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.

SO IT GOES FORWARD |

August 31, 2007

SO IT GOES FORWARD
Name: American Soldier
Posting date: 8/31/07
Returned from: Iraq
Milblog url: soldierlife.com

I sat in the terminal waiting for my flight to be called, my wife and I enjoying our last moments together. I remember them clearly and all the emotions involved. It was so thick you could cut it with a knife. Across from us was a couple the same age as us, holding each other's hands and enjoying the moment.

For me it was getting ready to leave my life forever. For them it was an overdue vacation. He had returned from the war earlier that year and he and his wife were going home to family. He asked me if I was coming or going. I told him I was going, a common phrase that is often shared when traveling. Sort of like the nod you get when you know someone else is a soldier. The quiet respectful gesture.

We got to talking and it wasn’t very long before we started to share similar interests and commonalities. If I wasn’t leaving I would have befriended this couple. At one point he reached into his wallet and pulled out a four leaf clover. It was laminated but the exterior had a worn look. He told me he got it from another soldier before he left for Iraq the year before. He wanted to give it to me, and said that sometimes luck is all you’ll ever have. I gladly accepted and thanked him. The time was drawing to an end, so my wife and I spent those precious moments by ourselves. When it was time to go I thanked him again and shook his hand. The rest of that story is for another time.

Fast forward to last week, and I was sitting in the same airport, terminal and row of seats. A soldier who had that fresh-from-Iraq tan came and sat down next to me. He was quiet and was just looking at the ground. Some folks looked on and went about their business, reading their papers, etc. Some people looked at him, trying to not catch his attention. A few minutes had gone by and I turned to him and asked if he was coming or going. He looked at me and said he was heading back. Fresh off his two week leave, he was heading to his unit to finish his duty.

We exchanged small talk, just two soldiers talking about nothing really. I was on my way out on business. The time was drawing near and my plane was ready to go. I reached in my wallet to check if I had some cash or if I needed to hit the ATM. The edge of the laminate that held the four leaf clover scratched my finger. I looked at it and smiled for a moment. The memory of that day all came back in an instant.

I pulled it out and looked to the soldier and told him that I was given this last year, before I left for Iraq, and that I made it back despite being wounded. Sometimes luck is all I ever relied on over there. I told him that I would like him to have it and said that this would be at least the third trip for this clover. He gladly accepted it.

The call came for my plane to board and I stood up and shook his hand. I smiled and shook my head slightly. He smiled back and understood. I grabbed my bag and headed off.

Wherever that soldier is tonight I hope that I in some way I have brought him some luck and that clover continues to make its way into other soldiers' hands. Paying it forward is always better than simply paying it back.

RECREATIONAL WARFARE |

August 29, 2007

RECREATIONAL WARFARE
Name: SFC Toby Nunn
Posting date: 8/29/07
Stationed in: Kuwait / Iraq
Hometown: Oakland, CA via Terrace B.C. CANADA
Milblog url
: tobynunn.typepad.com

The Shelbystanis* were a nation of stupid people that aggravated me beyond belief. I was always in a state of disbelief about the things I was hearing. The leadership was drunk on stupid juice all the time. But I have now entered a new place. I am currently in the capital of POGistan. Also know as AJ in Kuwait. I was selected to come down here with our crew to display our vehicle and discuss it with some VIPs.

The reason I have dubbed this place POGistan is due to the complete state of denial that the majority of people that live here operate in. There are paved streets with street signs and painted lines, motorpools with fences, and Starbucks with complete food courts and all the amenities of home. I feel like I am back in the States.

As I was walking through the quad area last night it was like I was back at college, with young guys and gals hanging out in the warm night air, flirting and dancing while drinking thier Venti Java Chip Frappacinos (for the record, I am a fan of those). I was able to pick up a couple of the newest issues of International Relations and sit there reading. It was hard to believe that only a few days ago we were getting shot at. Mortars were falling from the skies and we looked at every person as if they themselves were going to kill us. Now I am watching my crew, J and Hamster, checking out the girls and making plans to go to the pool.

We are billeted in a large "warehouse" type building. It has separate areas with plenty of wall lockers and space. It is a hard structure with arctic AC, unlimited power outlets (Dual Voltage), cable hook ups, and to top it off FREE WiFi. Thats right I am typing this post right now from my very own computer. This is only the second time that I've ever been able to do that, lying in my comfortable bunk that has a decent mattress.

The best part of this experience is to hear these people complain about the substandard living conditions and diminished quality of life. The only thing that is not here is a bar! I had a hard time listening to the guy I was bunking near complaining about the speed of his internet, when this is the fastest I have experienced since being in theater. Our guys walk a mile to pay $7 an hour for slow, inconsistent internet while this guy is laying on his bunk with his own laptop complaining that its taking 20 seconds for a page to load. I can remember waiting 5-8 minutes for a page to load only a few days ago.

The comments about this "combat zone" also are getting a little confusing, because this is 9-5 only and when you're not working you are in civilians, going to the "club", hanging at the civic center, and enjoying the best gym I have seen in a while.

Don't get me wrong. I am not "hating" on these gals/guys, I am straight jealous! I wish my guys could live in nice accomodations like this and enjoy all the luxuries that come with it. BUT, I am still a warrior and I could not live with myself if I came all this way, separated from my wife and kids, just to sit here not doing what I have been trained to do.

I have a need to be in it. I don't know why. I guess I just have to know in my heart that I am the guy that can. Sooner or later I will be too old for this, and then I am not sure what I am going to do. I am starting to understand how my father possibly feels facing retirement.

So the best case scenerio would be to have my Black Forest cake and eat it too. I would do my job but come home to a place like this. Then it would truly be Recreational Warfare!

