food, clean air, green grass, pets, and you have a recipe for misery. Despite this, the troops push on, getting the job done, and while there is certainly grumbling and complaining, things hold together pretty well. I think this aspect of what the troops go through is overlooked. It’s not just the combat, it’s the lack of much fun back at the base that is equally tough, yet we fight on.

Remember this next time you see troops coming home. Not only have they been through war, they’ve been through mind-numbing boredom. I see it in some of the men around me. It is vital to have something to do. Thanks goodness for my hobbies and my writing. I have been spending at least two hours a day, often more, on my writing, both blogging and e-mails. It has been my salvation here.

THE DANCE |

THE DANCE
Name: Tadpole
Posting date: 11/20/06
Stationed in: Afghanistan
Milblog url: armysailor.com

We finished building a school today. It is one of many schools we have built throughout Afghanistan. Locals come to the ribbon cutting, everyone seems very pleased. Next week, the Taliban will burn the school. A week or two later we will repair it. Such is the dance.

The Afghan people are stuck in a strange situation. On one hand are the Coalition Forces. We do good things, try to help them, and try to make their country a better place. Our ultimate goal is to see Afghanistan become a functional citizen of the global village. The people see the good we do, and most appreciate it. Most want more. However, I cannot blame those who would rather we weren't here. After all, if there were Afghan soldiers in the streets of Philadelphia I'd be pretty displeased, no matter how much good they might be doing. No one wants foreign fighters in their country.

On the other hand you have the Taliban. The Taliban are a bunch of brutish thugs who impose a quasi-religious oppression of the people. In the name of God they strip their own people of their personal freedoms. The harsh reality is that they don't do it for God, but rather to keep themselves in power. The very methods they use are contrary to the teachings of the Qur'an. The vast majority of Afghans do not seem to support the Taliban, at least not in their hearts, but are sometimes forced to show their support.

I have a somewhat unique perspective on the plight of the Afghan people, as I grew up poor and in the inner city. The Americans are like the police, and the Taliban are common thugs. The residents don't like the thugs, but dare not oppose them or stand up to them for fear of reprisals, and the police seem ineffective. The fact is that, for generations of Afghans who have never known a life better than the one they have, it is hard to understand that lasting change does not happen quickly. It is hard to ask a man who has not realized the dream of freedom to be willing to lay down his life for that dream.

It is a most perilous and delicate situation that this country finds itself in, one which must be approached with a great deal of care. What worries me is that the world (especially America) is distracted. High-ranking officials in the UK seem to be damning our efforts in Afghanistan to inevitable failure, and the Canadians are calling for a withdrawal of their forces...The United States republic (arguably an empire) of the early 21st century will be judged in history by the actions it takes right now. Let's hope that our citizens will pressure their representatives to make the right decisions.

DUST |

November 17, 2006

DUST
Name: CAPT Lee Kelley
Posting date: 11/17/06
Returned from: Iraq
Hometown: Salt Lake City, UT
Milblog url: http://www.wordsmithatwar.blog-city.com
Email: wordsmith16@excite.com

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.

FIRST AID CLASSES |

FIRST AID CLASSES
Name: SPC Ian Wolfe
Posting date: 11/17/06
Stationed in: Iraq
Hometown: Minneapolis, MN
Email: iwolfe11@msn.com

When we were first told we were going to be conducting first aid classes for the local Iraqi civilians we didn't quite know what to expect. We were not sure what they knew, who would be there, or if they would listen. Our team, Cpt. Monte Haddix from Cheyenne, Wyoming, Staff Sgt.Tracy French from Virginia, Minnesota, and myself, started researching and discussing things we could teach that would benefit the people in this area, which is very rural.
Although most of the local civilians could go to a hospital in An Nasiriyah, a lot of them don't, and they were getting infections and sicknesses that can be prevented by basic first aid techniques. We got our class together and went on our first mission.

Whether we were being naive or hopeful, we had originally expected women to attend. But for the first few classes only men showed up. We wanted to try to create a women's class, so we could at least teach them the first aid information we were teaching the men. After all, the women, we found out, do most of the care. One day we were at the house of a Sheik teaching a class, and another Sheik arrived who was a councilman for the district, so we raised the topic of  teaching the women of the village. This particular Sheik talked in great length about his plans to open a women's center to teach computers, English, and other subjects to women. We couldn't tell whether he was sincere or not, but we jumped at the opportunity to finally interact with the female population, and got to work developing a women's class.

Of course, only females could teach the class, so we enlisted the help of Sgt 1st Class Cassandra Houston, a medic from Charlie Company 134 BSB (Brigade Support Battalion), who is the NCOIC (Non-Commissioned Officer In Charge) for our Tactical Operations Center. She and staff Sgt. French decided to take some of what we were teaching the men, such as bleeding control, airway management, and other injury-related issues, and also focus more on care-related issues, such as burns, wound care, fever, hygiene, and illness. They also addressed some female-specific issues such as hygiene, infection, and preventive medicine. In each session they learn different things about what the women do for female-specific health issues, and what kinds of issues they have, and are constantly changing and adapting the classes.

In both men's and women's classes it has been difficult introducing certain topics that we were not sure how to approach. Prevention is very important and not something that is practiced in this culture as much. Every year there are many burn victims, mostly children. Trying to teach simple things like keeping the kids away from fire, and not using scolding water as a form of punishment, is a very tricky task. We don't want to insult them, or tell them they are wrong, but these are important things to help prevent major injuries to themselves and their children. One technique that seems to work well is telling them examples of what we see in America, such as home remedies, infections, and so on, and what we tell our American citizens. This makes it less of an accusation, or not as much like we are telling them that their culture is wrong, and gets through to them at the same time.

It has been very important to tell them we are not here to treat them or replace a doctor, we are teaching them tips and techniques they can use as prevention, what to do in an emergency before you get to a hospital, and when to seek higher medical care. The women's class has become a much talked about program, and been very well received by the community. Hopefully it will help decrease the amount of preventable injuries and illnesses, and improve the stature of women in this society. Both Staff Sgt. French and Sgt 1st Class Houston are involved in healthcare back home. They have brought a great deal of knowledge to the classes not only as healthcare professionals, but as women and mothers, and being able to teach the women's health class has been a highlight of their deployment. They feel that even if they only reach the younger girls, or only a few of the mothers, then it is all worth it.

JUST FOUND OUT |

November 16, 2006

JUST FOUND OUT
Name: C. Maloney
Posting date: 11/16/06
Husband: Deployed on float...somewhere
Hometown: Seattle, WA
Milblog url: http://corpsdjour.blogspot.com

I just found out about an hour ago that my husband's unit is being sent into Iraq. Not from the wives network, as promised, not from my husband, not from his commanders or his Gunny. I read it in the news online. I had a real rough day yesterday, hadn't heard from him in a bit, thought maybe he was on the move or there was some reason he wasn't calling. But then I got a wonderful 3:00 am wakeup call from him. I was just so elated to hear from him, to know he was still on friendly territory, to know for one day longer I didn't need to worry. My spirits were high coming into work this morning. I was going to concentrate and get the work done I've been too worried and distracted to do over the last few days. So I get in, I chat amiably with my boss, I boot up my computer, and I do the peripheral scan of military news and sites -- and there it is. I'm not sure why it's published on a public site when my husband wasn't allowed to tell me. I'm all  about OPSEC and take a conservative line on it, and don't understand why they've chosen to announce this. But, there it for the world to see: his unit is being sent to Iraq.

Now, again, I'm in a daze. It's not that it's a big surprise; it doesn't take a genius to figure out that a deployed Marine has a pretty darn high chance of going into Iraq. It's just giving up that last string of hope I've been clinging to that maybe, just maybe, this time he wouldn't have to go. It makes it awfully hard to concentrate on the spreadsheet in front of me. My head is foggy, my eyes are burning, my head is aching, my limbs are heavy. I've called every member of my family and not one has answered their phone. I couldn't muster up enough of whatever it is I needed to leave a message. Talking out loud sometimes makes me break. I don't want to call his family or anyone else who is involved in his deployment. I'd rather they don't know for another day or two. How do you shake something like this off? I know I have to, I know I've got to pour myself into my work, push aside that I don't know the whens or the hows or what he'll be doing there. I know I'll be okay, we've been through it before; we'll survive it again. But right now, this minute, I just feel the literal weight of this life on my shoulders. I just feel like everything is heavy.

A FEW CHOICE WORDS |

A FEW CHOICE WORDS
Name: Army Girl
Posting date: 11/16/06
Stationed in: Afghanistan
Milblog url: http://desertphoenix.blogspot.com

I would like to say a few choice words to some people back home who think it good form to send soldiers alcohol while they are on deployment. We're not talking about a couple of cans of Guinness, we're talking bottles of liquor: vodka, rum, whiskey. I realize that you're trying to be "understanding" and "cool" when you send that stuff, or are trying to help the soldiers unwind or relax. I realize that some people think that the soldier they're sending the alcohol to will be responsible about it, and not get themselves in trouble. But you have no idea. There are people here who are responsible about it, but there are some who are not. Let me tell you guilty people something: alcohol and loaded semi-automatic weapons do not mix. I'm furious about this. It is my soldiers' lives, my friends' lives, my comrades' lives, and my mother's daughter's life you are putting at risk.

So please stop making things more difficult for us here. We are guests of a country whose religion professes to not tolerate alcohol. We are here on a mission, in a combat zone, and need all of our faculties and clarity of thought at every moment. If drinking alcohol is not going to be allowed for all and done responsibly, then it shouldn't be done at all. Soldiers can lose their rank, their careers and possibly so much more.

I thank you in advance for having the intelligence and compassion to not send alcohol to deployed soldiers. Save it for when they get their boots on U.S. soil. Then, when you run into them celebrating being back safe and sound, you can buy them a couple rounds and send them home in a cab.

VBIEDS ALONG THE TIGRIS |

November 15, 2006

VBIEDS ALONG THE TIGRIS
Name: SGT "Roy Batty"
Posting date: 11/15/06
Stationed in: Baghdad, Iraq
Hometown: Yellow Springs, Ohio

The boring and dangerous checkpoint missions are behind us, and once again the infantry company returns to its original mission. We are happy to be free again, with the open Iraqi countryside waiting to be explored. Except today we are not going out into the scrubgrass desert, but instead are headed to Samarra, a Central Baghdad neighborhood. We are supposed to do the usual IP station assessment, followed by a joint patrol. It's a new area for us, and we're looking forward to some fresh scenery -- if fresh is the right word, given the odoriferous nature of downtown Baghdad.

My lil Droogies, as I call them a la Clockwork Orange, are rambunctious and full of spunk this morning, and we joke back and forth on the new intercom headsets, busting on each other as we drive. The day is crisp and blue, scrubbed clean by the rains that have started to become more frequent here as we move slowly into the Arabian winter. The temperature is in the low 80's, which feels like heaven after the rotisserie hell of the summer months.

We emerge from the blasted lands, driving through a small slum pockmarked with houses completely made out of scrap metal. Kids and dogs come running out of the shanties, the children dashing with their arms outstretched, thin voices shrill above the whine of the diesel engines, wailing for infidel candy. Sure enough, the gunner in the lead truck tosses handfuls of Jolly Ranchers to them as we speed by, and the kids dive into the dust to snatch up the treats. The dogs chase us, tails wagging ferociously, barking their heads off, bravely driving away the cumbersome metal monsters. Nix veers at one pooch that is a little too courageous, and it narrowly escapes becoming the next bloated carcass swelling in the sun on Airfield Road.

We careen onto Route Wild and head north, into the city, and the civilian traffic swerves and ducks around us, diving for the safety of the curb as they turn on their flashers. Nobody wants to get shot on this beautiful fall day. The city is its usual chaotic self -- crazy traffic, faded signs scrawled with Arabic script, shoppers choking the markets. I love working with this infantry company, since we get to go to all sorts of interesting places, not just the same useless checkpoints on Route Pluto. Today seems especially alive, and even the locals seem pretty content; not too many suspicious stares are thrown our way as we manuever into the heart of the city.

The traffic gets a little thicker, and we slow down as we approach a wide traffic circle, surrounded by multi-story buildings. A green park, dotted with palm trees, graces the center of the traffic circle, with a central podium that probably once held a statue of Saddam Hussein, but which is now empty in sort of anti-climatic way.

I notice a cluster of activity to our right, just around the corner of a building, and then I see blue-shirted Iraqi cops converging on the hubbub. First there are just a couple, and then more, and now they are running, a sure sign of something wrong, as IPs never move quickly. Our convoy inches forward, and I advise Cooper, my gunner, to keep an eye on the building. I crane my neck forward, watching the area through the dusty windshield of the HMMWV.

