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.

ALIVE IN YOUR MIND |

February 28, 2007

ALIVE IN YOUR MIND
Name: CAPT B. Tupper
Posting date: 2/28/07
Stationed in: Ghazni, Afghanistan
Milblog url: www.myspace.com/42094372
Email: [email protected]

This is a story about two men. Both are brave, committed soldiers. Each has a long and distinguished military record. Both are likeable, selfless, and humorous. They are the kind of guys you'd want as a neighbor, a drinking buddy, a teammate on a sports team, or a brother. Both are stubborn in their onset of middle age. It would be dishonest to say they are perfect. We all have our character flaws, and these two are no exception. But the balance sheet on their personal and moral fiber weighs heavily in their favor. 

They are good men pretty much every day, all day.

One is American, and the other is Afghan. 

And unfortunately, at the end of this story, one man lives, and the other man dies.

Ali Raza makes his own introduction. At first glance, he appears like a large bear walking on hind legs. Gruff, barrel-chested, a hulking man ruggedly assembled from head to toe. His face is like a map of old battlefields, with a network of scars weaving through his black beard. Ali Raza is a veteran of nine years of intense fighting during the  Soviet/Afghan War, and now four more years against the Taliban. Some of his war stories from the 1980s may be a little far-fetched, but one cannot deny the scars on his body, and the hardness of his warrior eyes.

The first time I met Ali Raza, he literally pulled me off the ground with the strength of his handshake. Startled by this power, I composed myself and said the first thing that came to mind: "This man is a bear!" Once this was translated into Pashto by my interpreter, Ali Raza let out a laugh that shook the mountains.

While I may have painted a picture here of a hardened veteran, I must add that Ali Raza is not a cold or cruel man. His heavy arms are equally suited for hugging his small children, and for giving them a sense of security and protection in this violent environment. And so this bear of a man goes about his military duties with all the energy and force he needs to accomplish them. Sometimes this force may be a bit overboard, but Ali Raza is honest enough to admit he is not perfect. Although he is a devout Muslim, he still fancies vodka and beer, an acquired taste developed during years fighting with the Russians. Before you judge him for this religious infraction, Ali Raza will happily show you a doctor's prescription recommending alcohol for "medicinal purposes".

In the realm of tactics, there is no ambiguity with Ali Raza. He unabashedly prefers the Russian approach to clearing enemy villages: "Bomb everyone with airplanes and artillery, and then let them rebuild a new, friendly village." (How we guarantee the future friendliness of a village we just destroyed is a simple technicality to Ali Raza, a technicality I'm still waiting to hear him explain.) Suffice to say, if you ever met Ali Raza your immediate reaction would be simple: "I'm glad he is on our side!" One could only assume that if he hasn't been killed yet in decades of warfare, he's never going to be.

In some ways, Master Sergeant Scotland shares many similarities with Ali Raza. Both are above average in size and demeanor. MSG Scotland is perhaps one of the tallest ETTs ever to come in country. Both men have a long record of service, although Scotland is a Senior NCO, while Ali Raza is an Officer.

MSG Scotland comes from the Midwest, and volunteered for the year-long ETT Mission in order to do his part as a soldier. With his rank and time in service, he could have easily hidden under some rock back home and avoided a deployment into harm's way. But he didn't shirk his sense of duty, and he ended up here as a volunteer combatant, on the same FOB that Ali Raza and myself call home.   

Scotland never shirks the dangerous aspects of the ETT mission. He embraces the risks as if they were free of all possible negative consequences. He even goes so far as to tempt fate with his humor and sarcasm. Before missions, he jokingly tosses his cell phone to the Afghan interpreters and urges them to use it: "Here, call your Taliban friends. Tell them I'm coming for them."

Every day, MSG Scotland volunteers for every mission. When he is not selected to go, he works back channels to get on one of the Up Armored Humvee Gun Truck crews. A day with no mission for Scotland is a day of lost chances to engage and destroy the enemy.   

And like Ali Raza, he has a family and children back home. No one doubts a happy homecoming in the future for this loving and patriotic father.

Many bullets were fired that hot July day. All anonymously passed through time and space, and disappeared into oblivion. All except one, which struck its mark. It dove into the shadow of a soft ticklish armpit. A split second later, it passed completely through the body, came out the other side, and was gone.

Where it landed no one knows. But for that split second, this bullet left a wound that no medic or bandage could fix. The injury was gentle enough to let the wounded man sit back and realize he had been hit, but violent enough to impress upon him the fact he would likely die.

Had he been an average-sized man, the high-velocity round would have passed harmlessly above his shoulder and smashed into nothing but air and empty space. The harm inflicted by this bullet on someone smaller would have been purely psychological. A simple cracking noise, a reminder to keep one's head down.

For his comrades, who tried unsuccessfully to stop the bleeding, it must have seemed like furious seconds passing, and then he was gone. And for the dying man, time might have passed slowly, like sand through an hourglass.      

Miles away, at the exact moment of his death, I sat listening to the morbid codes and phrase words being passed over the radio. Like you, I was only aware that a man was dead. His identity remained a mystery.

This story's end is not a surprise. One of these two men is dead. In fact, he's been dead now for months. Only today did chance events transpire to weave these two lives together into this story. And as I prepared to craft the ending to this sad tale, and to reveal the identity of the fallen man, I realized that it wasn't something I wanted to do. I realized that his death is only as real as I make it for you.

Both of these men are alive in your mind until I tell you one isn't. Can't you see Ali Raza hulking over his men on this chilly Afghan winter day, the steam rising from his mouth as he yells fiery insults to motivate his sluggish soldiers? And look at Scotland, standing before the desk of our Commander, pleading his case why he should be on today's combat patrol into a tough nearby village.

Don't they both still feel alive to you?

So as I write this, I find myself in a unique position to grant what I think is the "universal soldier's wish", that upon our death in combat, we are not forgotten.   

That we can live on in the minds of our comrades, our families, our friends, and even strangers. That we can be seen much like you envision my two comrades in this story -- still active, still engaged, still alive. If we can live on in the memories of those we touched, then we can cheat the bullet's bite. And so I'm going to grant my fallen comrade this simple soldier's wish, and let him cheat the death that claimed him. I feel some solace in knowing that right here, right now, he is still alive in your mind's eye.

Note:  "Ali Raza" and "Scotland" are modifications of the true last names of these men. 

THE DRUG FRONT |

February 27, 2007

THE DRUG FRONT
Name: SGT Brandon White
Posting date: 2/27/07
Stationed in: Afghanistan
Hometown: Diamond, OH
Milblog url: http://www.gwot.us
Email: [email protected]
Framed_white_babyopiumpoppy_2
Just got back from a three-day mission down south. While I can’t go into operational specifics I will list the keywords: Taliban, weapons, poppy.

This photo shows someone’s little “backyard garden” of papaver somniferum, aka Opium Poppy. These guys look to be no more than a few weeks old, but would have grown to produce thousands of dollars for the key players of the opium trade. Sadly, the cultivators who are trying to put food on the table would get hardly enough to do just that. Why is that sad, you ask? Well, come on over here and see how they’re livin’ and you’ll get the gist.Framed_white_poppies_distant_2

The growers aren’t the bad guys. It's the local Taliban “underlords” who are exploiting them, selling the stuff for a premium and pocketing the money, who are the bad guys. Sure, it would be great to end the whole dern drug cycle here, but what do we replace that poppy with for the farmers? What could be exported in mass quantities that can grow easily in these arid lands? Those are questions that I sincerely hope someone, somewhere (besides myself) is thinking about. Otherwise, we are doing nothing but breeding more terrorists by eliminating this crop. Mark my words on that one.

Here is a zoomed-out view of the same backyard garden. This little plot is pretty small in comparison to the gi-normous fields which surround this village.

CHILDREN |

February 26, 2007

CHILDREN
Name: CAPT Doug Traversa
Posting date: 2/26/07
Stationed in: Kabul, Afghanistan
Hometown: Tullahoma, TN
Milblog url: http://traversa.typepad.com
Email: [email protected]


Today Hamid (my interpreter) came with me to lunch, and I stopped by the hut to drop off my armor and rifle.

"Hey, you've never seen my blog, have you?  Come in and I'll show it to you."

I pulled up my front page, and showed him the January archives so he could see how much I am writing. As we walked to chow, he said, "You really do write a lot. What do you say?"

"I write about anything that happens to me. People love to read about our friendship, because it gives them hope that we can have peace in the world, even if we come from different worlds. For instance, I wrote about our discussion the other day concerning friendship."

He laughed. "I bet you write about how much I eat."

Now I laughed. "Ohhhh, Yeeesss," I said dragging out each word. "You can bet I wrote about that. You are famous around the world for your massive appetite. I told people how you eat four plates of food and store it like a camel."

At this point we are both laughing very loud. We do that often. Hamid loves to laugh, and I love an audience, so we laugh a great deal indeed.

"But that's not true!" he complained, still laughing.

"Well, they don't really think you are a camel."  But as for the four plates of food, it has been known to happen. "You can bet if we've had a good talk, I've written about it."

Once we sat down to eat, I waited for the conversation to take one of the unexpected twists I've come to expect (can you really expect an unexpected twist?). Interestingly enough, it was The Stars and Stripes that provided us some great stuff. I usually have a copy open and glance through it while we eat. The actual conversations start after we stuff our faces.

I saw a photo of the world's smallest prematurely born baby that survived. She was 10 ounces when born. I showed the picture to Hamid, and we discussed just how young (22 weeks) and tiny the baby was. I ended up discussing the miracles of modern medicine that allowed us to save such a tiny baby, and somehow we got to artificial insemination. Hamid was amazed that such a thing was possible. He had never heard of it, and I would soon learn how important this option would be in Afghanistan.

To Hamid, you get married in order to have children. In fact, he says that if a married couple does not have children, it is a great shame to them, and they withdraw from society. The man is assumed to be impotent, and is mocked and called a woman or a shemale. This disgrace is so onerous, Hamid says that if it is the woman who can't conceive, the man will usually marry a second wife so he can have children.

"Well, in America, we can only have one wife. Suppose I had gotten married, and my wife could not have children. What should I do?"

Hamid answered easily and quickly. "You should divorce her and marry someone else. What is a marriage without children?"

The cultural gulf exploded in my face. The utter casualness with which he said this was as shocking as when Wali told me gays and apostates should be executed.

"I married my wife because I love her. Why in the world would I leave her if she couldn't have children?  I want to be with her."

Hamid seemed as baffled as I was.  "But a marriage is nothing without children."

"Why?" I demanded.

"Who will take care of you when you are older? Who will pray for you when you die?" he explained.

"That sounds incredibly selfish. You only want kids to take care of you when you are old?" I countered.

"So when you get old, you don't want your children to take care of you?" he asked.

"Of course I would like them to, but that's not why I had children. I wanted children to share the love and joy of raising a family. As I told you, my family means everything to me. I loved having children, but I did not have them so I could have little workers to take care of me all the time."

Hamid and I paused; no doubt my thoughts were as alien to him as his were to me.

"Let me tell you about my aunt," he began. "When she got married, she could not have children. At first her husband loved her and treated her nicely. But as time went on, and she never had children, he started getting angry with her. Whenever people with children came over to visit, he would yell at her after they left. He blamed her, and even told her he would never have married her if he had known she could not bear children.

