The Sandbox

GWOT hot wash, straight from the wire

Welcome to The Sandbox, a forum for service members who have served or are currently serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, returned vets, spouses and caregivers. The Sandbox's focus is not on policy and partisanship (go to our Blowback page for that), but on the unclassified details of deployment -- the everyday, the extraordinary, the wonderful, the messed-up, the absurd. All correspondence is read, and as much as possible is posted, lightly edited. If you know someone who is deployed who might have something to say, please tell them about us. To submit a post click here.

THE PROBLEM OF PERCEPTION |

June 29, 2007

THE PROBLEM OF PERCEPTION
Name: SPC Freeman
Posting date: 6/29/07
Stationed in: Iraq
Milblog url: calmbeforethesand.blogspot.com

The problem of perception colors how people view this war. This war, whatever one's personal feelings, is a complex thing. Its history, people, and factions are as diverse as they are dangerous. There are no easy answers or clear-cut truths in this war, and yet people like to behave -- especially on both ends of the media -- as though there are. I find this disconcerting.

Every day I read the blogs and see the same set of opposing arguments: either people assume that this place is a cakewalk or that it's a hellhole. No shades of gray; no middle ground. Everyone does it. Nobody outside of this war seems to have an accurate picture of what goes on here, and even then, it's so easy to let one's politics cloud one's observations.

I can't begin to describe the difficulty I have in capturing this place fairly. My own mother, bless her, sent me a care package a while back, as she is known to do. It contained the usual items -- snacks, magazines, personal hygiene items -- but what made it remarkable was the presence of a shopping bag filled with cans of Silly String. For those playing the home game, Silly String has been used in the past as a tool for detecting tripwires during house-to-house raids. When my mother mentioned this I had to graciously explain to her, "You know, Mom, raiding houses isn't really part of my job."

And I suppose that's really where the problem lies, isn't it? This war is unique in that more than ever we are able to receive real-time coverage on its progress, not merely from embedded journalists, but also from those of us wearing the uniform. It's an interesting dynamic, and one in whose shaping I'm grateful to have a hand. But it's important to remember, also, that all conflict is inherently political, nowhere more obviously than here. Not only does the politics of a writer affect how said writer shapes the narrative, but indeed the experience that gives rise to the narrative can have a hand in shaping the writer's politics.

It seems to me that people back home -- the pundits, the media, the activists, the wives and parents and children -- get their information from what they see of us. Accordingly, what they see of us is divided into two extremes. People only see either the Grunts or the Pogues. The Grunts are the Infantrymen, raiding homes, staring at death daily, and going months at a time without so much as a phone call or a letter from home. The Pogues are the rest; the support or otherwise noncombat soldiers who may or may not even go outside the wire.

Everyone's experience of deployment is a little different, so it's unfair to cast all experiences in the same mold. People see stories of Infantry guys watching their squadmates die and murdering Iraqi civilians, and assume that I personally have seen levels of Hell of which I have had no taste. Conversely, people read the blogs of career soldiers and Pogues, and perhaps get an image of this place that is a little sunnier than expected. People want to lump our stories into the either/or. All or none. And that's not really fair.

Like it or not, I am a Pogue. I still go outside the wire, yes, and I have indeed been mortared, rocketed and shot at. I have personally felt the hot whine of passing bullets singe my eardrums. But it's important to remember that I belong to a specialized field, and thus, until my squadmates and I are actually needed, we spend most of our days battling boredom on the FOB. This may be difficult to understand for some people. I have never fired my weapon at another human being. I have never watched a friend die. I have not lived through the detonation of an IED. I have never seen many of the things which will scar many of my counterparts for life. But that does not mean that those things aren't really happening.

My words can only account for part of the picture, and simply ignoring narratives that don't jibe with our expectations is not the way to gain an accurate picture of this war. I'll always believe that this war has been morally wrong; has been a mistake. But I can also acknowledge that good things have happened here; small moments of outreach and compassion have made small differences. I'm not here to tell you what to think of this war. People try to take our experiences of this war and use those experiences to judge the rightness or wrongness of it. That's not the way to make an accurate judgement.

Soldiers are always going to die in combat; always going to see horrific things that damage their psyches. Every death or injury sustained in battle is going to be one too many. But instead of judging the rightness or wrongness or wars by body counts, why not judge the war by its impact on national moral standing? Incidentally, does anyone remember John McCain's relatively recent jaunt through that Baghdad market? The following day, 21 civilians from the same market were kidnapped, taken outside of the city, and murdered -- shot execution-style. The problem of perception is a motherfucker.

SECOND TIME AROUND |

June 28, 2007

SECOND TIME AROUND
Name: Charles
Posting date: 6/28/07
Stationed in: LSA* Anaconda, Iraq
Hometown: Quinton, VA

Three weeks down, only sixty-one to go! I was here before, in 2004-2005 for OIF II, and in the first few weeks of this deployment two things strike me:

1.  Iraq in 2004 still had a "Wild West" sort of feel to it -- temporary buildings, very sporadic communications, few creature comforts, not a lot of institutional "garrison" rules. Now, three years on, the machine that is the U.S. military has consumed one and all within massive facilities and massive support infrastructure. In spite of the move to embrace counterinsurgency warfare and put combat forces into neighborhoods, the big bases continue to get bigger and more comfortable.

I had a friend recently call LSA Anaconda "Poguedishu", and he was right in a sense, but I'm not complaining. If an infantryman who kicks in doors seven days a week for fifteen months can go have a cappucino or an ice cream cone and buy something at the PX, good for him. When the first Burger King arrived at then-FOB Speicher in 2004, it offended my sensibilities, but no longer. It's the least we can do. As long as they can continue to hire drivers to truck the stuff in, go for it.

2.  The entire AO* is much, much, much more dangerous! I knew that from watching the news, but now that I'm here again the reality hits home. Balad always received mortar and rocket fire, but now it's a constant rain of projectiles. One of the helicopter battalions received multiple mortar rounds in its central area the other day, with five wounded and multiple vehicles damaged. It was a miracle no one was killed. At Speicher in late 2004, we went weeks at a time without indirect fire. I'm afraid that this simple fact argues against optimism for the outcome.

*
LSA: Logisitics Support Area
AO: Area of Operations

THE WEEK IN REVIEW |

June 27, 2007

THE WEEK IN REVIEW
Name: Eddie
Posting date: 6/27/07
Stationed in: Baghdad, Iraq
Hometown: Phoenix, AZ
Milblog url: airborneparainf82.blogspot.com
Email: airborneparainf82@gmail.com

I haven't posted much lately. On top of the heat, and sitting in a guard tower, and studying my ass off for this board exam I have in a couple days, I'm just plain exhausted, physically and mentally. I'm feeling good about the board, but I can't wait to get it over with so I can finally stop studying and cramming my head full of information.

A few nights ago we went on a raid. We were looking for some guys that we've been trying to get our hands on, and we were ready to go at it hard. It was to be a quick one, an in, grab 'em, out, go kinda thing. My team was to be first into the building -- my favorite role, because that's where the biggest rush is. Though I will admit I don't really get the rush I used to. No more butterflies. I don't know what that means.

I normally carry a shotgun with me. I had a break for a little while, which was nice because that thing definitely gets annoying sometimes, but now I'm stuck with it again. Oh well. It can come in handy, like it did that night. Being the lead team, we were to breach the door and go in and do our thing. Usually another guy does all the shotgun breaches, and though I've been right there (close enough to get pelted in the face by ricocheting pellets) I've never actually done it myself. Tonight was going to be my chance.

As things were falling into place, I started getting nervous. My squad leader gave a quick "lesson" on where to shoot and whatnot, but I was still unnerved. At one point I asked him if he wanted to do it, but he was going to be throwing a flash bang (which is cool as hell and we hardly ever get to) so I had to breach it. Fuck it, let's do it. About a minute before, I leaned back to one of my guys and whispered, "So yeah, this is the first time I've ever shot a shotgun before!" Hahaha. Good stuff.

The flash bang is thrown, and I go to work. My first shot obliterates the lock on the door. I try kicking it in, but no luck. I look at where the lock was and I still see metal there, so I continue to shoot the same spot two more times, kicking the door. Still nothing. What the hell?! I try a couple more areas, do some more kicking, and finally some football-style running into the door from one of the bigger guys on my team gets it open. Wow, I'm never going to live this one down! What do you expect though; for me to be an expert my first time? Apparently my squad leader had told me that after I shot the lock I shouldn't keep shooting the same area, but in the rush of the situation, I missed that. Oops.

