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.


March 09, 2007

Name: American Soldier
Posting date: 3/9/07
Returned from: Iraq
Milblog url:

Most soldiers will tell you that the things they see during the war stay in the war. They experience it and deal with it at a later time. Well that time has come for me. February 27th.

Let me take you back to a year ago. An irrelevant city, a nameless street and a small home where a little girl and her mother lived. I never did see the father during my many trips past this home. I often wondered where he was -- dead, divorced, who knows. I’d have my gunner hand out extra candy whenever we’d pass. The child looked like my own daughter. Dark wavy hair, charcoal eyes and tan skin. She always had a smile, and waved while the boys tried to look tough. She would giggle and laugh at us. It brought a piece of home to me during the long nights on patrol or the early morning stroll.

We all had ways to deal with our tour. For me it came to be about seeing the future of Iraq.These children loved us and we appreciated it. However, this was not meant to be a happy story. This is reality in a war. And for me reality came crashing down.

We were heading out for a patrol and were doing our morning checks in different parts of the city, always keeping on a different path and being random, to avoid any trouble. This doesn't always work, because someone can just wait and sooner or later they will hit you. We all get blown up. That is just the fact of war and patrolling outside the wire.

As we neared the house of the little girl we saw a bleak front yard. A few pottery planters, a metal grate door and a white stone fence, and of course dirt. There was a makeshift soccer field adjacent -- not a soccer field by Western standards, but these local kids would kick balls on it and play tag. I looked across and saw the little girl running back to her house. I was in the lead vehicle and radioed back to my trail vehicle to look out for kids running across the road. Watching the side of the roads for IEDs is tough enough, let alone when you have children running, without warning, in front of you.

She was running and waving and had that beautiful smile. Just like any child happy in their own little world. A smile came across my rough face and I blinked my eyes and looked forward again. Our vehicle is passing by. The sun reveals itself in my window and I squint. The stinging of sweat in my eyes irritates them. I rub my eyes and look in my rearview mirror and I lean forward.

The spiraling trail smoke from a rocket. It is flying towards where my vehicle has just passed. With a thunderous boom it explodes. My face, half-smile fading, goes into war mode. My trail vehicle takes evasive action, going around where the rocket had impacted. My driver speeds up and we get ourselves in a better fighting posture. We drive around a corner and to try and identify the culprit, but like most times he fades into the shadows. We go back to check out the area and my heart stops. The smiling face, the peaceful bliss and the innocent child, now on the ground.

Her mother had run to her, and was now crouched down beside her. She lifted her up and was crying at us, damning us with a language I could not understand. As we approached the house we came under small arms fire and had to move out of the area fast. We could not go back to check on her but we found out the result later on. That area became empty to me. No more smiling face, no more innocence. It was taken away and I was a part of that. A burden I live with to this day.

I look back at it and it really hurts me inside. Something in my heart died that day. I can deal with seeing bad guys blown apart or hurt, but not children. It breaks me, and goes deeper than any other pain.

Later that day I was involved in a situation that earned me a Purple Heart. But the date is not seared into my brain due to the medal, but due to the loss of a child. I look at the medal and that is what I remember. The grind of battle wears on the toughest of men. The experience is stored away until various anniversary days come and go. February 27th is one of my dates.


I am sorry that you are suffering. Your story made me very sad, and I hope that you have some form of faith in something or someone because that will prevent you some becoming bitter and angry forever. We think about you guys in Iraq and Afghanistan, especially about people like yourself who are sensitive and kind. We pray that you overcome the pain you are feeling now and learn to be happy again.

Kind regards

Sydney, Australia

Ouch, this story hurts to read. It must have been a thousand times more difficult to write, and I can't imagine the difficulty in witnessing it first hand.

I'm sorry for your loss.

I'm so sorry for the loss of that innocent child!

PLEASE remember, though, that while you were there, you were NOT the one responsible for her death. You didn't fire the rocket. You didn't plan the ambush in the middle of an area where children play.

I'm sure that you will still mourn her death, but please try to shed the feelings of blame. You are doing your best in bad circumstances. Keep your head down and come home safely.

My heart goes out to you.

I am really sorry this happened to you. For what it's worth, the rest of us are lucky you are who you are, the kind of person who cares about kids in a war zone and remembers they are kids just like yours. The dates thing is tough, kind of concentrates the experience, doesn't it? As you know you, this experience is now part of who you are, it's a new piece of your personality. Over time, it will hurt less, but you won't forget it because it's now part of you. My guess is that will become a positive, albeit painful, part of you, and it some way it will become a gift. Please take care of yourself.

I really can't offer some bland advice. I know now, any hesitation, any ghost, any qualm in your mind, will endanger yourself and your crew. So, my stock comment; stay alive, come back alive, and help us fix these things so no more children have to die. That is your mission.

I did notice that you weren't the trigger man. I did notice you loved that kid a little, as much as you could at the time. To your good, that's your humanity. I did notice that you turned that humanity way, way down. Not off, just way down.

The really good news? Next time you go after the bad guys, you just might get that kids' killer.

I won't go into how that might happen or how it might feel, but it's all in the package. I just hope, if it does happen, you find out about it.

