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.

HAIKU |

May 31, 2007

HAIKU
Name: Adrian B.
Posting date: 5/31/07
Stationed in: Afghanistan

Mountain peak ceiling
Blocks the sky, jagged gray clouds
Raining rockets west.

Dry, mud-caked rubble
Three jagged walls sag inward
Where do the men sleep?

A feared siren bleats
Soldiers run and shout for help,
The air comes alive.

RECON |

May 30, 2007

RECON
Name: SPC Freeman
Posting date: 5/30/07
Stationed in: Iraq
Milblog url: calmbeforethesand.blogspot.com

Somewhere south of Baghdad, en route to As-Suwayrah, Iraq...

It's a balmy morning in southern Iraq, and I'm weighed down by sixty pounds of gear and ammo, getting ready for my first mission as part of Recon. The farmers' fields are shrouded in fog, and a hundred feet below me the countryside whips past the viewports. We're riding in a Polish Mi-8, a type of heavy transport helicopter. It's a Russian design, dating back to the Cold War, and a notable departure from the UH-60 Black Hawks that brought us down here.

The most obvious difference to a passenger is the noise -- the Black Hawk emits a high-pitched whine while in flight; the engines of an Mi-8 shake its cabin with a jarring roar. Your teeth actually chatter if you lean back on the bulkhead, and your spine vibrates queasily. There are no bucket seats or four-point harnesses here; just a line of bench seats on either side of the cabin. This morning I'm sharing those seats with Sergeants First Class Gravelle and Jameson, Staff Sergeant Mueller, and SPCs Elder and Beckett. We're also being joined today by a squad of Polish Special Forces soldiers. The other Specialists and I will be working with them this morning, providing security for the Recon NCOs.

I'm actually a little irked -- I had wanted to be a part of the primary Recon crew, but this being my first mission, I can understand leaving the task to my more experienced peers. No matter. There will be plenty of time to learn the ins and outs of this job. Meanwhile, I'm content to busy myself with snapping pictures and video from the inside of our chopper, and psyching myself up for the next hour or so of my life.

Unlike Line engineers, Recon crews work hard and fast, moving to assemble quick intelligence on locations and terrain before calling in for a hasty extraction by air. Though Recon has a lot more downtime than the average Line platoon, our missions are faster, more challenging, and honestly a little more dangerous. As-Suwayrah, in particular, has become much more hostile of late. When we told our interpreter "Rocky," of our destination, the burly local went visibly pale. He told us of a known insurgency training camp less than half a click from our mission site, and crossed himself two or three times (Rocky is that rare bird, a Christian Arab).

As the security crackdown has intensified in Baghdad, local militias and terror cells have made a mass diaspora out into the surrounding countryside, and it is now in these places, once known for little more than good farming and grazing for sheep, that the most violence against Coalition Forces is now occurring. Even our erstwhile base camp at nearby FOB Echo, a tiny post run by Poles and Mongolians, saw a dramatic spike in attacks recently. During the week we spent there, we experienced rocket attacks at least nightly. There was much grumbling over the Alert sirens interrupting our screening of the film "300."

Even so, all the risks aside, I'm actually thrilled to be on this mission. As our flight progresses, I'm able to watch the farmlands slowly give way to desert hardpan, a sight made all the more stunning by the sun rising silver through the dense morning haze. I glance around at my teammates, most of whom are passed out sleeping against the bulkhead, and wonder how they can sleep at a time like this. I, for one, am amazed.

A year ago, I was sitting at a desk in the local Army Tax Office; this blog was barely out of its infancy. Six months ago, I was staring down the barrel of deployment with mixed sorrow and fear. Two weeks ago I was on leave, walking with Anne through the cosmopolitan streets of Frankfurt. And here I am now, parked inside a helicopter flown by a foreign military, in the company of SpecOps forces, preparing to drop into a combat landing zone. It is times like this that I relish the extremes of my life. Not for the first time, I smile and give silent thanks for being chosen to join Recon.

After about an hour, our flight path grows slowly rougher. The pilot jinks hard to the left and right, and my stomach rolls as we abruptly drop altitude. Craning my head to look out the window, I see us passing over lush fields, bordered by the banks of the Tigris. There is a sudden rush of commotion as people start jerking awake, and as I turn back around, the Poles begin to lock and load. The rest of us take our cues from this act, slapping thirty-round mags into our M-16s and M-4s. One by one, we slide down off the bench seats and take knees.

A tap on my shoulder -- SFC Gravelle, gesturing over the noise with two fingers: Your side exits first. I stare at him for a second, and then nod my understanding. I turn to face forward again. Our pilot pulls up to cut our forward momentum, and up front the door gunner is busy pulling his equipment out of the hatch. I pitch forward slightly as we lose altitude, and through the hatchway I can see us dropping fast into a rice field. My heart rate picks up as Time itself seems to slow dramatically down.

Easy now, I tell myself. 360 security, that's all. You're on point. So as long as your head swivels, you'll be good. Make sure Sgt. Gravelle is covered.

I take a moment to digest this, then nod. The adrenaline has set every nerve in my body ablaze. Sweet morning air gushes in from outside, and the hairs on my neck sing to me of sweat and wind. We pitch and jounce a bit, an everlasting moment curiously without sound, and at last the door gunner clears the hatch. The Poles leap to their feet. I hear SFC Jameson yelling, "Go, go, go!" I spring into action, following the man in front of me.

The darkness of the cabin suddenly gives way to ghostly dawn, and as my left boot steps out into air, I hear the slow-motion whump of the blades, and watch the grasses ripple in the wind as we hover some five feet above the LZ. A bit of downdraft rushes sweetly down the collar of my body armor, and in the moment before my boot thuds down upon the earth, I feel like the star of every Vietnam war movie ever produced. I feel like the Master Chief in Halo.

I feel like a cultural cliche, and yet nowhere in my memory do I ever remember feeling more alive.

COMPARATIVE LIVING |

May 29, 2007

COMPARATIVE LIVING
Name: CAPT Lee Kelley
Posting date: 5/29/07
Returned from: Iraq
Milblog url: wordsmithatwar.blog-city.com
Email: wordsmith16@excite.com

Flags drifting in the wind. Tears. Memories. Veterans. Family vacations and celebrations. It’s Memorial Day 2007 and I am nostalgic once again. On this day in 2005 I was in pre-combat training and mere weeks away from my trip across the Atlantic. I spent Memorial Day 2006 in Iraq. I am painfully aware of the soldiers that have perished in this war, yet I know that they chose to serve and were willing to die fighting terrorism. They volunteered and put themselves out there in the fray, active participants rather than observers. And I still believe that if we weren’t in this war, terrorists would be bringing the fight to American soil. Call me biased, but I say let’s fight in the deserts of the Middle East.

We lost two soldiers from my Battalion while I was in Iraq. One was killed by a suicide bomber, and we held his memorial service in country. The other soldier was injured in an IED attack during our deployment and he passed on a month after we returned home to Utah. I’ll never forget the memorial walls we kept in Iraq. When we first showed up, the unit we were replacing had 17 pictures on their wall. They took them down, of course, when they left. Our wall remained empty for the first half of our tour, and then we had just one photo on it for the second half. My Brigade as a whole lost over 80 soldiers while we were in Ramadi. Every time I went to Brigade headquarters, there were more photos on the memorial wall. And the Brigade built a memorial obelisk. We were called the “Iron” Brigade, 2nd of the 28th Infantry Division, also known as the “bloody bucket” from WWII. The obelisk was a large tower made of raw iron. Hanging inside of it were the dog tags of all the soldiers who had been killed. The wind turned the tower into a huge chime, thin metal dog tags tinkling softly against iron. I can still hear it.

I've been home for nine months now, and I still find it hard to believe. I live comparatively. Whether I'm tucking the kids into their beds or letting them crash in mine, I stare up at the ceiling and think about how lucky I am. When I get tired of my commute to work, I slap myself and remember the roads in Iraq. When I don't like something my daughter's school does, I remember the schools I visited in Iraq. And when I am having a bad day or moment, it takes me all of one nanosecond to use simple comparison and bring a smile of contentment to my face. Life was good before I went to Iraq. But now grass is more than the green of a well-landscaped cliché; it's like the very carpet of the earth.

I had a four-hour gem of free time the other day, meaning no kids, no work, and no distractions. I chose to spend it in the Salt Lake City library. I've been working on a manuscript, and I wanted to write in a new environment. At home it's too easy to find housework or cleaning to do. Distractions abound.  This library is supremely comfortable, and who doesn't like being surrounded by books? It still feels wonderful to be more concerned with the quality of my free time than with the prospect of a rocket attack on my battalion headquarters in Ramadi.

I was on the fourth floor of the library, looking past downtown at the mountains, writing and listening to Grant Lee Buffalo on my ipod. It was pretty crowded, even for a Sunday. But it was quiet. I felt completely in my zone as the ambient light was filtered by the nimbus clouds raking the mountains and the height of the chair was perfectly suited to the clean wooden desktop; again, a far cry from my dirty desk in my dirty room in Iraq.

There was a guy sitting across from me, jacked into his ipod as well, laptop purring. We were mere feet from each other, but separated by the somewhat diplomatic engineering of the tables. It was only a metal lamp spanning the length of the desk with an artistic four inch frosted glass bottom, but it was an intended border of space and we were respecting that.

I heard and felt a loud concussion. I looked up at the guy across from me. His eyes were huge but he just sat there. I find that hard to do. Even when I witness a car crash or any kind of emergency I feel compelled to help. 

I took my headphones out, went over to the railing, and scanned the crowd below for erratic behavior, the kind of herd-like movement that you might see when a fight breaks out, or a bomb explodes. Nothing. It's too easy to think I'm having a flashback from mortar attacks, or that I'm paranoid because of the recent bombing attempt on this very library. "Too easy" because dismissal must be tempered with a healthy paranoia. It is just when you think it won't happen to you that it might. I should be receiving my concealed weapons permit any day now. I'm excited. I won't always carry a weapon, of course, but sometimes I will.  And the first time some freak decides to start killing innocent people while I'm nearby, I will do everything in my power to put one in his head, and two in his chest.

Sitting in this library being honest with myself, I remember the details of my 18-month deployment as if it just ended. And I think about Iraq a lot lately. In some deep way I miss it. I ponder all the military folks still over there, and I hope they are able to complete their missions and return to their families. I pray for them.

I wish I could thank each veteran for his or her sacrifices this Memorial Day, because I know what a deployment can do to a family. Looking back at my own recent combat experiences, I can only hope that the people of Ramadi, perhaps as they once did, can someday stand in silence on the shores of their own violent history and look forward into the light, at last, of their halcyon years.

MEMORIAL DAY WEEKEND |

May 25, 2007

MEMORIAL DAY WEEKEND

Name: RN Clara Hart

Posting date: 5/25/07

Stationed in: a military hospital in the U.S.

Email: clarahart2@yahoo.com 

It is Memorial Day Weekend and I have suddenly realized a lot of things I never even thought about before. Years ago I was a sheltered Midwest kid whose only contact with the military was an uncle in the Air Force who I saw maybe once every five years. I’m ashamed to say the military never really meant much to me in those days. I simply never gave any thought to the people who fought, were injured and sometimes killed in serving me. As I write that it sounds incredibly harsh, and for that I apologize. 

Somewhere along life’s path I started making friends with people “in the military”. Things truly changed for me on September 11, 2001; a day I will remember clearly for the rest of my life. I lost friends that day, and I looked down at the faces of their beautiful children, who would never know their parents, lost to acts of indescribable evil and cowardice.

