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.

TEN LIFE LESSONS THE ARMY HAS TAUGHT ME |

April 30, 2007

TEN LIFE LESSONS THE ARMY HAS TAUGHT ME
Name: @WR
Posting date: 4/30/07
Returned from: Iraq
Milblog url: walterreed.blogspot.com
Email: snapshotdc@gmail.com

1. Always have a notepad, pen, watch, knife, and flashlight on hand.
In life, as in the Army, there are always unforeseen events. An important note needs to be taken, you need the precise time, something needs to be fixed, or you just can't find your way. All these items are small and cheap; lifesavers when you have them, deal breakers when you don't.

2. Have a copy of everything. If it's important, have two copies.
If it has your name on it, then you need a copy. If it affects your health, paycheck, or other element of well-being, then you need two copies. Records get lost, computers crash, and sometimes people just need to see a piece of 80 bond under their noses to get anything done.

3. Make friends wherever you go.
It doesn't matter if you are there for 20 minutes or 20 months, make friends. Inevitably, you will see them again. You will go to where they are. They will go to where you will be. And at the end of the day friends are the only ones covering the front of your position.

4. Make an SOP. Know the SOP. Work the SOP.
Civilian. Military. It doesn't matter. There should be a Standard Operating Procedure for daily life. Often we don't have fulfilling days or lives because "we just don't have time" and that is because we often don't have good processes. On the battlefield there is a place for everything, and everything in its place. There is a rote routine (often personal) for everything from showering in the morning to they way we check our gear. We do this because often there are times when there is no time, but the task still needs to get done. Routine accomplishes this, and we accomplish more when we have a routine.

5. Sleep.
Sleep is one of the things in life we don't appreciate until we aren't getting it. Sleep recharges us, heals us, and lets us put a new perspective on the world. If it was bad when you went to sleep and it's still bad when you wake up, well then I guess you weren't missing anything. If by chance it's better when you wake up, then apparently the world doesn't rest upon your shoulders. So take a nap, Atlas.

6. Don't go cheap.
I didn't grow up with money. I have learned to make due with what is available. There are times, however, that you can't afford to go cheap. Whether it be getting the brakes fixed on your HUMVEE or your Ford, get it done, get it done by a professional, and get the warranty. If you are buying shoes (speaking from personal experience) don't get them because they are cheaper. Get them because they are comfortable and durable. If you don't, it'll be more than your wallet that will hurt.

7. Find humor everywhere.
I have been in some pretty crappy places, some pretty crappy situations, and yet forced myself to find some humor, somewhere. It helps you cope. It takes the sting out of the painful, awkward, or otherwise difficult moments in life. And humor is one of those conversations you can have with yourself, because you always get your own jokes. As a side note, as much as it may pain you, never ridicule someone for their dark sense of humor. We aren't them and they aren't us, and we are all just trying to get by. I think Plato put this in perspective best by saying, "Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a harder battle."

8. Don't tolerate oppression.
To quote someone more intelligent than myself: "First they came for the Jews and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew. Then they came for the Communists and I did not speak out because I was not a Communist. Then they came for the trade unionists and I did not speak out because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for me and there was no one left to speak out for me." Stand up for what you think is right. In the end if you were wrong, so be it.

9. Tell your Story.
Battles are decided not only by the Soldiers on the field, the armament, or the weather. They are also won and lost by the lessons learned from prior battles. We learn these lessons because someone told their story. As a young Soldier I was a sponge for knowledge; it was before the current age of mass communication. Older Soldiers told their stories in hopes that a single silver strand of wisdom would be gleaned and be passed on. It is part of what we contribute to society. When we can glean wisdom from the lessons others have learned, we can avoid repeating the hardships by which they gained that knowledge. And by sharing our lessons we are helping someone else. That is one of our greatest contributions to humanity.

10. Never forget.
Never forget who you are. Never forget what you have done. Never forget where you are. Never forget what it is you want from this one life we have. Never forget the people that stood behind you in support, beside you in camaraderie, or in front of you in adversity. Never forget to write home. Never forget that someone is missing you. Never forget what you have learned. Never forget to share what you have learned. Never forget anything; lest you forget everything.

THE CHASM |

April 28, 2007

THE CHASM
Name: C.M.
Posting date: 4/27/07
Husband: on his way home!
Milblog url: corpsdjour.blogspot.com

I've been away from The Sandbox. It was just too much. I am so thankful that this resource is here for the world to get a glimpse into the experiences of our military members, but it was a little too close and too personal and just too scary. But I am very happy to say that my husband is out. He is somewhere between there and home, and I'm ecstatic. Having him out of harm's way has afforded me the luxury of peace of mind, and the mental capacity to put my thoughts into words. And here they are:  I support our troops, I'm conflicted on the war, but mostly I'm frustrated by the isolation. 

I know I shouldn't complain that I get a call from my husband only twice a month, when my grandmother heard from her husband by letter only a handful a times a year during WWII. It's terrifying that death is a possibility, but I know the numbers pale in comparison to Vietnam. Watching your husband go off to war is as old as time --  think of the Spartan saying: "Come home with your shield or on it."  But for this war, it seems different...It's just that now I feel like it's only me. 

I'm one of the few wives that have the opportunity to live on base, but work in a professional capacity at a leading company, and I can't tell you the echoing depth of the chasm that separates my two worlds. I walk into the office to talk of stock options, tax cuts, weekend parties, laissez-faire political debates. If I hear about the war at all, it's typically someone priming me to say that it's awful, that they should all come home -- don't they know that can be offensive when my husband is risking his life to be there? I'll never forget the day that Al Zarqawi died and I mentioned the news to a college-educated co-worker at my fortune 500 company, and the response was..."Who?" Or when a war-age eligible man asked me if my husband would be coming home for Christmas. "Nope, unfortunately Iraq doesn't close shop for the holidays." It's not that they don't care, it's that it just doesn't affect them.

Then I hop the train back to my other life. When I come home, I pass through the guarded gates of my Marine Corps life into this parallel dimension. Back here the streets are full of women taking out the trash and climbing on roofs to put up the Christmas lights because daddy isn't home to do it. Back on base I always have a friend that is about to come home, and another that is about to leave. Back home, women are crying because they're afraid that their children won't remember their fathers. On my street, there is a rotation of "Welcome Home Daddy" signs that fill me with pride and smiles, but also make me want to cry because I want it to be my turn. Back home I know not to knock on a friend's door without calling first, lest she think that that knock is CACO on the other side telling her that her husband didn't make it. Back home, I have to close my front door, because hearing car doors shut brings up images of men in blue walking up to my door and delivering the bad news.

I don't want to complain, I have loved many experiences I've had with the MC life; it's fast and furious and always entertaining. My friends on the perpetual cycle of deployments do not feel sorry for themselves, and neither do I. But still, I'm left with a feeling of frustration, and it comes down to this: the burden is just too big to be borne by so few. 

CHANGE |

April 26, 2007

CHANGE
Name: Doug Templeton
Posting date: 4/26/07
Stationed in: Afghanistan
Hometown: Kansas City, MO
Email: dtempleton14@yahoo.com

Today is Thursday and that means bad pizza night. Rumor has it the current vender is going out and a Pizza Hut is going in. This would have been a nice change, however, as luck would have it, it's happening after I leave. We do have a Subway here, but it is literally in the back of a van that is parked outside the Post Exchange. Of course, all the food other than the chow hall has to be paid for, and since we get a whopping $3.50 a day it takes a day or more’s allowance to eat out.

I am looking forward to going to the Big Bazaar tomorrow for the last time. I doubt I will be buying anything, but it is another last that I can check off my list of things to do before heading home. We have been checking off a lot of lasts lately, and with every one come a joy and sadness. Our lives here are about to change and everything we have grown used to is ending.

When we go home to our families there will also be change. They have spent the year moving forward without us, and it will most definitely be different. Many of us will be moving to new bases and will be starting new jobs. I often wonder how I will keep up with all of it. Our children have gotten bigger and have had to endure being single-parented. They have learned that mommy or daddy can be sent away for a long period of time and if they are older, like my daughter, they understand the danger they faced.

I guess the one thing in life that remains constant is change. You either learn to accept it, or lock yourself in a box and refuse to come out. I for one have learned to accept it, because my whole life and military career has been about moving and changing. Now I have spent a year helping others to make change, and in the end I’m pretty proud of what we’ve done.

THE VIGIL |

April 25, 2007

THE VIGIL
Name: RN Clara Hart
Posting date: 4/25/07
Stationed in: a military hospital
Email: clarahart2@yahoo.com

I must have passed him a dozen times in the hallway. A handsome but tired-looking man, dark hair, although more gray than black, casually dressed. Never too far from the ICU doors or the ICU waiting room. Always standing by the windows, notebook lying on the windowsill, writing notes or talking on his cell phone. As I strode past I'd hear snippets of his conversations:

"He's doing okay."

"He's had some setbacks today."

"Hello beautiful, I needed to hear your voice and get a bit of encouragement."

"Either my daughter or I try to send out a daily email telling everyone how he is."

"We're not sure what will happen now."

He must have a family member in the ICU, probably injured in OIF, I deduced. This man who kept vigil at the windows was always there. If I came to work at 0630 I saw him, when I went to lunch at 1400, he stood guard at his makeshift post, and when I left for the day at 1930, he remained behind keeping watch.

Yesterday as I walked past yet again, I heard him start another of his phone conversations. "Oh...I'm sorry...you haven't heard...Today is day 18 at the hospital. My Marine son is in the ICU after being injured in Iraq. It hasn't been easy...It's been touch and go. Hell, it's still touch and go. He's had some setbacks, but we're hopeful."

Today as I turned the corner, heading to the locker room, the man at the window was gone. So used to seeing him, I glanced around the hallway, in the ICU doors, and the small alcove of the ICU waiting room, all to no avail. He was not there. As I changed my clothes and gathered my things I sent a prayer heaven bound for the man at the window and his Marine son.

Leaving the locker room I turned the corner to head to the parking garage. As I did, I saw him come out of the ICU, notebook in hand, and head over to the windows, dialing his cell phone, his vigil continuing.

MY LIFE IN ASTAN |

April 24, 2007

MY LIFE IN ASTAN
Name: 1SG Troy Steward
Posting date: 4/24/07
Stationed in: Sharana, Afghanistan

Well, here's Volume II of the My Life in Astan series. It opens with video of the attack on my FOB and then goes into pictures after that. The music is a great song from Green Day, my Son Jordan's favorite band. It's called "Wake Me Up When September Ends."

I am working on some other videos, experimenting with some different video-creation software, but this one is made with the old standby, Microsoft Movie Maker.
It is my favorite video so far. I hope all who see it will like it as much as I do.

Note: No cats were harmed in the making of this video. It just looks like it. He is still here and doing fine.

THE TERMITE MOUND |

April 23, 2007

THE TERMITE MOUND
Name: SGT Roy Batty
Posting date: 4/23/07
Stationed in: Baghdad, Iraq
Hometown: Yellow Springs, OH
Email: sgtroybatty@yahoo.com

A month and a half ago I introduced The Sandbox to the newest Combat Outpost in Baghdad -- the formidable hostel that I called "the Keep".  Full of overinflated prose, I described it as  "a rose-colored ruin forgotten in the desert, a relic full of whispered secrets," prattled on about its supposed glorious past, and then promptly...disappeared.

I was pleasantly surprised when a number of good folks wrote me directly to ask what had happened to the tardy Nexus 6. Had he finally joined the hallowed ranks of fallen heroes in some neocon version of Valhalla; a red-white-and-blue sacrifice to the Boy Scout aspirations of the almighty Dubya? Had the nefarious hordes of post-nuclear Persia cut down the good Sergeant with a well aimed EFP? Turned him into a punk-haired Leonidas with a copper-lined hole smoking in the middle of his slightly potbellied torso? Or had the combination of Spartan living conditions, boredom and inane military restrictions finally forced him over the edge, and driven him to strangle his First Sergeant for one too many "on the spot corrections"?

Nope.  (Although the last one sounds pretty good.)