Before I know it I'm racing upstairs, clearing rooms and taking people under control. We come upon one room where a family of 15 is living -- one man, and a bunch of women and children. It's nuts. I ask the man to come out of the room, as I don't want to scare the shit out of the women and kids. He isn't listening. I grab for him, to pull him out, and he snaps his arm back and pulls away. Sorry buddy, that was your last chance. He needs to come out and he is coming out, so I reach in, grab his ass and pull him out into the room. As I expected, the family starts going berserk! Crying, wailing, screaming. Jesus. He should have listened to the man with the gun the first time.

So that was the excitment for that day, and though I did catch some shit for being the five-shot door-breach guy, it didn't last.

A couple nights later we were out on patrol. Nothing special, just a normal patrol, walking around, checking things out, making sure everything is good and safe. We ended up patrolling close to the area where we used to get into firefights all the time. I could see some of the buildings in that area. Part of me was begging for someone to just come out on a rooftop with an AK. At one point I was pulling security down an alleyway where I could totally see that area, and I was trained on it and ready for someone. Unfortunately (or fortunately?) no one came out.

Being close to that area reminded me how much I miss what we used to do there. On this deployment I've seen a lot more shit than I ever expected to see. I think we've seen more than a lot of people see over here. In a way, I really wouldn't care if I was never again in a position where my life was in danger because some jackal wants to shoot me. I would be content to finish up this deployment in boredom. But there's always part of me that yearns for the rush of combat. It is one of the best feelings I've ever felt. Just the whole situation. Yeah, it's scary. Yeah, I worry whether or not I'm going to get shot. I think that's normal. But there's something about having all the thoughts and worries running through your head and having to push it aside and say FUCK IT! and just do what you have to do.

It's kind of like when you're young and go to an amuzement park and there's a big ride and you're scared and don't want to do it. You're nervous about riding, but you say screw it and ride it anyway. And even though it's scary it's incredibly exciting too. Well that's what combat is like, and I'm guessing that's a normal thought process for combat.

Combine that with the sensory explosion, and wow. You have the thunderous sound of various caliber machine guns rocking away, the sporadic sound of our rifles firing, intermixed with the load explosions of your own rifle firing, the crack of a burst from an AK or some other machine gun, and the deafening snap of rounds as the fly past you and smash into walls, or the ground or whatever. You can smell the sweat, the gunpowder and probably even the adreneline. That's probably the best part. It's like an intravenous drug injection. It hits you instantly when your body drops the A(dreneline)-bomb on you. Your heart starts beating so hard you can feel it pounding in your chest. Your state of awareness is at 1000%, as if you just injected 10 cans of Red Bull. Everything is clear and you see just what you need to. It's such an amazing thing. If death wasn't a real possibility, I would wish for it every day.

So -- back from my tangent -- we were patrolling along when we came across a couple of guys out at night with AKs on the street. (Insert slight adreneline dump here.)  We get in position to take care of this, in the event it goes sour, and I take my team and move to a better position, bringing me closer to the guys with guns. (Insert fuck-it mentality as we move.) Fortunately night gives us an advantage and we definitely make use of it, and before I know it we have a few guys detained, no shots fired.

One funny note. On the way back in from the patrol we came across this guy sleeping out in the alley on a mattress. He was totally oblivious to us being there, even though we weren't totally quiet. I so wish we had a Polaroid camera with us so we could have gathered around him, taken a picture, and left it for him for when he woke up.

Yesterday was an interesting day. Lately it has been kind of quiet on the streets, which is never a bad thing, although I'm a true believer of the "calm before the storm" mentality. In the past week I haven't heard many explosions or gunshots, which is good. So I went to pull guard, and not long after my buddy and I get situated there is a loud and thunderous BOOOOM!! that rocks the air and walls around us, causing sand to come spilling out of sandbags. Immediately I'm thinking this is a big mortar round that was fired at us and hit close, and I scan around for a cloud to indicate as much. Nothing. I keep scanning and then all of a sudden I see it. It's a dirt cloud alright, but it's nowhere close to us, a ways off in the distance. There's only one thing this can be. A car bomb.

As it's getting called up, I stare in awe as the massive dirt cloud begins to turn black, a thick black blanket covering everything in its wake as fire engulfes the area around the blast site. I remember thinking, "God I hope we dont have to go check this out. I really don't want to have to see that shit again."

Fortunately we didn't go, but in the ensuing chaos, emergency vehicles were flying around, sirens blarring, warning shots being fired out windows everywhere to move cars out of the way. I saw the same type of trucks that were at the last VBIED site I was at, with hoards of helpers on the back, screaming towards the blast area, chanting and yelling many things, including "Allah Akbar" (God is Great). All of this was giving me bad memories of that day. Apparently a carbomb targeting a mosque had gone off and as of today, so far, the death total is at 87, with the wounded in the hundreds. I seriously do not understand these people. Is what you believe in that important, that you would kill innocent people and destroy sacred buildings!?

So that was the excitment of the last week or so. Time to catch up on some sleep and cram the last bit of information in my head before I head to this board in two days. Wish me luck!

CONNECTION |

June 26, 2007

CONNECTION
Name
: Eric Coulson
Posting date: 6/26/07
Stationed in: Ramadi, Iraq
Milblog url: badgersforward.blogspot.com
Email: badger.six@gmail.com

I have received a large number of letters here. Most are from Mrs. Badger 6, some from my parents and hers, some from friends from before my blog, and some from new friends I have made through the blog. Outside of the ones from my wife and the dogs (she sends the cards for them) the ones from the children are the most meaningful. They are struggling to understand and be involved in the wider world. My three nephews and one niece have sent me memorable cards with touching notes; a friend from Virginia has children who have written me, as well as a dear friend from Chicago whose children are semi-regular correspondents. All those will be treasured memories from Iraq.

Today I received a letter from the child of a regular Badgers Forward reader that inadvertently touched me deeply:


Dear Badger 6,
     Hello my name is PC. I am a fourth grader in New Jersey.
     I hope you are healthy and doing okay. I am letting you know that we kids care about you guys as much as adults. My class and I would like to know what an average day is in Iraq.
     Do you have a lot of free time?
     My dad said you like Bruce Springsteen, we like him too and I have an autograph of him. He and his wife are very nice & kind. If I see him again I will try and get an autograph for you.
      -- PC
PS - My dad says Badgers Forward to you.


For me there are a number of layers in this letter. How wonderful to hear from a fourth grader who is not loaded with the cynicism of age, because you see I am a huge Bruce Springsteen fan; his music has been the soundtrack of my life.

But most of my Soldiers would never know that about me; which would greatly surprise my wife, family, and virtually everyone I knew before I became associated with this unit. You see this war is deeply personal to me -- my involvement, my separation from home, my Soldiers' sacrifice -- and as big a fan as I have been of Mr. Springsteen's, his calls of "Bring Em Home" have never felt very much like support.

I am self-aware enough to realize how silly this probably all sounds. Does Bruce Springsteen really remember the time he tossed me a harmonica in the front row of his show in Nashville, Tennessee on April 12, 2000? Or when he tossed me the guitar to play the last chords of "Working on the Highway" the same night? Of course not.

One of the things though that brought me to him was his constant "searching for connection." And that is what PC is doing. And even though I don't "know" Mr. Springsteen, his music and shows have brought me together with a lot of terrific people, many of whom I now feel quite estranged from because of how we see this war. I don't like that.

Thanks, PC, for being out there searching for some connection.

I have a letter to write.

THE GREAT EQUALIZER |

June 25, 2007

THE GREAT EQUALIZER
Name: SANDBOX DUTY OFFICER David Stanford
Posting date: 6/25/07

I thought Sandbox readers would appreciate an update on the intrepid J.R. Salzman, whose March 22nd post COPING inspired more Comments than almost any other essay on our site. Both J.R. and his wife Josie are featured in the following article about the SUDS program (Soldiers Undertaking Disabled Scuba Diving). Here is the opening section of the piece, with a link to the entire story:

Six months after an explosive device cost him his lower right arm, Wisconsin Army National Guard sergeant and world-class athlete Darrell "J.R." Salzman has found the great equalizer.Framed_salzman_diving_2

Water.

"The hardest thing that I've had to do [since the injury] was actually here," Salzman said as he floated in full scuba-diving gear in Walter Reed Army Medical Center's aquatic therapy pool in early June. "You have to tread water for 10 minutes. Treading water for 10 minutes with half a hand -- that was so hard do do. So hard. A couple of times, I went underwater, but I fought it out and stuck with it. I'm still here. I made it."

