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.

THE ROOT(S) OF ALL EVIL |

March 30, 2007

THE ROOT(S) OF ALL EVIL
Name: MAJOR Michael Irwin
Posting date: 3/30/07
Returned from: Iraq
Milblog urlcybirr.blogspot.com
Email: cybirr@hotmail.com

For the last few days I have been traveling around Iraq visiting several Iraqi headquarters and their Ministry of Defense. My job has been to get some profiles on the various personalities and processes the Iraqi Air Force has to work with. My impressions, along with those of other advisors, are being consolidated as a report on Iraqi military fitness.

That is not important. What is important is that I have faced the root (or roots, there are three) of all that is evil. Broccoli, cauliflower and tomatoes...

While visiting one of the offices in the Ministry of Defense, I was invited to have a light meal with the deputy for the operations division. A nice Colonel named Amir politely ushered me into the office and offered me tea. Arabic tea is one of the bright spots in my day, as it is quite good and makes for a starting point for a conversation. As we sipped our tea we exchanged some pleasantries (via an interpreter -- the Colonel's English required occasional support, typical in my dealings, and not a criticism by any means) and discussed what we would be talking about.

Then the orderly (Colonels get orderlies) brought in a plate of food...

On this plate was what I took to be Iraqi focaccia. You have probably had focaccia at an Italian restaurant, of course -- thick bread with cheese and sometimes vegetables, mostly tomatoes. I tend to avoid it unless I can have it my way, without tomatoes. This particular piece of bread was covered with chopped broccoli, cauliflower and tomatoes. Covered is such an inadequate word...It was heaped on. You couldn't have added another particle on top. I was simply aghast!

We were taught, in our Arabic sensitivity classes (me sensitive, HA!), that when offered food we must be absolutely thrilled at the presentation, and consume it with relish, and comment on the exquisite taste and generosity of our host.

It was at this point that General Q, chief of Iraqi Air Force operations, strode in, along with his entourage. He was going to snack with us.

I was doomed.

The Colonel cut me a huge slice of this thing. And with a sense of great pride at his staff kitchen's accomplishment, put it on a plate and placed it before me -- even before serving General Q. At this point I was thinking "I've got thirty rounds, I'd probably be able to get to the door and maybe make it to the Humvee..."

The General (obviously sensing my discomfiture) spoke in a deep basso voice via the interpreter: "Ah, this is my favorite. Please go ahead and eat, Major."

The things I do for my country...

After my nightmarish meal our conversation turned to business. The members of the General's entourage were all talking at once, and it was difficult for me to hear the interpreter. In an attempt to lighten the mood (and get my mind off the churning in my stomach) I joked to the General that we were both folically challenged, and clearly our intelligence and knowledge on the matters at hand is what had caused us to be so hair-negative. "Perhaps it would be best if we were the only ones speaking right now."

The interpreter passed my comment on to Q, and several people laughed at the joke. It was not a very good joke, but the Iraqis are nothing if not polite. Q didn't smile at all, but spoke in his deep voice. Suddenly all other talking stopped.

"The General," my interpreter explained, "he says, 'Yes, only the bald men may speak.'"

WHEN THIS IS OVER |

WHEN THIS IS OVER
Name: CAPT Lee Kelley
Posting date: 3/29/07
Returned from: Iraq
Milblog url: wordsmithatwar.blog-city.com
Email: wordsmith16@excite.com


When this is over, take my weapon. I won't need it for a while. Take this body armor. I would look silly wearing it at the beach. Witness as I grow a goatee. And watch me indulge, at least for a while, in fast food, massive amounts of sleep, alcohol, channel-surfing and many other things that I have lived without for long enough now that I remember liking them more than I actually do.

I have two wonderfully resilient children to whom I've dedicated my life, and who will one day soon forget that their Dad was gone for so long. They won't notice if I'm gone another day or two.

So just drop me off when this is over.

I truly appreciate all the support, but I don't need parades or awards or speeches from the governor. I don't even need a ride. Just leave me on any interstate that has a friendly shoulder with nice loose gravel to kick at, or in a subway car full of morning New York commuters, or in a hotel room looking out at the arch in downtown St. Louis. Leave me in Atlanta, or Portland, Ore., Gig Harbor, Wash., or in a lighthouse on the coast of Maine. I'll gladly be dropped off anywhere in North Dakota, Maryland, Alabama, or Florida. How about a rest area in Flagstaff, Ariz., or a four-way stop in Twin Falls, Idaho? I'll be fine on my own, whether you leave me in a quiet forest, at a state fair, or in the middle of a mosh pit.

I have a lot of friends and family, but rather than going from a combat environment straight back to my block in suburban America, I'd prefer a small period of complete privacy, surrounded only by the elements.

Leave me on a ridge in the Smoky Mountains of North Carolina or a canyon in the Colorado Rockies. I'll find a nice walking stick that is well-balanced and has the perfect spot, worn of bark, for my right hand. I'll hike the rest of the trip.

In the wide open spaces of America you'll find me, walking across the Golden Gate Bridge lost in thought, skipping rocks at the Pacific Coast, having breakfast in a small cafe in Vermont, or lying on a South Carolina beach in the glare of the setting sun on the tide-washed shore.

You may see me huddled against a 1,000-foot rock precipice near Dead Horse Point outside of Moab, Utah, a lone figure silhouetted by my campfire, feeding sticks into the flames, captivated with observations of the universe.

Or I'll be the man fishing near you on Lake Hermitage, La.

"Catch anything?" you'll ask.

"You bet. Some big trout on the west end of the lake, and some nice Redfish if you go for the bottom around that inlet right there." I'll say this as I point over my shoulder. Then I'll wave, throttle the engine and move away for a better spot. The spray will fan out behind me, catching the sun as my prop churns the warm dark water.

As you stand looking down into the Grand Canyon, a sun visor on your head, a Gatorade bottle in one hand and a tourist pamphlet in the other, which also has three fingers wrapped around the railing because the depth perception is giving you vertigo, someone will ask "Amazing, isn't it?" then smile and walk away. That will be me.

I'm the guy sitting on the H of the Hollywood sign, smoking a cigarette. I'm a face you can only see half of through the Medieval art display in your local museum. I'm an illegible name scribbled in the guest book of the St. Louis Cathedral in New Orleans. I am the happy drunk man talking to his slot machine in Vegas. I am the dad playing Frisbee with two children at a neighborhood park in Minneapolis. And I am the guy sitting next to you in English Lit class at the University of Montana, or the owner of a hand sticking out of a car that waves you to go first at a stop sign on your way home from work.

I am still focused on this mission and proud to be serving in Iraq with such incredible people. But in quiet moments of introspection I am becoming fixated on my life beyond this war, beyond this uniform. The thought of being with my children is a kinetic force, and the pure unadulterated momentum of inspiration grows each time the sun spans from East to West in syncopation with these oft monotonous minutes. The beauty of my America compels me with a newly discovered pentameter, like a favorite poem I haven't read in years. And the perceived difficulty of picking up the pieces of my life there is a welcome challenge.

I'm a man on the cusp of the rest of his life, standing between war and family life, citizen and soldier, officer and parent, participant and observer. I'm about to step across a line, and I simply want to be deliberate about the process, that's all.

Don't mind me as I walk past you on the Appalachian Trail at dusk some summer evening soon, when the light is fading behind the hills in the distance. Everyone will be hiking back to their cars, and I'll be hiking in. We both will smile casually and keep going in opposite directions. Tomorrow I may be in Texas. The next day I may see you in California.

So when this thing is over, just drop me off on American soil and bid me farewell. Maybe I'll honk the horn as I pass by you on a highway in Utah where the Rocky Mountains frame the path to futurity and the landscape is welcoming like an old couch. I'll be just another American on the road, wearing aerodynamic sunglasses and listening to the radio. Soon I'll park in front of my children's school and check them out early.

Oh yes, this is where it all begins.

Originally published by the New York Times

DRIVING IN AFGHANISTAN |

March 28, 2007

DRIVING IN AFGHANISTAN
Name: Doug Templeton
Posting date: 3/28/07
Stationed in: Afghanistan
Hometown: Kansas City, MO
Email: dtempleton14@yahoo.com

Framed_templeton_cart_4As near as I can tell, there are no such things as traffic laws here. You are supposed to have a license, but I'm told that with the right bribe you can skip the test and be on your merry way -- and from what I've seen I have no doubt this is true. I am told there is a traffic light in Afghanistan. One. And it doesn't work. I have yet to find a speed limit sign except in the NATO camps. Stop signs? Well, "stop" is regarded as a suggestion, not a requirement. So it's pretty much a free-for-all.