No, nothing that interesting. I've simply been trapped in a cycle of working, eating, smoking, sleeping, and then working some more, if you can call checking ID cards at the gate of a trash-strewn IP station a block away from Sadr City actually "working". The powers that be seem to want us to stay longer and longer at said IP station, as if somehow our mere presence at this structure will bring safety and security to the beleaguered denizens of Eastern Baghdad. Personally, I would have thought it more effective if we actually went out and patrolled the neighborhoods, and, y'know, like, found bad guys and either threw them in jail or filled them full of little high-velocity pieces of metal, but what do I know? Apparently I can have the same effect by looking at fake IDs and frisking people for the occasional weapon. I guess that two years at Ohio State, working in campus bars as a bouncer, really was useful after all.

The Termite Mound, as I call it now, is as dark and gloomy as ever, although they have added electrical power and a few bare bulbs to the place. The lights hang in great loops of black cord from the ragged ceiling, but bring little cheer. It still looks like an upscale salt mine, with all the concrete glamour of the Reichstag in the last throes of 1945 Berlin. Naked plywood walls separate the various platoons and units, which helps to keep the noise level down to approximately that of a Boeing 747 on takeoff. We have a semblance of wireless Internet, and occasionally it actually works. Somehow it's oddly appropriate for this mess of a war that the 21st Century Army would have WiFi before it has working showers.

Anyway, I thought I would let you know what my daily routine is like; how the heroic struggle of the Great Surge plays out day to day. Here goes:

REVEILLE

I feel a hand on my sleeping-bag-encased foot, shaking it. Time to get up. The exact time varies according to when we have to load-up for mission. Sometimes you get to sleep in a little, sometimes you don't. I really can't complain about the amount of sleep we get, it's just that the quality of the sleep is sometimes lacking. Remember the scene in Enemy at the Gates, where Vasily Zietsev and his Red Army girlfriend get it on in a tunnel, amid hordes of sleeping soldiers? That's what our plywood squadbay looks like. Probably smells about the same, too. It would be considerably more amenable if Rachel Weisz was in the cot next to mine, but instead I got a kid from Missouri who looks and sounds like Gomer Pyle. Life is so unfair...

ORIENTATION

This is what I call the thirty minutes or so that I lay in bed staring at the ceiling, or at the dimly lit figures around me. It's that wonderful time of the morning, right after waking up, when one's brain is still full of the velvet fumblings of dreamtime, the afterglow where life is comfortably numb and yet somehow also prophetically clear. I imagine it must be something like the first few seconds after birth; at least until the completely-uncalled-for slap of the doctor's hand on your three-minute-old butt. It's that precious time before your personality and day-to-day worries come online, a moment of clarity to watch the sunlight streaming down from the bullet-riddled skylight above you, and reflect on exactly how it is that you fucked up so badly as to have your life bring you to this special place...

PERSONAL HYGIENE

That's what the military calls it. Here, it is the same five-minute ritual, every morning, and is probably a far less thorough exercise than originally imagined in FM 22-11. Pull out the electric razor, that little square of German engineering, and mow down the grizzled whiskers which assault my grubby neck. There's no hot water in the Termite Mound, and you only get a shower every six to ten days. Which means that next, it's time for that other marvel of modern technology -- Baby Wipes. And the ritual I have dubbed "Schwabin' die Nutzen", a critical task in an environment in which you spend at least ten hours a day in full body armor in desert heat, with only passing acquaintance with running water. It's a procedure best completed quickly, yet thoroughly, beneath the covering graces of one's sleeping bag, and accompanied with a wide grin and a hearty, "Hey, good morning! Howyadoin'?" to any and all female soldiers that happen to march by your cot mid-swab.

DRESSING

Slip on a clean set of Underarmor underwear, carefully select my boot socks (shall we go with the compressing yet strangely thin fabric of Underarmor socks, or the cushy yet sweat-inducing embrace of a pair of Thorlos, or something in-between, like an In Genius pair of foot warmers?), and put on the same ACU uniform that I've been wearing for the past week.

There is a simple yet undeniable curse to putting on a clean pair of ACUs. Within thirty minutes you will spill coffee, splash in mud, drip ketchup, or somehow otherwise stain the virgin glories of said pristine uniform. Iraq is a filthy place, so you might as well wear the same set for a good period of time, which is fine, since you only get to send out your laundry twice a month or so anyway.

Then I slide on my pair of outrageously expensive Oakley combat boots, which are the only boots that I will wear from now on (at least until some dickhead First Sergeant or Command Sergeant Major tells me that they're not authorized). And then it's time for the dreaded body armor -- sixty-five pounds of cobbled-together pieces of Kevlar and Spectra-shield, festooned with pockets and pouches filled with bullets and magazines and 40mm grenades and hand grenades and infra-red strobe lights and Lord-only-knows-what-else. I have to stick my left arm through one side, and then swing the whole heavy mess around my back and up onto my shoulders, slipping the other arm in at just the right moment, and then hop up and down in a carefully choreographed dance in order to get it on just right, which it has to be, because I am going to be wearing the damn thing for the next ten hours straight. At least the high today is only in the 80s, as opposed to 125 degrees, which it will be within the next two months. God help us if we get extended through another summer...

LOAD-UP

Grab my combination rifle and grenade launcher, and moldy helmet, and trudge down the line of half-seen cots, through the green camouflage plastic poncho that serves as our squadbay door, and join the line of trudging automatons, bent low beneath their burdens of black machineguns and body armor, and file down the cracked cement stairs to the dirt and dust and hidden coils of concertina wire that choke the ground floor. At virtually all times of the day and night, these ordered lines of soldiers crowd the stairways; one line going up, carrying cases of water, MREs, ammunition, plywood sheets, and all of the myriad sundry items needed to keep 600 people alive day-to-day; and another line coming down -- soldiers heading out on mission. These everpresent, sullen rows of shuffling creatures, winding through the exposed exoskeleton of the building, is why I have come to refer to the place as "the Termite Mound".

Trudge out past the shielding veils of black curtains (so the snipers can't see in) and the sand-filled containers of the Hesco barriers (so the mortar rounds don't spread their deadly metal trinkets inside the fortress), and walk down the wide dais of the entrance ramp. On a good day I like to greet the morning, and our Iraqi neighbors across the motor pool, with a Klingon Death Cry, M4 rifle held aloft in a clenched first, commando knife in my other hand, screaming:

"RAAAAAAAAAAAGGGGGHHH!"

Most mornings, though, I just stumble across the rubble and suck on a Camel, and try to make it to the truck and its precious cargo of DoubleShots without twisting an ankle. The cobblestone sidewalk around the castle has been pushed into bizarre waves of crushed paving bricks, like tectonic plates, tiny continents squashed together by the motion of the M1A1 tanks maneuvering in the tight confines of the parking lot.

By the time I make it out to my HMMWV, Nix, my driver, has usually set up most of our equipment. Coop, my gunner, is adjusting the headspace and timing on his massive .50 caliber machine gun. I load my rifle and grenade launcher, and place it on the hood of the truck, along with my knee pads. I brush my teeth with the aid of another tepid water bottle, grab a DoubleShot and another cigarette, and then it's time for the PCI -- Pre Combat Inspection. This only takes a few minutes, but it's critical. We have a ton of equipment, pretty much  all of which breaks down into two categories. First, shit that helps us kill people. Second, shit that is useful when someone tries to kill us. Making sure that each piece is where it's supposed to be and is working correctly is pretty important. It would suck to be on fire and beset by madly cracking bullets only to find out that that fire extinguisher and extraction tool aren't in the place you left 'em a week ago.

MISSION BRIEF AND DEPARTURE

The mission brief only takes a few minutes, and it rarely changes, at least not since we arrived at the Termite Mound six weeks ago. Where we are going, how we are getting there, and what are we doing when we get there. The most entertaining part is the INTSUM, or INTelligence SUMmary, which starts the brief. This is the part where our squad leader tells us what has happened in our AO, or Area of Operations, in the past 24 hours. He used to summarize everything that had happened in the entire city, and it would sound like this: "Within the Baghdad Area of Operations, in the past 24 hours, there have been 34 SIGACTS, or Significant Acts. There have been 12 IEDs, 14 Indirect Fires (mortars or rocket attacks), 3 Sniper attacks, and 3 VBIEDS (car bombs), all against Coalition forces. On the civilian side, there were 12 murders, 65 recovered bodies, and three kidnappings."  After a bit, it was all just too depressing, so now we just talk about what happens in our own patrol area -- all six square kilometers of it. Hell, it's usually depressing enough talking about what happened there. Oh, and by the way, the numbers I just mentioned are pretty typical for a day's work in Baghdad.

We pay pretty close attention to the SIGACTs in our patrol area, since it gives us an idea of the places that the local militias are focusing on -- places we want to avoid, particularly when it comes to IED placement.

After the brief, we conduct rehearsals; practicing what to do in specific emergencies. I usually run these, since I am a strong believer in being prepared, and I like to throw in wrinkles to keep the soldiers awake and thinking. Otherwise, they'll just go through the motions, and then forget the drills at the first bone-jarring explosion.

Then it's time to squeeze into the tight confines of our HMMWVs, conduct radio checks, line up the trucks, and head out into the madness of Baghdad traffic. 

COMMUTE

This is one of the most dangerous part of the day; simply driving the five or six blocks to our assigned IP station. When we first arrived at the Combat Outpost, it was right at the beginning of "the Surge". The Shia-led Iraqi government had convinced Moqtadr Al-Sadr to go into hiding in Iran, and most of his Mehdi Army followers were laying low.

Now, all bets are off, and Al-Sadr has released letters calling for increased attacks on Coalition forces. We've seen a sudden increase in IEDs in our area, particularly of the most lethal kind -- the Explosively Formed Projectile. Along with those Iranian-manufactured IEDs, there has been a rash of RPG and sniper attacks, along with Sunni contributions, mostly consisting of car bombs in local markets.

Bouncing over the gravel of the Entry Control Point and out into the mad traffic of a Baghdad morning is like crossing an invisible boundary marker -- on one side is relative quiet and orderliness, and on the other, a post-apocalyptic urban wilderness where literally anything can happen. Sidewalks erupt in a geyser of flame and smoke, bullets crack and echo from the buildings -- and most of the time it is the police shooting, which is how they direct traffic. Sirens blare, horns blow, and dilapidated busses, vans and trucks jostle for position. Kids sell gasoline by the side of the road, old men in kaffiyahs walk amidst the stalled traffic selling everything from breakfast pastries to hand towels. Through it all is the very conscious thought that, at any given moment, there could be a blinding flash and you would wake up minus a pair of legs, or worse, not wake up at all.

We pay a lot of attention to crowd densities and traffic patterns. When we first got here, we liked it when the streets were empty and no one was around; it felt safe and clear. Now we know that things are the safest when a certain amount of people are out and about. There is definitely a  "normal" number. Not too many, mind you, because then the target itself could be the people around you. And if there is a sudden quiet disappearance of locals, it's time to watch out.

We did a lot of training on how to spot an IED before we came here, in Germany and Kuwait, but one minute in Baghdad and you realize it is essentially worthless. There is just so much trash and wreckage strewn everywhere, and all of it looks suspicious. You  end up having endless discussions with yourself, analyzing, rationalizing, making little deals with Fate. "Well, that car looks out of place, but there is an old guy leaning against it, and there are those five kids just ten feet away from it, so it's probably okay." A lot of the time you just sort of hold your breath a little bit and hope for the best. And this happens every ten feet or so. And then again. And again. It gets a bit tiring after a while.

THE IP STATION

If all goes well, we get to our IP station without anything blowing up beside us. We pull inside, close up the gate, and settle in for another fun-filled day. For me, this consists almost solely of standing behind a metal gate and assessing everyone that comes through it. Are they an IP? Do I know them? Are they a civilian? Do they have a hidden weapon?

If I don't know them, or don't trust them, or sense that something is out of place, I search them. In five months at this station, I have only found hidden weapons on Iraqi Police, usually guys from the Ministry of the Interior who I don't know, and who don't know (or want) to identify themselves and the fact that they are armed before I check.

We recently found out that a Mehdi Army sniper team was targeting me at the gate, so now we keep out of sight and behind closed doors. This is fine from a Force Protection angle, but it means that I now spend six to eight hours a day standing in the sun, in full gear, about five feet behind said gate, waiting and watching it for someone to open it and spray me with an AK from close range. Think about that for a second. Imagine spending every single day for five months, eight hours a day, sweating your ass off in 65 pounds of gear, in the sun, watching a faded blue door. Being bored to tears, yet having to remain vigilant at the same time. You can't open the door, or look outside, because someone within the surrounding 300 meters, hidden behind a window curtain, might put your eye out with a big freakin' bullet.