An explosively formed penetrator (EFP) cost Salzman his right arm below his elbow and the ring finger on his left hand; it also inflicted left-hand nerve damage that affected surviving fingers.

It is John W. Thompson, a former Colorado National Guard Soldier who is Salzman's volunteer scuba instructor, who calls water the great equalizer, and Salzman and other wounded warriors say they agree.

"Many things are just easier to do in the water for amputees," Thompson said...

(Click here to read more. And to see the video that goes with the story, click here.)

KARMA |

June 22, 2007

KARMA
Name: Teflon Don
Posting date: 6/22/07
Stationed in: Ramadi, Iraq
Milblog url: acutepolitics.blogspot.com

We took another trip up into Karma tonight. We patrolled up through the town and cut east, out through the area in which coalition forces recently took a bite out of al-Qaeda's anti-aircraft capability. A bomb crater nearly blocked the road in one spot, another was visible a short distance off the road. We spent four or five hours heading out to our turnaround spot, with dark clouds menacing their showers over the entire trip. Rainstorms are refreshing once in a while, but they also mean more work, drying and cleaning ammunition and weapons.

The clouds finally broke as we were driving back out of Karma. Rain drummed fitfully on the roof -- just enough to obscure the road, but never quite enough to require the wipers full time. Lightning shot blue fire across the sky. Somewhere to the south, a bolt of lightning hit the power grid, and the horizon lit up with the turquoise strobes of exploding transformers. Distant lights began to wink out and disappear. The oncoming tide of blackness washed ever closer as transformers continued to light up the sky. The blue light was joined by the steadily flashing golden pink glow of a downed power line. As we continued to roll towards Camp Falluja, we passed the power line, still sparking and glowing on top of a concertina fence. The air smelled sharply of ozone -- it also smelled cleaner than it has in weeks.

The rain lead to the first pang of homesickness I've felt in a while. After we got back, I walked out under the netting that covers the entryway to my buddy's tent. The netting is a fine, sand-colored mesh that block the sun. It also breaks up the rain into a fine mist, and gathers it into large droplets that break and fall occasionally from the net. I stood underneath it with my eyes closed, smelling the suddenly fresh air, and thinking of the rain in the forests on the coast, so similar, yet thousands of miles away.

Just a few more months now.

DOUBT |

June 21, 2007

DOUBT
Name: SPC Freeman
Posting date: 6/21/07
Stationed in: Iraq
Milblog url: calmbeforethesand.blogspot.com

The time between mortar attacks used to be measured in days, even weeks. Now it's measured in hours.

The days have been hot, and long. I've worked 12 to 14 hours a day, at least, for several weeks now. Only recently have I begun to enjoy some downtime, and had time to think about anything but cleaning my weapon or calling my wife.

I'm sitting on my bed the other night, in my t-shirt and underwear, inspecting my blistered feet. The boot socks they sell at the PX are terrible for moisture, so since the start of my deployment I've suffered from a mild but tenacious case of athlete's foot. I've just gotten back from the phone bank, and am slowly beginning the process of preparing for bed. Brooks is on his bed a few feet away, playing Yu-Gi-Oh on his Gameboy. Oz is laying down at the far end of the room, absorbed in my bootleg copy of Heroes.

I'm depressed. I've been suffering from a deep malaise lately, related chiefly to my separation from Anne and my growing disgust with this war. We've been talking about re-enlisting, and to be honest I'm still not sure how I feel about the whole thing. I'm chewing on a few nagging thoughts, left over from my last conversation with my spouse, when I look up from my daily ministrations.

"Hey Brooks," I say. A pause.

Brooks' game music continues bleeping away. "Yeah," he pipes up in a rumbling drawl from the other side of my wall locker.

"Anyone ever tell you 'Thanks for your sacrifice?'"

Another pause. "Sure. Why?"

"I dunno." I go back to peeling dead skin from my blisters. "What do you make of that? Does it actually do something for you? Or is it just more empty words?"

"Sometimes," says Brooks.

"What, the first part or the second?"

"The second."

"Gotcha." It's my turn to pause now. Brooks continues. The music stops abruptly.

"I dunno. I mean, it's nice and all, but it doesn't really change the situation."

"Yeah."

"Makes 'em feel better, I guess."

I roll my eyes. "Like the yellow car magnets."

"Exactly." I hear Brooks sit up. A brief silence ensues. After a moment I speak up again.

"Wife and I are talking about our plans."

"Whaddaya mean?"

I shrug. "You know. Do I re-enlist? Do I get out? We've been arguing back and forth about it for a few weeks now, ever since I got back from leave. I'm still kind of on the fence about it. I don't really know what I want yet."

"Need to reclass."

I snort. "For real. I'm getting kind of fed up with all the bullshit, you know? Especially with all this talk of being extended."

"So get out."

I shake my head. "Not that simple, though. We're kinda talkin' about tryin' for a kid. Wife thinks it'd be better for us financially to have the kid in the Army, ya know?"

"Yeah."

"Maybe not raise, but for the actual birth, shit--"

"Yeah, it makes sense."

"--And if I get out, that kinda throws a wrench into the kids thing."

"So don't have kids yet."

"Yeah, but she really wants kids, ya know? And honestly, so do I."

"How old's your wife, man?"

"Twenty-three. Couple months younger than me."

"Makes sense. That's about the age they start thinkin' that way."

"They? Dude, c'mon. You know Anne. She's not like that."

"They're all like that. It's not a bad thing, man, I'm just sayin'."

"I guess."

I trail off. I let both my feet rest on the floor. Brooks' game starts up again. I slip in one of my earbuds and put on some Terminal. I'm still not satisfied.

"I dunno, man" I say, speaking over my music. I turn down the volume a bit. "I'm just starting to feel like I can be a husband, or a soldier, but not both. At the same time, neither of us have our degrees yet, and it's like 'What is there for us on the outside,' ya know? Not like I can get the degree I want out here."

"Yeah."

"I'm just tired of wearing the mask. I'm fuckin' tired of putting other people's agendas before my own. It's what got me thinking about that 'Thank you for your sacrifice' bullshit. Who's gonna tell me when I've sacrificed enough?"

"Hey, you signed up for it."

"Yeah, I know, I know. But did I sign up for 15 months away? Mandatory? Did you? Shit."

"Fuck no."

"I rest my case."

"See," says Brooks finally. "I don't really care though. That's three extra grand a month in my pocket. Fuck, I mean it sucks for the married guys, but me, I say keep me down here as long as you want. Your money, ya know?"

"Yeah, but I am married, and anyway, you really think you're gonna notice three fuckin' grand at this point? Shit, if they're cutting away our benefits and our time at home, but the enlistment bonuses are fuckin' twenty grand like Oz's, what's that tell you?"

"Tells me we're fucked."

"Exactly." I shake my head. "Not exactly how I envisioned military spending. Plus, man, you know me. I've never been totally on line with this shit. And man, since I've been here?" I sigh.

"I dunno. I'm getting so tired of this shit. I'm tired of of this fucking war. I'm tired of not seeing my wife. I'm tired of fuckin' watchin' people starve and beg us for food from outside that fence" -- here I point sharply toward the far wall of the trailer -- "while in here I see KBR's logo plastered over every dumpster and shitter. Civilian motherfuckers rollin' around up in this bitch makin' 90 grand a year."

"They're not starving, dude."

"And how do you figure? You looked out that fence lately?"

"They're not fuckin' starvin, man, I'm telling ya. They're just like the TCN's here, man -- comin' in here, playin' the pity card, preying on guys like you to scam what they want. It's just how it is."

"I don't believe that, dude. Not all of them."

"Enough of 'em." Brooks sits up again. "Don't get me wrong, dude, I'm not tryin' to harp on ya. Havin' a compassionate heart is not a weakness. I'm just sayin' people -- and especially these people -- are always gonna try to use that against you. Ya know?"

"I suppose." I think back to a recent exchange I had with Haider, and wonder how much of that was colored by my own eagerness to do Good. I don't really know what to say at first, and at times like this I find myself missing my wife more than ever. She would no doubt provide the sort of eloquent insight that I seem to have difficulty extracting from my more taciturn peers. I go back to picking at my feet.

"I wish I could believe you, man." I look up. Brooks just shrugs. I hear Oz pipe up from the far side of the room.

"I dunno, man," he says in his lazy West-Coast slur. "I think you're just dwelling on shit again. You always get like this. It's like you're never happy unless you're fuckin' miserable."