Something dark and twisted comes into view, laying in the middle of the street, which is dirtier and more cluttered than usual. It takes a second to figure it out, and I slowly realize that it is the engine block to a small car. Beyond it are a few twisted pieces of metal, apparently the frame of the vehicle. A small ambulance is just behind the wreckage, and local people are loading burnt, mangled bodies into it. As I take in the fact that I am looking at dead people, a metallic voice in my ear announces that we have wandered into the scene of a car bomb attack. Apparently it happened just minutes ago, even though none of us heard the explosion. Sometimes I hear them back at the barracks, usually in the early morning; a sudden, deep rumble as someone's apartment block goes up in flames.

I'm immediately concerned about the possibility of secondary VBIEDs (Vehicle Borne Improvised Explosive Devices), and ask the team leader of the point vehicle to move forward into the middle of the perimeter. I get back a sharp answer: "We are in the middle of the fucking perimeter". I look outside my window, and see that my door is a foot away from a big, 70s-style Cutlass sedan; a white and orange taxi cab. Some local guy is anxiously peering underneath it, and as I look at him, he turns his head and our eyes meet for a second. We are both thinking the same thing. I tell SGT Egan that while he might be in the middle of the fucking perimeter, but I am sitting next to a big fucking car and it is very uncool. He moves forward grudgingly.

The squad leader announces over the radio that our translator, Joey, is getting out to talk to the IPs to find out what happened. I get out too, ostensibly to pull security on him, but really because something inside, unspoken, urges me to get a closer look.

The ground is densely peppered with black metal fragments, burnt pieces of clothing, and as I squint at the asphalt I can see the occasional body part -- blackened, burnt, torn, but identifiably human, if you look at it long enough.

There is a strange feeling to this -- not of horror or terror or sadness, but quite the opposite. It feels normal. There are tiny pockets of grief or shock around the scene, but they seem incongruous, out of place, almost...inappropriate. Because boring old regular life continues in the middle of it.

A young girl, maybe 13 or 14, leans over a second floor railing and screams at the crowd below, gesturing frantically at something. She holds a dirty baby, and as I glance at her I see more children clustered around her smudged skirt, peeking out through the bars. Yet more kids appear out of the gloom of the apartment, and they line up, much like the village kids do when we make security stops in the desert. The children have blank looks on their faces, their mouths little round O's. Is that her parents being loaded roughly into the ambulance? I don't know. No one seems to pay any attention to her.

A policeman picks up a ragged bundle from the blackened street, and as I turn to look at something else it registers in my head what the package really is: a severed arm. A woman walks between two of our HMMWVs, pushing a baby stroller; one of those European types, all blue fabric and big double wheels. I look to make sure it really holds a baby (it does), and I note the look on her face -- the same level of interest you would have when you see that dish soap is on sale for a buck twenty five. She pops the stroller backwards for a second, clears the front wheels over the curb of the traffic circle, and continues on her way.

A young police officer across the circle slaps his hand across his face and wails, one arm outstretched towards the wreckage, and a comrade grabs him, holds him back for a second, and then they collapse together in the middle of the street. I can't hear his sobs, because of the wailing sirens. More ambulances are coming in.

An old man walks by, a foot away from the mangled engine block, carrying a bag of groceries. He barely glances at the scene, perhaps just once, just for a second. His face is normal, relaxed. How many of these has he seen?

The place is full of cops now, all waving their AK-47s, rushing around with great energy but no direction. A small fire truck arrives, and a black-clad fireman sprays the wreckage with an anemic stream of water. There are an uncomfortable number of men in civilian clothes clutching pistols, which makes me nervous until Joey stops a police lieutenant and we learn that they are detectives.

The lieutenant is pissed, and is also clutching a small black Glock. He yells angry words, curt orders, at some other officers nearby, but I can't see anyone react to them. Joey talks to him in Arabic, and he replies, loudly, venomously. I'm not really paying attention to them. I'm watching the rooftops and balconies for snipers.

I ask Joey if the neighborhood is Shia or Sunni. He asks the lieutenant, who stops and glares at me with intense eyes. He replies sharply; the neighbourhood is mixed, neither one or the other. He softens a bit as he talks, and then adds that this traffic circle is always crowded. Apparently whoever did this just wanted to kill as many people as they could. They didn't care who, or what sect they were, or where they came from. They just wanted the maximum amount of carnage.

Joey and the lieutenant go back to their conversation and I go back to watching the chaos, splitting my attention between watching for snipers and just looking. A policeman walks by me, his long blue shirt sleeves coated red up to the elbows with blood. I don't think he has realized this yet, and he marches by without glancing at me. Something tinkles as I brush against it with my foot, and I look down to see a scorched and scarred piece of metal. Some innard blown out of the car, and I look at it curiously for a minute, turning it back and forth with my boot. I can't tell what it is.

There is a flurry of activity off behind me, and I turn to look. Joey relays to me from the lieutenant that they think there are other VBIEDs in the area, and that someone has found a suspicious vehicle down one of the five streets that feed into the traffic circle. I point my rifle down the road and glass it with my sniper scope, but nothing looks out of place. A number of IPs get on their vehicle PA systems, and start shouting orders at the people down the road, telling them to back up.

If you want to shout frantic orders at people, Arabic is a pretty good choice. The guttural syllables sound really compelling, particularly when amped to deafening levels. The only better choice might be German. I have no idea what they are yelling, but it makes me want to move. People start going quickly, and the perimeter is pushed out further.

More coalition convoys arrive from other side streets, and they start strengthening the perimeter. Joey and the LT go back to their conversation. Apparently they know each other, or are related or something, because they start laughing, and they kiss each other on the cheek. They light up cigarettes and chatter away. The LT gives me a light. Three Arab women in traditional black robes walk past, the last one with her head tilted back, up to the sky. Her face is transfixed, eyes closed, mouth frozen open as she cries. The cigarette tastes good, reassuring. I drag on it heavily, exhaling smoke as she walks away.

Our squad leader decides it's time to go. There isn't much for us to do here. The other units have the perimeter. The bodies are loaded up and shipped out to wherever dead bodies go in Baghdad. Maybe we can go find the other VBIEDs, or maybe we get out of here before they show up. Anyway, we have a police station to get to.

Ten minutes later, we are sitting in the sun outside the Samarra IP station. We are eating fresh Iraqi bread and goat cheese, fetched for us by a bright-eyed Christian kid who speaks perfect English, taught to him for the past four years by the soldiers. Younger children cluster around the HMMWVs, begging for more Jolly Ranchers. The sun is warm on our faces; the bread is hot, straight out of the oven, flat, eye-shaped, traditional. I eat it hungrily, and think again of the policeman and his red-stained shirt sleeves.

Just another day in Baghdad, one which ends beautifully as we drive home through the Green Zone and out across a bridge over the Tigris.  The sun is setting over the water, and I hand my camera up to Cooper to take a snapshot. The water is flat and golden, and the bridge is high enough that I can't smell the sharp nasal punch of the raw sewage below.

I think for a second of the people who didn't live to see this sunset; people out playing with their kids on a balcony, or stepping out of the door to grab something from the store down the street. One second they were here, and the next they weren't. I think of fresh bread and an arm lying in the street, and I am glad for the company of my soldiers, next to me in the tight metal womb of our truck. We ride back to the FOB, smoking and joking, and it is good to still be alive.

TOMATO PLANTS |

TOMATO PLANTS
Name:  SPC Jami Gibbs
Posting date: 11/15/06
Returned from: Iraq
Milblog url: americanbabble.com
Email:
jami0821@gmail.com

I think my mind has definitely hit the "rough patch". I've never been one to know what depression is. Yes, I have always been moody. Yes, some people have described me as an "asshole" (I have no idea why I wrote that in quotations). But I have generally been a very pro-life person. I've always been able to see bad experiences as just something along life's journey. Lately, though, I've been starting to feel this very dark sinking dread. Not having any prior experience with the feeling, I suppose I can only associate it with depression.

I hate feeling sorry for myself. I've been letting myself get into a cycle of feeling self pity, then getting mad at myself for feeling pity, then getting upset that I'm angry that I'm feeling self pity, etc. etc. etc. I think after a week or so I realized that many other people in my unit are feeling the exact same way as I am. They are feeling trapped. They don't know what more to talk about. They can't find anything that will make them truly smile anymore. It's hard for me to describe the stir-crazy feeling because it tends to be so overwhelming.

A couple of weeks ago I noticed a little miracle. Underneath a bench surrounded by sand and concrete was a tomato plant. It was growing in seemingly barren ground. I was astounded. It was over a foot tall and had three little white blooms. I picked a leaf and smelled it, as if my eyes were deceiving me. The telltale aroma of tomato plant was overpowering. I pointed it out to my roommate later, and we stared at it for a minute together in awe.

The next week it wasn't there anymore. Some Iraqi laborers had come by and chopped it down. They were hired to come around our area and pick up trash and pick weeds and such. For some reason I felt a profound sadness for this stupid little plant. I told myself that it didn't really belong there in the first place. It had no place flourishing in this wasteland. And I convinced myself that it wouldn't have survived long in the 100 degree heat anyway. But as it turned out, it had a better chance of surviving mother nature than the hands of a laborer.

Sometimes it's all the little things adding up that have the biggest effect on us. But I'm still grateful that all I'm mourning are tomato plants. I hope it stays that way.

WORTH FIGHTING FOR |

November 14, 2006

WORTH FIGHTING FOR
Name: CAPT Doug Traversa
Posting date: 11/14/06
Stationed in: Kabul, Afghanistan
Hometown: Tullahoma, TN
Milblog url:
http://traversa.typepad.com
Email: traversa@gimail.af.mil

We have an AFN rock station over here called The Eagle. The motto for this station is "Music Worth Fighting For." This has to be about the most ridiculous, most insensitive, most "insert your favorite insult here" thing I have ever heard. I assure you, no one, not a single, solitary, 100% patriotic, red-white-and-blue American service man or woman is willing to fight for that radio station or its music. This trivializes both what we are really fighting for, as well as the deaths of all those who have paid the ultimate price. The only people (and I use the term loosely) who fight over music are the Taliban, and they fight to prevent music. Music worth fighting for? Who comes up with this stuff? Where’s my Excedrin? In fairness, I may be missing something here, but I don’t think so.

LATE-WATCH DUTY |

LATE-WATCH DUTY
Name: CAPT Matt Smenos
Posting date: 11/14/06
Stationed in: Afghanistan
Hometown: Santa Maria, CA
Email: msmenos@hotmail.com

I couldn't see the gravel in front of me, but I could hear my boots crunch over the small stones as I strode briskly to the motor pool. My hands shoved deep into my pockets, my breath trailing over my stocking cap like smoke, I was all bundled up for my first night on late-watch duty. I flicked on my flashlight as I turned down the row of parked Humvees, and passed two or three before I heard a grunt of effort to my right. There was my gunner for the evening's duty, struggling to lift a heavy, automatic weapon up on top of our vehicle. We said hello and I helped him hoist the weapon to its mounted position.

"Thank you, Sir.  Dang those things are heavy," he panted in the cold, and wiped a runny nose on his sleeve.

"No problem bud, that thing has to weigh as much as you do," I joked.

"Maybe so, but I'm still bigger than most of the Afghans," evidently I'd hit a Napoleon nerve.

I opened the driver-side door and turned over the engine. The Humvee roared to life before settling slowly into a chugging idle as I tested the lights and wipers. We prepped the truck in silence, counting water bottles, wiping the dip stick and scraping frost from the wind shield. As we finished up, my little partner uttered a curse and slapped his hip.

"Shoot, Sir, I forgot my nine," referring to his issued 9mm pistol. 

"You won't need it," I blew into my freezing hands, wanting to get the night started. "We have our rifles. Besides, you can't shoot very far with a pistol at night."

"I don't need it to shoot far," he grinned at me. The straggling whiskers of his thin, adolescent stubble reflected in my lamplight. 

As the sound of his foot-falls faded away, I reflected on that grin and the cocky message it was meant to send. I had worked a few shifts in the operations center with this young private and I knew he didn't trust our Afghan counterparts. In keeping with the mission of an embedded training team, every task accomplished by U.S. forces is matched or mirrored by an equal force of Afghan Army. Our guard duty tonight would be no exception. We would pull our "gun-truck" up beside a guarded position manned by Afghan infantry, and together we would stand guard as one team. Some people didn't trust the Afghans. Many soldiers feared they would turn on us or betray us. I think some of us were just afraid of what we didn't understand. I think my partner wanted his sidearm in defense against these fears. 

