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.

SIGNS |

January 31, 2007

SIGNS
Name: CAPT Matt Smenos
Posting date: 1/31/07
Stationed in: Afghanistan
Hometown: Santa Maria, CA
Email: msmenos@hotmail.com

The driver pulled his cab onto the median, checked the mirror for traffic, and stepped out of the vehicle. The honking, blinking stream of vehicles blew cold, gritty wind in his face as he walked carefully to the rear, opened the trunk and removed his tool bag. The wooden signpost on the median was sturdy, but a bolt needed to be replaced in order to straighten the advertisement for his business. Kneeling between the car and the sign post, he unzipped his tools.

The busy sounds of midday traffic washed over him. He had been a cabby in this little Afghan town for many years. He had seen the Russians and the Taliban. Now the giant US humvees rumbled down the roads in convoys with the Afghan National Army. Many things changed, but the roots of the town went deep. He knew the watching, waiting eyes of the dissatisfied, the dissolute and the desperate. He knew the very ground beneath him held the bloody memory of decades of war and faith and sacrifice. He knew that many things had not changed, and that many people would suffer before they did.

He wiped sweat fom his brow as the old, rusty, broken bolt finally came free. Dropping it into the bottom of his tool bag, he reached into his pocket for a new one. Out of the corner of his eye he saw a flash of green and turned to see a group of Afghan soldiers in a pickup truck moving slowly across the traffic circle. A crunch on the gravel road told him someone was behind him. He stood and turned, wiping his hands on a rag. A tanned, skinny fellow in a brown jacket was trudging slowly past the cabby's parked car. The cabby called out a greeting but the man just walked on, gaze fixed on the horizon, silent and distracted. He could have been any of a dozen pedestrians on the road side that morning. Nothing about him stood out.

The cabby shrugged and returned to his work, forgetting the walker and the soldiers as he renewed his efforts. The sounds of traffic continued to hum past him and the crunch of the pedestrian's shoes faded as he moved around the traffic circle. No one saw him reach into his pocket. No one noticed his lips forming silent prayers. No one noticed anything until it was too late.

My intelligence officer finished describing the detainee's statement and sat back down, as memories of the day's events continued to unfold in my mind.

I had been on the phone with my wife. Let me rephrase that. I had been on the phone with my wife for too long. I seldom get the opportunity to call home. Even less frequently do I get the chance to talk with her for more than a minute or two. Now she was filling me in on the details of our annual tax return.

"Our deployed tax-exemption actually lowers the bracket we're in and when you add it up you get..."

BOOM!

The plywood walls echoed and vibrated with the deafening roar. The lightbulbs on the rafters swung, and cast wild patterns of shadow as clouds of dust leaped up from the stone floor. A plastic coffee cup detached itself from its hook on the wall and bounced painfully off my head. Everyone stood silent as the dust settled, and suddenly it was too quiet.

I murmured a subdued farewell to my wife, hung up the phone and got started. We worked tirelessly for the next several hours trying to figure things out, radio receivers pressed to our ears, cradled in our shoulders and handed back and forth. Every military agency for miles around came up on the net, as word of the totally unforseen bombing rippled outward and up the chain of command. Radio controllers and operations officers in dozens of ready-rooms, communication stations, telephone cubicles and on cell phones shared map coordinates, manifests, detailed descriptions, rumors, assumptions, misconceptions and lies. Navigating the buzzing chaos of the command net during a crisis is like panning for gold. An experienced controller learns what to keep and what to throw away.

We didn't get most of our answers until the detainee was questioned. As my initial response force arrived, they reported a terrible bombing had occurred just a few meters outside the gate of our little base. They described overturned cars, burned and dismembered bodies, choking smoke and the cries of the wounded. Initial reports placed the suicide bomber on the roadside, having exited a taxi cab seen parked on the median. The safest course was to secure the entire area, assume the parked taxi was still a threat, and capture the dizzy, stumbling cab driver as he shook his head and tried to focus his eyes.

Over the last few months, I have read the statements of a number of detainees. I have witnessed their capture and release. This man, though treated the same as any other, acted differently. He was terribly concerned for his car and his wallet. He carefully catalogued the contents of his pockets and asked for receipts to ensure the safe and accurate return of his belongings. Most detainees suspected of collaborating with the enemy don't act like that. Most have a dead stare, like that of a doll's eyes, and a general disregard for themselves or their belongings. Most act caught. 

This man did not. He was shocked and panicky. He coughed and choked and rubbed his head. He cried, and repeated over and over his story about the sign that needed to be repaired and the man who walked past him and exploded. The Afghan and US intelligence community, when they were able to investigate, discovered that the car was clean. There were no signs of weapons or explosives, and eventually they released the driver. They returned his money and possessions. I think they did the right thing.

In the days that followed we discussed the bombing, while in the gym, while walking to chow, in the break area and in bed before falling asleep. In the past we had been rocketed and attacked by small arms fire, our little base had endured numerous blasts and projectiles, but never had such a grisly and totally random act of violence occurred so close to us, and made us feel so exposed. Many suspected the driver. They felt his sign-repair story was a sham and that he was a very talented liar in the employ of the enemy. I had my doubts about this. Not only did his behavior surprise me, but his story gave me hope. Maybe I'm naive, but I really wanted there to be a ruined sign among the wreckage somewhere.

The most common complaint I hear about the Afghan nation is that they don't have a stake in this war. That they lack any sense of nationalism and do not share a vision of making their country better. The driver we detained exhibited another perspective. Like a tomato plant in the desert, here was a guy who most definitely has a stake in what happens in his nation. Here was a man not only striving to make something of himself, to turn an honest dollar, but also a man willing to maintain things and ensure the upkeep of that which he was proud to have built.

I wondered about the driver's sign. I wondered if he would return eventually to replace it, or if this sad moment, yet another display of violence and outrage, would scare him away. Would it sway him to leave town and set up elsewhere? Would he even stay in Afghanistan? Or would the sign become another battered, unclaimed fragment of a nation buried under decades of war? Would there ever be another sign endorsing Afghanistan's people, culture and services, or would the only sign worth posting read: "Pakistan: 480 mi." ?   
   

GOT THEM IP BLUES |

January 30, 2007

GOT THEM IP BLUES
Name: SGT Roy Batty
Posting date: 1/30/07
Stationed in: Baghdad, Iraq
Hometown: Yellow Springs, Ohio
Email: sgtroybatty@yahoo.com

An old man with a thin white beard is asleep in the back of the pickup truck.  He's wearing a terrycloth sweatsuit, brown, dirty, grease-smeared, emblazoned with the name of a Spanish soccer team. He looks pretty comfortable, curled up in a semi-fetal position, his shirt hiked up a bit over his little pot belly. Just taking a snooze in the warm golden January sunlight, hunkered down beneath the sides of the truck bed to avoid the slight chill beneath the afternoon's breeze. The only problem, of course, is that he is not asleep.

He has a small dent to the right of his forehead, and on the back of his head, just visible, is a very large hole, its edges splayed yellow with a hint of skull matter. Blood, dark red and thickly viscous, has flowed into a long pool that stretches down the entire length of the truck bed. Like all real blood, it looks very different from the red stuff you see by the gallon in the movies, and is thus somehow less...real? Is that the word? Back in The World, teenagers watch maniacs on silver screens slaughter people for fun. But in this back alley it is irrevocably real, and not fun at all.

I'm standing there with Denny, one of our IPLOs. We are remarking on the dead man to each other, using technical terms to dilute the more unsettling aspects of having to look at an executed grandparent lying on a metal floor.

"Can't have happened too long ago, the blood hasn't started to coagulate yet...."

"Yeah, but lividity is already setting in. Look at  the purple bruises around his eyes."

"Oh, right. What do you think?  9 mil?  Entry wound is pretty small, and the exit wound is not too big."

"Yeah. If it was an AK, the whole back of his head would be gone..."

"Yep, definitely a pistol."

The Iraqi cops hang back, behind us, next to the cement wall around their police station. They don't say much, an occasional word to one another muttered in Arabic. They look like a group of reform school boys waiting to see the principal. There may be a good reason they are so quiet. Perhaps it's because we are fairly damn certain they are the ones that murdered the old man.

Here's the deal. We were at one of our other IP stations, just a few blocks away, and got a call on the radio from "maneuver" that there had been a carjacking in our area. This would be the fourth one in a week, all right here in the mahallahs just north of Sadr City. All on Dynacorps trucks -- usually car carriers hauling uparmored SUVs to and from the various FOBs around Baghdad.

We had finished up our routine business at that police station and, as planned, came over to this one. As we pulled up, we noticed Grandpa dead in the police truck. The IPs seemed a little surprised to see us. They never know when we are going to show up, which is a good thing.

"What happened?" we ask.

"Oh, well, this is the driver of the car carrier that got jacked," they reply.

"Wow, that was quick."

IPs usually hate picking up dead guys. We've had arguments with them, usually in side alleyways at 2 a.m., about who is going to have to manhandle the newly discovered corpse and take it away. These guys must be really on the ball this time, to jet out to the crime scene and scoop up Mr. Hole-in-the-Head so quickly.

I feel sorry for him in a general sort of way, although that emotion has been hard to come by lately. He is the fifth or sixth dead guy I have come across in the last month or so. Still, he is someone's father, I'm sure; someone's grandfather, probably. Somewhere, a family will soon be wailing with grief. I don't know what possible threat this man could have posed to anyone, or why some scumbag felt inclined to blow his brains out the back of his head on this warm afternoon. I add the muted sorrow I feel for the man, and the undercurrent of resentment at whoever did it, to the dark whispering in the back of my skull.

It looks like he has been shot with a pistol at close range, although there is none of the gunpowder tattooing that would come from a point blank shot. Still, it's unusual that it would be a 9 mil. AK-47s are ubiquitous here, but pistols are in short supply. Except for the Iraqi Police, who carry and covet the black Glocks that we issue to them.

Grandpa is the second corpse we've come across from a carjacking that occurred in close proximity to Iraqi police. A couple of weeks ago it was a businessman, lying in the street right outside the Ministry of the Interior. We had just pulled turned the corner and, oops, there's a corpse in the road in front of us. It's disconcerting how quickly you get used to seeing that sight.Framed_batty_ips_street

This particular street has a whole series of checkpoints on it, designed to keep street traffic away from the government compound. Nevertheless, there he was, his head ventilated and leaking what appeared to be sticky raspberry jam. We stopped and asked the IPs on the checkpoint what had happened. Oh, it was a carjacking. Someone stole his car. Right here?  Oh yes, yes. Did you guys see it? Oh, sure, mistah, it was right in front of us. Did you shoot at the guys who did it? Oh, no, no. So you're telling me that a bunch of bad guys carjacked this dude five feet in front of your checkpoint, in broad daylight, stole his car, and somehow made it 500 meters down the street, past two other checkpoints, and nobody fired a single round at them? In a country where the police will empty a magazine of AK rounds at cars just to stop traffic?

Riiiiight.

Now Denny and I are leaning on the truckbed of the police pickup, looking at Grandpa, then at the IPs behind us. They don't make eye contact with us, suddenly enthralled with their pastel blue police shirts, or with something on the bottom of their shoes. Denny pulls out his digital camera and slowly starts taking pictures of the dead man, for his report to our higher headquarters. When he is finished, the IPs reluctantly move towards us. "We go now." "Ma-sahlam-ah." "Goodbye, mistah."  And off they go, driving quickly away. Grandpa lolls around as they bump their way across the potholes, somehow still asleep despite the rough ride.

Denny goes inside the police station, along with my squad leader and the other IPLOs. They have questions for the police chief. I go back to the little cordon of HMMWVs and our huge ASV, sitting at the entrance. We have been increasing our security while out and about these days, after what happened in Karbala the other day.

You probably read about it, or saw it on CNN. A group of American soldiers, including at least one MP, were at a provincial meeting in Karbala. Supposedly a number of new SUVs pulled up with what appeared to be American soldiers inside, wearing something like ACU uniforms, flashing American ID cards. They were summarily waved into the compound by the IPs who were guarding the place. These apparent soldiers then threw a number of concussion grenades into the conference room and burst in, shooting everyone present. Then they kidnapped two of the American soldiers, who were found murdered shortly afterwards, just down the road, left in the SUVs.

Bottom line: five dead American soldiers, as well as some local ministers and businessmen. That's the story, anyway. Since every American who was there was killed, what really happened is known only to the IPs that were present, and somehow they all miraculously escaped harm. Personally, I think the IPs just turned on them.Framed_batty_ips_compound

In any case, we are changing things up a lot, in an attempt to make sure that the same thing doesn't happen to us. Just the thing for a paranoid ex-Marine.

I'm searching everyone who comes into the joint. There is a steady stream of civilians coming into the compound for various legal reasons, and, more worrisome, a whole bunch of IPs in civilian clothes. Now, as any Iraqi vet will tell you, there is not really a standard uniform for the Iraqi Police, other than a vaguely blue shirt. That's it. No badge. No nothing. Sometimes just a blue collar peeking out above a jacket. Apparently even that is too stringent a dress code for some of these guys, and we have seen our fair share of dudes in jeans and a kaffiyah coming around the corner, brandishing an AK. Hey, whaz up, mistah. Just goin' to work.

Amazingly, these guys take umbrage when I stop them, and demand some ID, and pat them down. You would have thought that with the security situation the way it is in Iraq, at least the police would understand when we set up some basic procedures. But no. Every other guy protests when I go to stop him: "IP, IP, mistah. No, no." Some of the ID cards are ancient versions which are no longer issued. Many are expired. Occasionally they have no police identification at all. The cops tell me they left them at home, or forgot them, or something equally asinine. They are all armed, usually with concealed Glock 9 millimeters.

I've also started searching the civilian cars that come into the compound, and this evokes the same indignant response. Such was the case with Starsky and Hutch.

I come trudging back to our little checkpoint at the entrance, just as a small silver compact car weaves its way through the Haskell barriers.  Inside are two Iraqi guys, wearing civilian clothes. The driver is older, with a big Saddam moustache. His passenger is a kid -- looks like a teenager. Starsky, the older one, is wearing the tan suit jacket that seems to be the new fashion rage among IPs since Saddam's execution. Hutch is wearing a jogging suit, which is very common for younger Iraqi men.