Soon after, a friend deployed to OEF, then another to OIF, and I gradually became more aware of the struggles and hardships they faced in serving. Cards, letters, toiletries, chocolates, meals in a can, little luxuries of home I packed in boxes and mailed off. Somehow at some point the military folks began to take up residence in my heart. They became, to me, the ones who fought to prevent future acts of terrorism. The ones who preserved my freedoms. And it was and still is my hope that because of what they did and continue to do I will never again have to experience the kinds of things I saw and lived through on September 11, 2001 and in the days that followed.

Tired and burned out from working trauma and flying medevacs I began to look at other nursing opportunities, and one in particular caught my eye. After many long months (we all know government jobs!) I was on my way to being indoctrinated into the military way of healthcare. They tell me I had to “in process” or “check in”, which really involved wandering around like a lost soul at various installations trying to get signatures on a single piece of paper. I learned quickly to bring a book, find a chair and settle in until they called my name. I learned when they ask “Last four?” they mean the final four digits of your social security number. An enlisted person took pity on me and began drawing a diagram of the rank structure so I’d have an idea of who was what. In the end the easiest solution was to call them all "Ma’am" and "Sir". Can’t go wrong there!

Later I would sit, mouth hanging open, bemusement etched across my face, as those around me discussed topics in what sounded like a foreign language. “Remember Janice? She used to be at USHS? Well she’s PCS’ing to BAMC. She finally got O6." "Smith, oh yeah, he’s TDY at MIEMSO." I still have days were I cannot even begin to understand what they are saying; too bad there’s not a dictionary that translates military acronyms into English.

When I began patient care, at least that was something I knew; familiar ground! In doing patient care I looked around and saw that these patients were respectful, they were polite and they actually said “Thank you”. Whoa!  What a concept! From an inner city trauma center where I had begun to think my name was “Bitch” to a hospital where I have patients who call me "Ma’am" and say, “Thanks for taking care of me." Awesome!

As Memorial Day is a time of reflection, I sit here and reflect on many things. I reflect and remember:

-- My trip to Arlington National Cemetery, section 64, where my friends, victims of the September 11th attack are buried. A trip to lay flowers at the graves and remember.

-- My wounded triple-amputee who told me I was the first woman (other than his mom and sister) to hug him without hesitation.

-- My OIF, who with his wife brought me small trinkets for my birthday and Christmas.  Never, ever, ever had a patient do that before!

-- My wounded special ops guy who hugged me so hard I literally couldn’t breath until he let go. Thank goodness he didn’t hold on long!

-- The angel quilt that sits on my chair, made by the mother of one of my wounded. The box showed up totally unexpected and made me cry so hard the cosmetics ceased to exist. I hate it when the mascara runs!

-- The ones who leave and never say good-bye.

-- The ones we work feverishly on for hours and hours, praying "Please let this work..." but it doesn’t and our hearts are broken.

-- The amputees I ran the Army 10-miler with, all nine of them, and how proud I was to see each and every one of them cross the finish line!

-- The parents I spent hours with educating them on Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) helping them to understand their son could not control some of the responses he was having.

-- The ones I watch struggle to stay in the military, but who are no longer able to do what they once did and so they grieve.

-- The courage, perseverance, and fortitude displayed by every single one of wounded.

-- The ones I watched get married.

-- All the ones who I’ve cradled in my arms and allowed to soak the shoulder on my scrub top, and the ones whose hands I’ve simply held. Sometimes looking in the opposite direction.

-- All the ones I laugh with, pray with and for, and some who decide to hang around and become my friends.

-- All the new friends I have made, many still in harm's way, simply by posting my stories.

There are so many things to remember and reflect on this Memorial Day; three years of working as a civilian nurse in a military hospital have provided a plethora. Let me close by saying to all of you who have served, are currently serving, or will serve -- you have my deepest, most sincere gratitude and appreciation. You will always have a special place in my heart and in my prayers, and I will never again forget or take for granted your service and sacrifices.

DOHA GETS A SECOND CHANCE |

May 24, 2007

DOHA GETS A SECOND CHANCE
Name: LT Carl Goforth
Posting date: 5/24/07
Stationed in: Anbar Province, Iraq
Milblog url: desertflier.blogspot.com
Email: cwgoforth@gmail.com

Framed_goforth_doha1_2"Well, I say we just keep her. She can stay in the barracks with us."

"She is so cute, I would just love to adopt her as my own. Is it okay if we just 'claim' her as ours?"

Just a few of the comments I hear as I wade through medics and corpsman on my way to see Doha. She's the MVP of Charlie Medical this morning and is coming in to get pins extracted from her femur. A few days ago, Tim removed the rod that connected the two parts of her leg together after it was broken during a VBIED attack. This morning, we remove the last of the hardware as the most recent radiograph films show excellent healing.

She lost her father in the attack. He was no ordinary Ramadi citizen, but one of the more influential leaders of this emerging province. His deepFramed_goforth_doha3 commitment to the safety and well-being of Ramadi directly resulted in a phenomenal push for Iraqi Police recruits. This one man takes most of the credit for the robust police force we now have in Ramadi and the surrounding areas of Habbaniya and Khalidiyah. His legacy of faith and passion for his Country still reverberate in this area, as his death resulted in another wave of new recruits that showed up for training after the attack.

We remain encouraged by the positive reports we are receiving about life in the surrounding areas. New markets and restaurants are opening every week, and although Doha was orphaned and her life forever changed on that day, lets hope that a renewed Ramadi and Anbar Province will give her the life she deserves: a life without fear or repression; a life filled with opportunity to take her second chance and do great things...

TO THE PEOPLE OF AFGHANISTAN |

May 23, 2007

TO THE PEOPLE OF AFGHANISTAN
Name: SGT Brandon White
Posting date: 5/23/07
Stationed in: Afghanistan
Hometown: Diamond, OH
Milblog url: www.gwot.us
Email
: soldierboy101st@yahoo.com


Yes, yes. It’s that time of year, time for the obligatory ‘Reflection Post’. You’ve seen them on the milblogs of other soldiers soon leaving theater. They usually contain words such as, “Hope” and “Sustainment” and “Commitment”. They’ll reflect on the good things that they have accomplished and lament the things that could have been. Well I thought I’d try something different for my ‘Reflection Post’. Instead of boring you with the non-complexity that has been my tour, I will instead write an open letter to the people of Afghanistan, who on all accounts are what this fighting-for is really all about.

Dear Afghan Citizens,

It is with a greater respect and better understanding of your culture that I write to you on this day. You and your fellow citizens of this war-torn nation have endured, and on many accounts have overcome, the perils which have been brought upon you since your nation’s inception. During these past few years in which your nation has been occupied by the armies of many other nations, it has been easy for many to see the aspects that you value most in your daily lives.

Things like family commitment, high morals, courage, and a strong work ethic all transcend any lines of religion that may exist. Qualities like these are what will ensure a stable journey as your nation marches toward a better future in this 21st century. In these past ten months, I have been truly awed and inspired at the strength and character that embodies being an Afghan citizen. Many of you are poor. You come home after a 15-hour day working the wheat fields only to learn that a close family member has been kidnapped by the Taliban or even slain by them. Perhaps you own a small shop in your village and have stood by with your weeping family as you watched criminals wearing police uniforms ransack your meager wares and take off with everything that sustains you and your family.

You somehow manage to gather yourself and begin picking up the pieces. Maybe you ask yourself, “Where are the Americans? Why can’t they stop this from happening?” Your neighbor, who lost his family to a roadside bomb, informs you that the Americans are nearby, in the next village, handing out clothing and school supplies. After consoling an angry wife who is now worried about how you can support her, you look past your pride and seek help for your family. You decide to take your family to the Americans to get what you can. You may have no vehicle so you and your family walk, only to get there in time to see the Americans leaving.

Occurences like these only scratch the surface of what life is like in many parts of your great nation. When all is said and done though, you endure and drive on with a renewed spirit and determination with only one goal in mind -- to keep living the life which has been given you. We Americans can sympathize with you in some regard; in my nation’s short history, we have certainly had our share of strife and turmoil. We wish whole-heartedly to give you a life without fear, a life of freedom and relative safety and comfort. Our presence here has nothing to gain except for your hopeful respect and bringing another nation into the international community.

Take with you these words of compassion for fellow human beings and do know that a brighter path already shines forth. The Taliban has lost their foothold in your society, and with your strength and yours alone, they are not able to return to power. I hope one day to return to your nation to see for my own eyes the good that my fellow soldiers and I, working in coordination with you, have done. Until it is so, I bid you good luck and farewell.

FLYING IN BLACKHAWKS |

May 22, 2007

FLYING IN BLACKHAWKS IN AFGHANISTAN
Name: 1SG Troy Steward
Posting date: 5/22/07
Returned from: Afghanistan
Hometown: Amherst, NY
Milblog url: bouhammer.com

I have finally put the finishing touches on my Blackhawk flying video. Most of the footage is from my last helicopter flight in Afghanistan, flying from Gardez to Kabul. This video provides a snapshot into the variety of landscape in Afghanistan. You will see open and barren desert, mountain peaks, and lush green farmland -- the most I had ever seen in this country over the last year. That was the one thing most of us talked about; how much green we saw while on the flight. I promised this video a while ago, but with the trip home I was delayed in getting it finished and posted. I added the Steve Miller Band's "Fly Like an Eagle." I hope you enjoy it.

PRE-MISSION PLAYLIST |

May 21, 2007

PRE-MISSION PLAYLIST
Name: Eddie
Posting date: 5/21/07
Stationed in: Baghdad, Iraq
Hometown: Phoenix, AZ
Milblog url: http://airborneparainf82.blogspot.com
Email: airborneparainf82@gmail.com

For the longest time here in Iraq I went without any kind of music. Well, one day I gave in and bought an IPOD Nano. I got a bunch of songs from all the guys in my platoon and put together several playlists. I figured I would share my "Pre-Mission" playlist. It's what I listen to before I'm about to head out on patrol or on a mission, and it really gets me pumped up and in the mood to go out.

Dem Boyz
--  Boyz N Da Hood
Break Stuff --  Limp Bizkit
America, Fuck Yeah! --  Team America Soundtrack
Freedom Isn't Free --  Team America Soundtrack
Voodoo --  Godsmack
Jesus Walks --  Kanye West
Gotta Stay Fly  --  Three 6 Mafia
Bang Bang  --  Ramstein
Du Hast --  Ramstein
Stomp (Remix)  --  Young Buck
Another One Bites the Dust  --  Queen
Chop Suey  --  System of a Down
Fuck the System  --  System of a Down
Wake Me Up When September Ends  --  Green Day
Let The Bodies Hit The Floor
  --  Drowning Pool
I'm Already There (Messages from Home) --  Lonestar
Down  --  311
Killing in the Name Of  --  Rage Against the Machine
Symphony of Destruction
  --  Megadeath

So there ya go. That is the music that gets this soldier going before he leaves the wire.

ONE OF THOSE DAYS |

May 18, 2007

ONE OF THOSE DAYS
Name: RN Clara Hart
Posting date: 5/18/07
Stationed in: a military hospital in the U.S.
Email: clarahart2@yahoo.com

I knew Monday was not going to be one of my finer days when I put both contacts in the same eye then had to spend 20 minutes prying them apart. In the end it turned out to be one of those days that was overwhelming, irritating, exhilarating and heartbreaking all at the same time. Tired from a busy weekend packed full of “must do” chores, I came sluggishly into the recovery room. Answering called-out greetings from my coworkers, I stowed my things and wandered to the postings board. As I stood there and reviewed the cases it was apparent we had inherited a new crop of OIF wounded over the weekend.