I was shivering by the time he returned. We climbed into the Humvee and drove out of the motor pool, pulled around onto the gravel road and rolled slowly towards the south gate, our assignment for the night. The evening was pitch black and moonless. The only light came from the stars that peeked out from between gray, cloudy layers. As we neared the guard tower, a line of black silhouettes became visible against the brown mud bricks of the Afghan wall. Lumpy shapes, taller and shorter, shivered and scratched and shuffled in a ragged formation as the Afghan Sergeant Major inspected their uniforms and weapons. I parked the gun truck on the assault ramp and told my gunner to keep a sharp eye. I climbed out and walked down to the formation of guards. As I neared the element, a thin shadow detached from the wall and walked quickly to my side, falling into step with me. 

"Singhay (a local greeting) Aresh, how are you my friend?" I extended my hand.

"I am well," came the faintly accented response spoken in perfect English. His cold, bony hand felt like a handful of twigs.

The tiny Afghan interpreter shivered violently in his trendy motorcycle jacket and white, silk scarf (interpreters do very well on the U.S. payroll). The very sight of him made me feel cold, though I was quite warm under layers of gortex and a thick coat of body armor.

The Sergeant Major called his guards to attention as I approached, and he and I shook hands. Aresh translated as I greeted each of the guards and asked them how they were. They seemed unmoved by the bitter cold. Though they shivered, they flashed bright smiles at me from dusky faces and black, bristling beards. They laughed and joked with me about my height (6'5"-ish, I tend to stand out) and blond hair. They poked fun at my shaved face and asked me why I couldn't grow a beard of my own. I laughed and had Aresh answer that my wife would kill me. As we finished up the meet and greet, I dismissed the guards to their stations and compared intelligence with the Sergeant Major. A short time later, well-informed and confident, Aresh and I returned to the truck. 

Aresh curled up in his oversized jacket and dozed off within the first hour. Despite the intense cold, the cat-like little guy seemed to be able to nap anywhere. My gunner and I talked into the night. We began with the obligatory, military "Where ya from?" I told him about Chicago, the suburbs, swim team, high school girls and college women, journalism, news writing, roommates, friends, music and keg parties, the happiest days of my life, graduation, ROTC and commissioning, marriage and divorce. I shared some stories from my time as a nuclear missile operator and how the cold nights in Afghanistan reminded me of Wyoming. I showed him pictures of the woman I met while there, fell in love with and married. He listened intently. He impressed me with his understanding of things and his depth. He asked me flattering questions and, like a gentleman, restrained his adjectives when describing how attractive he thought my wife was.   

He told me about his girlfriend and how they wanted to get married.  He told me about step-dads and abuse, a homeless mom who cashes his paychecks for him. He told me about good friends and bad influences and trouble with the law. He beamed about his truck, paid for in full, and how it had been his home for the months prior to his enlistment. The stories of how he missed his brother, estranged, whereabouts unknown, brought a cold mist to my already frigid eyes. The Army had become his home. He didn't understand a lot of the controversy or political debate. He lived for the stability. 

I was numb after he finished, but not from the cold. This young man had known so much pain. He had had so many trials by the age of twenty-one, while I struggled to remember what I ever complained about when I was that age. I tried to give him advice. My own words made me feel like an idiot. Hours later, I would realize that, in my desperate attempt to say something profound about marriage, I had quoted Howard Jones' "Everlasting Love." What a cheeseball. He rescued me from my awkwardness with a request to run to the bathroom.

I woke up Aresh to man the radio while I took over temporarily on the gun. Before long, Aresh and I were talking and again I was drawn in by a story of premature woe. Aresh came a rich family, but he had always been on his own. Fearing terrorism, the Taliban and fundamental values they did not share, Aresh's parents sent him to Pakistan, India and other nations to be educated. Though he lived among many secular, western and progressive cultures, he had never made many friends for fear of endangering his father and family. Any close relations he made had to be severed before he could return to Afghanistan, because the people he'd met had no place in his homeland. He wanted to see his country grow, but he had no faith in its leaders. He dreamed of moving away and getting married. He wanted a house and a car and a job away from war. But there was no escape. To leave he needed money, and the best job he could get was to be an interpreter. And once he'd joined with us, he'd made himself an enemy of the Taliban. So he made his home among the Afghan Army. A home beyond which there was nothing, or so he said. Having spent all of my 80s pop wisdom in my first conversation, I just sat and listened.

Our conversation ended abruptly as our gunner trotted back up and thanked me for watching his post. I nodded quietly and dropped down into the gravel. The three of us sat in silence looking out over the wall and up into the patchy, star-strewn sky. I couldn't get over the fact that, dark and light, foreign and domestic, American and Afghan, my two companions were basically a pair of skinny kids left out in the cold. They were so much alike.

Later on, after my watch, I dragged the heavy vest off of my numb body and rubbed my frozen muscles. I set my helmet on top of my locker, unlaced my boots and locked up my rifle. As I crawled into the welcome warmth of my sleeping bag, something hard and cold jabbed against my hip. It was my pistol. I had forgotten to take it off. As I unbuckled the holster, I realized that I had been right to say we wouldn't need our sidearms. As I drifted off to sleep, I decided I would never bring it out with me again.

VISIT FROM MCPON |

November 13, 2006

VISIT FROM THE MCPON
Name: Tadpole
Posting date: 11/13/06
Stationed in: Afghanistan
Milblog url: armysailor.com

I recently attended an "All Navy Call" in Bagram for a visit by the Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy, the highest ranking enlisted person in the Navy. He has only been the MCPON for a few months, and he is the second MCPON to visit since I have been here. He strikes me as being much more down-to-earth, and much more sailor-oriented than the last MCPON. He seemed very personal, and seemed to have a genuine concern for those of us serving over here. I think he did an excellent job of addressing many of our concerns.

He made it a point to mention the changing face and role of the modern Navy. He also stressed that things were going to get harder on all sailors. In the past a sailor usually knew well in advance when his deployments would be, and when he'd be in port. Also in the past, shore duty (with a few exceptions) was kind of a "safe-haven" from deployments, sort of a break from arduous sea duty. But that is to be no more. He said we can expect to see these ground billets supporting the Army to become more and more the norm.

He took a series of questions and managed to answer them all pretty well, without anyone walking away feeling like they were just blown-off, or fed a line of crap. One humorous moment came when a young seaman, who said that he "had just gotten out of boot camp" asked if the MCPON thought we were witnessing the "end-times". While the crowd found the question very amusing, the MCPON managed to give the young man an answer, and not make him feel silly. In my opinion, that right there is a very positive sign. He made everyone feel welcome. I really wanted to get a picture with the new MCPON, but the line was incredibly long, people lined up like he was a rock star. I suppose in some ways, this man who has served his country with honor for long enough to remember a time when the Navy allowed beards, really is a rock star. He represents all that the most junior sailor can achieve, given the right motivation, perseverance and mentorship.

Although I have been really disappointed with a lot that is going on with the Navy today, I have to say I left the MCPON's visit tonight feeling a lot better about the Navy, and our leadership (inside the Navy). Nothing is all bad. I still intend to get out next year, because I want to pursue bigger dreams (not to mention my family will kill me if I don't get out), but it brings me hope to think that there may still be one or two of the "old-school Master Chiefs" out there to guide the Navy on its path. If every Master Chief were like the one who mentored me, the Navy would be a far better place... and I'd be re-enlisting.

COMBAT |

COMBAT
Name: Army Girl
Posting date: 11/13/06
Stationed in: Afghanistan
Milblog url:
http://desertphoenix.blogspot.com/

How did I feel when I was in combat? It was scary. I was afraid. I wouldn't be telling the truth if I didn't put that out there first. After you go outside the wire so many times you start to feel comfortable or complacent. That will get you killed, and it almost got us killed. So, no more complacency. Every time I'm out, my mind runs through the hundreds of possible ways we could be hit; from that building over there, from that rooftop on that side, from the mountains/hills on both sides, from that car driving up to us, or that person lurking around our group. I look for kids. I look for things in the road. I watch for motorcycles with people wearing things that look too baggy, because the only fat Afghan is a wealthy one, and he's not going to be blowing himself up.Your senses become heightened and you're ready at any given moment for something to happen. You expect it. You think of countless ways the enemy could ambush, attack or approach you.

After we got hit, I was furious. Rage and anger were the only things that I could feel. It was as real and solid as the blood in my veins, and it was unlike anything I'd ever felt before, and ever hope to feel again. It got me through and helped me do what I needed to do. I pulled security and administered first aid to my buddy. I got inside the gate, jumped out of my truck and cleared my weapon. Training is what got me going. I have no idea what made me jump out of the truck, instead of riding it into the aid station, but all I could think about was following procedure and clearing my locked and loaded weapon. It was on burst and the safety was off, so it was the safest thing to do. I walked to the aid station, and was stopped on my way there by a soldier who was far smarter than I. He treated me for shock and forced me to calm down and lay down. I got to the aid station, was checked out and treated for minor injuries and spent the rest of the day and many hours into the night working. I had so much adrenaline pumping through me that I felt little pain till the following day, when I felt like I'd been run over by a five ton truck.

WHY I BLOG |

November 10, 2006

WHY I BLOG
Name: CAPT Doug Traversa
Posting date: 11/10/06
Stationed in: Kabul, Afghanistan
Hometown: Tullahoma, TN
Milblog url: http://traversa.typepad.com
Email: traversa@gimail.af.mail

Today I ended up riding with Lt Col M, which almost never happens. He asked if I was still blogging. Yes, I am. Then he asked why I blogged. Hmmm. Good Question. Of course, from day one I’ve clearly stated for everyone that I wanted to write a book, then get on The Daily Show or The Colbert Report (or both) to plug my book. Doesn't hurt to dream. But would I stop if both shows were suddenly cancelled?  No. Would I stop if I knew I would never publish a book?  No. So why do I really do this?

Reasons I Blog

1.  I am going to leave a very detailed record of life here in Afghanistan, from the perspective of an Air Force officer essentially drafted into the Army for a year. Others will follow, and perhaps this will be of use to them.

2.  I get to meet many new people on line. I'e made new friends and hooked up with old ones. I've gotten lots of support, which certainly helps my morale. As my hut mates say, "We have so many people praying for us, we’re probably saints already." My thanks to all of you.

3.  I get to voice my opinions, and I have lots of those. Even though I've gone through some rough times here, I've been pretty happy (yes, actually happy) for a good part of the last six weeks. I feel good about our role here. I really want Afghanistan to be free. I hate the Taliban. I hated them long before 9/11. I actually knew what was going on here long before that. So we are fighting an enemy as repugnant and inhuman as the Nazis. Very few wars have been as justified as this one. Now we have to finish the job, and I can say I’ve been a small part of it. That does make me happy. Not only happy, but proud. I spent most of my life reading military books, mainly dealing with WWII. I wrote a thesis on combat motivational factors. But never did I think I would be in a situation like this. I can be a pretty cynical guy, but I am really proud to be a part of this. Really. And I get to share it with you. Maybe this will help someone else facing a deployment.

4.  It's fun. I like writing, and when I have downtime, it makes the time fly by. My hut mate is bored out of his mind. I don't have enough time in the day. I come home from work, and I often start writing. It is a great way to come to terms with life here.

5.  And finally, maybe I will get that book published. One never knows.

So to all the rest of you coming over to paradise, there is a great deal of good going on over here. Yes, leaving your loved ones behind stinks, big time. But most Afghans want us here and need us here. The thing I fear most is not car bombs, IEDs, or snipers. I fear that our politicians will lose sight of what we can do here. I fear we will lose heart and leave the job undone. I fear all our sacrifices will have been a waste. I fear my friends here will either have to flee the country or become prisoners under the Taliban again.

Please let me be proven wrong!

THE ESCORT |

THE ESCORT
Name:  SPC Jami Gibbs
Posting date: 11/10/06
Returned from: Iraq
Milblog url: americanbabble.com
Email: jami0821@gmail.com

They are eagerly waiting for us when my partner and I arrive at 0900. Soon they will be on their way to visit relatives in our hospital. They wait in a holding tank of sorts; a fenced and barb-wired section just outside the processing area. I am initially intimidated because I notice immediately that there are far too many of them for the two of us to handle. The escort rule is 10:2. Ten Iraqis for every two guards. If you add even one more Iraqi to the group, then another guard is required. We strictly adhere to this rule. If not everyone gets to take a trip to the hospital, too bad, so sad.