"I suppose." I put on dry socks and reach for my smokes. Oz almost never speaks up in the evenings -- he's usually sucked into some black-market DVD made by the locals -- and so I take his sudden input as a broad hint that Brooks and I need to shut the fuck up. I grab my weapon. Lately, I'm beginning to think that these guys are right. I do get too worked up about things. But it's part of my nature -- isn't it? Aren't I supposed to care? Haven't I always prized passion as a virtue. Is it possible that I let my feelings -- as capricious and volatile as they are -- cloud my views?

I shrug. I stick a smoke between my lips and make for the door. I pass by Oz's bed, and I slap at his boot as I pass. He glances up briefly.

On the way out I say, "Maybe you're right."

THE SOUND |

June 20, 2007

THE SOUND
Name: Eddie
Posting date: 6/20/07
Stationed in: Baghdad, Iraq
Hometown: Phoenix, AZ
Milblog url: airborneparainf82.blogspot.com
Email: airborneparainf82@gmail.com

"Overwatch = Watching Over." Yeah, leave it to the Army to oversimplify. Another example; for radio checks, someone somewhere some time ago came up with the phrase "Lima Charlie", meaning "Loud and Clear". Saying "Lima Charlie" takes four syllables, and "Loud and Clear" is only three. And yet, everyone always has to say "Lima Charlie". Stupid.

Anyhoo, yesterday was yet another day of boringness, which is all it seems to be lately. We went to this one place to watch over this other place. Nothing exciting to report. Sorry. Just lots of watching and a little bit of being cold.

The only thing noteworthy occurred when we were heading back, going around in some of the back alleys. The way out had been really jacked up, and we had gone out of our way because we didn't want to be seen. On the way back we decided to try to find a shorter route. We did, but it involved climbing this big nasty mountain of trash, then hopping down from a wall. The wall was about seven feet high. This might not seem very high, but considering the amount of gear we have on (probably 60 pounds or so) it's a long way to fall.

I made my way up the mountain of trash, and was just getting ready to hop down when I heard this sound -- loud, like a fog horn going off. I froze in my tracks, thinking it was some kind of warning horn saying "Americans are in the area!" Oh shit, here we go...But after about ten seconds the sound started changing, and that's when we realized --  it was a donkey in somebody's backyard. What the hell! Scared the ever-living piss out of me. Hahaha!

So I proceeded to hop down and totally eat shit like everyone before me. I had more gear than usual too. Since only a few of us had gone to this place I had taken a team member's automatic rifle with me, plus all his ammo. It hurt landing, and I don't think my knees have quite forgiven me yet.

DEJA VU |

June 19, 2007

DEJA VU
Name
: LT Carl Goforth
Posting date: 6/18/07
Stationed in: Anbar Province, Iraq
Milblog url: desertflier.blogspot.com
Email: cwgoforth@gmail.com

I sit down to dinner with Tim, D-squared, and Eric. Chaplain is a few tables down and comes over with his radio: "Guess what, guys? GSW* to the chest 15 mikes out."

Five minutes later "Chaps" is leaving. "Sorry guys, but the patient just rolled up." Eric is up and gone in a flash. Deja vu. This seems to be the recurring chow routine; not even a sip of coffee before we check out. Tim and I collect the leftover trays and make our way.

PATIENT HITS THE TRAUMA BAY:

Entrance wound to his left chest, but no time to look for an exit wound yet. First up, starting some big IV's, a central line, and several Army personnel on the left placing a chest tube. Eric is at the head of the bed and gets the patient intubated. Chest tube in place, and we get an initial flood of blood: hemothorax.

"Can we re-infuse it?" someone asks.

"No, we don't have the autotransfuser connected. We'll have to connect one as soon as we can," I say as the patient continues to slide downhill.

"That's it, we need to open his chest," says Eric with a sense of urgency. Clammy patina and color is quickly turning ashen, the color of cold gravy.

Our surgeon: "Grab the lines, grab the chest tube. We are going to the OR now." I'm somehow grabbing IV's, pulling off trauma bay monitors, and balancing the chest tube collection chamber while on the move.

OPERATING ROOM:

Anesthesia machine on, hot line powered up, barely-controlled chaos as everyone flies around the room. Grab sterile instrument sets, hang the fluids on pressure bags and crank up the fluid rates. Eric says, "I want four units of packed blood cells now. Who is the runner? And I need you to move now," as the patient looks, well, blank. "Someone feel again for a pulse."

No pulse. Chest compressions started, our two surgeons throwing on sterile garb while simultaneously starting the thoracotomy. No time. Every second is more precious than the last. Eric and I are pushing fluids and now blood as fast as our hands can move. Extra hands are recruited to help us pump blood and fluids even faster.

The temperature outside: 110. For the first time, the OR temp is climbing beyond comfort. We just have to turn the AC on for relief. V and D-squared walk over to turn it on, and...nothing. We know the heat works; been using it for months. We know the fan works; been using it for a few weeks. We now know the AC units are down. Both of them.

In no time, everyone is drenched in sweat. On call for this flight, I'm stuck with the flight suit on.
As soon as the patient is stabilized, we will be en route to Al Asad. The suit is soaked before the case is over, and my night has just begun.

I have it easy compared to the guys who are scrubbed in. They are wearing sterile gowns/masks/gloves on top of uniforms. No chance to step out of the room for relief or to hydrate, they are on the verge of heat exhaustion after an hour. Eric becomes the offical Gatorade representative.

Framed_goforth_gatorade2Blood arrives. Eric and I each grab one along with blood tubing. "Just keep the blood coming, and we are activating the blood bank as of now. Make it happen." The Army moves lightning fast, the Big Voice is calling out basewide for donors, and we have lifesaving whole blood in what seems like minutes.

The whole blood is a huge score for the patient: we are now giving him warm oxygen-carrying hemoglobin along with replacing the clotting factors he is losing to his injuries. Martin resects the patient's left lung: the round went right through it. Arterial line placed, Martin finishes damage control and is satisfied he stopped all of the thorasic bleeding. He starts closing the chest back up, and places two new chest tubes to drain any residual blood.

Blood chemistry and hematocrit counts are almost perfect, despite the significant losses of the patient's own volume. Another save.

FLIGHT:

It's nightfall. Around 10:00 pm and the temperature is still 100 degrees. So much for the idea that desert temperatures drop precipitously at night.

Patient does well. I'm giving blood in flight, groping for IV lines, changing out the oxygen tank, tweaking the ventilator settings to prevent high airway pressures, writing down vital signs and medications-given on a piece of tape on my flight suit, and searching for the drug access port so I can give some sedation and paralytics.

We touch down on the medical helo pad, and I run ahead to give report to the accepting physician.

The Blackhawk is in no hurry to go back to Ramadi. It's their bird, and my priority status has just been downgraded to "passenger". They go to the "dust off", and we sit there for 30 minutes before going to the fuel farm for more JP-5. The helo is blacked out, and the rotor spin drowns out any chance at hearing anything. The adrenaline crash is winding down, now that I safely passed my patient off to the Army CSH, so I close my eyes and shut down mentally.

Sensory-deprived moments. Strapped into my jump seat, sandwiched between the crew chief and flight medic as the turning rotors rock me into a rhythmic trance after hours of trauma, surgery, and flying. The cabin feels like a miniature furnace late into the night. I smell hot engine exhaust, hydraulic fluid, and a dozen other lubricants, propellents, etc. But this is a dedicated patient evacuation helicopter, so take the normal industrial smells and add a mixture of flight suits soaked in sweat, the patient, and the faint metallic smell of blood, old and fresh. An aroma I will not soon forget.

* GSW: gunshot wound

TRANSGRESSIONS |

June 18, 2007

TRANSGRESSIONS
Name: Michael
Posting date: 6/18/07
Stationed in: Iraq

His rage was palpable. I honestly thought the Lieutenant Colonel was going to make me, a sorry 1ST Lieutenant, do push-ups. Not without good reason; I -- members of my platoon, but by association I -- had eaten the last of his favorite fudge ice cream cones. He fumed and frothed for what seemed like an eternity but was actually closer to 15 minutes, asking me over and over again with desperate agitation if I realized how important fudge ice cream cones and “turkey jerky” were. I think what infuriated him most was that the gravity of my demeanor failed to match that of the topic being discussed. I tried to understand the depth of his agony but, as demonstrated by his still-flailing arms and ongoing complaints, it seemed that my efforts were wanting.