*Shelbystanis: residents of Shelbystan, aka Camp Shelby, Mississippi

THE GREAT WALL |

August 28, 2007


THE GREAT WALL

Name: CAPT Doug Traversa
Posting date: 8/27/07
Returned from: Kabul, Afghanistan
Hometown: Tullahoma, TN
Milblog url: traversa.typepad.com
Email
: traversa@gimail.af.mil

Although I never wrote about him on The Sandbox, anyone who read my blog Afghanistan Without a Clue will remember my friend 1st Lt Dany Barcan, Romanian Army. Dany and I played soccer together many times, as well as poker on Saturday nights. He even posted on my blog occasionally. But one of Dany’s biggest contributions to life at Camp Phoenix in Kabul was The Great Wall.

He and his unit created a most impressive monument to the troops who served at Camp Phoenix. In this photo you see the courtyard of the Romanian section of camp -- painted conexes with huge US and Romanian flags -- and in the center you can see the Great Wall itself.

Framed_traversa_wall_1

Dany was a wheeler-dealer, a friend to everyone, the sort of guy who had never met a stranger. He spent his last month at Phoenix trading his gear to Americans for U.S. items. My hutmate ended up with a bust of Vlad the Impaler (the real Dracula). I ended up giving him my Air Force running suit in exchange for a Romanian uniform and field jacket. I also have a huge Romanian flag that I haven’t found a good place for yet. But I digress. 

Dany decided to start asking everyone he met if they would donate a patch to the memorial he was creating, and within two weeks he had all the patches you see below. 

You can play “Where’s Waldo” if you wish. See if you can identify patches from Italy, Greece, France, Mongolia, Romania, KBR (our contractor), Great Britain, Georgia, and even Gen Pritt, the Camp Phoenix Commander. Most importantly, you can see the names of many men and women from many countries who risked their lives to help rebuild Afghanistan. Perhaps one day I’ll be able to return to a peaceful Afghanistan and see the Great Wall still standing. If not, sharing these photos is my part in preserving its memory.

Framed_traversa_wall_2

Dany and I pose after I had added my name to the wall.

Framed_traversa_wall_3

Framed_traversa_wall_4_2

Framed_traversa_wall_5

Framed_traversa_wall_6

Framed_traversa_wall_7

A SURPRISINGLY HARD TIME |

August 24, 2007

A SURPRISINGLY HARD TIME
Name: SGT Roy Batty
Posting date: 8/25/07
Returned from: Iraq
Stationed in: Germany
Hometown: Yellow Springs, Ohio
Email: sgtroybatty@yahoo.com

The truth is that I have been having a surprisingly hard time since getting to Germany, and the Army medical system seems woefully unprepared to help. I've been hearing all of these reports in the media about how the Army is on top of the PTSD problem and is starting all of these great new programs to help their returning soldiers. The reality is that, at least here in Bavaria, all of that is quite simply bullshit.

There currently is not a single psychiatrist in all of Southern Germany; the only person who can prescribe medication for PTSD is a nurse practicioner who took three weeks to get me anything. I've been seeing a very cool psychologist -- ex-Marine, Vietnam vet -- but we've done no actual therapy, and since he is a part-time civilian, he is completely uninformed on how the Army deals with and discharges PTSD soldiers. I find that for the most part, I am left to deal with the symptoms on my own.

Fortunately I'm not too bad. The worst aspect is the panic attacks -- y'know, mind racing, keyed up, ready to fight or run for the bunkers but nothing is there. That, and the really bizarre and very intense nightmares that make me wake up at five in the morning; once I do finally get to sleep. What really worries me is the thought that I could be a 19-year-old private, left alone in his barracks room with only a bottle of Jack Daniels and some seriously self-destructive shit floating around in his noggin. At least I'm a bit older and have a supportive wife, and a fair bit of knowledge on the subject.

Writing about the experiences downrange has been difficult. I've sat down a bunch of times to write the second half of My Last Day in Baghdad, but rehashing the events minute to minute just brings out a lot of very intense negative stuff, and I find that I have to put it aside. My mother, of all people, suggested simply approaching it from that angle -- i.e. trying to write about it but not being able to, which I think would help. We'll see how it goes. I appreciate the emails I've received from folks asking for the second installment; that's actually really helpful, knowing that there are concerned and supportive people out there.

Roy Batty ain't dead yet, he's just down at Tyrell Corporation for some maintenance.  :-)

MISSION |

August 23, 2007

MISSION
Name: Teflon Don
Posting date: 8/23/07
Stationed in: Ramadi, Iraq
Milblog url: acutepolitics.blogspot.com

After I got back to Ramadi I spent two days doing a whole lot of nothing while waiting for my platoon to come back from Falluja. I planned to spend day three turning in extra unused gear at noon, then doing more nothing. I woke up to the phone ringing.

The other soldier in the building, left behind on guard duty, answered the call: "Alpha Company, 3rd platoon, this is SPC W. Yeah, he's here. OK, I'll tell him."

Dimly reckoning that I was late for my appointment with supply, I started to roll out of bed, stopping to look at my watch on the way. It read 0936. Uh-oh. My buddy came in: "You need to go down now and turn in your gear."

"I thought I was doing that at noon."

"You're going to Falluja today. They destroyed a truck."

My tasks for the day now included going over to another company's Tactical Operation Center (TOC), drawing the RG-31 that they were lending us while ours was in the shop for repairs, and then driving it to Falluja with the team sent to transport the damaged truck back to Ramadi.

I got the paperwork from the TOC and headed down to the motor pool to sign for the vehicle. The maintenance teams for the different companies normally reserve vehicles just for such occasions as this -- in the States, we'd call them lemons. Here, we have a less kind name for them, one that reflects our heightened chance of injury while operating them. My hope that the truck I was signing for would not be one of those proved false.

Before I could sign for the truck, I had to help get it running. The batteries were completely dead and needed replacement, and the navigational system was toast. The air conditioning functioned poorly, and the radio mount was built out of wood -- liable to become a hail of screws, splinters, and flying radios in the event of an explosion.

I swapped out the batteries, signed for it, and drove it away.

