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 03, 2006

Name: CAPT Lee Kelley
Posting date: 11/3/06
Stationed in: Iraq
Hometown: Salt Lake City, UT
Milblog url:

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


Good description of your feelings. There is nothing more important than raising children. There are things as important, but not more important. Good job.

love the analogy about the bald girl.

and i love workin' with kids. every saturday, go into the intercity and play and pay attention to these kids, attention that is not violence or drug-fuelled.

hope to be doin the same thing when im in the service, get a chance to show my humanitarian side

Beautifully said. I'm a teacher and my soul gets fed like that every day. The good you did for the kids and the good the kids did for you is the way the world is supposed to be. Take care.

What a wonderful thing to do for those children. I hope you get home safe to your family and get a lot of time to watch the children unfold. They are like flowers that open over the years always surprising you with their insights and the little things that bring them joy.

Thank you so much for sharing this event with us. It is often hard to realize, here at home, that so many good things are happening where you are. May you have many more such happy times to report until you are safely home again with your own family. Our prayers are with you.

While I recognize that you had good intent to do a good thing, all I could think about as I read your comments is how scared and angry I would be as a mother if armed soldiers from an invasion force approached my child without my consent. Especially men from an army that had killed many children in my homeland. You're a parent, how would you feel if the situation was reversed?

help who you can no matter how tall or what shade. keep your head on a swival and come home in one piece.

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