In my defense, it had been a long day. My platoon began a mission at 0400 and it was currently around 0100 the next morning. We had traversed the entirety of the city ten times in the course of the day. We had engaged in several firefights. We had bandaged the grazing wounds on one of my soldiers. We had faced somewhere around 12 RPGs in a two-hour stint. We had applied tourniquets to the stumps of what had once been the legs of one my Company’s soldiers. We escorted him and three other soldiers to the CSH*. We were involved in several high speed chases. We got into heated exchanges with mutinous terps. We dropped several terps off outside the city. We picked up one of the top ten insurgents in the city. Meanwhile, the Lieutenant Colonel, I gather, had been puttering around the COB* imagining with righteous impatience the joys of that first bite into frozen chocolate before turning in -- the delicious taste that, to him, signaled the end of another productive day in the noble fight against terror.

So we were now at a local Iraqi Army COB waiting for the jundis to work the prisoner over or do whatever they do with prisoners before they give them to us. My soldiers were hungry. I knew this. I also knew the MITT* teams at other COBs let QRFs* help themselves to food and drink when they’re trapped outside the FOB* for days on end. I told the guys to “head inside and grab something to eat."

My usually keen prescience failed to fathom the dangerously Promethean potentiality of those words. There I was, lying on my back on the rocks outside my HMMVW, enjoying one of those rare moments of peace, of desert stars not obscured by smoke, when I heard the baleful sound of a penitent Joe: “There’s a LTC who wants to talk to you...He looks pissed.”
   
“Ah shit.”  My mind unfurled a long list of possible grievances. Was it about the mission today, something about those obnoxious terps, about the state of the casualties we took, about the high priority prisoner who was soon to be in my charge? I mean this is a LTC. This must be a matter of strategic relevance.

No, he wanted me to shake down my soldiers for ice cream cones and "turkey jerky". I resisted. Something deep down, a hidden recess of forgotten and unbreakable human dignity, spoke up against the order. Let them have the ice cream cones and "turkey jerky" I said -- to myself of course. Besides, I suspected the ice cream had already melted, rendering the order impracticable.

He was adamant.

I went back to my soldiers. I tried to say something stern, paternalistic, to convey succinctly the reprehensibility, the ingratitude they had displayed in their immature taking of highly coveted dessert goods. I must say it didn’t come off quite the way I wanted. After a few minutes emphasizing the necessity of avoiding the building and its inhabitants at all costs in the future, I dismissed them from my presence and turned imperiously away. Sated with chocolate as they were, I doubt they truly grasped the depth of our guilt. I did not escape so easily. To this day I suffer. A little sadder and a little wiser, I suffer for that LTC -- his cozy chocolate night lost irrevocably, my unforgivable transgression to blame.

*
CSH: Combat Support Hospital
COB: Contingency Operating Base
MITT: Military Transition Team; lives with and trains the Iraqi Army
QRF: Quick Reaction Force
FOB: Forward Operating Base

FORGIVING |

June 15, 2007

FORGIVING
Name: Tadpole
Posting date: 6/15/07
Returned from: Afghanistan
Milblog url: armysailor.com

I give a lot of thought to the suicide bomber who detonated himself less than 30 feet in front of my truck. I see it all over again in dreams. I imagine it instantly when I hear any loud bang. When I tell people about the incident I feel strange, because it seems so alien. People must think I am telling a tall tale. I wish I were.

I re-live the moment in my head every single day without fail. At some point, if only for a moment, I will give it some thought. And I always feel thankful that I am alive, because if he had gotten his way I would not be.

It can be hard to deal with, that this man killed himself in an attempt to kill me and my friends. I just can't wrap my head around it. What drives someone to such a deep level of hatred that they are willing to blow themselves up, just for the chance of killing another person? A person they've never met.

I can understand those who wish to engage us in battle. That's what war is all about. If you want to take a shot at me, I get it. But blowing yourself up? I can't fathom the idea.

After it happened I remember feeling very angry, and also very lucky. At the time we believed one of the trucks in front of us in the convoy had been destroyed. I hate myself sometimes because one of my initial thoughts was "Thank God it wasn't me." What an awful thing to think. Everyone tells me that it's a normal reaction, but that does not make it any less awful. In fact, it is the very sincerity of the feeling, the depth of it, that makes it so awful.

I used to get so mad at the suicide bomber who had caused me to have that awful feeling. I remember the image of his corpse when we went back to the scene. His body had been blown to bits. First we found a hand, still curled in the position it was in around the steering wheel. One finger was slightly extended, pointing in the direction where we would find most of his torso.

Then we found a chunk of flesh that was once his thigh. It still had wires attached to it, and the flesh was peeled from the bone in a most peculiar way, leaving one jagged edge of bone well exposed. There was no blood. How remarkable. The heat of the blast must have instantly cauterized the flesh; though there were some splatters of blood on the ground, there was no significant amount on any of his "parts".

His torso was a sight to behold. His face was unscathed. It was clear that this man was not an Afghan. He was an Arab, probably a Saudi. His teeth were perfectly straight and very white. His teeth were in better condition than my own. His face was stuck in a semi-smiling distant gaze, and though you could see there was no life in his eyes, you could see that there was no fear either. His one arm was still attached to his torso, his head lying on it almost as if he were napping. His chest was blown open, exposing his bloodless ribs to the dust-filled air. As you continued around the corpse, absorbing its awful position, you could see that his scalp had been peeled back by the explosion, with a large chunk missing. I remember later using a stick to remove that chunk from the passenger sideview mirror of a German vehicle that was ahead of us in the convoy. His scalp had become wedged in the mirror's hinge.


My own truck was sprayed with blood, and guts, and burning chunks of tire. The explosion was so powerful that it threw the entire engine of his vehicle clear of the scene. Again the thought occurs to me; I should be dead. A large piece of shrapnel hit the driver-side door of the soft-skinned SUV I was driving, and went through it like butter. It should have pierced my left lung, but it hit something inside the door and was deflected downward. I was saved by fate.

I was so angry. Angry because he wanted to kill me, and by all accounts should have succeeded. What had I ever done to this man? I wasn't even in his country. He had come from a distant country to carry out this heinous act of cowardice.

As time went on I sat and looked at the photos taken at the scene. I looked at them over and over. I looked at them until I had his face memorized. I looked at them until the grotesque nature of the scene no longer bothered me.

The more I looked at those pictures the less angry I felt. Not only did I begin to realize how truly lucky I was, but also how truly pathetic he was. I began to not take it personally. He wasn't trying to kill me and my comrades specifically. He was trying to kill any member of the coalition that he came across. His was an act of cowardly desperation, not only because of the nature of the act itself, but also because of how indiscriminate it was. He detonated himself in the middle of a busy intersection, one where there were many children. Children love to run along side our convoys hoping for chocolate. He showed no concern for those children, or anyone else.

The more I thought about it the more it seemed to me what a sad life this man must have lead. What a shameless follower of absolute lunacy he must have been. After all, who in their right mind would blow themselves up? There are better ways to fight for a cause. I almost began to pity him. I could not imagine living such a life.

Though this man tried to kill me, though he did cause me and several of my comrades injury, though he was an incredibly selfish coward, I committed myself to forgiving him. I forgave him because I did not want to spend the rest of my life with such hate in my heart. I saw what hatred had driven him to.

So now, almost a year after his attack, here I am. I am left with no hatred in my heart towards this man, but many frightful, grotesque images in my head. I will never forget his face. I will never forget the suddenness of the explosion. I will never forget that horrid feeling of the joy of survival. I fear that I may never forgive myself for feeling that way.

I want to move on. But I will never forget.

PLEASE GIVE ME MONEY |

June 14, 2007

PLEASE GIVE ME MONEY
Name: SGT Sack
Posting date
: 6/14/07
Stationed in: Iraq
Hometown: Omaha, NE
Milblog url: http://sackiniraq.blogspot.com
Email: sack77@cox.net

Well, not me exactly. I was on the Fisher House website the other day (getting a link for my post about the forthcoming Sandbox book), and noticed that they have a Marine Corps Marathon support team, where soldiers/sailors/airmen/marines that are running the MCM can raise money to support the Fisher House. I thought to myself, "Wow, what a great idea, too bad the Chicago Marathon (catch up on my training here) and MCM are on the same day." Not so fast, my friend. They have another program where basically you can support Fisher House via any race you feel like running. So, a few short minutes later I had everything set up for Team Sack.

This program is particularly good, because unlike other race sponsorships (where if you collect a certain amount they will pay your race entrance fee, travel/hotel, etc) the Fisher House team will get every dime of any money that you pledge. Also, they have very little overhead -- according to their website, 97 cents on the dollar go directly to help the families of wounded soldiers. These guys have a great reputation in the military community and are truly supporting a needed service.