Feet shuffling, I headed to the computer to check the email and assess how many unimportant messages I could immediately delete without bothering to read. Mentally trying to get myself back into the nursing game I looked across the room to see a young man, lying in a hospital bed, yank at the blankets trying to better cover himself. Realizing the room was far colder for him than for me as I wasn’t the one in an “oh so chic” hospital gown, I grabbed a blanket from our blanket warmer and took it over to him. As I tucked it around his shoulders, he thanked me profusely and we started to talk.

Injured in Iraq when he was thrown off balance carrying a heavy load, he was now on the list for surgery to repair a broken leg. He'd arrived from Germany over the weekend only to be told today that his leg was too swollen, so they would not do his procedure until later in the week. He told me it had taken a week to get him back to the States from Germany. He shook his head and said, “I’m really glad to be here and not still in Germany." I asked why. “In Germany I shared a room with two other guys who had each lost a leg. They cried a lot and it was really hard to listen to them. I felt bad for them, but I was glad at the same time. I can’t relate.” He went on to say that one of his buddies from boot camp had been killed while on patrol in Iraq. We chatted a little while longer, then work called me away.

Halfway through my day the charge nurse asked me to cover another nurse’s patient while she went to lunch. “No problem," I replied, as my patient was stable and I was just waiting for her to wake up. The patient in question was also a wounded OIF, injured last year in a mortar attack. Blind in both eyes, with multiple facial, chest, back and arm injuries, he was doing well now and had a great attitude. I introduced myself, putting my hand on his shoulder to let him know where I was. Working to get his pain under control from the surgery he'd just had, we talked and joked. 

He asked me if I was married and had children, and when I responded in the negative he said, “What’s wrong with these men? You’re a good-looking woman." 

“Thank you," I replied. “How bad is the damage to your vision?” 

“Totally gone, can’t even see a glimmer of light”, came his rueful answer, only to be replaced with a grin. “I could just tell you were good looking.”

Smiling, I shook my head as he began to talk about wanting to run the Marine Corp Marathon. 

“Are you running it, Clara?”

“Hell no!” was my ardent response. “I might do the Army 10-miler, but 26 miles? Uh-uh, ain’t noooo way!”  He told me he wanted to run both races, but he needed a partner, and that person he did not have. I asked him how that worked and he explained to me about “tethering” and how this partner would help him with direction and keep him on track. As I bounced back and forth between my two patients Joe kept up a running commentary, keeping me entertained and laughing as we together battled his pain and finally won. 

My coworker returned and as I gave her an updated report Joe called out to me: “Clara?” 

“Yep, I’m here” I said, crossing to the bedside and placing my hand on his shoulder.

“I think I need a good-looking woman to run with me. It would be fun to be tied up to as fine a woman as you, Clara. Why don’t you run with me?” Speechless, I could only stand and stare down at this man who had been through so much. Regaining my composure I told him I would come and visit him in his room tomorrow and we could talk more about it. He seemed satisfied with that answer, and later as he was wheeled down the hall he called out, “See you tomorrow, Clara.”  Somehow I think I will be running the Army 10-miler this year, “tied up” to one of America’s most awesome and amazing sons of freedom.

Because I had spent too much time talking with Joe, I forfeited part of my lunch period.  Inhaling my food in 15 minutes I was back on the floor just in time to hear “Clara, got a patient coming into 14, OIF, arriving now.” I walked back to my corner with a sense of irritation as my patient arrived. Placing him on the monitor, I apologized for my hands being cold. 

“Yeah, they are”, came the soldier's surly reply. As I finished the task, I listened to the report from anesthesia and completed my assessment. Taking in the dressings wrapped around both his legs, the shrapnel wounds that peppered his face, hands and arms, I started to document my findings. 

As I was writing, I was interrupted by my patient, who rudely said, “I want some water.” Since water is never an option for a right-out-of-surgery patient, I started to explain to him that as soon as we had finished some things with his care I would get him some ice.  Belligerently he snapped at me, “I don’t want ice, I want water!” 

My irritation was now at an all time high. I stepped closer to his beside, leaned down and sternly said, “Mark, this is not acceptable behavior. I respond much better to polite, respectful tones of voice and the words 'please' and 'thank you.'" As I held his eyes I added, “We will get along much better if you remember that.”

Turning my back to him I finished reviewing his chart, orders, and writing down my assessment and his vital signs. That completed, I once again asked him if he was in pain. He nodded, and gauging his pain I began to medicate him. As the tech brought me a cup of ice and I scooped it into his mouth he mumbled, “Thank you,ma’am”.  Okay then, here’s to new beginnings. My irritation started to wane until I noticed a note stuck to the front of his chart: “Please change IV when in OR”. Wham!  The irritation and anger returned; I was pissed off that OR/anesthesia had once again not changed an IV while the patient was asleep, and I stomped off to get the necessary supplies. As I returned to the bed another nurse came over.

"Need any help?” she asked. 

“Yeah, definitely,” I grudgingly admitted. “Can you set up his PCA (pain pump) while I start a new IV?  Anesthesia didn’t do it in the OR. Again!"

As she went to work I explained to Mark what I needed to do, reaching out and taking his arm. He thanked me. 

“For what?” I asked. 

“Well, they keep putting the IV in this arm and it’s really sore. You’re the first one to put it in my other arm.” Noticing his arms had no hair I questioned him, he smirked and said, “Yeah, with all the tape you people use you were yanking it all out anyway so I just shaved it off. Makes my life easier and a whole lot less painful.” Again shaking my head in bemusement I set about to do my job. IV completed, PCA hooked back up, I re-evaluated my wounded patient. He told me he was still having significant pain. Maxing out his pain medications, I put another call into anesthesia and was told they would be by to see him.

As we waited, Mark again asked if he could please have some water. After he promised he wouldn’t vomit I gave in and brought him a small cup. Anesthesia arrived, made some adjustments in his pain meds, and said they would be back in 20 minutes. The time passed slowly and Mark continued to complain. Irritated, frustrated and simply wanting my day to end, I took a deep breath and resigned myself to actually having to converse with my patient. Distraction can be a wonderful tool to use when someone is lying in a hospital bed with nothing else to think about other than how bad they feel.

As I medicated him, I asked Mark where he was from. Was his family here with him? (They were, but they’d had to leave today.) Did he like sports? (He did, mostly pro football, basketball and baseball.) Who were his favorite teams? (Too numerous to list.) How long had he been in the military? (Five years.)  As conversation turned to his military career he told me he was on his third tour in Iraq and this time had only been there for six weeks before he was hurt.

Having been told that another squad was dropping something off at their outpost, he gathered his soldiers and moved outside the building to wait. Carefully watching as the other squad drove up and exited the vehicle, Mark moved out from cover to meet them. As he did he and his men, as well as the men in the other squad, were hit with an RPG. 

Medevaced out of Iraq to Germany and then on to the States, it took him almost a week to reach us. He continued to tell me his story, and as he did his voice took on a tone of anger. He looked at me and exclaimed, “I’m embarrassed, pissed off and depressed I got taken out.” 

“Why?”

“Because I’m the leader, I’m supposed to watch out for these guys, the inexperienced guys. They look up to me and here I am the one who gets hurt!” 

“Did you step in front of that RPG?” I asked him. 

He looked at me as if I had grown two heads and snidely. "Of course not.” 

“So what’s there to be embarrassed about? Do you think the other guys are saying, 'Yeah, Mark, what an idiot!  Got hit with an RPG!'" 

“Naw”, came his reluctant reply. 

“Could you have done anything differently?” I pushed on. 

“Yeah I could have gotten more guys killed," and he began to diagram for me how that would have happened.

“In the end, could you have done anything else to prevent what happened?”

“This just SUCKS!” he cried. 

“Absolutely it does!  One hundred percent sucks!” I commiserated.

His face started to get red. “I’m stuck in this fucking bed all the time. I can’t even get up to take a shit! I gotta go in a pan and then wait for someone to come to get rid of it. I’m supposed to be the one in charge, the one responsible, and here I am, in the hospital.”  The angry words poured from his mouth as a single tear trailed down his cheek. Lowering the siderail on the bed, I wrapped my arms around him and held him, rubbing his shoulder and wiping the tears that he could not keep from escaping. As I held him I felt his composure slowly return.

“Thank you” he simply said, I nodded my head to show I had heard and then turned away.

“Hey Clara, do you think dinner will be there for me when I get back to my room?” I later heard him ask.

“I’ll make sure of it”, I promised. Time passed and I was able to transfer him back to the floor. As I gave report, I told his nurse what had transpired here in the PACU and how upset he was. She thanked me for the heads-up, and assured me she would keep an eye on him and make sure he had dinner waiting for him. As Mark was rolled out of the recovery room he asked if I would come visit him.

“Of course I will."  With a quiet swish of the doors he was gone. I cleaned up my bay and walked over to the nursing station to finally sit down. When one of the other nurses looked at me with a question in his eyes I said, “I hate it when they cry."

He nodded his head. “Yeah, I do too.” 

That evening I was sitting at home talking on the phone with my significant other. “How was your day?” he asked.

“Amazing."

ABRAM'S OASIS |

May 17, 2007

ABRAM'S OASIS
Name: LT Carl Goforth
Posting date: 5/17/07
Stationed in: Anbar Province, Iraq
Milblog url: desertflier.blogspot.com
Email: cwgoforth@gmail.com

The Al Asad Airbase is located just a few short clicks from the Euphrates River about 180 kilometers due west from Baghdad. The base is built on an historically biblical site: The local population has maintained for thousands of years that Abram, Sarai, and Lot stopped here and camped for a short time while travelling from Ur to Haran. This spot is revered, one of the reasons Saddam Hussein built his premier airbase here. It is well known that he spent a lot of time on this base, and used it to train Iraqi Olymic teams alongside the military.

The oasis is tucked away on a protected area of the base, and is only a two-mile run from the barracks. Standing here felt surreal. What a privilege to have somewhere quiet to retreat to from time to time, a place that is sacred to Christian, Muslim, and Jewish faiths alike. The picture can only capture a fraction of how beautiful this spot is. The date grove surrounding the oasis is lush, full of color, and bursting with life.Framed_goforth_hi_oasis2

WHAT HOME IS |

May 15, 2007

WHAT HOME IS
Name: SGT Brandon White
Posting date: 5/16/07
Stationed in: Afghanistan
Hometown: Diamond, OH
Milblog url: www.gwot.us
Email: soldierboy101st@yahoo.com

As I watch the second hand tick by ever so slowly, I cannot help but think of home. What is home? Being in various overseas assignments and combat tours, one starts to develop a greater understanding of exactly what constitutes “home”. Is it this place that I take my boots off in? The location on a map where my lawnmower resides? Is it where I grew up?

Home is much more than that, I’m afraid. Foremost, there is plenty that home is not. Home is not wearing 40 lbs of protective equipment and taping up taillights to make a run to the gas station. Home is not scanning the horizon for snipers or men carrying RPGs when I go out to pick up the morning paper. Home isn’t digging a cathole in the backyard to use the “latrine”. Home isn’t rain-soaked sleeping bags on cots. It definitely isn’t off-roading just to avoid the main roads. And it definitely isn’t a minefield-laden desert.