My driver, already on guard, mentions that they had just come in a few minutes ago, and he had checked the car and found nothing. They had stayed for a few minutes, then left, and now were coming back inside for some reason.

"Indak heiweyah?" I ask Starsky.  Do you have ID?

Starsky mumbles something in indignant Arabic, and finally produces an ancient yellow IP badge, the kind issued a couple of years ago, long since obsolete. Still, not that unusual, for this station anyway.

I am about to let them go when I spot a bit of wire sticking out from a black jacket on the backseat of the little Daewoo Crown sedan. I open the back door, move the jacket, and find two folding-stock AK-47s underneath. All of the Kalashnikovs that belong to the IP station have wooden stocks on them, and painted ID numbers on those stocks. These AKs are not standard issue. Not to mention that you are not supposed to have them in a civilian car, while wearing civilian clothes.

I ask Hutch, the young guy, if he has ID. Hutch decides to get mouthy with the big, shaved-head infidel who is blocking his way. It becomes apparent that he doesn't have any ID. I've never seen him before. In fact, I've never seen either of these jokers before, and with the discovery of the AKs, I'm not feeling very charitable.

Get out of the car, asshole.

Starsky gets out easily enough, with a bit of an anxious grin beneath his moustache, but Hutch continues to talk shit, moving slowly. I tell him I am going to search him -- "Taftish!" -- and motion for him to turn around and raise his arms.

Hutch spins around on me as soon as I touch his side. He clearly doesn't want to be searched, and he's not going to cooperate.

Fine with me. I slam his body back around, up against the side of the sedan, and I'm not terribly gentle about it. Grandpa's face is still a sharp image in my head, his grizzled white beard speckled with blood. You guys might be badasses with unarmed senior citizens, but I promise you, it will not be so easy with me. My driver moves behind me, his M4 coming up to cover Starsky in case he gets stupid, too.

Hutch is still not done. I go to pat down his arm, and he brings it back at me, trying to pop me with his elbow. Now, I'm 6 foot 3, I weigh 235 pounds, and I'm wearing an additional 60 pounds worth of assault rifle, grenades, ammo and body armor. He weighs maybe a buck fifty soaking wet. When I bounce his head off the hood of the car it sounds like a rifle shot. I slam his arms out to the sides of his head on the hood, and kick his legs out wide to the side with the same degree of tact and diplomacy.

Hutch gets the point.

As soon as I frisk his torso, I find out why he doesn't want to get searched. Hidden up underneath his running jacket there is an assault vest filled with loaded AK-47 magazines. He's got four of the damn things under there, 30 rounds a piece in each mag. Call me paranoid, but I'm really curious as to why these guys are trying to sneak in here with over 120 rounds of AK ammo and two hidden assault rifles.

The earpiece to my tactical radio buzzes urgently. It's my squad leader. Apparently he is watching this little piece of drama from somewhere around the station house, probably up on the roof.

"Whoa, whoa, SGT Batty, just search him, don't beat 'im up!  Gotta watch that temper, jarhead!"

I turn to my right, facing the IP station, and reach up with one hand to key the mic. The other hand is securely around Hutch's neck. He ain't going nowhere.

"Hey, Sarn't, this guy is trying to come in here in civilian clothes, in a civilian car, with two hidden AKs, and an assault vest full of mags under his clothes. And no fuckin' ID card. And then he wants to get stupid about it."

The radio is silent for a minute. Apparently the news has set my squad leader back a bit. Meanwhile, a small crowd of uniformed IPs are swarming out of the front gate of the station, and coming towards us.

"Well, what are the numbers on the stock of the AKs?  Maybe they are detectives," says SSG H. in my ear.

"That's what I'm trying to tell you, Sarn't. They're folding-stock AKs, hidden in the back. Not issued IP weapons."

The crowd of IPs have reached us. The largest one, one of the "officers" is pointing at Starsky and Hutch. "IP! IP!" Some of the guys from our trucks have dismounted, and are keeping them back.

"Ummm, okay. I'm coming down. I'll bring a translator; see if we can figure out what is going on." My squad leader clicks off.

Some of the IPLOs join the crowd, and eventually my squad leader and platoon sergeant also join us, along with their translators, and the whole crowd of Iraqi cops starts doing the usual Arab argument act, with stiff-armed gestures and lots of loud gibberish. It's a regular little fiasco.

Eventually it all boils down to this: Starsky and Hutch are the bodyguards of one of the IP majors, although that major is not here today. They drive him around in a civilian car to blend in. The officers from the IP station vouch for them, so they are allowed in.

As usual, several key questions never get answered. Where did the AKs come from? Why are the guys here in the first place? Why does Hutch not have any form of police ID? And why are they trying to come in here, armed to the teeth, if the major is not even here?

This illustrates a significant problem we have with the police in Iraq. What happens if they do something improper, or illegal? Since Iraq is now a sovereign country, we don't have any real authority over them. If Starsky and Hutch did do something illegal, all we could do is detain them and hand them over to their own guys. Who will promptly let them go.

Which is what happens this time. Starsky and Hutch drive off in their silver Daewoo, Hutch glaring resentfully at me in the rear view mirror as they go. I hope, at the very least, that the message has gotten out, not to mess around with the Americans, or at least not with the big, tattooed one. The LT and my squad leader congratulate me on the catch, and tell me that I am definitely the guy for the front door job. You better believe I will continue to be aggressive on the checkpoint.

The next day we are back at the same station, and the saga of the carjacking continues. Word comes from Dynacorps that the vehicles stolen from Grandpa's car carrier were uparmored SUVs, coincidentally the same kind of vehicle that was supposedly used in the hit in Karbala.  Seems like the carjackers in this area have been specifically targeting them.

These particular SUVs were being transported back to Kuwait, since they were inoperable for various reasons. As soon as we get to the IP station, lo and behold, we are told that the IPs have located the missing SUVs. They are in the junkyard of a local tow truck company. The same tow truck company that contracts for their station. There is, conveniently, no word on how the SUVs got in the junkyard, or where they were found.  Nada.

We mount a quick little raid on the junkyard, in case it is a trap. It's not, and we quickly locate the SUVs, since they are the only torched vehicles in the place. Yep, they're completely gutted, a total loss.

Sounds like someone figured out that they didn't work, and decided to torch them to destroy any evidence. And then gave them back to us, so as to reap some kudos for their investigative efforts.

After we leave the IP station, having documented the VIN numbers on the trucks, we get a weird call from our TOC. Somehow they have information that a driver from one of the earlier carjackings is being secretly held in the detention cell of our IP station. Soooo, we go back to our station, and try to find the guy. Who isn't there.

So what does it all mean? What's the point of this long story? Well, the Administration, and the Iraqi government, are putting a lot of emphasis on the Iraqi security forces being able to take over and run the country. Prime Minister Al-Maliki said last week that, properly equipped, his police forces could assume complete control of the country in the next three months.

Problem is, the type of issues that we are dealing with day to day, as just described, are not uncommon -- quite the opposite. They are de rigeur for operating with the Iraqi police forces. Keep in mind, this is after four years of training and equipping  these guys. At best, the Iraqi police are corrupt and incompetent. At worse, they are one big criminal gang, and outright insurgents to boot.

I keep reading news reports that talk about how the Mehdi Army has "infiltrated" the Ministry of the Interior and all of the police agencies.  "Infiltrate" is such an evocative word, bringing to mind images of dark clad guerillas scaling chain link fences in the middle of the night. That simply isn't the case. These guys have not surreptitiously snuck into the MOI. They are not hiding, or operating clandestinely, whispering quietly to each other in secret meetings after work. They've been outright hired by their buddies, particularly after the Shia gained control of the Iraqi government. Every IP station I have been in has Shia and Mahdi Army propaganda posters openly displayed inside it. They are not working to bring down the system. They are the system.

These are our buddies, our comrades-in-arms, with whom we are supposed to bring Jeffersonian democracy and security to this wonderful country. This is the hope to which our President is pinning the success of his plans. To tell you the truth, I don't think our IPs know it, or are particularly worried.

They are too busy washing Grandpa's brains out of the back of their pickup truck.

DECENCY AND HONOR |

January 29, 2007

DECENCY AND HONOR
Name: CAPT B. Tupper
Posting date: 1/29/07
Stationed in: Ghazni, Afghanistan
Milblog url: www.myspace.com/42094372
Email: tupper.taskforce.phoenix@gmail.com

Unfortunately I was sick with whatever it is that has caused me lose twenty five pounds in less than two months, and was unable to go out on our planned mission to our most contested district. But my teammate Ski still had to go, so I wished him well.

When he returned that evening I went over to get debriefed on how things went. As I got close to him, I immediately noticed his uniform was covered in blood, dirt and gore. His normal upbeat and sunny vulgar disposition was absent, and I knew some heavy stuff had gone down. I made him a quick dinner while he told me about the mission. He was in no mood to cook, and could barely manage to light his cigarette. The "thousand yard stare" was in full effect -- he was clearly still out on the battlefield, reliving the various "what ifs" that had played themselves out earlier in the day.   

The story started predictably: Taliban ambush, returned fire, RPGs, near misses, etc. As the engagement developed, Ski and the ETT soldiers riding in his Humvee were firing on, and receiving AK and RPG fire from, Taliban soldiers in a small village. The ETTs and ANA soldiers maneuvered into the village and immediately came across a handful of wounded and dead Taliban. Some were dead where they fell, others had crawled into shallow ditches and lay there dying. The fire from the ETT and ANA forces had been so fierce that the Taliban had abandoned their wounded, which is uncommon. We normally find blood trails and no wounded after we engage them.

Now Ski is an infantryman to the core. He chomps at the bit before each mission, hoping we will encounter the enemy. He is not one to wax humanistic. His normal response to most questions about the Taliban is to express a desire to destroy them in combat.

But Ski, upon seeing the wounded Taliban, immediately grabbed his Combat Life Saver medical bag and moved to begin treating them. Doing this was at risk to his own life. The enemy was still in the area, and the wounded lay in ditches in an open road. Without hesitation, he used his limited medical supplies on the enemy, in an attempt to give them comfort and aid.Framed_tupper_skitreatingenemywounded_1

While he ate the food I'd prepared for him, he described how one of the injured Taliban was going into shock. His femoral artery had been hit and he was bleeding out.

"This guy was looking at me with fear in his eyes, expecting me to finish him off. When he realized I was trying to stop his bleeding, he relaxed and put his hand over his heart." In Afghanistan, it's customary among men to put their hands over their hearts as a sign of deep respect and thanks.

Here is a Taliban man dying, felled by our bullets, showing a final act of thanks for decent treatment. And there is Ski, the warrior, holding this man in his arms trying to make his final moments as comfortable and painless as possible.

That image of compassion from an unlikely source, in an unlikely place, is stuck in my head. As I sat there and listened to Ski, coated with the enemy's blood, I knew this day would stay with him for the rest of his life. It's a small, but tangible example of decency and honor in an environment full of hate and pain.

A GLIMPSE |

January 26, 2007

A GLIMPSE
Name: SGT Brandon White
Posting date: 1/26/07
Stationed in: Afghanistan
Hometown: Diamond, OH
Milblog url: http://www.gwot.us
Email: soldierboy101st@yahoo.com

Who are these ragtag misfits? They're different things to different people. They are the eyes and ears of any given village in the land, and are no doubt exploited by my enemy for intel-gathering purposes. To us troops though, these kids provide a glimpse of hope among ruin, and a brief respite from the turmoils of battle. On their little faces shine bright smiles that can only come with youth. No different from American children, they are utterly curious and fascinated by everything, words escaping their lips a mile a minute, regardless of the fact that we cannot understand them.Framed_white_intelkids

When I pulled my camera out to take some photos of the surrounding mountains, these guys immediately formed into a group for a portrait. It was the same in Iraq as well. Let it be said; folks in the Middle East love having their picture taken.

Afterwards, I went and sat back down behind the wheel of my Humvee. Within minutes, all four door windows had faces pressed to the glass, peering in, no doubt fascinated by all the gear and gizmos. One of them spotted the bag of Tootsie Rolls stashed next to a seat. Knocking on glass commenced, as well as finger-pointing to the bag along with “Mista! Mista!”. In the interest of silence, I grabbed the bag, gave it to the gunner, and he dispensed the contents. I was then left in peace to scan the horizon for enemy activity.

ON THE HOME FRONT |

January 25, 2007

ON THE HOME FRONT
Name: Sharon Swanke
Posting date: 1/25/07

Husband stationed in: Kuwait
Hometown: Bloomington, IL
Email: sharonmaries@juno.com

On the home front...

1:30 a.m.  The smoke detector on the main floor starts intermittently beeping, loud enough to wake me but not the kids. It is running low on batteries.

1:45 a.m.  A thorough search of the house reveals that all batteries that fit the beeping smoke detector went overseas with deployed husband.

1:50 a.m.  Shop for batteries at the local 24-hour store. Outside temperature is 17 degrees. My bed was a whole lot warmer than this.

2:10 a.m.  Stand on chair and struggle with smoke detector re-installation.

2:25 a.m.  Check e-mail just once more....No message from my spouse.  Six days without a message, and counting. Prior to his deployment we had daily contact for 20 years. It is a big adjustment to go without: his message, his voice, his touch.

4:00 a.m. Eyes wide open, no sleep tonight.

Still, it is better than being shot at. Remind self: next time husband deploys, check his bags for basic household items that are going with him, then restock said items.

HOPE AND DESPAIR |

January 24, 2007

HOPE AND DESPAIR
Name: CAPT Doug Traversa
Posting date: 1/24/07
Stationed in: Kabul, Afghanistan
Hometown: Tullahoma, TN
Milblog url: http://traversa.typepad.com
Email: traversa@gimail.af.mail

For those who have been reading my posts, excuse me while I do a quick review for new readers. I work at the Central Movement Agency (CMA), the only transportation unit of the Afghan National Army (ANA). More simply, we are a trucking unit. In addition to running convoys all over the country, we have taken on the additional mission of picking up cargo flow into KAIA, the Kabul International Airport.