I would like to raise $1,000 over the next 16 weeks. Please consider a gift to this worthwhile organization. Since I'm running 26.2 miles (I hope!) you could consider a dollar a mile and donate 25 bucks, and I'll do the last 1.2 miles for free. This would only require 40 people to contribute to meet my goal.

The easiest way to donate is to go to my pledge website and use your credit card. They will send you your receipt immediately and your donation is tax deductible. What could be better than that? Thanks in advance for your support!

THANK YOU |

June 13, 2007

THANK YOU
Name: Eric Coulson
Posting date: 6/13/07
Stationed in: Ramadi, Iraq
Hometown: St. Louis, MO
Milblog url: badgersforward.blogspot.com
Email: badger.six@gmail.com

One of the things that Americans have been concerned with as this war has moved along is whether or not we are properly equipped to carry out our missions. And rightfully so. You have paid your tax dollar, you have supported this effort, and you have sent your loved ones to fight.

Anyone who has been in the military can give you a litany of complaints. The saying "a bitchy Soldier, is a happy Soldier" exists for a reason. But I would be hard pressed to complain about most of our equipment issues.

The MRAP (Mine Resistant Ambush Protective) vehicle has been of great debate on the internet of late. Do they cost too much? Are they really the best vehicle to replace the HUMVEE?

Well, how much is your life worth? What vehicle is going to balance all of the the needs of the military? In truth I can't answer those questions for you objectively; to me these vehicles are well worth the cost because they protect my soldiers. I received a few new ones the other day. Here I am with two of them. Framed_coulson_mraps

So thank you to the folks in the Pentagon that procured them, thank you to the folks at Force Protection and Ultra Machine and Fabrication for making them, and thank you to the American Taxpayer for paying for them.

This is the first time I have received brand new vehicles in the military. They even have the new car smell.

GATORS |

June 12, 2007

GATORS
Name: Teflon Don
Posting date: 6/12/07
Stationed in: Ramadi, Iraq
Milblog url: acutepolitics.blogspot.com

We said goodbye to Gator recently, after over four months of working together. Gator is the nickname Marines affectionately give their Amphibious Assault Vehicles -- the 23-ton tracks that accompanied us on so many missions through Iraq. Our Gators were the men of Co. B, 2nd Amphibious Assault Battalion. Gator was the first Marine unit that most of us had ever worked with directly, and I doubt we'll soon see one better.
Framed_teflon_gator1

A Gator platoon sounds off before leaving Falluja.


Over the course of the months we spent together, we jointly completed over 60 route clearance missions without a casualty. As our security team, they chased our phantoms -- like the cows that looked like men. Gator helped us evac wounded children after a school near us was hit by a mortar. We towed them out the time they slid off one of the steep raised roads we patrol. On other days, we spun up patrols to go help Gator Marines that had been blown up. While we were traveling to and from Ramadi, we depended more than once on Gator patrols when we ran into trouble.

The day before they left, the 1st Sergeant of Gator presented each of us with a certificate of appreciation, and membership in Gator's team as honorary Marines. He also bestowed upon us the unit motto chalked on their vehicles: "YAT-YAS", or "You Ain't Tracks, You Ain't Shit". Our unit was converted to route clearance from a mechanized (tracked) combat engineer unit, so we well understand the tough love of mech troops for their tracks.

The brotherhood we shared with Gator was personified by two individuals: Specialist Yaw and Lance Corporal Yaw. SPC Chris Yaw is a member of my Army Reserve squad; LCPL Matthew Yaw is his younger brother and belongs to one of the active duty Marine platoons in Gator. Neither expected to see the other while serving in Iraq, but they ended up running multiple patrols together.
Framed_teflon_gator2
Yaw and Yaw.

Both Yaws were gunners. Both have paid final respects to friends at small shrines in front of dusty congregations. For Chris, it was three friends and platoon mates; for Matt, it was his garrison roommate. Both have survived multiple IED hits, while their platoons found many more bombs before they exploded. They shared the dust, the mud, the flies, the stench, and the heat. They were physical brothers, but someone once said that the bonds of combat form thicker ties than blood. I don't know that that statement is strictly true, but I do know we all remember Gator warmly.

Godspeed, Gators.

Oh, and YAT-YAS!

SMALL WORLD |

June 11, 2007

SMALL WORLD
Name: @WR
Posting date: 6/11/07
Returned from: Iraq
Milblog url: walterreed.blogspot.com

Framed_wr_smallworld_2



One night I sat in the desert by myself.
The sky stretching from horizon to horizon.
As if the world had folded itself in two.

The sky deep blue filled with a billion stars.
The earth ashen brown, its horizon unbroken.
Both meeting at distance unknown to me.
And to me the world seemed so small.

Of it fitting so neatly under this sky.
And for a moment I felt both the cool night air
And the heat radiating from the baked ground.
And everything else seemed so small.

A hundred faces rushing by.
A thousand lives and a hundred thousand things to do.
A million moments of life, flying by.
And to me I felt so small.

And there I stood.
So small in an even smaller world.

GRATEFUL |

June 08, 2007

GRATEFUL
Name: SPC Freeman
Posting date: 6/8/07
Stationed in: Iraq
Milblog url: calmbeforethesand.blogspot.com

Our motor pool is a barren expanse of gravel and sand on the northern perimeter of our FOB. It borders the flightline of the local airbase, and is big enough to accomodate at least thirty football fields. It's easy to get lost amidst the rows of vehicles and equipment; especially if you work at it.

It's an unusual contrast: the motor pool and flightline themselves are desolate and sandy, marked only by patches of sage and scrub, while outside the wire, the lush fields and palm groves stretch northward to the horizon. There are times when, finding myself alone, I have difficulty accepting what I see. Were this place not such a miserable wasteland, gutted by violence and poverty, I can actually see it being quite a lovely place to live. This thought is especially frequent lately, as we balance precariously between the last of the winter monsoons and the sweltering summer dry season.

Today is one of those days that toes the line. It's a bright day, though mild, with a blue sky marbled by dark cumulus formations threatening rain. A faint breeze blows in from the north, and beyond the wire farmers are busy with the first of the sprouting crops. I'm out back in a remote corner of the motor pool, operating a forklift. We're supposed to be helping one of the Line platoons prepare for a future mission, but I've managed to abscond with one of the big front-end loaders. While Oz and Elder and Mik are busy slaving away with members of Second, I'm armed with a long list of to-do's from SSG Mueller (currently on leave), and so I maneuver deftly amongst hulks of trashed equipment and neatly stacked lumber, grateful for the rare chance to get away and, even for a minute, just be alone.

With my level of schooling and solitary nature, people in my unit tend to mischaracterize me as being averse to an honest day's labor. I'm not. I just prefer to work alone. Truthfully, the best job I ever had was one I took during the summer after my freshman year of college. I worked as a groundskeeper for the local Water Authority back home. It was a lot of grunt labor -- maintenance, equipment repair, landscaping -- but it was good work, and I was given a long leash. I got some of my best thinking done while perched on the back of a John Deere lawn tractor. Like Recon, and unlike being part of The Line, that job afforded me some blessed solitude, all while getting my hands dirty in the outdoors. Such is the situation I find myself in today.

I start off by attempting to unstrap and offload some large flatracks, which need to be re-palletized for Second as part of their upcoming job. I have to move large pieces of construction material, as well as some tool crates, before I can pick up the flatracks themselves and move them down to where Second is staging their equipment. Considering that my forklift is classified to over 10,000 pounds, the work goes quickly. I unstrap the loads and then sort them out by component, all in the space of roughly an hour.

By a little later in the afternoon, a few crates of spare lumber are all that remain, and this being my first time on this machine, I decide that this would be a perfect opportunity to attempt a little delicate work with the forks. I offload first one, then another crate with delicate precision, taking care not to let the uneven terrain make me damage my parcels. This whole process takes maybe ten minutes, after which a single box is all that remains for the last flatrack. It's a large crate, stacked high with spare wood, and with gentle care I maneuver my forks in under the box and then lift slowly. I'm growing more confident with this machine by the minute, and so I move quickly to drop off the crate and thus finish with this particular task.

Things go smoothly, until I round a sharp corner near the toolshed.