However, after 12 years of this, she was able to get some medical treatment, and was finally able to have a child. Once this happened, he started treating her nicely again and loving her."

I was saddened, but not surprised. "I find this hard to understand. How can men be so cruel? Why would they blame a woman for a medical problem that isn't her fault?"

Hamid shrugged. "As I said, a marriage without children is nothing. Why even get married?"

I had had enough. Cultural tolerance only goes so far. I got as stern as I've ever gotten with Hamid. My wife can tell you about the look. It melts steel, and has made teachers and ROTC cadets cry. Really.

"I love my wife. She is the most important thing in the world to me. Why in the world would I want to hurt her, divorce her, or shame her if she couldn't have children? That is the most stupid thing I have ever heard. I would never want anything to do with a religion that taught such a thing. It is absolutely hateful and pure evil!" I have no doubt that Hamid felt like a little bunny looking into the barrel of a gun held by a very angry hunter.

"NO, NO, NO," he waved his hands. "It is not Islam, it is Afghanistan that teaches this.  It is our country."

I turned off my glare, sat back in my chair, and pulled my hair back with my hands as I tend to do when faced with a dilemma. "We really do come from different worlds. I can't understand why you treat women so badly. To me, marriage is a partnership and a friendship. I cannot imagine deliberately hurting my wife, as your men do."

"It is our culture."

"Well, I can't change your culture, but I hope what I say can change you. I am concerned about you. I don't want you to be like that. When you get married, I hope you will treat your wife better than that."

"I actually believe as you do. But I was telling you how most men think here." Hamid looked sad. "In fact, I have bad news to tell you. You know the girl I wanted to marry, the one my mother was going to look into in the spring?"

"Yes, of course." I waited for the bad news. It was written clearly on his face.

"Her father has a business in Russia. I found out last night that he is taking his family to live there. I will never see her again."

Sometimes I want to cry. In fact, as I write this, I do.

THE SKIPPER |

February 23, 2007

THE SKIPPER
Name: MARINE COMBAT ARTIST Michael Fay
Posting date: 2/23/07
Returned from: Iraq
Milblog url: http://mdfay.blogspot.com


For the past few weeks, I've researched and begun trying my hand at sculpture. Here's a series of images showing the progression of my first piece, a haggard rifle company commander. Over the years I've tended to focus almost exclusively on sergeants and below -- the grunts. But I've also carefully observed the late-twenty-something captains who carry the burden of command with weary grace. The young Marines are lovingly lead by and often painfully mourned by their commanding officer, "the Skipper". A term both respectful and filled with warmth, it's the un-official moniker for a Marine captain.Framed_fay_skipper_1_3
Framed_fay_skipper_15


Framed_fay_skipper_2_3

Framed_fay_skipper_3_2







LIST OF GEAR |

February 22, 2007

LIST OF GEAR FOR SANDBOX DEPLOYMENT
Name: 1SG Troy Steward
Posting date: 2/22/07
Stationed in: Sharana, Afghanistan
Hometown: Amherst, NY
Milblog url: www.bouhammer.com 

Many people reading this blog are getting ready to come over here in the near future, or have loved ones already over here. I have put together a list of good-to-have equipment, based on my experience here in Afghanistan and that of friends in Iraq. Some of these items won’t be needed until you get in country, so you may want to set those off to the side and have them sent once you get settled.

1. Any extra Class VIII you can bring from HS is good to have.
2. Wolfhook single point slings.
3. Desert Tan spray paint.
4. Space blanket(s).
5. 100 mph tape, 550 cord, TP, other expendables you think would come in handy.
6. Drop Leg Holster (Blackhawk or SERPA) and Uncle Mike’s Holster for wearing around every day (drop leg will wear a hole in ACUs over time). I also have one for my IBA so I can have my 9mm handy when in the gun hatch going through towns.
7. Weapons lube that DOESN'T ATTRACT SAND (MILTECH or Remington Dry Lube).
8. Two copies of addresses, phone numbers, account numbers, etc.
9. Two pairs of GOOD boot insoles.
10. A Good Tactical Flashlight (SureFire, even though you will get issued one with M4).
11. Red/White light headlamp.
12. Spare pair of running shoes.
13. MP3 player w/ x-tra pair of headphones.
14. Enough batteries to last you 30 days.
15. Chapstick.
16. Lotion.
17. 30 SPF or higher sunblock.
18. Bar soap -- for some reason it's almost always in short supply.
19. Small, compact rolls of TP. A lot of places make travel size. Half the time you get to a port-a-potty and the jackA$s before you yanked the TP.
20. Baby wipes -- 30 days worth. Expect that the power and water will either go out, or the water will be contaminated, at least once a month.
21. Gold Bond Foot and Body Powder.
22. Small clip-on LED light. Clip it to your IBA. It will come in handy -- quite often.
23. Drink mix for 16/20 oz bottles of water.
24. Weightlifting supplies.
25. Small photo album with pics from home.
26. Hand sanitizer (small bottles to put in ankle pockets).
27. More books/magazines than you think you will need.
28. DVDs, for you and to loan out for swapping purposes.
29. Tactical gloves -- military gloves are sort of clumsy ( I love the $9.95 Whitewater brand gloves from the clothing sales). Also standard flight nomex are good.
30. Lens anti-fog agent. Shaving cream works in a pinch, but you have to apply it every other day or so.
31. Good pair of shower shoes/sandals. I recommend the black Adidas -- lasted me all year.
32. Small pillow (air inflatable).
33. Cheap digital camera (at least 2.1 mp).
34. Boot knife.
35. Gerber multi-tool.
36. Fabreze -- sometimes the laundry opportunities are few and far between.
37. Armor Fresh.
38. Extra boot laces.
39. Stainless steel coffee cup with screw-on lid.
40. Soccer shorts/normal t-shirt to sleep in, hang out in your room in.
41. Sweatshirts for winter times hanging around.
42. A couple of poncho liners for privacy, cover for nasty mattress, etc.
43. A set of twin sheets with pillow case.
44. Good regular-size pillow.
45. One or two good civilian bath towels.
46. Buy a good set (>$200) of winter desert boots. All they will give you is a regular summer set and a set of Goretex-lined for waterproof needs. Desert is a cold place at these altitudes in the winter time.
47. Bring a laptop. Also may want a PSP or some other handheld gaming device.
48. Get an external USB hard-drive (>60gb). You will need this to back up data to, and to store movies and MP3s that you will fall in on from previous teams.
49. Get a Skype account and download the software from skype.com. This is how I talk to home 95% of the time. If you call computer-to-computer it is totally free. You can also Skype out from your computer to a regular phone for $0.021 a minute. There is nothing cheaper than that.
50. Decent headset with mic for computer (Skype).
51. Webcam for video calls back home.
52. Bring a min. of 18ea. M4 mags per person. 9 that are loaded and 9 that rest. Plan to do M4 mag changeover once per month.
53. Bring 8ea 9mm mags, for same reason above. Change these over every two weeks.
54. Order a LULA mag loader/unloader. It will be the best $14 piece of plastic you every bought. I have 12 mags loaded at all times and when I do change over it will do it in a fraction of the time, and save your hands, and save the ammo.
55. Try to get your state to get, or purchase yourself, one 12v DC-to-110 AC inverter per man for your trucks. They are crucial on mission for charging personal items, cell phone, ICOMs, and especially ANA radios (they only have re-chargeable batteries).
56. Dump the IBA tac vest you get issued. Get a Tactical Tailor MAV chest rig (does not matter if you get 1-piece or 2-piece, as you want to keep the front open for laying in the prone. You don’t want mags pushing into your chest making it hard to breathe) . I wish I had bought mine at the start. It makes a HUGE difference on the back and shoulders when carrying a loaded rig.
57. Get a comfortable pair of desert boots. I wear only the Converse 8” assault boots (non-zipper ones). Oakley, Bates and several others are similar in style and comfort.
58. Bring some good snivel gear for the winter time. Extra poly-pro winter hat, gloves, neck gators, etc.
59. Lock de-icer for the winter time.
60. Disposable hand and feet warmers.
61. Canned-air, lots of it for electronics, weapons, etc.
62. Lens wipes for optics.
63. Screen wipes for computers.

There are probably many other things that could go on this list, but a lot of that is personal preference. The purpose of this list is to provide some insight into things that could make anyone’s tour easier.

HOW HUMAN ARE WE? |

February 21, 2007

HOW HUMAN ARE WE?
Name: Teflon Don
Posting date: 2/21/07
Stationed in: Ramadi, Iraq
Milblog url: acutepolitics.blogspot.com

It's time for another one of those posts. The kind that gets nutjobs at places like Vanity Fair all up in a tizzy. Maybe I'm pushing too far with this one. I'm writing about something that I feel many of you can never understand.

I left the billets early tonight for the mission. I racked my machine gun in the cradle, and sat on top of the truck. I plugged in my iPod, took a sip of coffee, and sat back to watch the sunset. Somehow the setting sun always seems to look better here than at home; the sunsets are the one beautiful thing about this place. I watch as the dying sun slowly sinks, its rays falling across sand, mud, guard towers, satellite dishes, and all the other things that have come to mean home for a time. The sky is brilliant with golds and crimsons. Here and there a tendril of flame licks up a wisp of cloud.

Some say the world will end in fire/Some say in ice/From what I've tasted of desire/I hold with those who favor fire

The sun has set, and Venus shines low in the sky. The others are starting to straggle out to the vehicles. It's time to prep for the mission. Tonight we're going back up into the general area where we lost three of ours so shortly ago. And this is the first time we've been back that way. I look around at my friends and try to read their faces. They could be scared, and most of us are, a little. They could be numb; just doing their job. Again, most of us are, a little. However, I think that most of us are out for blood. It might sound horrible, inhuman, even medieval, but the fact of the matter is that someone out there killed friends of ours, and we're going back into a place where we just might get the guy that did it. We'll never know if it was him, of course, but there's always the chance that we'll even the scales unknowingly.

Killing is not natural to sane people, no matter how often it has happened over eons. There are many ways that you can reconcile yourself in some way to the idea of killing another human. You can think of it as duty -- you have a job, and that job requires violence. You can hate -- the easiest of all excuses, and the most exhausting. You can look at it as simple survival -- if you don't kill him, then he'll kill you. However you justify it, you are still in a war, and people will still die. It wears on everyone -- the American deaths, the "collateral damage" we inflict on people in the wrong place at the wrong time, the innocents killed when some faceless murderer blows himself up in a crowd. Yes, even the enemy dead take their toll.

The headphones sing:
If I ever leave this world alive/I'll come back down and sit beside your feet tonight/Wherever I am you'll always be/More than just a memory/If I ever leave this world alive

One more mission.
One more chance to find a bomb.
One more chance to save a life.
One more chance to take one.

One more chance to die.

FAMILY BONDS |

February 20, 2007

FAMILY BONDS
Name: Doug Templeton
Posting date: 2/20/07
Stationed in: Afghanistan
Hometown: Kansas City, MO
Email: [email protected]

I write this post from the safety of my office back in the States. I am here on 30 days emergency leave. My father died after a four-year battle with cancer. Never in that time did he ever complain about the pain or worry me about his suffering. When the end came it was a shock to me because he seemed to be doing well. I know it was his way of keeping me from being distracted. He believed in what I am doing, and would not have wanted to bother me with things I couldn't control. He was a trooper and I will miss him terribly.