Until recently, this cargo was handled by civilians, and having us take it over is a big deal, as CMA grows and takes on more missions. With this growth comes more responsibility, and a sense of pride in the troops, both ANA and American. When we got here, everyone was excited that CMA had moved four artillery pieces to the south. Now they run convoys all the time, and they make me proud. Framed_traversa_truckplane_1

But life here is a continual series of ups and downs. We are still fighting against an "every man for himself" mindset, as well as trying to figure out the best ways to motivate the Afghans. Sometimes we'll have a problem that makes us feel like we are hitting ourselves in the head, slowly and repeatedly, with a very heavy, hob-nailed baseball bat. For instance, a couple of months ago we opened a new recreation room for the soldiers at CMA, which included a ping-pong table, dart board, two chess sets, a TV with new rabbit-ear antennas, and some games. This was bought and paid for by our small group of American NCOs, and they also did all the labor.

One day we heard that everything had been trashed in there, so we went to check it out. Sure enough, virtually everything was destroyed. The ping-pong table was in pieces, the darts were all broken, one chess set was missing, and the other's granite board was broken. The antenna on the TV was broken. There were soccer ball marks all over the walls.

After this, it was hard to think positive thoughts. We had a chat with the Commander and Sergeant Major about how badly this reflects on the unit. The Commander is constantly telling us that the soldiers come from villages, and it will take a long time for them to develop discipline. That may be, but we are at war, and they need to whip these guys into shape a little quicker. To his credit, the Commander had the place cleaned up immediately, posted a guard in there, and said he would replace all the broken items himself.

But when something bad happens, it isn't long until something good happens, giving us hope again. While we were loading cargo at the airport one day, a fellow Captain came out to watch. He was incredibly impressed by how quickly and eagerly our CMA troops were getting the cargo strapped down and their truck ready to roll. And also envious that we get to work with the Afghans daily. Even though he is assigned to work with the National Police, he rarely ever sees an Afghan. I have to agree that despite the risk of traveling each day, I have a much better job, and would not trade with him.Framed_traversa_cargo_crew_2

You may have read or seen on the news that Camp Phoenix in Kabul (my home) was attacked recently -- a suicide bomber rammed his car into our front gate. But before he could detonate the explosives packed into the vehicle, an Afghan guard and an interpreter pulled him out and subdued him. The guard was a man known affectionately around here as Rambo. He wears an Army uniform, carries a red baton (which he will not hesitate to use) and even has a "Rambo" name tag. Someone had a special rank made up for him which looks like his red baton. He salutes us all when we comes in or go out, and I always salute him back, even though he isn't technically in the Army.

Now he is probably the most beloved man in this camp. I don't know the interpreter involved, but these two show the outstanding side of some of the people here. Once again Afghans, not NATO or the US, risked their lives and thwarted a bombing. When something like this happens, it makes you proud to be here helping to rebuild this country.

But with the good comes the bad. It all started at the airport, when all of our trucks were waiting to enter the flight line and head out to unload a plane. The fourth truck was parked on a slight incline, and instead of going forward it rolled back and hit the fifth truck. The bumpers touched, and I don't think there was even a scratch, but the driver of truck five (we'll call him "5") jumped out and started yelling at the driver of truck four (and of course we'll call him "4").  4 got out to look at the damage, and 5 got in his face and started yelling.Framedtraversa_truckplane2

We all saw that a fight was brewing, and as we started to get out of our vehicles, 5 punched 4 right in the nose. I ran up to them and started yelling. Meanwhile, a second guy in truck four slid over into the driver's seat and started heading out, leaving his buddy behind. I yelled at 5 and pointed at his truck. He promptly threw his half-eaten orange at 4, then we all ran to our vehicle with 4 and jumped in. I jumped in too fast, and smacked my head against the door jam, giving myself a massive headache for the rest of the day. 4 had a nice bloody nose, and we got him cleaned up while heading out to the plane.

Once we get there (yes, I know I've switched from past to present tense; it seems more appropriate), 4 climbs out of the vehicle with blood in his eye. I'm following him, yelling "Nay!", because I know he's out for revenge. He motions that he needs to get his helmet, and heads back to his truck and does indeed retrieve it. However, he still looks deranged. I'm yelling to Hamid to get the ANA major in charge over here, and 4 takes off and finds 5 as he is getting out of his truck.  4 takes his (very heavy) helmet and whacks 5 right on top of the head with it. 5 clutches his head and sinks to the ground, and 4 jumps on him, swinging the helmet. At this point, six of us are trying to pull them apart. 4 swings his helmet back for another blow, and hits SMSgt Reynolds in the head, so now we both have headaches. At this point, I've got the ANA Major, Hamid (my interpreter), and 4 together, and I lambaste 4 for his actions. I tell him he is embarrassing Afghanistan, the Army, and CMA. This seems to have some effect, and he promises to stop fighting, at least until he gets back to base. Good grief.

But I refuse to end on a down note. Sometimes the simplest things can bring incredible joy.The same day we were breaking up fights, I gave Hamid my thick winter gloves. I had given him some lighter ones earlier, but he still looked like he was freezing, so I figured he needed them more than I did. He was incredibly happy. "Oh, these are so thick and warm. I have never seen gloves like these. There are not gloves like these in all of Afghanistan."

After lunch we were walking out and he said, "I am so happy today."

"Why is that?"

"I have these wonderful gloves. They are so nice. Thank you so much."

"You are most welcome, my friend."

A DAY FOR SMOKE |

January 23, 2007

A DAY FOR SMOKE
Name: 1SG Troy Steward
Posting date: 1/23/07
Stationed in: Sharana, Afghanistan
Hometown: Amherst, NY
Milblog url: www.bouhammer.com

The cold continues and so do the combat missions. We are still doing multiple missions every week, not letting ourselves or the ANA take a break. For the last couple of days we had a mission a day going out. It has been pretty quiet here enemy-wise, so that keeps them quick and boring. It is not that way everywhere in this country, and there is no doubt the bad guys are still here and not wintering over in Pakistan. There have been several attacks the last few days reported in the news, and some of these have been in our area of operation (AOR).Framed_steward_artiller_2

However, yesterday Mouse, Smoke, and myself all were part of a mission to Gardez, somewhere I have not been since June. When I first got to country, I was stationed there for the first few weeks until my team moved to Orgun-E. Now we were going up there to let Smoke participate in a very special ceremony and be bestowed a great honor. He is an Artillery guy, and seeing that our ANA, whom he mentored, were the first in the Afghan Army to fire howitzers in combat at the enemy, he has accomplished a lot. Our Corps HQ held a special ceremony inducting him into the Order of St. Barbara. This is a special recognition for those in the Army and Marine Corps that make great contributions to the Artillery branch.Framed_steward_smoke_2

Smoke has been in over 18 years  and spent his whole military career in the Artillery performing a variety of functions. This tour was the icing on the cake, as he put in many personal hours and dedicated himself to learning the Russian Artillery Principles, maintenance, and gun system mechanics of the Russian-made D30 122mm Howitzer. After he self-studied and became an expert, he then trained the ANA to a level that allowed them to receive target data, compute information that translated it into gun data, and fire the weapon at the enemy in combat.

Infantry is what I have been all my career and as with many things in the military, there are rivalries between all the combat-arms branches, like Infantry and Artillery. I have never been a big fan of that branch and don’t consider it as vital as Infantry to the military, but I have a new-found respect for guys like Smoke. He and Scooter (who used to be on our team) have made tremendous progress with these ANA and it is only because of them that Afghanistan can say it has fired artillery in combat. I consider them both friends and hope I can always stay in contact with them both. Scooter was in charge of the ceremony in Gardez, so I also got to visit with him while we were there.

This was our reason for going up there and staying the night, and I am glad I was able to participate and watch him receive such an honor. Of course any time we go out of the wire it is a mission, and we have to keep our wits about us. There is always danger from the enemy and this time of year there is danger from the ice and snow covered roads. Lucky for us, everything was quiet and non-eventful.

Until next time...

PIECES IN THE SNOW |

January 22, 2007

PIECES IN THE SNOW
Name: CPT B. Tupper
Posting date: 1/22/07
Stationed in: Afghanistan
Hometown: Syracuse, NY
Milblog url: www.myspace.com/42094372
Email: tupper.taskforce.phoenix@gmail.com

The streets, the fields, the Market Bazaar, everything as far as the eye could see was covered in a coat of pure white. Overnight a snowstorm had passed through our corner of Paktika, dropping just enough snow to cover all the mud and dirt and garbage that paints the landscape of the town. 

I stood on the main road of the normally bustling Bazaar, in an expanse of pure white, staring at a mysteriously vibrant pink and red object. Around me, there were no footprints disturbing the snow except my own. It appeared as if this strange object had been dropped from the sky. It lay there in simple repose -- thin fibrous strands splayed like a peacock's tail feathers along its top. At the base, a stiff stalk of white segments adorned with bright red dollops.

After the initial distraction of marveling at its intricate make up, I refocused on my original purpose in approaching it. I needed to identify what it was. Having now done so, I turned and walked back to my Humvee. 

It was the neck stem of a human spine, blasted 150 meters in the air from the site of a suicide bombing minutes earlier. I had been in the middle of a slow, frustrating meeting with my Commander and our ANA counterparts, arguing over attendance numbers, when a very subtle vibration passed through our room. It was gentle and unassuming. With no one even mentioning the distant thud, we continued our conversation until one of my ETT Teammates ran into the room and yelled "We're rolling -- there's been an explosion in the Bazaar!"

Now I stood amid a chaotic scene. ANA soldiers and ETT's trying to organize a wide cordon around the blast site, with rumors spreading of a VBIED (car bomb) still in play, and the confusion of sorting out who was dead, who was wounded, and who was lucky.

These initial moments were pretty tense. Scattered in the road intersection were seven unoccupied vehicles. Any one could be a secondary explosive device positioned to kill the first responders, a classic enemy tactic. As we went about trying to get a grasp on what had happened and what needed to be done, we all were within the lethal blast radius of even a small car bomb. 

I found myself nervous, but ironically fighting to contain a smile. I kept expecting a fiery white light to instantly wash me away. BANG! Torn Car metal. Flame.

When none of this transpired, I was happy as a kid on Christmas morning.  And every second that there was no explosion, my grin continued to grow. I was just happy to have a few more seconds with no technicolor finish.

This reaction probably seemed out of place, given the random burned and twisted body parts laying around me as I walked through the scene. But no one noticed me. Each of us was in our own little world, trying to process the remaining risks and the results of this suicide blast.

The events up to this point were fairly easy to reconstruct. A lone suicide bomber had walked up to a group of ANA soldiers who had congregated at a street intersection outside of our Base. He detonated his explosive vest, which instantly scattered his mortal remains in a truly random pattern. Ground zero was a large blackened circle where he stood, which instantly evaporated the snow and burned the ground below it.Framed_tupper_ground_zero

His head flew straight up, landing about 20 meters away on the hood of a white Toyota station wagon. It rolled off onto the ground, leaving a red smudge and streak across the hood. His heart landed about 50 meters in the opposite direction. It sat there, in perfect condition, as if carefully removed from the chest by a surgeon's delicate incisions. An ANA soldier walked by, and kicked it like a small soccer ball down the road. A gesture of disgust at this suicide attack. 

And in my sector of the cordon, I stumbled across the aforementioned spine segment. Wandering another 20 meters, I found the rest of the spine, adorned with the remaining ribs, cracked and splayed like old fingernails.

And in this dramatic yet mundane spot, I spent my day. The sun rose, and the sun set. A cold silent street, randomly speckled with red pieces in the snow, devoid of people, activity, and life, except for the soldiers who remained to secure the scene for the bomb experts. The only other visitors to our grim vigil were gaunt dogs who, smelling the fresh meat on the wind, came to steal a meal from the bones of the bomber. 

The silence of this morbid scene was finally broken at sunset by gunshots, and the horrible yelps of a dog caught sniffing around the bomber's head. Shot but not yet dead, the dog was howling as it cursed the irony of locating food, only to die from its lucky find.   

Up until this moment, I had spent my day staring at parts of the human body normally hidden from view. I had poked at a large sheet of flesh, covered in goose bumps from laying flat in the cold snow. I had spent twenty minutes within the kill radius of a car that was reported to be loaded with explosives. None of this distressed me in the slightest.

But this dog's continued cries, echoing off the cold and silent market place, hit me like an emotional bomb. They were as painful and solemn as any noise I've ever heard. It's what bothered me the most about today.

A TRIP TO THE HOSPITAL |

January 19, 2007

A TRIP TO THE HOSPITAL
Name: A Nurse
Posting date: 1/19/07
Stationed in: a military hospital
Hometown: Illinois
Email
: smknva@yahoo.com

I had to make a trip to the hospital today. I was called by CPO (civilian personnel office) and informed I needed to come in person and fill out a DD75. Huh?  Leave it to the military to number their forms. Everywhere else a form has a name. If a patient or family member has an "incident", i.e. a fall, the form you fill out is called an incident report. In the Army it's a 2218. If a healthcare worker is unfortunate enough to get a needle stick, everywhere else you get out the needle stick protocol with the needle stick form. In the Army it is a trip to room 3H45 to complete the 1588. When you resign, instead of getting an exit interview and final evaluation, with the Army you "out process" and are handed a DD5.

As I was wandering the hallways trying to get the proper signatures on the DD75, which would allow me to continue my leave of absence, I saw a soldier rolling towards me in a wheelchair. Not an unusual sight, and I glanced up, smiled and kept walking. As I drew abreast of him and his family he called out to me, "Where have you been?!"

I stopped and stared, recognizing the voice but not this handsome man sitting up tall, dressed in jeans and sweatshirt. Recognition slowly dawned, and I suddenly broke out into a huge grin and exclaimed, "Look at you! You look awesome!" He was one of my soldiers, bedridden after an IED explosion sent shrapnel into his abdomen and legs. I had never seen him any other way than lying down, in a hospital gown.

Not to be dissuaded, he looked angrily at me and said again, accusingly, "Where have you been?"

As I looked at him I felt a hollowness in the pit of my stomach and replied, "I've taken some time off."