I spent the next hour and a half running around trying to track down a working gun mount for the RG-31. It is of foreign construction, and the ring mount on the turret requires a different style of pintle than the US standard. As trucks get blown up and mounts are destroyed, we're left with few options besides finding adapters to use with other mounts, or performing redneck hack-and-slash welding that maintenance really doesn't appreciate. I never did find a mount. Fortunately, the convoy to Falluja already had enough gun trucks that we weren't required to mount a gun for the trip. Once we got to Falluja, we found a working mount in the platoon gear stockpile. All the time I had that morning was taken up by the lemon.

We left the gate at 1400, and returned at 1410. The backup tractor for the tractor-trailer recovery team broke down before we made it completely out of the gate. We had to stand by the trucks for another two hours while the tractor was recovered into the FOB and replaced. At 1730 we finally pulled into Camp Falluja, where I learned that the lineup time for our next mission was at 0130. It would be a three-day operation.

Great. So now I have six hours to eat my first meal of the day, finish fixing a truck, supplement my previous night's four hours of sleep, and pack for three days. This is why they call Iraq "The Suck".

While in Falluja, we swapped out the RG-31's bad electronic parts with working ones from the blown-up truck. We had a few problems with the loaner before we handed it back in, but nothing so major it couldn't be fixed by someone punching a window and screaming a little. By the time I turned it back in it had new batteries, some fresh oil, two new bullet holes, shrapnel damage to three windows and the left side, and all other issues unchanged. Fair trade in my book.

The three-day mission was to clear a route into the area of interest, nestled within a loop of the Euphrates river near Amiriyah. Following us was a combined force of Army, Marine, and Iraqi Army troops, who would then seal off the area and fan out gathering intel, "making face" with the villagers, and searching for caches.

We staged out of a small Combat Outpost (COP) near Amiriyah. This COP was one of several constructed just a few months ago in a largely successful effort to secure the main route from Falluja to Amiriyah. Amiriyah had been the scene of much fighting between the local al-Qaeda and Iraqi Police; American patrols happened rarely, as the nearest major patrol bases were separated from the community by long stretches of dangerous road. Now the situation in Amiriyah and the nearby neighborhood of Feris is largely under control in the hands of the Iraqi security forces, and Coalition efforts have begun to focus on the surrounding villages.

Our mission for the first day was mainly spent clearing alternate routes out in the desert that the unit were we're working for had used in the past and would use again in the future.

Framed_teflon_mission_1_2Investigating an IED.


We finished our mission for the first day by midafternoon, and pulled into the COP for the night. The weather was the hottest I had felt yet -- when we got back to Camp Falluja, someone told me that the thermometer had hit 131 degrees in the shade. Even collapsing on the roof provided little relief.

Framed_teflon_mission_2 Evening shade on the roof of the COP.

We had some small visitors drop by, wishing to share our shade and perhaps a few nuggets from the MRE crackers that some of the soldiers were snacking on.

Framed_teflon_mission_3Little friends.

After a restless night spent in the heat, we were up at 0400 to prep and lead out on the next mission -- the actual operation on the river. Soldiers racked weapons into their places atop the trucks; others stocked water and MREs in anticipation of a long day. No one really knew what kind of environment we were moving into: the villages and farmland could be quiet and peaceful, or they could be alive with fighters and minefields of IEDs. Both scenarios have played themselves out in other nearby villages, and no one had spent enough time in this particular area to predict the outcome. Our only resource was to be prepared for the worst case.

Framed_teflon_mission_5A gunner preps his battle bag.

The first half of the second day was largely uneventful. The troops following us in had little to report -- some men who tried to dodge a cordon, an extra AK-47 in a house. We found nothing in the roads.

Framed_teflon_mission_patrolAn infantryman of 3/6 Marines patrols alongside a "Gator".

Later on, one of our vehicles ran over a sharp piece of metal, flattening a tire. Towards the end of the tire change, two more vehicles starting taking single rifle rounds from a building off in a grove of palms in the distance. Some of our Marine security contingent tried to chase the shooter down in their Gator, but they were ultimately unsuccessful.

Framed_teflon_mission_6_2A "Gator" chases down a sniper.

We moved on out of the area, after notifying the force commander of the small arms fire, and proceeded down the route. Just down the road, an alert Gator crewmember noticed some things that seemed out of place at a small shop by the roadside -- possibly connecting the men there to the recent gunfire. We stopped to talk to the owner, ask him a few questions, and look through his car. He seemed happy to allow the search, and tried to tell us, in a mixture of broken English and Arabic, where we should look for the shooter. We thanked him for his time and help, passed the information up, and moved on.

Framed_teflon_mission_7_2Sniper hunting.

With Day 2 over, we went back to the COP for another long night in the stifling air. I went to sleep listening to feral dogs growling around the camp's burning trash pit and watching their moving shadows dance with the flames.

Day 3 began early, again, and beautifully. We were treated to a postcard-perfect sunrise as we moved through Amiriyah towards our area of operation.

Framed_teflon_mission_8The sun rises over a peaceful Euphrates, near Amiriyah.

One last bit of excitement remained -- one that underlines the difficulties we face in Iraq. The picture below is of a bridge construction site, spanning the Euphrates between the Zaidon region and Amiriyah/Feris. Look carefully at the photo.

Framed_teflon_mission_9A bridge in progress from Zaidon to the Amiriyah region.

The three trucks closest to the river are VBIEDs that are under construction. Southern Zaidon receives little attention from American patrols -- as with Amiriyah just a few months ago, the roads leading in are long and dangerous. A local villager on the Amiriyah side of the river pointed these trucks out to a Marine patrol. If it weren't for the relations we have built on this side of the river in recent months, the first sign we would have likely had of these VBIEDs would have been their detonation, probably in the midst of a crowd of innocent civilians.

It will be Zaidon's turn soon enough, though -- and for now, Amiriyah is looking good.

YOU THINK OR YOU KNOW? |

August 22, 2007

YOU THINK OR YOU KNOW?
Name: SFC Toby Nunn
Posting date: 8/22/07
Stationed in: Kuwait / Iraq
Hometown: Oakland, CA via Terrace B.C. CANADA
Milblog url: tobynunn.com

Since being in the Guard I have been faced with many challenges. The largest is being around inexperienced people that lack the proper training to execute their duties. Another is trying to get civilian-minded people to see the big military and tactical picture that they are now a major part of. With this comes some humorous moments -- although they really didn't seem funny at the time.