Framed_templeton_kabul_traffic_5

Just getting to work each day is exciting. Everywhere you look there are cars, trucks, horses and carts, and donkeys, all sharing the same semi-paved, pot-hole-riddled, dirty roads. People dart out from side streets and never look. They just stick their nose out and hope it's still there when they complete their turn. The mud has been pretty bad, so the trucks no longer park on the shoulders. They just park on the road, taking up the lane. Since there are usually vehicles on both sides, this only leaves you a small passage to navigate through, while avoiding oncoming traffic doing the same thing. More than once during a near miss the air has been sucked out of our vehicle by a collective gasp. I won't even mention where the seat cushion went.

Framedtempleton_jingle_truck_4

Then there is the factor of who gets to be designated driver of the day. Some days its a Mario Andretti wannabe, on others it may be someone who reminds you of your grandmother. I won't mention names, but there are some people who, as we leave the gate, make me glad my will has been updated. All this at the same time we are looking for bad guys who are trying to activate that will. Fortunately there have been very few accidents for us, and none of them causing injury to any of our group. Every time I make it through another day without incident I knock on wood. It's easy, as everything in my hooch is made of it.

Being home on leave made for some interesting moments. A couple of times I inspired my wife say, "Don't even think about it." I guess driving on the other side of the road is a problem for her.

SMOKE'S YEAR AS AN ETT |

March 27, 2007

SMOKE'S YEAR AS AN ETT
Name: 1SG Troy Steward
Posting date: 3/27/07
Stationed in: Sharana, Afghanistan
Hometown: Amherst, NY
Milblog url: www.bouhammer.com

This video was created by Smoke before he left country to return home at the end of his tour here. Because he was the Artillery company mentor, it has more of an Artillery focus, and offers a different perspective from the video I posted last week, MY YEAR IN AFGHANISTAN. He also spent some time at the Kabul Military Training Center (KMTC) at the start of his tour, so he has seen some of that. His choice of music is great, and goes with the content. I am sure you will enjoy this...

TIME |

March 26, 2007

TIME
Name: Capt Mike Toomer, USAF
Posting date: 3/26/07
Stationed in: Kabul Afghanistan
Hometown: Saco, ME
Email: mltoomer@maine.rr.com

I have been in country for over nine months, spending just about every day with Afghans, either the ANA or interpreters.  I spent six weeks "down range" in the Gardez area training the ANA on logistics, and had the opportunity to interact with other ANA soldiers and mentors. I shared my observations with them and listened to them, and from this experience (purely anecdotal, this isn't a research article) I have come to the conclusion that Afghanistan is eerily similar to medieval Europe. 

A majority of the population -- about 60% overall  -- is illiterate. Once you get out of the bigger cities (Kabul, Mazar-i-Sharif, Harat) the percentage is significantly higher. Afghan society is very simple. Out in the hinterland most people are subsistence farmers, and even the vast majority of those living in the cities spend their days just trying to survive. The simplicity of the society, along with little to no education, results in a society of people who, for the most part, cannot think abstractly or conceptually. 

As in medieval Europe, the most literate and sophisticated segment of society is the clergy, and they use this to their advantage. Because most of the population is merely attempting to survive, with little comfort, religion plays a central part in their lives. It is necessary that there be a reward at the end for all the suffering people are going through. The problem is that the Qu’ran is written in Arabic, a language that the vast majority do not understand, let alone read. And the services here, which really consist of a recitation of the Qu’ran, are also in Arabic. In medieval Europe, services were given in Latin, which the masses could not understand. In both cases, the only thing most people know about the religion so central to their lives is what the clergy tells them -- what the clergy wants them to know. This gives the clergy an incredible amount of power, and it is they, not the government, who control the people. In Europe, kings derived their authority from God, supported by the clergy. It isn't much different here, in that Afghanistan is an "Islamic" republic, based on the religion and Islamic law.

All this is a way of explaining why people support the Taliban, and Osama bin Laden, and are willing to strap explosive vests to their bodies in order to kill Americans. It also gives us an idea about how to proceed in an attempt to moderate this part of the world (not just Afghanistan...). If your life sucks and the clergy tells you that the surest way to heaven is to kill infidels, chances are you will take that course. Why would the clergy send so many to death? Power. I am sure they believe that the Qu’ran reads the way they preach it, but also, if there is an Islamic state, who runs it? The clergy become the ruling class.

Another factor in all this, as I said, is the lack of education and the inability to think conceptually or abstractly. They can't take the principles of a thirteen-hundred-year-old religion and apply them to a modern society. The vast majority of Afghans think concretely, in black and white, and are unable to determine the principles that underly the religion. What the Qu’ran says, or what the mullah tells them, must be taken literally, and applied the same way. If the interpretation of Islam is that everyone other then Muslims are infidels and must be converted or killed, then this is what the majority will believe. If the Mullah says that the Americans and Coalition forces are occupiers, here to wage war against Islam, then the call to Jihad is believed and acted on -- despite the fact that most of those who end up being killed in the name of Jihad are Muslims. Instead of taking the principles that underlie the religion and applying them to a modern society, they are attempting to make a modern society fit a thirteen-hundred-year-old religion. Examples are the burka (yes, most women still wear them), women as second class citizens, and a strong suspicion of all things not Muslim -- like our assistance and attempts to bring them into the 21st century.

The $64,000 question: What will it take to moderate this religion and bring some sanity to this part of the world? The answer: time. Yes, time is the most important element, and we need to face this fact and understand that we are going to need to be here a long time, a generation at least. We need to educate the population, as we are currently doing. We are opening many schools and the number of people receiving an education is up dramatically. But it will take time before those we are currently educating are able to rise to positions in which they can make a difference. Understand, too, that just about 40% of the population here is under the age of 15, which means that if we concentrate our efforts on them the timeline for change shrinks. Time, and commerce, will bring sophistication to the society in general, which will help the population in their ability to adapt to the modern world.

Well, I have come to the end of this lecture. It may have been simplistic, but I've been working with the Afghans for nine months, and perhaps they are rubbing off on me as much as I am on them. It is what it is -- my attempt to explain what I have seen and experienced.  My hope is that you find it helpful in trying to understand why this part of the world is a crazy as it seems.

A MODERN WAR JOURNAL |

March 23, 2007

A MODERN WAR JOURNAL
Name: SANDBOX DUTY OFFICER David Stanford
Posting date: 3/23/07

A Sandbox salute to longtime and frequent contributor SGT Brandon White, who was recently profiled in his hometown paper,The Akron Beacon Journal. Here is the opening section of the piece, with a link to the entire story:

U.S. Army Sgt. Brandon White's war journal is not kept in his pocket or his duffel bag or his footlocker. His observations are not scribbled on a notebook or in letters to home. He arrived four years ago Monday to take part in the initial invasion of Iraq, and now he is in Afghanistan. And what this soldier writes about what he has seen, felt and learned at war is posted on the Internet for all the world to read.Framed_brandon_white_portrait_4

"I have been doing a great deal of thinking about this war, how support for it keeps slipping into nothingness lately," he wrote on his Web log (or blog) a few days before Christmas.
"I simply don't understand the rationale behind many of my fellow Americans' thinking."

His blog can be found at www.gwot.us, which stands for Global War on Terror. White is one of a new generation of warriors who have been writing about their experiences as bloggers.

White, a 25-year-old from Milton Township in Mahoning County, is a 2000 graduate of Ravenna High School. He joined the Army right out of high school and served in Iraq from the outset of the war through February 2004 with the 101st Airborne -- The Screaming Eagles.

He was placed on active duty in the Individual Ready Reserve after he got out of the Army in June 2004 and the following year began attending Hiram College. By Christmas, however, he got a letter from the Army, recalling him to service. After six months of training, he arrived in Afghanistan with the 41st Brigade Combat Team in June 2006 and began blogging right away...(click here to read more).

COPING |

March 22, 2007

COPING
Name: SPC J.R. Salzman
Posting date: 3/22/07
Returned from: Iraq
Milblog url: Lumberjack in a Desert

I’m doing the best that I can, considering. I spend a lot of time really pissed off or really upset. I know I am getting better at a pretty good rate, but still. In Iraq I was the go-to guy for anything that could go wrong with my CET’s (convoy escort team) Humvees. I was the guy that could build or fix anything. Heck, I even built the door and a bench for the building our company stages in for convoys, simply because I was bored and had a little extra time before I went on R&R in November. There was nothing I couldn’t fix, build, or do.

Now I’m struggling with the mentality that I’m just a one-armed, four-fingered gimp. I have sharp memories of the accident that haunt me every day; the sudden explosion, the taste of blood in my mouth, realizing the bottom half of my arm was missing with nothing left but a couple of fingers and part of my hand hanging off by some skin and tendons, and then realizing how much pain I was in. All I could do was hold the end of my blown-off right arm with my shrapnel-filled left hand and wait for the medic to arrive and put a tourniquet on. The most terrifying part of the memories is constantly remembering my gunner screaming and then looking down and realizing my arm was nothing more than some ragged meat and two bones sticking out.