It amazes me how different each Iraqi visitor is. Some of them could easily be mistaken for American. These are the ones who have neatly pressed pants, tucked-in button-up shirts, and gold watches dangling from their wrists. On the other hand, there are the stereotypes. The women in long black robes. The men in pure white. The headdresses that seem to come in all sorts of colors and patterns. I am embarrassed that initially I can’t distinguish one from the other. At first they all seem to be a flash of dark skin and dark eyes. I find myself relying on their clothing for identification. I say to myself, "Okay. There are two women wearing black. One man in white. Four are wearing jeans. One has that shiny ring on his hand…".   I do this for accountability, to keep track. I do this because otherwise they seem to blend in with the patients or translators or the mass of civilians working on the base.

The translator at the gate wears a black ski mask. He's been outfitted in an American desert uniform (less any rank or identification) and effortlessly switches between Arabic and English. Even though I would not remember his face, the Iraqis will. Or at least a particularly vengeful one would. So, he takes every precaution to disguise himself from someone who may feel he's being a traitor. Thus, he is the "masked translator". And for his efforts and the danger, he gets paid handsomely.

The translator hands me a list. Written in Arabic and English are the names of the first ten visitors. Even in English, the names are barely pronounceable for me. All I can do is count to be sure that there are ten names listed and ten people standing in front of me. As each one approaches me and stops so that the others in the group can move through the gate and catch up, I greet each one in Arabic the best that I can. "Salam alaykum!" (hello). I tested out "Good morning" in Arabic a few times thanks to the suggestion of E: "Besach el nur!" But I got mostly blank stares or laughs. The laughing was fine by me, since it helped to relax them a bit. And at least they saw that I was trying to use their language, even if it was totally incorrect and sounded silly!

I motion with my hand to move forward, and the group responds immediately. They all walk in a straight, steady line and follow my lead.  My partner takes up the rear.

Before we can take our group to the hospital, they must get badges.They exchange their Iraqi identification or passports for a military pass. This is no easy task. The process of getting a temporary pass can be tedious. The Iraqi IDs are flimsy and prone to deception. They all appear to be hand-written and laminated. A small picture of the individual is surrounded by the squiggles of Arabic. Half of the IDs seem to be falling apart at the edges, as most laminated IDs tend to do after a while. I can imagine how easy it would be to make a fake. But the Sergeant in charge of issuing temporary passes seems to be a master of knowing if it's authentic or not. He is friendly and speaks some Arabic, but isn't afraid to show his authority if he perceives any deception. He studies each one for several minutes at a time. He looks at the ID then at the Iraqi. He turns it around and stares intently at it. He asks where each one is from (in Arabic of course) as they step up one-by-one to his counter. He jokes by saying he’s from Diyala or some such Iraqi town. It's particularly funny since he's a towering black man in an American Army uniform. This makes the Iraqi laugh and gets a nice chuckle out of me too. On one occasion we had to escort a gentleman out of the compound. Apparently his ID wasn't adequate. But he left without much fuss.

As each person steps up to the ID counter, I try my hand at pronouncing their name, and check them off on the list that the masked translator gave me. They respond well to hearing their name, and if I butcher it, they politely correct me. I have them point to their name in Arabic just to be sure I have the right one, and match it up with the English equivalent. I wave the next person up.

Each ID is emblazoned with ESCORT REQUIRED. They wear them around their necks like VIP backstage passes at a concert. One last count. One last vain attempt to remember faces and we're off. We load them up in a civilian vehicle, a little Euro van.

In every group that I took while working this duty, I noticed that the atmosphere in that van was always somber en route to the hospital. The silence was absolutely deafening. It was only a few miles to our destination, but my partner and I couldn't stand the stillness. Eventually, when our small talk with each other didn't suffice, we would turn on the radio. Often it would be a news station. I became very aware that each piece of news had  "Iraq" or "Al Qaeda" or some other Middle Eastern reference in it. For some reason, I felt bad putting this on with ten assorted Iraqis in tow. As if they were hearing rumors we were saying about them behind their backs. Or, since most of them couldn't speak English, as if they were only hearing their names in a foreign conversation and it would make them anxious. Remember that Cosby Show episode when Cliff couldn't understand his wife when she spoke in Spanish? He said, "I just listen for my name."  For some reason this kept popping into my head. I imagined the Iraqis hearing the news on the radio as, "blah blah blah Iraq blah blah blah Baghdad." And I wondered if they thought we were saying something bad about them.

On the route to the hospital, we pass by a couple of flag poles that wave the Iraqi and the American flag.  They are both blazing at the exact same height, the exact same size. The silence in each group always breaks momentarily when we pass by this. It was never louder than a whisper, but it was noticeable in the general silence of the van. Even if they were speaking in English, I'm sure I wouldn't have been able to make out what they were saying, because their voices were so hushed. But I liked to think that they were pointing out the flags to each other. I can't be sure of it, but it's nice to think that someone was noticing that both of the flags were flying together.

TIME IS KING |

TIME IS KING
Name: CAPT Lee Kelley
Returned from: Iraq
Hometown: Salt Lake City
Milblog url: http://www.wordsmithatwar.blog-city.com
Email: wordsmith16@excite.com

Isn't it amazing the way time can play tricks on you? Have you ever sat in a classroom, or a meeting, and felt that the clock was taunting you? Or been in a situation where time sped past because you were enjoying the activity so much? Rare is the man or woman who seems satisfied with the passage of time, as if since we created our sundials and calendars we can control it.

How would it be if we didn’t have clocks? How was it?

"I'll meet you at Starbucks at high noon."

"When the shadow is longer than the stick I'll depart."

"I'm being deployed to Iraq for twelve moons."

Time can be seen as both a curse and a blessing, then. When you want something to last forever, your mind perceives it as going by faster; a song you love, the life of someone you care for or depend on, a good book, childhood, a cruise to the Caribbean. And when you want something to end, oh man the time simply drags; your morning commute in traffic, the mother of all meetings, a deployment to Iraq, the time spent waiting for results of a medical test.

The mechanisms inside the clock aren’t wrong. They’re pretty much constant. The cycles of sun, moon, tide, and season are not false. They rule our lives.

Out here in the desert, Time is King; the minutes are his minions, and the months his sabers by which you are knighted. The King controls all that you do, when you come and go, and how long until you see your children. Every mission and order is based on a strict time schedule. We are deployed for a year, "boots on the ground", so 365 becomes a mystical combination of integers, a mantra, a prayer.

We are nothing more than Australopithecus in a uniform, or a burka, or an expensive tailored suit. From the geographical perspective, humankind's time on this earth is less than the blink of an eye. Plate tectonics dismiss us. Volcanoes are too wise to notice our antics.

We study anthropology even as we live within it. We fly and drive and move around this planet, on these continents; we live and we fight. We are caricatures of ourselves, cartoon nations embroiled in our global struggles. The mountains fold their arms and they watch. We used to fight for food or a mate. Now we fight for freedom or money.

When you find yourself as a soldier in Iraq, holding some of the finest tools in your hands, the modern equivalents to stone and flint, to a rock swung from a stick to snare the hunted, you can’t help it, you count the days. It's a reflexive reaction. Hit my knee with a rubber mallet.

You track the hours, the seconds, and the months. X amount of Sundays left. X amount of weeks. I will eat in this chow hall X many more times. This many times I will lie in this bed and stare at the cracks in this ceiling. Like the wallpaper in the home you grew up in, you don’t even notice it anymore. You just cast your thoughts upon its patterns and let your mind roam free.

And just because you're in the desert and the sights and sounds are so surreal, and you’ve forgotten what America smells like at 9:00 in the morning as you walk past your neighbor's garden or the bakery on the corner, you act as if the possibility and difficulty of life is a finite thing, while your true path lays spread before you like a virtual chess board. Pawn or King? Bishop or Rook? Should I move forward slowly, or attack my fate with a flank?

"To live is so startling it leaves little time for anything else." -- Emily Dickinson

THE ROADBLOCK |

November 09, 2006

THE ROADBLOCK
Name: Adam Tiffen (AirborneJD)
Posting date: 11/9/06
Returned from: Iraq
Milblog url: http://www.thereplacements.blogspot.com
Email: airbornejd115@yahoo.com

The sky has turned a striking shade of purple and red as the sun begins to set in the west. To the east of the Alamo, the tall blue and green minaret of the Shia mosque is lit up with a single string of white lights. The mosque, standing alone in "no-mans land", has only been partially completed, and the unfinished sections of brick wall look ominously down over the crumbling city in the fading light.

Across from the mosque, in a small woodworking shop, a man has just been murdered. An hour ago, three insurgents entered his shop and shot him in the head. The weapon was held so close that the muzzle blast burned and blackened his ear. Only 300 meters from the Alamo, he was left to die, four AK-47 shell casings lying next to his body. He is the second man to be executed within sight of the Alamo in as many days. The city is restless tonight.

In front of the Alamo, in the falling darkness, a squad of soldiers works to improve the fixed defenses. A single HUMMWV sits on the road, its hood stacked high with concertina wire, a soldier crouched low in the turret, scanning the surrounding darkness with his night vision. The soldiers work quietly. Triple strands of razor-sharp wire are stretched across the road, and weighed down with sandbags. Concrete barriers are maneuvered into place. Spike strips are laid across avenues of approach. All designed to stop a suicide car bomb.

As I walk out from between the concrete barriers and onto the main street in front of the Alamo, I can see a soldier with a flashlight waving at oncoming traffic. As his squad erects the barrier, he is signaling cars to turn off onto a side street. Every one of those cars is a threat.

Further out in the dark, a blue van stops for a second, its driver confused by the roadblock. The soldier with the flashlight tenses, and raises his rifle up to cover the driver.

On the corner sits a white and orange taxi, its lights turned off. The taxicab driver shouts helpful directions at the driver of the blue van, and the blue van pulls down the side street. I can see the soldier relax, his shoulders slumping beneath his heavy body armor.

It is a Thursday night, and this type of traffic is normal. In the twilight, the local men walk from house to house for a cigarette or a cup of tea with their neighbors. Cheap tobacco smoke permeates the air as they cluster on doorsteps smoking French Gallouises.

Across from the Alamo, a small convenience shop is doing a brisk business, and a crowd of men has gathered outside. Signaling two soldiers to accompany me, I walk across the street and up to the group. One of the men is older, with a careworn face and a full white beard. He is wearing a flowing white robe, which contrasts sharply with the darkness of his skin. His eyes are dark and shadowed in the harsh light of the fluorescent bulb hanging from the wall of the shop.

Touching my hand to my chest, I give him the traditional greeting. "Salaam Alechem." The old man returns the greeting with a slight smile.

Beside him, a young man gets up from a worn wooden bench. He is strangely pale and overweight, and his hand nervously grips plastic prayer beads. The small red beads click together quietly as he methodically counts them.

The old man begins to speak in Arabic, and my interpreter, Tornado, listens to him politely before turning to me to translate.

"He is asking about the hurricane Katrina." This was the last thing that I had expected to hear.

"Really? What does he know about Katrina?"

The old man's face grows solemn.

"We heard that 10,000 people have been killed, and that the city is destroyed. We have heard that there is disease and fighting." Behind him, the younger man smiles at me. In the shop behind him, I can hear the muted sound of a strident Arabic voice on the radio.

"And how did you hear about this?"

"We have a satellite. It told us all about the hurricane Katrina."

"Do you have such hurricanes here in Iraq?"

The younger man's smile widens. It seems that he wants to tell me something, and as he leans forward, his hands briefly touch as he makes a dusting motion. "No, we do not have such things as hurricanes in Iraq. We do not have them because we are protected by Allah. We have the shrines of the Prophet, and Allah does not permit such tragedies here."

He leans back as if he has gotten something important off of his chest. He has made his point. It sounds like a theory out of the dark ages. As if on cue, the sound of automatic weapons fire erupts in the northern sector of town. It is a series of sharp reports, one after the other. In response, another automatic weapon opens up, its higher pitched whine audible over the lower, more guttural single shots.

Turning around, I scan the low hulking shadows of the houses across no man's land for any sudden muzzle flashes that would indicate the shooter's position. There is a gun battle going on, no more than 400 meters from the Alamo. The sky and the buildings to the north remain dark.To my left, one of the soldiers, a young private, flips down his night vision and scans the darkness of an alleyway for movement. He is fidgeting nervously from foot to foot. Anybody could be out there tonight.