Since this site is for passing along the events and feelings of servicemembers, I thought I would try to explain what has been going through my mind the last few days.

I was notified of my father's death through an email from my mother. She had sent it two minutes earlier, and something compelled me to check my email as I went about my many daily tasks. I notified my leadership that a Red Cross message was coming, and they started to make the arrangements for my travel.

I had to convoy to my point of embarkation, and when I arrived the following morning I was met by the First Shirt, who had everything I needed as far as leave paperwork and such complete and waiting. I left Afghanistan that day on the first thing smoking back to the States. It took about 32 hours to get to my home in Texas, to collect my wife and daughter before heading out the next day on a ten-hour drive north to  Kansas City.

Here is where the odd feelings started to weigh on my mind. I miss and loved my father as did rest of my family, and the funeral was a tough time for all of us. We used each other for comfort and strength to get through the event. After that I spent a few days with my mother to help her through the transition of no longer having someone around the house.

The simularities between being with my family at home and my family in Afghanistan began to cause me to feel a little out of place. You see we have a responsibility to each other for safety and comfort, and to help each other through difficult events. It is the same in both locations, and that is why I feel like I have to get back.

My family here is safe and sound and are beginning to move forward without Dad. My family in Afghanistan is still in harm's way, and I am part of that team. No matter what, I have a responsibility to uphold and a mission to complete.

For those not in the military this may seem strange, but those who serve will understand. I am a sixth-generation military officer, and these principles have been instilled in me from birth. This is what my father would have wanted, for me to get back to work and to make a difference and to complete my mission.

BE AFRAID |

February 19, 2007

BE AFRAID
Name: CAPT Doug Traversa
Posting date: 2/19/07
Stationed in
: Kabul, Afghanistan
Hometown: Tullahoma, TN
Milblog url: http://traversa.typepad.com
Email: [email protected]

Just when I think nothing will surprise me, Afghanistan throws me a curve ball. Let me set the stage. Maj Apple, Wali, Hamid (our interpreters) and I were sitting in our office having a Deep Discussion about life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Somehow the topic of gays serving in the military came up, and Maj Apple and I both think they will be able to openly serve in the military very soon. (I mention this to set the stage, not to start a debate. Personally, it wouldn't bother me. If they want to come over and fight for their country, it's fine with me. Welcome.)

Once this topic came up, Wali asked why people were allowed to be openly gay in our country. We explained that in a free society, people are allowed to do pretty much what they please, as long as they are not hurting others, etc.

"But it is so revolting. A man would shame himself to do this."

"Wali," I asked, "What would happen to a man in Afghanistan if he openly declared he was gay?"

"That would never happen," replied Wali, acting as though that was as likely as the Pope converting to Islam.

"I know. But let's just pretend. For instance, let's say a famous TV personality decided he wanted to try to change things here, so he announced on TV that he was gay."

Wali interrupted. "But that would never happen."

"Maybe it would. Just tell me what you think would happen."

"His family would kill him immediately," he said without batting an eye. Remember, Wali represents moderate, westernized, Islam in Afghanistan.

"Why would you kill someone just for being gay?" I pressed.

"Because my religion says so." Again, as matter-of-fact as though he was explaining why a rock falls to the ground if you pick it up and then let go.

"Let's suppose he escaped from his family. What would the government do? Would they arrest him?"

"Yes."

"And would they then kill him?"

"Yes. This is an Islamic Republic. Our religion says to."

"And if someone wanted to leave Islam and join another religion, they would be executed for that too, right?"

"Yes."

The sad thing is, we could have been talking about football scores or the weather. He was not remotely embarrassed or hesitant in any of this. Hamid, however, was very quiet the whole time. I wonder what was going through his head.

"Well, if you believe all this, why would you want to move to America? We allow people to switch religions if they wish, or believe in nothing at all."

"Do you have people from different religions marry each other?" he asked.

"Yes, all the time," replied Maj Apple.

"What do they teach the children?"

"Usually they teach them both religions, and let them decide for themselves," said Maj Apple.

Wali seemed a bit surprised by this. Steam was starting to come out his ears.

"America is not like Afghanistan," I continued. "Our government does not tell us what to believe. We are free to believe whatever we wish. That is our greatness. We can say whatever we wish, as long as we aren't threatening to kill someone or violently overthrow the government. We can get on TV and say we think the government is awful, and no one will arrest us."

Maj Apple gave a brief explanation of how our country was founded by people who wished to worship in their own way. Once this was done, I asked again, "Do you think you could be happy in America? Muslims can leave the faith there, and no one will kill them."

"That's okay, as long as I can worship my way, I don't mind what others do."

So there you have it, the incongruity of a man who thinks it is perfectly normal to execute gays and apostates in this country, but doesn't think it's a big deal if he's living in the US. No matter what your views on homosexuality, I doubt any readers of The Sandbox want to execute gays (well, maybe some Taliban reading this trying to gather intel). Same thing with people who leave your particular faith. Would you kill them? (Hopefully that's a rhetorical question). Yet I live with seemingly normal, pleasant, hard-working people who would think nothing of doing this. This is not an isolated incident either. Other Americans have heard the same thing from their interpreters.

Now take this mindset, set temperature to high, and nuke for ten minutes, and you have some idea of the hatred and violence in the hearts of the men we are fighting against. Do you think diplomacy is going to work?

Do you think you can reason with them?

Be afraid. Be very afraid.

BUSTING AT THE SEAMS |

February 16, 2007

BUSTING AT THE SEAMS
Name: CAPT Matt Smenos
Posting date: 2/16/07
Stationed in: Afghanistan
Hometown: Santa Maria, CA
Email: [email protected]

It used to be the remoteness of it all. The lean, Spartan efficiency of a "Forward Operating Base" made us uncomfortable. In July of 2006, when we first arrived in Sharana, my team of Airmen and I couldn't believe how little there was here. Our huts were simple, four-walled boxes. The occasional dividing wall or curtain within was seen as a decadent extravagance and spurred jealousy and vandalism.Framed_smenos_bee_hut

At first glance, the bathroom had a certain tropical, steam-room quality, reminiscent of a barefoot resort or a running-water cabana. We all quickly realized such simulations are just that: simulated, and secret provisions protect resort patrons from that which our little baño had in abundance -- bacteria, dry-rot and odor. Our work centers were marvelous fusions of old and new. Plywood rectangles with simple wooden shelves and tabletops were laden with laptops, router-cables, IP equipment, fax machines, printers, cell-phone chargers and wires. Flies and spiders ran a close second in the food chain.

Though things were rough and unfinished, we all tightened our belts and learned to make it work. You discover very quickly what you can live without. We quickly forgot privacy and modesty. A "males only" environment brings out the Cro-Magnon in everyone. Everyone got leaner, and became more comfortable with swinging hammers, hauling wood, pounding nails and cutting PVC pipe. In time we received gym equipment, but few felt the need to use it.

We learned when the hot water heater would die and when the pipes would freeze. Some just stopped showering. Having at one time flinched at every pop, bang or boom, we now hardly blinked an eye at explosions or smoke. Once treated with reverence and fearful respect, our weapons now hung casually from our shoulders as the creases in our once neatly-pressed uniforms faded in our laundry-less universe.

In time, the routines we developed became transparent to any but newcomers. Visiting soldiers would ask, "Why is the internet down?" and be baffled by the response, "Duh, it's 1345, give it 20 minutes." They'd scratch their heads as they watched me shut off the lights and unplug the freezer in order to microwave a paper-cup of oatmeal.Framed_smenos_silent_vigil_4

Hanging over it all was an aura of displacement. No major roads, no crowded sidewalks, no sounds or lights could be seen or heard. Here was true darkness at night, like summer camp in the woods. Standing on the wall, looking out past the wire, one could see the cook-fire smoke from distant qalats. Occasional herds of goats mingled with stray dogs baying and trotting about, sniffing at piles of offal and ash. Beyond were great, brown stretches of war-torn waste and distant, unfamiliar mountains. It felt like living on another planet.

We were all very vocal with our complaints. Our oft-repeated outcries for better food and more equipment became an almost cathartic theme for daily reflection and meal-time conversations. But even as we hated it, we subconsciously conditioned ourselves to live, and eventually find contentment in, our strange little home. We would have been the last to guess that the very improvements we claimed to desperately desire would be seen as unwelcome waves of painful change when they finally arrived.

As uncomfortable as we were at first, we had learned to adapt, and had hit our stride amidst difficult conditions. Different and difficult are relative terms, and our perceptions of each had changed over the months. The next adaptation would actually be a movement towards what we had originally wanted.

It all started with a security force assigned to our FOB. This was terrific. Up until their arrival, information managers, network administrators and radio operators were standing nightly, rotating security watches. Though we had all been trained to do so, it was nice to have a force specifically dedicated to base security. They settled right in. Around the FOB, we noticed a few more people in the chow hall, a few more people using the shower, a few more in the gym. No big deal, right? Wrong.Framed_smenos_new_latrine_hours_1

Another infantry team and a group of IT experts were assigned here. Word from our highers suggested that larger numbers were being pushed downrange and preparations need to be made. Construction ramped up to erect more living quarters and a larger chow hall for our growing FOB. I began to notice that the gym was full by 0630, and I needed to be in by 0530 if I didn't want to wait on equipment. The chow hours expanded, and certain items were now being rationed. A new team of interpreters, Romanian soldiers, replacement US soldiers to overlap and train with current soldiers -- they just kept coming.

For me personally, the real moment of realization occurred when an interpreter walked up and "borrowed" my shower shoes while I was shaving. When I asked him what he thought he was doing, he told me that since he'd arrived, there had never been a shortage of shower shoes, towels and sundries strewn around the bathroom. He didn't think anyone would notice. That makes sense in an Afghan sort of way. My brothers and sisters in arms can attest to that. The real issue was that we were drowning in sweating, hungry, loud, uncomfortable people.Framed_smenos_fob_hq_1

Evidently, it was no better in the northern part of the country. Word of the some 3200 soldiers from the 10th Mountain Division being extended (along with the Fort Drum Wives' riot -- let's give it up for the wives, they're awesome!) and being redeployed around Afghanistan along with the 82nd Airborne had reached us, along with an order not to send any overnight supply or R&R convoys to Kabul or Bagram. I heard the tents were busting at the seams and the chow halls couldn't feed people fast enough.

You can imagine the new breed of bitching that began. In e-mails from co-workers, peers at other FOBs, instructions from commanders at meetings, arguments in the showers and everywhere else you could hear it. Space was tight and the pressure was on. Memories of our lonely, rustic, emaciated little war camp seemed sweeter by the day. What we wouldn't trade to be alone in the dark as we had been before.

This too shall pass. New FOBs will shoot up and hopefully my replacements will be here soon. They'll never know that this place was once a scattered camp of rickety, plywood huts and tents. They'll miss out on the quiet, moonlit security watches and the howling of the dogs, long since run off by the booming "progress" in the area. They'll probably have a brand name coffee shop soon and never even fathom what it was like making filters out of paper towels.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not bitter, and I wish those that follow us safety and success to see them through to the end of this place. I only write this to commemorate my time at the beginning.Framed_smenos_pals_3

CASH, A LATTE, AND A HAIRCUT |

February 14, 2007

CASH, A LATTE, AND A HAIRCUT
Name: Eric Coulson
Posting date: 2/15/07
Stationed in: Ramadi, Iraq
Hometown: St. Louis, MO
Milblog url: badgersforward.blogspot.com
Email:
[email protected]

Errands to run today. Out the back door (I almost always leave that way) I hop up onto the ledge of the Texas barriers that surround the porta-potties, hop down past the HESCO Barriers and by one generator. Now I am out in the open.