Home as I know it is comfort. Home is bundled up on the couch with the missus. It is a place without constant danger. A bubble of sorts, where family and friends coexist without the need for automatic weapons. Home is a place where neighbors ask if you saw the Indians game instead of detonating an explosive device that is wrapped around their chest. Home is using the acronym DVD instead of IED. Home is hearing a news clip on the radio about a cat stuck in a tree and the heroic dog who saved it, not hearing, “Four KIA, two WIA, grid location…”

Home is a place that I wish to get back to.

Years in the Army: 7      Years overseas: 4

THE BIRD |

THE BIRD
Name: Adrian B.
Posting date: 5/15/07
Stationed in: Afghanistan

Getting on a flight is never simple. First you have to draw up a list of who’s going. Then you stage the baggage. Next you confirm the list, which more often than not involves adding or dropping people from your original list, then fix the baggage problems this creates. An hour before the flight you and the rest of the passengers walk down to some holding area, where you sit around waiting for the order to load up. Finally, you load the plane and try not to think about the logistical hassle that’s sure to hit as soon as you land.

And so it was, after three flights on increasingly unreliable aircraft, that I found myself waiting with 30 other soldiers about 10 feet behind a C-47 Chinook. The Chinook, popularly known as the “S***hook,” is a helicopter with two sets of blades. If the Chinook were a bug, it would be a bumblebee or a giant, improbable beetle. Nobody likes flying in them, because they look like just the kind of thing an insurgent would want to shoot at -- a fat, ponderous target. They’re also not the most comfortable ride; very bumpy. But they can land on a dime, which made it the perfect choice for a small FOB up by the border of Pakistan.

While we were waiting for the order to load, and I was busily contemplating the various ways in which I might meet with an ignominious and inglorious end, I noticed a bird fly into a vent on the back of the Chinook. One of the NCOs, who enjoys provoking my unease, decided to liven the moment at my expense:

“You think that bird’s going to want to make a nest?”

I was pretty tired, and the idea of the bird pecking around in the tangle of wires and tubes that was our lifeline was not pleasant.

“I’ll go shoo it away.”

I walked up to the back of the Chinook and banged on the back a couple times. Out flew the bird, and I moved back to the group. This was to prove only the prelude to a battle of resolve between myself and the bird; as soon as I moved away from the Chinook, the bird flew back inside the helicopter.

“He’s back, sir. Must like it in there.”

“Let it go,” I thought. “It’s just a bird. I’m sure the bird was doing this before you got to the helicopter, and it didn’t bother you then. Let the bird do its thing. Screw it.”

Immediately after, I reconsidered: “No. The bird must not be allowed to nest in the helicopter.” And so it was decided. I walked back to the Chinook and banged on the side until the bird flew out. This time, though, I stayed put. The bird returned, but not to the aircraft; to a point about three feet away, from which it cocked its head, and watched me. We kept our positions until we were given the order to load. The episode seemed generally positive, from a superstitious angle.

Our trip was uneventful if not particularly smooth. We landed and disembarked without the logistical hassle I'd expected would be waiting. Not two hours after settling in, we received our unofficial greeting from the Taliban — a couple of poorly-aimed rockets landed 1km outside the FOB. We pushed them back with artillery and sent out a patrol to make sure they weren’t loitering, thus settling into the established routine here. The Taliban want in, and we keep them out. But they’re out there, just across the border; watching and waiting.

A DAY OF FIRSTS |

May 14, 2007

A DAY OF FIRSTS
Name: Teflon Don
Posting date: 5/14/07
Stationed in: Ramadi, Iraq
Milblog url: acutepolitics.blogspot.com

Friday was a day of firsts for me. First time driving a Cougar, first time riding with EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal), first overnight stay in an Iraqi house, and first time I didn't have my camera on mission. The last was the one I regret. I was unsure about driving the Cougar -- it's a lot bigger than the RG-31 I've driven before, and the visibility is considerably more limited. There was no one else to do it though, so I agreed to my "trial by fire". When we set out, I had no idea of how accurate that phrase would become.

The mission started easily enough. We were headed down to Amiriya to clear a route back north along the river, in support of Marine infantry and Army cavalry searching for caches and bad guys. We mounted up and headed out the gate very early, dawn still hours over the horizon. By the time we arrived at the mission start point, a pale pink glow was spreading across the sky. We passed through Amiriya and started up the river road. Just meters past the turn was the first IED, which we quickly cleared under skies already starting to turn grey with an approaching storm.

As we continued driving, the EOD tech turned to me and said, "This doesn't look like Iraq at all. It's more like something back in Ohio." Indeed, the scene along the river made me forget for a moment that I was in the desert. Tall trees grew along the road, and dense green undergrowth lined the elevated roadbed. The rain had started and was growing heavier -- the wind was beginning to whip the drops sideways. The monsoon hit just as the lead truck found the second IED. They called up a tripwire stretched across the road, and I turned to ask the EOD tech which war, exactly, we were fighting.

IED #3 blew up underneath one of the trucks, marking the first time that day all hell would break loose. The driver was okay, but we now had a truck that needed to be recovered, on a road barely wide enough to accommodate one vehicle. We moved most of the convoy off onto a side road, and brought up the wrecker. Two Bradleys moved up to the rear of our patrol, and veered off into the fields to bypass both us and the blast hole. They came back to the main road just a few hundred meters north of us, and the trail Bradley promptly scored a near miss from another IED.

EOD started getting calls from the dismount Marine infantry moving up on our rear, and the techs began moving from site to site responding to requests. They reduced another IED in a controlled detonation, and then moved off to examine IED-making material that another group found. Just to our rear, a Marine stepped on a booby trap set to target dismount patrols. EOD moved off once again to clear the site, and the Marine unit began setting up a MEDIVAC site for the wounded in the field adjacent to us. (Note: We checked today, and all those guys are okay.) After three hours, four IEDs, and one vehicle recovery, we were on our way again.

The blast holes from the Bradley and our vehicle effectively blocked the road to our forward, so we had no choice but to follow the field route the Bradleys had taken. I was the closest to the side road in the Cougar, so I lead out towards the bypass. Iraqi farms typically use flood irrigation, so the fields are lined with ditches. The first such ditch was no problem -- I got around it with some maneuvering. The second was a deep double ditch, which I took at a slight cut, at EOD's direction. The truck bottomed out as it hit the second ditch, and slid back into the hole. Stuck. Behind me, the RG was in the process of winching out of the first ditch. Great. Another hour, a lot of digging, and some help from a Bradley later, we were moving again.

Once back on the road, we got another call from the infantry. The had found more IEDs on the section of road we were unable to clear. The BUFFALO and EOD went back to reduce them. With the IEDs taken care of, we moved to confront our next problems: We had been on mission for a solid twelve hours, and our Humvee security detail was running low on fuel. To add to the matter, intel reports were coming in warning us to expect strong insurgent resistance to our north. It took nearly another hour to refuel the Humvees from the Bradleys, and we pressed forward yet again.

The infantry had moved slightly ahead of us, and as we caught up, we watched them digging caches of weapons and munitions out of the riverbank. A Marine sapper tossed a demolition charge into a small hole, and the patrol quickly moved off. We followed, and a few minutes later there was a boom and puff of smoke behind us. I thought nothing of it until the next boom threw up a waterspout out in the river, and Marines starting scrambling up the embankment to the other side of the road.

Incoming mortar fire sucks, especially when the bad guys are on the far bank 500 meters away. More rounds began to explode on the bank and in the grass; the trucks in front of us caught the exhaust from the mortar tube and began to pour machine-gun fire across the river. Somewhere behind us, Bradleys opened up with the whoomp-whoomp-whoomp of 25mm chain gun fire. Bullets flew both ways across the water, glinting and sparkling when shots dipped too low and caught the ripples, then abruptly ceased coming from the far side. The Marine landowner on the far side called up and asked us to mark the site with tracer fire for their troops moving in. We did so, and moved out, past the groups of flex-cuffed captives moving south into the gathering night.

By the time dusk fell, we had covered less than one third of the route. The Marines wanted to do the rest, but didn't want to move dismounts without us on the roads for clearance and heavy gun support. Neither we nor the Marines could go much longer without some rest, and the Marines were loath to sweep the riverbank at night. After some discussion among the respective leadership, the Marines settled on a spot in which to set up a firm point and spend the night. It was 1930: we had been on the move for 17 hours.

We pulled into the open space between the two houses we were to occupy for the night at about 2000. The house set aside for us and our Marine security detail was single-story cinderbrick of perhaps 1500 square feet, with a walled flat roof. The Marine company that had been moving dismounted alongside our patrol made their sleeping arrangements in the second house -- a split-level two-story building, also with a walled roof. Most Iraqi houses have the same flat roof and low wall, and can be expediently converted into nighttime firm points with reasonably good fighting positions.

Both houses had obviously been vacated hurriedly. Food was left halfway prepared inside the outdoor kitchen, and laundry still fluttered from the line. Someone said the owners had tested positive for explosives residue and been arrested. That could be true, or the Marines could have simply sent the families off to another house for the night with a few extra dollars in their pockets.

We gathered our gear inside our assigned room, and broke out cartons of MREs and water. We ate quickly in the darkness -- the better to secure a chunk of rug on which to spend the night. I pulled the first roving guard shift, and spent the next two and a half hours pacing an Iraqi farmyard and listening to the distant rattle of gunfire somewhere north along the river, punctuated by the deeper whoomp of Bradleys firing.

The operations officer for the cavalry's parent unit came by and mentioned that troops pushing south towards us had hit multiple IEDs, and lost men, but "there wasn't much to be done, because they don't have route clearance." I wished for the hundredth time that there were more of us. He also mentioned that sporadic fighting continued all up and down along the river, as well as out into the desert on the main road south.

The houses were set off the road about 150 meters, and were surrounded on three sides by farmland, with a palm grove stretching away to the south. We were very close to the river, so the ground was moist with springtime, and the air smelled of plants both growing and dying. To the west, pens of goats and cows added their noises to the air. Beyond the animal pens, a field of tomatoes and then of grass unfolded. Far off in the western sky, illumination flares rose in a constant stream of orange, in harmony with the distant sound of incoming American artillery.

The air was thick with musky scent -- the product of an already long mission. The sharper smell of crushed vegetation mixed with the dank odor of animal manure and that of tired men. It was a bouquet that will define Iraq for me someday, the smell of living and sweating and dying.

Inside, the house was a tangle of sleeping men. Chemlights spread their ghostly glow from the corners in a vain attempt to help the changing guards avoid stepping on their sleeping buddies. The room in which I spent the next five hours in fitful sleep was large enough to accommodate all thirty members of our patrol, and yet the only decoration was a poster on the inside wall that simply said "Allah" in fancy calligraphic script.

The house itself smelled of animals of some sort, perhaps dogs, and a pungent tarry smell. It bothered some, while others seemed not to even notice. I inhaled and remembered sleeping on my grandparents' floor as a child and smelling my grandfather's beloved cats. That grandfather is my only surviving grandparent, and the only other member of my family to have walked the sands of the Middle East. I fell asleep thinking of him, and of home.

First call was at 0500. I rolled over in the blackness and felt for my breakfast MRE and my last cigarette, carefully nestled between my ammo pouches. I had emptied out the backpack that I normally bring on missions before the previous mission, because the lead truck had no room to spare for it. On this morning I missed that bag more than anything. It had all the essentials that I now needed: a spare pack of smokes, clean socks in a ziplock baggie that keeps them dry, and a small jar of sleep-replacing vitamin B12, as well as some other comforts. This will be the last time I take crap about my bag.