Turning back, I face the younger man. "Are you saying that America had a hurricane because there are no shrines in America to the prophet? Because most Americans do not follow Islam?"

He nods his head, pleased that I understand him. "Yes, it is God's will. In America there are no shrines so Allah does not protect Americans. Here there are no tornadoes, earthquakes, volcanoes or hurricanes. If there were more of Islam in America, such things as hurricanes would not happen."

The gunfire in the north sounds as if it has doubled in intensity. This man is telling me that Iraqis are protected by God because of their faith in Allah, and that America, because of a lack of faith, deserves to be hit by a hurricane. With the gunfire in the background, the irony of his statement has not escaped me. The comment has also pissed me off.

I take a step forward.

He takes a step back.

"So God protects Iraqis from hurricanes? What about the violence? The fighting? The murders and executions? The poverty? Look around you! A man was murdered a few hundred meters away tonight! If God is protecting Iraq, why does God permit such violence here?"

Tornado hears the passion and anger in my voice, and he echoes my harsh language in his translation. The young man goes pale in the fluorescent light. He begins to speak, falters, and then goes quiet. He looks as if he has swallowed something unpleasant.

To the north, the gunfire has tapered quickly off. The stillness is only broken by single, sporadic shots in the distance. We stare at each other in the darkness.

The old man, pulling contemplatively on his white beard, takes a hesitant step forward and gently pushes the younger man back. Then he turns towards me and smiles apologetically: "In'Shallah. All of that is in God's hands. It is for Allah to know who lives and who dies. It is not for us to question or explain the will of Allah. He gives help to those that ask, but in the end all of our fate is in his hands."

He touches his right hand to his chest, turns, and without looking back, quickly ushers the younger man, still pale, prayer beads clicking in his hand, into the shop.

Taking a deep breath, I turn and stand quietly in the darkness, watching the armored HUMMWV slowly roll past in the shadowed street. I need a second to cool down.

The hood of the HUMMWV has been emptied of concertina wire, and the two soldiers escorting it are taking off their tough, rawhide gloves. To the west, I can see that the wire roadblock has been stacked three strands high, and tied tightly into the rusted steel bars of a power line. Any vehicle trying to drive thru that is going to come to a sudden stop,tangled up in a mass of steel razor wire.

At least it is something.

Turning away from the now quiet shop, I walk over to the roadblock to finish inspecting the reinforced obstacles. A few feet behind me, I hear the young private that was pulling security during my conversation mutter quietly under his breath. "Well I'll take his help if he is offering it, but I am not leaving anything that I don't have to in Allah's hands."

Pulling on the concertina wire and checking for any gaps in the defenses, I can't help but smile. Those are my thoughts exactly.

READING EYES |

November 08, 2006

READING PEOPLE'S EYES
Name: SGT Brandon White
Posting date: 11/8/06
Stationed in: Afghanistan
Hometown: Ohio
Milblog url
: http://www.gwot.us
Email: soldierboy101st@yahoo.com

I sometimes will spend whole days simply reading people’s eyes, not saying a single word. You can learn a lot about a person just by looking them in their eyes. And I don’t mean looking them in the face. You can carry on an entire conversation with a person without actually looking into their eyes; indeed this is what most of us do. But when you actually lock eyes with someone, even for an instant, you see behind the mask, and get a glimpse into that person’s emotions, personality, fears and weaknesses.

The other day, after returning from a stand-off (still ongoing), I wanted to get a real sense of how everyone was feeling after being in a combat zone for five months. The string of BS that I receive when I ask some of my troops how they’re doing simply doesn’t cut it sometimes. I walk up to a Private First Class who is enjoying a cigarette out on the steps to our building. I pull out my own pack and light one up. "So, how ya doin' man?" I ask coolly, staring off into the distance, exhaling the smoke from the first puff. He starts going on about "It’s all good, S’arnt" and "Can’t wait to go on leave, S'arnt". I am hearing his words, and looking for his eyes to betray them. He doesn't notice me looking: He is staring at one of our FOB's dogs.

"That stand-off could turn into a full-out battle at any moment," I say, baiting him with my words. I think I detect a reflexive jerk on his face. That’s when I catch his eyes, only for a moment, and I see everything that I need to see, fear and the look of being lost, as he babbles on about warlords and wiping them out with his AT-4 rocket launcher.

I've seen the same look in many Joes, both here and in Iraq, a look of despair entwined with resolve and determination at the same time. "What happens next?" with a side of "I will be going home." I am only about three or four years older than this man, but feel at least a decade older. Indeed, many here thought that I was early-to-mid-30's until I revealed my true age. It has been the same everywhere I go, ever since returning from that other battleground, Iraq. The 18-year-old's smile and baby face I had when I first joined the Army have been replaced by a resolute, hardened stare, one which actually unnerves some people, and a face that is showing wear from the desert elements.

I take a final draw on the cigarette before placing it in our butt-can. I walk from the steps to our tactical operations center, where I find my commander on the radio, giving some sort of report to higher. When I enter the room we immediately catch each other's eyes. I am surprised, actually. He is in his early 40’s, and men that age are usually the ones that hide their eyes from you, as if knowing that their soul is revealed through their eyes, feeling guilty for 40 years of mistakes.

I find it harder to read the eyes of a person the older he or she gets, but I was able to recognize the helplessness and fear in this man’s eyes. I contemplate why he would be feeling scared and helpless as I pretend to scan the radio operator’s logbook. I have no doubt that he is under enormous pressure. Any combat commander is under loads of stress. The fear is not for his own life, but for the lives of his troops, the lives of these young guys whom he is responsible for. The helplessness would be from simply not knowing what to do about our current situation with the warlords and any number of other things which, as a commander, he is expected to know. I walked out of the operations center with a little more respect for the man, even though I hadn’t uttered a word to him.

I come back into my room and look into the mirror. After staring at my own eyes for a good 30 seconds I give up, unable to draw any conclusions.

“In every child who is born, no matter what circumstances, and of no matter what parents, the potentiality of the human race is born again: and in him, too, once more, and of each of us, our terrific responsibility toward human life; toward the utmost idea of goodness, of the horror of terror, and of God.”

-James Agee

THINGS I'VE DONE... |

THINGS I'VE DONE...
Name: C. Maloney
Posting date: 11/8/06
Husband: deployed on float...somewhere
Hometown: Seattle, WA
Milblog url: http://corpsdjour.blogspot.com

Things I've done that I might not have if my husband were here:

1) Set up the TV, VCR, amp, and cable
2) Programmed a universal remote
3) Put my clothes in both sides of the dresser instead of squishing them into just half
4) Assembled a table
5) Slept alone for 39 days and counting
6) Watched Gilmore Girls every Tuesday without argument (for once!)
7) Ate cereal for breakfast and dinner
8) Used the power-drill...twice

Being alone provides some unique opportunities and helps you discover new interests. I liked the buzz of the power drill, the burn in my arm from the weight up over my head. I like having ultimate, un-interrupted, guilt-free control of the remote. I like having time to plant a garden, to use the shovel. I decidedly don't like spending nights sitting alone on the couch, but that has pushed me into new activities, more involvement, and there is nothing wrong with more distractions.

OUR WOUNDED WARRIORS |

November 07, 2006

OUR WOUNDED WARRIORS
Name: A Nurse
Posting date: 11/7/06
Stationed in: a military hospital
Hometown: Illinois
Email: smknva@yahoo.com

Many times when people learn I am a civilian nurse working in a military hospital they ask if I take care of any wounded soldiers. When I reply "I do" they always ask how they can come and visit the wounded. I always tell them "you can't". People are shocked by that blunt response and frequently tell me, "I just want to say thank you." 

I realize most people are very well intended and really do want these guys and gals to know how appreciative they are. However we are very protective of our wounded warriors and here are the reasons why. If you think back to a time in your life when you were your absolute sickest. Or a time you were in horrific physical pain. Or a time when you were so devastatingly depressed you could hardly climb from your bed. Or a time you were grieving the death of a dear friend or family member. Or a time when you realized the life you thought you had or looked forward to having was no longer possible. Or a time when a husband, wife, boyfriend, girlfriend says, "I can't do this anymore," and leaves you alone.

Many of these wounded experience some or even all of these things at the same time. The IED that shredded their leg so badly it had to be amputated also killed their buddy or buddies. The family they thought they could depend on isn't there. They are trying to come to terms with just how drastically their lives have changed. They are trying to manage emotional and physical pain issues with infection issues and the need for multiple surgeries to clean their injuries. These soldiers and marines, depending on the severity of their injuries, will easily go back to surgery 10, 20, 30, even upwards of 40 times. If you really stop and think about it and put yourself in their place, would you really want a stranger walking into your hospital room?

Frequently the celebrities come by to visit. I remember visiting with a soldier when someone knocked on the door and an MP stuck his head in and asked the soldier if he wanted to see Mr. X. The soldier did not, the MP said okay and closed the door. We talked a bit more, then I left him to get some sleep. As I was leaving and closing the door to his room, Mr. X's PR person comes running over and said to me "He really doesn't want to see Mr X?"  I told her "No."  She then said "Well, we're only here this once, maybe he should reconsider. He saw you, didn't he?" I told her the soldier did not want a visitor and walked away. These soldiers know me, I've seen them in horrible pain, I've held their hands while the tears roll down their faces and I've listened while they tell stories nightmares are made of. 

I know people want to show their appreciation for the difficult job these soldiers and marines are doing. Please be sensitive to their needs and not your own.

THE COOLEST PLACE TO BE |

THE COOLEST PLACE TO BE
Name: SGT "Roy Batty"
Posting date: 11/7/06
Stationed in: Baghdad, Iraq
Hometown: Yellow Springs, Ohio

Most of the time, the coolest place to be on post is the coffee shop that I call my other home. It's nestled in between two Hadji internet cafes, and since the internet places have wireless LANs, one can sit in the coffee shop, enjoy the Arabic television, surf the internet on your laptop, and best of all, smoke!

The place is full of the gray twisting tendrils of various exotic tobaccos and their respective memories: hookah shei-shei smoke -- that can only  be Baghdad and missing Barbara like I would miss a critical part of my body; or Djarums -- full of the cloying scent of cloves and Vikki and the misplaced nostalgia of high school; or Gauloise, that always smells like burning horseshit and reminds me of Nicole and Paris and the restaurant on the Champs Elysee with the world's largest bowl of chocolate mousse.

The coffeshop is the place where the dustbowl anarchy of Iraq fades away, and my mind becomes engaged with something other than the drill instructor routines of deployed military life. This is the place where reality fades and is replaced with memories and thoughts and imagined realities; all coursing through the lightdazzled tubeways of the Internet, to arrive on my laptop, spat out onto my screen in little binary squiggles of black and white electrons.

When the cybercafes close amid the commo blackout, the hip place to be is the battalion Hadji store. I am half convinced that the commo blackouts are engineered by the secret army of Iraqi interpreters that live on the FOB, and who own and operate the various Hadji stores dotted around the base. They don't have internet connection, but they do have tables and backgammon and German MTV on a big screen TV, and their hookahs are much bigger and more impressive. The drinks are all the same as the coffee shop's, but it doesn't matter, since none of them are alcoholic, being banned by some distant Grinch of a general. So when the blackouts descend, everyone packs into the place and clusters around whatever female is holding court tonight, and tries to be as witty and solicitous as possible. This is pretty hard, not having alcohol to lubricate the process, so everyone puffs away on the flavored shei-shei smoke and consumes as much Jordanian soda pop as possible, as if attempting to get high on the sugar content and lack of oxygen. I like it better during the day, when the TV is tuned to CNN and the place is not quite packed to full capacity.

In the back is a large store that offers the usual pirated DVDs/Xbox/Playstation games, as well as leather shoulder holsters and various computer accessories. This is where I bought the Iraqi SIM card for my cellphone, and the silver metal CIA briefcase that I carry my Thinkpad around in. The place appears to be owned by an Iraqi with the codename A.J.; a short, muscular fireplug of a guy who speaks perfect English, with an American accent to boot, although he has never left Baghdad. All of the interpreters use code names, to avoid getting "three in the back of the frickin' head" if they ever decide to venture off post in anything other than an armed convoy.

A.J. is really cool, very energetic, and he teaches me a new phrase in Arabic every time I see him. Today it is "al-'amthall noor al-khalaam." Or  "proverbs are the light of speech," which shows, if nothing else, how much Arabs like to use proverbs.