I realize there are a lot of other people out there who are worse off than me. I am not asking for sympathy here. All I am trying to do is let you know what it is like to experience this. I have constant phantom pain in my arm where it feels like my hand is still there, and someone is sawing on it with a knife. The nerves are still trying to tell my brain that something is wrong. The phantom pain is there every moment of the day and hurts like hell. My left hand is barely functional since the surgery. What really pisses me off the most is that my left hand feels like it isn’t put together right. The doctors removed my ring finger all the way down into my hand, and then pulled my pinky next to my middle finger and tied the tendons together. When I bend my fingers it feels like the bones are at different lengths and just don't line up right. I was really hoping I would at least have one completely functioning hand since I lost an arm. Unfortunately because of my wedding ring stripping the skin down to the bone, and multiple pieces of shrapnel that entered my hand and severed my nerves, and the shrapnel that completely shattered my ring finger’s knuckle, this wasn't to be.

I am happy that I am finally rid of all the tubes, IVs, nerve blocks, and catheters sticking out of my body. Today is the first time in over a month I haven't had an IV or some other tube sticking out of my body. I am finally to the point where I can go to the bathroom by myself without any help. What is really sad to me when I think about it is how lucky I am compared to a lot of the other people here at Walter Reed. I think of the pain and frustration I am experiencing and I realize how it is multiplied for them. My pain is always there and I'm told will be for months to come. I can only imagine what it is like for the others here. There are soldiers here with injuries that I cannot even describe. Some are missing both legs. Some are missing both legs and both arms. When I think of this I can't help but feel a little selfish for my own grief.

I spend a lot of time crying and I don't know why. Sometimes I look at my hand or I look at my arm and I just start crying. I think of when my hand used to be there, or when my arm used to be there, and what it was like. The arm that was there for the last 27 years is suddenly gone. All the little blemishes, all the little battle wounds, all the little scars from being a carpenter, everything is gone. The ring finger that held my wedding ring that was put on by my loving wife is gone. The last time I saw my wedding ring it was being snipped off with a pair of bolt cutters at the hospital in the Green Zone in Baghdad. It was also in the Green Zone that I got to look at my arm and see that it had been sheared off by shrapnel. It was a gruesome sight, but I couldn't help but look. It's an image that will forever be burned in my mind. Sometimes the loss feels overwhelming for me and I just start crying. Other times I’m very positive and look forward to getting out of here and getting on with my life. Other times I just don't know what to think.

Please remember this when you think about freedom. This isn't a dream, this isn’t some fictional story about patriotism, this isn't some story I'm writing to be a hero. This is my life here at Walter Reed. I am the true cost of freedom. Welcome to my life.

MY YEAR IN AFGHANISTAN |

March 21, 2007

MY YEAR IN AFGHANISTAN
Name: 1SG Troy Steward
Posting date: 3/21/07
Stationed in: Sharana, Afghanistan
Hometown: Amherst, NY
Milblog url: www.bouhammer.com

This is a time of reflection. Four years ago the war in Iraq began, and it has had a profound impact on many of us. I had just flown back from Hawaii, spent six hours packing my stuff at home and flew to NYC. We settled in at LaGuardia airport and worked out of there for the next 30 days supplementing security there, at JFK and on the LIRR. There were soldiers spread throughout NYC securing many other sites.

One year ago I was at Camp Shelby doing some needless training -- 95% of it had nothing to do with here or what we would be doing here. Unfortunately it has not gotten any better, according to the newest people to come over here. They are still doing the same things, and making the same mistakes.

I have been mobilized for 13 months now, and over that time a lot of stuff has happened. This is my second war, so the initial “excitement” of being shot at had its time 16 years ago. But the “time standing still” moments of trucks blowing up, bodies being shredded, or shots being fired at you still cause the adrenaline to pump and the senses to be on overdrive. Those times are still branded into my psyche and probably always will be.

There are other things I will never forget. The bonds between friends that were forged like steel, under heat and pressure. The looks on children’s faces when we handed them a simple “dollar store” stuffed animal or a five-cent piece of Tootsie Roll. The hateful stares of men and some boys as we roll through their villages or walk by their houses. The one curious eye of a woman peering around a head-wrap as she watches us. The smell of dust (yes, it has a smell). The weird weather that goes quickly from snow to sun with a 30 degree rise in temperature.

I have changed, as anyone would spending a year in combat. There are things back home that I used to consider small and insignificant that are now very important to me. I have a higher appreciation of how much our country has, my family has, and I have. There are reminders of this every time I go to a Third World country, but even more so spending a year in the third poorest country there is.

As I reflect over the last year, I know there will be even more to think about once I get back. I still have a little bit of time left here, and who knows what unforeseen events lay out there for me and my team.

I have spent a lot of hours over the last weeks editing together still pictures and videos I have shot here, adding the appropriate music by Flogging Molly. The film below is actually the third one I made, so it is called Volume III. I plan on releasing Volume I, Volume II and others later. The images are of combat operations, life on the FOB, convoys and kids, Afghanistan scenery, and other things that give a brief snapshot of life here. I hope you like what you see.

CALLING DR. RUTH |

March 20, 2007

CALLING DR. RUTH
Name: CAPT Doug Traversa
Posting date: 3/20/07
Stationed in: Kabul, Afghanistan
Hometown: Tullahoma, TN
Milblog url: traversa.typepad.com
Email: traversa@gimail.af.mail

In ongoing conversations with my translator Hamid I continue to learn more and more, not all of it good. Despite this, Hamid is my friend. His world is stunningly different from mine, and sometimes the realization is jarring. If you’ve read the comments on my previous post, "Children", you’ll see that some people are wondering why we are over here supporting a government made up of people with such beliefs. The political and security issues aside, simply working with Afghans and sharing ideas is a good thing. No, they aren’t all going to suddenly change overnight, but perhaps Hamid will treat his wife more humanely (once he gets married) due to our conversations. Ideas and free thought are fantastic. That’s why the Taliban shut off all communication with the outside world. They didn’t want their people exposed to other ideas. Anyhow, here’s how the rest of our conversation went.

After our discussion about marriage I was pretty worn out. I looked back down at The Stars and Stripes, and saw an article about raids on a bunch of drinking establishments in Kabul. I asked Hamid if he had heard about this.

"Oh, yes, they are usually Chinese restaurants.”

“So the Chinese restaurants serve alcohol?”

Hamid nodded. “Oh yes, and they have prostitutes too.”

“What?” I exclaimed.

“Yes, they come over here with Chinese women, and have food, but you can also spend time with the woman. It costs $60 for a half-hour.”

Hamid is full of surprises. “How would you know that?” I asked.

"The soldiers talk about this all the time. Many of them go.”

“You’re kidding. Isn’t it bad for them to go to a prostitute?”

“Oh, no, it’s fine,” he assured me.

I was incredulous. “So Islam allows them to go to prostitutes?”

“No, Islam does not," he corrected me. "I mean the government doesn’t care."

This of course didn’t jive with the newspaper article. As best as I can figure it, once in a while the government raids the houses of ill repute to keep the hardliners happy. But apparently it’s not a big deal to get into these places.  Where soldiers get the money is another question. Sixty dollars is a lot of dough. But Hamid has an apparently encyclopedic knowledge of the dark underbelly of Kabul. I will spare you the details.

I went back to the paper, and turned the page. There was a large in-profile photo of an older black man with a beard. Hamid asked me who he was. I scanned quickly and explained, “This is an article about gays and lesbians in the movie business. It says that audiences don’t seem to care so much whether actors are homosexuals, but the movie industry doesn’t like to use them in movies.”

I might as well have lit the fuse to a barrel of TNT. Hamid did not disappoint me.

“But he is old,” he exclaimed, looking confused.

“So what?” I said, just as confused.

“When people get old, they turn to God, because they know they will die soon.”

“So what?” I asked again, doing my best impersonation of a broken record.

“But he should not be gay if he is old. He should be turning to God.”

"Hamid, he doesn’t think he is sinning or doing anything wrong. He just likes men rather than women.”

“So he doesn’t believe in God?” Hamid asked, trying to grasp the concept of an older gay man.

“I don’t know if he does or not. Plenty of homosexuals believe in God. They just don’t believe in your God.” I could tell his brain was turning into Jell-O.

“So are there gay Muslims in America?”

“I have no idea. I know there are many gays that call themselves Christians, even though conservative Christians who take the Bible literally say homosexuality is a sin and God hates it. Yet there are many people who believe that older parts of the Bible don’t apply today, so the verses that forbid homosexuality don’t apply now. There may be Muslims in America who believe that about the Qu’ran too.”