The mission was only one-third complete, but we would be turning around and heading out the way we came. There were too many IEDs, too many caches, and too little time to finish out the route. We refuled the smaller trucks from the disabled vehicle to ensure we wouldn''t run short of gas if the day dragged on again. We knew we'd find bombs, replaced in the road now behind us, so we prepared for a long day and set out at dawn.

As the day progressed we found more IEDs, and EOD was again called off to the sides to deal with bombs the infantry had found. Periodic explosions would announce the reduction of another IED and the impending return of the EOD team. The bombs that EOD judged too damaging to blow near their surrounding buildings got stashed in the back of the truck. I didn't wear a seat belt the entire second day -- it seemed a little ridiculous to worry about your neck when the secondary blast from the backseat cargo would turn you to mush before you could feel the IED hitting the truck.

One bomb was burrowed in, nearly four feet from the roadside, underneath the asphalt. It was a Russian 152mm artillery shell -- 90lbs of explosive and steel waiting the chance to turn into deadly shrapnel. Along with it we found eleven liter bottles of diesel fuel; over the radio someone joked, "Well, at least we solved our fuel problem." When we dug it up, someone had already tried to set it off. The blasting cap on the bomb was blown, but the IED had not gone off. Someone got very lucky.

Beauty and humor are the two things that most easily make me forget that I'm in Iraq. The final push back into Amiriya had both. We were rolling down a narrow, rutted road through the middle of a field of wheat, starting to turn tan and gold from the sun. Lines of Marines and Iraqi Police stretched away on either side scouring the ground for hints of war, despite having their finish line in sight. Bradleys clanked behind the infantry, pushing stalks of wheat into the soft earth. I looked out over the line of troops -- Marines in digitalized desert MARCAM, and IPs in old woodland BDUs. In the middle was one Army soldier in ACUs, sticking out like a redneck at a fashion show.

We spent the next few hours uneventfully, back in familiar territory clearing the last roads between us and home. One last detail remained before we rolled back into Camp Falluja: We had to destroy all the explosives I was carting around in the back of the truck. We stopped in the semi-secure "pink" zone on the gate road, and set up the blast. Artillery shells, rockets, signal flares, bulk explosive, and a healthy helping of C-4 all went into a pile that totaled something close to 450 pounds, 200 of that explosive. I pulled the initiator on the time fuse, and we stepped back over the berm, drove down the road to our desert amphitheatre, and watched the fireworks. The blast was perfect -- all the ordnance detonated and left behind a six-foot crater with a small hill in the center.

We rolled inside the berms and barb wire of Camp Falluja at a little after 1730. We had been out for almost 39 hours, and got back just in time for dinner. We were credited with six IED finds over the course of the mission. EOD reduced four more that the infantry found on side roads. Between IEDs and caches, we and EOD destroyed over 1200 pounds of ordnance.

It was a good day.

THE TRUE COST |

May 11, 2007

THE TRUE COST
Name: Eddie
Posting date: 5/11/07
Stationed in: Baghdad, Iraq
Hometown: Phoenix, AZ
Milblog url: airborneparainf82.blogspot.com
Email: airborneparainf82@gmail.com

A few days ago I was sitting in here on the computer getting ready to post some stupid blog about how boring life is now, when they came in and told me we were under communications blackout and I had to get off. Those of you who have been deployed know what this is.
Our base goes under a comm blackout when someone from the base has died and the military wants to make sure they are the ones to contact the family of the deceased before word gets out from soldiers via the internet or phones.

I remember feeling bad at the time because I hate to have to hear about soldiers dying here, and when there's a comm blackout it really hits close to home. This base I stay at is not very big, so there are not that many soldiers here. When one of them dies, it really lets you know how real things are.

After I left the internet I went back to my room. I hadn't been there more than 20 minutes when they came in and told everyone in my platoon to get our stuff on and get the trucks ready because we were heading out NOW! We weren't supposed to head out until the next morning, so we all started wondering what was going on, but no one knew. We had our assumptions though, that something was going down or had gone down with some unit in our battallion. We got our stuff ready, and shortly after getting the trucks loaded up we were all told to go back inside. Okay, well maybe we're going to be told to stand down. My entire platoon gathered in this one room.

Then guys from the other platoons in my company started coming in and we found out that our First Sergeant wanted to speak with us all. OMG! The room was silent, because we all knew what he wanted to say.

After a few minutes our First Sergeant came in and shut the door. He wore a terrible expression on his face. We all knew what was coming, just wondering who. And sure enough the words came from his mouth:

"I just wanted to put out to you guys before the rumors got started. Today SGT Tollett was out with the CO and was shot in the head. He didn't make it."

The room became a dungeon of fear, anger, sorrow and pain. I couldn't believe what I had just heard. I had just seen him right before he had left and had talked with him briefly. How? Why could this have happened? What happened? So many questions, but the same end result. One of our fellow soldiers, a brother in arms, and a friend, lost his life. We weren't particularly close, but I had come to be friends with him during this deployment. I know people have nothing but good things to say about people after their death, but this man truly was a great man. He was loved by everyone in the company, and I truly mean that from the depths of my soul.

This really put things into persepective. There wasn't much that could have been done in the situation to have prevented this. It was a lucky stray round that found him and hit in a lethal spot. It could have been anyone else. That's the sad thing about war. There's never knowing who or when or what or how. It simply comes down to if it's your time or not. And even though we all came over here knowing that this is war, and that this is a real possibility here, it still caught everyone off guard. Until that day no one from our unit had been killed. I'm sure others as well as I held onto that slight hope that all of us would somehow make it home from this place. Maybe I was naive to believe this, but we all now know the true cost, and it's not something that can be measured in dollars, or planes, or time.

All I know now is that there is a score to be settled. This has become more personal that it ever was, and I feel sorry for the future SOBs that cross our path.

                                          SGT Noman Lane Tollett
                                       6 May 1976 - 28 April 2007

                          Framed_eddie_tollet_3
In memory of SGT Tollett: You will never be forgotten and will always have a place with us. Watch down from heaven and be proud of your boys, as we are proud of you and your sacrifice.

DAY FLIGHT |

May 10, 2007

DAY FLIGHT
Name: LT Carl Goforth
Posting date: 5/10/07
Stationed in: Anbar Province, Iraq
Milblog url: desertflier.blogspot.com
Email: cwgoforth@gmail.com

Framed_goforth_dayhigroupI flew my first day mission a few days ago. An IP (Iraqi Police) came in with a gunshot wound to his abdomen. After three hours in the OR, we had to remove his spleen and part of his pancreas. There was shrapnel lodged near his vertebra, but we were able to safely remove it without causing any neurological compromise. He ended up losing a lot of blood before and during the case, and we couldn't wait until nightfall to fly him to Al Asad.

D-squared, Eric, and Mark help me package him up for the flight. Then I drop the "nine line" with the evacuation team and we wait for aeromedical evacuation support. If it happens to be a day flight, the Marine Corps takes responsibility and will usually send an H-46 Sea Knight. At night, the Army responds with a Blackhawk that is specially outfitted with an "H carousel" for medical evacuation.

Sure enough, as the little black dots race into our helo pad, a Sea Knight touches down so I can fly my patient to Al Asad. As an escort, a Cobra Gunship touches down next to us.Framed_goforth_dayhiflight

The patient was stable for the flight. He isn't out of the woods, so to speak, but we have a good feeling he will do well. The Army 399th CSH at Al Asad is an impressive facility with dedicated staff and deep resources.

The Iraqi landscape is beautiful, and I was glad I finally got the opportunity to see it in daylight. Too bad my camera batteries died on the helo pad right before takeoff. The photo ops were excellent on my return flight, since my only responsibility was to sightsee.

The desert from 2000 feet in the air looked like a scene from the movie Dune; every conceivable shade of tan, with burnt orange streaks running through numerous steppes and crevasses as if it were trying to carve out its own existence. We stick to the decidedly unpopulated routes for obvious reasons, but can't completely avoid small villages and outposts. I saw a few bombed-out abandoned homesteads, and also a few outposts along a major highway that were thriving with activity and trucking. Most of the architecture is simple: concrete block or other hardened material. Some buildings, however, were quite striking: they looked inspired by the Georgian Revival style. Two-story, with a large oval overhang in front supported by 4-6 colonnades, and a grand porch mirroring the overhang.

The Cobra gunship flew as our wingman, to the right and just aft (behind), occasionally veering off to evaluate potential threats. The sun was positioned perfectly, and I could see both of our shadows silhouetted on the desert floor as we raced along to Asad.Framed_goforth_dayhismile

Another interesting sight was an abandoned train station. The station itself was completely intact, having escaped damage from the war. But the access road from the main highway had rocket craters that perfectly prevented vehicles from getting from the road to the station. I was thinking about how it was going to be cheaper and easier to repair the road compared rebuilding the station...I'll take the little victories along with any big ones that come our way.

DISTANT DEATH HITS HOME |

May 09, 2007

DISTANT DEATH HITS HOME
Name: Eric Coulson
Posting date: 5/9/07
Stationed in:
Ramadi, Iraq
Hometown: St. Louis, MO
Milblog url: badgersforward.blogspot.com
Email: badger.six@gmail.com

This post treads on sacred ground. I am well aware of that. It has been some time in the making and has been subject to editing and review by several people, including Soldiers that were there that night. It should be obvious, but I will make it explicit. The family of this Soldier has been notified. I believe, from their comments to the news media, they would be okay with this story. The Task Force should be proud, in a dark hour, the leadership and the Soliders stood up. A final note, I find writing and reading in the first person compelling, but this is not my story, I am simply the camera.

“All personnel with O positive blood report to Charlie Med.”

The Big Voice boomed from the loudspeakers around camp. I was sitting in my office contemplating bed, irritated that my civilian internet service was down for the second day in a row. Then one of my radio operators piped up.

“Sir, another company has been hit. The request for blood is for our Task Force. They have also called for a communications blackout.”

Ah –- a communications blackout. My lack of civilian internet is now moot. Since I have O positive blood, I decide to head over to Charlie Med.

“I’m going to the Charlie Med,” I announce.

“Sir, they won’t let you give blood, you have had a tattoo in the last year.” A reference to the tattoos a number of us received together before we left for Iraq.

“OK, well I am still heading over.”

I stop in my First Sergeant’s room.

“First Sergeant. I’m heading over to Charlie Med. Another company took a hit.”

“Roger that Sir.”

It’s 2147.

I head out the back door and turn to my left, heading down the walkways we have built. I run into another Company Commander, his First Sergeant, and one of the Staff Officers. We are all headed in the same direction. We move out at a brisk pace.

“Anyone know what happened? I have not seen a SIGACT yet,” I ask.

“No. Just that they got hit and their security element brought the wounded Soldier back.”

In truth I was not overly concerned at this point. We have had plenty of Soldiers go to Charlie Med as a precautionary measure. The request for blood obviously was a concern, but it could be just another opportunity to fill the blood bank. It’s of little use to jump to conclusions and automatically assume the worst.

We walked, mostly in silence, contemplating what we might find at Charlie Med. Approximately 100m from Charlie Med, we run into a Task Force Soldier headed back.

“If you are going to give blood, they are turning people away.”

“Thanks for the heads up,” we say.

We still want to see what, if anything, we can do.

If they have decided to turn potential donors away, that has to be a good sign, right?

We arrive shortly thereafter, over 100 Soldiers in line to donate blood. Soldiers and Marines from all over the Camp. It is gratifying to see all the people not part of our Task Force turning out to help.