 

A TASTE |

November 06, 2006

A TASTE
Name: 1ST LT Will Mangham
Posting date: 11/6/2006
Stationed in: Hawaii
Hometown: Mobile, Alabama
Email
: wmmangham@aol.com

I'm at the bookstore, and the woman at the table to my left has just finished rambling on to some poor guy about trying to find a 2006 Infiniti something or other because "it's the only one with a navigation system that works in Hawaii." And she wants the rear-facing camera when she backs up, because she hates the beeping, and you can only get the rear-facing camera if you have the navigation system. But the only one with a navigation system that works is a 2006 and she can't find a 2006. And my mind jumps back to a day in March of this year. I went out with a friend's platoon, and we hiked about two hours from our company patrol base uphill to a small village.

This is the kind of village that's so remote that there's no possible way for the kids to get to school, and no way to get outside help for injuries. There's just no access. A central government has little influence on a place like this.

As we were approaching the village, an old man with crazy eyes and a white beard ran down the mountain to greet us. This was a welcome sign, because it signified that he was taking us in, that we were under his care. After you are greeted in this way and guided into the village, there is basically no chance that you'll get attacked, because the Pashtun notion of hospitality is very powerful.

As soon as we entered the village, the whole place was mobilized for our visit. A group of us were led onto a porch that had an incredible view of the valley. We talked for a while and let some of the old men and kids play around with some of our equipment, while our Corpsman looked at and tended to some ailing villagers. Then tea was brought out to us, along with fresh bread.

The elders insisted we have lunch with them, and we agreed. The crazy-eyed man then made a stabbing motion with his right hand, and I realized that he was going to slaughter a goat for us. After almost three months in this country, it was the first time this had happened. One of the Marines loaned the old man his bayonet, with which the man was much impressed, then two younger men held down the goat while the old man cut its throat to bleed it. If you want meat in Afghanistan, chances are you're going to have to kill something. There are no grocery stores in the mountains.

After the goat was bled came the skinning and the gutting. The old man casually disposed of the unwanted entrails, and suddenly a dark red piece of organ was thrust into my face: the liver. You want me to eat that?  But I could not refuse. I had never refused any food that was offered to me, including a hunk of very bad cheese. The old man cut off a rectangle of goat liver and threw it back like it was candy. He cut off four more chunks. One went to the platoon commander, one went to a squad leader, one to our interpreter, and one to me. I held the liver up, considered it, and put it in my mouth. It had the same texture as raw fish. Somewhere between that and a gummy bear. The flavor was actually appetizing. The only thing that threw me off was the warmth. The goat had been alive fifteen minutes ago, and here we were eating its insides with a seventy-year-old Afghan. I thought about that for a few seconds while I was chewing, then swallowed it down.

I noticed that even our interpreter wouldn't eat his liver raw. He was from the city and these were country people. We must have all had the same strange look on our faces, because the old man laughed at us, and went back to tending the fire. I can only guess at the reason behind his laughter, but I think he knew that we live a very different life in America from the one he lives in the middle of the mountains. The sun rises in the morning, he starts his fire, he makes tea for the people he loves. I have no idea what he must be thinking at such a moment, but we had been given a taste of an entire reality, of a whole different consciousness.

 

OLD SCHOOL |

OLD SCHOOL
Name: CAPT Matt Smenos
Posting date: 11/6/06
Stationed in
: Afghanistan
Hometown: Santa Maria, CA
Email: msmenos@hotmail.com

In general, I am a fan of the concept of the National Guard. So far, the majority of my experiences with the citizen-soldiery of our great nation have reinforced my belief in a nation of volunteers, a society of step-up and serve, as a model of success and a lesson to others. Yet there are inherent disconnects that will develop among the constituents of a land of freedom and bravery. The guardsmen with whom I serve here in Afghanistan are from all walks, religions and professions among various age-groups. There are fairly clear differences of opinion on just about every topic from politics and the war(s) in the Middle-East to the raising of children and the treatment of the Afghans. It's interesting how the smallest of concerns can give you a sense for how an individual will react to the largest.

Drinking my coffee and reading my Slate: Daily Brief, I heard a rustling to my right. A glance at the stack of supply boxes beside me exposed the perpetrator. “Dusty Roads” has become a legend in our Brigade Ops Center. Rumored to be a jumbo sewer-rat, with super-human strength and the power to cloud the minds of men, the saw-toothed evidences of his audacious larcenies have led to many a frustrated knee-slap and curse. No bag of Care-Package goodies is safe, nor any unattended granola bar or forgotten potato wedge. Even the most stalwart attempts to secure dry-goods in cabinets and plastic tough-boxes are thwarted by this increasingly notorious rodent. I have never joined, or cared to join, in the hunt for this chupacabra of chew-holes, this wraith of raided raisinettes. And perhaps it was due to the indifference I had exhibited, in the days of bored rat-hunts, as gray camouflaged guardsmen tore apart supply cabinets, set traps and uttered “If I ever...” curses, that the little devil came out to me in particular. Blinking up at me, with tiny brown orbs and a twitching nose, the infamous Dusty Roads dared me to betray him as he polished off the dried remains of blueberry muffin dough from a mis-tossed wrapper.

He fell somewhat short of his reputation. At two inches long, and dusty brown, this tiny mouse was hardly the Grendel of Beowulf, more like someone from the Secret of Nihm. I had him in my sights. I should’ve respected the tenets of shared battle-space, of joint-military doctrine, of Army and Air Force working together to cleanse a place of a world-threatening menace. What to do, what to do?  The National Guard had taught me what to do. They taught me “Old School”.

Old School. What does it mean? I had considered the question as I walked into the laundry hut. The words suggest something taught (education) that is revered or time-honored because of long-standing success or reliability. I guess I’ve never been to that school. As I threw my soiled gloves into the washing machine, I reflected on how brandishing the badge of Old School had led to one of the saddest and most disappointing days of my life. The stumpy, old Guard Sergeant and I were driving our Humvee to the helicopter landing area to receive a shipment of mail, when we saw them. Five or six dogs, domestic mongrels of mixed breeding, chased each other merrily back and forth through the blowing dust. Having been born and raised in urban settings, a pack of free-roaming, unclaimed dogs seemed strange to me. The sergeant informed me that dog packs like this were common in his home state of Utah, and that he knew exactly what to do. As I wondered why anything needed to be done at all, he wiggled his way from the driver’s seat up to the gun turret. Before I could say a word, he had charged the weapon and fired a thunderous barrage of .50 caliber rounds at the frolicking animals. Out of consideration for anyone who might read these posts while eating, I have elected to omit the graphic depiction of the outcome of this one-sided fire-fight. Needless to say, he won the day. As he laid off the trigger, I was able to hear his wheezing, cackling, manic laughter. As I twisted, uncomfortably, to look up at him in the turret, I realized I was speechless with shock.

Approaching shouts of surprise and alarm could be heard as the landing zone’s Sergeant At Arms sprinted from his tower toward us, pistol drawn.  We wound up standing in the sun for over thirty minutes while the local MPs filled out a significant incident report. When asked why he had discharged the heavy-assault weapon without cause, the Sergeant answered with a tirade about dogs and cats and rodents and how in his day...blah, blah, blah...ending with “I guess I’m just Old School.” Not only was my name and rank and unit information recorded in association with this slaughter (no matter how hard I tried to lay blame where it was due), but I was also instructed to assist with “the clean up," hence the soiled gloves.

The entire ride back from the landing zone (I drove this time), all I could do was boggle over the senseless brutality of what had just happened
. The roads in Afghanistan are very rough. Dirt and mud packed with gravel, mostly. The citizens come and go on foot, bicycles and the occasional moped. The Humvee is not a common fixture, and, frankly, it really doesn't belong. Try as they might, it is difficult for pedestrians and bikers to stay on the narrow roads and avoid the large, armored vehicles that have suddenly become so common in the impoverished nation. My companion was enraged by their seemingly aimless meandering in the road. He barked and shouted and spat, leaning out the window, hurling his most heated and intolerant jibes at those with whom we shared the road. Certainly there are bad apples, but I think they are the exception to the rule. We sat in silence for the rest of the ride down the dusty road...

Speaking of Dusty Roads, there he and I were. He worked his little jaw on a stale piece of granola as I watched from my seat. I knew that the Sergeant and his Ilk had been looking for this fugitive fur-ball for weeks, but I also remembered the dogs. I finished my news article, locked my computer and went to the gym. Race on down, little Roads. Nibble and chew and scrape and good luck to you. It’s a tough world in which to be desperate and helpless. I’m happy to leave what I can for you in the corners. If they ask me why I never told…I’ll just tell them I’m Old School. 
 

GOOD STUFF |

November 03, 2006

GOOD STUFF
Name: CAPT Lee Kelley
Posting date: 11/3/06
Stationed in: Iraq
Hometown: Salt Lake City, UT
Milblog url: http://www.wordsmithatwar.blog-city.com
Email: wordsmith16@excite.com

There is a saying in the Army about not sticking your nose in other soldiers' professional business. It's called "staying in your lane." But there are times as a leader when you must step in. For example, if I see a soldier committing an unsafe act, it doesn't matter what his job is or even if he is in my unit. As an officer, I am obligated to point out the safety issue and fix it, doing everything I can to keep soldiers safe, even if it means being the "bad guy."

As the Battalion Signal Officer, I know how to stay in my lane. And it's easy, because I absolutely love my job and it keeps me very busy. I don't need to go looking for things to do. I'm the dude people come to with their computer, radio, television and internet issues, to name a few. The soldiers who go outside the wire on patrols every day have their lane. They are good at what they do. The mechanics have their workload, the intelligence analysts and the medics have theirs. There are always soldiers at the leading edge of the battle, and there will always be those of us who maintain more of a situational awareness, constantly analyzing and modifying plans. In short, we support the soldiers on the leading edge. But virtually everyone in my unit gets a chance to go out on combat missions, and every trip outside the wire must be treated as exactly that.

I left my lane again recently, and I’m glad I did. I went outside the wire on what I'll call a school mission, and it’s exactly what it sounds like. It had absolutely nothing to do with communications. Our family support group back home has overwhelmed us with school supplies, clothing, soccer balls, and shoes for the children in the area. They are very supportive of us, our mission, and the people of this region. So we headed out into the desert of Al Anbar to deliver a truckload of supplies to a village that was having trouble getting school supplies and even shoes.

We drove for about an hour to the isolated village, a dusty little thing with about 30 buildings, most of which were crumbling. There were virtually no trees, but there were some electrical wires coming in. The roads were dirt, the schoolyard was dirt, and their yards were dirt. Ancient dirt. The kids were very excited when they saw us, and immediately gathered around. Apparently they had just been let out of the school, which was a one-story building with no air conditioning that I could see.

Most of the soldiers on the mission were a security element, making sure the entire area around the school was safe from an enemy attack. Those of us in the middle were able to relax for a few moments and interact with the children. About 200 of them hovered around us as we carried boxes of supplies into the room the headmaster had pointed out. They were very talkative, and not in the least bit shy about telling us what they wanted. They yelled “Mister, mister!” pointing to their backpacks or their feet. When the soccer balls came out they went nuts.

All of the men who live in the village must have been at work, because I saw only one, and he was the school’s headmaster. There were robed women silhouetted in doorways of crumbling homes, but they didn’t come over to join in the excitement. They simply observed us from afar.

Some of the smaller children didn’t understand what was going on, and the young girls held their hands and looked after them. The older kids tried to get all the soccer balls, but most of the kids just looked up at us, smiling, jumping up and down as if it were Mardi Gras. Soldiers would point out particular children and make sure each got what they needed, speaking to them in our limited Arabic, laughing. You couldn’t help yourself. They were so cute and innocent and full of energy. We were all smiling.

After the mission, I felt great. Even on the ride back to the FOB, alert to any IED or other threats, I was still smiling as I pictured the children running behind us, yelling and waving. I have spent less than 20 days with my own children in the last 15 months. I could just picture my daughter showing her new school supplies to these little girls, or my son fighting for a soccer ball. This was a purely humanitarian mission -– no shots fired, no enemy contact, nobody hurt. Good stuff.

My heart is not cold, exactly, but living in the shadow of so much possible violence, and within earshot of it,  has put a film over my sensitivities. I don’t get as happy as I used to, or as sad. I’m living in the middle of the emotional spectrum, too uncertain about what might happen next to swing either way for long. I’m safe here in the middle, buffered on all sides by distance and time and unending optimistic caution. I just deal with whatever comes my way as if it were the most normal thing in the world, whether it’s an explosion, the news of another soldier hurt, the loss of someone I love, or other difficulties on the home front. I am an expert in the art of multi-tasking, bouncing all these professional and personal issues and concerns around in my head like flaming torches in a circus tent.