I never thought you would be able to put the words "boring" and "lethally dangerous" together, but I was wrong. Last week, the 82nd infantry unit that shares our patrol area was attacked right in front of this gate, with a RPG. Two soldiers were wounded, one severely. One of our own sergeants was winged by a sniper two months ago, in the guard tower of this station. He's okay, although he will be shitting into a colostomy bag for a while.

Anyway, the threat is real.

We'd like to go out and do more combat patrols, but the powers that be want us to do it with the Iraqi Police. Problem is, they don't have any gas. Yep, somehow the country that is sitting on about 20% of the world's oil supply does not have enough gasoline to provide to their cops so they can go out and patrol a five block neighborhood. Gee, I wonder if those rumours about corruption in the Iraqi government are true?

So we sit. I practice my Arabic. We buy local food for lunch, and enjoy the delicacies of falafel, mutton kebab, lamb tikka, and dysentery. Drink chai, and smoke cigarettes. Talk about how much we miss home, or who in the platoon is getting on our last nerve today. Wave at the Apaches when they fly low overhead. Wait for something to blow up.

Every couple of days, something does. Blow up, I mean. It's usually one of our patrols in the area. When that happens, we reluctantly load up in our HMMWVs, and drive a block or two, and then sit and watch while a HMMWV crackles and burns and rips itself apart with self-destructing ordnance -- all the grenades and anti-tank rockets and stuff "cooking off" from the flames.  Fortunately, so far at least, no one has been killed in these attacks, and usually no one is even there when we pull up, so we just "secure the area" and let the truck burn.

The other day's Big Boom was an RPG (Rocket Propelled Grenade) attack on a passing convoy, less than 100 meters from my gate. That was fun. This was the same unit that got attacked, also with an RPG, in front of the station a few nights ago. They're newly arrived here, and are a bit too aggressive. They've had a number of "Escalation of Force" incidents where they have lit up civilian cars that have approached them a little too quickly. In all of the cases, it has turned out merely to be innocent civilians. No weapons, no nothing. Just families trying to get home before curfew. Sounds like the locals may be trying to get payback on them.

Most of the time, though, it's just hot and sweaty and pointless and really, really boring.

COMMUTE "HOME"

Finally, my squad leader and/or platoon leader comes out of the police station, nudges the drooling SGT who is about to lose it from the heat and tedium, and announces that it's time to go "home". Load the trucks. Drive out into the insanity. Watch the garbage by the side of the road. Eye passing fuel trucks and buses and big semi trucks with suspicion. Joke on the radio about lines of dialogue from obscure movies.

Sometimes we do a little bit of patrolling before we go back to the Outpost, checking up on the static IP patrols. Most of the time they aren't where they are supposed to be. Funny how they don't have enough gas to conduct joint patrols, but they do have enough to disappear on personal errands. I would give anything to be able to stick GPS transmitters and electronic bugs in their trucks, and see what they're really up to. 

RELAX

On most FOBs, there are a couple of things that folks can do in their spare time. The larger FOBs, like Anaconda, or Liberty, or the IZ, have MWR centers with Internet cafes, game rooms, libraries, phone centers, etc. They have coffee shops, and hookah shops, sometimes restaurants, the occasional movie theater. Hell, Balad has an Olympic-sized swimming pool. Places to chill out and feel a little more human.

In the Termite Mound, I have my cot. The cot is everything. It is my living room, my dining room, my den, the computer room, and, oh yeah, a place to sleep. My forearm fits nicely in the space between my cot and the one next to mine. We eat our evening meals sitting on our cots. Play our PSPs. Listen to our Ipods. We had to box up all TVs and Xboxs and such when we left Shield, but almost everyone has some sort of small gadget to pass the time.

We file back in from the motorpool, lugging our dusty weapons. Strip out of the greaseslicked bodyarmor. I stick the Ipod headphones in immediately. Clean my rifle for the five-gazzilionth time. Trudge downstairs, and pick up the single cooked meal of the day. Trust me, I'm not complaining, it's a hell of a lot better than eating MREs for every meal, which is what we did for the first month in this blasted building.

The rest of the evening is split between watching a pirated DVD on my laptop, playing my PSP, and waiting for the evening mortar attack. Their mortar teams must not be too good, since they always miss the building itself, but they are pretty good at hitting the parking lot. In any case, the thick CRUUMP always gets your attention, if only for the split second until you realize that it is more than 50 meters away, and therefore not important. It does tend to cut short outdoor smoke breaks, however.

If you are really lucky, this evening will be your platoon's allotted time to take a shower. There are four shower stalls downstairs. Four individual shower stalls. For 600 people. Sooooooo, Shower Night is carefully scheduled, and it comes around about every six to twelve days. I say six to twelve, because if you should be so unlucky as to be out on patrol when the shower room is opened, or if the compressor pump goes down that night, well, sucks to be you. You'll have to wait until the schedule rotates around to your platoon again.

Think about that one, too. Desert heat. Body armor. Combat zone exertions. Dirty, gutted building. Six hundred folks in elbow-rubbing proximity to each other. One shower every 1-2 weeks. I won't be able to smell a damn thing for six months after I get out of here.

About midnight or so, the lights turn off and the noise dies down enough that you can go to sleep. Unless you are one of those folks driven by stress and frustration to the point of furtively masturbating within the clammy confines of your sleeping bag, which seems to be de rigueur for stress relief here. Oh well, gotta do what you do. After almost eleven months in Iraq, no one seems to give much of a shit about social morays anymore. Except some of our female IPLO cops. One was walking along the Puptent Gauntlet the other night, and stopped to stare at someone who was particularly "involved in the moment".  She half gasped, half laughed, and turned to say something to the guy next to him -- only to discover that he was similarly engaged.

She left last week.

So, there you have it. This has pretty much been my experience, every day, for the past seven weeks. 

Tomorrow it will be the same, as will the day after it.

And the next.

And the next.

It gets so that, at the end of the day, I don't even want to write about it. Hell, I don't even want to think about it. I just want to put the Ipod on and pretend that I'm somewhere tropical, with white gypsum beaches and cool off-shore breezes. Somewhere with my wife and an unlimited supply of Mezcal margaritas...

POSTSCRIPT

Last night, the dreaded Word came down -- not through normal military channels, but through Yahoo, of all things. The Secretary of Defense has unilaterally decided that every single active duty Army unit will spend 15 months in Iraq, instead of the usual 12. Effective immediately.

Period. End of discussion.

We had 59 days until we were home in Germany, safe and sound. We were literally gritting our teeth to gut out the time until we were relieved by our replacements. We don't even have to get home for morale to improve dramatically. Just to pull back to the comfort of a real FOB; one with real food and the unbelievable luxury of a shower every night would be an incredible boon. Now we have an unimaginable five months ahead of us, and, worst of all, the prospect of 125 degree summer heat in this bombed-out shopping mall surrounded by increasingly pissed-off Shia militias.

More sobering is the fact that, for some of the people in this building, this extension is a very real death warrant. People are going to die because of it, torn apart by an EFP in some shithole alleyway, or with a neat and surgical sniper's bullet punctuating their forehead, when they could have been at home raising a glass and telling war stories, their year in Iraq honorably completed.

But wait, there's more. The insurgents are getting bolder. Today, at two in the afternoon (i.e. broad fucking daylight), a couple of them attacked our building. They sprayed magazines of AK fire, and shot an RPG at the roof. It blew up on the plastic and metal cover over the central skylight. It didn't do much more than rain a bit of plexiglass down on us, and woke up yours truly from a very nice and only slightly pornographic nap, but the timing seems a harbinger of things to come. Along with the increasing mortar attacks, and the IEDs that seem to be getting closer and closer to the main gate every day.

TARGET PRACTICE |

April 20, 2007

TARGET PRACTICE
Name: CAPT Drew Morton
Posting date: 4/20/07
Stationed in: Kabul, Afghanistan

I have finally succumbed to peer pressure. I am the fourth captain in our B-Hut, and the other three have all posted on The Sandbox. I am the youngest (29), but I have been able to slowly bridge the gap with my older hootch mates by playing Family Guy, American Dad, HALO 2, (early) Dave Mathews, and O.A.R.

I want to share a little story from the first month Doug Templeton and I were in country, when we volunteered to take ANA soldiers in Log Command out back for target practice with their brand new S&W 9mm pistols.

A word about these. There are absolutely no safety features (there is no "safety"), so as soon as you chamber a round, the weapon is hot. Also, they are primarily made of the finest composite plastic and very little metal, so it feels like you are holding a toy gun.

As soon as we get behind the building and on top of the hill, all you hear is the sound of about 45 magazines being slapped in and rounds being chambered (did I mention that these weapons do not have a safety?). At this point we turn around and there are loaded weapons being pointed all over the place. Well, everywhere except down at the ground. Through a translator, we instruct them to clear their weapons, and announce that we will take two at a time to shoot. Then we set up their targets -- two empty water boxes.Framed_morton_firing_range_2

Think of every way imaginable in which you could hold a pistol and fire it. There are guys standing sideways firing, guys holding their weapons in front with their palms facing down (gangster style). We even have one guy support the pistol on his left forearm to fire. Yes, we show them how to stand, hold the weapon, and aim, but all of this instruction is lost as bad habits kick in.

While we are supervising the firing and keeping the rest from loading their weapons, I start hearing some weird sounds. Weird because they are new -- "pings" "zings"  and "fa-pings."

I turn and ask Doug, "Are those ricochets I am hearing?" And while I am saying this, we both hear a "fa-ping" followed by a thud. My hand reaches for the side of my stomach and Doug and I lock eyes thinking the same thing. “Crap, I've been hit!” I pull my hand away and see nothing, and let out a sigh of relief that I haven't been hit by a ricocheting bullet, but by a piece of rock.

The firing for the next 30 minutes is uneventful. In the end we have a lot of fun with the ANA soldiers, who get to fire the 9mm about as often as we Air Force officers do -- once every two years. I am also glad to say that the water boxes suffered a glorious death, and looked like Swiss cheese. 

SOME GUYS I WOULD LIKE TO MEET |

April 19, 2007

SOME GUYS I WOULD LIKE TO MEET
Name: 1SG Troy Steward
Posting date: 4/19/07
Stationed in: Sharana, Afghanistan
Milblog url: bouhammer.com

Air Force CPT. Doug Traversa writes a blog called Afghanistan Without a Clue. I read a few blogs regularly and Doug Traversa’s is one of them. Air Force CPT. Doug Templeton writes for the Sandbox, and I read his pieces whenever I see them. Air Force CPT Mike Toomer has also had some blog entries on the Sandbox.

There were some similarities among these guys that I had noticed reading their posts. For one, they were all in the Air Force, for two they were all Captains, and for three they were all stationed in Kabul. I wondered if they knew each other or worked in the same place.

Reading one of Traversa’s latest posts on his website, I realized not only do they all know each other, but they all live in the same B-hut. What is ironic is that they all work for the same Task Force that I do (I knew Traversa did) and I have walked by them and seen them untold times. On Traversa’s blog, he noted the exact B-hut they live in on the Task Force HQ Camp, and that B-hut is across and about two down from where I always stay when I am there. We use the same latrine and I have walked by them and even said "Hi" a few times without even knowing it was them. I would say that there are less than five really popular blogs coming out of Afghanistan from deployed servicemen, that I like. It is ironic that of those (one is mine of course), four of the authors who post on those blogs have been in close proximity multiple times. Framed_steward_portrait_large_2

I have not been to Kabul in about a month, but will be there soon as I am getting ready to leave country because my tour is almost over. I had made it a to-do item to try and find these guys when I was there but had no idea where to look, but now I do. I really wish I had taken the time before, and kick myself for not doing that. Traversa writes great articles about his interaction with his terp, and even though he is not “downrange” per se, his observations of the ANA almost mirror mine and I enjoy reading someone else’s view. I have learned a lot about the Afghan culture from my time interacting with them, but because of Traversa’s in-depth discussions with his terp and documenting them in his blog, I have learned just as much from him. If you read my blog, but have never read Traversa’s, I cannot encourage you enough to check his out.