"Well, you didn't tell me you where going anywhere!" he accused. "I've been looking for you when I come out of surgery and you're not there!...I was worried something had happened to you." I stood there, feeling the hollowness in my stomach grow, unsure how to tell this patient of mine I would not be back anytime soon, and maybe not ever. I didn't have to, as he introduced me to his family and began telling me about his recovery and future plans. We stood and chatted for a bit, and then he decided he needed to head back to his room and get his meds; the pain had returned. Before he left he looked at me and said "You need to clear all your time off with me," then laughed, said goodbye, and headed down the hall. As I watched him go I felt the tears well in my eyes and quickly turned away, wondering for the millionth time if I had made the right decision.

I continued on my signature-obtaining journey and eventually ended up in the recovery room. A friend of mine, an Army nurse, pulled me aside and said, "Your patients miss you." She began to tell me how she noticed that  once the anesthesia wore off, many of the wounded soldiers' heads would pop up off the stretcher and they would start to look around. When she'd walk over to find out what they needed, they all replied they were fine, and told her they were looking for someone. After the fourth or fifth time this happened she started asking them who they were looking for. They all said the same thing, describing me with vivid detail and asking her where I was.

As I stood in front of her I again felt the tears well in my eyes. When she asked me what she should tell them I felt the tears start to stream down my face. My friend led me into the staff lounge sat me in a chair and told me, "No matter how much this hurts you now, you can not take care of these soldiers unless you are healthy: physically, emotionally and mentally healthy." With my head down I nodded. I knew she was right. She continued, "This is what we will do. We'll tell them you had leave you needed to use or lose, and if they want to talk with you we will give them your email address, and you can take it from there."

Once I agreed to the plan she hugged me and insisted I get the heck out of Dodge.

As I forged on with my signature-obtaining journey I thought about my soldier who, when I snuck him a donut after surgery, looked at me as if I had given him the most precious gift and said, "Thank you so much, ma'am! I haven't had real food in three weeks." He told me he had been at an outpost with only MREs before he was hurt. I thought about my young soldier and his wife who had invited me to their wedding, and who send me a birthday card every year. I thought about the soldier who told me he was going to spend his 21st birthday in the hospital. After a little chat with some of my coworkers, we converged on his room that day and had a party, complete with gifts, a cake, and the steak and baked potato dinner he had been talking about. I thought about the huge grin on his face as we all sang "Happy Birthday" to him. So many thoughts ran around in my head as I wandered through the hallways and buildings where I spent the last four years.

After returning the properly signed paperwork to the proper people I walked out the door of the hospital and over to the parking garage. As I sat in my car the tears flowed, and I again thought about all the ones I had seen and cared for, hugged and encouraged, cried for and with, and then I thought about all the ones whose hands I would not hold. The waterworks finally ended and I was able to head home.  As I drove through the Post gates I sent a prayer heaven-bound, that someone, somewhere, would do what I could do no longer.

THE DOG |

January 18, 2007

THE DOG
Name: SGT Roy Batty
Posting date: 1/18/07
Stationed in: Baghdad, Iraq
Hometown: Yellow Springs, Ohio

So it is a new year, and once again I am disappointed that we are not all zipping around the skies in shiny silver jet packs. I thought we would be there by the impossible Year of Our Lord 2007. But no, here we are in freakin' Baghdad, watching Mesopotamian hillbillies waste each other with assembly line machineguns designed in 1947, and trying to relearn hard-won lessons from a bitter little war 40 years behind us. It's all a bit depressing.

I could deal with all that, though, if it weren't for the mud. We enjoyed a week's respite while the clouds held back their torrents, and a weak and impotent sun slowly transmogrified the mud back into its usual tan-grey talcum powder form. Now it's returned with a vengeance, like some monster jello from a cheap 1950s sci-fi horror flick. "Revenge of the Chocolate Mousse." "Bride of the Mocha Blancmange." Or my personal favorite: "It Came From The Porta-potty."

Rumor has it that last week 1st Platoon lost a soldier to it. One moment he was walking to the latrines, the next second he was gone. All they found was his boonie hat lying on top of an innocent-looking mud hole, a few air bubbles plopping around it. No one's seen him since.

Mud victims or no, life goes on pretty much as normal, if such a word can be used on whatever twisted planet Baghdad rests upon. Mid-way through our deployment, and we have all gotten used to the routine. Admittedly, said routine is pretty easy here at FOB Shield. Too easy, if you ask me. We go out for a few hours every couple of days, and spend the rest of the time either playing Xbox or languishing in the Motorpool of Lost Souls, trying to make torque wrenches out of commo wire and the remnants of ammo crates, since the mechanics (a) flatly refuse to actually work, and (b) won't give us any of their tools. The other day I managed to take apart a steering gear box and change the MWO with my Leatherman and a P-38 can opener.

Today we have a new mission, an interesting one. We are going to an IP station on the fringes of Sadr City. Up until now it's been left out of the whole training and assessment thing we have been pretending to do with the other stations in town, since we were pretty darn certain that the entire staff was Mehdi Army. Someone higher up has decided that we will single-handedly convince them to turn their backs on their sectarian buddies and embrace the cause of democracy through the combined tactics of giving them the occasional case of drinking water and maybe a bullet or two. Giddy with the success of winning previous counter-insurgency wars by handing out free shit, we are going to have a go with these guys.

But first we have to do PT.  So I wake up at 0730, trudge to the latrine for the morning tinkle, only losing one shoe to the morass outside the front door, then present myself to the MWR gym. The gym is tacked onto the back of the strange structure we live in. I say strange because it was clearly something else back in the days when Saddam Hussein first raised it out of the desert sand. Its commonly accepted name is 'the D-cell'; MP lingo for Detention Cell. Civilian translation: jail. The back half is a vast, dark, echoing cavern where the infantry stay during their occasional sleepovers at Shield. We call it the Thunderdome.

The gym is hidden away inside its bowels. Most of the rooms have tile walls, vaguely stained, which suggest that it was either once a series of showers, or one of Hussein's secret gas chambers. The floor is made up of those funny foam segments that you see in kindergarten classrooms, linked together like a huge puzzle. The pieces are uniformly black-grey, though I suspect at one time they were cutely pastel. The rooms are filled with a variety of aging cardio machines, pieces of weightlifting equipment, and a surprisingly imaginative series of entertainment rooms, including a video game room, billiard room, and two phone/Internet chambers. With some hard work and ingenuity, someone has made the most of a bad area.

I spend half an hour on a creaking, mutinous cross trainer machine, followed by twenty minutes on a treadmill, and am surprised that I feel good. Really good. Like a million bucks, that kind of Tony the Tiger enthusiasm that seems to get more and more rare the closer you get to 40. Even the bracing thrill of the ice cold shower afterwards does little to daunt my good mood -- in fact the screams of my comrades around me freezing their balls off just increases the grin on my face.

An hour later we are rolling out of the mud-strewn gates in our trucks. I am appropriately fortified with nicotine and caffeine, and looking forward to the tawdry sensations that only Baghdad can offer. Our convoy is particularly full today, with three International Police Liaison Officers (IPLOs), their translators, and some pudgy Military Intelligence dudes and their interpreters. The MI guys have become a bit notorious with us lately, since they seem unusually incompetent, at least when it comes to preparing for missions.

The other day we were late for our SP (start point) because they had not done maintenance on their truck, which promptly went dead just as we started to move out. Once they got that fixed, it turned out that they had not changed the fill on their SINCGARS radios. Once they got both of those problems taken care of, and we were finally on the road, they realized they had not written down our frequencies during the OPORD brief. 'Lost in the sauce', as we say. Today we cut through that problem by stuffing them into our own trucks, despite their objections.

We didn't have to wait long for Baghdad to offer up something unusual. As soon as we had driven out of the gate I noticed a column of dark smoke a block away. It looked a bit like the smoke from a VBIED, or car bomb, but no one had heard anything. It could have been just another trash fire in a city that seems to breed trash fires, but it was not in a usual spot for one, and seemed just a bit too big and a bit too black. It looked like it was along the route that we would be traveling; maybe we'd get a look.

Sure enough, a few minutes later we emerge from a mahallah side street and there it is; some sort of vehicle in the middle of a major road, fully engulfed in flames. A HMMWV is parked in front of it, blocking one of the lanes. We wheel around to check it out.

Turns out the HMMWV belongs to the Iraqi Army, and a number of IP trucks pull up at the same time we do. A ragtag crowd of people has already formed around the burning vehicle, pointing and gibbering and moving back and forth with sudden flares of movement, the way crowds do. People lean over the balcony railings of nearby buildings. Kids stand around with open mouths, their attention moving from the popping and blazing wreck to us, then back again. Traffic clogs up around us, drivers cautious not to get too close to all of these men and their guns.

I get out of my truck and direct Nix to park it sideways across the street, providing more cover to the guys in front of me. I usually have the last truck in our convoys, so we are responsible for the rear security. I direct my gunner, Cooper, to watch the traffic behind us, and to scan the rooftops for snipers. I join him, standing at the back of the truck, using its bulk as cover, and scan the balconies and windows in the buildings behind us, peering through the telescopic sight on top of my M4. The chubby MI guy gets out of his rear passenger seat and takes up a stalwart position at the front of the truck, chewing his bubblegum and watching the car burn in the middle of the road.Framed_batty_squad_in_street

We have new, high speed radio headsets, so the team leaders can talk to each other and the squad leader when dismounted, and through it I pick up what has happened, in bursts of static and bits of conversation.  SSG Huhn is up at the front of the column, conferring through his interpreter, Sam, with the Iraqi Army and Police on the scene.  Seems that the Iraqi HMMWV came across a kidnapping in progress. The IA guys shot at the kidnappers, who took off, leaving their car behind, and the locals torched it in retaliation. These kidnappings are the newest fad in Baghdad, and there's been an explosion of them in the recent months. Anyone and everyone can be a target, as long as they have money. Ransoms can be hundreds of thousands of dollars, sometimes millions, and hostages are often killed, or simply never seen again. It seems that this time, for once, the bad guys lost.

"Meester, meester!"  I turn around, and there are a cute little boy and his sister standing in the middle of the road, wrapped up in thick bubble jackets against the winter cold. He wants some candy, but has chosen a bad place to make his pitch. I try, not unkindly, to shoo him away, doing a fair exploding-car Charades bit with my hands.

"Boom!  Go 'way, kid, it's not safe here."

He really wants some chocolate, and ain't budging -- but his sister picks up on the message right away. I return to my search for snipers and RPG gunners, but I can hear her behind me, tugging at him.

"Imshee, imshee."  Let's go, let's go.

As is normal for Baghdad, everyday life goes on around the spectacle, as if nothing was happening. Men walk down the street carrying groceries, and seem surprised when I suggest to them, via the pointy end of my rifle, that perhaps they should not walk near my truck. A hefty woman draped in traditional black robes walks right past me, coming from behind, lugging a massive plastic gas can. After she passes I suggest to the MI guy that as long as he is going to watch the front of the truck, I would appreciate it if he did not let anyone get near it, particularly if they are carrying large amounts of flammable liquid. He pops his gum and nods.

There is not much more for us to do. The Police and Army are here, but oddly no Fire Department. The truck continues to crackle and burn merrily, to the satisfaction of the crowd. As usual, a couple of knuckleheads try to inch around the backed-up traffic and roll up on our blockade. There's always someone who thinks they are special. We have another job to do, so SSG Huhn radios to the team leaders, and we mount up and head on down the road.

Away from the burning car, traffic is fairly light. I ride in the TC seat, toes tapping as we go, with the hand mic for our internal freq jammed up underneath my Peltor headphones. Between the SINCGARs and the headset radios, the airwaves are full of convoy chatter. Nowadays, we always go out with at least six vehicles, for security, and everyone is going on about something. Cracking jokes on their mates, sending out tactical info on the movement of traffic, pointing out potentially suspicious bits of junk on the road, or relaying info from the various maneuver elements that are trolling around the city. I send up a steady stream of comments, letting the squad leader know the status of the convoy as we clear various obstructions -- intersections, turns, checkpoints. We want to make sure we all stay together.

The weather is at odds with my good mood; dark grey, raining off and on, and bitterly cold. For most of the year Baghdad is solidly tan, but in the winter it is a depressing combination of slate grey and shit brown, glazed over with sub-freezing temperatures at night, sulkily rising to the high 40's or low 50's in the middle of the day. The palm trees look completely out of place in this weather, as if they have been trucked in as props on a movie set. In fact, if you want to know what Baghdad looks like in January, watch Stanley Kubrick's "Full Metal Jacket". All of the scenes in the last half, set in Hue City during the Tet Offensive, were filmed in the docklands of London. The combination of half-destroyed buildings, black plumes of gasoline fires, and the unremitting gloom of Great Britain in soggy wintertime do a pretty good job of sketching out this place. Just add the mud, some raw sewage and about ten years of garbage.

We make it across town to our delightful new police station, which is pretty much the same as all the other police stations in Iraq. A blue concrete fort, with cement guard towers on the corners -- sort of a post-nuclear-war Beau Geste. Burned-out hulks of cars rusting in the middle of trash in the front. Wrecked police pickup trucks in the back, one with a corpse lolling around in its truckbed. Guys standing around with AKs and no discernible uniforms. The smell of cheap cigarettes and fake leather. Suspicious looks. Saddam moustaches. Same old same old.

I'm in charge of setting up security, so I put two trucks in the back of the compound, two in the front, and our big ASV blocking the only gate in. The IPLOs, MI guys, translators and our squad leader go inside to do their thing. I grab two soldiers, and take them up to the roof to do counter-sniper watch. It's raining again, and a steel wind blows it into the guard towers. Fogged-over water bottles and the remains of unidentifiable meals lie resentfully in the corners. The place smells like an old castle -- crumbling stone, rusting metal, and the thin, unavoidable odor of urine.Framed_batty_on_roof

The perimeter wall has it's own set of guard towers in addition to the ones on top of the station house -- flimsy little sheet metal things, but the IPs here do not seem too concerned about security. And why should they be?  They are Shia police in a Shia part of town, right next to the Holy Shia Capital, Sadr City. No one is going to attack them here. Probably. One of the little towers has an occupant, but he is sitting down, facing the inside of the perimeter, and apparently asleep. Another IP sometimes wanders out to his tower; a big guy wearing a tan jacket and a balaclava. He looks like one of the thugs who led Saddam out to his gallows. They don't fill me with confidence, and it is an unspoken certainty that while they may be safe here, we are not.