Hamid shook his head. “No, that’s not right. Men should not be gay. Now when they are young, they don’t take their religion seriously, and they may try this, but when they get older they reject it and turn to God.”

Now I was pulling my hair out. “Hamid, that is what you believe, but many people believe very different things. You know that is what America is like.”

“But still,” he protested, “they should change when they get older.”

“Hamid, when you get older, do you think you could suddenly decide you liked men rather than women?”

“Oh, no, of course not.”

“So why do you think others can change? I’m not an expert on why some people are gay, but I doubt they just decide to be gay. Even though it is not illegal in America, there are many people who hate gays, and even more who think it is a sin against God. Sometimes people beat gays up, just because they are gay. Sometimes they are murdered for it. Just like you and I are attracted to women, others are attracted to people of the same sex. Yet they certainly don’t think they need to change, and they don’t think they are sinning. It would be like saying you should become a woman, because it’s a sin to be a man. Would you wish to become a woman? Could you?”

He heard the words, but I don’t think they made any sense to him.

“I’ve heard that in Canada, gays can get married. Is this true?” he inquired.

“Yes, I think so.”

“Why would they want to get married? They can’t have children.”

Here we go again. Hamid believed the only purpose of marriage was to have as many kids as possible. Did I mention that Afghanistan has the highest birthrate per capita in the world? I think I now know why.

I explained that if two people love each other, even two gay people, they would naturally want to get married if they loved each other. I also explained that spouses got other benefits, like medical coverage, and that was another reason for wanting to get married.

“But they can’t have kids,” he protested again.

“Look, I keep telling you that in America, people don’t get married just to have kids. Many couples choose to never have kids, because they just want to be together, just the two of them. Besides, they could adopt children if they wanted to.”

“But they would not really be your children...”

I gave him the stern look again. “My brother was adopted. Are you saying he wasn’t really my brother?”

Oh, what an awkward silence ensued. He finally looked down at the table. “Of course he is your brother.”

I eased up a bit. “I know what you are trying to say, but there are many children without parents, and many people adopt. Don’t ever say they aren’t really their children. It’s not the blood relation that matters, it’s the love given that makes them your children.”

“But I don’t understand how a woman can make another woman happy in bed. Or a man make a man happy.”

Terrific. How did I know we’d end up here? “Hamid, you don’t know anything about sex, do you?”

“No.”

“Do you want me to explain it to you?”

“Yes.”

“Right here? Right now?” I looked around to make sure no one would be listening in.

“Yes, please.”

So I had to explain, in detail, (with tactfulness, of course) the intricacies of lovemaking to a twenty-seven year old whose total knowledge came from the snickering coarse talk of the soldiers, not to mention the marines he used to work for. I wasn’t at all embarrassed by this, as he certainly needed to know what was what. He really knew next to nothing. I guess it’s not that important when you look at women as nothing but baby factories. I’m fairly certain you can’t go down to the bookstore and buy The Joy of Sex translated into Dari. I do know that sex counselor wasn’t in my job description.

LOST INNOCENCE |

March 19, 2007

LOST INNOCENCE
Name: 1SG Troy Steward
Posting date: 3/19/07
Stationed in: Sharana, Afghanistan
Hometown: Amherst,NY
Milblog: www.bouhammer.com

It was a new day, and time for more village patrols, where we pull in, talk to the locals and elders, and let them know about the upcoming Shura. We press them on Taliban presence and safety in the village, blah, blah, blah -- all the same stuff. The adults may or may not tell you anything. Kids are still the best source of information. They will tell the truth as long as they don’t think they will get in trouble for it.

Jawed has a good eye for who to talk to, and through many missions has repeatedly picked the right man or boy out of a crowd and been able to get some type of intel from them. On this day we went through about five villages. Somewhere along the way Face pulled me into the shade of a tree, which was a nice relief, and we just hung back and let the ANA and the 10th MTN work most of the people for intel. Jawed spotted this one little boy who was about 10-12 years old. Jawed told me later he was just not acting the same as the other boys, and we soon found out why.

Through Jawed talking to him we found out that the boy’s father had been murdered by Taliban just 12 days earlier. Apparently the boy’s father worked for the government of the province and was home one night when the Taliban came into the village. I guess it did not take long for the locals to tell the Taliban that he was a government employee. They busted into his house and started beating him and questioning him in front of his family. They made the whole family, including the boy, watch him get beaten like a dog. After they beat him really badly, he admitted that he worked for the Governor of the Province, and they took him out to the field behind the house. According to the boy’s words they hit his father with something in the head and split it in two pieces. The boy was quite descriptive about this, so it made us think they must have hit him in the top of the head with an axe.

The boy was somber and not begging us for things like other boys did -- we ran the rest of them off repeatedly while talking to him. He also told us that none of the local men would help the family with retrieving his father's body from the field, and even the Mullah of the mosque we were sitting right next to refused to give funeral rights or hold a funeral procession because the man worked for the government. This means the whole town is dirty, or the whole town is scared to death of having the same happen to them. Either way it just pisses you off to think you are trying to help these people, give them winter food and supplies and take care of them, when they won’t even help a man’s family out after he was just brutally murdered.

I almost never personally give out food or water when we are stopped, because I don’t want all the kids begging me. But this time I made it a point to give the kid some snacks and some bottled water. Not because he gave us the info, but because for one of the first times since I have been here I felt sorry for a local person that is not in the ANA. Normally they are all just in the way and always considered a threat. This time I felt bad for the kid, truly bad for him, and it just made me think what a sucky start to a life he has had. I figured the least we could do is give him some good water and the tasty treats that we take for granted, hoping maybe they would put a smile on his face.

In countries like this where the people are destined for poverty, sickness, and possibly early death just by being born here, you have to block out all your emotions or it will eat you up. Each of these people has a sob story, but not one you can listen to. The enemy on the battlefield is just a target of opportunity, and not someone's father, son, or brother. They are a target that must be eliminated, and when you see them drop, you just mark that as another one that can’t kill you.

I am not a liberal, bleeding-heart type of person ( in case you haven’t figured that out yet), but I am a human being that has a family back home and people I love and care about, both family and not family. I am not a cold-hearted killer, but I am a soldier. The only way a soldier makes it through the places and events that we must walk through is to remove the emotion and spirit from the people that are around us. It is easy with adults, actually very easy, but with kids it is not. When you hear a little boy laugh or a girl giggle, you are reminded of the innocence these kids deserve, but will never realize. They are destined to a life one tenth of which would drive a kid in our country to years of Prozac and therapy. It makes the kids hard mentally. They are not allowed to enjoy being kids.

When you are in a field trying to drag your father’s split-head body to a burial spot because nobody else will help you, your innocence is left in the field with your father's soul.

THROUGH THE EYES OF AN IRAQI MAN |

March 16, 2007

THROUGH THE EYES OF AN IRAQI MAN
Name: CAPT Lee Kelley
Posting date: 3/16/07
Returned from: Iraq
Milblog url: wordsmithatwar.blog-city.com
Email:wordsmith16@excite.com

The following is a very short work of fiction. I wrote it through the eyes of a local Iraqi man, who is a figment of my imagination. Much of the information and actual events I am privy to here in Iraq are classified, but in this fashion I can share some of the realities about the Iraqi people that many Americans may not think much about or realize. Of course, it is not intended to represent a whole society or culture, but I know for a fact there are men like Abu, and I thought you might like to hear his "voice". Like all fiction, Abu's words and experiences are based, to some degree, in reality.

My name is Abu Hassin. I am sitting right now outside of my small home on a chicken farm east of Ramadi, only miles from the fishing village where I grew up. I am smoking a cigarette and drinking my evening tea while I write these lines in a notebook.

I am very happy that the Americans helped to remove Saddam. Who else would help us? I remember the day when Saddam was captured. I have not cried and laughed so much in a very long time. I was so proud to see my wife vote when we held the first free elections. She is a brave woman. Before my mosque came to be used by insurgents, my imam prayed for the Americans over the loudspeakers. Do they know we pray for them? Some say the Americans want to stay in Iraq, but I think they want to go home.

There is violence still, yes, but there has always been violence in this land. Already life holds so much more promise for my people. I am old now, but for the children I am very happy. I am an elder in my village, so people listen to me. And I am sick and tired of these stupid men creating more violence. What will it solve? Don't they understand that if they stopped the violence, the Americans would leave? The Americans call them insurgents, but they call themselves "freedom fighters," as if the Americans want to take our freedom away. They are helping to free us!

I see these men acting so secretive and important, planning their attacks. I knew them when they were little boys playing barefoot in the dirt. I laugh at them. I am too old, so they leave me alone. They threaten me, but I know they will not harm me. I am not afraid of death anyway. My own father was dragged away in the night from my home by Saddam's men. We were never told why, and we never saw him again. All three of my uncles fled the country. Now these "freedom fighters" threaten their own people, hurting Iraq because they cannot truly hurt America. They are silly children who think they are all grown up.