I don’t know if Doug, Doug or Mike will see this post, or if they even know about my blog. But I will make it priority #1 to look them up when I am back in Kabul, to shake their hand and tell them, from one blogger to another, that I am a fan.

GARDEN OF EDEN |

April 18, 2007

GARDEN OF EDEN
Name: CAPT B. Tupper
Posting date: 4/18/07
Stationed in: Ghazni, AFghanistan
Milblog url: www.myspace.com/42094372
Email: tupper.taskforce.phoenix@gmail.com

Hidden in an expanse of barren inhospitable mountains and dry desert valleys, lies what can only be described as the Afghan Garden of Eden. It's not on any map, and you'd have a difficult time finding it if you were looking for it, because it fits neatly within a one kilometer grid square. Most outsiders would find it more by accident than on purpose, and after hours of driving through desolate and sparsely populated wastelands, we stumbled upon it; a green, fertile patch of paradise.

The richness of this field of green was matched only by the variety of animals populating it. Like a staging area for Noah's Ark, it had animals at every pond and in every patch of grass. Horses, cattle, water buffalo, camels, sheep, goats, and purebred Afghan hounds -- all were peacefully feeding or resting in this oasis of green comfort.    

And it was this lush paradise, with its peaceful gathering of four-legged creatures, that, through confusion and misdirection, almost resulted in the massacre of hundreds of innocent civilians. Had this carnage occurred it would have been front page news around the world, the Afghan version of Viet Nam's My Lai massacre. And who would have been the mastermind, the bloody cold-hearted murderer who worked efficiently to kill hundreds? Who would replace the infamous Lt. Calley as an example of outrage against the innocent?   

Me.

It all started when a horse wandered away from its master and trespassed in this land of nutritious grasses and clear water. In previous days, a large tribe of Cuchie nomads had moved into the area bordering this green valley, and one of their animals wandered off, drawn by the sweet humid smells of green grass and warm shallow ponds.

The mostly Pashtun tribes who call this valley their permanent home were not happy about the new Cuchie presence. But they accepted it as a natural part of the cycle of life here in Afghanistan. Like the rising and setting sun, Cuchies have moved through these mountains for generations with a seasonal predictability. But the invasion of the green watering hole by this Cuchie animal was not going to be tolerated. The horse was confiscated, and before long Cuchies had come into the village seeking the release of their property.

Given the cultural need for honor and respect, and the presence of many AK-47s among the Pashtun and Cuchie groups, the confrontation quickly escalated into a violent scene. Who said what or did what during these tense moments is unclear, but when the dust settled empty bullet casings littered the streets, hostages had been taken by both sides, and a small Pashtun boy lay dead, struck by an errant bullet.

Both sides in this tribal conflict collapsed back into defensive positions, the Cuchies spread along the lower-elevation plateaus of the mountain, and the Pashtuns holed up in their village. Both sides preferred defense to offense, and they spent the next twenty-four hours preparing for the worst. All the while, the animals in the Garden of Eden continued to enjoy their sanctuary, oblivious to the escalating violence around them.

The next day saw maneuvering from both those on the mountain and those in the village. The Cuchies, who despite their nomadic and minimalist lifestyle are renowned arms dealers and smugglers, dug in defensive positions on the mountain and produced (seemingly out of thin air) medium machine guns, small arms, and RPGs. Rumors of a Cuchie Dyshka (a heavy machine gun capable of shooting down helicopters and slow-moving aircraft) circulated in the surrounding Pashtun villages.

Not to be outdone, the Pashtuns, aware of an uneven and unfavorable distribution of firepower, used their time-tested cunning and decided to bring in some allies to balance out the uneven force of arms. The Pashtun elders made contact with the regional Afghan National Police (ANP) unit.  The message they delivered was as urgent as it was false, a story they knew the police couldn't resist: "This is NOT a tribal dispute. There are four hundred Taliban in the mountains next to our village. HELP!"

The ANP had only one reaction to this startling information. They didn't have the forces to take on four hundred dug-in Taliban: With the enemy in such numbers, this fight would require the ANA, and ultimately the Americans. They immediately sent out word that they needed support.

Back at our ETT HQ in Ghazni, I remember overhearing my Team Chief discussing some tribal conflict out west in an area we didn't even have maps posted for. It would take another day before the Taliban twist on the story would make it to our HQ. It would take two days before I was in the position to kill hundreds of civilians.

When the ANA formally received word of the appearance of a large Taliban force, they sent a platoon of ANA soldiers west, where they linked up with the ANP. The officer in charge, both brave and stubborn, decided to test the validity of the Pashtun elders' Taliban story. It is worth noting that reports of "hundreds of Taliban" are common, and are almost always wildly inaccurate. The ANA Commander on the ground was skeptical of such a high concentration of enemy in such a remote location.

It was his skepticism and doubt that allowed this ANA Commander to execute a direct  attack on four hundred alleged Taliban with only thirty soldiers. The Cuchies, expecting the Police and Army to come as neutral negotiators, instead found themselves under fire by these very forces, and responded with their impressive firepower. The Cuchies quickly repelled the police and army forces, and inflicted numerous wounds among the ANA and ANP soldiers. One ANP soldier was shot in his groin area, resulting in the violent and instant removal of his testicles from his body. Even more disturbing, one ANP soldier was killed in the short-lived and unsuccessful assault.

This foiled attack did accomplish one thing. It proved beyond a doubt that there were hostile and well-armed forces on the mountain. A call back to Ghazni was made for reinforcements. This time, we would be joining a larger force of ANA on the long dusty drive to the now "confirmed Taliban" mountain stronghold. The next morning, two ETT gun trucks joined the ANA reinforcements as they drove west towards what was shaping up to be a large-scale battle.

After about five hours of bone-jarring driving through rocky desolate terrain, I remember turning a corner around a large rock formation and seeing an incredible vista of green. The collection of animals, the smell of damp earth, the vibrant shades of plant life, were pleasant and breathtaking. We didn't have much time to marvel at the spectacle, because we quickly climbed a small hill and the Afghan Garden of Eden was gone from view.

On the other side of this small hill lay the first of the Pashtun villages. Within minutes we had arrived at our objective, a rudimentary village center. It was populated by a gas station that had no gas pumps -- only a handful of old plastic bottles filled with gasoline, lined up on the ground in front of the simple mud-constructed building. There was also an Afghan version of a corner store that sold some locally-made snacks, candies, and sodas. And there was a medical clinic, which the ANA and ANP had made their Command Post. It was a fitting location for their headquarters, as it allowed them to monitor the status of their wounded, who lay inside the clinic in varying states of pain and consciousness.

Approximately five kilometers to the North, in full view, stood the enormous and wide-based mountain, populated by the alleged enemy fighters.

Our first task upon arrival was to coordinate MEDEVAC of the wounded ANA and ANP soldiers. U.S. helicopters will not land unless there are U.S. personnel on the ground to confirm the wounded, the injuries, and the safety and security of the site. Now that we were on the ground, CPT Cain, my ETT teammate, began coordination of this mission, and within an hour the wounded ANA and ANP were loaded on a Blackhawk and outbound for treatment at a U.S. base.

As the helicopter made its way south, escorted by an Apache attack helicopter, it was clear the sun was also an opponent for us, as we only had a couple hours of daylight left to work with. Night would create an opportunity for this enemy horde to escape, and we knew that with the MEDEVAC helicopters' visible presence, the enemy knew the Americans had arrived. 

With my interpreter by my side I collected the stories from the Pashtun elders, who made a convincing case for the danger of the Taliban in the mountains. CPT Cain also met with the ANP and ANA leadership, as well as more village elders. From all quarters the story was the same. There were Taliban. There were lots of them. And now, with the arrival of the American ETTs, it was time to commence a much more lethal level of hostilities.

I got on the radio to my HQ and relayed the information from the scene. All signs pointed to an incredibly lucky opportunity to kill a lot of Taliban, as they regrouped and re-armed themselves in this heretofore-unknown mountain base camp. The Pashtun elders personally told me stories of Taliban groups stockpiling heavy weapons and ammunition in these mountains for months. One only had to look as far as the wounded ANA and ANP soldiers being carried in stretchers onto the Blackhawk helicopters to see the obvious truth of these claims.

Shortly, Close Air Support (CAS) was confirmed to be available, providing we could meet some Rules of Engagement conditions. With such a large target, we would likely get a B-1 Bomber for an initial series of bombing runs, followed by Apache helicopters to clean up any squirters who managed to survive the initial pounding.

Before any CAS package could be sent to us to unleash any armament on the enemy forces below, a technical rule had to be satisfied. In order for us to use CAS, we had to have "eyes on" our target. In other words, an American soldier had to be able to tell the bomber on the radio "Yes, the bad guys are at grid XYZ. I see them. Bombs away."  But at this moment in time, all friendly forces had pulled out from the base of the mountain to this Command Post approximately five kilometers from the enemy positions. No one, be they Afghan or American, had eyes on the enemy.

Knowing that any movement by our small and outnumbered force to put eyes on the enemy would only result in more friendly wounded or killed, I did my best to try to find a middle-ground solution. Perhaps an Apache could come do a low altitude nape of earth fly-by, and either visually confirm the enemy locations, or engage them personally if they fired upon him. This was not approved.

So we watched the sun slowly setting while levels of command well above CPT Cain and myself debated this problem intensely. What appeared to be a pointless bureaucratic rule was the only thing standing between killing hundreds of Taliban, and letting them escape. 

Thank God for pointless bureaucratic rules, because in the minutes while this wrangling was occurring, a handsome, well-dressed young man in his early forties, and with a striking black beard, approached CPT Cain. With his equally well-dressed and well-armed entourage, he introduced himself as a member of the Afghan National Parliament. 

In a calm and relaxed voice he explained that he was a member of the Cuchie caucus in parliament, and that he had received a desperate cell phone call from a Cuchie elder directly involved in the conflict. With a serious face, he made a startling revelation for all the military and police personnel present to hear: "There are no Taliban on that mountain. They are Cuchie civilians."

While CPT Cain was having this conversation about twenty meters away from me, I was still by the Humvee, on the radio, and in the final phases of executing a compromise solution to the problem of having no eyes on the enemy positions. Higher had agreed it was not wise to "endanger the brave men on the ground with a high risk reconnaissance on the mountain." So they wanted us to at least get close enough where we could warn the bomber if we saw any civilians moving in this area, but remain out of range of the enemy's powerful Dyshka machine gun. If we could do this, the bomber would then make a pass at the mountain.   

Finally, a carefully negotiated plan to deal a death blow to this huge Taliban force was in place. I was tweaking with the excitement and power of playing god with the lives of hundreds of enemy combatants. It goes without saying that when CPT Cain told me to stop everything and put CAS on hold, I was dumbfounded.

Instead of sending our planned military recon force down towards the valley and the occupied mountain, the Cuchie Member of Parliament, with his entourage in tow, climbed into a dusty but new Toyota Land Cruiser, and headed off in that same direction. Everyone else, so close to an orgy of destruction, scratched their heads at the strange turn of events. Instead of the excitement of watching a battalion of Taliban be obliterated, we settled in for a cold, tedious, and sleepless night, awaiting the return of this Cuchie politician.

The sun eventually rose. Not another bullet was fired, nor were any bombs dropped from any aircraft. My innocent and unsuspecting attempts at bombing the mountain were thwarted, and as a result (thankfully) there was no Afghan My Lai massacre by the Garden of Eden. The Cuchie politician proved himself to be a sophisticated dealmaker. He managed to get both sides to agree to negotiations. Hostages were released that same day, and compensation for the slain child and the confiscated livestock was arranged.

While neither group in this remote area had a newfound outpouring of love for the other, they had settled the issue non-violently and with honor.   

As we drove out of the small village center and slowly climbed up the small hill heading home, the Garden of Eden again came into view.  But like the mythological Garden of Eden, spoiled by Eve's selfish indiscretion, this small green paradise had also become tainted, by spilled blood. Instead of a curious woman, this paradise had been ruined by the thirst of a horse. We made the turn by the large rock outcropping, and the green space disappeared from my view forever.      