I cross a small footbridge and find my self in a field of connex containers. This is also were we stage the logistic patrols before they leave. It is a field of mud, or more accurately drying mud. Some parts are still soft and pliable, other parts have dried and begun to harden. The large wheels and tracked vehicles have created peaks and valleys in an ostensibly flat piece of ground. It will be fascinating to watch as the moisture departs. The mud changes to hardened clods of dirt, which will evolve into a concrete like substance, only to have the last bit of binder finally leave through the process of evaporation and return the individual particles to moon dust and a flat surface.

I negotiate the obstacle and pass another set of HESCOs and a generator that powers I don't know what, leading me to the VIP helipad. I always know the arrival of VIPs because their helicopters make a low pass over Badger Main before touching down on the helipad, allowing their cargo to alight near Brigade Headquarters.

Having passed the two chopper pad, I am now on the paved road that stretches clear across the FOB. Passing the PX I turn left. This side road has been a muddy mess lately, but it looks like some repair and the recent drying trend has helped out. The road is packed down. On my right is the HESCO-barrier-enclosed compound that houses the Green Bean, the barber shop, the alterations shop, a gift store, and the ATT calling center. I move further up the road and pass the Memorial Chapel to my left and a baseball field on my right. Finally after passing through some housing areas I emerge on another major road in front of the Dining Facility.

Now I turn left. Charlie Med is to my right. This is our FOB aid station where life-saving treatment can be rendered and a decision to transport to higher medical care made. I have sent two Soldiers out of here. One is back and one is at home. My trips here have all ended reasonably well, but I have no desire to return.

I pass motor pools and packed connex containers. Someone is always moving around here.

Finally I arrive at my destination, I turn right into a building that makes a square around a courtyard, reminiscent of the forts of the Old West. And it has a name to match. The Alamo. The Alamo houses various units and operations. The two that are salient to me and my Soldiers are the Post Office and Finance.

Finance is my destination. At the PX I can use my debit card, but I can only take $20 in cash. All other places here take only cash and there is no ATM. In addition to the PX, the only other place to get cash is here at Finance. You can take a "casual pay", i.e. an advance against your next paycheck, or cash a check. I am loath to do anything that touches that pay check. I cash a check.

In addition to my ID card they want me to write the following information on my check

         1. Social Security Number
         2. Unit
         3. Expiration of Term of Service (ETS)
         4. AKO Email
         5. Camp Stationed
         6. Component
         7. Rank
         8. Bldg and Room number

I have no ETS as an officer so I write INDEF; my building has no number the post would be familiar with, and we have make shift rooms that we have not numbered. I give them something plausible. The clerk scans my ID card and then scans my check. He then stamps the check twice, once in the Pay to the Order of line (I have flashbacks of my negotiable instruments class in Law School; things beside combat can cause PTSD). I also initial next to a block that states:

I CONSENT TO THE IMMEDIATE COLLECTION FROM MY PAY THE AMOUNT OF THIS CHECK PLUS BANK CHARGES IF THIS CHECK IS DISHONORED

The clerk then hands me my $100 cash, I initial his log, and he hands me the check back. The money will be withdrawn from my checking account a few days later as an electronic transfer. The bureaucratic Gods have been satisfied.

Cash in hand, I depart the Alamo with less fanfare than Davy Crocket and Jim Bowie. As I make my way out to the main road, there are half a dozen connex containers with various Soldiers and Marines sorting through the mail that has arrived for all of the units in the area. Not only do they handle the mail for Camp Ramadi, but they must coordinate the mail sent to Soldiers even further out on the tip of the spear.

I retrace my steps. The motor pools and the connexs staged for departure. Charlie Med and the DFAC. Back on the hard surface running between the housing areas. To the HESCO-barriered compound where I can use the few services offered.

First I stop in the alteration shop, classified as a “Hajji Shop”. As it's under the auspices of AAFES and staffed by Koreans, I find the term “Hajji” not quite appropriate. I am looking for the I MEF (FWD) patch (I Marine Expeditionary Force (Forward)), our new combat patch. The MEF has ordered them but they may take awhile. Rumor is, alternations has it. They do, a locally made version. For $30. I pass.

Next the Green Bean. I seem to have missed the rush and I don’t have to wait too long for my triple non-fat latte. The most surprising thing though is to run into a Sergeant with the same last name as me. I have never met someone with the same last name that I was not immediately related too. Neither has he. We talk about where we are from and try to identify any possible relations. Wherever they are it is too remote for us to connect anywhere else than here in Ramadi, Iraq. I offer to buy him his drink but he declines. We part ways as he heads for his trip home. I head to the Barber Shop.

I prefer my choices in Falluja. There I can go to the Turkish Barber shop with the flaming cotton balls, or I can get my hair cut by Iraqis at the former Republican Guard Barber Shop. This is a trailer turned into a barber shop.

I take my number and take my turn to wait. The magazine collection is poor, a journal about yoga and an auction catalog. Numerous copies of the same issue of Stars and Stripes from last week, and a dozen novels. Who reads part of a book while waiting to get their haircut?

Indian pop music is playing and the movie Platoon is on the small TV. I see two GI’s going into the local village for some recreation with the ladies of the village. A flash of breast in the bathhouse scene makes me wonder if movies such as this violate the MNF-I order against pornography, and if not, where does that line lie? Whatever the political comparisons are, this war is nothing like Vietnam for those of us on the ground.

Soon it is my turn; high and tight, trim the top. My barber speaks just enough English to get that message across. At $3 it feels like I am ripping them off. I tip him a dollar and I am out the door.

The weather has turned nice. It is mid 60s. I have no need for my jacket. I enjoy my leisurely walk along the drying dirt roads of Camp Ramadi, back to Badger Main.

 

MOCHA CHOCOLATE SALVATION |

MOCHA CHOCOLATE SALVATION
Name: SGT Roy Batty
Posting date: 2/14/07
Stationed in: Baghdad, Iraq
Hometown: Yellow Springs, Ohio
Email: [email protected]

I had been out of bed for less than an hour, and was already fighting  tooth and nail not to have a bad day. Do you ever have mornings like that? Daybreaks where everything in the house is doing its dead level best to trip you up? Where it seems that the bitter angels of daylight have conspired against you all night, and you are flailing helplessly within their carefully cast nets?

I woke up on the wrong side of bed, which is hard to do since one side is an aging brick wall. I was grumpy even before my eyes opened, before the dull gray gloom of the Bat Cave made its way into my sleepy noggin, even before the early morning rap music and bellows of the soldiers around me started up. My arms and legs and head ached mercilessly, inexplicably, as if I had been up all night drinking Irish whiskey and fighting dockworkers instead of snoring away in my dusty, rattletrap excuse of a bed.

"How can I be pissed off already, even before I wake up?", I asked myself.

Oh yeah. The wife.

I had gone to bed disgruntled. Barbara had missed our date to chat on Yahoo Messenger, and not answered the house phone or her cellphone when I called. Finally she called me, but only after midnight, after I had already gone to bed and was sinking comfortably into that delicious opium haze of pre-sleep. Something about a party at the neighbor's house across the hall, which I had cut off with a curt "I'll talk to you later", delivered with all the self-righteous pain of a hurt and sleepy husband.

Year-long deployments into combat zones are not conducive to healthy marriages. We do better than most, and have been luckier than some. There are friends of mine, here on this deployment, who have been home with their families for 18 months out of the past four years, due to almost constant rotations to Iraq and Afghanistan. This is my first tour -- well, I should say our first deployment, since it affects us both, in equal yet different ways. She has to deal with my close encounters with car bombs, snipers and IEDs. I have to deal with her New Year's Eve in London, defective cellphones, and the knowledge that she is on an Army base in Germany surrounded by 5,000 horny soldiers. Vivid imaginations may be great for aspiring writers, but they suck for skydivers and deployed husbands.

So, I wake up grumpy. Grumpy and a little late. We have load-up in 30 minutes for the day's mission. No time for a shower. Okay, no big deal. This is the Army at War (try not to laugh) so my teammates can probably deal with a slightly stinky Sergeant. They're probably used to it by now.

So the grumpy ex-Marine Neanderthal prepares to lumber outside for the morning smoke and a quick guzzle of the DoubleShot to wake himself up. I rummage through the evil hadji wall locker and locate the crumpled carton of Camels within its steel bowels. I call it the evil hadji wall locker since it is locally made and seems to be imbued with the spirit of a Stephen King short story. Its unfinished metal edges love to slice open unsuspecting hands on a daily basis, despite the 1SG's mandate that all of them be marked with little white signs screaming CAUTION! SHARP EDGES! It grins at me with gray industrial malice, yet deigns to let me retrieve my smokes unmarked. This time. I got all year, sweetcheeks.

Agh. I'm down to one pack. Barely enough to last the day. Oh well, I have backup, in the form of barely-smokable Iraqi cigarettes. "Miami"s. The clerk at the Hadji shop that sold them to me grinned and tapped them exuberantly -- "Oh, yes, American cig'ret!"  Yeah, right, buddy. I think of a friend of mine who was here for OIF I. For some of her tour, her company was billeted at an Iraqi cigarette factory, along with a group of Marines. The jarheads thought it the height of hilarity to piss and shit in the vats of tobacco on the assembly line whenever no one was watching. After the soldiers moved on for more prestigious living quarters, the Iraqi owners came back to restart operations, and simply turned the machines back on. I only smoke the hadji cigarettes when I'm really desperate.

Time for the canned espresso.

I reach on top of the wall locker for the precious case of Starbucks DoubleShot (no sharp edges up there, so I can reach blindly, in relative safety), and my sleepy fingers jitter and scrabble in search of the slim cans of liquid methamphetamine.

Nothing.

A frantic search of the cardboard box, and still nothing. Some scumbag has taken them -- not just the very last one, but the last TWO! I look over at SGT Y's empty bed. He left on RnR early this morning. Coincidence?  I think not....

My dark mood deepens. This is seriously not cool. This is a disaster of epic proportions. This is the Hindenburg of early morning screw-ups. How can I face the dirty glories of Baghdad unfortified with my precious ampoules of caffeine?  Man, I need a cigarette....

But first, I have to get dressed, and find a weapon. The front porch is a dangerous place, and Lord knows you have to be armed to go outside here. Actually, it is SOP everywhere in Iraq -- you must be armed 24/7. You will sometimes see these improbable little signs outside various buildings around the FOB -- PXs, chow halls, whatever.  "All Soldiers Must Have Their Assigned Weapon And Ammunition In Order To Enter This Facility." As if that innocent looking Rueben sandwich laying on the Main Line might suddenly go native and charge you, ululating wildly. BLAM!  BLAM! BLAM! "Gawddamn, Leroy, didya see that sumbitch? That was one them Mahdi Army Ruebens, sure as I'm standing here right now! Damn near got me, too, if it weren't for this here M9..."

I grab my ACU pants from their resting spot on the bunk above my bed, and yank them down. My leather shoulder holster is hanging from the side post of the bunk bed, full of the black metal of my 9 mil. It dislodges as I pull on the trousers, and plummets earthward.