With the need for blood alleviated, we find the Battalion Commander and the Company Commander of the wounded Soldier. They are both moving in and out of the treatment area. We wait around, both to gather accurate information and to stand by, ready to render assistance in anyway we can.

Soon a medic rushes past with a pint of blood. And then another medic and another pint of blood. And again. These medics swiftly move away from the patient care area back to the blood bank and return with more plastic pints of dark red life. They make this trip several times. I can’t help but count...and worry about the significance of the wounds that this Soldier sustained in order to be receiving this quantity of blood.

The report from the BC and my friend, this Soldier’s Company Commander, is that he is in surgery and it will be at least 45 minutes before he is out.

Some of the Task Force leadership makes the tough decision to return to the Battalion area; there are still missions going on. With all my Soldiers in the wire I decide to stay.

The next several hours are like any you have experienced at a hospital when a loved one is in surgery. It’s a big family, dirty and uniformed, but a family nonetheless. The “older” family members, whether by rank or age, move from group to group. The Soldiers have questions, but we have few satisfactory answers. At this point we know little, but the fact that surgery is still going on is a good sign. He’s fighting and the doctors and nurses are doing all they can.

Men fight back tears, they seek solace in each other’s company. As medical personnel come and go, we ask questions and receive the typical noncommittal answers. One can hardly fault them for that; no one wants false hope, only to have that dashed later. We are all adults here and we know what the stakes are.

Finally, the surgery is complete. The Soldier's Commander and I are invited into the surgical suite, such as it is. Surgery was performed on an elevated stretcher, empty blood bags litter the floor, as do other remnants of the procedures. His wounds and the other incisions made to repair his wounds temporarily bound with antiseptic materials. The medics lift him gently into blankets and a specialized covering for his transport to the Combat Support Hospital (CSH pronounced “cash”).

They have bundled him up, the oxygen and portable respirator, the various blood products and IVs secure and attached for the trip to the CSH. A blanket surrounds his head. His chest rises and falls in cadence with the respirator’s clicks. Once he is set, he looks safe and secure, warm. Having just seen his injuries, I know that he has a long way to go if he is going to make it, not a sure bet at all at this point. Yet I am comforted by his appearance, now ready for the MEDEVAC flight.

My friend, his Commander, leans down and whispers to his Soldier for several minutes. I am deeply moved by this simple, kind act. I place my hand on my friend’s back and talk to one of the doctors at the same time.

“Doc, obviously we can tell what the worst case scenario is. What’s the best case scenario?”

“He lives.”

My comfort at his appearance is gone.

The helicopter is inbound. Four medics carefully lift the stretcher and move out to the ambulance. We follow him out.

The flight nurse ensures he has blood, equipment, and a weapon as he mounts the ambulance. The medics slide the Soldier in and we are joined by the BC, the Sergeant Major, and it appears the bulk of his Company.

We walk behind the ambulance as we make the 100m journey to the MEDEVAC helipad. Some people are talking in hushed tones, but for the most part we are silent. There is nothing more to say. We are all lost in our own thoughts, prayers, and questions.

I think about a myriad of different things. The funeral-like procession out to the flight line bothers me, but that is because it seems so appropriate. I wonder about this young Soldier’s family about whom I know nothing. I want them to know that people were there with him, that he was treated both professionally and kindly, and that his adopted military family, at least for this mission, was around him. And of course, I wonder about the war, because at this very moment, the big picture arguments seem so very hard hold onto, as this young Soldier struggles to hold onto life.

We are now on the flight line. The medics hold us up and have us all remove our headgear and tell us that once the chopper is inbound we need to seek cover behind the berm or the ambulance. And now we wait.

I am accustomed to long waits for helicopter rides in theatre, but as is appropriate for the seriousness of this situation, it is only moments before I hear the UH-60 Black Hawk. It is flying without lights, but the moon is such that the blackness of the chopper is set off against the indigo of the night sky. I stand long enough to watch the bird come in, only crouching down and shielding my eyes from the blowing rock and dust at the last minute.

Once the dust settles, I look up. I see the crew chief dismount and a soft green hue illuminate the passenger compartment. Then the door slides open. The Cobra gunship that has escorted the Black Hawk settles in behind the MEDEVAC bird, waiting for the signal to go.

Now that the helicopter door is open, the medics open up the ambulance and slide the litter out. They do it quickly and efficiently, but gently and respectfully. No time to waste, they move to the bird with the flight nurse in tow. He is on and secured so fast it is surprising to one who expects a longer wait for military movements to begin.

The Black Hawk pilot throttles up and the dust begins to fly. The Black Hawk rises into the sky quickly and sets a course for the CSH, the guardian angel gunship in tow. We watch the Black Hawk until it disappears and becomes one with the night sky.

It’s 0015.

We congregate at the edge of the helipad and the chaplain offers a prayer for the Soldier, his family, the Soldiers here, and the medical professionals that treated him. With that concluded, we begin to walk back to the Battalion area.

The Company of the injured Soldier heads off for their area. Those of us not in the Company decide to let them come together and support each other as a family.

Walking back to Badger Main, I realize just how cold it is and I am grateful for my jacket.

When I return to the TOC, it seems inappropriate to go to sleep, which seems too comfortable, and I do not feel like comfort is something I should seek right now. But there is nothing more I can do and tomorrow is another busy day.

I settle down into my sleeping bag and realize how draining the last several hours have been. I quickly fall asleep. It’s 0100.

When I awaken, it is particularly dark. I hear the coffee percolating and look at the clock; it’s 0730. The only image I have in my head is of the Soldier on the litter. I put on some shorts, slide into my shower shoes and my fleece, and I grab my coffee cup and fill it with the hot brew. I head out the door to the other Company TOC. I want to see if there is more information available.

It has rained in the night and I almost slip and fall. Hot coffee splashes out of my cup hitting my very cold feet. It is very quiet as I enter the other TOC. I approach the NCO on duty.“Any word from the CSH?”

“You probably want to speak to the Commander or the First Sergeant, Sir. They have both stepped out to speak with the company.”

That tells me everything I need to know. The only other answers would have been no or he’s stable/improving or something else noncommittal and vague.

“Alright,” I say, “I’ll catch up with them later.”

I leave and the NCO comes out the door after me.

“Sir...We just got a phone call. I’m not supposed...”

“Sergeant. Thanks. I understand. You are doing your job responsibly. You don’t need to tell me a thing. I already know.”

I come back into the TOC looking for my First Sergeant. He’s out on the main board walk. I step out the front door and motion him over.

“Yes, Sir?”

“I was just over in the other Company TOC. They just go a phone call from the CSH and the Commander went down to talk to the company. Let’s get ready.”

“Roger that Sir. We’ll wait until it’s official.”

“Roger.”

BEAR, HAMID, MIKE AND DREW PONDER THE UNIVERSE |

May 08, 2007

BEAR, HAMID, MIKE AND DREW PONDER THE UNIVERSE
Name: CAPT Doug Traversa
Posting date: 5/8/07   
Returning from: Afghanistan
Milblog url: traversa.typepad.com
Email: traversa@gimail.af.mail

Shortly before we left Afghanistan, we had another of our justly famous conversations about universal truths, and this time Mike and Drew got to participate also. Poor Hamid, his brain hurts enough when I talk to him; imagine the migraine he must have had after talking to the three of us. I don’t remember how we got on the topic, but we ended up discussing freedom of religion.

“People in Afghanistan don’t need the freedom to switch religions; no one would leave Islam,” Hamid assured us.

“Well, how would you know? Right now it’s like having a gun held to your head. Remain Muslim or die. Your government forces everyone to remain Muslim. Leaving the faith is never a realistic possibility for anyone, unless they flee the country,” I countered. 

“But no one would ever leave Islam. It is the perfect religion.” Hamid was very confident on this point.

“Hamid, you’ve never even read the Qur’an. Don’t tell me it’s the perfect religion.”

Mike joined in at this point. “I find it amazing that so many people here have not read their most holy book. I’m not talking about people who can’t read, I’m talking about those who know how, but never bother.”

I piled on. “Why haven’t you read it?  It’s the most important book in your life, and you’ve never read it.”

Hamid didn’t hesitate.  “My mullah tells me what is in the Qur’an.”

[Yes, I know, we’ve had this discussion before.  Please bear with us.]

Mike (did I mention he is a lawyer?) pounced on this. “So you are basing your entire set of beliefs on what one man tells you? Why would you do that? What if he’s wrong?”

“If he is wrong, someone can say something in the mosque.”

I had to jump on this one. “Hamid, has anyone ever stood up and said that the mullah was wrong about anything?”

He paused, then shook his head. “No. But they could if he was wrong.”

“Hamid,” I disagreed, “No one is going to contradict the mullah. They are probably afraid, or think he knows better than they do. That’s why no one ever disagrees with him. But let me ask you something else. Do you think it would be a good idea to change the law in Afghanistan to allow people to change their religion?”

Hamid seemed puzzled. “No one would do that. Islam is the perfect religion.”

“That doesn’t matter. Would you change the law if you could?”

“No,” he said simply.

“Why not? What are you afraid of?” I demanded.

“We don’t want people to go to hell.”

Mike joined in here. “In our country, you are free to worship as you please. The government doesn’t tell you what to believe or how to worship. I could make up a new religion today if I wanted to, and they wouldn’t stop me.”

“Yes,” I added. “I could worship that chair if I wanted to.”

Hamid gave us one of his exasperated looks. “But the government must stop you from doing that. It is crazy.”

“No,” insisted Mike, “in America, the government is forbidden to interfere in your worship, even if it seems crazy. We believe in the marketplace of ideas. If you want to convince someone that your religion is true, you must do it by words, not by force. If you had that freedom over here, people might not stay Muslim.”

“No, no one would leave Islam.” Hamid was firm.

Drew finally joined in. “How do you know? Let me illustrate. Suppose you went to get ice cream, and everyday, all they had was vanilla. Then one day, they also had chocolate chip, but the guy serving it refused to give it to you. How do you know if you would like it unless you were allowed to try it? Here, the people aren’t even allowed to try another religion, so how do you know what they’d do?”

“Do you even study what other religions believe?” asked Mike. “Are you even allowed to read a Bible?”

“Our mullah tells us about other religions,” replied Hamid.

“Yes, and you say he claims that the Bible spoke about the coming of the Qur’an and Mohammad. Yet I can tell you the Bible says no such thing,” I pointed out.

“So you are saying the mullah is lying?”

“He is probably mistaken, or ill-informed, but I have read the Bible several times. I assure you, it doesn’t speak about Islam. If it did, don’t you think more Christians would become Muslims?”

“But the Qur’an came after the Bible; it must be better, it is that last book from God,” protested Hamid.

“Oh, there are many books that came after the Qur’an that some religions claim are from God. The Book of Mormon came later.  Are you going to become a Mormon?”

We talked some more, and I wish we had a tape recorder, because it was a good discussion. Mike got up to leave and said, “Hamid, we aren’t being mean. We are trying to get you to think. If you believe the Qur’an is God’s word, then you need to read it so you know what it says, not what one man tells you it says.”

Mike and Drew left, and Hamid and I talked for another hour. We were trying to squeeze in as much conversation in our remaining days as possible.

WHY I SERVE |

May 07, 2007

WHY I SERVE
Name: 1SG Troy Steward
Posting date: 5/7/07
Returning from: Afghanistan
Hometown: Amherst,NY
Milblog url: bouhammer.com

The reason why I serve has changed several times over the 19+ years I have been in the Army. My career started long before I ever raised my hand for the first time. It probably started in 1969, on the day I was born at Ft. Bragg to a father who was a Green Beret, home on leave from one of his multiple tours in Vietnam for my birth. This was the life I was raised in; Ft. Bragg NC, Ft. Devens MA, Presidio CA, Panama, and then to Mesa AZ where my dad finished up his career as an ROTC instructor at ASU.