THE WINDS OF AL-ANBAR |

April 17, 2007

THE WINDS OF AL-ANBAR
Name: Teflon Don
Posting date: 4/17/07
Stationed in: Ramadi, Iraq
Milblog url: acutepolitics.blogspot.com

The intra-Sunni fighting in Al-Anbar province is continuing, and the violence is rising. I'll try my hand at laying out some of the recent events, and explain a little bit of how the various elements you may hear about in the news are related. I've distilled a fair bit of material from Bill Roggio, other sources, and personal knowledge. I don't have a lot of time, so this will probably be sloppy and fairly unedited.

Since the start of the year, Al-Qaeda In Iraq has attempted 11 chlorine VBIEDs, nine in Al-Anbar, one in Tadji, and one in Baghdad. Of those, nine have detonated with varying degrees of success, and two were found and disabled in Ramadi. The most recent attacks were this morning, in downtown Falluja, outside the government center. Iraqi troops engaged two trucks just after 0630, causing both to explode just short of the base.

Taken together, the string of chlorine bombings have killed 32 Iraqis and wounded over 600, most of them civilians. One U.S. soldier was wounded in an attack on an Iraqi Police checkpoint, as well as possibly more today in Falluja. These attacks have overwhelmingly been targeted towards Iraqi forces, and the leaders and people of the tribes who have begun to oppose Al-Qaeda In Iraq.

There are thirty-one major tribes in the Al-Anbar province. Of those thirty-one, twenty-five support the Anbar Awakening effort of the Anbar Salvation Council -- the social and political gathering of sheiks and former insurgents who oppose terroism in Al-Anbar. Of the six remaining tribes, the Iraqi government, Coalition Forces and the Anbar Salvation Council are attempting to split two off from the Al-Qaeda umbrella organization, Islamic State of Iraq. Those two tribes are the Al-bu Issa and the Al-Zuba'a. Both have started to fight against Al-Qaeda, and are beginning to pay for it dearly. One chlorine bomb detonated in the Al-bu Issa region of Falluja, as I wrote before, injuring 250 civilians.

Thahir al-Dari is the sheik of the Al-Zuba'a tribe. His son, Harith Dhaher al-Dari was a military leader in the 1920 Revolutionary Brigades. The 1920 Revolutionary Brigades is a nationalist Sunni insurgent group that was formerly affiliated with Al-Qaeda. Earlier this year, the group began to split -- one splinter wanted to remain with Al-Qaeda, and the other wanted a break because of disagreements over methods and goals (including issues such as Al-Qaeda's frequent targeting of civilians). Since the rift began, members of the 1920's Brigades have been working with the Anbar Salvation Council (including fighting Al-Qaeda in defense of one of the council leaders), and reportedly engaging in talks with the government and coalition forces. Harith al-Dari was killed by Al-Qaeda fighters near Abu Ghraib yesterday, along with a bodyguard.

His father, the sheik, narrowly escaped. Salam al-Zuba'a is one of the deputy prime ministers of Iraq, from the Al-Zuba'a tribe. He narrowly escaped being assassinated in a car bomb attack on his mosque on March 23rd. The chief suspect in the bombing is one of his bodyguards -- accused of being a member of an insurgent group friendly to Al-Qaeda and opposed to the Anbar Salvation Council.

Two years ago, Sheikh Osama al-Jadaan tried to gather other tribes together to stand against Al-Qaeda. He was swiftly killed, and the leadership of the other tribes was dismantled. Al-Qaeda then filled the vacuum, and the insurgency became stronger. Al-Qaeda has tried at least four times to kill senior leaders of the Anbar Salvation Council with bombs or all-out assault, and has killed several leaders of insurgent groups that show signs of willingness to work with the Anbar Salvation Council or the Iraqi government. This time around, though, the situation is far more favorable to the sheiks than it was two years ago. First, the U.S. military has finally begun to work with the tribes in a realistic fashion, paving the way for tribal militias to supplement the Iraqi Forces. Secondly, the Iraqi Forces themselves are far more numerous and better equipped than they were two years ago.

I'll go out on a little bit of a limb and say that the insurgency is quickly approaching a tipping point. If things continue as they are right now, our military won't need a surge to chase the terrorists out of Anbar -- the citizens will do it for us, which is as it should be. It's beginning to show already: more local tips, more police recruits (far more than anticipated) -- and sadly, in bigger and more desperate Al-Qaeda attacks.

At this point, a reconciled insurgent is better than a captured one, and a captured one is better than a dead one. That is a hard fact for the military to accept. We are quickly approaching the point at which more and more soldiers and Marines will be asked to support men who fought with and sometimes killed their brothers-in-arms. That is not an easy thing to do, even in the aftermath of a conventional war, and it is far more difficult when fighting an insurgency. However, it is absolutely necessary. We will be asked to fight the strategy of our enemy rather than his fleeting fighters. We will have to defeat Al-Qaeda's attempts to disrupt and derail the efforts of the population to end the violence. We will have to spend more time away from our big, safe bases, and more time getting to know the local leaders -- the leaders that can tell their men to join the Iraqi forces and forsake the insurgency. We will spend more time with their people -- the people that have known the insurgents since they were children. The people that form an intelligence net far more effective than ours will ever be, if they trust us enough to share it.

It's a big job, but I think we may have finally learned enough forgotten lessons from places like East Timor, Vietnam, Ireland, Malaysia, and others that it just might work this time.

Color me hopeful.

That's all I have for now. Keep reading, watch the news, and keep your eyes to the sky. I'll try to keep writing about the winds here in Al-Anbar. They are changing.

OPERATION MOUNTAIN FURY |

April 16, 2007

OPERATION MOUNTAIN FURY
Name: 1SG Troy Steward
Posting date: 4/16/07
Stationed in: Sharana, Afghanistan
Hometown: Amherst, NY
Milblog url: bouhammer.com

This video features photographs from the second phase of Operation Mountain Fury, during which I was teamed up with Devil Company (D Co.) of 2/4th INF, 10th MTN DIV. The leadership and men of Devil Company are some of the best I have worked with over here from the regular army. They were all true professionals and have seen more than their fair share of combat while serving in Afghanistan. Several of the leadership were on their 2nd, 3rd, or even 4th combat tours. I consider it a true honor and privilege to have known them and fought alongside them while they were here. I dedicate this video to every one of them -- soldiers, men and brothers-in-arms.

Most of the photos were taken by the combat cameraman who was with us. In fact there is one picture of him in the video holding a cup of chai tea. The music is Toby Keith's "American Soldier", and it fits perfectly. I hope you enjoy it.

ON BEING HOME |

April 13, 2007

ON BEING HOME
Name: SGT Derek McGee
Posting date: 4/13/07
Returned from: Iraq
Hometown: Rhinebeck, NY
Email: info@crumpledpress.org

Framed_derek_mcgee_portrait_3I am home now; it’s nice I guess. Things are different. So am I. It is hard to get excited about things, anything really. Food is all right, I get sort of excited about that, and women  -- well one anyway. Maybe I’m more mature now; maybe I’m just bored, I don’t know.

I gave up hunting. I regret this because I love venison. I never was very good at hunting and now I just don’t want to do it anymore. I never actually killed a deer, but I scared the hell out of a few. What is the point? They don’t even shoot back. Part of me wants to never touch a gun again, and part of me wants to wrap my hands tightly on my old sixteen, get the scope dead-on, lovingly reapply the camouflage tape, strap two magazines together, throw a round in the chamber, use the meaty-tip of my thumb to flirt with the safety, and go home to Fallujah.

It’s not that loud noises terrify me. It’s just that I don’t respond appropriately to them. My heart goes off like a Led Zeppelin drum solo, my diaphragm sprints, pulling-in far more oxygen than I need, and I want to fight back. But there is no one to fight, there is nowhere to go, nothing to do. I’m supposed to just go on normally, but my body doesn’t know that and though I tell it, sometimes it takes a while for it to listen. There was a time, when a noise that didn’t belong was heard, people looked at me for some leadership, they wanted me to tell them where to go, and what to do; now they just look and think: who is the weirdo hyperventilating at the bar because a waitress dropped a tray. This woman I see at the Vet Center said that the body can reabsorb adrenaline in five to ten minutes. She said to control my breathing and concentrate on something else and remind myself that I really am normal. It works. She is a very smart lady.

I don’t sleep that much at all. Unless of course I’m drunk. It gets tedious though, to start drinking nightcaps at seven so that sleep will come at two. It’s actually worse than just tedious; it’s harmful. You think that drinking will make things better, but it doesn’t. It lets the bad thoughts in. It lets the irrational thoughts in. I spent twenty minutes at a bar the other night, pretending to play a golf video game even though I didn’t have any quarters and I hate video games and I don’t play golf. I watched this little jerky computer-generated guy in funny clothes drive a few white pixels towards a flag. He never got the ball there but I wasn’t thinking about him; I was thinking that if I had taken the vehicles and checked up on the foot patrol instead of deciding to give my worn-out men a break -- I wanted them to get a chance to take their gear off for a minute, the patrol was almost back anyway -- if I had checked their route for them, maybe, just maybe...who knows. So, this stupid fucker in plaid pants sucks at golf and now Mike and John are gone and when I said goodbye they couldn’t hear me because there were holes in their heads that maybe wouldn’t be there if I had decided to check up on the damn patrol. Drinking doesn’t help.

The smart woman at the Vet Center explained it to me. She is very smart. You see, for seven months I ran around everyday wearing eighty pounds of armor plates, ammunition, grenades, water, maps, little cards telling me how to say, “Where are the weapons hidden?”, bandages and tourniquets and this powder that burns the skin to stop the bleeding, radios, and little cards that say, “Sorry we destroyed your house -- go here and we’ll give you money.” It was hot and we carried all this stuff and when we took it off we lifted weights and ran and did all these things. Now I am home. I just had an operation and I sit around and do nothing except take Vicodin, which kills pain that I don’t really feel anyway. I don’t follow the directions; no, I save it up for special occasions. What the hell are special occasions?

Well, she tells me (the smart lady), my body is just not used to inactivity. She says that if I exercise, my body will feel normal again, and I won’t wake up five to six times a night. I suppose she is right. I want to tell her that I don’t mind waking up every forty-five minutes or so, it is a nice break from the dreams, but I’m afraid she’ll think I’m crazy. She is a shrink and has to deal with crazy people all day, so I don’t want to burden her any further. Tomorrow I will start running, or maybe the day after. I should stop smoking and drinking tomorrow, or the day after, as well. I tell her this. She smiles and nods and hands me a card where she has written the time I’m supposed to see her next week. This is good. I’ll come back next week and tell her that I should stop smoking and drinking tomorrow -- or the next day.

I wake up early and feel compelled to get stuff done, like all good motivated people. I can’t get back to sleep, there is too much to do. I’m ready to hit the ground running and get everything accomplished. I’m so overcome with energy, even though I only got three hours of sleep, that it is hard not to flop around and wake up the beautiful girl next to me. I have so much I want to do, I can’t go back to sleep now. I should be studying maps and intelligence reports. There has to be a pattern to these ambushes. What if we put a sniper team in over Route Fran? They might see something. Fuck it, let me bring my team in there overnight, we’ll shoot something. Are we carrying enough ammo? Are the vehicles ready? What can I do to keep the next patrol from taking casualties? I don’t actually think about any of those things. What I think is that I should be doing something important now, but I’m not. Eventually the beautiful girl next to me will wake up, look over and see me staring at the ceiling, and most likely think: I wish he would get motivated enough to clean his room and do his laundry.

I miss all the guys. If they were all around me, piled into bunk beds, I would be laughing right now. We always laughed no matter how lousy things were. You didn’t think about the bad stuff -- well you thought about it just enough to make jokes about it. One day -- there were many, actually -- I was fairly certain I wasn’t going to make it. Not just me, we all thought like that when things got bad. It wasn’t paranoia; three marines had burned into nothing and one was found walking around alive, but still on fire, two days earlier and we were going to the same spot to show the world we weren’t scared. Don’t tell anyone, but we were. “Elwell,” I said to my driver, “I have no clean laundry.”

“Me neither; where are we going with this?”

“Well, I don’t want my parents to get a box of dirty underwear and socks.”

“Alright, I see where you’re going. You’re saying that today isn’t a good time for us to die.”

“Well,” I said, “I don’t want to be a pain in the ass. But if it’s all the same to you, why don’t we just die some other day.”