OOOWWWWWW!!!

The metal handgrip of the pistol lands squarely on my big toe, and the big bald half-naked man flails maniacally around the tiny living space, hopping on one foot and making those little grunting noises that men make when something really hurts and they don't want to let the 50 sleeping soldiers around them to know about it. Lest they wake up and make fun of him.

Eventually the toe stops screaming, and I look at it wearily in the dim light of my bedside lamp. Somehow it isn't broken, but there is a nice big cut on it which is bleeding freely. I need that cigarette more than ever, so I shove the toe into an Underarmor sock and into my Oakley boots, where it moans to itself, muffled in the fabric, whenever I take a step.

The cigarette does not dull the morning's discomfort, or my throbbing head, or take away from the obvious fact that I really am still in Baghdad and not the green hills of Bavaria. Every morning I wake up thinking that I will be somewhere sane and rational and halfway comfortable, and every morning I am a little stunned to find out I am still in Iraq. The rest of the morning takes the party line.

The truck I have been given today (since my usual one still languishes untouched in the dark greasy depths of the Motorpool of Lost Souls) doesn't have a Duke or a Rhino. There is no CLS kit. Some of the armor we installed is missing, since now the 1SG thinks that it might fragment if it got hit. The engine makes a weird, ominous clicking noise that we can't locate the source of during our PMCS. The fill for our radios isn't quite right, so we have to play with the timing. My squad leader yells at me in front of everybody for something petty. My boot is filling with blood. The lieutenant is assigned to ride with me today, which means at least four hours of inane questions, and worse yet, we won't be able to smoke in the truck. An infantry team got blown up last night on the route that we will be taking today, and the driver was killed. It's the kind of stuff that fills you with confidence...

At the first IP station we visit, an IED goes off a block away, hitting an Iraqi Army convoy. We are in the back parking lot of the station when it detonates, making us all duck and cringe instinctively, since it is so loud that it sounds like it is right next to us. I dash to the roof and scan the rooftops around the resultant pillar of smoke, looking for insurgents. A grenade goes off a few minutes later, sounding like a pop gun compared to the deep, rattling bass of the IED. The IA drive past us a few minutes later, popping off AK rounds as they go. It's fear shooting -- no one has attacked us, other than with the IED and the grenade, and they are just shooting at everyone and everything as they get out of the AO.

At the second IP station, we find a live artillery shell sitting outside of the front gate. After we have driven through the gate. Closer inspection reveals four 20mm high explosive tipped rounds next to it. The artillery shell is actually just the warhead, and a pretty big one -- 120mm, maybe? A little smaller than a 155, but still big enough to upset your already shitty day. Maybe it's a dud, maybe it's not. Who knows? I pass the info along to my squad leader, who is already inside the station. After a bit, one of the IPs trudges out of the building, stumbles over to the shell, picks it up, and starts to bring it inside. I guess they found it on patrol or something, and just decided to dump it on the trash pile right outside the station. He seems completely nonplussed when I strongly suggest to him that there is no freakin' way he's bringing that thing inside while we are here.

By the time we get "home", I am tired and grumpy and don't want to talk or look at anybody. I just want to dump my gear and hide in my corner of the room and go to sleep. Someone remarks that one of the other squads picked up mail at Rustimayah, but I don't even care. I'm not expecting anything. Leave me alone.

I'm almost asleep, covers pulled over my head, boots propped up on the ancient metal chair next to my bed, when one of the soldiers yells over the plywood wall that I have a package. A package? Me? I lumber to my feet and tromp out into the hallway to retrieve it.

It's from Shannon, completely out of the blue. I first met Shannon three years ago, through her husband, Steve, who is a K-9 MP in Germany where I'm stationed. Shannon was also an MP, and had been seriously wounded here during her tour during OIF I. She took a grenade to her back and legs, but stayed in the Army when she could easily have been medically discharged. This should give you an idea of how tough she is. She's also one of the single coolest and most beautiful people I have ever met, even though I have wound up on the wrong side of that toughness a couple times. Through a weird twist of fate, she came to be one of my soldiers when I was in Customs, and we used to argue and fight about every possible subject under the sun. Somehow, inexplicably, we have managed to stay good friends through it all. Steve and Shannon look after Barbara back in Germany, since they are also our neighbors. Best of all, since both of them have done tours in Iraq, they always send the absolute best care packages.

This one is no exception. Ramen noodles, Cup-o-Soups and Chef Boy-r-dee meals for those times where you miss the chowhall and just can't face another MRE. Chocolate candies for all the times in between. Two bags of bruschetta chips, that I initially pull out and look at quizzically. Until I pull out the next prize: Marmite. Okay, okay, I know that the non-British among you are asking, "What the hell is Marmite?" I will explain. Marmite is a black-tar-looking substance, made out of yeast extract. It sounds (and smells, to the uninitiated) horrible. I grew up in England, where it is a standard breakfast sandwich spread -- you put it on toast and butter. It's extremely savory, and, in my family, is a rare and much sought after commodity; a delicacy. For anyone that grew up NOT eating it, it is an abomination. I cannot imagine where Shannon found it, since it is virtually impossible to find outside of Great Britain, but she has not only sent me a giant jar of it, but even the toast to put it on. Now that's truly thoughtful!

The best is saved for last. A pack each of Camel Turkish Jade, Turkish Royal, and Turkish Silver -- again, very rare for us, since you cannot get them in Iraq or in Germany, either on-post or off. But wait, that's not all! Not one, not two, but three packs of Sweet Dreams flavored cigarettes.

I'm literally speechless, a broad grin plastered on my face. I love flavored cigarettes, and this miraculous appearance, at the end of a difficult and trying day, is the kind of thing that would bring tears of gratitude to the eyes of less-Neanderthal men. Even more than the gift itself, it is the thought and planning behind it. I know that they must have carried these things all the way from the States to send them to me, and it is that thought and effort that really touches me.

I'm outside the barracks, in the cool January night air of Baghdad. I'm smoking a Mocha Chocolate cigarette, and it is delicious. Lip-smacking delicious. An EOD team blows up an IED just outside the perimeter, and even though the word has been passed around ten minutes ago, half of the FOB runs for the bunkers when the sharp KA-WWWRAP thunders through the camp.

Not me. Life is good, and sometimes you have to savor it, no matter what is blowing up around you.

Now, if I can just find my wife. Has anyone seen her? Tall, slim, brunette? Deep, dark eyes that you can lose yourself in forever? Anyone?

God, I need to go on RnR....

MOUNTAIN FURY |

February 13, 2007

MOUNTAIN FURY
Name: 1SG Troy Steward
Posting date: 2/13/07
Stationed in: Sharana, Afghanistan
Hometown
: Amherst, NY
Milblog url: www.bouhammer.com

Day 6 of Operation Mountain Fury started with a good breakfast shared with my ANA brothers. The half of Recon Company we have here is doing a really good job, and the 10th Mountain boys really like them and say they are the best ANA they have ever worked with. Face and I drank coffee while the ANA drank chai tea. I ate some oatmeal along with some Afghan sweetbread -- we'd picked up some sweetbread the other day while at the bazaar, and it is good stuff in the morning with coffee. The ANA had made a small fire to get warm, so we sat around that and chatted while we ate the bread and drank our coffee/tea. I also showed the ANA how to do a toast, and we all toasted while I called out “Salute".

Today was going to be a slow day, so we tended to personal, vehicle, and equipment maintenance. Since we had the generator going, the cell phones and iPods got charged. We also performed maintenance on the vehicle, weapons, and radios. By noon we were pretty much done with everything, and since we react to what happens on the battlefield there was nothing to do. We were letting things settle down after some busy days, and wanted the enemy to get complacent.

Around noon Face and I decided to take the ANA out without 10th Mountain, and do another presence patrol of the one village he had been in two days prior. We planned to depart around 2PM, after the ANA were done with lunch.

Things started to change around 12:45, when our terp came running over saying there had been an accident, and one of the ANA soldiers, the cook, had been severely burned. Apparently he was cooking lunch for the ANA soldiers on a pressure cooker and it was not sealed properly. It had blown up and he was burned pretty bad; he had second degree burns to his face, neck, upper chest and left forearm. He was screaming in pain and the US medics came running. There is not much you can do for burns, so the medic put burn gel on, gave him a hit of morphine, and Face gave the guy an IV to help replace fluids.

I noticed that he was already starting to blister, and some of the blisters were already popped. I knew we had to get him out of there, as there was too much dirt and filth in the field for him to be that exposed. He could not ground-evac because of the dust, so I sent up what we call a 9-line medevac request and called in an air medevac.

After a very long 45 minutes he was numbed up from the morphine pretty good and not screaming and moaning anymore. The bird finally came in on final and I went out to set up yet another Landing Zone (LZ) with a VS-17 Orange panel and purple smoke. I called the bird and told them the markings again, and they spotted us. By this time the injured soldier was able to walk, so a couple of ANA soldiers and I helped him onto the bird. I handed the air medic a paper with the treatment and drugs he had been given and the guy’s vital signs.Framed_steward_wounded_ana_2

After the bird left and finished blasting us with sand and rocks, Face and I linked up and decided to continue on with our presence patrol mission. It was already 30 minutes past when we'd wanted to depart, but that was okay. We needed to get the ANA out of there and their minds off of their injured buddy. So we called the ANA leadership over and told them to be ready to go in 15 minutes. Right before the bird flew in, the 1st platoon of the 10th Mountain company we were attached to had pulled in to the patrol base from a short mission they had earlier. This insignificant action played a bigger part later in the day.

We told the ANA Recon XO to go whatever direction he felt comfortable with to get to our objective. There were several ways to get there, and we wanted it to be his decision. We departed, and everything was quiet and normal as we would like. As we went from one village to another, we started to get close to the hardball road that would take us to our objective. There were several very tight bridge crossings that were barely wide enough to get the humvee across. Since I had a better vantage point from up in the gunner’s hatch I would tell Face “a little left” or “a little right”. The last thing you want to do is flip a six-ton truck into a ditch, and these ditches were very deep.

We got past the third crossing point when a guy approached from our left side on a motorcycle. He almost did not stop, so I started to swing my gun towards him. He just stared me down and did not wave or smile. I turned around and watched him as we went past, and told Face that I did not trust the guy. Just as we went past him another guy on a bicycle was going the opposite direction and passed us. He also did not wave, smile, or even look up at me. I turned to watch him, as you never know what they might try behind your back. I was just telling Face that this was not a friendly village when “time stood still”, again.

As I was turning my head back to the front and talking to Face, the ANA truck in front of us blew up. It had only been about 10 days since I had one blow up right behind me and kill two ANA soldiers, and now I watched every detail as the one 60 feet ahead of me exploded. I remember seeing parts and pieces fly everywhere. I also remember seeing the flash of the fireball very clearly. Several natural instincts kicked in within milli-seconds. First I buckled my knees and dropped down to shield myself from any secondary explosions, direct attack fire, or flying debris. At the same time, I was yelling to Face, "I AM FINE! I AM FINE!” I then popped up and clicked the safety off the MG and started scanning for targets.

