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 08, 2006

Name: SGT Brandon White
Posting date: 11/8/06
Stationed in: Afghanistan
Hometown: Ohio
Milblog url

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


Thank you for your story.
It tells the truth. I'm an old man but none of my wimpy stories can ever compare with your account of what's happening in Afghanistan (and Iraq).
I wish you well and hope you return in one piece - mentally and physically. None of us here in the US who have not experienced these wars can fully understand what it's like.

Perhaps you are allowing the reader to look into your eyes.

A very compelling story. Thanks for sharing it.

Thank you for sharing your eyes with the readers.

We older people try to be careful how much we show with our eyes when we know how fragile situations can be and we don't want to precipitate anything. Things can become worse if we don't detach and control it. You know this, you were doing that with the private by pretending not to watch him. That you were able to read your commander is an indication of the high stress he is under; and you were keyed into looking for it. We are all responsible for eachother; politicians to their citizens, commanders to their soldiers, Afghan leaders to their people, parents to their children; and we have all fucked-up and put you there. Is that the mistake you're looking for when you look in older peoples' eyes? What could I, as one incompetent person, have changed? What you saw in the mirror was exactly what there; somebody between a rock and a hard place trying to figure out what the hell is going on.

Keep reading those eyes. Many practised deceivers can control their body language and words, but the eyes cannot lie.

Come home safe, and I hope you find eyes that have love, acceptance, respect and joy waiting for you.

Thank you...I have a friend (army) who comments on the fact that I have a hard time making eye contact when we talk. I believe you have helped me understand why it is so important and what can be found there or maybe what I try to hide there. Didn't make much sense to me until your story, now I see more clearly :) Thanks for all that! Keep up the good work and come home safe.

Powerful. One of my favorite blogs thus far. I tried looking into people's eyes they day I read this. It made most people skirm. It is amazing how intimate the act of eye contact can be.

Stay safe and thank you.

I first learned the power of eyes when looking at the post-concentration camp photographs of my grandparents while they were being rehabilitated by the Americans, given food and clothes and showers. In the photograph with my grandmother you see a group of pleasant young women, but if you hold your hand to cover all of the face but the eyes, what you see is pain. I always hold my hand to photographs to cover all but the eyes so that I can see what the person was really feeling.

Thank you for your words and insight.

eaven and Earth meet in Mary's news. Mary, the mother of Jesus, grew up in a devout Jewish home. She had been to the temple in Jerusalem - many Jews traveled there regularly for feasts and festivals. She had worshiped there in the Court of Women. She had been to that place where heaven and earth meet, the holiest ground in the universe.

eaven and Earth meet in Mary's news. Mary, the mother of Jesus, grew up in a devout Jewish home. She had been to the temple in Jerusalem - many Jews traveled there regularly for feasts and festivals. She had worshiped there in the Court of Women. She had been to that place where heaven and earth meet, the holiest ground in the universe.

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