In 16th century literature, opportunity is symbolized as a female with long hair, but the back of her head is bald. If she passes you, you can’t hold on. You’ve missed your chance. This morning an opportunity presented itself and I didn’t let her slip by, I grabbed her hair and held on. And it did my soul some good. I have been very introverted lately, not so quick to laugh or tell a joke, and I don’t like this side of myself. I don’t like it at all. When I get home I’m going to try and live every day as if it were my last, even when the effects of the combat experience wear off and I can hardly remember sitting in this chair right now and typing these words.

"Children are one third of our population and all of our future."-- Select Panel for the Promotion of Child Health, 1981

AMBUSH |

AMBUSH
Name: Adam Tiffen (AirborneJD)
Posting date: 11/2/06
Returned from: Iraq
Milblog url: http://www.thereplacements.blogspot.com
Email: airbornejd115@yahoo.com

I can not believe what I am hearing. The screaming over the radio is horrifying. Something, somewhere, is seriously wrong. At the first sound, all movement in our Command Post stops. My eyes are riveted on the green radios sitting on the top of the old wooden desk. A quick glance around the room tells me that every other soldier is frozen in place.

The radio static is heavy, the voice making the transmission frantic. I can barely make out a few words: "This is Titan 5...an RPG...ambush...casualties...grid coordinate...UX 2468 7531..." It is enough. Jumping to my feet I run over to the map against the wall. I quickly pinpoint the coordinates that I have just heard through the static and the gunshots. The location is a straight shot west, about six kilometers. Not far.

Turning around, I see that the other soldiers are all still frozen,waiting for the next transmission. I exchange glances with the other Platoon Leader, and announce to no one in particular: "I'm going out there." I turn and grab my gear. Shrugging on my body armor, I run into the hallway shouting: "Let's go! Get to the vehicles! There is a unit in contact that needs help! Move!"

The soldiers in my patrol tumble out of their cots, where they have been laying, exhausted. Grabbing their gear, they take up the shout:

"Come on!"

"Let's move!"

As I run out of the building, still pulling my body armor on, the heat hits me like a blast furnace. Behind me, soldiers are flying down the steps and running to the vehicles. Climbing into my seat and fastening my helmet chinstrap, I can hear the guttural roar of the engines. We are loaded up and out of the gate within four minutes.

The HUMMWVs speed out past the concrete and concertina wire obstacles. My driver takes the turn around the barrier so sharply that for an instant I am certain that we are going to hit it. The front bumper clears by an inch, and we are through.

As we begin to speed down the broad paved main street I pick up the handset for the Platoon net and gather my thoughts. “Alright, this is what is going on. A unit was hit about six klicks west of here on ASR ‘Robins.’ It sounds like they have been hit with RPGs and small arms fire, and have several casualties.” There is silence in my vehicle as my crew listens in on the conversation. “One more thing, we may be targeted as we respond. Be on the lookout for an ambush, especially a VBIED.”

Insurgents have been known to hit units that move to assist a unit in contact. Overhead, I hear the metallic clacking of my gunner charging the M2 .50 caliber machine gun. He has racked a five-inch round into the chamber of the long-barreled, lethal weapon system. It is a reassuring sound. The M2 has a rate of fire of more than 10 rounds per second, and the rounds can easily punch through concrete walls.

Turning west we begin to pick up speed. "Thunderbold X-Ray this is Warrior 2/6, we are headed west on route 'Robins', moving to Titan 5's position. We should be there in about five Mikes. Do you have an update on Titan 5?"

In front of us, civilian traffic hastily pulls out of the way as the patrol runs screaming down the road. I can tell that my driver has his foot clamped all the way down on the accelerator. The clear, paved road stretches west into the distance, empty and desolate except for scrub brush and trash lining the sand berms on both sides of the road. It is a stretch of empty desert between two towns, and out here traffic is thin.

Over the Battalion net, I can hear Titan 5 calling for a Medivac to pick up his casualties. Someone has been seriously wounded. Above me, I hear my gunner swear an oath under his breath. Looking up, I can see a plume of thick black smoke in the sky. It can only mean one thing. Something is burning.

Adrenalin floods my system and my heart starts pounding rapidly as we round a bend in the road. A HUMMWV is completely engulfed in fire. Flames billow from the windows, and black, choking plumes of smoke rise high into the air. The smoke is thick and acrid from the burning tires. A chill runs down my back, and I realize that there are no soldiers anywhere to be seen. Nothing moves. It is terrifying, like something out of a nightmare. Where are all of the soldiers?

A hundred meters past the burning armored vehicle, I can see the charred,torn and twisted remains of a pickup truck. What used to be a gray Mazda is now scattered all over the road. I key the Battalion handset.

"Thunderbolt X-Ray this is Warrior 2/6! We have arrived onsite. There is a burning HUMMWV and what it looks like the remains of a VBIED. There are no soldiers anywhere! What is the current location of the Titan element? Where are the wounded soldiers?” My only thought is to get to the troops that need help, and secure their position. The only problem is, I can’t find them.

"Alright, stop here! Secure this location! White 1, move out about 300 meters and block off the west end. White 3, set up a blocking position 300 meters away on the east side. Tell your gunners to watch for follow-on VBIEDs, and do a good dismounted sweep for IEDs!"

My vehicle comes to a screeching halt, 75 meters from the burning armored vehicle. Dismounting, I hear a loud staccato popping sound. The ammunition stored in the vehicle is cooking off, the bullets exploding in the heat of the fire.

I key the handset again: "Thunderbolt X-Ray this is Warrior 2/6, I need the location of the Titan element! Where are they?"

There is a moment of silence, and then Thunder X-Ray replies: "Wait one."

Surveying the scene, I see that the ground is littered with spent brass and links. There has been a major firefight here, and it looks like hundreds if not thousands of rounds have been fired. The berm to the north is separated from the road by a 20-meter stretch of empty ground, and rises 15 feet in the air. It is the most likely place to set up an ambush.

I notice a half-filled, 30-round magazine lying in the road amidst the scattered brass and shell casings. Reaching down, I pick up the battered magazine and place it in my cargo pocket. With a flash of light reflected off of a canopy, the Apaches fly out of the sun. They are so quiet I do not even hear them until they are circling in a tight formation above my location. The circle is so tight that the lead Apache looks like it is standing on its side. I can see the pilot looking down over his right shoulder at the carnage below.

"Apache flight, this is Warrior 2/6, what is your call-sign?"

"Warrior 2/6 this is Blue Max 2."

"Blue Max 2, this is Warrior 2/6, I need you to sweep the area to the north and west! Look for insurgents and also check for American troops, I know that Titan is here somewhere and is set up for a Medivac, but I can’t find him."

The pilot immediately banks north, and I get his crisp and clean "Roger" over the net.

Looking east and west down the road, I can see that the other vehicles in my patrol have moved into position. To the east, another three-vehicle patrol has arrived, responding to the urgent calls over the radio.

With a tremendous blast, the burning armored HUMMWV explodes from the inside out and shreds itself into pieces of shattered and twisted steel. The armored glass shatters outwards, and large chunks of armor go catapulting thru the air, landing 20 or 30 meters away. The sound is almost deafening, and it takes me a second to realize that something inside the vehicle -- likely a Claymore or several grenades -- has exploded due to the heat of the fire.

My driver comes running up to me, his rifle held at the ready. "Sir, I don't know how to say this. I think I saw a body in the back passenger seat, before the vehicle exploded."

My heart stops. Looking up, I can see that the HUMMWV is just a mass of charred steel, flames and smoke. I force myself to speak. "Are you sure? Are you sure that is what you saw?"

My driver falters. "Sir, I...I don't know. It could have been the headrest or something else. I just thought I saw a body slumped over."

I clear my throat and key the handmike. "Thunder X-Ray, this is Warrior 2/6, the HUMMWV has just been destroyed by secondaries. Do we have a location for Titan 5 yet?"

This time Thunder X-Ray responds quickly. "Warrior 2/6, this is Thunder X-Ray, roger. Titan 5 has headed south along route 'Maples' and has linked up with an element from Avalanche. They are secure and are conducting air-evac of wounded personnel right now. Continue to secure the site, more units are enroute."

"Roger Thunder X-Ray, are all Titan 5 personnel accounted for?"

"Warrior 2/6 this is Thunder X-Ray, that's affirmative. All Titan 5 personnel are accounted for."

Closing my eyes, I breathe a sigh of relief. My driver must have seen something else. The hollow knot in my chest eases, and a weight lifts off my shoulders. Titan 5 is secure.

I hear my gunner calling out to me from the other side of the vehicle."Sir, Sir! There is an IED over here. I think that there are two of them!" He has done a sweep around my vehicle to check for IEDs, and seems to have found some.

"Roger, show me." Walking around the vehicle, I can see a burned and blackened 155mm artillery round lying out on the dirt, amidst the wreckage of the charred Mazda pickup truck. From this distance, I can easily see a long white cord running from the nose of the round, which has been packed with some type of plastic explosive. Lying as it is on the dirt, it seems less an IED than a kickout from a VBIED.

When the vehicle bomb exploded and tore itself into shreds, some of the artillery rounds from the bomb were kicked out by the explosion, and failed to explode. This does not, however, make them any less lethal. I can see at least four, possibly five of these kickout rounds lying scattered on the pavement and on the dirt. Four or five battered and primed artillery rounds less than 100 meters from my position.

Great.

"Alright, stay back. Conduct another sweep up to the northern berm and I will call EOD."

"Thunder X-Ray this is Warrior 2/6, we need EOD at this location. We have either secondary IEDs or kick-out rounds from a VBIED scattered all over the place."

"Warrior 2/6, Thunderbolt X-Ray, that's a good copy. EOD will be enroute."

In the distance, to the southwest, I can see the Apaches circling something. To the east, I see a plume of dust rise as two M1 Abrams Main Battle Tanks arrive on scene. "Warrior 2/6 this is Reaper 3, where do you want us?"

"Reaper 3, this is Warrior 2/6, it is good to see you. I want one of your tanks to take up a blocking position on the eastern side, and one to circle south around the HUMMWV and take up a blocking position on the western side of the road. Watch out for follow-on VBIED attacks."

"Roger."

One of the 60-ton monsters drives past my position, slung low and squat with surprisingly sleek lines. The turbine engines grumble and the steel-padded treads squeal, sending up a hot cloud of dust and dirt high into the sky. Now I feel that the site is finally secured.

An hour later, EOD has detonated five 155mm shells in a controlled explosion, and so many units have arrived that the place is swarming with troops. The senior man on the ground far outranks me, and some of the soldiers have found bloodstained fighting positions dug into the berm in the north. With the amount of blood found in the positions, it is likely that at least some of the insurgents never made it out alive.

Another HUMMWV pulls up, and three soldiers dismount. I can see that their uniforms are stained with blood. One, a sergeant, has his hand and arm swathed in white bandages. They are from the Titan 5 patrol, escorted back to brief the Battalion command on what had happened during the ambush. They look around, as if reliving a dream. I can't help but notice that they seem to be in good spirits, as if relieved at being back at the scene of the ambush and still in one piece. One is standing quietly to the side, watching the flames continue to consume what is left of the HUMMWV. I walk up to him. “How are you doing Sergeant?”

He turns and smiles. "Hey Sir, we're okay. My Lieutenant is hurt pretty bad. He took some shrapnel in the leg, and we had to apply a tourniquet to stop the bleeding. A couple of the other guys were hit. My arm got scraped up pretty good, but all in all, everyone is still alive."

I turn my eyes back to the still smoldering HUMMWV. "What happened?"

"Well, we were traveling east along 'Robins' when our vehicles were hit by RPGs. This pickup truck was rigged as a VBIED, but for some reason it did not explode, so the insurgents hit it with an RPG to try to set it off. After it exploded we took some pretty heavy small arms fire. They must have had at least one RPK there up on the berm." He points. “We returned fire over here, and then some of our guys were hit by shrapnel. Basically, we fought until the ammunition ran out, and then we withdrew to evacuate the wounded. My SAW gunner opened up on a couple of them on the bridge, and I saw at least two bodies fall into the water. They took a pretty good beating. I think we killed five or six of them."

In my head I can picture the entire sequence of events as he describes it. I glance at my watch. It all occurred about two hours ago. "When did you leave? We got here about 15 minutes after your call went out, and we couldn't find you guys. I didn't know if you had all taken off, or if you were all lying somewhere in a ditch."