“Fine,” he said, “I guess I’ll just stay away from the roadside bombs today. But Sergeant,” he continued, paternally, “you really should stay on top of your laundry; you’re a Sergeant for Christ’s sake.”

Somewhere around then my girlfriend left me, or I pushed her away -- I don’t blame her, love happens sometimes, that’s all. I found out that she was gone from an email she forwarded to me, which had come to her from her new boyfriend. She sent me this joke -- I don’t even remember what it was -- because she wanted to make me laugh. She didn’t realize that the email also contained a week’s worth of replies to replies between them. They seemed good for each other. It hit me in the face like a two-by-four.

Everyone said that they were disgusted because it was the worst time for someone to have to deal with a break-up. They were so wrong. It was the most thoughtful thing she ever did for me. When else can you say, “Well, my girlfriend is banging some other dude? Who cares? At least I’m not on fire. When does the next patrol leave?” If she had waited until I got home, when I would have had time to think and dwell on things; well that would have been bad timing.

The next day, when we were leaving the wire, I told everyone in my vehicle, “Don’t worry, boys. Nothing can happen to us. I’m invincible right now.”

“What the fuck are you talking about?”

“Well, think about it. There is no way God would let my ex-girlfriend and her lousy new boyfriend get my life insurance money.”

“It’s still in her name, you moron? Why don’t you change it?”

“Because,” I said, shocked at their ignorance, “Then I wouldn’t be invincible.”

It was always like that, always jokes. But they’re off living their lives somewhere else now, and it just isn’t as funny anymore. I see some of them from time to time. I talk to them as well.

I’ve seen a lot of bad behavior from my friends, since being home. I watched them beat the bejesus out of a guy at a bar for not really doing anything at all -- except maybe not backing down convincingly enough. Since then I’ve heard that two broke their hands on faces and one had his jaw broken for him; those are just the ones I know about. When we talk on the phone they tell me, in a light sort of way, about the bender they’re on and about the many wild fights that just seem to find them. Me too. We pretend it’s funny. Once I blurted into the phone, “Loud noises make me act, well, you know, a little odd.”

“You’re fine,” my friend said, “Just thinking about loud noises makes me act odd. I almost passed out in Best Buy the other day because of anxiety. You should talk to someone at the Vet Center. They’re giving me these anti-anxiety pills.”

“I don’t want pills,” I said.

“But you want to talk. Go see them. They’re smart.”

After September 11th I became addicted to CNN. I kept it on 24/7, even when I was sleeping. That lasted for years. I don’t watch the news anymore. Every time I see a clip of those in Iraq, I feel a guilt that makes me squirm. Why am I here on a couch with a beer and this girl, who I really like and everything is so great for me, and they are doing my job for me? I don’t belong here. I should be there. I don’t watch the news anymore.

I have been punched on two different occasions since being home. Both times I froze and didn’t do anything about it. I was afraid. It’s not that I didn’t know what to do. I do. I can. It wasn’t that I was afraid of whomever it was that was punching me. I was afraid that if I started punching back I wouldn’t stop. The last time I punched back, I stood in the turret of a humvee and sent four hundred rounds of 7.62mm, belt-fed ammunition into a residential neighborhood, into houses, peoples’ houses, and there was a mosque there, too. I didn’t ever want to stop. Part-way through I stopped shooting for a moment, ducked into the vehicle, opened the rear left door and kicked a cooler and everything else out. Then I sat on the roof of the humvee, lifted my legs up to my chest, eased my finger back onto the trigger, and the soothing “bup-bup-bup-bup-bup-bup-bup-bup” began again. Below me, where my feet had been so firmly planted seconds before, they shoved the body of Captain John McKenna. I didn’t know at the time that it was my platoon commander. I didn’t know anything that wasn’t in my gun sights. We sped off to the nearest base and I threw bandages down to the guys in the vehicle, pulled the radio receiver up from below -- everyone else was too busy to talk on the radio -- and it was then that I heard, from Gallagher, who was holding John’s head, “Hang in there, Sir.”

I prayed for the first time in a decade. I thought I had forgotten how. It comes right back. I suppose it is comforting to know that the next time I need to pray it will come back again. I tried to think of something profound to say. Something that would penetrate the unconsciousness and revive the man below me.

“Don’t give up, you tough Irish fuck.”

That is what I said. It was ridiculous and crass, but if anything would have worked, that might have been it. It didn’t matter. He was dead even before his knees had given out and left him pouring his life onto the filthy streets of Fallujah. We didn’t know that. He was gurgling and twitching and we wanted him to live so I said it again.

“Don’t give up, you tough Irish fuck.”

I don’t want to talk about it anymore.

So, I forget what my point was, but I think it has something to do with this; if you get a deer this year, I would love some of the meat.


Note: This post appears in Derek McGee's beautifully-produced small press book WHEN I WISHED I WAS HERE: Dispatches from Fallujah, which can be ordered directly from The Crumpled Press.

IRAQI POLICE GONE WILD |

April 12, 2007

IRAQI POLICE GONE WILD
Name: LT Carl Goforth
Posting date: 4/12/07
Stationed in: Anbar Province, Iraq
Milblog url: desertflier.blogspot.com
Email: cwgoforth@gmail.com

Framed_goforth_barrierThis is the backside of the hospital, and is our casualty receiving area. The vehicles that come barreling down this alley are as varied as the patients. Everything from Bradleys and Strykers to Iraqi Coalition vehicles and MIA1 Abrahams. Two days ago we added massive concrete barriers between the passageway and our receiving area. Don't you want to know why?

Here's the story: I was standing in the trauma bay when we got a heads-up that suspected insurgents were being brought in after a firefight out in Ramadi. Our teams assembled quickly outside to receive the patients (our normal modus operandi). So imagine the surprise when two Iraqi Police trucks whip around the corner, bristling with AK-47's -- from the truck beds, the windows -- one IP standing at the .50 Cal mount, with all weapons fully loaded! "HOLY SH...." was all I was thinking, if you want the truth. We know and work with the Iraqi Police fairly close at this point, but still: who really knows who the bad guys are? They could have vaporized most of the trauma team in seconds. The front gate had failed to get them to actually clear all weapons before entering. Can someone say "dropped the ball"? We immediately put in a priority construction request.

Mild trauma trickled in all that day. Head bumps here, superficial penetrating shrapnel there. That evening after chow: devastating. A young Iraqi boy came in after getting run over by an IP police truck. His left thigh was torn in half, with muscle and connective tissue bulging out of a hasty field dressing. There were serious head injuries we just didn't have time to evaluate. We tried in vain to get IV lines started on him, with no success. His breathing became slower as it crept towards agonal, and we just got an intra-osseous line as he crashed on us. Heroics kicked in, and we attempted cardiac massage, tried giving blood through the osseous lines, and resorted to intra-ventricular fluid/blood administration. He was anoxic for 10 minutes and we just couldn't stand to give up.

Then reality caught up with us. It was all I could do to compose myself, as I gently held his leg (I was running fluids/blood and medications at the foot of the bed) and lifted his innocent Spirit up to the good Lord...Only His strength keeps me going; I know it isn't mine. I can't express how deeply hurt and vulnerable the team feels when we can't save a child...

In general terms Ramadi is quiet. There have been significant crackdowns by the Iraqi Police over the past week, and daily critical incidents are down. But yesterday there was another "police gone wild" incident. A civilian was brought in with significant trauma. He had also been hit by an Iraqi Police vehicle. He came in obtunded with a GCS of 8-9. Anesthesia secured his airway, we gave mannitol (osmotic diuretic to decrease brain swelling), and hyperventilated him. I flew him to Balad within the hour. I knew this was going to be a rough flight when we started giving him doses of epinephrine before I left -- not a good prognosticator. Anyway, I was able to get him safely to Balad via Blackhawk. I was so busy managing his blood pressure, heart rate, and end-tital CO2 that it felt like the flight was only about ten minutes. As soon as we touched down, I raced ahead to give report to the ED physician. They asked me where I was coming from, and I temporarily blanked and said "Al Asad". After a few odd looks, it dawned on me that I was disoriented from the flight, so I quipped "I don't know: Iraq!" Always looking to break the tension whenever I can.Reframed_goforth_portrait

Apparently there were significant explosions outside the base while I was flying. As we were coming back to Ramadi, I saw a few fires burning in the distance and a lot of IP vehicle activity. As of now I have no idea what happened. I heard when I got back that several detonations had been felt.

If this pattern of running over civilians sustains, I'm going to suggest the IPs switch over to mopeds. At least a gang of AK-47-wielding moped riders won't seem as threatening to the trauma team the next time the front gate "accidentally" forgets to clear weapons.

We also toured the Camp Ramadi fire department yesterday to find out what equipment and capabilities they have. Impressive. After the brief one of our anesthesia providers, "Bob", asked with all seriousness "So, do all of the fire station vehicles have IED's?" You could have heard a gnat scratching itself as the firemen all looked at each other. One finally said "I sure as h... hope not!" Bob had meant to ask if the trucks all had automated external defibrillators (AED), not improvised explosive devices (IED). I can't do justice to how funny that was...

CLEANLINESS AND GODLINESS |

April 11, 2007

CLEANLINESS AND GODLINESS
Name: CAPT Doug Traversa
Posting date: 4/11/07
Stationed in: Kabul, Afghanistan
Hometown: Tullahoma, TN
Milblog url: traversa.typepad.com
Email: traversa@gimail.af.mil

Hamid swung by the hut today to get me for lunch after he had hitched a ride back to Phoenix. I was just finishing up some writing, so I had him come in.

“Remember our conversation about the Snicker’s bar yesterday?” (Drew and I had spent a great deal of effort trying to figure out what Hamid’s favorite candy bar was).

“Yes,” he replied.

“Would you believe I wrote about that in my blog yesterday?” I laughed.

“No. Why would you want to write about that?” he exclaimed disbelievingly.

“Wait. I’ll pull it up and read it to you.” After a minute I had the blog up, and started reading the section where Drew and I were trying to figure out what candy bar he wanted. As I read, Hamid stared at me in amazement.

“No, you didn’t write that.”

“Yes I did. I told you I write about our conversations. Let me finish reading.”

As I continued, using proper tonal inflections, Hamid started laughing uncontrollably. I actually had to stop reading so he could recover and hear what I was saying.

Once I was finished, and he stopped laughing, he still seemed stunned.

“But who would want to read that? Are people really interested?”

I turned off the computer. “Yes, people really do read this stuff. They love to see what your lives are like, and our interactions with Afghans is interesting, even if we are trying to figure out what kind of candy bar you like. Most blogs are about combat, or at least being in a combat unit. But many of us don’t see any combat. Some people enjoy reading about our lives too.”

I put on my weapon, and we headed off to chow. “Not only are you famous, but someone has already said they are going to send Snickers just for you.”

“But doesn’t it make me look bad if I am always asking for things?” I guess my lessons have been taking hold.

“I’ve also told them that you only ask because I am your friend, and it’s okay in your culture to ask friends for things. It’s just another way for people to learn about your way of doing things. Plus, I tell them how I like to give you a hard time when you ask for things. I have fun and get a laugh out of it.”

After we got our food and sat down I expected to eat in silence as usual, then talk. But Hamid was in a very talkative mood, and launched right into questions. Today he wanted to talk about religion. He wanted to know where our religious leaders live, what they wear, and how we pray. I did my best to explain it all, considering how many different religions there are in America. He seemed very surprised that we only bow our heads to pray. Muslims must do ritual cleansings, and when they pray they touch their foreheads to the ground. 

Hamid began an explanation of the importance of cleanliness when praying. “As you know, we must wash ourselves before praying. In fact, if a man has had sex or a wet dream, he must not only do the usual cleaning, he must inhale water to clean inside his nose.”

“What? You inhale water?” This was a new one on me. I’d never heard this before.

“Yes. You must cup water in your hand and inhale water until it goes up into your nose, where your eyes are. Then you blow it out. Sometimes it makes your eyes water.”

I was still in shock. “Yes, I imagine it would.”

“You must also shave at least every other week.” He saw I was puzzled, since many Muslims have beards and a full head of hair. “Not your face, I mean your groin.”

I don’t know what comes after stunned, but whatever it is, I was there. 

“You shave your groin?” I asked weakly.

“Yes, and our ass and armpits too.”