Face stopped the truck and was also looking at the scene in front of us for targets. The ANA had opened fire from the other trucks at people nearby. The normal practice after an IED hit is for a trigger man to jump up and take off. However, people also run from things blowing up. As I saw which way the ANA was shooting, I was looking through my MG scope and trying to get a PID (Positive Identification) of a threat target. All I could see was men, women and children running for cover as bullets kicked up dirt and dust around them. From the moment of the blast only about four seconds had elapsed -- as I have mentioned, time slows to a crawl as your mind works in overdrive. I was processing everything I was seeing, and trying to see a threat before it saw me. Unable to find a runner or a threat, I started yelling for the ANA to cease-fire. I was afraid they would shoot an innocent, and thankfully they didn’t. I am not sure how, but they didn’t.

Now Face and I turned our attention to the smoking heap of a truck in front of us. Face and I had already confirmed what each of our jobs would be in case this happened (something we do before every vehicle movement), so he ran to assess the situation and render first aid while I provided security and worked the radios. I called to the company we were attached to first, and let them know what happened. Framed_steward_blast_evac_chopper_1

They had heard the explosion and shooting, so they were already moving to get guys mounted up. I gave them our grid location and called in the initial report. I knew there was at least one wounded, and I thought we might have one KIA already. I watched the ANA carry this lifeless-looking body from the truck with its arms and leg dangling. After Face got a good idea what was going on, and knew that there were wounded that needed treating, he sent Jawed the terp back for the CLS bag. Jawed ran it up to him, and Face was busy again giving first aid to burns and giving IVs.

He and I were the only Americans there (as is usual with the ETT mission) so he handled the ground work while I kept an eye out, and called not only the 10th Mountain, but also my higher ETT HQ, sending up another 9-line medevac request. I could tell the truck was destroyed, so I was already working a request to get a wrecker out there to evac it. As I was finishing up with talking to my HQ the Commander of the company we were with (callsign: Devil-6) had gathered enough info from my initial report to call a medevac through his channels. I think he had seen how long the earlier one took, and did not want to have to wait that long again. Devil-6 called me and told me he had a bird en-route and told me he needed the last few lines of the request. I gave them to him and told him I would cancel my other medevac request. Devil-6 also told me he was working a wrecker so I did not need to get that either. It sure is nice to have that level of support in situations like this.

A few minutes later his QRF platoon arrived and asked me where I wanted the LZ. I told them where I was going to put the bird and told them where I wanted their security. They sent their medic up to help out Face also. By then he was ready for help. The injured soldier had thrashed around and yanked out three IVs before Face finally got a fourth one secured enough to stay. The guy had terrible head and face wounds, along with a pretty mangled lower right leg. From the time of the blast until when the bird set down was just under 11 minutes. In fact the helo got there so fast we were not even looking for it yet, and it just popped up on top of us. Later I found out it was the same bird that EVACed our earlier soldier, and was on its way back to its base when our request came in.

After both soldiers (the Recon 1SG and one of his NCOs) were EVACed, Face returned to the truck. He started telling me about the guy's condition and how much medical supply stuff he had gone through, when he looked down and said, “Damn, I got his blood all over my uniform." I then informed him that he should look at his hands, which were probably 60% covered in blood. He wasn’t happy about that either, but forgot about the uniform.

I got down from the gun (10th Mountain was there providing security now) and inspected the truck and blast site. All appearances suggested a landmine, but we were unsure if it was victim-initiated or remote-controlled. We coordinated with the ANA and 10th MTN on the action plan. Some ANA went with the 10th and they started searching through Coochie tents about 200 meters away. The ANA was also stopping and questioning locals.

We garnered quite a bit of information from one, and ascertained that the guy on the bike and motorcycle were working together. They saw the 1st Platoon coming in earlier and had planted a landmine to blow them up, but it was a dud. So they went back, dug it up, put down a new one and barely finished before we showed up. The guy on the bike had the dud landmine on the back of his bike wrapped up in a cloth. I remember seeing that object.

We also found out that ACM stayed in a nearby mosque the night before, so several gun trucks of 10th MTN and some ANA went over there, along with Face. I stayed at the truck waiting on the wrecker and helping with the forensics. They found quite a bit at the mosque, at least enough to warrant Americans entering it and searching. They found medicine bottles, an AK-47 magazine chest rig, ammo for AK-47s, and an entrance to a huge tunnel complex. All of the stuff was confiscated and we marked the spot on our maps.

Face and the rest of them returned right about the time that the wrecker was leaving with the truck. At this point we packed everything and everyone up and headed back to our patrol base. It was already dark and time to get back. Luckily nobody had been killed, but about four guys were hurt, including one that is still in the hospital and getting reconstruction surgery.

That morning we sat around and drank our drinks of choice and enjoyed each other’s company. That evening we were down three guys, Face had a lot more experience giving IVs and medical attention in stressful situations, and I was very proficient on doing 9-line medevac requests.

And we thought it was going to be a slow and boring day.

AMAZING GRACE |

February 12, 2007

AMAZING GRACE
Name: Teflon Don
Posting date: 2/12/07
Stationed in: Ramadi, Iraq
Milblog url: acutepolitics.blogspot.com

The haunting wail of bagpipes is drifting over our corner of Camp Ramadi. Bravo company's amateur pipist is slowly pacing while he practices a song none of us want to hear. The tune he plays is "Amazing Grace." Tomorrow morning he will play it at the memorial service for CPL Shannon, the first member of our task force to die here in Iraq. He fell to an unlucky hit from one of the improvised bombs that litter the roads. He was from another company -- one of the few from that group that I've spoken with. I didn't know him well, but I'm proud to say I knew him. I wrote a poem in his memory that I didn't plan to post, but one of his friends asked me to.


See now, the soldier --
So far away from home
He's staring into night
And wishing it would end

See now, the bomber --
Fighting war for Allah
He's laying in the grime
Waiting by the trigger

See now, the splinter --
Chased by fiery lace
It's flying with the blast
And tearing flesh in flight

See now, the father --
A bomb-hole in his heart
He's weeping for his son
So far away from war

Rest in peace, Steve.

GETTING SHOT AT |

February 09, 2007

GETTING SHOT AT
Name: B.C.
Posting date: 2/9/07
Stationed in: Afghanistan
Hometown: FLORIDA

From an email I sent home:

I'm still at Firebase Snake, which is a cool-sounding name for a small group of ramshackle brick buildings and a Hesco wall tucked in a river valley somewhere in Uruzgan province. I can't talk specifics, but there aren't a whole lot of Americans here, and our only link to friendly forces is by air, due to the bad roads and worse people who control them. I'm working on month eight of this deployment, and I've been on plenty of patrols, but getting shot at is a relatively new experience for me. Since this is an experience most of you will never have (and I'm thankful for that), I'll do my best to describe the sights, sounds, and feelings of a gunfight for you.

Usually we have some kind of heads-up that the bad guys are around, so things haven't started in a surprise fashion for me, but even when you know it's coming the first shots are startling. The most prominent thing about a battle is the noise -- it is ungodly loud. Think of the loudest war movie sequence you've ever seen, and multiply that until it would make your ears bleed. Literally. One of our interpreter's ears were bleeding after this last one -- he wasn't wearing ear protection. I wear a radio headset that also acts as hearing protection, and without it I'd be stone deaf right now.

Guns make a distinctly different sound when they are pointed at you -- sharper and higher pitched. Bullets make a zip noise that's tough to describe, but it isn't like the movies either. You can sort of judge how close they get by the sound and intensity of that noise. Recently, as I was in the open rear-facing seat of a humvee, fighting started up at the front of the convoy. We were towards the back and couldn't see the engagement in front of us, and weren't taking any fire from the left, where it started from. Within a short time, I start hearing zzziip, zzziip. I look around in confusion, because I didn't hear any shots. The zips continue, and I still don't hear anything, so I yell to the guy up front, "Hey Larry, I think someone's shooting at me." It sounded so ridiculous I still want to laugh about it, but I didn't at the time because we figured out where it was coming from when the truck behind us got raked down its right side. So everyone swings right and lets loose on some mud compounds and trees just across the river. I never saw the guy or guys, and that's often the case, but the shooting stopped and we moved on.

Everyone's least favorite noise is that lovable RPG sound. Rocket-propelled grenades suck -- there's a whooshing sound and then a terrific BOOM when they hit. Thank God that the Taliban can't shoot worth a damn. Artillery, on the other hand, is such a beautiful noise, since we know it's ours. Of course, I'm partial to it by profession, but it makes a pleasing jet sound or low whistle when it goes over your head, depending on the angle, fuse, etc. etc. etc., and then a satisfying "crump" when it hits. Explosiony goodness and hot metal action for the bad guys. It must be terrifying for them, but I don't care.

Aerial bombs are incredibly loud -- the noise is a lot sharper than an artillery round, and more intense, but it's short. There isn't some multi-syllabic "kaboom," it's just every pot and pan in your kitchen hitting the floor simultaneously, and then stopping. The gun from an A-10 is really cool -- you hear dozens of almost simultaneous little booms when the rounds hit, and then a few seconds later you actually hear the gun fire with a low-pitched "brrrrrrrrrrrp." There's lots of yelling and radio traffic too. So, mash all of that stuff together and mix it in with the occasional bout of eerie quiet, and you have the soundtrack to a bad time.

The sights are captured a little better by movies such as Black Hawk Down or Saving Private Ryan. There aren't huge fireballs from weapon muzzles; it's just a little bit of smoke and dust in the daytime. People in the distance are just little black dots with legs running, or peeking over a ledge at you. Bomb and artillery explosions are mostly dust and smoke as well, and they kick up a haze that lingers in the air with smoke from the inevitable fires. Mud houses don't really burn, but there are hay piles and other flammables aplenty. Airburst munitions provide a little more of a flash, but it's muted in comparison to some TV-show imagining.

You see some crazy things sometimes, like an idiot civilian woman with a herd of kids walking them right across the valley where the enemy is trading fire with us. They're lucky someone took the time to notice they weren't combatants, and we placed ourselves at greater risk by not shooting in their direction despite the enemy. There is the ubiquitous livestock presence too. I feel bad for those animals; they're tied up and can't run away, and some are inevitably hurt. Somehow this brown cow managed to make it through the crossfire untouched. It was amazing. I wanted to ask it, "How now?"

The feelings involved: I can't speak for anyone else, but mine are usually stark fear, adrenaline, and excitement. Fear is very uncomfortable, like you had lead pancakes for breakfast. Four-letter expressions are quite common. Oddly, there's a good bit of laughter and joking too, often after a near miss, along the lines of "Oh shit, that was close. Hahaha." Gotta break the tension, I suppose. When it's over and done (and we're all in one piece), elation: "I am still here, and he is not." Then, bone-weariness and an urgent need to pee. I looked at my watch, and six hours had passed in what seemed like the longest five minutes of my life. I was a little woozy from 3,000 rounds of .50 cal being fired next to my head, but otherwise fine.

I debated not mentioning this topic at all, to keep you guys from worrying, but I think you're better served by knowing what goes on and what it feels like, and how truly terrible it is. Hawkish behavior is the realm of people who haven't done this before.