He shakes his head. "It was my LT that made that call before he was hit. We disengaged once our ammunition starting running low and headed out to evacuate the wounded. We probably left no more than a few minutes before you guys showed up." Turning away from me he stares again at the burning vehicle, then glances at the berm to the north, now crawling with soldiers.

Reaching into my cargo pocket, I pull out the battered half-full 30-round magazine and hand it to him. "Here, you guys dropped this."

He reaches out and takes the magazine, weighing it in his palm. Then he smiles as he looks back up at me. "Shit, Sir, if we had known you were coming so quickly, we would have just stayed here."

I DREAM OF DJINNI |

November 02, 2006

I DREAM OF DJINNI
Name:
 CAPT Matt Smenos
Posting date: 11/2/06
Stationed in: Afghanistan
Hometown: Santa Maria, CA
Email: msmenos@hotmail.com

I tried to explain that she was a genie -- or a djinn, as it’s pronounced in Arabic. For me, Barbara Eden strutting around in a pink halter top and pantaloons had always fit vaguely into my understanding of the mythology of the Middle East. To my friend and interpreter Aresh, it made no sense at all. I tried to explain who she was and what she was doing as he and I ate lunch in the television room at our little base, but I soon realized that this was an American idea, and kind of a dumb one. Define surreal:  "A white guy from the suburbs, eating grilled cheese sandwiches in a wooden hut in Afghanistan, explaining I Dream of Jeannie reruns to an Iranian-born Afghan employed as a Dari/Arabic interpreter by the U.S. government."

Aresh wanted to know why she was (relatively) naked and why her “husband” (The Major) allowed her to come and go (so abruptly) while dressed like that. I explained that The Major never chose her, that they were not married, and that, in fact, it often seemed he wanted to be rid of her. Yet she had chosen him as a master, and there was no getting rid of her. This explanation did nothing to clarify the concept for my poor interpreter. But Aresh is a good kid, and as frustrating as the conversation was for him, he satisfied himself by telling me he was glad no women he knew could make things happen like the woman in the show. Next week I’m starting him on Bewitched.

A CLOSER LOOK |

November 01, 2006

A CLOSER LOOK
Name: SGT "Roy Batty"
Posting date: 11/1/06
Stationed in: Baghdad, Iraq
Hometown: Yellow Springs, Ohio

We recently returned to a tiny village we'd visited briefly, to take a closer look. Intel suggested it was a stopping-over place for insurgents infiltrating into Baghdad from Iran. We stopped off on the way and picked up a couple of IP trucks full of policemen and machine guns for the "joint patrol". SSG C. had one of the IPs ride in my HMMWV, which is the first time we've done that. A young guy, he seemed pretty cool, but a bit freaked out to be so close to Americans. In Arabic, I asked him how he was doing, "Khaif al-hal?", handed him a bottle of cold water, and tucked him into the seat behind me. He seemed to settle down a bit. Off we went.

We roared into the little village as quickly as the overladen HMMWVs would go. Sure enough, some little Kia vans tried to exit the opposite side of town as we came in, possibly insurgents trying to escape. We split up, and my team backed up SSG C.'s on one of the vans. We got it stopped in a field a couple of hundred meters outside of town, and pulled out five young guys and one AK with seven full magazines of ammo, including two customized 45-round mags.

Believe or not, AK-47s are legal here, but only in the house -- one rifle, and one 30-round magazine. So we had a bunch of guys illegally carrying the rifle in the van, and waaaay too much ammo. Through our translator, we asked why they had the Kalashnikov. "For the wolves that eat our sheep." Must be some pretty hardcore wolves out there.

As SSG C. was talking to our possible hillbilly insurgents, three of the village elders walked out to our position. Probably 50-60 years old, dressed in the traditional Iraqi man-dresses, complete with kaffiyahs, the old men approached, one of them, clad in black, hobbling with a cane. I greeted them with "As-salaam alaikum", placing my hand on my chest in the traditional mark of respect to an elder. They smiled at this, probably a little surprised that an infidel would know to do it.

The elders were obviously concerned with what we would do with the guys in the van. One of them, wearing a white burkha and kaffiyah, little silver wired glasses, the youngest of the three, made hand gestures of us shooting them in the head, and I did my best to assure him that we didn't do that.

I broke out one of my little Arabic phrase books and attempted to tell them that we were searching for terrorists, which they got after my fourth or fifth attempt. Lots of protestations that these were not terrorists; lots of hand gestures toward the sky and then to themselves and then to the lanky teenagers kneeling in the dust before us.

Arabs really like hand gestures.

Ali, the IP that was riding with me, started to talk to them, and the conversation really started taking off. Since Gunny, our translator, was up with SSG C., about 100 meters away, I was left to make the most out of the conversation with my phrase book and my mother's legacy of Charades skills. The funny thing about being in the foreign countries with a gun, is that if you speak a couple of phrases fairly well, then most people seem to assume that you are completely fluent in their language and will talk to you at full speed. The other funny thing is that if you pay attention, and think of what you would say in the same situation,you can figure out what they are saying a good 50-75% of the time.

So I'm standing in the middle of the desert with Ali, the IP; Mohammed, the oldest elder, with the cane; Khalid, the elder in white, and they are all earnestly jabbering away among one another and at me, with lots and lots of animated gesturing and hand waving at the sky, the ground, the teenagers, me, the van, the sheep, the village behind us, etc etc. I'm  paging back and forth in the phrase book as fast as I can, and coming up with the best Charades skits I can think of to get the messages across. It seems to be working.

What we get is that the guys in the van are Mohammed's sons and cousins. There are no terrorists in the village, and they haven't seen any terrorists. What they have seen is the occasional militia group roll through, as well as Iraqi Army, who occasionally threaten them. What they are really concerned about is sectarian violence. The village is Sunni, and they are way too close to Shia towns. Hence the AK and all the rounds. It is Ramadan, and they have been fasting for 28 days, so they cannot lie, thanks be to Allah, the great and merciful.

SSG C. eventually comes over, but he isn't buying it. He tells them, through Gunny, that they are lying. The elders are okay with this accusation, but I am embarrassed by its bluntness, although it may be accurate. He wants to search the young guys' houses, so we take everybody back into the village. There, the rest of our squad has stopped and searched other of the fleeing vehicles and picked up another Kalashnikov.

Those teams and SSG C. search some of the other houses first. I am left to guard Mohammed and his sons, and so the Arabic language lesson continues. Mohammed wants to have us over for dinner, which I thank him for, but I'm sorry that we can't accept the invitation right now. He explains to me that his sons are all married, and their families live in his home, right in front of the dusty square that we are standing in. Periodically the conversation dies down, and we all stand there in an awkward silence. The sons stand in front of their blue Kia van, Mohammid squats in the dirt, and a horde of wide eyed kids slowly creep up out of his complex to sit next to him.

I look at everything, and offer a quiet observation on the situation.  "Mahd-joon." Crazy. Everyone gets a big kick out of that.

Eventually SSG C. and SGT E. come back to our position, fresh from searching the other houses. They have found a WWII era bolt-action Mauser rifle in absolutely pristine condition -- complete with Wehrmacht stampings. The breech is spotless, well oiled. Obviously someone has taken great care of it. Maybe it's just for hunting, or maybe it is a sniper rifle, which it is perfectly suited for. In any case, they confiscate it.

Now it is time to tear apart Mohammed's house. The house is made out of a combination of two types of bricks, one sunbaked, something like adobe, the other clay, no doubt from the brick factory we passed back up the road. The roof is made of thatched reeds. The complex is fairly large, with a good-sized front yard and two buildings laid out in an 'L' shape. The whole thing is surrounded by a high brick wall. In the back is a walled-in vegetable field, with palm trees along the back. It reminds me of the better haciendas I saw in Honduras.

I feel bad searching the poor guy's home. Most of the rooms are absolutely bare, no lights, no carpet, nothing on the walls. An ancient sewing machine. A battered wooden cabinet, piled full of handmade sleeping mats. A room with brightly painted children's murals on the walls, and a solitary stand where they are making goat cheese.

I check everything, and sniff the walls for motor oil. We know that the insurgents like to put weapons caches in the walls, coated with motor oil, which they believe foils metal detectors. I check the thatched roof for hidden weapons. Nothing.

What's really surprising are the bedrooms. The rest of the house is barren and dirt poor, but the bedrooms are almost opulent. Beautiful Afghan rugs cover on the floor, and Bedouin-style tent fabric hangs from the ceilings. The beds are covered with silk comforters, and one of the rooms actually has a crystal chandelier hanging from bare log rafters.  Each room has a small TV, even though the house has no electricity. I feel like a thief as I peer under the beds and open the dresser drawers, revealing brightly woven women's dresses.

Coming out, I stop by Mohammed, who's standing now in his front yard, leaning on his cane, along with his extended family. All of the wives are standing behind him, leaning on a low wall, quietly commenting to each other on the whole situation. We ignore the women, don't even look at them, act as if they are not even there. It is the respectful thing to do in Arab culture. 

"Ah-na afwaan,"  I say. I'm sorry.

Mohammed grins, gestures to the sky, then to me, and reaches out to squeeze my cheek with his rough, leather hand. I don't know what it means, but it is touching.

The rest of the infantry guys are checking the back field, rooting through dead palm leaves along the back fence. They don't find anything. They eventually trudge back over to us, and SSG C. has a talk with Mohammed, through Joey, our other translator. I take Gunny -- an older guy, ex-Iraqi Army -- off to the side, and ask him what he thinks. Gunny thinks that they probably have more weapons hidden somewhere close, probably buried, but does not think that they are insurgents, or supporting the insurgency. He thinks that they are probably more worried about being attacked by one of the local Shia militias. 

One of Mohammid's comments, relayed through Joey, another of our translators, underscores this. "We need security. We can survive without food, we can survive without even water, but without security -- we will die." SSG C. tells him that we will come back every so often, and that we will check on him and his family, and that we will do our best to provide security for the village. As for our brothers in Vietnam, or in any counter-insurgency war, the truth is never very clear. Maybe some of the villagers are insurgents, maybe not. Maybe -- probably -- they are just trying to survive in the insanity that has descended on their country.

It's dark now, and time for us to start the long drive back to Baghdad and the FOB. I bow slightly and tell Mohammed, "Ma-sahlam-ah," again placing my hand on my chest. Goodbye. He smiles, and the whole family comes out to see us off. I hope that they will understand the intention behind the whole situation, and maybe remember the big, goofy infidel in something like a positive way. And I hope we see them again.

MAKING THE TRIP |

MAKING THE TRIP
Name: CAPT Doug Traversa, USAF
Posting date: 10/31/06
Stationed in: Kabul, Afghanistan
Hometown: Tullahoma, TN
Milblog url:
http://traversa.typepad.com
Email: traversa@gimail.af.mail

I feel very much like the guys probably did in WWII who flew on bomber missions. They were safe at the home bases, but when they set out on their mission they were vulnerable. Whether they found their target or not, whether they hit the target or not, whether they even dropped their bombs or not, they still had to make the trip, and it was the trip that was so dangerous. We form up each morning, hoping that if there is an emergency our cell phones will actually work. Fifteen men looking a bit grimmer each day, fully armored up, bristling with weapons, knowing full well that if a bomb hits us, there won’t be anyone to shoot at. There never is. So each morning we head out, much as the men in the B-17s did many years ago, hoping to return that evening. 

As we head out the gate, we show the guards we have our gloves on (they actually check) and head out into the chaos that is the road system of Kabul. Any vehicle parked along the road could be a suicide bomber. It might suddenly pull out, try to pull up alongside, and blow up. We look for new piles of rubble, or a rock that wasn’t there the day before. That’s like saying you look for new leaves on the ground in October. We go as fast as possible, passing the endless lines of slow-moving trucks that impede our progress. Each time traffic slows, we look at the faces of all the people around us. Anyone look like they have a vest of explosives on them? Anyone coming nearer than they should? Here’s a chokepoint, look around, anything new here? We hit the speed bumps as fast as we can without destroying our vehicle. More speeding and dodging, trying not to hit the idiots on bikes that weave out in front of us. We finally pull in to CMA and live to fight another day.

We’ll repeat the process on the way home. One more mission down. But unlike the bomber crews, we don’t get to stop at 25 or 50 missions. Furthermore, our bombers don’t even have bombs in them. We just keep flying missions until they let us go home. The good thing is that Camp Phoenix rarely gets attacked, since other bases around here are more vulnerable. So when we get home, it is pretty safe. At least I haven’t had to worry about a rocket attack. Not yet. Knock wood.


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