Growing up, I could not stand the military, in fact I hated it with a passion. Why was my dad so strict? Why was I "restricted", while other kids were “grounded”? I remember having to explain the term, because non-military types had never used it. I grew up hearing “I am the SGT, you are the private, so you will do what I say." A Special Forces house is a tough one to be raised in, but I am so glad that I was. Not that I wasn’t a troublemaker or never got out of line, but it was rare, and when I did I knew the dire consequences. Framed_steward_korea_3

Somewhere along the way I became very independent and wanted to do everything myself. I know now it was because I did not want stuff held over me. It was this resentment towards my dad’s child-raising style that led me to the very career that I hated while growing up. Once I matured-up in high school and realized all the things he had done in his career, I got a lot closer to him. I was a photographer, and he converted a room in our house into a darkroom for me. As I reprinted a lot of photos for him from negatives he had from his tours in Vietnam, I realized that was the life I wanted. When I saw him and a few green beenies standing around a group of Laotians or some other local people, these images planted the seed.

I did not want to place the burden of higher education on my parents as they could not afford a lot, or at least the schools I wanted. As an aspiring  photojournalist I wanted to attend some pretty nice schools. The Army was the answer. I could do a three-year stint, pick up some nice college money, and then get out and go to school where I wanted to -- plus I figured the Army experience and training would be a benefit to my freelance photojournalist career. So one day during my junior year of high school I came home, sat my parents down, and told them I was joining. I told them what I wanted to do and what I would get for it. I don’t remember my parents’ expression or comments, but I am sure they were surprised. Many of my friends thought my dad had pushed me that way, but I was always happy to tell them no, this was a decision I made on my own.Framed_steward_bobtroy_2

Based on my ASVAB scores, I could have been a lot of things in the Army, but I wanted to be a grunt. I wanted to jump out of planes, like I grew up watching my dad do, and I wanted to be infantry. I remember the recruiters trying to push me into more technical specialties, but I would not budge: infantry or nothing.

So I joined, did my three years, and ended up re-enlisting while I was in Korea. My dreams of life as a photojournalist had pretty much vanished. I was very good at what I did in the Army and I really liked it. I had grown up bouncing from place to place as Dad was transferred, so this was not a new concept for me. Framed_steward_desert_storm321_2

I loved leading soldiers and training them too. I was on the fast track and moved very quickly in rank. I gave 110% at everything I did, and always shot up to be #1. This is evident by the number of military schools I graduated as Honor Graduate or Distinguished Honor Graduate. I lived by the mantra “Either you are first place or you are last”. There was no in between.

After I got back from the first Gulf War, I had seen enough, or so I thought. I had moved so fast through the ranks and had worked at positions so far above what I was supposed to that I was not challenged anymore. I was starting to get bored. I was losing the spark that made me love the Army. Not long after returning from the Gulf, I was married to the light of my life, and the idea of spending time raising a family and not deploying anymore started to be attractive. However, after only a few months of being married, I got the orders to PCS to Alaska. Since my wife was raised in Florida her whole life, this was a big decision. "Let's try it," we decided. We would probably never get up there otherwise. It was a chance to see some awesome country and make it more of a three-year vacation.Framed_steward_jumpmaster_2

This duty assignment was a challenge, and re-lit the fire on why I loved the Army. I was back on jump status, and I got to work in a variety of assignments. I established a good reputation in the battalion with everyone, and had a lot of pull. I was even able to swing a one-year extension in Alaska thanks to my Batallion Commander going to bat for me. However, at the end of four years there I was starting to get burned out again. I also went from having the best 1SG I had ever had in my career to having the worst  -- the worst example of leadership and what it means to be an NCO. Quite frankly he burned me out. I was not alone, as many NCOs called it quits after working for him, and just up and left the Army.

I had been working with computers for a couple of years and had a real interest in doing that full time. I found myself fixing a lot of them at the BN HQ and it was my BC at the time that encouraged me to pursue it. He said I had a talent there, and he could see that I was passionate about it. So I decided to end my time with the Active Army, but not with the military. I loved soldiers, working with them and the military life in general. I was just burned out on doing it every single day. So I joined a National Guard unit and stayed on jump status. This was a nice transition, since it was not the stereotypical NG unit and kept higher standards, which offset the slow-down in optempo.Framed_steward_and_son_2

I ended up moving to New York and joining the NG there. I served in several positions, but was always in charge of soldiers. This is the passion I have and why I still serve today. These are my boys, and there is nothing I would not do for them. NG soldiers are some of the most motivated I have ever seen, and there are a unique set of challenges in dealing with them. When I stand in front of my company and look at those faces I see the faces of my sons. In fact my own son serves in my unit, but when I see those 100+ faces staring back at me, regardless of age, race, or anything else, I see the boys that I have been entrusted to look over. I use the leaders that I looked up to as the guides and examples of how I deal with soldiers. I also look at the terrible leaders I have had as an example of how not to act.

They day after 9/11 found me racing from Boston back to Buffalo in a rental car, and I remember thinking I was very happy I was still serving. Little did I know that the events of 9/11 would transform the NG overnight into an optempo that resembled being back on Active Duty.Framed_steward_ett_af_3

Currently I am the team 1SG of an Embedded Training Team serving in Afghanistan, which advises, mentors and fights alongside the Afghanistan National Army. Even though my team is small and all senior ranking officers and NCOs, they are still my soldiers. Many are older than me and they all have years of experience, but I am their 1SG and it is my job to look out after them, their welfare, safety and training. The Team Chief and I have made it our sole mission to bring all these guys back alive. Regardless of what happens over here and what good we do with the ANA, as long as we bring these boys back then this mission will have been a success.

I am not sure how much longer I will serve after this tour, as my 20 year date is coming up in a few months. I may call it quits and turn the reins over to someone else, or maybe hang around a little while longer. Either way, it has been a good ride and something I will never regret. I have been blessed with a great upbringing, great family, lovely wife and kids, awesome friends all over the world and some of the best damn soldiers I could have ever served with. Regardless of what path I take after this tour is over, my military career has been a fruitful and successful one as far as I am concerned. I cannot imagine what my life would have been like without it, except to know it would not have been as fulfilling.

Editor's note: A Sandbox salute to 1SG Steward as he and his team journey home. This post originally appeared on the You Served Blog at VAMortageCenter.com; reprinted with permission.

ONE HELL OF A DAY |

May 04, 2007

ONE HELL OF A DAY
Name: Eddie
Posting date: 5/4/07
Hometown: Phoenix, AZ
Stationed in: Baghdad, Iraq
Milblog url: airborneparainf82.blogspot.com
Email: airborneparainf82@gmail.com

Yesterday was one hell of a day. The day before, we'd headed out to pull overwatch over a crappy area. It was pretty uneventful, because my squad stayed back to guard the trucks while the dismounts set in. Not that I'm complaining, because overwatch usually involves a tall building and a lot of stairs, and with all the equipment, we're each carrying 50-60 extra pounds. I ended up sleeping in the truck all night, which sucked because I could not, for the life of me, get comfortable, and mosquitoes were chowing down on me like I was a full course meal.

The next morning we went out and did a little dismounted patrol around the area. Nothing exciting. Just a lot of walking and not really anything to show for it. When we got back we got a call to head out to the towers that we just built in the bad area. Apparently the IA (Iraqi Army) took a couple days to come occupy them, and during that time the tall tower had been blown to the ground, and a 155mm artillery shell IED had been placed in the other tower. We were to secure the area for EOD to come in and blow it.

We ended up pulling security in the exact same area where I had a grenade thrown at me. OK, a little unsettling, but what can you do. Hopefully if it happens again we can shoot the bastard this time. Well, not even 30 minutes into sitting there we suddenly hear a loud explosion behind us and see a dirt cloud coming from the IA check point, about 200m back from our position. They come under small arms fire and engage for about 20 minutes until things settle back down. Again, no US troops involved. Nothing else ended up happening while we were out there, which is good.

Once EOD had successfully placed a charge on the IED, we pulled our video recorders out and got an awesome video of the explosion. They set it off inside the other tower, and amazingly that tower is still standing.

We headed back to base for a quick lunch stop and to pick up our CO to go check some markets. On our way out, we got a call about an explosion in one of the markets in our area, believed to be a car bomb. Before we were even somewhat close, we could see the black smoke billowing in the sky. This definitely was not going to be good. As we got closer it became obvious how big it was going to be. When we approached the street that the blast was on, all of a sudden I no longer felt like I was living my life. I honestly felt like I was watching a movie. Hoards of people were walking away from the area, some hurt, some shook up. We then began to see emergency vechicles flying in and out of that street. Even civilians with flatbed trucks were helping. We'd see them fly by with 20 people on the back, some screaming, some helping the wounded who were lying on the bed. We were about 1/4 mile away when the street became too crowded to drive down, and we dismounts hopped out and headed down on foot.

It was utter choas down there. I honestly could not believe my eyes. It was surreal. People were being helped away from "ground zero", some of them covered in blood and wounds. Windows hundreds of meters away were shattered; glass scattered on the ground. Cars 100-200 meters away were damaged by flying debris, windows shattered, hoods bent in, blood on the paintjobs. The fires were still going strong, and the streets were soaked in the foam/water mix used to put them out. The closer we got, the more tainted the water became with an awful red. I could only imagine what it was going to look like even closer. We ended up looping around to the west end of the blast site and were probably about 25-30 meters away from where the vechicle had exploded. The ground was burned black, and every vechicle in that area was a charred mangled metal mess. People were rushing in, some trying to put out the fire, others to rescue people. Even more were simply recovering bodies.

The crowds in the area had to be in the hundreds, if not thousands. Some of them had been wounded themselves in the blast. Many of them carried expressions of sorrow on their faces. Some had anger, and even more wore expressions of confusion. They all had something to say to me as I passed, and although I do not speak their language I knew exactly what they were saying. "How could you let this happen? Do something about this!" But there was nothing I could do. I was helpless to do anything, yet people continued to plead with me. Sitting there at ground zero, I saw charred dead bodies pulled from the mangled car frames. It was the worst sight I've ever seen in my life. Every time someone would come past, pushing a body, or two or three, on a wooden cart, away from the scene, everyone in the crowd would all begin yelling "Allah Akbar" ("God is Great") over and over, along with some other phrases. They would load the bodies up on a vehicle with many helpers on back, and they would begin to chant as the vehicle sped away, sirens blaring.

All of it just did not seem real. Yet I was there, living it, experiencing it fully with my senses and emotions. I pray that I never have to see anything like that ever again. That one event has angered me more than anything else here. All this carnage and destruction in the name of God. Allah. Where in the hell is God's work in all of this? It makes no sense, and these people are crazy fanatics. I just don't understand it. Talking it over with my buddies, I estimated there had to have been at least 50 killed. The next day I was utterly shocked to read the real numbers in the news: 140 killed, 150 wounded. I'm not sure how accurate those numbers still are, because the dead and injured toll continues to rise with every hour. Truly a horrible and horrific day.

A COUPLE OF JOKES |

A COUPLE OF JOKES
Name: Teflon Don
Posting date: 5/3/07
Stationed in: Ramadi, Iraq
Milblog url: acutepolitics.blogspot.com


Q: Why did the Iraqi cross the road?
A: His IED was on the other side.