I used to commute to Baghdad, where I worked for a businessman delivering documents. Now, with these vehicle checkpoints, the commute is too much. I have been pulled over by the American soldiers three or four times. Each time they have had an Iraqi with them. They are cautious. They make sure I have no weapons, and that my car is not going to explode. But once they understand I am simply a man trying to care for his family, they are very kind. They apologize, and they treat me with respect. "Shukran," they say -- Thank you. They say what I already know, that they are in Iraq to help us become a free and stable country, and that I should tell them if I know where the bad men are. I smile at them because it is like a dream to have an elected government. I say to them, "Shukran." I try to be gracious.

I also do not commute because of the bombs. The insurgents do not care who their bombs kill. There is so much trash and debris on the roads. You cannot clean it up. Anything could be hiding a bomb. This year my family did not even make the pilgrimage to Mecca. A good friend of mine was killed by a bomb that was hidden inside a dead dog on the road. And the suicide bombers? They kill more Iraqis than anyone else! What good does this do?

My family and I live on this chicken farm. We raise chickens, sell the eggs, and then sell the chickens for food. We also harvest some crops, and then buy more chickens with that money. In this way we live. Last week, on a quiet morning, I was watching TV as my wife cleaned some clothing and the children helped her. My youngest daughter slept on the floor behind me. I heard helicopters. It was a cloudy morning, so I thought it might be the sound of a truck with a bad muffler playing tricks on my ears. But as the sound grew, I understood that it was the American helicopters flying overhead. When I felt the wind blowing the sand into my home, I stood up and walked to the door. Three helicopters landed 200 meters from my home, and soldiers filed out of them. At first I could not see how many there were through the dust.

My stomach tightened: What if someone told them I was one of the insurgents? They had an Iraqi with them. He told me to walk towards them with my hands up. I did. One soldier had his weapon pointed at me, but I trusted he would not shoot. He is well trained. They checked me for weapons and told me to sit down. I told them my daughter was in the house, and my wife and the other children were behind the chicken coop. They said weapons had been hidden on a farm nearby, and they wanted to check my farm. I nodded yes, yes, check the farm.

Within minutes I was sitting with my wife and children in the main room of our small home, while soldiers gave candy to the children. I talked to their leader, as the Iraqi translated for me. I shared some tea with him. I told him thank you for helping Iraq. My oldest boy is 13. He kicked his new soccer ball back and forth with an American soldier, and he smiled and waved whenever the helicopters circled overhead. He loves the American soldiers. They are his heroes. He loves to talk about them and to see them. They walked through our fields for two hours. Of course they found no weapons. I refuse to help these "freedom fighters." I do not care what they say. I will not help them.

When the Americans left, my wife was a little angry that they maybe scared our daughters, but I explained to her that they only wanted to check for weapons. This is a hard world and sometimes children will be frightened. My son jumped and danced. He shielded his eyes and watched them get in their helicopters and fly away towards the sun. And the children love the candy. Such a simple thing, candy, and toys, but they ate it and looked at the shiny wrappers for two days. It made me smile to see them so excited. My children have brought school supplies home that American soldiers brought to their school also.

Three young men came to the farm once. They put a gun to my head and told me I had to hide weapons for them. I said, "Kill me, I will not." I called them stupid and told them to stop this violence. They said the Americans are trying to take away Iraq. I called them stupid again. One of them kicked me. They threatened to come back, but they left. Others stopped me on the road once and tried to make me bring a bomb in a burlap sack and drop it on the side of the road. I told them I am too old to play their little kid's games. They said they would kill my children if I did not do it. I looked the young man in the eyes and said, "I know your father. My wife helped to raise you when your father and I went to work. Do not let Allah hear you threaten me, boy. Leave this farm, and do not come back here. I will not help you, and damn you for speaking of harming my family."

I know -- maybe it is not smart to do this. My wife tells me, "Abu, you are going to get hurt." I smile at her. "Insha'Allah," I say. If Allah is willing. Others have tried to disobey these men, and they are dead. I think I have the proper mixture of age and anger that they leave me be. My friend down the road saw men set up an old mortar tube and shoot at the American base from a lot next to his home. Then they would run like little children playing a game of cat and mouse. One day he went over and told them to leave. They shot him in the head. They kicked dirt on him as his wife ran across the road in tears. They have no hearts.

These stupid men kill their own people. They use children as human shields. They are cowards. They threaten people who want to join the police or the Army to help bring law and order to our country. They make people place bombs and get killed by the Americans for doing it. They want this chaos to continue. They dress up as women and blow themselves up in mosques. I read the same Koran. I would not blow myself up, killing innocent people and maybe some American soldiers. Allah will not reward me for this.

I just watched a pickup truck go by on the road, filled with these foolish young men. They looked at me as they drove by. Let them look. I am used to this. I will sit here and drink my tea and watch this wonderful red sun drop down past the horizon of my desert. Then I will go inside and pray. I will pray for the people of Iraq, and for the Americans who have helped us so much. And I will shake my fist in the face of these stupid young men. I am not afraid. I hope next year to go to Mecca again. I will never stop praying for peace. Peace will come. Insha'Allah.

Originally published by The New York Times.

WAR COCAINE |

March 15, 2007

WAR COCAINE
Name: Teflon Don
Posting date: 3/15/07
Stationed in: Ramadi, Iraq
Milblog url: acutepolitics.blogspot.com

There's a rush that comes on the heels of a significant event here. After the IED explodes, or the RPG whistles overhead, or the shot cracks past, there's a moment of panic as you process the fact that you are still alive -- that this time, they missed you. After that second's hesitation, the rush hits.

No one really knows what it is, exactly, but we all feel it. It's physical. It's emotional. For some, it's spiritual. Some say it's endorphins or adrenaline; some say it's rage, or hate, or joy. Some say it's safety -- the knowledge that Someone is watching out for you. It's different for everyone, but it's always there.

For me, the rush is mostly exhilaration. It's a feeling of invulnerability. I've heard the unforgettable sound of an RPG somewhere very, very near my little sector of space, and stood a little taller yelling "Missed me, you bastards!" as I spun the turret and looked for the shooter.

The first time I got blown up, I had to remind myself to get up and look around for the trigger man, or possible gunmen set to take advantage of the confusion. I felt like I was floating through a world where time stood still. There's something about looking directly at an artillery shell, and seeing it vanish with a sharp crack and rush of dust and debris, that changes you. My brain was yelling at me "This isn't normal! You shouldn't be alive and thinking right now!", and my body was yelling back "Well, I'm definitely alive, so hoist your doubting ass up into the turret!"

I've never felt more alive than I do in the moments after a near miss. I feel the same way after a big jump skiing, or after jumping off a bridge, but here the feeling is magnified a hundredfold. It's incredible when you do something that you shouldn't live through, but do.

Some might call me sick, or crazy. I assure you that I am sane, and very much alive.


A CLEAR SHOT |

March 14, 2007

A CLEAR SHOT
Name: CAPT B. Tupper
Posting date: 3/14/07
Stationed in: Ghazni, Afghanistan
Milblog url: www.myspace.com/42094372
Email: tupper.taskforce.phoenix@gmail.com


On 26 June 2006, CPL Polanski, our Afghan National Army (ANA) Company, and I spent almost four hours surrounded and under fire from a very tenacious and determined Taliban group in Andar District, Ghazni Province. It was only one of three separate combat engagements that we weathered that day.

After nearly eight hours of ambush, counter ambush, ineffective maneuvering, and a Black Ammo status, we took our cue from the setting sun and returned to our ANA FOB. Temperatures were still in the high nineties, and most of us were beyond dehydration. I remember stumbling into the TOC Office and tossing my rifle, body armor, and helmet on the ground. Then I  pretty much collapsed right there in the middle of the meeting room, spread eagle on the floor.

Even though it was highly abnormal for someone to be laid out in the busy TOC, no one asked me what I was doing or why I was there. I alternated between mindlessly staring at the ceiling, and rolling over and marveling at my hands. I felt like after thirty-seven years of life, I had just discovered they were attached to my body.

After about thirty minutes of this mental escapism, I mustered the emotional and physical energy for a phone call home. I crawled over to the table that held the satellite phone, reached up, and called my wife. I remember trying to impress on her how lucky I was to be alive. I should have died in that long ordeal of being surrounded, and the more I told her this, the further I got from getting the point across. An RPG had me dead to rights, but by some manufacturing defect the tail fin stabilizer didn’t deploy, and it nose-dived into the ground in front of me instead of hitting me with a fatal kidney punch.

This war story carousel went round and round, until she finally told me to go to bed. I don’t remember anything else about my conversation with her, or even how I made it from the TOC to my room.   