Earlier this year while in Shelbystan the Humvee I was signed for got stolen. At the time I didn't say a lot about it because there was a minor misunderstanding with a senior leader. When I finally got the truck back I discovered that it had been damaged. While investigating who the driver was at the time of the accident I was faced with a senior leader who possibly was responsible. I was delicately trying to uncover the culpable party, but no one wanted to demonstrate some integrity. Finally I got a hint, so in the discussion I asked the person if they knew how my truck got damaged. The response was, "I think I hit a tree."

A tree is something that you would know that you hit, especially in light of the damage incurred. I asked if he still thought he hit a tree.

The other night while escorting a convoy through a very hot spot, the group in front of us got hit. We had to wait while the passage got cleared and we could advance. There were groups ahead of and behind us. All around us fire fights broke out. I tried to keep the guys chilled out since we were not in those fights -- even though they were close we didn't want to get involved since we could do more damage than good.

It is very hard as a fighter to sit in the middle of a bar brawl and continue to drink. That is how I was feeling. Then it started raining steel from the sky. Even though we were "blacked out", the enemy was able to focus their mortars on our position and we were helpless. There was nowhere for us to go, we just had to sit tight and hope for the best. Everyone around us was in the same situation. I tried my best to keep the group we were escorting cool, but it's kind of hard with people not used to that kind of thing.

The reports were coming in from everyone when the radio crackled: "I think I had an impact next to my truck!"

An impact is an earth-shaking bright flash that hits with shrapnel. It's one of those things you really can't miss seeing unless you die on impact. So as calmly as I could I got on the net, and asked the soldier: "You think or you know?"

THEN AND NOW |

August 21, 2007

THEN AND NOW
Name: CAPT Lee Kelley
Posting date: 8/21/07
Returned from: Iraq
Hometown: Salt Lake City, UT
Milblog url: wordsmithatwar.blog-city.com
Email: wordsmith16@excite.com

I spent almost a year in the Sunni Triangle. I somehow avoided the hundreds of mortar attacks on my base, the IEDs on some of the most dangerous roads in Iraq, the RPG fired at my convoy. It's the path of the ages I feel I've traveled, where able-bodied Americans go to war for their country, either by choice or not, and the best way to illustrate my journey is with a simple then and now. It is a desert full of memories I can conjure up, and every grain of sand is in ultra-sharp focus like a 7 mega-pixel photo.

Then: I had been happily married for seven years. The most sacred things in my life were my family, my marriage, my children, and my dreams. This was the war of my generation and I wanted to do my part. I was in charge of tactical communications for a Battalion of 600 soldiers, but sometimes I was called upon for other missions. One day I found myself conducting a search for an Al Qaeda weapons cache on a farm near Ramadi. The helicopters landed and we jumped out. I ran through a swirling dust cloud with my weapon pointed at the chest of the man who walked out of his doorway when he heard us land. I didn't know if he was hostile yet. I couldn't take the chance. I was yelling at the interpreter, and the interpreter was yelling at the man. Two hours later, the farm had been searched and we were kicking a soccer ball with the man's son. There was no weapons cache. And no one was hurt. It was still a good mission because we narrowed our search.

That same night I boarded another helicopter to go on emergency leave. I was flying to New Orleans just weeks after Hurricane Katrina to visit my mother, who had been struggling with breast cancer. I had received a Red Cross message that same morning. My soldiers tried to talk me out of going on the mission, but I refused to back out. I compartmentalized those personal emotions until the mission was complete.

Once there I helped my dad get the house and property cleaned up. Water damage had left everything in a horrible mess. I'll never forget the wisdom and wetness in my mom's eyes the last time I saw her. I had been there for weeks and she was still holding on. My leave could not be extended anymore. I had to go back to Ramadi. We both knew it was the last time our eyes would meet. And it was. She passed five weeks later. My wife and kids were still back in Utah, where the marriage I left behind was struggling to survive as well. These are the pictures hardest to look at in my high-def recollections. And these are the pictures that need no well-intended caption scribbled on the back because they are burned into my memory.

I returned to Iraq, an anonymous face in the window of a plane, flying across the Atlantic in the middle of the night, and threw myself into the work. Things got worse back in Utah, and at that point I gave up on trying to save my marriage. My own home was no longer a healthy environment. My only concern then was for the kids. I honestly thought I might lose my mind to frustration, helplessness, and anger. When my tour was over and I finally got back to Utah, I had been gone for 17 months. I had lived and worked in close proximity to violence and death for a year. Over 80 soldiers in my Brigade were killed in combat.

Hundreds more were injured. Two soldiers in my battalion were killed. I prayed for them. I thanked God that none of my soldiers were killed, and that I was unharmed. It felt positively blessed to be home in one piece. Now my kids needed their daddy. Overnight, I changed my focus completely and put every ounce of energy into facing new challenges. The transition was immediate. I had no choice.

Now: When I first returned to Utah I felt that my very soul had been scrubbed raw by sustained emotional overload. I was equidistant between two extremes and the balance could go either way. Darkness or Light. Depression or Joy. I could see no grey, only black and white. I was on the cusp of major life changes on many levels and they scared me. I was drinking too much and nothing felt the same. My marriage had failed, and faded like a Polaroid left out in the sun. My mom was gone. And I hadn't yet begun to understand how much the war had affected me.

The kids kept me busy, yes, but they kept me grounded too. I have to be strong and stable for them. I have gladly cared for the kids since the day I got off that plane. I was granted full custody in the divorce. I've been a single dad for 10 months, working 40 hours a week while raising my two kids (seven-year-old girl and four-year-old boy) with very little help. I'm not complaining, but the adjustments have been intense. I am becoming an expert in the art of parenting and personal sacrifice, and my kids are worth it.