I scan the rooftops with my sniper scope, and try to keep the soldiers' minds on the task at hand. Nobody is visible, which is hardly surprising given the horrible weather, and it is more likely that we would get hit leaving than while we are in the station. Still, it pays to be vigilant. Just once I would love to find a sniper crouched over his Dragunov in a window...first.Framed_batty_the_gun_1

After a bit, I trudge downstairs and make my rounds. Check on the guys inside the IP station, who are inventorying the police arms room and going through various records with the police chief. Trudge through the mud outside, making sure the gunners are okay in the HMMWVs and still awake. Arrange with the other team leaders to have soldiers relieve the guys on the roof in a little bit; they won't last long in the rain and the wind. Take a break for a few minutes in my truck, and read some more of the massive Stephen King book I have been working through for the fourth time. It is eerie to read about the end of the world while in a city that is as post-apocalyptic as it gets. Sometimes I look up from the book half expecting to see Randall Flag striding across the rubble-strewn landscape towards me, his dark grin twisting his face. He would feel right at home in this place. After all, he and his cronies created it.

As if the Dark Man heard his name and is answering, I hear gunfire outside -- not right outside, but not too far away either, and I head back to the roof to investigate. Nix and Arballo are in one of the corner guard posts, looking toward the northwest. We can hear AK fire, a bunch of it, and then some answering bursts. PKC by the sound of it, and then the unmistakable crunk-crunk-crunk of a Dashika 12.7mm, the Soviet version of the .50 cal. I report it to SSG Huhn over the radio headset, and add that I think Checkpoint 4V is getting attacked. Again. Happens almost every day.

This time it sounds like it's a pretty good one. The distant gunfight goes on for a good half hour, as both sides pound away at each other. The fighting doesn't come any closer to us, and no one directs us to go and support them, so the IA must be doing okay. It is interesting, though, since we will be driving through there in just a little while. I go back to my rounds, glancing occasionally at the perimeter wall when a particularly energetic burst catches my attention.

That's when I came across The Dog. I call him The Dog since he doesn't seem to have a name, at least not any that he answers to. The Dog has some history with our squad, which he seems to have adopted in a strange, protective way. The other IP station that we go to is four or five miles away. We first started visiting it a month ago, and The Dog was hanging out there with a bunch of other mutts, one of whom was nursing a litter of bumbling puppies.

Baghdad is teeming with dogs, tons of them, most of them half wild, feral, and a fair number infected with rabies. We came across them all the time when we were on the checkpoint missions, particularly at night. A pack would come rushing out of the darkness, barking madly, chasing our HMMWVs, nipping at the tires. We'd swerve at them and they would back off, and then come charging back in, just behind us.

Supposedly Arabs don't like dogs, but someone must have imported them at one time. There are all sorts:  border collies, black labs, golden retrievers, although barely recognizable with their matted pelts and wild eyes. Just more lost souls trying to survive in the broken city.

These dogs at the station didn't seem unusual, except for the fact that the IPs allowed them to hang out in the walled parking lot. With hours to kill and nothing to do but scan for snipers, we would pet them and try to play with them. Our IPLOs started bringing scraps for them from the chowhall, and that got their interest. But they must have been pretty well fed. I've never seen a dog refuse anything, and these guys were pretty picky, occasionally turning their nose up at suspect infidel grub, like corndogs or egg rolls.

The Dog is not the cutest of them, or the most friendly, but he has personality. The first thing we noticed is that he really doesn't like kids. As any soldier who has spent time outside the wire in Iraq will tell you, the kids are everywhere here, and they always cluster around your trucks begging for water or candy or anything. It's cute at first, but it gets annoying after a while, and it's also a security concern. We've seen UAV footage of kids burying IEDs, and heard intel stories of kids attaching magnetic IEDs to HMMWVs. But mostly it's just really annoying, since you cannot get them to leave or even just shut up for a minute, except the way the IPs move them, which is by hitting them, and we don't do that.

Anyway, The Dog doesn't dig 'em. He'll bark and charge, driving them out of the police compound, although he will never actually bite them. He'll veer away at the last second, or suddenly stop, turn around and stalk back to his resting spot, looking carefully over his shoulder at them. I can only imagine what the street urchins here do to dogs, and I assume he has had some bad experiences.

At that IP station there was a funny kid who would bring chai tea for the IPs, and eventually for us. A nice lad, with an easy smile, especially when charging you double the going rate for a thimble full of chai. T.D. hated him, too, and would trap him for hours inside the station. At first we were worried that he would bite the poor boy, and had long, earnest conversations with The Dog about his anti-social behaviour, shaking our fingers at him. He would just sit there, looking straight ahead, occasionally blinking, but never taking his eyes off of the doorway. As if he was just putting up with our sermon. "Yeah, yeah, I hear ya, Mac." And then he'd charge again as soon as the Chai kid emerged. You just can't get through to some people.

The Dog provided some entertainment on particularly boring days, but was not really anything that unusual. Just another vaguely golden retriever-ish mutt in a bad part of town. Until last week.

I was on mission with another squad at the time, but heard about it later. The guys went to the MP station as usual, and there was The Dog, as usual. But when they left, The Dog decided he was going to come along, and left with them, running down the street, zigzagging between the trucks, sometimes falling behind, and then catching up at the intersections. For five miles. All the way to the next IP station.

And he'd been here ever since, waiting for us to come visit him. Facundo hooked him up with an MRE, which he gratefully wolfed down. We all clustered around, scratching his ears, petting him, glad to see a friend in this decidedly unfriendly part of town.

When the IPLOs and MI guys finished up their business inside, it was time for us to go. We had to do a quick assessment of one checkpoint right on the northeastern edge of town, about six miles from the station. So we loaded up the trucks, checked the radios, and lurched out into traffic. And The Dog came with us.

It was exactly as the guys had told me. He kept right up with us, sometimes running point just in front of our lead vehicle, sometimes criss-crossing in front of the other trucks, or falling just behind my vehicle, but always somewhere in the convoy.

Apparently he decided to take on the responsibility of providing flank security as well. He would swerve wildly off to the side at the sight of any kid over the age of ten, barking ferociously, and charge them, tail swinging madly in circles, making sure they stayed away from the convoy.  I watched one kid jump out of the way at the last possible second, and The Dog, in a failed attempt to adjust fire, face-planted hard in the slick mud. He was not discouraged, though, and quickly regained his footing and returned to his slot in the convoy, a long doggy grin plastered on his face, as if to say, "Yep, meant to do that."

We laughed hysterically, until tears shone in our eyes. The Dog was alright. Soldiers in the trucks started radioing back and forth to each other.

"Is The Dog still with us?"

"Roger that! Still going strong."

"Where's he at?"

"Just on the right rear bumper of CPL Glessner's truck, over."

"Whoa, there he goes again!"

We could hear his barks, muffled, through the armor of the HMMWVs. He was off like a shot, barreling straight for a kid who was walking the other way, oblivious. He honed in like a missile on his target, and we braced ourselves for the impact, holding our breath with that delicious half-giggle you get when something both funny and tense is about to happen. The kid jumped in shock at the last minute, leaping to the side, and The Dog zoomed by him, curving back to us like an F-15 pulling out of a bombing run. It wasn't about hurting anyone. The Dog was just counting coup. Getting some payback.

Then we started watching out for him, the same way he was watching out for us. A couple of times neighborhood dogs, understandably uncool with this intruder on their turf, came charging out of dark alleyways at him, and very serious about it. They were going for his legs, and no doubt his throat if they could take him down. We'd swerve our trucks at them, scaring them off. The Dog would dig down deep, sprinting forward, glancing at us, that big grin on his face. It was all one big game for him. I called up to SSG Huhn on the radio.

"Can we keep 'im? Take him back to the FOB? Pleeeze?"

SGT French chimed in, "I second that!"

Other voices joined in on the freq, thirding the suggestion, fourthing it. SSG Huhn wasn't too hot on the idea. We all knew the medical advice about strays -- diseases, fleas, parasites, etc. Lord only knows what our platoon sergeant would do or say if we showed up with this muddy, dirty, stinking mutt in the back of one of our trucks. I'd gladly put him in my HMMWV, but I had the MI guys taking up space. Hell, given half a chance, I'd dump Fatso and take the pooch instead.The Dog would probably be more useful in a firefight anyway.

"Hey, we could put 'im in the ASV, they have enough room to carry him!"  I offered.

"Uhhhh, I dunno, man. The PSG would have my ass."

Then the radio chatter turned to the subject of an appropriate name for The Dog.  Since I'm on a Stephen King kick, I tried to think of the name of the junkyard dog that chases the group of boys in one of his novels, but I couldn't remember it, or the short story and subsequent movie that came from it.

"Hey, what's the name of the dog from that movie with the kids, where they get chased, y'know? In a junkyard? And they have to climb a fence to get away from it?  Chompers?  Gnasher?"

"Oh yeah, yeah, from 'The Sandlot', right?"

"No, that's not it.  Stephen King wrote it.  Remember, the junkyard guy tells the dog something like 'Chompers, balls!  Sic 'em!'  And the dog chases the kids?"

"Hercules. The dog's name is Hercules"

"Hercules, Hercules!"

"No, that's 'The Nutty Professor.'"

"What movie?"

"The one with River Phoenix.  Bunch of young guys, get chased by a dog..."

"Oh, yeah, that's...that's...oh, man, it's right on the tip of my tongue."

As usual, SSG Huhn got it. "Stand by Me." He and I are the biggest movie buffs in the squad.  But neither of us could remember the dog's name.

Meanwhile, we are sloshing our way up a particularly unpleasant side road, coming up to Enduring 7, our checkpoint. We don't like this road, since even in dry weather it is full of festering pools of liquid sewage. Now it's indescribable. We take it because we figure only a really die-hard terrorist would bury a bomb in the middle of this reeking gunk. None of which fazes The Dog, who launches himself into and through the shit pools with the tongue-lolling jubilation that only our canine brethren can enjoy.

We churn through the liquid excrement and lurch up to the checkpoint, reeking of garbage, mud, and Lord knows what. The Dog is waiting for us as we dismount, sitting patiently, panting as if he is thoroughly delighted with the morning exercise. We crowd around him again, all of us, the civilian IPLOs, the MI guys, and all of us MPs, congratulating him on his hard work. He is absolutely filthy, fur matted down with brown goo, but we don't care. He has affected all of us, and is a Good Dog, much the same as you would comment on a stand-up guy in your unit -- he is Good People. We gotta take him home.

SGT French and I have a plan. We open up the side doors of the ASV, and prepare a spot for him. SGT Nasholts, the ASV team leader, says it's okay with him, as long as SSG Huhn gives us the go-ahead. 

"Sure, sure. He said it's okay, thinks it's a great idea."

To hell with orders. Problem is, The Dog won't cooperate. We coax him over to the great hulking armored vehicle, but he just won't get in. It's not that he seems distrustful of us, or unsure of our intentions. He just isn't interested, even with the offer of another MRE. He wanders past us, unconcerned, and pads off across the road to sit on the sidewalk and watch the distant houses. We call to him, trying all of the names we have come up with.

"Hey, Hercules!  C'mon, boy, come here!"

"Chompers!"

"Gnasher!"

"Renegade!"  Renegade is our platoon name, and pretty fitting for him.

The Dog just sits and contemplates the landscape, his back towards us, his head still, facing the mahallah. Maybe his English is not that good. Maybe he is meditating on the state of affairs in the wartorn city. Perhaps he is on counter-sniper watch. But he is not getting in the ASV.

I come to the conclusion that The Dog is simply his own Master. He does what he wants, with no explanations to anyone. He's not going to trade his independence for "three hots and a cot". You gotta respect that.

Still, when it comes time to leave, he is on point, again. This time he has learned some more of our TTPs, as we find out after a bit, when he takes up position just behind my truck. If any civilian cars enter the 100-meter bubble we like to keep around us, he cuts them off. He is as good at rear security as he is at securing our flanks.

After a couple of blocks, though, it starts becoming apparent that the day's exercise is taking its toll. He starts falling further and further behind. He almost gets clipped by a car coming through an intersection, as my gunner relays down to me. I tell Coop, in reply, that he is authorized to open fire on any Iraqi vehicle that gets too close to our buddy. And then have to tack on a reluctant "Just kidding."

By the time we roll up on Checkpoint 4V, about a mile and a half down the road, The Dog is gone. Tuckered out, he has stopped somewhere for a cold drink and a cigarette, and is nowhere to be seen. I radio up to SSG Huhn that we need to pull a security halt at the checkpoint so he can catch up with us, but, no joy, we don't have time to stop.

It could be, though, that The Dog knew something we didn't. We roll up the bridge that Checkpoint 4 is on, and past the IA and IP guards, and down into the section of Adhamiyah on the other side. On one side of the bridge it is wall-to-wall traffic, as usual. On the other side, it is a freakin' ghost town. Nothing. Nobody.

That part of MSR Dover is really wide open -- four lanes, big median, open sidewalks. It's normally the usual chaotic crush of cars and trucks. Mayhem. Now, there is absolutely nothing. Bad juju.

Just past the checkpoint we cross an intersection covered in brass shell casings of all calibers. Obviously there was a pretty big firefight here recently. And then I remember the gunbattle we heard from the IP station. A quick check and it is confirmed that this is the place, and that there is still fighting going on in the area. We can't hear any gunfire, but the sudden emptiness of that long space is more than slightly unnerving.

The earlier hilarity is instantly gone. The radio is silent, except for SSG Huhn telling us to watch the rooftops and windows. TC's occasionally relay info to their counterparts -- a suspicious box, a lump in the road, a car abandoned by the side of the road. This is the same street that our other squad got hit on, with a car bomb, just a few days before Christmas -- with no real injuries, thank God. Still, there are plenty of guys in our convoy who were hit that day, and the memories of that sudden fireball are all too fresh in their minds, in all of our minds.

Nix starts swerving the truck back and forth randomly; a tactic designed to make it harder to target us with rocket-propelled grenades. My eyes flit from side to side, up and down. I'm checking everything; garbage by the side of the road, windows, balconies. Everything. We pass a single small bonfire on the left side of the road, and eye the old, kaffiyah'd man standing next to it with his grandson. It's a pretty common sight in Baghdad in the wintertime -- people trying to stay warm while they sell what few wares they have. These two are the only people along the whole stretch of road.