OPERATION: BOREDOM |

February 08, 2007

OPERATION: BOREDOM
Name: Teflon Don
Posting date: 2/8/07
Stationed in: Ramadi, Iraq
Milblog url: acutepolitics.blogspot.com

I'd like to try to describe a bit of what I feel every night, what it's like to roll out of the relative safety of the Forward Operating Base to hunt for bombs and bad guys. Last night was typical for me and my platoon. We were slated to conduct route clearance operations near the center of Ramadi to "prep the route" for the Marines following us to raid several houses. Prepare to be bored. I was.Framed_teflon_patrol_brief_1

Mission Start Time -2 hours:
The night has just fallen. I make my way through the darkness back to the billets from the chow hall. On the way, I nearly trip and fall into a new trench dug across the path to lay new cable towards some unknown destination. Perhaps it's time to dig my hadji-shop combination cigarette lighter/flashlight out. I get back, put on my tan nomex jumpsuit, grab my body armor and M240B machine gun, and head to the truck. I'm the gunner on the lead RG-31 Mine Protected Vehicle in our clearance patrols. We owe the South Africans a great deal for developing that vehicle. It takes IEDs far better than an uparmored 1114 Humvee.

T -0:
We head out of the wire, and roll onto the main road through the city. An hour later the main road is clean, and we continue on with our mission: clearing the next area for the Marines.

Half an hour later, with the route marked, we call in the assault force and slip into a security perimeter to help cover their operation. I hop up into the turret and start scanning for Anti-Iraqi Forces (AIF, or insurgents), who don't like Marines. The very beginning of a security halt such as this one is exciting. Your body expects something to happen, and all your senses twinge at the slightest hint of the enemy. As the night progresses without incident you slowly lose the initial anticipation, until the only thing keeping you in the moment is the mission, and the knowledge that other Soldiers and Marines are out there depending on you.

The moon is just above the horizon, and the omnipresent Iraqi dust colors it blood red. For a moment, I consider that even the heavens seem to disapprove of the conflict here. Overhead, I can hear attack helicopters circling -- the guardian angels that protect us from larger, organized attacks. Framed_teflon_convoy_night_1

My position in the turret is awkward: if I stand full on the platform designed for the gunner, I'm high enough to be vulnerable to snipers. The floor leaves me too low to see. I'm currently standing with one leg on an ammo can, and the other half-cocked on the platform -- I'm just high enough to see without being too exposed.

T +3:
The raid seems to be dragging on. I've seen nothing, heard nothing, and nothing has come over the radio in quite some time. I'm noticing the cramp in my leg from my cumbersome stance in the turret. I want a cigarette, but I can't have it. The glow is just too dangerous. Just as I'm finally beginning to succumb to the monotony, the sky to the southeast explodes. Tracers are bouncing up into the sky, and everything is colored with the amber glow of illumination flares. A distant blast briefly lights up the night sky with a bluish flash. I snatch glances of the spectacle until the last tracers fade into blackness.

T +4:
The raid is still going on. A voice comes on the radio and informs us that the Marines have grabbed a couple bad guys, and are on the trail of a couple more. I grab a Coke, for the instant burst of caffeine and sugar, and allow myself a view of the stars. The moon has set now, leaving behind a panorama of the heavens in detail I rarely see at home. The greenish haze of my night vision reveals an incredible depth to the void. Stars formerly too small to see twinkle green pinpoints of fire, and as I look, a meteor falls through my vision. I tear myself away and back into the present, feeling as if the seconds I spent were too long.

T +4.5:
The raid is over, and we're headed home. The Marines have some bad guys in tow, and one very bad guy -- someone who managed to attract enough attention to land him on the high-value target list. My head aches from the monocular night vision, my back aches from the body armor, and I'm tired. Even though this was a short mission for us, at five hours or so, I'm worn out. We cruise back in through the gate, and I grab my gear and hit the sack, because tomorrow I'm going to do it again.

OFF TO MAZAR-E-SHARIF |

February 07, 2007

OFF TO MEZAR-E-SHARIF
Name: Yambo
Posting date: 2/7/07
Hometown
: Florida
Stationed in: Afghanistan
Email: [email protected]

Time for another mission. This time we're off to Mezar-e-Sharif, all the way up north. We get up early, pile into a C130, and fly like a bat out of hell. These pilots here do not fly like pilots in the States; they want to get up in the air as quickly as possible, and back down out of the air just as fast. So there is no taxi-and-gradual-assent or gentle-coast-down-onto-the-runway. These boys are rockin! They rev the engines all the way, to get up and out of direct fire range as fast as possible, and fly full speed down to the ground and don't hit the brakes until they hit the pavement. The interesting thing is how quickly this becomes routine. The guys around me in the plane are sleeping? I was just trying to keep my lunch down.

We land at Mezar-e Sharif International Airport (they have a flight that goes to Uzbekistan, a point they are very proud of) and climb onto a relatively new Mercedes tour bus with bright red curtains. Nice. And air-conditioning too. But for some reason, once we're loaded the driver shuts off the AC and turns on the heat. I bet he thinks he is funny. I want to go up and smack him.

It's a stifling hour's drive to the Afgan National Army camp, and it takes us right through the middle of the city. All of a sudden there is a thud outside, and the bus stops. Everyone inside quietly secures their weapons; here and there you hear a clicks of the selector switches being put from safe to fire.

"Hey! What's going down?"

"See anything?"

It turns out a taxi has run into the bus.The taxi driver is standing in front of his taxi, yelling at our bus driver, who gets out, runs up to the taxi driver and punches him in the jaw. The taxi driver goes down. The bus driver gets back in and we're on our way. Traffic court, Afghan style. Now I'm glad I didn't smack him.

We finally get to the camp, which looks much better than Kandahar. It's clean and the troops look more professional. But the routine is the same -- handshakes all around (I am starting to feel like a politician) and Chai tea. This Afghan unit is definitely better trained than others we've worked with. When I ask why, it becomes clear. The corps general is the area warlord, and these troops, before they were Afghan Army, were Northern Alliance. So basically they have been fighting someone or other for close to twenty years. When we start our inspection their attitude is, "What can you tell me that I don't already know?"

They ask how long we have been in the Army. My battle buddy tells them, "Ten years," and immediately gets a silly-little-boy look from all the Afghan officers in the room. When I answer "Twenty-five years," I get nods and smiles, and they only deal with me for the rest of the interview. Being an old fart helps sometimes.Framed_yambo_food

I look at my watch and it's lunch time. My stomach tightens, and I try to sneak to the mess hall on the American side of the compound. But I am caught and redirected to the corps commander's mess hall. Here we go again. When I walk in it looks like Christmas -- plates of food almost stacked on top of each other. Then I remember that this guy is a warlord. He has money. We eat watermelon, figs, dates, nuts, rice, lamb, some type of meatballs, kebab and of course tea. A great meal, but it had its price.Framed_yambo_fort_6

Later that day someone mentions wanting to go see the fort. What fort? Remember back when the Taliban rioted in a prison, killed Mike Spann the CIA operative, then went into a bunker? And the US troops found an American citizen fighting alongside the Taliban? This is the prison where the riot took place. Well I went there, and I have no Idea what the Taliban prisoners were thinking. They were surrounded by 30-foot walls and armed guards, with another 30-foot wall outside that. Where would they have gone? As we are walking around the place it is spooky quiet, and you almost get the feeling you are walking in a cemetery. We got some pictures and left as soon as possible.

On the way back I felt like I was on parade, with all the children playing and running alongside of us. You don't throw candy, you just wave. Because these kids have no fear, common sense or adult supervision, and if you throw candy they'll run into the path of the vehicle behind you to try to get it. They usually get hit, and that stops a parade real quick.

Next day it's time to leave, and we travel back to the "International" airport. And guess what? Once again, our plane doesn't show up. Someday I am going to find an Air force C130 pilot and strand him on the side of the road somewhere. There we sit, trying to figure out if we should drive an hour back to camp and try again tomorrow or wait it out in the airport, when we hear the familiar roar of a C130 landing. Everyone is on their feet and out the door to the tarmac (no TSA here, walk right up to the plane if you want). Taxing in is a British C130, here to drop off some equipment.Framed_yambo_c130_1

Picture 45 soldiers standing at the fence with all their baggage, basically with their thumbs out. "Sure we will take you. Where do you want to go?" Our Air force could take lessons form the Brits. Unfortunately the plane was set up for cargo, not passengers, so it's "Sit on the floor. Don't worry." The British pilot couldn't resist the opportunity to have some fun with the American stragglers, so right after takeoff he starts to dip and climb and roll and dive and snap and climb -- you get the picture. And remember, we are sitting on the floor not buckled into seats! It's like the tumble tube at the carnival; guys bouncing around, a pile of guys here, a pile of gear there. Guys flying through the air. After a few minutes the plane stabilizes and the British pilot gets on the intercom to congratulate all us "Yanks" on board on our independence. Over 200 years later and some people just don't have a sense of humor.

For the rest of the flight my stomach was feeling uneasy, but I figured it was the rollercoaster ride I had just endured. When we finally land the colonel realizes it's time for dinner. What do we have tonight? Lamb curry. Um, well… I guess so. About three hours later I've become the latest but not the last victim of "Afghan revenge." The doctors figure I got it from the feast the day before. Another note to self: BRING LUNCH!

P.S. The ANA are good soldiers, but spelling in English is not their strong suit.

Framed_yambo_spelling


FOUR YEARS LATER |

February 06, 2007

FOUR YEARS LATER
Name: CAPT Lee Kelley
Posting date: 2/6/07
Returned from
: Iraq
Hometown: Salt Lake City, UT
Milblog url: wordsmithatwar.blog-city.com
Email: [email protected]

Four years later, here we still stand and fight, cycling back to America across the jet stream, across the ocean, to heal, to re-supply, and then we return to the desert. Four years and some of us have been here two or three times. We are doing a good job, but it's hard work. Four years and here we lie at night, under these particular constellations, thinking about home. How could we not?

Who is that woman sitting with her knees pulled to her chest in the window on the 30th floor of a hotel in New York City staring down at the lights and lost in her own dark thoughts, who, when she focuses her eyes one way can see the scene below her, but when she focuses another way can see her own reflection? What’s she thinking about?

And who is that young man in Salt Lake City driving way too fast and tapping his hands on the leather covered steering wheel as his music thumps, on his way to work for which he is late again, thinking about his girlfriend and perfectly content because it's payday?

Whose child might that be at the playground, going up the stairs and down the circular slide over and over, smiling at everyone so sweetly and only now gaining enough confidence to try and climb the big red curved ladder?

And who is that girl with the hazel eyes staring intently at a copy of the selected poems of Ralph Waldo Emerson? Isn’t she too young to be interested in Emerson? Is she in college? Where does she live? How came she to be in this library, sitting next to an artificial fireplace for warmth in her lovely beige sweater?

You there, you solitary figure, looking so stoic. I’m in the air outside the window, hovering over the place where the ocean batters the continent. I'm just a drifting thought on a solitary reconnaisance. You’re sitting in a lighthouse reading a book by candle. The glow from the flame lights up your bearded cheek. Why read with a candle when you have such a powerful light? Your beam sweeps the land, then casts out over the Atlantic ocean with a force that is almost natural, as if man did not place it there. It cannot reach the other side. You have no idea how symbolic you are right now, out here on the coast of Maine all alone.

I sense you all out there, though you may think not of me.

And I accept you for what you are, stranger or friend. I need you to be there because you make my home land what it is. You are all, friends and strangers alike, so sacred in my mind. For what is American life -- what is a wait in line at the post office or a drive to the store -- without a sea of human faces? Some faces are beautiful, others mean and hateful. Some are inspiring, while others are frightening. But their very presence is part of what makes America great. What are friends if there are no strangers? 