I volunteered in my daughter's classroom, taught both kids to swim, and threw them very cool birthday parties. We've spent the holidays together. We've gone to movies, plays, amusement parks, Disney on Ice, and the circus. Also, after nine years with the same woman I'm "single" again, so I've started dating a little. It's much more complicated now. I have been writing quite a lot, working on multiple projects, and I have a literary agent. I don't remember the last time I had a bad day. I am settling into a renewed optimism, a fresh interest in all facets of life and ambition.

Before I went to Iraq I was not in the habit of sharing my personal life with complete strangers, and I'm still not. But through my blog, and forums such as this one, I've come to realize that it's good to talk about these things to those who want to listen because I know I am not the only soldier facing adversity. In fact, I feel very lucky indeed.

For months I was bitter and confused, but after deep consideration, and with the unconditional support of a very small circle of family and friends, the image of a still pond behind the hurricane won over my intention, rather than the fury of the storm itself. Forgiveness seemed possible. Grief less painful. I sat alone the other night at a lookout point above the Salt Lake Valley. It is a spot I visit whenever I can. It was dusk and the mountains looked like the painted shadows of mountains, silhouetted by the light behind them. I thought about the last couple of years, as I do often. And I was once again amazed by the momentum of the sun when it struck the horizon, and the way time heals these invisible scars, slowly braiding solace back around a broken heart. War and life have penned this harsh new narrative, but I am home now. And I am learning.


Originally published by the New York Times.

A CLOSE ONE |

August 20, 2007

A CLOSE ONE
Name: Eddie
Posting date: 8/20/07
Stationed in: Baghdad, Iraq
Hometown: Phoenix, AZ
Milblog url: airborneparainf82.blogspot.com
Email: airborneparainf82@blogspot.com

The other day we were out on patrol and for some reason had to make a stop by the Green Zone, which is this large base here in Baghdad where a lot of the Iraqi Goverment is housed. It's rare that we get to go there, but when we do it is awesome because they have a big PX and some good food we can eat. As we were pulling in, one of the guys on my team was saying how he had read on the news that the day or so before five guys were killed and 20 injured in mortar and rocket attacks there. I guess lately they have been mortaring the shit out of them.

I had already made my stop in the PX and bought what I needed, got some something at Subway, and ended up going to an area where we could sit and enjoy our food. I was talking to some others, in the middle of sharing stories from their last Iraq deployment and from my deployment to New Orleans for Katrina, when all of a sudden out of nowhere there was a loud scream for a split second and then an earth shaking BOOOOOM!!

A mortar had hit this building right next to where we were sitting, maybe 25 meters away. It was a BIG one, too. We all immediately jumped up and began running for cover, expecting more rounds. After two steps I realized I didn't have my rifle, so I stopped, grabbed it, and started running again. About half way to the bunker I realized that others had probably forgotten their weapons as well, so I turned around and went back and sure enough there were a couple. I grabbed them up, while another guy grabbed up all the bags of stuff we had bought. Wouldn't want someone stealing our stuff in the middle of a mortar attack, right? :) lol

At this point, we could tell that more rounds probably weren't coming, so we weren't in a frantic rush and were just walking to where the shelter was. Well, apparently some Air Force and FOB-dwelling "security" personel were freaking out like WW3 was underway. They were yelling at us: "GET THE FUCK IN THERE!! HURRY THE FUCK UP!! LETS GO!! NOW!!!"

We just kind of looked at them like, "Are you serious?" and continued to walk to the bunker. I guess another guy from my platoon was taking his time too and one of the Air Force girls threatened to arrest him because he wasn't getting to the bunker fast enough.

Wow. I would love to get arrested for that. There's no way I would get in any trouble, and it would be hilarious for my chain to have to come bail me out for "Failure to run durring a mortar attack". HAHAHA!

Once under cover, we saw this one kid had taken some shrapnel to his shoulder. It was nothing big, just a little bit. The funniest thing was that as the medical personel were patching him up, he was bitching up a storm about how he had just paid for his pizza and was waiting for it to cook, and now he wasn't going to get his pizza. I'm sure that Purple Heart will get him a free pizza or beer or two.

The crazy thing was that he was twice as far from the mortar as we were. It hit a building with a solid roof, and thus exploded 15 feet above the ground. It was pretty much dead on line with where we were sitting, but because we were below it all the shrapnel flew past us over our heads and ended up hitting that guy. If it had hit at ground level it could have been a very bad day for the five of us sitting there. But once again, luck or fate or whatever intervened, and we escaped totally unharmed with a crazy story to tell. That's how it is. If it doesn't kill you or hurt you it makes a great story. The question is how many great stories until it becomes a horrible story. And with war, you just never know.

THE HEAT IN MY DREAMS |

August 17, 2007

THE HEAT IN MY DREAMS
Name: CAPT Benjamin Tupper
Posting date: 8/17/07
Returned from: Afghanistan
Hometown: Syracuse, New York

It felt like just another day in Afghanistan. Our Humvee crew was going through all our pre-mission rituals, like we had done a hundred times before. CPT "Hep" was his normal stressed-out self, and was replying to the radio commo checks with short, biting responses. The unbearable heat in the Humvee didn't help much to lower his tension. Neither did the fact that the AC wasn't working.

Up in the turret, the gunner leaned forward and jerked his arm back. The metallic thud of the .50 cal being charged rattled everyone in the vehicle. KAH-CHUNK. I was the driver for this mission, so for the moment I just had to make sure our IED jamming device was up and running. I got the green light signal, waited for Hep to stop transmitting on the radio, and then flashed him the thumbs up. Now it was just a matter of waiting for all the other trucks to finish their pre-combat checks, and we could roll out.

The moments before a mission usually found me all tensed up. My two hands were tightly gripping the steering wheel while all the catastrophic "what ifs" of Humvee combat patrols ran through my head.

I got my first hint that something was out of the ordinary when I glanced over my shoulder and saw my girlfriend seated in the rear right seat. She held a strand of her long hair in her hand, and was inspecting it for split ends. She pouted and looked at me. Sweat ran down her forehead onto a cheek flustered red by the heat.

"It's hot in here. Why can't we open the windows?"