The next morning started like every other one. Our adversaries in Andar permitted no rest for our weary bodies and shaky psyches. We had our regular team meeting, and went over the day's planned mission. There was another patrol scheduled into the same area in which we had been ambushed three times the day before. The same undermanned and poorly planned mission into Andar was laid on for us.

Fortunately, I wouldn't have to endure the blood bath that was only hours from occurring. I was physically sick, with an extreme case of diarrhea and dehydration, and mentally I was still rattled by the previous day's combat tripleheader. Given my condition, my Commander said I was in no shape to go out on mission that day. But I felt a sense of guilt that I was being a pussy, and was sure all saw me as ducking my duty as an Infantry Officer.

So CPL Polanski, CPT Krow, and CPT Castro were selected as the crew for the sole Up Armored Humvee going out on patrol that day. Within the hour, they linked up with the ANA Company that would accompany them, and made their way down Ring Road towards Andar District.

CPL Polanski had a habit of placing his digital camera in the windshield of the vehicle when he was the driver. He would put it on movie mode and let it run when he anticipated trouble. His two-gig memory card allowed for a good forty-five minutes of footage. Because of this practice, he captured some memorable moments and great audio of our combat engagements.

The transcript you are about to read is the audio, as recorded on his camera, from the final assault on a small Andar village, on 27 June 2006. In this attack one ANA soldier was killed by an RPG, and 4 Taliban were KIA. Most were shot by CPT Krow. Both sides sustained numerous wounded.

Setting up the scene is simple: Ski is the driver, CPT Krow is in the turret manning the 240Bravo machine gun, and CPT Castro is commanding the vehicle, trying to manage the fight as best he can. Janis, the Afghan Combat Interpreter sits in the back seat, communicating with the ANA on a handheld radio.

On the audio, the noises of the incoming and outgoing fires are deafening at times. Add to this the clunky hum of the HUMVEE engine, and the radio traffic squawking, and you can appreciate the confusion and perhaps understand the amount of repetition of orders and comments passed among the crew of the HUMVEE.

CPL Polanski is driving the Humvee out of a narrow alley on the outskirts of the village, and CPT Krow is engaging some Taliban who are attempting to cross an open road. Ahead, about fifty meters, is an opening where ANA and ANP (Afghan National Police) have set up a supporting fire position...

AUDIO STARTS:

(Heavy gunfire from the 240.)

Krow: "He went down!"

Ski: "Nice, you want me to go forward?"

Krow: "Fuck!" (The 240Bravo machine gun jams.)

Castro: "Yeah, yeah, go forward, see if we can go to an open field."

Krow:  "He had a fucking weapon!"

Castro: "Okay, get to a fucking open field!"

Krow: "He went down, that's all I know."

Ski: "That's what's up!"

Castro: "You shot someone, you saw someone go down?!"

Krow: "Yeah, I seen somebody fall down."

Castro: "Okay, then we gonna search in a minute over there."

(The vehicle starts moving forward towards the opening and the ANA and ANP soldiers.)

(Incoming gun fire is heard.)

(Vehicle stops near the opening.)

Krow: "Goddammit I don't have a shot here!"

Ski: "Backup?"

Castro: "Do you have a shot?"

Krow: "The wall's too high!"

(The vehicle creeps forward.)

Castro: "Can you see anything?"

Krow: "Trees are in my way!"

Castro: "The wall finishes over here. Once the wall finishes you should have a clear shot."

Castro: "The ANP are calling us, go go go!!!"

Castro: "Do you have a clear shot now?"

Castro: "Get ready for it, get ready for it..."

Castro: "Here, you have a clear shot?"

Krow: "No, I don't have a clear shot!"

(ANP soldiers yelling in background.)

Krow: "What is he saying?"

Janis: "He is saying they (Taliban) are in the corner of that hill."

Castro: "Lets get over there then."

Ski: "Huh?"

Castro: "Go forward, and then turn to your left."

Janis: "One of the ANA is wounded."

Castro: "One is wounded?"

Ski: "Where?"

Krow: "Right there!"

Ski: "Want me to give him first aid?"

Castro: "Yeah, fuck the risk."

Janis: "Don't go out there, they (Taliban) are in front of us there!"

Krow: "He's right behind us!"

Castro: "Wounded..."

(Audio is disrupted by a large near-miss explosion of an RPG aimed at the HUMVEE.)

Krow: "God Dammit!!!!!!!!!"

Ski: "Yo, I'm getting the fuck out of here!"

Ski: "You want me to go forwards?"

Krow: "You need to either go backwards or forwards!!!!"

(Vehicle starts moving forward.)

Castro: "Right here."

Krow: "STOP!!!!!!"

Castro: "You got a clear shot? Go for it!"

(Long bursts of 240 machine gun fire.)

Krow: "I'm out!"

(Reloading noises -- ammo cans clanking.)

(Continued 240Bravo fire, as well as incoming shots.)

Castro: "The ANA is moving. Fire!! Fire!!"

(Audio disrupted from another RPG explosion near HUMVEE.)

Krow: "See that wall, they are right in there!"

Ski: "I wish I had a fucking 203 (grenade launcher)!"

(Incoming enemy AK-47 and RPK Machine Gun fire.)

Krow: "Where the fuck did that come from?"

Castro: "Where is the guy that's wounded?"

Krow: "He's right back there, he's sitting there on the side of the road!"

Ski: "Get me the (medical aid) bag quick, I'm gonna run!"

Ski: "Get me the bag!"

Krow: "Hang on, I'll cover you!"

Ski: "Start shooting!"

(Extensive incoming/outgoing fire as Ski exits the vehicle and runs back to treat the wounded ANA soldier.)

(Gunfire.)

(Gunfire.)

(RPG explosion.)

(Gunfire.)

AUDIO ENDS.

Postscript:  CPT Krow was severely injured by an RPG weeks later, within kilometers of the site of this 27 June, 2006 Engagement. He was in Afghanistan for only six weeks before he was evacuated back to Walter Reed for extensive surgeries and rehabilitation.

The names Krow and Castro are modifications of their real last names, in order to respect their desire for anonymity.

MANDATORY |

March 12, 2007

MANDATORY
Name: LT COL Patrick
Posting date: 3/12/07
Returned from: SW Asia
Hometown: Eugene, OR
MilblogURL: http://dutyinthedesert.blogspot.com
Email: dutyinthedesert@gmail.com

Some people call them shower shoes. Some people call them flip flops. But everyone calls them mandatory. When you write out your list of items to pack for a deployment there are certain items that you scribble down every time....camera, laptop, Maxim magazines, and shower shoes.

The first mistake some folks make with regard to shower shoes is spending only .99 cents for a pair. You have to treat this purchase like you do with a Chevy or Ford. Power. Anti-lock brakes. More power. Air bags. If the upgraded option exists, it's not an option. Same thing with the shower shoes.

The reality you have to come to grips with is that 25 - 50 guys have used that same shower in the past 24 hours.There's been more exposure of jungle rot (athlete's foot) in those 12 square feet of shower space than there's been bad press for Terrell Owens. Signs posted everywhere demand "combat showers" that take a mere minute or two, all in the name of saving water for the other lucky souls. Anyone taking a shower that lasts for over four minutes can expect a tap on the plastic shower curtain (that comes down to just above the knee) from the next contestant.

The drains are so clogged it's really like having a timer in the shower. As soon as the water level reaches 4" inches and the ankle area, all bets are off, it's time to evacuate. Immediately. Like your life depends on it -- because it could!

Rule #1 in these showers is "Don't drop anything you can't live without." I handle everything like nitroglycerin. I'm trying right now to think of what in the world I could possibly drop and still want to retrieve from the depths of the soapy, infested waters. TV Remote control? Nope. My RMO? Not a chance. Wedding band? Give me a second to think about that one. Wait, I need more time. Okay, that's the only item on the planet I would risk life and limb to save.

FEBRUARY 27TH |

March 09, 2007

FEBRUARY 27TH
Name: American Soldier
Posting date: 3/9/07
Returned from: Iraq
Milblog url: www.soldierlife.com
Email: mysoldierlife@gmail.com

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.

THE KEEP |

March 08, 2007

THE KEEP
Name: SGT Roy Batty
Posting date: 3/8/07
Stationed in: Baghdad, Iraq
Hometown: Yellow Springs, Ohio
Email: sgtroybatty@yahoo.com


It was beautiful, once, in that brief, halcyon era of aggressive building, fueled by rising oil prices and the limitless credit of the newest despot on the block, in a yesterday where the Americans were friends, Arab-on-Persian warfare was still a few years away, and the power of Tikrit's favorite son ran unchecked. In that gleaming age, this building was a shopping mall, tall, white and new, filled with fresh Western products, thanks to the hard-working folks over at the Ministry of Trade. An artificial waterfall cascaded down through the central interior courtyard, its clear raindrops illuminated by colored, recessed lights, and children played in the eternal rain as it landed in the wading pool below. Escalators purred quietly, smoothly lifting suburban women up to the shops above, languid in their thin black robes, their dark eyes flashing in the crisp air conditioning as they chatted to each other, excited at the prospects of a day's shopping. In the middle of the night, when the soldiers are sleeping, I fancy that I can still hear the whispers of their robes, edged with gold filigree, brushing against the tiled floors, somewhere back in the Stygian darkness.