In my rearview mirror I see them dart indoors after we pass. Maybe it's because we are rolling six vehicles deep. Maybe it's because we are obviously alert and ready for trouble. Maybe it's because there is nobody bad watching us from the dark windows above us, but whatever it is, nothing happens. We enjoy a few tense minutes, a couple of blocks of holding our collective breath, but there are no sudden BOOOOMs or flares of tracer fire. We finish the last few miles of our patrol without incident, and then we are back in the endless mud sea of the FOB.Framed_batty_dogs

My day ends where it began, sitting on our frigid front porch, smoking cigarettes and discussing doghouse construction plans with SGT French.  One of our Iraqi interpreters is sitting on the table next to us, playing his guitar.  He has come up with an impressive riff, which starts with an acoustic rendition of AC/DC's "Thunderstruck", then segues into a Spanish flamenco piece, followed by occasional forays into Led Zeppelin, the Indigo Girls, and Pink Floyd, all tied together with more classical guitar.  Somehow it all works, cohesively, without pause or break, and the sound of it is pure magic in the cold Baghdad night, even with the sound of the fighter jets somewhere overhead, beyond the clouds.

This is Iraq in a nutshell. It varies from boredom, to hardship, to hilarity, to violence, back to boredom, into tension, and occasionally it trips across wonderment along the way. Gotta love it.

Tomorrow we are going out again, same as always. Ostensibly, we have to go back to one of the IP stations for more assessments, but really, we are going to look for The Dog.  He's out there somewhere, probably on a recon mission.  Probably has a higher body count than us, to boot. They don't like us here, and we have to look out for the few friends we have.

Note: That's The Dog, on the right.

MY FIRST ADVENTURE |

January 17, 2007

MY FIRST ADVENTURE
Name: Yambo
Posting date: 1/17/07
Hometown: Florida
Stationed in: Afghanistan
Email: dwtuk@aol.com

I am back from my first adventure, down to Kandahar, a lovely place in the southern desert with daytime temps around 130F. The breeze feels like a hair drier. Plus we're carrying 80 Lbs of helmet, weapons, vest and ammunition. A real joy. At times this feels like another training event, but then something strange happens, like you reach into your pack and pull out a grenade.

After a hot and crowded C130 flight we convoy out to the Afghan army camp. I am there to evaluate the communications for the Afghan corps. In the general's office there are handshakes and chai tea all around. The job I did in Japan really prepared me for talking through translators. It is a metered conversation that has to be direct, with simple words and no slang. Not as easy as you think. Try it sometime.

Then we're off to inspect the brigade's communication center, which is right next to the Afghan mess hall, the building with the goat pen. As we are talking communication, the smell starts to get to me. "What is that, did the sewer back up?" "What's a sewer? We just throw everything in a pit out back by the mess hall." Thankfully the inspection is nearing an end, just in time for lunch. Hey, I saw a Burger King at Kandahar airfield! What? Our inspection includes eating with the Afghans in their mess hall. All eyes turn to the three Americans as we walk in. There is a tub of water in the middle of the room, and a cook is rinsing dishes then putting them back on the stack to use again.

Since we are guests we sit down and a platoon of soldiers starts shoveling trays of food at us. Fresh plums and dates; so far so good. Then a soldier comes out with a sour goat milk yogurt lumpy drink. I focus intently on talking to the interpreter so I don't have to refuse the offer. My brothers in arms are not so lucky. A Major with the look of Opie Taylor graciously accepts the beverage, and all eyes are upon him as he takes a sip. And gags. A source of great amusement to the Afghans, to say the least. Our other guy has gone slowly so he could see Opie's reaction, and in the commotion he deftly hides his glass under the table. Smart man.

Time for the food, a plate of rice and a bowl of some kind of stewed meat and red beans. Out of the corner of my eye I am watching the interpreter and doing what he does. Don't use your left hand, they consider that unclean. So here I am with a plate of flat bread rice and meat. Uh, where is the silverware? There is none. Grab the bread, scoop the rice, and tear off a piece of meat. Oh well. When in Rome...I feel like an infant again; there is rice everywhere. I'm getting about half of everything into my mouth. The rest goes on the Afghan Army corps Communication Officer. After a while he asks if I want to use a fork. He issues a quick command, and the Afghan soldiers around the table scatter to search for one, and one is found. It looks like it has been used as a gardening tool. A quick wipe, and some bending to  straighten it out. Voila! Good as new. A nice gesture.

Finally it's time to leave the mess hall. Hey, where did the goats go? I don't want to know.

It's time to train. I see a computer in the corner of the operations center. At least I think it's a computer. It's covered by a sheet, with flowers on top. Does anyone know how to use a computer? Only the major. Would anyone like to learn? Their eyes light up and they immediately start thanking me. Three hours later they can turn on the machine and play solitaire. It's a start.

Time to leave. More handshakes and tea, and it's off to the airport. Our US Air Force airplane never shows up. Gotta love those Airforce guys. For them an order is optional. We wait for the next flight, then pile onto another C130 and are about to take off when the plane turns around and shuts down. Never a good sign. There is a bit of discussion, and we are told we have to reconfigure for other passengers and cargo. Pull everything off the plane, and stand by as three guys looking like something out of Road Warrior drive up and park their truck in the plane. We re-load our baggage and it's off again.

The road warriors never leave their truck. We  land and they drive off into the night. I don't want to know.

Now it's time for us to drive cross-country to go to a meeting. I see a few sights that make me think. The first is a Russian army jeep with an inscription on the door: "The assistance of Russia to Afghanistan." My first thought is, "Gee thanks, like you haven't done enough already."Framed_yambo_tank_2

Second is a scene that sums up this entire experience. In the foreground is a fence with a land mine sign. Beyond it, poppies grow wild, and in the middle of the field is a destroyed Russian tank. In the background is a snow-covered mountain.

All over this country there are people working donkey carts, wheelbarrows, trucks; people building and trying to survive. I don't feel so bad about being here. These people want to succeed, they just need our help.

At the end of our journey we meet with the US commander in Afghanistan, in a room so rank-heavy that captains are making copies and getting coffee. And just think, this is only the first week! Tomorrow it's off to Mezar e Sharif to do the entire process all over again. Note to self: Bring lunch.

AFGHAN TWILIGHT ZONE |

January 16, 2007

AFGHAN TWILIGHT ZONE
Name: CPT B. Tupper
Posting date: 1/16/07
Stationed in: Ghazni, Afghanistan
Hometown
: Syracuse, NY
MilblogURL: www.myspace.com/42094372
Email: tupper.taskforce.phoenix@gmail.com

It had been a difficult day, with a patrol through mined roads and in an area with recent enemy activity. Awakened by a lingering case of dehydration, I decided to get something cold to drink, and walked over to our TOC, the tactical operations center. While grabbing a cold bottle of Gatorade from the mini fridge, my attention was diverted by frantic voices coming over the military radio. Somewhere, out in the darkness, in some valley, at some random grid square, members of my Task Force were in a bad firefight. Some of my U.S. brothers and their Afghan Army Unit were in a pitched battle with the enemy. 

Combat on the radio here is nothing new. But the urgency, the terror, the frantic tones of their voices was out of the ordinary. Normally, Army radio transmissions are very formal and programmed. But when things go bad, it's all out the window. And things had gone bad.

"Keep your eyes on that fucking wall -- he's there! He's there!"

The staccato of a 240bravo machine gun ripped the radio's speakers. Voices faltered, quivered. Strong men were choking on their words.

"Fucking shoot them! Fucking shoot them!"

Then silence.Framed_tupper_ana_soldier_2

Nothing.

The bottle of Gatorade slipped from my hands onto the floor. I flashed back to recent moments here when I've found myself outflanked, outmaneuvered, outnumbered, and under enemy fire. The hot summer air in the TOC  had become cold, and I literally shook. I had a familiar sense of being alone, vulnerable, helpless. I couldn't move. I had become part of their distant fight.

Afghan Twilight Zone. My mind was working overtime, filling the silent radio's void with the fear and adrenaline  rush of combat. I could literally see the fight as if I was there. But being alone in the TOC, with this deafening silence, I just couldn't take it. I ran out into the warm night. I didn't know how the battle ended. I didn't want to know.

I nervously laughed at myself as I ran in the darkness back to my barracks, half mocking my childish fear, half running from something I felt was pursuing me.

But you can't run away from the war. When I returned to the TOC in the morning, the radio squawked with normal administrative chatter of movements, reports, and updates.The office was filled with my teammates and the usual upbeat, boisterous banter. I relaxed and joined in the small talk. Then a report come over the radio that an Afghan National Army soldier had been killed last night in the fight I overheard. He was found alone, separated from his unit in the fog of combat and the blackness of the night. He'd been captured by the Taliban, and his throat was cut. His body had been booby-trapped with explosives.

My fear of being alone last night came back. Listening to the fight unfold on the radio, feeling as if I were being drawn into it, all in the last moments before this soldier was killed.  Alone. I'm glad I ran through the darkness last night.

Note: This photograph is not of the man who was killed, but I think it is a very humanizing picture of an ANA soldier.

FIGHTING WORDS |

January 15, 2007

FIGHTING WORDS
Name: SANDBOX DUTY OFFICER David Stanford
Posting date: 1/15/07

A Sandbox salute to one of this site's most prolific posters, Adam Tiffen, who is the subject of a recent profile in the Style section of The Washington Post. Here are the opening graphs, followed by a link to the entire story:Framedtiffen_portrait_2

FIGHTING WORDS
D.C. Lawyer Adam Tiffen Forgoes the Legalese for Frank Dispatches From Iraq
By Peter Carlson

"The man was standing 100 meters from the explosion and he said there was no explosion," Adam Tiffen says.

He's looking at his computer screen, where a photo shows him in his Army uniform, questioning a kneeling Iraqi who was captured after a roadside bomb exploded near Humvees carrying Tiffen and other soldiers from the Maryland National Guard.

"If he wasn't the triggerman, he was the spotter for the triggerman," Tiffen says. "But I had to let him go. I had nothing on him. What can you do? Iraqis have rights, too."

Tiffen, 31, is sitting in his office at the law firm of Porter Wright Morris & Arthur, a few blocks from the White House, looking at pictures from his year in Iraq. His law degree hangs on the wall near his Bronze Star. On his desk sit a couple of souvenirs of Iraq -- a .50-caliber machine gun bullet and a hunk of shrapnel from a roadside bomb. His black crew cut matches his black suit.

"Look at me, I'm in my lawyer uniform," he says....(click here to read more).

MISSION TO KABUL |

January 12, 2007

MISSION TO KABUL
Name: 1SG Troy Steward
Posting date: 1/12/2007
Stationed in: Sharana, Afghanistan
Hometown: Amherst, NY
Milblog url
: www.bouhammer.com

The other day we had a mission to Kabul and our Task Force HQ, a short mission that would only have us from our home FOB for a few days. We had to take a lot of guys up there to drop them off for leave and pass, and  take care of some administrative business while we were there. We have done this mission many times, and except for the snow that we expected on some of the dirt roads, it should not have been any different than normal.

Little did we know that the main ring-road, which is all paved and in some places even has lines painted on it, is not maintained. No plows, no salt-trucks, no anything. The only way that road gets cleared is by natural melting, the wearing down of the snow and ice by the tires of the jingle trucks and cars until ruts are made down to the pavement, and by the exhaust pipes melting the snow as cars and trucks sit in traffic jams.

The bottom line is that a trip which normally takes us 3-4 hours from gate to gate, depending on the traffic in Kabul, this time took 10 hours. And there was a lot of stress involved.Framedstewardnormal_cold_hell

The average speed was about 25 mph -- and many times it was 0 mph. Since the snow is cleared by the truck tires, the entire surface of the road does not get cleared. And the crappy and non-maintained jingle trucks will routinely break down on a hill, or start to slip and need to put on chains, or worse yet slide off the road and turn over. This stops traffic in both directions. Nobody here is considerate or cares about helping anyone else out, so the traffic that is in the back of the line on both sides of the road tries to push around. Pretty soon you end up with two vehicles nose to nose and both drivers arguing about which should move. When drivers see a car pass them they jump in behind and move into the on-coming lane too. It does not take long for both lanes of a two-lane road to be completely filled -- two lanes of vehicles facing one direction, two lanes facing the other. 

This is why our trip took so long and why yours truly, at one point, thought about why it would suck to die upside down suffocating or freezing to death.

We ran into a number of large traffic jams, each of which held us up for 30 minutes to 90 minutes. It's bad enough you have all these people jammed up trying to get by one another, but throw in a convoy of US Humvees with large machine guns, not really fond of being stuck in traffic and made a target of, and you have a situation. We don't sit in traffic and wait for it to work itself out. We have guns, lots of them, so we make ourselves priority one. That may not be touchy-feely and some might slam us for it, but they are not here and we are. Many people who have been stuck in a US traffic jam would have given their first-born to have a armored Humvee with a machine gun on top with which to push their way through.

We do have that, and we do push through. At every jam-up we would have soldiers dismount with terps on their hips to start clearing people out of the way. It was not always fast and immediate, but we always moved forward and pushed people back, and off the road if we needed to. The last thing we want to be is a static target for a car bomb, ambush or something else.

Near one traffic jam there was a gas station, so we took advantage of this detour route to get around several large trucks so we could continue working our way forward. I was in the lead Humvee of the convoy, and as with any lead dog breaking trail there is always a risk you will be the first to happen upon hazards. As I came out of the gas station and back onto the road, there was a van in my way that was trying to duck in between cars and move so I could get my extra-wide beast of a truck through. Apparently the shoulder of the road dropped away, and as I inched farther away from the gas station exit, I felt my front end drop about two feet, and that in turn caused my back end to slip out and it dropped.Framed_stewardnice_job_top_1

I quickly threw the truck into reverse to try and back out of what I knew was a bad situation before I got stuck too deep. But it was too late, and I was definitely stuck. Face was my TC, but was already on the ground trying to get us through the traffic jam. He struggled to pull his very heavy armored door open to ask what the situation was. The truck had a good list to it towards the left, but not enough to roll over. Not yet. My gunner stayed inside while I pushed my door open.