Seeing her sitting there in the Humvee took me by surprise, but actually hearing her voice was what awoke me from this disturbing dream. The thought of her being there, in Afghanistan, in harm's way, was enough to make me shudder and roll over onto my side.

In these few groggy seconds, I'm able to confidently say I'm not in a Humvee. I'm firmly planted in an Army-issued cot. The cot is firmly planted in one of the notoriously hot Bagram holding tents for soldiers in transit to and from Afghanistan. I feel a slight breeze on my exposed legs. The sides of the tent are rolled up, which allows for some ventilation.

In front of me, and to my sides, are rows of cots. Most of them are occupied by fellow soldiers. Like me, they are trying to pass the hours of boredom with sleep as they await their flights out of Afghanistan. 

Some are successful, others are not.

Two cots down I see SFC C, a fellow New Yorker and teammate of mine. Despite the heat, he is wrapped in a poncho liner and is in a deep sleep.

Directly next to me is a stranger from some other unit. He is reading a magazine of some sort. I see a glossy foto of some scantily clad nubile female on the cover, so it's probably Maxim or FHM, the literature of choice of young male soldiers.

Across from this stranger is SFC "Deg", as we like to call him. He is another one of my teammates. He has one arm resting on his forehead, shielding his eyes from the sunlight seeping through the tent.

Good ole Deg. It seems like it's been forever since I've gotten a chance to really talk to him. We were ETT partners for a short stint, before he was transferred to another FOB. I smile as I see him laying there, staring upwards towards the sky. God it's good to see him. We have a lot of catching up to do.

I begin to doze off again. Some time passes. An obnoxious creak is heard as someone rolls over in their Army cot. It's a noise every soldier knows. It's a noise only an Army cot can make. KKKRRRRREEKKK.

More time passes.

"Are you gonna tell him?"

A stranger's voice, right next to my cot, and possibly directed at me. I ignore it.

"Hey, are you gonna tell him? He was your friend." The stranger puts special emphasis on the word "your".

I look over, and the stranger is sitting up in his cot, looking at me. He motions over towards Deg.

His casual demeanor is replaced by a look of seriousness. Now he's got my attention. Before he speaks, I already know what bad news he wants me to deliver.

"Aren't you going to tell Deg?  Aren't you going to tell him that he's DEAD?"

My eyes dart from the stranger's face to Deg, who remains resting on his cot. His chest rises and falls with his relaxed breathing. It's the same chest that got shot last September. The bullet cut through all the important parts. Heart. Lungs. We heard he died on a helicopter en route to surgery.

Deg shifts his head over towards me. I see tiny specks of sweat on his face.

He smiles at me.

I smile back.

It feels so good to see him.

But the stranger is right. I should tell Deg. But I can't.

Deg and I remain locked in this silent reminiscence. He is still smiling at me. Perhaps he is remembering the practical jokes we played on our interpreters, or the nail-biting evening chess games, or the time we bought melons and shared them with everyone at that street intersection in Ghazni. We had some great times together.

Maybe he just wants to catch up on things. But I know if we start talking, I'm going to have to tell him why he can't go home. I'm going to have to give him the bad news. I close my eyes to collect my thoughts, and to muster up the courage to tell him what happened to him.

I open my eyes.

The red numbers on my alarm clock read 4:16 am. It's Eastern Standard Time.

SLEEPING IN HELL |

August 16, 2007

SLEEPING IN HELL
Name: Teflon Don
Posting date: 8/16/07
Stationed in: Ramadi, Iraq
Milblog url: acutepolitics.blogspot.com

After five days in a row of having the power go out every afternoon around 1:00 pm, we finally seem to have consistent electricity again. Hopefully the juice stays on -- it's hard to stay up on sleep for nighttime missions when the power continually goes out during the hottest part of the day (the time we have for sleeping).

I talked with the lead KBR electrician who was sent to fix the problems as they arose each day: It seems there are a number of reasons for the difficulties. First, the electrical system is a hash of several different standards: US, British, and one or two Middle Eastern. ME triangular cable does not fit well into round-receptacle American circuit breakers. Secondly, the generator is a different model than those in service in most areas. When the generator goes down, there are often no spare parts to fix it immediately.

Lastly, the KBR electricians are short on correct tools. Apparently, KBR has enough money to pay their workers the exhorbitant sums required to retain them in spite of the danger and poor conditions, but not enough to equip them properly. Normally, blatant soulless capitalism doesn't concern me much -- the open market usually produces a contractor who is capable of providing decent service. But in a closed-bid world such as the one enjoyed by KBR in Iraq, where almost all non-combat support roles are contracted -- from food service to laundry to electricity to latrine supply and maintenance -- it is unlikely that KBR will lose a contract simply because it will not spend the money to keep a few soldiers in power for 5-6 hours every afternoon.

Not that I am bitter.

Viva la monopoly!

THE CLEAN STREETS OF FALLUJA |

August 15, 2007

THE CLEAN STREETS OF FALLUJA
Name: Eric Coulson
Posting date: 8/15/07
Stationed in: Ramadi, Iraq
Milblog url: badgersforward.blogspot.com
Email: badger.six@gmail.com

Framed_coulson_streets1I vividly remember hitting the streets of Iraq -- not a FOB, the streets of Ar Ramadi -- for the very first time. We dismounted to help sweep a suspected cache last October. One of the things that struck me was the smell and the horrendous amounts of garbage laying all over the place.

My inference was that due to the lack of municipal services, garbage removal had simply fallen to the point where no one could even think about taking responsibility for it. Individual citizens certainly did not feel the need to do so. Why should they? Even if they did, it seemed clear their neighbors were not going to, so they might as well not either. I can imagine it feels pretty hopeless to try and clean up where you live if you have no reason to think that it will ever change. As a leader, the most challenging aspect of this was heartening my Soldiers, who would look around and ask why they should care, if it seemed like the people of Iraq did not.Framed_coulson_streets_2

I told them I thought the people of Iraq cared; I also thought they were discouraged and scared.