Inside the human pipeline between Kuwait and Iraq, returning from RnR to the strange planet that is Baghdad, I ran into some fellow soldiers from my unit, and heard the rumor for the first time. The Great Surge is on, and we are destined to be a part of it. The 82nd is in town, ready to bring the smackdown to the various militia groups that have held this city in their grip for so long. I am excited to be a part of it, even if it means leaving our little Mayberry of a FOB next to the Ministry of the Interior. FOB Shield had become a comfortable home, with its excellent chowhall, the friendly Pakistani guys at KBR, and the cool civilian cops of the IPLOs. By the time I got boots on ground at the Thunderdome, I was greeted with a hearty handshake and a directive: "Don't bother unpacking. We leave tomorrow. Oh, and your soldiers already packed the rest of your gear for you." At least that trial was taken care of; nowadays the worse part of a move is figuring out how to squeeze all of my junk into a couple of duffle bags and a ruck.

The initial rumors had been been varied and interesting, which is how initial rumors usually sound. We're moving to a palace here, a hotel there, maybe an Iraqi Army FOB there. How bad can it be? I nursed a secret hope that they were going to put us up in one of those great five-star hotels that the reporters all stay in -- maybe the Palestine Hotel, or the Al-Rasheed, downtown near the Green Zone. It was not to be, however, and instead we ended up in this bombed-out, half-torched, abandoned hulk of a building, somewhere on the far east side of Baghdad. The place is completely gutted, and lacks every single amenity you need to work and live properly for three months. No electricity. No running water. No showers. No hot food. Not even a rickety bed to sleep in.      

Nothing.

When I stepped out of my HMMWV and looked on its bullet-riddled, RPG-spalled edifice for the first time,
my dream of mimosas with Christiane Amanpour disappeared with a quiet, stomach churning "pop".

Our translators tell us that it was an Iraqi Ministry of Trade shopping mall, built in the 80s by Saddam Hussein. It is of strange, crenelated design, with a sawtoothed exterior in which each successive floor juts out above the one beneath it. With the concentric rings of T-walls that we have added around it, the entire complex now resembles some brutal Vulcan castle. I think of the place as "The Keep." At some point, either during the first Gulf War, or during our invasion in 2003, the mall was looted by the local Shia people. Every single possibly useful item was stripped and hauled away, and then the first floor was set on fire. There are black charred smoke marks above the windows. The escalators look like the skeletons of long dead reptiles, nothing but steel ribs and the lolling plastic tongues of the handrails. The Iraqi Army used the structure for a while as a machine gun post, which explains why the fourth floor is filled with human excrement. We moved in four days ago, and have been shoveling it out ever since, as well as trying to improve the place in other, slightly more advanced, ways.

But really, it's not that bad. Part of me has wanted a rougher experience. The surrealism of eating Alaskan King Crab every single day for three months at Shield was not exactly what I had in mind when I first envisioned coming to this war torn city. This is more of a "real" experience, as if we are getting a little taste of what it was like back in OIF I, during the invasion, when food was scarce but America was winning, and who cared if you only got one MRE a day when you were allowed to actually shoot back at the bad guys?

Our new home combines all the best aspects of living in a coal mine, a bunker, and a ruined city, in one convenient package. We've boarded up and sandbagged all of the windows, since the locals still like to take occasional potshots at us, so except for the gray light that filters down from the central skylight, the interior of the structure is perpetually dark. They handed out cool little LED lights for everyone the other day, which strap right onto your forehead. At any one time there are several hundred multi-colored spheres of light bobbing around in the gloom, and out of that gloom lurch lumbering, hunch-backed troglodytes, bent low beneath the weight of their black weapons and gear; soldiers in body armor moving back and forth on their missions. I'm reminded simultaneously of H.G. Wells and Pogo -- "We have met the Morlocks, and they are us."

Without electricity, there isn't a whole lot to do when you're not out on mission. Books have enjoyed a sudden rise in popularity, along with chess sets and cards. You start keeping farmer's hours, which means once it gets dark everyone who's not on mission goes to sleep, as if on cue. It's interesting to think that the entire Western world is one flick of a switch away from the Middle Ages.

Sometimes we wander outside to enjoy the thrill of watching the local day laborers dig trenches in the mud for our plumbing. At one point I count ten soldiers standing around, smoking cigarettes, watching five old men and one teenage kid waist deep in the muck. It smacks a little bit too much of colonialism for me, and after a while I amble off to enjoy the only other available spectacle; that of watching the trash fire. It's a massive steaming hump of coagulated plastic and scorched metal, but if you throw on a couple old MRE boxes full of trash, you can get a pretty good bonfire going in no time. Living fire in the middle of a dark night is always hypnotic, but when you add the bullet-scarred concrete looming overhead, and the stark, empty faces of the tactical vehicles clustered around, the effect is even more powerful. Nothing quite says "apocalypse" with the same intensity, and the mingled taste of burnt plastic and tobacco in your mouth can't help but add an extra dimension to one's cinematic memories of combat Hell, born of Francis Ford Coppola and Joseph Conrad.

There are times, though, when the place still has a strange sort of timeless beauty to it. I woke up the other morning and swam my way out of the nylon folds of my sleeping bag. It was somewhere before six in the morning, and most of the soldiers were still asleep. A still, silver light was shining down the central courtyard, and the shaft was quietly full of birdsong. The little brown birds were flitting back and forth across the long-dead face of Saddam's waterfall, and my buddy, Phil, was standing there, out by the rails, alone, watching them with his head cocked to the side, peering up at them, that usual quizzical look on his face. The concrete stairs, once encased in marble, were salmon pink in the early morning light, looking more like ancient sandstone than raw cement. For that moment, it didn't look like just another bombed out building in Iraq, but rather like something from the last Indiana Jones movie -- the lost city of Petra, a rose colored ruin forgotten in the desert, a relic full of whispered secrets. In that moment, before the cacophony of the Baghdad rush hour burst over us like a wave; anything was possible -- perhaps even rebuilding this monument to suburban glory and mass consumerism.

Maybe then I could get that ice cold Pepsi I've been dreaming of for the past ten days.

THE REALITY OF WAR |

March 07, 2007

THE REALITY OF WAR
Name: SGT Brandon White
Posting date: 3/7/07
Stationed in: Afghanistan
Hometown: Diamond, OH
Milblog url: http://www.gwot.us
Email: soldierboy101st@yahoo.com

He was that tiny baby, who stared in bright-eyed wonder;
into his mother’s eyes, the blanket of security that he was under.
He was that three-foot toddler, who let you have it;
when he asked his Daddy, if you were pregnant.
He was that neighbor boy, who was always into something;
he pulled your flowers, and sent your hubcaps sailing.
He was that kid, who threw gum in your hair because he secretly liked you;
what he never knew, is that you liked him too.
He was the one, who sped through your neighborhood;
a new license and Mustang, life was too good.
He was that boy, whose name you can’t recall;
who helped you at the grocery, carried your bags and all.
He was that son, who made his parents cry;
when off to war he went, little time for goodbyes.
He was that young man, who always made you smile;
you wonder what became of him, you haven’t seen him in a while.
He was that boy, who became that man;
in a distant battlefield, that was full of sand.
He was that guy, whose letters came less and less;
the images too horrific, pen to paper he could not press.
He was one of those, that you heard on the news;
who was patrolling downtown Baghdad, when the enemy lit the fuse.
That boy you used to know, whose face you can’t remember;
bled out on a dirty street, this past May or maybe it was September.
That kid who meant so little to many, yet so much to a few;
his life was cut short, and it was still very new.
That boy who used to be in your life, and whose fate you will not allow;
Oh him, that guy. He’s gone now.


When I wrote this poem I was in a mood that I have yet to identify. I was having a range of emotions, from happiness to anger to sorrow and everything in between, because of this war. I have little doubt that readers will have a similar reaction to it. I did not post it to offend anyone. The message in the poem is clear to me but may not be to others:

Many of my fellow Americans feel that this war is distant, that it concerns them none. Heck, they don’t even know anyone in the service, or haven’t even had a family member in the service in all of the generations. This poem shows them that they have known someone in the service, whether they realize it or not.

It's also about the sacrifices that troops and their families are making on a daily basis, for which we need to hold them in the upmost respect at all times. The reality of war is ugly, and I’ve always been a direct kind of guy, so there you have it. Have faith in the mission and in your troops.