My leadership knows me for having a lead foot, and whether it's a Humvee, a Gator, or a 10,000-pound forklift, my tendency to punch the gas is the same. I yank the wheel into a hard left turn and, unaccustomed as I am to the center-pivot steering on my loader, find myself unprepared for the sudden jerking and bouncing that rattles my forks. I pull back to compensate, but it's too late. The crate jounces harshly, and a good two hundred pounds of lumber goes flying. I have no choice but to drive over most of it as I offload the now-empty crate. After that's done, I shut off the fork and look behind me -- two-by-fours and four-by-fours all over. Nice work, I find myself thinking, and as I doff my Kevlar and climb weapon-in-hand down the ladder, I find my good mood marred ever so slightly by this turn of events.

"Fuck," I say, to nobody in particular.

My wife likes to chide me for letting minor annoyances get the better of my morale. She's right, of course. I don't know why I let myself get so irritated by trifling inconveniences. The task of hauling the lumber, piece by piece, to the appropriate stacks takes me only about ten minutes, and after getting the whole mess cleaned up, I decide to sit down on the now-empty flatrack and have a cigarette. I lay my weapon down beside me and take out a Camel from my pack, and after lighting up and taking my first drag, I stick my smoke between my lips and interlock my fingers, resting my arms upon my drawn-up knees. I roll my neck from side-to-side, savoring the relief of popping joints, and take in my surroundings.

Several minutes pass. I find myself not so much smoking as simply puffing away idly at the cigarette, much as one might do with a pipe or fine cigar. Before I know it, a long stick of ash dangles uneasily from the end of my smoke, and I extinguish the butt and drop it into a cargo pocket on my ACU's. I let out a small sigh, and tilt my chin upward, taking a deep breath.

Here in this remote corner of the motor pool I'm alone for almost a half-mile in every direction. The flight line is quiet, for the moment, and up above, the clouds are racing south across a perfect cerulean sky. A mild breeze caresses my neck, and on its currents come the smells of sweet grass and growing wheat. It's the sort of breeze that seems to mute out background noise, while making no noise itself. I find myself quietly whispering the lyrics to a favorite song -- "Spring Haze" by Tori Amos -- and for a moment I close my eyes and give in to bittersweet sentiment.

It's a beautiful day in an ugly, ugly place, and for a moment I miss the gentle peace of my days sitting out on the Port Austin breakwall. This day is at least comparable to any one of those in fairness, and yet no matter how much time passes, be it in Germany or Iraq, I never get over being landlocked.

And still, I breathe deeply anyway, savoring the rare moment. This is what my life boils down to these days: Small moments of beauty, a thousand small Nirvanas, stolen wherever I can find them. And I am grateful for every one.

I have to be grateful. There is no other choice.

THANK YOU, MR. BUG ZAPPER INVENTOR GUY |

June 07, 2007

THANK YOU, MR. BUG ZAPPER INVENTOR GUY
Name: Eddie
Posting date: 6/7/07
Stationed in: Baghdad, Iraq
Hometown: Phoenix, AZ
Milblog url
: http://airborneparainf82.blogspot.com
Email: airborneparainf82@gmail.com

The room that I sleep in has a bug zapper in it due to the insane number of mosquitos that we have flying around. For some reason I seem to taste like a delicacy to these little flying bastards, so any preventive measure that will keep them from eating me alive is a good one.

Back home in AZ mosquitos are not too big of a problem. In fact bugs in general aren't, so I'm not real used to bug zappers. So I don't know if this is how they normally are or if the bug zapper in my room is special, but whenever a mosquito meets his maker via 100,000 volts of electricity, there's this awful loud snap/pop as his mosquito carcass turns to smoke. Good. One less bloodsucker. But every time, it scares the ever-living shit out of me! It's really bad at night, right as I'm getting ready to fall asleep: "ZAAP!!!", another one bites the dust. I feel like the biggest sissy, but I practically jump in the air when it really catches me off guard.

I think it has to do with the night that I was in the alleyway and the guy jumped out and started shooting at us (me being the front point man) from 25-30 meters away. The ferocity of the sound of the bullets coming at me and hitting around me has left me slighty jumpy. It's gotten a lot better, but it used to be bad. The sound of the vampires dying is very very very similar to the snap or pop of rounds as they pass very near to you, and I think that is why I am startled so much.

I probably normally wouldn't write about this, but last night had me really thinking about it. It seemed an armada of mosquitos was flying around in the room just as I was trying to go to sleep. They were being drawn to the bug zapper like a fat kid towards cake. It was just  "pop, POP! SNAP, pop pop SNAP!" all night long. And even though I knew another one would fly in there soon, it still startled me when it did. The craziest thing was I noticed my heart rate accelerate, and I got the feeling and alertness of a tiny amount of adrenelin starting to work its way through my body. I seriously think that my body was reacting to what it thought was combat. No matter how hard I tried to not have it happen, and just tell myself "This is stupid," my body did its own thing. Kind of crazy huh? I don't know how I finally dozed off, but I do know that I only got a few hours of sleep before having to wake up early to go out on patrol.

DEDICATION |

June 06, 2007

DEDICATION...
Name: LT Carl Goforth
Posting date: 6/6/07   
Stationed in: Anbar Province, Iraq
Milblog url: desertflier.blogspot.com
Email: cwgoforth@gmail.com
 

"Two wounded inbound. IED attack," the Army coordinator says. We go to the OR, turn on the lights, start warming fluids, ensure the oxygen generator is turned on along with the anesthesia machine. After that we wait, as always, with a mixture of anticipation and anxiety.

"Headlights coming down the alley!" yells one of the surgeons. Four soldiers quickly unload a casualty off the Humvee and run into the trauma bay as we direct foot traffic. I'm standing in casualty receiving, and start to follow the patient in when I'm frozen in my tracks: he is so dark from dirt and mud that he doesn't look like he has a uniform on and I can't make out his facial features. He has to be Iraqi civilian. I'm a little confused because the word was two Army soldiers. I do a double-take and don't see anything beyond the upper portion of his thighs. Nothing there but empty space.

The medic is on their heels, and he looks as pale as a silverlit moon. His uniform is caked with dirt. Sweat streaming down his face into his eyes; he doesn't even notice, because he's practically running blind into the trauma bay when the chaplain and I stop him. Chaplain asks him if he's the medic, and he can only shake his head in the affirmative. We quickly thank him for doing such an outstanding job of getting the patient to us, and "Chaps" takes him aside to talk to him and comfort him.

I follow on the heels of the litterbearers into the OR. Staff is streaming in to help. I position myself on the soldier's right flank and establish IV access while simultaneously putting monitor equipment on. I do a quick scan of the room to see if crowd control is needed, and spot an unknown visitor wearing a tan flight suit with no identification. I quickly walk over, introduce myself, and request he immediately identify himself. "Company Commander," he says. We talk for a bit, and I ask about the patient. "Just married a few months ago while on R and R. Such a good guy," he says. What to say back?...We both stand in silence for a few moments. I ask him if he's okay with staying, and he seems fine. I quickly go back to work. The orthopedic surgeon, Tim, and general surgeon, Martin, are working on the extremities at the same time. Mark and I take great care to package him up for the flight to Al Asad. We start giving sedatives and pain medications immediately.Framed_goforth_dedication_surgery

His unit: their love for him is unquestionable. His buddies press into the OR the second we finish working on what's left of his legs. A few with shellshock and patched up arms and legs from the blast are at his side and don't want to leave, hollow look in their eyes and mouths stuck permanently in "O" mode. Eric talks to them about how well their battle buddy, their brother in arms, did with the surgery.

They are so upset with themselves, as if they were to blame. Eric gives one a bear hug; reassures them it isn't their fault. We let them -- no, we are honored to let them -- be the litterbearers back to the ambulance for the short ride to the helo pad.

I help load him into the ambulance for Mark, and turn to run ahead to the helo pad, and as I turn I come to a screeching halt for the second time tonight. His entire unit is lined up and at attention along the route to the helo pad. As the ambulance slowly pulls out, they render colors to their wounded brother. I was so proud of them all; they would see one of their own through anything. The air heavy and charged with emotion, I find myself stumbling on knocking knees because this time it's my turn to be blinded by my own tears as I try to make it to the landing area before the ambulance.Framed_goforth_dedication_night

They all walk behind the ambulance to the helo pad, and help Mark and I load him onto the Blackhawk. We stand together one last time as the Blackhawk spins up rotors and gently wisks him to the 399th CSH at Al Asad. Not a muscle twitches until helo and patient are out of sight. Now we wait for the updates and pray that he will continue to have a good life with his new bride beyond this violent collision of reality. Who deserves it more than this man?