What comes after the thing that comes after being stunned? Is there a word for it? 

“You shave your armpits, groin, and ass? Every two weeks?” Clearly I was being punked. Where were the hidden cameras?

"Actually, I do it every week. I do it every Friday morning, since that is our best day (he meant holy day). Don’t you shave there?”

“No.” Still reeling from too much information.

“You never shave your armpits? Never?” Hamid looked skeptical.

“No, never!” I pulled my T-shirt sleeve down to show him my hairy armpit. He actually recoiled a little bit.

“In America women shave their armpits, but it’s for looks, not for religious beliefs.”

Hamid needed a little time to digest this. Clearly he had not realized just how unclean we were. He continued after a bit.

“I have heard that people from India do not bathe every day, and they can smell very bad.”

Non-plussed, that’s the word. I was non-plussed, as in “puzzled or perplexed". As a rule, Afghans aren’t very fragrant. Of course some are better than others, but there are some that clearly don’t take their cleaning ritual very seriously.

“Hamid, I’ve not been around many Indians, so I couldn’t say. But you realize that there are many Afghans who don’t smell very good, don’t you?”

“Well, some do not clean like they should. It is very important to be clean for God. As I said, I always get very clean on Fridays. We know the world will end on a Friday.”

I give up. I thought I knew a great deal about Islam, but Hamid is showing me what a rank amateur I am.

“Friday?” I managed to utter.

“Yes, God will return and destroy the world on a Friday. It is written.”

“In the Qu’ran?”

“Yes, our mullah tells us. There is something I’ve been meaning to ask my mullah.”

I can hardly wait for the next bombshell. Hamid is in good form today.

“You know that a woman should cover most of her body. Only her face and her hands should show. Also a woman should not work outside the home.”

I nodded. “I know that’s what you believe.”

“Women should also not talk to men outside of the family, but I have heard some say that a wife may only see her husband and her own brothers and father, no on else.”

“But,” I said, and felt like saying it several times, “your sister-in-law lives with you, and you see her. Are you saying that is wrong?”

“Some people think so. I need to ask my mullah.”

I stared at him. I said one word. “Why?”

“What do you mean?”

“Why would you do this to a woman?”

“If I see a woman, I might have thoughts about her, or she about me,” he replied.

“It sounds to me like you don’t trust women.”

“Oh, we trust them. But they might have thoughts to have sex with others.”

“Hamid, I understand why you have these rules and what you hope to achieve, but basically you put women in a prison. They can’t work and they have to cover most of their body up, just to prevent bad thoughts. Why not make the men stay home and cover up, and let the women go out and run things.”

Hamid really seemed to be thinking this over.

“No matter how much you say you love and respect your women, you essentially put them in prisons once they get married,” I continued. “What if they want to go to work?”

“The man must provide a home and make the money.” This is no different from the view of many fundamentalist Christians back home.

“Yes, I agree the man should work, but what if the woman wants to work?”

“You mean like a hobby?” he asked.

“Or just so she isn’t bored.”

“But she must keep up the house!” he protested.

“Look, my wife works three days a week. She’d be bored if she didn’t go out and work. She likes making a little extra money, and she can quit if she wants to.”

“If she is bored, she can watch TV.” Hamid had it all figured out.

I decided to change tack a bit. “Doesn’t it bother you to be working around our women? They don’t dress the way you think they should.”

“No, you have your own religion, so you worship God in your way. Is it true that all Americans believe in God?”

Don’t you love the way our conversations bounce around? 

“No, not all Americans believe in God, but probably a good majority do, though as I keep saying, there are many different religions.”

“But they all believe in one God, right?”

“No. After all , we have Hindus in America, and they believe in many gods, just like the Hindus in India.”

Hamid was the one who looked shocked this time.

I looked closely at him. “You do realize the Hindus worship many gods, don’t you. You watch TV shows from India all the time.”

He really seemed taken aback. “Yes, of course I knew this.”

“Well, you certainly looked surprised when I said it. Have you heard of Mormons?”

“No.”

“Well, they also believe in many gods, though they only worship one God. They also believe that one day they can become gods.”

Now Hamid was at that point that comes after being stunned. He put down his silverware (okay, plasticware) and looked at me to see if I was joking.

“I’m serious,” I stated firmly.

He threw up his hands and shook his head. “That is crazy. To think you can become a god.” 

With that we finished cleaning up, and headed out of the chow hall. We had both learned some surprising facts and, despite the vast gulf in our culture and beliefs, parted as good friends once again. I guess that’s the bottom line here. No matter how bizarre the information that we relate to one another, nothing has weakened our friendship. Hopefully it is one of many seeds being planted in this country, which will allow our peoples to grow closer.

WALKING ON HISTORY |

April 10, 2007

WALKING ON HISTORY
Name: Teflon Don
Posting date: 4/10/07
Stationed in: Ramadi, Iraq
Milblog url: acutepolitics.blogspot.com

I am a shameless romantic, a slightly better than average student of history, and there is a current of idealism under my skin that has not yet been dulled by reality. Sometimes these qualities come together and leave me thinking to myself of times long gone, and stories all but forgotten. Lately I've been thinking of the paradoxical enormity and insignificance of my presence here.

Here I stand, in modern-day Iraq. I have come further to fight here than any soldier of any nation before me, and I fight with weapons and equipment that lay pale the panoply of earlier armies. I represent the pinnacle of force projection and decisive battle, and yet I fight here, where unnumbered young warriors have fought and died through time stretching out of memory. It was on this land that the Babylonian Empire arose out of those first Sumerian agrarians, only to be conquered by the Assyrians, and still later throw off the foreign chains. It was here that Alexander's phalanxes swept through, trailing Hellenism in their wake. The Romans, and later the Byzantines, drew their border with Persia at the Euphrates River. At that river was where the Sassanids made their stand against the spread of Arabian Islam. The Khans of the Mongols laid this land waste, sometimes killing only to build their towers of bones higher.

This region is steeped in history. We walk on it; we breath it in. Eons of history surround us, infiltrate us, and turn to dust beneath our feet. The ashes of countless cultures, civilizations, and rulers' dreams are in this earth. With each breath, I inhale a few molecules of the dying gasp of Cyrus II, the Persian "Constantine of the East". In the howling wind I can almost hear the cries of a multitude, dying on killing grounds across the ages. The same wind carries the red dust that might yet hold a few drops of blood from the battle at Carrhae -- the first, crushing defeat for Rome's red-blooded legions. Under my heel, a speck grinds into dust: the last grain of sand that remains of the Hanging Gardens at Babylon that are now known only in legend. Some of the world's oldest religions tell us that somewhere in this ancient Cradle of Life, God himself breathed on this dust, and it became man, the father of us all. Whatever path we take here, we walk on history.

I walk softly, for I tread on the ghosts of years.

LOVE LETTER TO HEIDI |

April 09, 2007

LOVE LETTER TO HEIDI AND FRIENDS
Name: Kerri Drylie
Posting date: 4/9/07
Daughter stationed in: JBAD, Afghanistan
Hometown: Christmas, Florida
MilblogURL: http://heidis-mom.blogspot.com/
Email: kiwixmas@aol.com

I am just a parent with a soldier stationed in Afghanistan, where my daughter is a medic serving her 14th month with the 10th Mountain. She is very proud to be serving her country, and we are very proud of her. I have been grateful for The Sandbox this last year, and the connection it gives me to my daughter and her fellow soldiers.

Heidi doesn't have time to email me, much less do a blog of her own :-), so Heidi's Mom is a blog I do for her, to keep her connected with what is going on at home and make sure friends and family don't forget she is there. 

I made the attached video using pictures she has sent me. It's a love letter to Heidi and her friends in Afghanistan.

A LIFT TO THE AIRPORT |

April 06, 2007

A LIFT TO THE AIRPORT
Name: Eric Coulson
Posting date: 4/6/07
Stationed in: Ramadi, Iraq
Hometown: St. Louis, MO
Milblog url: badgersforward.blogspot.com
Email: badger.six@gmail.com

"Can you give me a lift to the airport?" Back in Boise that gesture of assistance involves nothing more than a quick jaunt south on I-184, then west on I-84 to the Airport exit, a right turn, south a block, then another right around the Chevron station, and then the long turn to the left before you make the decision to go to departing flights on the upper deck or arriving flights on the lower deck. A ten-minute trip, assuming no traffic.

In Iraq though, getting a lift to the airport is a bit more complex.

Many if not most of us are in places where fixed-wing aircraft do not land. Our options are are to either drive, or do the fancy-Manhattan-like thing and grab a rotary wing bird to the airport. That is what I was scheduled to do when I went on leave last month.

Time was counting down for us to head to the helipad. It had been a beautiful day, a good day for flying, but now the weather was turning bad. We generally fly out a few days early so that people will be sure to hit their leave date, but because of then-recent events, this is the last day of my "window" to leave. If I don't get out now, the whole leave schedule will fall behind. I have promised Mrs. Badger 6 that I will be home by our anniversary on Tuesday, and it is Thursday night.Framed_cropped_coulson

As I watch the rain role in, the First Sergeant of another company comes up to me.

"Hey Sir, I know you are supposed to leave tonight. We have a Route Clearance mission going to that same base. You want to ride along?"

Hmmmmm. A ride could be relatively short -- a couple of hours, and in before midnight with the chance to get some sleep. On the other hand, I could get stuck sitting on two or three events and not get there till sunup. Still, if I ride with them I am certain of getting there. I could wait on the flight line till 0300 and then still not leave. The patrol leaves in 15 minutes.

"Thanks, First Sergeant. Where are they lining up?"

I grab the other two Soldiers I am travelling with and we pick up our gear and head down to the patrol. Looking at the route, all we really need to do is get through the City of Ar Ramadi. Sure, anything can happen here, but there is a certain predictability to the war as well.

Patrol prep done, we are out the gate. It has been some time since I have been through the city, as we've been doing operations in other areas, and I am pleasantly surprised at the difference that has been made. A great deal of the debris, rubble, and garbage has been cleared away. People are starting to make this city inhabitable again.

Driving past Saddam's Mosque, an area known for trouble, we keep a sharp lookout. We investigate a few things but find nothing. We are closing in on the far side of the city when all of the sudden a brilliant flame appears, and then immediately disappears.

"Did you see that?"

"Yeah. What was it? A bomb?"

"I don't know. That was really weird."

We pull up and start looking.

"It was really too far from the road to be a bomb. Why would some idiot place a bomb over there?"

But that's what it was. Whoever set this event up had evidently been unable or unwilling to get very close to the road, and placed the device way off to the side. Additionally, when it detonated it only yielded a low-order blast. Some of the explosive did not go off. Good thing, right?

Wrong. Now we need to have the experts come out and dispose of the remainder, so some AIF character does not come along and try to reuse the stuff.

My thoughts at this point are purely selfish. This never happens when I am on patrols with my guys. I am going to be here all night! To make matters worse the "experts" want to sit on their little base and have us bring the stuff to them. That's a no-go. We have to have a discussion on the radio for thirty minutes before they will even come out. Finally they do, and we are rolling again.

All of a sudden we see red tracer fire to our south. The IPs and the AIF are having a little gunfight. Again: I never see this stuff, but now that I really need to get somewhere, it's coming out of the woodwork.

Finally, though, we are past that and on the edge of the city. Now we are passing the Al Anbar Law College; I so want a low-profile baseball hat that says Al Anbar Law to go along with my SIU Law, Duke Law, and Wisconsin Law hats. But I digress.

Back in the countryside we pick up the pace a little. And there are no more events. Dropped off by the patrol, my Soldiers and I check in with the manifest people. We are told to be back at 0700. We wander over to billeting to get a bed for a few hours. By 0100 we are asleep.

Rotary wing did fly that night, but the other people coming from Ramadi got it at 0300 and got no sleep. So we made a good choice.

And I will never begrudge a friend a lift to the airport.

BACK TO WORK |

April 05, 2007

BACK TO WORK
Name: RN Clara Hart
Posting date: 4/5/07
Stationed in: a military hospital
Email: clarahart2@yahoo.com

I went back to work today after taking a few months off for some much-needed "rest and recovery". I decided to try two days a week, and strictly on a temporary basis. As I walked down the hallway, my footsteps echoing, I wondered what the day would bring. My hand tapped the silver button on the wall and the pneumatic doors opened with a quiet swish. It was still too early for any patients to have made it out of the OR, and the recovery room was eerily quiet. I wandered into the staff lounge, opened my locker and stowed my things. Then, like my Marine and Soldier counterparts readying for a mission, I loaded up with the tools of my trade. Pens, sharpie marker and index cards in one pocket, pen light, clamps/hemostats, trauma scissors in another, stethoscope draped over my shoulder, I was ready to start my day.