The idea of you all begets a powerful memory, a force of nature, an alternate reality, something I would never give up on, a caring voice on the end of a telephone line, a mystery, the smile of an old friend, a nice thought, a funny story, a well-meant gesture.

You dwell out there forming your own self-portrait of America -- the trucker driving 600 miles a day through the snowy mountains of Wyoming, the young boy at football practice in Maryland, the aspiring writer in New York, staring out at the city for inspiration, the jazz singer looking for part time work in the French Quarter, the grandfather in Arizona who swims two miles a day, the housewife in Pennsylvania who makes scrapbooks for her kids, the young man in Basic Training learning how to become a soldier, the hippie chicks at the University of Montana hanging out on the steps of the Liberal Arts building, the newborn baby in Minnesota lying in her crib and gazing wide-eyed at the shadows created by her nightlight, and all the nameless faces and moments that make up our history.

Just remember, America, it doesn't matter where they send us, or for how long. I can promise you we'll give it our best. We'll sacrifice all. And we will always support You. 

  "All wars are civil wars, because all men are brothers."  --Francois Fenelon

THE FLORIST |

February 05, 2007

THE FLORIST
Name: CAPT Doug Traversa
Posting date: 2/5/07
Stationed in: Kabul, Afghanistan
Hometown: Tullahoma, TN
Milblog url
: http://traversa.typepad.com
Email: [email protected]

Maj R asked me at the last minute to accompany him to a large Afghan army base on the other side of town. We have to travel in pairs, and his NCO was sick. I accepted, as it was a chance to see more of beautiful Afghanistan. Even better, I got to drive an Afghan truck for the first time. It's just a souped up Ford Ranger, but the Afghan guards get a kick out of seeing us in their vehicles. Today one of them asked why we were in it, and Maj R told them we'd stolen it. I said we were joining the Afghan Army. Some humor crosses the language barrier just fine.

Since it defends the capital, the 201st Corps is probably the best equipped of the five Afghan Corps. This is a real combat unit, commanded by a two-star General. Or, more accurately, a two-blob General, as I could not make out what those things on his shoulders were supposed to be. Not that what I wear is any better. I have a little logistics badge with an eagle clutching lightning bolts and a bomb, I think. The Afghans no doubt think I have a blob on my chest too.

Well, we were going in to see the General himself, and I was sure he would be an imposing, Patton-like figure. We sat in his waiting room for a while, enjoying one of the three Afghan air conditioners in the entire city. Finally all the brass arrived, and the room was filled with a host of Generals and Colonels. We headed into the inner sanctum, the office of the Commander of the finest combat unit in Afghanistan. Surely there would be swords hanging on the walls, battle plans, war trophies, flags, all sorts of cool stuff.

But I somehow ended up in a bridal shop. There were towering flower arrangements everywhere. The couches and chairs all had wooden arms and legs carved into flowers, and painted too. Clearly there had been a rip in the space-time continuum, or my anti-malaria drugs had finally fried my brains. There was no way this was the office of the top military commander in the country. I closed my eyes, clicked my heels three times, and wished I was back in Kansas, or at least in reality. But weird as it was, and weird seems pretty normal around here, I was indeed in his office. Great. Old Blood-and-Guts really wants to be a florist. 

ON OUR OWN |

February 02, 2007

ON OUR OWN
Name: Eric Coulson
Posting date: 2/2/07
Stationed in: Ramadi, Iraq
Hometown: St. Louis, MO
Milblog url: http://badgersforward.blogspot.com
Email: [email protected]

I usually write contemporaneously, but this is something that happened several months ago:

Ar Ramadi, Iraq. 0300.

We left the FOB at 2130, and have been winding our way through the city ever since. We are nearing the end of our route.

It is one of our first patrols on the ground in Iraq on our own. No trainers, no unit we are replacing. Just us. Many of the Soldiers in our unit have spent years training to do something like this. Wondering what it would be like. Wondering if we would measure up.

It has been a quiet night in Ramadi. Earlier, we looked at many possible targets but found none. Then the radio call comes.

“Badger 3-6, Kilo 1-1.”

“Go ahead Kilo 1-1.”

“We have a suspected cache of explosives and weapons here. We were wondering if you and your EOD could come take a look at it.”

“Roger, Badger 3-6 on the way. We are about five blocks from that location.”

We pull up to the target area. The Coalition Forces that called us have at least two platoons on the ground.

I get out of the truck, look around, and think, “Wow, here I am on the ground in a combat zone, in Iraq. And hey, no one has taken a shot at me. This is OK.”

Surreal does not even begin to describe the situation. I could have been on a training exercise at NTC or an urban warfare training ground, but no, it really is Ramadi, Iraq. All the preparation has been for this moment. Not just the deployment prep, but all of my Army training going back to basic training at Fort Benning Georgia over 15 years ago.

The street reminds me of a post-apocalyptic southern California. The homes are in a distinct Mediterranean style with stucco walls and red tile roofs.This street is atypically wide, at least for Ramadi  -- 30 feet. But the homes are close together, with eight-foot-high fences separating them.

The maneuver forces that called us here are standing in a vacant lot which looks like a mini-landfill between two homes.

“Hey Badger, over here.”

My Platoon Leader and I walk over.

“Check this out.”

The Soldier who called us points to several pieces of large military munitions that until this time I have only read about in books: Soviet, Chinese, South African.

“And look at these.”

More bomb-making material. The stark realism that we are no longer training hits me like cold water in the face; both startling and refreshing. Working with our EOD element, we scan the entire 15 x 15 meter lot, moving very carefully in case there are booby traps.

I remember thinking at some point that I should be cautious. Any bullets shot at me would not be the fake laser of the MILES gear, but real 7.62 x 39mm from an AK.

After scanning the area we begin sorting the items into different piles. Non-explosive bomb-making materials here, possible intelligence items there, a bag of black ski-masks, and all types of explosives ranging from artillery shells to rocket propelled grenades. And finally, sitting in the middle of everything, small arms ammunition.

We are confident the area is now clear. Everything is inventoried and all the non-explosive material is placed in a vehicle for transport back to the FOB for potential intelligence exploitation.Then we search for an appropriate place to detonate the explosive material.

We enter the two-story house associated with the property, a place I imagine a middle class Iraqi family once lived. It was clearly abandoned long ago by the owners, the conflict here too much for them. It looks as if insurgents might have made use of the home recently as a base of operations. We search it thoroughly for any sign of life. When it becomes clear that the house is not currently in use, or in any condition to be used ever again, we decide to do a controlled detonation inside. So as to better contain the explosion, we move all of the explosives into the lowest and most central part of the house, under the central staircase. After 15 minutes, we finally get it all in there. Everyone is then moved out except the EOD techs, who will perform the actual detonation. We move all the vehicles to a safe distance.

“This is EOD, two minutes.”

The fuse is lit.

“One minute.”

“30 seconds.”

“15 seconds.”

“10 seconds.”

“Fire in the hole.”

“Fire in the hole.”

BOOM. The night sky is lit up for less than a second, as the would-be insurgent bombs disappear in a cloud of dust and smoke. An already dilapidated house leveled.

Less than 60 seconds after the dust begins to settle, another call comes across the radio. They have another cache that needs to be cleared.

“Badger 3-6, Kilo 1-1. We have another one.”

“Roger, we are coming.”

We move to another vacant lot just down the block.There is even more bomb-making material here, a veritable insurgent armory, but it is all centrally located. Mostly explosives, but we also find a large number of small arms, AKs, and sniper rifles.

This cache has been buried in a large hole that was once part of a building foundation, a building long since torn down. At the bottom of the hole where we find most of the explosives is a box of sweating dynamite. Now that concerns us. Conventional munitions are stable. This might not be. We decide to move the mortar shells and RPG rockets, the bulk of our find, to take inventory, then pile the military munitions back on top of the dynamite.

Then the same procedure as before: move away, count down, boom.

As we slowly drive back to the relative safety of the FOB, the horizon turns a golden pink and the dark night sky melts into pale blue clouds. Our truck jostles over the bumps in the road and I lean my tired head against the door frame. Our first real foray into combat is now complete. We walked on the battlefield ground of Iraq. We executed and coordinated a mission. And we took away valuable enemy resources. As we pass through the security gates of the FOB, a feeling of confidence comes over me. We can do this.

A VILLAGE NAMED KARMA |

February 01, 2007

A VILLAGE NAMED KARMA
Name:Teflon Don
Posting date: 2/1/07
Stationed in: Ramadi, Iraq
Milblog url: acutepolitics.blogspot.com

The day started at 0630 with a wakeup call and a shivering gasp into the cold air. The heaters in the tents decided that last night was their night off. Brr. Now the tent is heated by body warmth and the one remaining working heater. I lay curled in my bed for a few minutes, trying to will my body warm. Giving up on that idea, I slide quickly into silk weight thermals and my Nomex jumpsuit, and start getting ready for the mission.

A couple of hours later, all preparations completed, we roll out of Camp Falluja on another route clearance patrol. Today's mission: ensure that 30 kilometers of road, including three villages, are free of IEDs and other hazards to coalition forces. An hour into the route, on the outskirts of the first village, we find our first IED of the day. Tamped into an old hole by the side of the road and covered with a thin layer of dirt, it is typical insurgent work.

While the IED is being neutralized, someone notices a head popping up behind a wall some distance away. We move to intercept, and as we pull up, more heads appear. False alarm -- we've roused a large Iraqi family with our noisy trucks. Or is it? We follow a wire that some fighter meant to use to detonate his bomb, as it leads in the direction of the wall. Then it veers away into a field. Out in the distance is a single house. The wire ends just meters away. Inside are a woman and her three children, two teenage girls and a little boy.

"Who's wire is this?" She doesn't know.

"Where is the man of the house?" She doesn't know.

"Has anyone else been here today?" She doesn't know.

Are there any "Ali Babas" (insurgents) around? She doesn't know.

The children stand by silently. When someone asks one a question she starts to answer, only to be shushed by her mother. Obviously, we're not going to learn anything here. We still have a long route to do, so we make preparations to leave, while letting the unit that owns the sector know that it might be worth a trip to the house with an interpreter.

We move the IED off into a field, where we can safely destroy it. But before we can do that, we have to make sure that our patrol, and, just as important, the civilians in the nearby village, are protected. The vehicle commander calls up to me in the hatch, "Hey! When we back up, make sure those gawkers get back behind something!" The truck speeds backwards and stops in the intersection near the village. I call out from the turret, flinging my arms up in the air:

"Kumbuleh! -- Bomb!"

The gathering crowd looks up as one.

"Rooh lil bayt! -- Go home!"

They scatter. Staff Sergeant J. looks up and says "Well, I guess your pronunciation isn't so bad they can't understand 'BOMB' ", and laughs.

Indeed.

Krr-THUMP! The IED disappears in a cloud of dirty black smoke and flying dirt. A bare hundred meters down the road, we find the next one. It's turning out to be a busy morning.

After we pass the village, we find a third IED at another intersection. The rest of the day turns up nothing, and we retrace our steps back towards Camp Falluja. On passing the first IED site, we discover that the destruction of that IED cut one of the nearby power lines, which now lies sparking on the ground.

I'm not happy to see it, but I'm not that upset, either. On one hand, work will have to be done to restore the power, but on the other, the IED would have toppled the pole if it had detonated where it lay. The fact is that the damage wasn't as bad as it could have been. The irony is that the village is named Karma.


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