FIFTEEN MONTHS AND COUNTING |

June 05, 2007

FIFTEEN MONTHS AND COUNTING
Name: SPC Ian Wolfe
Posting date: 6/5/07
Stationed in: Camp Adder, Iraq
Hometown: Minneapolis, MN
Email: iwolfe11@msn.com 

Fifteen months and counting. We were extended back in January, but we are expected to be leaving soon. We have been doing many things here as a medical company, including combat arms missions; go figure. I originally posted here about a first aid mission we started to teach basic first aid and women's health out in the villages. We have been very proud and humbled to help the local population. Our team that works with the Iraqi Army has passed the first aid mission on to them. Now the Iraqi Army medics are teaching out in the community, and it has become an Army-wide program. The Iraqi Army medics have a better understanding of the locals, and are able to build a better relationship with the people. This is important, as one of the Iraqi doctors told us that the people in our area are still a bit hesitant about them because of what the army did under Saddam. 

It is interesting to hear about what people say on the news back home. The daily situation is not really reported, only sporadic events. I will tell you of one situation that is all too common here. Our base was getting rocketed and one of our patrols saw the people responsible, but were unable to attack them because there was a village near them. You must always think of where your rounds may end up, so we continued to get attacked rather than risk hurting civillians. We constantly put ourselves at risk to make sure Iraqi civillians are safe. The military is not a bunch of brainwashed thugs, although we do have some bad eggs. The majority of us come here to make a difference and to do good. We spend countless hours and resources to further the Iraqi infrastructure and their well-being.

Part of my company's mission is to rotate through the theater hospital in Camp Anaconda. The time I spent there was unforgettable. The patients varied, from Iraqi civilian, police, and army to American and coalition wounded. Unlike us, the insurgents don't care where their mortar shells land, and they don't care where they shoot them from. One man decided to shoot them from his own house. When our systems shot back, his kids were wounded. I can't believe that as a father he could do that.

I took care of a lot of pediatrics. One in particular who I will never forget is Marwali.  She was an eighteen-month-old girl who was wounded in an insurgent attack. She was blinded and hurt in her arm. She would cry unless someone held her. Here grandma was there too, but she was still confused after the attack. Her family didn't come until about two weeks later. The men in this country don't always take a big part in the fathering area, however there are some that do. We had some other kids whose fathers stayed next to them the entire time. 

Seeing the American wounded was a very somber experience I will never forget. It was also scary, and a reality check to think about all the times I was outside the wire. We usually got the wounded out to Germany right away once they were stable. I remember one kid we were working on who was okay except for his feet. They  were gone. He was intubated, tube in the throat, so he couldn't talk. We called his family for him and put the phone up to his ear. It was one of the saddest things, and we were all teared up. We always describe amputations as "below knee" or "above knee". Every time the doctor told his mother and wife that he had a below-knee amputation he would sit up, mad. He wanted to make sure we said he only lost his feet.

There were others who were not in that good of shape. One night a Marine came in who had a tattoo of the names of fallen comrades. He had so much vascular damage that we could not stop him from bleeding. There was so much blood it was pooling on the cot and the floor. He was bleeding right through an inch of bandage. 

I did meet some very interesting people. One of my favorite patients, besides Marwali, was Jasim, a young Iraqi Army soldier who lost a leg and was burned. He was my patient a lot of the time. He was very friendly and his wife was having another child. He missed the birth, but was very excited about it. Once he got better we moved him to the other ward where I would visit him. He was also in lively spirits.

There are a lot of young men fighting for their country here. Despite what the media says, the soldiers and police believe in what they are doing.  Recently in our area the Iraqi Army dealt a huge blow to the Mehdi Army. It turns out that the police and army have not been infiltrated by the Mehdis. One of our teams was at Camp Ur, the Iraqi Army base, and they greeted the soldiers as they came back from their victory, all in high spirits and very proud of themselves.  As always, as in our own military, there are bright courageous young men who have strong convictions who step up to do something.

We always get grouped into a mass unit, but think of the individual soldiers in our Army. We come from all walks of life and we each bring something to the table. We all come here with idealistic views of helping the people and completing the missions before us. We do this as people criticize and argue back home. We do this while hearing about the latest debate in Washington. We do this while uninformed celebrities voice their opinions loudly, and sometimes even insult us. When I think about this, I think of all the people I met through my time in the ICU in Camp Anaconda. I think of Marwali and what kind of life she will have in a male-dominated society. I think of how the soldier with no feet will feel when he returns home, probably with a big smile on his face. I think of Jasim and his homecoming with his children; I know he will tell his kids someday about the service he did for his country. I think of all the people who have been injured, and I think that we are not fighting for America, not directly anyways; we are fighting to free the Iraqi people from this hatred and violence.

This might be selfish but I don't feel that "we" as America are at war. "We" as Soldiers, Marines, Airman, and Sailors, and our families are at war, while the rest of America debates about it. The news reports events with their stock footage, and only the people involved really know the work being done. I applaud this site for giving the people involved a place to talk about our individual experiences, rather than the one bad thing that is reported on CNN each week. As always, thanks to all who support us, and I pray for all who sacrificed for the well being of others.

THE MANY FACES OF "FACE" |

June 04, 2007

THE MANY FACES OF "FACE"
Name: 1SG Troy Steward
Posting date: 6/4/07
Returned from: Afghanistan
Hometown: Amherst, NY
Milblog url: bouhammer.com

I have done a lot of missions with my man Face. We spent many a day together cramped in a HUMVEE, just us and maybe a terp or two. Because of that I have a lot of pictures of him. He is a guy that constantly cracked us up with his funny faces and anecdotes. Before we left Afghanistan I made this video. The song is "I See Pretty Girls", by Kids of Whidney High, which is featured in the movie The Ringer -- one of our team's favorite movies, and one we quote from often. Once you hear it, the song just sticks in your head.

This is actually an edited version of the video, appropriate for all ages. :-)  The original is for the team only and anyone that Face wants to share it with. Also, let me clarify that the last picture you see in it is not Face, but B.J., who loves to mess with Face, and allowed this picture to be taken on Face's fur rug while Face was gone on leave.

COPING WITH HOMECOMING |

June 01, 2007

COPING WITH HOMECOMING
Name: Tadpole
Posting date: 6/1/07
Returned from
: Afghanistan
Milblog url: armysailor.com

This may sound silly, in fact at first it may make you think I am crazy, but the fact is that for the last few weeks I have really missed Afghanistan. I have given this a lot of thought, and I have discussed it with a few people, including some veterans, and I have realized that perhaps it is not as crazy as it may initially seem. You see I have realized that it's not Afghanistan that I miss. I don't miss the crappy living conditions, I don't miss being shot at, and I don't miss carrying a weapon everywhere. What I do miss is the camaraderie that I shared while I was there. In a mere 18 months I built the kind of friendships that usually take years or even a lifetime to forge.

Don't get me wrong. I have plenty of friends here at home, but it is different. I like the people I work with here at the NAVICP as well, but our relationships can never be as tight as those I have with people who I went to hell and back with. While I was in Afghanistan I formed bonds that crossed rank structures and services. A Lieutenant Commander was my brother. I had the privilege of being mentored by two great Master Sergeants, an amazing Senior Chief, and no less than six Chief Petty Officers. I learned how to mentor numerous Sergeants, Petty Officers, Airmen, Corporals and Privates. At the end of the day each one was family.

The support structure that you form while in a combat zone is one that can not be adequately described in words. Being separated from all of that, as quickly as I was, turned out to be difficult to handle.

This deployment was unusual because I was not deployed with my permanent unit, so when we came home we scattered to the winds. Normally you come home from a deployment and your shipmates are home with you, but now I don't get to see any of them. The Lieutenant Commander who I love like a brother is in South Carolina, I have a Master Sergeant in Utah and one in New York, my Senior Chief is in San Diego, and the Chiefs I served with are in Nevada, California, Florida, Virginia, and other locations. I know that if I ever truly need any help I can call on any of them at any time; after all, that's what brotherhood is about, but it is still a bit hard being home.

Don't get me wrong, I am so happy to be home I can't express it. I love my family and my friends. But it is very difficult to feel fulfilled in my current job as a desk jockey. It's hard to feel sympathetic when my friends complain about something from their jobs or lives, and I haven't experienced anything I would consider exciting in the least since I have been home. It's an odd feeling, and I hope that it will soon pass.

I am told this is all normal, so I would want others returning home to know what to expect, and to also know that these feelings are normal. I would also encourage those coming home from a deployment to discuss their feelings in-depth with family and friends, and other veterans. It can help your family and friends to better understand what you've gone through and what you are feeling, and it can help you regain a feeling of being normal again.


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