A Marine is working on a Police Training and Transition (PTT) team. Two of his Iraqi Police trainees grab an insurgent, who calls out "By Hussein, let me go!" The IPs drop the insurgent, who runs away.The Marine, astonished, asks why they released the man, and the IPs explain: "He asked for mercy by Hussein, the son of the Prophet, and custom demands that we set him free." A week or two later, the Marine is captured by insurgents. He remembers the IPs, and decides to give it a whirl, so he calls out "By Hussein, let me go!" The leader of the insurgents stares at him for a moment, and then says to the others: "Not only is he an American dog, he's a Shiite too! Kill him!"

THE FOUR AMIGOS |

May 02, 2007

THE FOUR AMIGOS   
Name: CAPT Doug Traversa
Posting date: 5/2/07
Stationed in: Kabul, Afghanistan
Milblog url: traversa.typepad.com
Email: traversa@gimail.af.mil

I’ll be compiling this post, but four of us will be writing. I’ll try to keep it clear when we switch authors. Last week 1SG Troy Stewart wrote a post called SOME GUYS I WOULD LIKE TO MEET. We are those guys, writers for AWAC -- Afghanistan Without a Clue. We will attempt to write a joint post, and with four hours until my mandated deadline, I guess I’d better get going...

Last summer I started AWAC, and for many months it was a solo effort, but in the late winter of 2007 my hut mates started writing too, as did a few other folks stationed in the Kabul area. Today we’ll be bringing you the first ever four-man post for The Sandbox. Here are the men of B-Hut R5, (East Side), Camp Phoenix, Kabul, Afghanistan:

Framed_traversa_group_1_3
Capt Mike Toomer, USAF 
Capt Doug (Rat) Templeton, USAF
Capt Drew Morton, USAF
Capt Doug (Bear) Traversa, USAF
 
David (The Sandbox editor) asked for a tour of the hut, as well as some thoughts from each of us. So let’s take the tour first, shall we? 

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Our front door.

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Looking down the hall, here are the four of us at Christmas.

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Rat’s room.

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Drew’s room.

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Mike’s room.

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My room.

Rat and I also did some artwork on the walls.  I drew anime (Japanese animation), while Rat prefers the more traditional American cartoon characters.

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Rat’s wall.

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My wall.

Now that you’ve seen where we have lived for the last year, here are some thoughts from each of us.

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Here’s Drew:

Wow, it’s hard to believe that it was over a year ago I showed up at Camp Shelby, MS, for training. It’s amazing what can happen in life in just a year. Prior to coming here, I was a young, hard-charging captain in the Air Force. A lot has changed in my life, and for the better I believe. Two significant events happened this past year that will change my life forever. The first is that Stacy and I got back together in September and I proposed when I was on leave in February (and she did say yes). Being over here made me realize what is truly important in life, and when you have someone special like her, you just cannot let her go.

The second major event is my decision to separate from the Air Force. A year ago this would not have been a thought that would have entered my mind. My career was going really well. I had an assignment to Germany when I got back (finally I get to go to Europe) and everything was on the up and up. So this was not an easy decision to make, but it had to be made. The AF is cutting 40K people over the next few years in order to purchase new airplanes. My career field is being cut by a third, and my commissioning year group was one of the hardest hit. I could see the Air Force, being short on people now, extending deployments and myself basically ending up in the Army. Logistic officers are in high demand, and the Air Force has no problem loaning us out to other services. The joke over here with the Army is "Welcome back to the ARMY Air Corps." It still boggles my mind that we are in the middle of a long war and the service is cutting people. However, they did offer a nice separation package, and the time is right, since I have only been in now for six years, still young and nowhere close to retirement. I will truly miss the Air Force, the great people I have had the honor to serve with, the deployments, the mission, and the friends I have made.

Speaking of friends, let me talk a little about my hooch mates. We are a diverse and dynamic group who were forced to live together and therefore had to learn how to get along. It was nothing like MTV’s The Real World, but at times it felt like it. The best way to describe it is freshman year in college, living in the dorms...minus the partying, drinking, women, sleeping in and all that. After a year of sharing meals, stories, smoking cigars, and general kidding around, we have all become very close. How close? They are all invited to my wedding, which will be next year. It is people like them that will make me miss the Air Force the most.

It has been an honor to come over here to serve my country, and this is an experience that will stay with me for the rest of my life.

-- Capt Drew Morton, USAF

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Here’s Rat:

I thought I would tell you a little about myself and a little about what I did here in Afghanistan. I am a 19-and-a-half-year veteran of the Air Force. The first 12 years I spent as enlisted, and then I made the switch to the dark side and got my commission. I have been a logistics officer for the last seven years; my major focus has been in the area of war planning and deployment operations. I am currently stationed at Dyess AFB, Texas. however upon my return I will be heading to SOUTHCOM headquarters in Miami, Florida for my next assignment.

My time here has been spent as the Senior Mentor of the Plans and Policy Directorate, located in the Logistics Support Operations Center. They are responsible for developing policy concerning logistics operations, as well as being a clearinghouse of information concerning where requisitions are in the logistics process. I have also spent a considerable amount of time as a mobile trainer, traveling to different forward operating bases to teach the Afghans the logistics process. They don’t have a formal school, so when they were assigned to a logistics unit we traveled to them to each them how to do their jobs.

What can I say about the other three I have spent the last year living with? They are my friends, my brothers, and my sounding board at times when it seemed things were too difficult to surmount. It may be hard to believe, but in the entire year we have been together we have never had a fight amongst any of us. Sure we have disagreements on things, but they were professional arguments and emotions were checked at the door. We depend on each other for safety outside the wire, and support in times of stress and need. I can’t think of a better group to have shared this adventure with.

The key to this harmony may lay in the differences in our personalities. We have a way of balancing one another out and being able to find humor in what we do. Laughter is the best medicine, and we have had plenty in stock. Whenever someone is down or frustrated about things, it never takes us long to dissect its parts and see the comical side to the issue and end up laughing our way to a solution. Some may have found our humor rude or even inappropriate at times, but for us it was the glue that held us together and created a bond that will endure for years to come. I will miss these guys when we leave here, however I have a feeling we will always be in touch and never far from each other's thoughts. The men of the Cult of the Evil Monkey, R-5 Studios, and the West Berlin Public Affairs Office will always be a part of my history, and the best part of my deployment to Afghanistan.

-- Capt Douglas Templeton, USAF, Ratman 

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Here’s Mike:

What a year this has been. It was made immeasurably better by the hoochmates I lived with over the year. I can’t imagine what life would have been like had one or more of us been unable to get along with the rest. We spent virtually every day together, at least when we were inside the wire in the late afternoons and evenings. As fate would have it, we all jelled well together and made the year bearable.

We all endured the difficulties of being in a combat zone for a year. None of us are combat troops, and I do not mean to compare our plight with that of combat troops down range; I understand we have it easy by comparison. We did travel outside the wire on a daily basis, in light-skinned vehicles, facing a very real threat each time we left the wire. That stress, combined with the frustration of working with a newly established national-level logistics system, language and cultural differences, and general apathy displayed by many of the Afghan National Army leadership, made for a hard environment in which to find much humor or peace. It was the hoochmates that made the difference between going crazy and laughing at it all. There were plenty of times when I wanted to just shoot someone (figuratively of course) or just throw up my hands and give up. Generally those days were tempered by sitting around the dinner table at night making fun of some aspect of our jobs, or venting my frustration at some moron who had written an inane article in Stars and Stripes, and watching the other three laugh at me ranting.

Over the year it was the humor that the four of us developed together that made our time together enjoyable. We noticed about seven or eight months into this adventure that our humor began to become universal. Yes, Traversa’s sense of humor has been dragged into the depths of sick humor along with the rest of us; just one of the many negative influences we have had on him. In fact he even originates some really sick, but funny, lines instead of just building on one that the other three of us came up with. It is finishing one another's jokes, or instantly making a comment that builds on the previous one, that made us all realize we were beginning to think alike; a sure sign we had lived together WAY too long. And an indication of how well we get along.

More times then I can count, one of us would have a bad day or be at a breaking point, only to be brought back to reality by the humor of the other three. For me it wasn’t so much a joke cracked by one of the other three so much as watching them laugh, sometimes to the point of tears, as I spewed an expletive-laced tirade about whatever, or whomever, pissed me off. It is said that laughter is the best medicine, and I can honestly say it was the only thing that kept me sane throughout my year here. It is my hoochmates, my buddies, my friends that got me through the year. More importantly, got me through the year with a smile.

As the year winds down (we are down to under two weeks left) I realize how much I have depended on the other three amigos. It is a year I will never forget, and the three individuals, three brothers, I spent the year with will always be the first images that come to my mind when I think of Afghanistan. And yes, they will have smiles on their faces.

-- Capt Mike Toomer, USAF

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Here’s Bear:

Since I’m compiling all this, I get to read what everyone else wrote first.  Excuse me, I’ve got something in my eye.

I deny that any of my humor is sick, as Mike alleges. It is highly sophisticated, and I’m pretty certain he doesn’t have any tapes or videos to prove otherwise.

It’s been quite a year. I’ve written before about camaraderie, so I won’t repeat myself here. I have been very fortunate to have spent the last year in both a fulfilling job, working with the Afghan National Army, and forming close friendships with my hut mates. It really did feel like we were living in an episode of M*A*S*H. The humor was incredible, and Hawkeye and Trapper John have nothing on us. I owe my survival and my sanity to Rat, Mike, and Drew. Next year we will all reunite in Indiana for Drew’s wedding, and I look forward to it. Naturally, I’ll write all about it in A*W*A*C, which will stay up even after we all go home.

Time to round up appropriate photos and send this all off to David. I would like to add that we’ve all been proud to have had our writing appear in The Sandbox. David has been great to work with, and has also been very supportive in general. And he better not edit out this paragraph!

Here’s to victory over the Taliban, a free and safe Afghanistan, and a safe return home for all of us!

-- Capt Doug Traversa, USAF, The Bear

Editor's note: Thank you, gentlemen, for everything -- for your service, your writing, your insights, and your good humor. Like many other readers I have enjoyed and appreciated your contributions to The Sandbox -- especially the conversations with Hamid. It's been a pleasure and an honor.Framed_traversa_group2
 

THE MOST COLORFUL THINGS IN AFGHANISTAN |

May 01, 2007

THE MOST COLORFUL THINGS IN AFGHANISTAN
Name: CAPT Doug Traversa
Posting date: 5/1/07
Stationed in: Kabul, Afghanistan
Milblog url: traversa.typepad.com
Email: traversa@gimail.af.mail

Jingle trucks are by far the most colorful things in Afghanistan. They are brightly painted, with chimes hanging off the front bumper (thus the name), and many are adorned with colorful tassels. These trucks are everywhere, almost as common as cars. One of my early posts on The Sandbox was about JINGLE TRUCKS, and I am known around here as a big jingle truck fan. I am always snapping photos of them when we are out driving, and as I near the end of this deployment I thought I'd share some of the better shots from my collection. Enjoy.Framed_traversa_jingle_1_3Framed_traversa_jingle_2_3Framed_traversa_jingle_3_2Framed_traversa_jingle_4_2

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Jingle trucks aren't just big tractor trailer trucks.  Here are some other varieties:

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The Jingle Ford Ranger

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The Jingle Dump Truck

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The Jingle Trailer

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And finally, the Jingle Toy Truck, which will be proudly displayed in my office once I get home.


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