Approximately ten days ago we rode through the city of Falluja and I was delighted to see clean streets. Because Team Badger working in conjunction with RCT-6 has done such a great job reducing the roadside bomb threat in the city, Al Qaeda has had to resort to the car bomb as their terror weapon of choice.

After a couple of attacks the Mayor of Falluja had an answer to that problem. Simply allow no cars or trucks into the city. People park on the outskirts of the city, and walk in through an entrance control point. There are buses to move people around internally. The City of Al Falluja proper is approximately five kilometers by five kilometers -- not an onerous walk.

Framed_coulson_streets_3What was amazing to me though was how clean the city has become. As you can see from the top picture, the street in front of the shop is quite clean.

The second picture shows Fallujan's getting out and taking care of their city. There were hundreds of young men out working on crews that were hauling garbage and refuse away. Even some of my more skeptical Soldiers had to admit that we were witnessing quite a change.

Falluja clearly has a long way to go. Even though the short lived Islamist regime only effectively governed for six months in 2004, the city has been reeling ever since. This last January though, Iraqi Security Forces assumed primary responsibility for the city's security, and they have been doing a pretty good job.

That the citizens are willing to come out and help clean their city up seems evidence of that fact. The mean streets of Falluja are transforming into the clean streets of Falluja.

MADE IT |

August 14, 2007

MADE IT
Name: SFC Toby Nunn
Posting date: 8/14/07
Stationed in: Kuwait / Iraq
Hometown: Oakland, CA via Terrace B.C. Canada
Milblog url: tobynunn.com

After months of training and anticipation, Bad Voo Doo and I have made it to our destination. Yesterday after a quick range shoot we finished our trip to our home away from home. Some of us have been here in this camp before and kind of knew what to expect, but for the most part we are all curious about the place we are going to hang our hats.

The Kuwaiti Desert is pretty lackluster. There are no major terrain features, just flat sandy horizons. The camp sticks out like a sore thumb because of the buildings and structures in the middle of an otherwise sandy void. We had a taste of living in decent accommodations at our last stop, so our expectation was high. I had enjoyed Starbucks and good shelter. What more can a guy ask for?

The little “village” that our tents make looks like a Korean War era base. The men are living eight men to a tent. The tents are GP Mediums so that affords them about 6’x’6’x6’ of living space. The cots are the same old military/camping style, which is better than sleeping on the ground. I imagine that I will be hitting sweetie up for a pillow and such, but will have to come up with some kind of bedding here. I just can’t sleep in a sleeping bag for a year. I am sure my boys (my kids) would think it was cool, and would like to do that, but I don’t have “Lightning McQueen” or “Spiderman” on mine and a great mother to wash it every other day.

The tent is outfitted with an air-conditioning unit that slightly cools it down during the day, and is successful enough at night to get a head start on the day. Dark-colored tents in a desert tend to get hot, believe it or not. There are no wind breaks in the desert, so the wind and sand comes forever. I will have to add Visine to my feel-free-to-send list. The tent I live in with some other NCOs has rips and tears that we have been trying to mend with the ever-famous duct tape, to keep the sand out. It is a futile effort, so we keep everything that is of value covered in plastic. I am currently typing this post through a clear plastic bag so that my investment in my Mac stays safe.

I let the guys get settled a bit yesterday, then walked around to get a feel for how they were getting on. I am proud to say that the men of Bad Voo Doo will always do their best to make a bad situation livable. As I was walking through the sand-filled gusts talking with the men, SGT Borda asked me what I thought of this place. It put me in a difficult position, because I wanted to whine about the living conditions, but I knew that if I did that then they could too. The best I could come up with was, "Remember those old Legionnaire Films?"

PTSD |

August 13, 2007

PTSD
Name: Josie Salzman
Posting date: 8/13/07
Husband: returned from Iraq
Hometown
: Menomenie, WI
Milblog url: lifeinacrackerbox.blogspot.com

I sit tonight in the kitchen of the Fisher House just staring at the TV while trying to collect my thoughts. The country has been informed that the Army has realized there is a need for more mental health professionals to aid soldiers returning from war with PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). They claim to be adding two hundred new employees to help combat the never-ending war that remains in our loved ones' minds. I wish more than anything that tonight I could take a deep breath, relax, and fall asleep with the confidence that our military is taking the proper steps to ensure my family is able to heal from the violence we have encountered.

Unfortunately, that's not an option.

One of the first nights I had with my husband after his injury will forever be burned into my mind. He had been in an excruciating amount of pain the entire evening. It was still early in his hospital stay so the doctors had yet to find a pain cocktail that his body responded to. Just like the evening before, the nurse entered the room and handed J.R. a cup filled to the top with pills. Desperate to make the pain subside for a few hours, J.R. swallowed them in one giant mouthful. An hour later he was drifting off to sleep.

I started making my bed for the night after I was sure he was sleeping. This would be my second night of sleeping in the foldout chair that I would soon learn to hate. I had no more than crawled under the covers when J.R. sat bolt upright in bed. "Get them off me. Get them off me now. The bugs, they're all over me, get them off. They're in the bed. Make them go away."

Unsure of what he was talking about, I jumped out of bed and rushed to calm him down. After a grueling twenty minutes he was able to once again close his eyes. It didn't last. Again his mind took over in his sleep. This time he felt as if someone was in the room and he was under attack. He awoke panicked and sweat-soaked. I sat on his bed and held him in my arms. I promised him that if he just closed his eyes he would be able to sleep and that everything would be fine. I was in the room and I was going nowhere. But everything wasn't fine. No more than an hour after he closed his eyes the terror began. On this night J.R. would relive the entire accident.

"Are you ready? Hey, I'm talking to you. Are you ready to go? We have to get on the road. It's time to head back south." J.R. was mumbling in his sleep.

"J.R. what are you talking about. We aren't going anywhere. Go back to sleep."

We went back and forth for a while before I realized what was going on. He was prepping his truck for convoy and in his mind it was December 19th. His nurse assured me that this was normal, and that I should just keep an eye on him. I listened as he spoke to his men as the convoy went down the road. He mumbled so much I had a hard time understanding. Until they hit the EFP.