Normally my door would fly open due to its weight and the angle, but not with snow outside of it. I knew it had to be bad if the snow was higher than my door. I stepped out into the snow only to find it was over my waist -- I had punched through the snow that deep and still not hit ground. This was way too deep for my truck to get out of. I got back in and kept her running.

We had the gunner get down and take down the machine gun. Mouse had pulled his truck up to pull me out so we did not want anyone up top. As my gunner got settled in, Mouse and Puss hooked up the tow strap. When it was set, I gave them the thumbs up and Mouse put it into gear and gave it gas. Basic physics will tell you that when one object tries to pull another object of similar weight, and the object being pulled has resistance, then it won't work. This is exactly what happened. Because of the angle he was pulling from and the way my truck was facing, it just swung his back end around and moved me a little -- into a worse position.

Due to the weight of my truck it pulled me deeper into the snow and caused the tires on the right side of my truck to come off the ground. My truck kicked up another 15-20 degrees in angle and we all knew this was now a very dangerous situation. The snow was just outside my window and I had to look up in order to see out the other side. The only thing holding my truck from rolling over was the snow the left side was pushed into.

It took two guys pulling from the outside and my gunner pushing from the inside to get his door open so he could get out. Since I was the driver and the senior person in the truck it was my responsibility to stay in there. The old captain-goes-down-with-the-ship scenario. Someone had to stay behind the wheel in case we found a way to pull her out. As I sat in the truck by myself I decided it was time to call higher and let them know of our situation and that we may need some bigger recovery vehicles in case we could not do this ourselves.

After that was done, old Chuck Norris (who decided to ride this one out with me) and I started looking around and noticing that we needed to secure things that could go flying. I left him in the windshield, as he was secure and assured me he could hold on. Being that he is Chuck Norris, who was I to doubt him? I started storing away radio batteries. I-pods, sunglasses, and anything else I could find which might become a flying threat if my truck started rolling down the hill.Framed_stewardl_chuck_s_first_mission_1

I was talking to Face on the radio as he had a portable with him. I was trying to find out what was going on outside the truck. Listening to the radio it was apparent that the situation was as bad as I thought, and everyone was convinced that unless they tried something exactly perfect I was going to start a long and dangerous roll, and not on my wheels.

As I looked out the window I could see a collage of terps, trucks, locals, and soldiers all mixed in together. The locals knew they were not going anywhere until we resolved this, so they were trying to help. That made for a very dangerous situation as there was no space between the 60-70 of them and the few soldiers we had on the ground. Lucky for us, nobody tried anything. Later Face told me he almost fired a few warning shots in the air to push them back, because they were not listening.

After getting everything I could reach (without moving too much) trapped down, I called Mouse, who was still sitting in his truck waiting for the decision on where to move it. I told him "No matter what, get me out of this truck if I roll." I knew this snow was deep, but had no idea how I would end up if I went upside down. The truck is armored all the way around. If the hatch was buried and the doors could not be opened then I would be in a bad spot.

I have been shot at, rocketed, blown up and everything else. But in fluid and adrenaline-driven moments like that you don't think about dying, the ramifications, or anything else like that. Not when it is happening. At least I never have. But when you are allowed to think about it, sitting there staring, and talking to a Chuck Norris figure, it is sobering. I thought about what it would be like to suffocate upside down. How much air I had in there if they could not get to me. If I would get knocked out by something, or if I would be okay enough to try to get out while they tried to rescue me.

Pretty soon I saw a jingle truck pull up and then I heard Face call me to tell me that they were going to have the big jingle truck try to pull me out. I figured it was worth a shot, besides a truck that big might keep me from rolling over multiple times even if I did flip upside down. I didn't think my vehicle would have enough weight to pull a truck almost the size of an 18 -wheeler down the hill with it. While they were backing it up into position, I called and told them to hook up Mouse's truck to the front of the jingle truck. It couldn't hurt, and could only help to have that much more power pull on me.

They decided they should shovel out the snow in front of my left tire, and one of the Air Force guys with us started doing it by hand. I called to Mouse and told him to get the shovels out of the back of the trucks, but before anyone could, a local came up with his own shovel and started shoveling.  He did all the shoveling and cleared the snow in front of the tire.

After getting everyone back, and a lot of cross talk about everyone being ready and the tightening of the tow ropes, I looked up to see one of the guys from another Humvee look over the top of my hood and give me a thumbs-up. I gave him one back, told Chuck to hold on, gripped the steering wheel and put my foot on the gas.

The Humvee started pulling the jingle, and the jingle started pulling me, and out I came. The locals had literally picked up and moved a small car that had been in what I knew would be my path of extraction. I had told Face several times to get that car to move, otherwise I would roll over its hood and crush the front end, because I knew there was nowhere else to go and I was not going to stop. Luckily for the car's owner, I missed it by an inch or more.

I was flat and on the road again, and everyone clapped, yelled and celebrated -- US Soldiers, terps, and local Afghans. We'd all worked together side by side towrds one common goal and got the truck out. Granted, the motivations may have varied: The locals did not want to be stuck there until we got out, and we did not want to be stuck there with a flipped truck, or waiting surrounded by Afghans for a US wrecker to show up.

I got out of the truck and several of the locals walked up and shook my hand. I made a point of walking to the truck driver and giving him 1000 Afghani (about $20 US). At first he refused, which I was surprised by, but I insisted. I then found the guy with the shovel and handed him a $10 bill from my wallet. I would do that in the States, so I would sure do it here as well.

Once we collected ourselves and got everyone loaded and weapons mounted, we were on the road again. A few minutes later Puss called on the radio and asked in a joking manner if I could try and keep my truck on the road this time. With a nervous and happy laugh I kept driving. About three minutes later (according to what Face told me later) I started calling out on the intercom system "Oh Sh**, Oh, SH**, OH SH**!!!, and the truck was going sideways. I had hit black ice. My multi-ton Humvee spun completely sideways and slid in one of those slow, uncontrollable glides. I did what I was trained to do, and had done many times while driving on ice-covered roads in Alaska, tapping the brakes and turning into the slide. With black ice though, it does not matter much, and you are left to the dynamics of physics and the grace of God to see how it turns out. After 150 meters my front wheels stuck in the snow and stopped me.

I put it in reverse and backed out of the snow. Once I had it turned straight and we were once again moving in the right direction, Puss called on the radio to remind me what he had asked me earlier and if I "COULD PLEASE" keep it on the road this time. I told him I would do my best. Face and I agreed there was no way we would make Kabul before nightfall, so we might as well take it slow.

A few miles down the road, we hit our next roadblock. Except this one only had traffic stopped in the direction heading towards us, not in our lane. There were about 8-10 trucks stopped, and what looked like ANP (police) on the road. The civilians literally stood in front of my truck to stop it (not a smart thing given the condition of the road). I stopped, and Face and Jawed the terp got out to see what was going on.

It did not take long to realize it was not a good situation (which was already evident from civilians stopping us). It seems that the ANP were running a shakedown stop, where the crooked ANP stop trucks and force them to pay a toll to drive on the road. It's a very old racket that used to happen back in our country during the gangster days of the 20s and 30s.

The truck drivers were very upset and complaining to Face. I could see him yelling at the ANP, literally in their faces. They were screaming back and I did not like him being that close to them. Then we saw the bayonet mounted to one of their AK-47s. It was game time, so I was out of the trruck as fast as I could. It was faster to grab Betsy than my M4, and since there was only two of them Betsy had a barrel of double-O buck for each. It would only take one barrel for each, dead-center of the chest, to end the threat from them.

As I got out, the gunner saw what was happening and that I had Betsy leveled off, and knowing he could not get the M240 MG low enough in elevation at that close of range, he raised his M4 and put his sights on the closest ANP in front of Face. Face was cussing him out for being crooked --  they'd admitted to doing the shake-down -- and then he told the civilians to drive on. They would not be bullied by these guys, at least not this time. As the civilians left to get in their trucks, they yelled and cussed the ANP, telling them (according to our terp) that they were bad men, saying "Look, the Americans help us, while you, our own brothers, try to steal from us. Why can't you protect us like the Americans do?" Once all the truck drivers left and Face had delivered a few last verbal lashings, through the terp, we were back in the truck and on the road.

The rest of the journey was very stressful, not because of sliding but because of some paint-trading between our Humvees and some oversized trucks. Many of these drivers run only parking lights or one headlight, but when they see Humvees coming they want to let us know they are there and they flash their high-beams -- or just turn them on.Framed_stewardchucknormal_dscn0570_1 Well, that blinds us, especially with the snow reflecting the light. There were many times I was pretty much blind as I drove by vehicles, with no idea how wide they were or where the edge of the road was. That was some nerve-wracking, white-knuckle driving. I already had a few scrapes on the side of my truck, and did not want to hit anyone so hard it threw me off the road. Eventually we made it to Kabul, and after a few backtracks (because terps who live in a city their whole lives can apparently get lost in the dark), we made it to our destination.

It was a long, stressful, cold, and tiring day. I was so glad to have made it there alive and well. We had all our people and all four trucks. Needless to say, I slept very, very well that night.

ALL IN A DAY'S WORK |

January 10, 2007

ALL IN A DAY'S WORK
Name: SGT Brandon White
Posting date: 1/10/07
Stationed in: Afghanistan
Hometown: Diamond, Ohio
Milblog url: http://www.gwot.us
Email: soldierboy101st@yahoo.com

There they are, staring each other down, perhaps five feet between them as the day's dying sun sinks behind the peaks. The faint cawing of a bird breaks the relative silence of the camp. The wind picks up for a moment or two and dies back down, and I register the slight rustling of the dried leaves of The Tree. I turn my eyes back to the current spectacle as the two men begin the ancient dance of "the fight". They begin side-stepping in a counter-clockwise direction, each keeping his distance, knees slightly bent, arms out, anticipating the other's attack.

For a couple of weeks now, these two have been giving each other sour looks, looks that convey, "My testicles are infinitely larger than yours" and, "Watch your step, pal." The American is a large boy, barely 19. I distinctly remember him telling me his combat uniform had to be custom made. Ironically, my platoon leader made him a gunner on an M1114 hummer. I remember him jutting out of the top of the hummer, squatted down so much that his knees almost came down to the platform on the interior of the vehicle. His mass filled almost every inch of the hatch from which he protruded, and that helmet on his head -- well, on a kid that size, it looked rather absurd, like a yarmulke with a chin-strap.

His adversary is one of our interpreters, his polar opposite in just about every way. The Terp is a little older, perhaps 22. He is lean but muscular, with the steely-eyed look of a man who grew up with extreme hardship. He is also about four inches shorter than his opponent. Without skipping a beat, the Terp abruptly changes direction, now circling clockwise. The American follows suit, moving slowly, being careful not to trip, but his eyes never leave his opponent's. A weak haze of dust has kicked up, their movement creating a circular swath in the dirt. As for me, well, I am sprawled out comfortably on a canvas chair, watching the showdown commence. As a Sergeant I know it is my job to step in if it turns ugly, but I know it won't, from the slight smirks that are apparent at the corners of their mouths. This is what we do when the boredom sets in and the testosterone levels remain high.

All at once they halt. I am unable to discern who stopped first. Perhaps it was telepathically communicated between them, the way a pro-boxer knows his opponent will not again rise after that final blow, and holds up his right fist in victory before the ref has even finished counting the numbers. A fellow sergeant of mine joins me on the adjacent chair, lighting up a cigarette, eyes affixed on the two buffoons. He doesn't bother asking me what is happening. With an abundnace of time on our hands, sights like this are common here in Afghanistan. While exhaling that first draw through his nostrils he shouts, "Kick his ass, C-Bass!". The two men don't dare look our way, each fearful of the other's first lunge.

"Come, you big pussy!" the Terp shouts at his foe. Only it comes out as: "Come, you beek poosy!" At this, Big Boy lunges forward. The Terp tries to dodge but is brought down. For a moment all I can see is a mass of camoflouged uniform amid a rapidly densing dust cloud. And then out pops a scrawny arm from underneath, with a fist that connects with Big Boy's ribcage. At this, I am able to discern an almost laughingly, "Ow-how! You little fucker!" The other Sergeant and I burst out laughing.

Big Boy gets to one knee while the 'Terp scrambles to his feet and assumes a position directly behind. "Yes! What you think of that? Huh?", Terpy shouts. From out of nowhere I catch a flash in the corner of my eye. Before I can make sense of it, my Commander is at the crime scene, and like a 14-year-old gym class bully, quickly pulls Terpy's running shorts down to his knees and backs away.Terpy buckles and goes down while trying to cover his exposed crotch, trying to pull up his shorts, and shouting a string of what can only be obscenities in his native tongue, Dari. After the laughter dies down, I walk back to my room and can't help but think, "All in a day's work."

IT'S NOT ALL BAD |

January 09, 2007

IT'S NOT ALL BAD
Name: Tadpole
Posting date: 1/9/07
Stationed in: Afghanistan
Milblog url: armysailor.com

I have the day off, which is a nice change of pace seeing as I have not had any real 'down-time' in about three weeks. It amazes me how much pressure there still is, this close to the end. But in any case, I took some time today to sit and meditate and reflect on the positive aspects of this deployment, and I have realized that it really isn't all bad.Framedtadpolechapelpc054337

I have met some fascinating new people and made some terrific new friends. I have been mentored by some truly impressive NCOs. I have met people who I really hope to keep in touch with, and some I hope to never see again. I have met more Christians here than in my entire life up to now, many of whom seem to take the whole religion thing far too seriously in my opinion, but who are good people nonetheless. I have met some truly impressive reservists, and some truly unimpressive active duty guys, which has helped break down many stereotypes for me.

I have seen some amazing views. I have seen views of mountains and valleys that most people will never get to see. I have gotten to travel over every type of terrain imaginable, in almost every type of vehicle imaginable. I have lived scenes that most people will only see in movies. I have had experiences which have given me a new appreciation for life, and all that I have.