Very tough story...This is a reminder that war hurts everyone, not just the soldiers... I really feel for the mom, obviously she had not poisoned her child's mind with hatred, that little girl seemed to have a somewhat carefree childhood, happy, smiling, trusting, and god-willing, never felt any pain at the end... My belief is she is in heaven, leaving a life that she chose to be happy about... God be with the mother, hopefully she will find some peace, and God be with you, and peace be with you... Stay safe...

Your revelations about February 27th were extremely moving. My 33 yr. old nephew is in Baghdad and always reminds me to send along "lots of candy for the kids." I wouldn't think of packing a box without candy, lots of it. Understand that with a very small token (candy) or your wave and smile when passing the children on the streets of Iraq you are giving them a memory, and hopefully a good memory even if it is brief and flickering. This memory of you giving candy to these innocent children will hopefully have a positive effect long after our troops have left the country. The children of Iraq and the effect that we have on them will hopefully stay with them as their country navigates a difficult and uncertain future. It is my hope and prayer that they remember how good you were to them. Also know that you while you cannot protect everyone, your first priority while it may seem selfish, is to protect yourself and your fellow soldiers. I'm sorry for your loss of that child, clearly someone who had touched and effected you in such a profound way. Children have a way of doing that to the strongest and the toughest of men. Be safe and don't forget to keep reaching out for those young children; you are making a difference if their lives. In the meantime, I'll keep sending the candy...

Very sad and painful. Thank you for sharing and peace be with you.

I am so sorry. You and everyone who reads this are now keepers of her memory. As long as you remember her goodness, she won't be lost. Peace.

Who was it who said "War Is Not Healthy for Children and Other Living Things?"

I served in Vietnam in the Army. I still have images of children in my head. While it will never be easy there are people back home who understand the pain. Seek them out and know you are not alone and your feelings are okay. What happened isn't okay, but how you feel about them is.

Nothing, and I mean nothing sticks in your mind the longest than the sight of a child's broken body. Anybody remember that 60s photo of a child burnt by napalm? I bet most people do. No words can make one forget, and nothing will bring the child back.

We all lose a part of ourselves in any conflict. Just focus on the here and now and be safe. Peace.

Hi. I hope you don't mind but I copied and sent your post to a friend, mostly because I think more people should be hearing about what's actually going on in Iraq. This was one of the most heart-breaking things I've heard and my heart goes out to you.

I've copied some of her reply to me, thinking you might like to hear it. We were talking about how it must be hard to keep your conscience in battle (but what do we know!)

"That must be the hardest thing about combat and what I find so amazing about this man. He still felt for this little girl and her mother. He did not transfer his guilt, hatred, and regret onto them but kept it in the perspective of the war. He painfully but importantly remembers the day she was killed instead of repressing it and running from his feelings. That might be the bravest thing I've ever heard...And still my mind turns back to that soldier mourning the loss of the little girl. I'd say that's the most positive thing I've read about a soldier in a while, not the girl's death, but that he feels, that he connects with the people there. That's the single most hopeful thing I've read in a while. I hope he can keep it up."

A heartbreaking story, like many in this forum. These stories should be mandatory reading for all who think war is just a matter of blowing up some bad guys and waving flags.

American Soldier, you have touched me and made me shed a tear for that child and her mother and for you. In your account I could see the faces of my own children when they were small, particularly my dark-haired, dark-eyed, tan youngest child, and I felt briefly the anguish of that mother. We should never forget that war does monstrous things to children. Please, though it hurts, never lose your humanity. Your capacity for compassion makes you a credit to our military.

I send you my deepest commiseration in this terribly painful aspect of war. Yet your story points out the difference between you and the person who fired the rocket into a civilian area where children ran and played. Always remember that you had cherished the smile of this little one; she had obviously cherished the smiles and waves and candy she received. Her life though short had had that wonderful dimension of joy that YOU had added to it. We are not masters of our fate, neither you, nor me nor she. What we can do on our journey is to add pleasure and joy and happiness where we can and this you did, as surely as she did for you. Recall this vital aspect when your heart thinks of her vanished smiles: they were as much a gift from you as for you for you were the source, played out courtesy of a sweet and loving little girl. God bless you, American Soldier and thank-you for caring as you do. Be comforted.

I share your pain.

This was a sad story, but beautifully written.

The experiences will always be with you, but hopefully the pain will dim with time.

You have the power within you to live a life of goodness.

I remember convoys in Nam and watching children on the side of the road waiting for us to throw food or candy. I did not get to see the same ones like you did with this young girl, but my heart goes out to you and her family. Like you, we were not there to kill women and children. We were trying to do something good and to give the people there the hope of a better life. In the end, that is what you have to remember. The fact that this event is so painful to you means you still care. That is a good sign. When you are so numb that you no longer care, something very important has been lost. I saw that in some of the guys I served with. It was never a good sign.


My prayers are with you, the other soldiers with you, that mother and that child.

It was not your fault. Remember that. It was not your fault. You are there to help and they chose to do that not you.


The clearest notion that comes through here is your humanity, the pain in your heart for the innocent. I hope the vile horror of war never causes you to lose that common bond we share or hardens your heart to where suffering doesn't matter. Come home with honor, and I hope you find peace.

This is why I never, ever, read The Sandbox in a public place. One of my students strolled into my office hours and found me with tears rolling down my cheeks.

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