The Sandbox

GWOT hot wash, straight from the wire

Welcome to The Sandbox, a forum for service members who have served or are currently serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, returned vets, spouses and caregivers. The Sandbox's focus is not on policy and partisanship (go to our Blowback page for that), but on the unclassified details of deployment -- the everyday, the extraordinary, the wonderful, the messed-up, the absurd. All correspondence is read, and as much as possible is posted, lightly edited. If you know someone who is deployed who might have something to say, please tell them about us. To submit a post click here.


November 06, 2006

Name: CAPT Matt Smenos
Posting date: 11/6/06
Stationed in
: Afghanistan
Hometown: Santa Maria, CA

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. 


These posts make you laugh, cry, snarl, and overall Think in quick succession.

This one in particular is unflinching in showing how one soldier, yourself, can do his part to counteract mindless cruelty that disgraces the name of the forces in general.

Honourable men are the world, and the military's, most prescious commodity. God bless, and come home as noble a man as you were when you wrote this.

Thank you for the wide range of thoughts you provoked; and for your humanity in a violent world.
It is deeply troubling that so much power is in the hands of people with so little control (your companion and millions of others).
As a captain who outranks a sergeant, is it still difficult to restrain mindless hate (for dogs, for pedestrians, etc) in soldiers below you in rank?

Your blogs have touched my heart in so many ways.

Especially that statement "a tough world in which to be desperate and helpless."

I'm hoping when you get home you will remember that, because there are so many here it applies to.
There are so many running around right now yelling about patriotism, who have no compassion to waste on their own people. It's rather like fixing your neighbor's roof when your own is leaking.

I laughed when you tried to explain about "I Dream of Genie". I believe his culture would kill her in one of those horrible ways men over there take such pride in when it comes to women. To understand, you need to read "Princess", written by a Saudi Arabian Princess. Especially their oh-so special concept of a woman's house, where a woman who commits an offense is literally entombed into a bare room without light until they die of insanity or sorrow. But at least they're fed.

You fail to mention when you were on leave, whether your female friend was required to wear a burka.

My first inclination of your Sgt. shooting the dogs was to ask why you didn't stop him. I mean, they were playing, right?
But then I lived in the country and remember that those dog packs are hungry and dangerous, and have lost their fear of humans, so they will attack one.

I wish you the very best. Come home safe and sound and apply that wisdom you are gathering to your daily life and the people you meet. And keep writing. You have a way of putting things that makes me feel like I'm there.

God speed.

God Bless You :-)

Thank you for this.

When a soldier shows reverence for life, the Light grows brighter.

We need all the Light we can get.

Surely you will be blessed for showing mercy.

I wish you a speedy return home.

I remember a small pack at Camp Anaconda in '04 having an attitude problem when I was walking alone along the perimeter. I decided if they stayed back, good enough; if they ran at me, bad for them. After some growling and staring on both sides, we all went our seperate ways. We're not all, in fact most of us, are not like that.

I usually leave the comments area for the reader. I chose to delurk today only to answer the question as to why I didn't stop the shooting. You're right that I should have. I just didn't see it coming. Incidentally, I am a rather large man (6'6"-ish, 225lbs) and I was strapped into the rumble seat (passenger) of a a UAH 160 (Humvee), so the simple logistics of getting to where I could have stopped him probably would've stopped me anyway. But more than that, I was just floored by his random destructiveness. You never think someone will do something like that until it happens. Next time, I'll kick him in the Jimmy.

Despite their lack of weaponry, the rodent team will continue to hold their own, history will bear me out on this. The guy you had to ride with is another story. I can only hope he is on his way to an evolutionary cul-de-sac. Women, don't breed with this guy! If those dogs made it to maturity and were cavorting around, my guess is that they were part of the community. Some human loved them, played with them, fed them to the best of their ability, and drew comfort from their presence. He murdered somebodies' dogs. The human spectrum is broad, but I don't know where this guy fits in. Perhaps he is here as an object lesson in what not to become. I am sorry this happened to you. Thanks for your post.

Should you happen to run across this fine example of humanity and empathy again, please go ahead and kick him in the "Jimmy" anyway for the rest of us that are entirely too far away to do so. God keep you safe in your journeys.

A wild pack of dogs is not something which should be ignored. Wild dogs kill men, women, children, and livestock. Any unattended dogs should be shot. These animals are carnivores and will eat people. These are not pets, but a source of disease and are a danger to human safety.

A domestic rat once took up residence outside my office window. I knew she was domestic because she was bright white with a small black saddle. It took me over a month trying various schemes to live-trap her. I lay a trail of seeds leading to the bowl of food inside the wire trap. The trap was sitting on the dirt ground, so my wise rat tunneled underneath. The food fell out of the trap into the tunnel and she went her merry way. I finally managed to outwit her and took her to some woods and let her go. Dang, I miss that rat.

Excellent post, Captain.

Thank you for letting me walk beside you, and feel what you where feeling. I'm sorry that I can't reach acrossed the distance between us to give you a hug, and to say my prayers are with you. Please know how much your story has touched me. May God protect each of you, (including Sir Mouse).

Your story reminded me of one of my favorite books. The famous French paratrooper/author, Jean Larteguy, once wrote a similar scene into one of his books called, The Praetorians. The French paratroopers come across an Algerian guerrilla band in the desert and have a firefight with them. When it is over, the French also kill the all the camels the guerrillas had been riding in order to destroy all possible assets the Arabs could use in the war. Later on, one of the French captains says, "We have crushed ancient civilizations underfoot, but we, the French, have had the hypocrisy to pretend that we were trying to defend them… those camels slaughtered in the middle of the dunes!"

I too am impressed by your story and actions. My belief is that its bad enough to kill because you have too to survive.. Killing without matter what it is is a waste of energy that could be used for something else. I tip my hat to you.

Be safe.

What an amazing, distressing story. Thanks for showing us a little bit of real life over there.

Have to think the dog-shooter probably relates the same story as one of his beer-drinking, hell-yeah, "look what I did" stories.

There's something unspeakably disturbing about people who kill innocence for no reason, whether it's a person or as in this case, an animal.

"Ye without sin, cast the first stone"... It's easy for all you arm-chair quarterbacks out there (Zelma)to pass judgement. I like Bill Swift's comment. Can't say much about the the other actions. Everybody acts differently than they would expect, when thrust into extemely difficult situations as these guys and gals are..

Thanks so much for the post. I have really enjoyed the things you have written that end up in The Sandbox.

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