I have had the opportunity to truly help people. I have fed the hungry, clothed the cold, and help provide medical care for the sick, wounded and weary. What is amazing, though, is that I think each of these experiences has helped me more than it has helped them.Framedtadpole_ffighterinnpc064355_1

I have a whole new appreciation for the Navy! I now know beyond ANY shadow of a doubt, that I joined the right branch for me. The Army is WAY too politically correct and Christian for my taste, the Marines are WAY too serious, the Air Force is FAR too sensitive and squishy. The Navy is the way to go for a fella who likes drinkin', fightin', travelin' and chasin' women!

I will leave the country Financially, Physically and Spiritually more well off then I came. I will leave debt-free with a nice little savings. It's easy to save money when you have nothing to spend it on, even when you are helping family at home. Despite some serious hearing loss, and some scrapes and bruises, I am in better shape than I was when I came. Spending a lot of time in the gym, and walking around in full 'battle-rattle', will definitely keep you strong. Spiritually I have had a lot of time to read, think and meditate while I have been here. I have read much of the Qur'an and the Bible, and I have realized that I don't really buy into either. I have discovered that there is a name for my spiritual beliefs. I discovered that I am a Deist. I have deeply explored and read the teachings of the Dalai Lama, and I have discovered the true value of reason over blind faith. I have learned a new appreciation for my fellow man, and the value of striving to do no harm. I have learned the negative aspects of attachment, and have worked hard to free myself of them. I have discovered that fear, while natural, need not be debilitating. If handled correctly it can be empowering.Framedtadpolebasepc054336

I have also gained a new appreciation for my mother, who worked so long and so hard to make me the man I am today. And also for my first true mentor, HTCM(RET) Betterton, a man who met me when I was at a truly low point in my career. A man who I didn't know from Joseph, but who saw something in me. He managed to see enough in me that he took the risk of taking me under his wing. He taught me valuable lessons about leadership and life. He taught me how to pick my battles. He taught me many lessons to which I directly attribute my survival in this country.

So indeed, after much reflection, I have realized that I am taking away from this experience far more positive things than negative. If I had to choose whether or not I'd do it all over again, I can not honestly say yes -- after all, I miss my loved ones, good food, a warm body next to mine, and all the other comforts of life at home -- but I can't say no either. It would be a tough decision.

WINTER IN KABUL |

January 08, 2007

WINTER IN KABUL
Name: Capt Doug Traversa
Posting date: 1/8/07
Stationed in: Kabul, Afghanistan
Hometown: Tullahoma, TN
Milblog url: http://traversa.typepad.com
Email: traversa@gimail.af.mail

Kabul is currently enduring a massive bout of cold weather, which our interpreters Wali and Hamid assure us is far from normal. They say this winter is the worst in 15 years, and many people here are suffering. I don't doubt it, as I've seen endless numbers of people, both adults and children, wearing only sandals on their feet while walking through the snow. Gloves are a rarity here, as are heavy jackets. When it gets really cold, most people wrap themselves in blankets when going outside. People do not have enough wood for their stoves, and are always scavenging for something to burn. For those lucky enough to have their homes hooked up to electrical lines, the government has managed to keep electricity flowing throughout many nights. But this has been a very tough beginning to the winter for the Afghans.Framedtraversachristmas_morning_1

It all began on Christmas Eve. Snow started falling that night, and we were all excited about the possibility of a white Christmas. Sure enough, when I looked outside on Christmas morning, I was greeted by a thick layer of snow everywhere. I went back inside and got my tape measure out to see how deep it was. We started the day with seven inches, and by Christmas night we were up to 11 inches.

The day after Christmas a heavy ice fog covered Camp Phoenix, but by noon the sun came out and everything started melting. What happens when 11 inches of snow melts?  You get nice big puddles of water and slush everywhere. Nature's Slurpee, as it were. I still marvel at the folks who insist on wearing their PT uniforms (and thus sneakers) even when the camp is flooded. They would rather have wet feet than wear their DCUs (Desert Camouflage Uniforms) and boots. Not me. I like dry feet.Framedtraversaice_fog

However, by evening the problem wasn't wet feet, but rather killing yourself on the ice that coated all walking surfaces. The most treacherous were the areas that had been shoveled. Melting water had coated these spots with a lethal smooth layer of ice. As I was walking to the shower, I thought how ironic it would be if I were to kill myself in a war zone by slipping on the ice. Despite my caution, I still had several close calls.

As the week wore on, the temperature continued to drop until we were into the single digits each night. It wasn't long before I woke up freezing, even under all my covers. It was almost approaching North Dakota levels of cold. Not quite, but close. When I got back from work, I would climb back in bed, pull all the covers up, get my laptop, and settle in to watch DVDs, read, or write, but most importantly, stay warm.  By 5:00 PM the hut usually warmed up to maybe 60 degrees, which is positively toasty here. As of today, January 7th, snow still covers the ground everywhere.  Only the snow on the roads and sidewalks has melted. We have about three inches of solid ice on the paths between the huts, where the sun never shines.

The deadliest place to walk is the chow hall floor. It is tiled, and for some reason, cold and the melting snow from our boots has turned the floors into death traps. They had to put down long mats everywhere to create safe places to walk. Unfortunately, there is still far too much bare floor to walk on, and we do so at a slow, shuffling pace, trying not to fall. It's positively ridiculous, but as with everything here, we adapt and grow.

The last few mornings I could see my breath when I woke up, and the guys a few doors down measured 49 degrees in their hut. Getting out of bed now entails an exciting race to get on as many clothes as possible, in the right order, and then heading to the latrine trailer, which unaccountably has heaters that actually work. The only problem is that after doing all the morning stuff in there, you have to head back to the refrigerator that is your hut.

Surprisingly, there are guys who walk to the latrine in shorts, t-shirt, and sandals. Among the certifiably insane people who do this is Maj Apple, my boss. I told him he was crazy, but he said his hut wasn't any warmer, so once he got out of bed he was already freezing. Whatever. Does not compute.  My boss has lost it.

I love winter, and I love the cold, but I love being able to go into a warm house and look out the window at the cold OUTSIDE and be thankful I'm warm INSIDE. Well, I don't have windows, and I can't be warm inside until late afternoon. Of course, inevitably, the temperature will drop as our solar heating unit hibernates for the night, and the cycle starts all over again the next morning. 

A SURREAL DAY |

January 05, 2007

A SURREAL DAY
Name: Teflon Don
Posting date: 1/5/07
Stationed in: Ramadi, Iraq
Milblog url: acutepolitics.blogspot.com

It's been something of a surreal day. The air outside is thick with the smoke from the garbage dump, where it seems there is nothing to burn besides some sort of plastic. The acrid stench gives way to the crisper smoke from the assortment of burn barrels, which are once again busy devouring remnents of unkept letters and packages from homes far away. The night sky seems impossibly bright overhead -- just a few days ago, it was nearly impossible to walk around at night without bumping, tripping, and stumbling along. Now it's easy to move. It's especially noticeable in town, where we gain next to no benefit from dousing our vehicle lights. The dim twilight is still more than enough to see by, and our trucks are large enough to stand out, even in the more urban areas. But I'm getting off track. Back to this last 24 hours.

Let me preface this story I'm about to tell with a little background: Chuck Norris is a gigantic cult phenomenon. Everyone knows a joke or two about the man: "Chuck Norris has two speeds: Sleep and Kill."; "There is no Natural Selection. There are creatures that die, and creatures Chuck allows to live"; "Chuck Norris doesn't have a beard because he doesn't shave; Chuck has a beard because razors are scared of him." References to the man are everywhere, and nearly all of them are as odd or inane as those. Whether they make sense or not, these little sayings are written inside bunkers, latrines, vehicles -- anywhere someone might think to write something.

While I was out on mission last night, one of the Bradley Fighting Vehicles that compose our security escort called up the escort commander on the radio during a lull in movement:

Red 1: Sir, did you hear they're taking one of my Bradleys tomorrow?

Red 6: Negative. Why?

R1: I guess Chuck Norris needs it for something.

R6: Say again?

R1: Chuck Norris is coming here tomorrow, and he's taking one of my Bradleys.

R6: Is this one of those jokes you guys tell all the time?

We were sitting in the truck saying to ourselves, "What does Chuck Norris need a Bradley for? Can't he just roundhouse kick the IED's away?" and "Y'know, if he'd come here three years ago, we wouldn't still be here now!".

It turned out to be true. Every soldier's hero, Chuck Norris, came to the ghetto of Iraq today. I wonder how many kids had their illusions shattered.

Tonight we went out on another mission, a short one, to clear part of one of the main routes between here and all the other military bases in Iraq. Coming back, we had a bomb explode near us. However, it was no ordinary bomb. This one was a shell, strapped to what appeared to be a roller skate, which was pulled across the road in front of us. Apparently the bad guys have been watching too many old cartoons, and called Acme to order their bomb. My truck has now earned the nickname "Roadrunner", for having survived an attack by Wile E. Coyote.

Chuck Norris and bombs on skates. That's about all I can handle for one day.

OH CANADA |

January 04, 2007

OH CANADA
Name: Doug Templeton
Posting date: 1/4/07
Stationed in: Kabul, Afghanistan
Hometown: Kansas City, MO
Email: dtempleton14@yahoo.com

I've just recently returned from the beautiful and fruitful area of Afghanistan known as Kandahar. By beautiful I'm refering to the view from 25,000 feet as I sped away, and by fruitful I mean the ever-growing and popular crop known as the Poppy. Also known as 60% of Afghanistan's GNP, of which the government gets 0%.

I traveled there to train the Afghan National Army in a logistics skill set -- I'm one of a group of mobile trainers who go into harm's way to make sure the training course occurs at even the most remote locations. When I arrived at the NATO base I was completely surprised to find out that the Canadians have primary responsibility for security in that area. The truth is, I was surprised to find out that there was such a thing as a Canadian Army at all. Not only that, but a Canadian USO-type tour was there to perform. Always one for free entertainment I made my way out to the show, in weather approaching the freezing place on the old thermostat.

The show was fantastic. The Fables were the headliner band, along with a couple of comedians, some other singers, and three former contestants from the show "Rockstar INXS". Afterwards, this phenomenon of the existence of a Canadian Army still caught in my head, I was treated to some autographs from the performers. The comedian of the group seemed surprised to see an American in the line, and asked me what I thought about working alongside the Canadians. Before I could catch myself I responded, "Until I got here I didn't even know Canada had an Army. I thought of Canada as where Americans go to avoid our military." We all chuckled a bit. Then she asked how I thought things were going. Not one to miss an opportunity I responded, "Canada needs to send in the Mounties. They always get their man, and if they had been here earlier maybe old Osama would have been found by now."

Again we all laughed, and I went back to my Temporary Quarters (TENT) and realized what a great evening it had been. No war, no thinking about work, and above all I met some great people who came to a not-so-pleasant vacation spot to provide a much-needed break. They didn't care what country anyone was from, they just cared.

THE HOLIDAYS IN IRAQ |

January 03, 2007

THE HOLIDAYS IN IRAQ
Name: SPC Jami Gibbs
Posting date: 1/3/07
Returned from: Iraq
Milblog url: americanbabble.com
Email: jami0821@gmail.com

I posted this on my blog last year:

It's kind of a relief that the holidays are over. Someone put it well here when he said, "Now all we have to get through is Easter and Independence Day. And those holidays won't be nearly as hard as this was." So very true.

I worked both Christmas and New Year's Eve. The usual 12-hour shift. On Christmas, I walked into work at 0700 and like clockwork, a round came into Anaconda. A little Christmas present for everyone. I, of course, took the liberty of blasting Bing Crosby Christmas music for everyone as they stumbled into the clinic to check in at my desk after the "all clear" was given. All sleepy-eyed and groggy, most were able to mumble a "Merry Christmas", while the rest were wise enough not to even open their mouths.Framedgibbsiraqchristmastree_3

In the evening, I felt little Christmas cheer as I spent hours and hours trying to call back home. Imagine thousands of troops trying to call the U.S. at the same exact moment. I opened all the wonderful presents everyone sent to me and had a cup of "Christmas cheer" with my roommate to celebrate the holiday. 

Backing up a day to Christmas Eve: I had to make a run to our Battalion early in the morning. Even though it isn't too far from the clinic, I always try and take advantage of the van, to save myself from the half-mile walk.

Yes, we have a van. It's kinda funny looking. The type you would see zooming around the streets of Europe somewhere. It's more long than wide, white, with a stick shift, which makes it even more hilarious when you're driving it off curbs and flying by armored vehicles with gunners on the top. It's ironic the way they strictly enforce the 20 mph speed limit but let you take sharp right turns off paved roads over curbs, and park wherever there's enough room to fit your vehicle.

So I'm scootin' down the road in my little Euro-van and it's a very chilly day. Upper 30's is my guess, from the way my breath is sticking to the windshield. Armed Forces Radio is on and they're playing Christmas music. The sky is a perfect blue and, for once, not a soul is on the road. There are no gun trucks or trash collectors. I find myself in a bubble of Christmas cheer. I could be driving anywhere right now on this calm Christmas Eve morning. I am reminded of Nebraska. The complete stillness in the crisp air and the solitude is something you can only find in vast mid-western winters. I wanted that half mile never to end because it took me back to better times. Here we grasp at any little moment that helps us feel normal.Framedgibbsnewyear1_2

We rang in the New Year with sparkling cider. Being a bit more organized than Christmas, New Year's Eve was quite pleasant. Even though I was working 1900-0700, I could feel the positive energy in everyone. They had music blasting and were grilling hamburgers and hotdogs. I have always felt that Christmas is meant for family, and New Year is meant for friends. Well, this year it was for both. It's a fantastic feeling looking at these people and knowing they are both friends and family. Even though I was stuck working, people still made the effort to come give me a hug and wish me a Happy New Year.

It was odd knowing that at midnight it was really only 3:00 pm back home. I got a bit depressed thinking that I'll be spending a majority of the next year here. As if I shouldn't even bother with goals and resolutions like everyone else. But I decided that maybe I should take this time and really live it. Smell it. Be it. Explore who I am, where I've been, and what has made me this person today.

The first bright morning of the New Year was spent in a bunker with the rest of my sleepy company. Again, the insurgents decided to throw a round at us -- a wake-up call if you will. At this point, we just laugh and say "Happy New Year!"


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