Walking to the nursing station I picked up the schedule, scanning it to get a feel for how many patients were lined up and what types of surgeries they would have. Looking at the assignment board I saw the bays I had been given, and headed over to make sure all the equipment was in working order and I had all the necessary supplies. Once that task was completed I sat down to wait.

As the patients began arriving I quickly acclimated to being back in a military hospital -- being called “ma’am” and “Ms. Hart” instead of plain ole “Clara”.  It was wonderful to once again have patients who were respectful, polite, and genuinely appreciated the care they received! Having spent the better part of my career working trauma/ER and flying medevacs, not always caring for the nicest, most law abiding people, this behavior was not the norm, and returning from my hiatus I appreciated how nice it is.

My day flew by, patients arriving, recovering and then heading out the door. Pretty soon one of the float nurses came over to relieve me for lunch, and I gave her a report on my patients and headed off in search food. Returning from lunch I watched as yet another patient was wheeled into one of my bays. I hurried over to take report and sent the float nurse off to relieve some other starving caregiver. As I listened to the anesthesiologist I learned my patient was a 33-year-old man, OIF, injured when an IED exploded under his vehicle. I did my assessment, noting his dressings, carefully making note of his injuries and his previous surgeries. I looked at his face, arms, and hands, peppered with shrapnel and cloaked in white gauze. I studied his chart and orders and set about finishing the post-op tasks. As I worked I paid close attention to him and the monitors, watching his vital signs, gauging how quickly the anesthesia was wearing off and if he was in pain. 

I called his name and saw his one unbandaged eye struggle to open. I told him his surgery was over and he was in the recovery room. I asked him if he was in pain and he said “No”. As I waited for the last vestiges of anesthesia to wear off and for him to emerge from his slumber I spent a few brief moments completing the infernal paperwork that makes the nursing world go round. 

I glanced up at the monitor and then over at my patient and was shocked to see tears silently streaming down his face. Moving closer to the bed I asked him if he was in pain, already thinking what pain medications he had ordered, but he only shook his head no. I quickly moved even closer and, grabbing a Kleenex in one hand and placing the other on his chest, I started to dry his tears. He looked up at me and in response to my silent questions said, “Ma’am I’m not crying, I just got something in my eye.” I nodded my head somberly and placed the hand holding the Kleenex on top of his head, lightly touching the stubble military guys call “hair”. In a choked voice he said to me “Marines don’t cry, ma’am, and I’m not crying." As I continued to dry his tears I took one of his hands in mine. He grabbed on tightly, as if I was his lifeline, and I felt him taking strength from my quiet unquestioning presence. I went back to my charting, ignoring the sorrow draining down his face, all the while keeping my hand securely tucked in his. Minutes passed, and I felt him regain his composure, and the grasp on my hand loosed. I slid my hand out from his and walked over to the phone, my back to him, to call report to the floor nurse. 

As I talked with the receiving nurse I glanced over my shoulder to see him wiping his face with his bandaged arms, looking around to make sure no one else had witnessed his private anguish. I quickly turned my back to him again, finishing my report. Striding back to his bedside I readied him for transport, and as I did he once again looked at me and implored, “Ma’am, I really wasn’t crying. Please don’t tell anyone I was." I looked at him and with a smile responded, “Can’t talk about something I didn’t see." He smiled back at me, relief evident in his face, and I asked him to do me a favor. “Anything, ma’am, just name it,” came his speedy, earnest reply. “Please don’t call me 'ma’am',” I said. “It makes me feel old and decrepit. You can call me 'Clara', okay?” “Clara?” he asked me. “Yep.” I replied. “No more 'ma’am', got it?” “Got it, Clara,” he said. We shared a smile and then he was whisked away on his journey toward healing.

NIGHTLY NEWS |

April 03, 2007

NIGHTLY NEWS
Name: SANDBOX DUTY OFFICER David Stanford
Posting date: 4/4/07

We offer a salute to Sandbox contributor Rob, who is featured along with his video LIFE IN IRAQ AS A U.S. ARMY SNIPER in a piece prepared for NBC Nightly News by correspondent Kerry Sanders. Here are the opening paragraphs, followed by a link to the complete story on the Daily Nightly website:

VIDEOS FROM THE FRONT

They're some of the most powerful pictures of war, taken not by professional cameramen, but by soldiers themselves. There's no way to track the number of video and still cameras attached to helmets, rifles, inside Humvees or on Stryker turrets. What is clear: storytelling is no longer just a journalist's domain. Soldiers and Marines are telling their stories to a worldwide audience. Some of the videos on YouTube have been viewed by more than 200,000 people. On Doonesbury's "The Sandbox," a popular blog among members of the military, videos from those fighting in Afghanistan are now drawing an audience.

Some of the pictures are raw, ugly, and hard to stomach. Other videos are silly diversions from war: a look at the comic relief from so much intensity. Interestingly, while there are complaints that the media doesn't tell enough of the "good news" from Iraq, I found few soldiers or marines telling that story themselves. These videos appear to be the ongoing evolution of journalism in the Internet age....(click here to read more and offer comments on the piece).

J-BAD HIGHWAY |

J-BAD HIGHWAY
Name: 1SG Troy Steward
Posting date: 4/3/07
Stationed in: Sharana, Afghanistan
Hometown: Amherst, NY
Milblog url: www.bouhammer.com

Reading Doug Templeton's Sandbox piece DRIVING IN AFGHANISTAN reminded me of some of the posts I've written on my blog on the same subject. I've been in many countries, including several in the Third World, and the driving in Kabul is the worst I have ever seen. Here's a video created by the Army Safety Center to prepare soldiers for driving in Afghanistan's urban areas.

HAN'S HISTORY LESSON |

April 02, 2007

HAN'S HISTORY LESSON
Name: CAPT Doug Traversa
Posting date: 4/2/07
Stationed in: Kabul, Afghanistan
Hometown: Tullahoma, TN
Milblog url
: traversa.typepad.com
Email: traversa@gimail.af.mail

Han, one of our interpreters, has taken a keen interest in my blogging. I asked him if he wanted to share information with Americans, and he agreed enthusiastically. Within a couple of days he had downloaded over 100 photos* and when we had a spare moment, we sat down in front of a computer and he told me the recent history of Afghanistan as seen through his eyes. Even though I’ve been here almost a year, and can see the signs of war all around me, I still find his story amazing.

1940 - 1973: Zahir Shah rules as king of Afghanistan.

Han says this was a relatively peaceful time, without much fighting between the tribes. (The ex-king lived in exile for many years once he was overthrown, and was still alive when the Taliban were defeated. At that time many Afghans were hoping the monarchy would resume and the king would return to power, but once they realized the U.S. was pulling the strings, they knew this was not to be.)
 
1973 - 1978: Daoud Khan, cousin of the King, abolishes the monarchy and declares himself president.

1979 - 1986: Babrak Karmal rules as president. Soviet Union invades in 1979.
1986 - 1992: Dr. Najibullah takes over from Karmal. The Soviets withdraw 15 Feb 1989.

Han was a young boy during this period. It was peaceful in Kabul. He just remembers going to school, and his only worries were his classes. Even though the Soviets had invaded, things were relatively good in the capital. Many Afghans soldiers we work with today served in the Afghan Army during this time and were trained by the Soviets. In fact, the buildings I work in were built by the Soviets.

April 15th, 1992: The Mujahideen take Kabul and liberate Afghanistan.  Najibullah is protected by UN and lives on the UN compound. The Mujahideen form an Islamic State and hold elections. Professor Burhannudin Rabbani takes power.

There are four major tribes in Afghanistan, and many smaller ones. Although the factions of Mujahideen are generally divided up along tribal lines, this is not always the case. Once the Soviets were defeated, a Mujahideen government was set up, but civil war soon broke out. Kabul was still untouched by combat, but would not be for much longer. I’ve heard from numerous sources that Kabul was a nice, modern, cosmopolitan city up until this point.
    
1993: There is a civil war throughout 1993 between four main groups of Mujahideen. Large scale fighting breaks out in Kabul and in the north.

Han is a young teenager at this time. Combat is going on daily, and much of it is done with rockets. Kabul is slowly destroyed by endless fighting. Han shows me some photos of dead bodies in the streets.

“Sir, I saw these bodies. I stepped over them almost every day. We’d be in school, and alarms would go off to warn about rockets or fighting, and we’d have to run home, and there would be dead bodies in the streets.” Han speaks to me as though trying to convince me of something I won’t believe, but I have no trouble believing him. The look in his eyes is a combination of hopelessness and despair. I am moved by what he must have gone through, and he is seemingly desperate to finally tell his story in such detail to an American. For him, it is urgent that I understand what has happened.   
   
1994: The Taliban militia is formed and begins to take over the country. Two Mujahideen factions fight against Rabbani and Masood's government. Kabul is reduced to rubble.

Han hates all the Mujahideen. As he shows me photos of their soldiers, he tells me which tribe they are from, based on the clothes they wear.  He repeatedly shows me how they look like animals, and tells me how evil they are. Whenever he shows a photo of Rabbani, he calls him names. One photo shows Rabbani and some of his cabinet praying. Han snorts.

“They will all go to Hell,” he says matter-of-factly.

As the Taliban advance near Kabul, the Mujahideen pull out of the city. The capital is spared any more fighting, but the damage has been done. Almost every building is rubble. Han shows me many before-and-after pictures of buildings, including the one his father worked in. The despair in his voice makes my heart ache. He lived through the slow destruction of a lovely city, watching his own people kill each other and destroy Kabul in the process.
   
1996 - 2001: Taliban militia force President Rabbani and his government out of Kabul. After the capture of Kabul, the Taliban enter the UN compound where Najibullah is being protected, drag him out, and execute him. They rule until driven out by the Northern Alliance.

Han was an older teenager during the reign of the Taliban. At first people welcomed the end to warfare, and the Taliban did not immediately implement the repressive and oppressive measures for which they are infamous. One of the first shockers was the day that Han and his friend bought tickets for a soccer game in the big stadium in Kabul. He said two good teams were going to be playing, and they were excited to go and watch. But the once the game got going and the stadium was packed with fans, the Taliban stopped the game and began a series of executions of “criminals.”  According to Han, no one knew this was going to happen. The Taliban wanted a huge crowd to see the executions, so they pulled this surprise at a major sporting event. Han had many photos of people being killed. Men were hung from the soccer goals.

“Sir, I saw this with my own eyes!” He repeated this over and over.

One photo shows a woman forced to kneel in the penalty area (you can clearly see the chalk lines for the soccer field), as a man points a rifle at her head and shoots her. You can see the bullet striking the ground in front of her as her life ends. Another photo shows a young teenaged Taliban holding a severed hand and foot. Yet another shows the man who has just had them cut off.

Han continues to barrage me with photos of Taliban brutality, all inflicted in the name of God. As much as Han hates the Warlords, this pales in comparison to his feelings about the Taliban. My mind reels as he tells me story after story of their hatefulness. I see a photo of a man and woman being stoned to death for having sex. Men are pulled from cars and buses, and their hair forcefully cut if it isn’t short enough. A woman is beaten with a stick for showing her face. On and on it goes.

While in school Han experienced many inspections by the Taliban. They would come in and forcefully cut the students’ hair if it was too long. Life was an endless torment. Women could no longer work, and girls could not go to school. TV and radio were forbidden. Music was banned. Total evil reigned.

During this time the Northern Alliance was formed, which was essentially the remnants of the Mujahideen. They were forced into the northeast corner of the country, and as the Taliban passed through the northern cities, they would loot and pillage. Many villages and towns were completely destroyed.

Once 9/11 occurred, and the Taliban continued to harbor terrorists, the U.S. backed the Northern Alliance, and they marched back south and regained control of the country. Many of the Mujahideen leaders are in key government posts today, and many of them still have their own private armies, er, security forces.

* Note: many of the images Han showed me are on this site


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