WEATHER AND WAR |

March 05, 2007

WEATHER AND WAR
Name: CAPT Lee Kelley
Posting date: 3/5/07
Returned from: Iraq
Milblog url: wordsmithatwar.blog-city.com
Email: wordsmith16@excite.com

The weather's been moody out here in this vast desert. This morning began with a family of thunderclouds, distant cousins to the serrated zeppelins that have obscured the sun for days now. Between 0900 and 1600, it rained maybe three times. Each shower turned the world into mud, and each stretch of dry instant heat absorbed large amounts of it. I am still amazed at how quickly a little rain turns this place so sloppy, and followed by a little sun how rapidly it dries. The weather feels phony, like a poorly arranged set on a stage, and I am dumbfounded by this strange anomaly called the passage of time. The sun is like a bright metronome, slowly marking the days with vivid regularity.

These are exciting times. I've said this before, and I'll say it again: we are not finished, and there is still a lot of work to be done, and 10,000 miles to travel; but we are getting closer. As with any experience that challenges us and teaches us, when the end is near you begin to scour the moments for meaning, scanning sandpaper days like a hunter, divining truth. I want to leave this place better than I found it. And I want to be a better person when I return than I was when I left.

Iraq has become my home and this room has become my comfort zone, the quiet place where I hunch over my computer and write, the end point of my walk from the office after a long day, the concrete clipboard of all my pictures tacked to the walls, and the starting point of the incredible journey home. This FOB looks like a bad dream that I know will fade with time. Right now I want it to. I look around and I find it difficult to believe I've been here for almost a year.

Of course I want to know what it feels like to stay on my side of the Atlantic. I want to wake up and feel strange as my dog licks my face and my children ask me for cereal and milk. I want to work through the uncomfortable transitions from combat to freedom, from chow hall to food court, from M-16 to car seat, from structure to spontaneity, from constant vigilance to pure relaxation, from HMMV to Volkswagen, from stoic to silly, from sandbag to sidewalk, from this to that, from here to there, from now to then, and come around full circle to continue my most important job -- as a Dad.

But one day I know I'll also cherish these Middle Eastern moments as bold marks of punctuation on the score card of my life, as flashbacks to a kind of work ethic that makes other adversities pale in comparison, as a folder of digital photos that trigger nostalgia, and as times when fellow soldiers were the only comfort I had close at hand. We have been through a lot together, and these bonds will not easily be broken.

Right now this little circle of wire feels like a home, but I still feel like a stranger here. Now I'll be living out of a duffel bag, changing homes again like a gypsy. Since I've been in Iraq, a lot has changed in my life. Not only have I changed as a result of this adventure, but my family has been altered as well. The most striking example is the loss of my wonderful mother to breast cancer. Such a small thing as the ability to call my mom on the phone has altered my world forever. And so this desert has become my confession booth, my psychiatrist's dusty couch, my bended knee, the sponge for the quiet tears of self-pity.

At night, when there's a light breeze, nothing is exploding, and the few trees that encircle my living area sway and make sounds like giant wind chimes, I can find some solace. I can look back at the days, and the weeks, and try to capture them in my journal, lest I forget. Carpe Diem. I try to seize the days, even the bad ones, knowing that I have a lot to be thankful for.

I sit on my plastic chair outside of my room and I send my thoughts arching over the country of Iraq, past this life-sized mirage, into the vast canopy of distinct stars, and they look like a horoscope. There's the Archer, sketching my future with the tip of his diamond arrow. There's the Big Dipper, reminding me of lying in the grass as a child in New Orleans. There's the North Star, lending guidance like a compass. I know that when I look up at the night sky here, the sun hovers above my children, but still I imagine them looking at the same stars. It shortens the miles. I've worked through an Iraqi summer, I've been through an Iraqi winter, and now I am coming full circle to my one year boots on the ground. This weather, this war, they have taught me, and they have frightened me.

I want to remember this. And I want to forget.

"Lost, yesterday, somewhere between Sunrise and Sunset, two golden hours, each set with sixty diamond minutes. No reward is offered, for they are gone forever." -- Horace Mann

SOUNDS OF WAR |

March 02, 2007

SOUNDS OF WAR
Name: Eric Coulson
Posting date: 3/2/07
Stationed in: Ramadi, Iraq
Hometown: St. Louis, MO
Milblog url: badgersforward.blogspot.com
Email
: badger.six@gmail.com

War here in Iraq has generated an entire set of sounds that are unique, whether in origin or presentation. They come from both the mundane and the deadly, and each has its own particular flavor.

The most common sound we all share is the drone of the generator. Every building has its electrical power provided by generators. In Falluja, large banks of huge CAT Diesel generators are so well insulated they are almost quiet. In Ramadi we have more and smaller generators that are not so well insulated. Inside my barracks they emit a drone. Standing next to them, one is best advised to follow the warnings and wear hearing protection. The sound is a constant companion.

Gunfire is a very common sound. A lifelong firearms enthusiast, it would be dishonest to say I no longer like it. It is however, far more contextual for me now. Gunfire to the south is just as likely to be coming from the ranges as any place else. Gunfire to the north is almost certainly a battle being waged. Range fire has more of a predictable rhythm, while gunfire from battle has peaks of intensity, as well as rapid stops and starts. I find myself with a heightened level of awareness of gunfire and its likely ramifications.

Aircraft sounds are not restricted to the battlefield. You experience them in a whole new way here. Helicopters in the civilian world are usually either some sort of Life Flight, or your local television or radio station traffic-and-news chopper. Here helicopters might mean Medevac, or the arrival of VIPs, or they can be just general transportation. Since I've been here I have flown on two models of helicopter I never thought I would have the chance to ride.

They fly low, very low. Two days ago I watched a Black Hawk make a tight turn and tilt so far I thought the blades might strike the building it was flying over. Every flight is serious and a combat operation. Helicopters are also inherently dangerous, at least more so than fixed wing aircraft. I marvel at the skill of the pilots.

Fixed wing aircraft, at least at low levels, are far less common. In fact only twice have I experienced low level flights by fixed wing aircraft -- F-18 Super Hornets on attack runs. If you have ever been to an air show where the Blue Angels have performed, you know what that sounds like. Those two times were moments that I thought my life was about to come to a quick conclusion, as I mistook them for incoming rockets.

Loud explosions are not uncommon. Fortunately, instances of incoming mortar and rocket fire have been few and far between. We have experienced it, but it is not something we are experienced at. Outgoing artillery fire is another matter. Before my current incarnation as an Engineer I was a Field Artillery officer, and I thought I was accustomed to the sound of outgoing artillery. But I think that was because I was giving the order to fire. It is always a surprise and a little disconcerting. Because among other things it can be confused with...

High order explosive detonations. We have had two of these in the last two days. AIF hit an IP check point about 2500 meters from our TOC. It shook the place good, and we could only watch the smoke rise from the scene. Two days ago the fatality was the bomber. Today I don't know what the results were.

I know being here has affected me and has changed me. I am sure these sounds, and maybe others, will always remind me of the war in Iraq.

THE LITTLE THINGS |

March 01, 2007

THE LITTLE THINGS
Name: MAJOR Michael Irwin
Posting date: 3/1/07
Returned from: Iraq
Milblog urlcybirr.blogspot.com
Email: cybirr@hotmail.com

It’s the little things that get our attention –- in this case, five cents.

At overseas locations, the base economy is penny-less. AAFES (Army and Air Force Exchange Service) does not use pennies; all prices our rounded to the nearest nickel. The cost of shipping pennies is more than the value of the pennies themselves.

Here in Iraq they take it further; no coins at all. But they don’t round to the nearest dollar. Instead, they issue "pogs". These mini-gift-certificates are used in place of coins. On one side is the AAFES logo and some suitably patriotic image, and on the other a 5¢ 10¢ or 25¢ notation. AAFES makes it clear that "pogs" are cash value as depicted, and can be redeemed at any AAFES world wide for the full value. And really, I don’t want carry a bunch of loose change in a combat environment. This program makes sense.

So I have not seen a real coin in several months.

While shopping at the local BX to get something or other I handed the cashier some dollar bills, and put my hand out, expecting a few pogs. An odd weight settled in my hand. I looked down and Lo, there in my hand was a nickel! My two colleagues and I stopped talking and all gazed in wonder at the coin. It was as if there was an angelic chorus in the background, and the image of Jefferson seemed to glow. It was a real nickel. A tangible piece of home! A no-kidding bit of America!!  It was a remarkable moment...

To us, but not to the cashier. She looked at the slack-jawed idiot aircrew standing in front of her, staring, then looked at the coin in my hand for a moment, then looked at the three dummies again.

“Hey, it’s a nickel. Get over it! NEXT!”


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