"Hey. Hey guys... guys I can't feel my arm. Guys my arm. My arm. My arm is gone. Guys help me! My arm is gone! Help! Help! I need a tourniquet! I'm bleeding out. It's gone. Holy shit my arm is gone!"

By this point J.R. was screaming at the top of his lungs. He was sitting upright in bed. I bolted out the door and yelled for the nurse. Together we muscled J.R. back down on the bed. He was thrashing. At this point more nurses were filling the room. His screams could be heard throughout all of Ward 57. I retreated to my bed and allowed the nurses to help my husband. I pulled my legs up to my chest and tried to ignore my husband's screams.

"Stop stepping on my arm. It hurts. Give me pain killers. You're stepping on my arm. Get off of it. My hand. My hand. My hand is gone! God damn it I told you get off my arm!"

The nurses were calm as they helped him fight through the night terror. They played the roll of the army medics, telling him that he was going to be fine. Helping him fight through the pain. Then all of a sudden came relief. It came in the form of a shot. The medicine entered his body and within minutes the terror was over. He lay in his bed. Calm. I sat on the chair and cried. I cried for my husband, for the pain that he was in. I cried for our dreams that were now garbage. I cried out of exhaustion.

The next morning J.R. remembered nothing. He didn't understand why my eyes were so puffy and I was so tired. That same morning I walked out to the front desk and asked that my husband meet with a mental health specialist and be screened for PTSD. I waited a week and still no doctor came to speak with him. I put in another request for J.R. to be seen by a doctor. One more week and still nothing. My manners were gone. I threw a fit demanding that he be seen by someone from the psych department. They sent a doctor -- in training. We saw him once. ONCE. As if one visit would fix his mind and he could continue living his life in perfect harmony.

I continued to ask and I continued to receive the same answer: "The psych department is stretched very thin and they can't make it to every patient." It took another week, but finally, a doctor (we'll call him Bob) appeared one morning from the psych department. However Bob came right in the middle of J.R.'s morning therapy session of PT and OT. After explaining to the him that every morning my husband had therapy on the third floor from 9 until 11, he agreed to stop by later in the afternoon. He never did. Instead Bob once again came by the next morning while my husband was at therapy. One more time I gently reminded him that every morning from 9-11 J.R. was unavailable. It finally clicked with him after about a week, and for the first time since his injury, J.R. would be able to speak with a therapist on a regular basis. Or so I thought.

We saw Bob a few times. Then J.R. went outpatient and we could no longer meet with Bob. Once again the war for a therapist began. After a few more weeks of phone calls and digging I landed J.R. an appointment. The appointment was at 11 so we ran from physical therapy up to the doctor's office. We were no more than two minutes late, but the doctor was gone. He told the woman that appeared to be some kind of an assistant that he had left, and to pass the message on to us. Furious, I stormed back home with J.R. After that, I gave up. There were other battles to fight and I was running out of hot air.

We were fine for a few weeks. And then the dreams returned. Constantly waking up in the middle of the night in fear that an IED had exploded outside the window. For weeks he was permanently attached to me at night. And although I usually don't mind to snuggle up at night, it is very different when your husband has the death grip on you while you're trying to sleep. I was exhausted. I no longer had the help of the nurses to care for my husband. His memory was non-existent with the meds he was taking, so it was almost as if I was taking care of a small child. A very stubborn small child with a lot of needs. He couldn't dress himself, could barely feed himself, and still needed help taking a shower. I was so wrapped up in taking care of him that I completely forgot to take care of myself. Then the fights began.

Once again I started asking for a therapist. This time, it only took a week. We saw him twice. Things didn't go so well. After our second and final appointment I returned to our room feeling defeated. Not once had any member of the staff here asked if I was OK. If there was anything that I needed. How I was handling my husband's injury. I was realizing that I was no longer able to handle the stress of taking care of J.R. For months I had been bottling up every concern, every fear, and every frustration inside. I had a break down. Two weeks later family arrived, and I was able to leave and go home for a week of alone time.

Since that week things have been a million times better. J.R. has been able to cut back on his meds, which has made a world of difference. I now see the man I married shining through the drug haze. The fights are less often and less intense. And we are able to realize when a little time apart is needed. It's amazing what taking care of yourself for a while can do for your mental health.

It is also important to remember that even though my husband may be the one that lives with the memory of the explosion, we all live with the memory of the healing process. This war has taken its toll on me as well. And sometimes even I need professional help to deal with our new life.

My whole point to this long-winded story is that two hundred added employees isn't enough. There are over 25,000 soldiers that have been wounded in Iraq. 25,000. Just to help the wounded alone, there are not enough employees.

Now add in the thousands of soldiers returning from war and remember it is not just the soldiers that need help. The families need to be included. There are wives, husbands, mothers, and fathers that deploy with a soldier. It's hard.

I see the army putting a band-aid on our veterans. A fresh coat of paint to cover the walls. A few added employees to make the press happy. But it's time to peel the band-aid off and realize the cut needs stitches in order to heal. This war has been going on for years and the end has yet to be in sight. There will continue to be fatalities and injuries. This is the reality of war.

MEN IN BLACK |

August 10, 2007

MEN IN BLACK
Name: SANDBOX DUTY OFFICER David Stanford
Posting date: 8/10/07

The remarkable animated short film below was adapted from Colby Buzzell's book My War: Killing Time in Iraq. The piece was created by director Richard Robbins as part of his award-winning documentary Operation Homecoming: Writing the Wartime Experience, which evolved out of a National Endowment of the Arts project to gather the writings of soldiers serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. In addition to interviews, the film features dramatic readings of letters, memoirs, journals, essays, poetry and fiction. Operation Homecoming played in almost 20 cities around the country, and the TV version was broadcast on PBS in April. You can order a copy here.

Thanks to Colby Buzzell and Richard Robbins for giving us permission to post Men in Black.

MORNING REFLECTIONS |

August 09, 2007

MORNING REFLECTIONS
Name: RN Clara Hart
Posting date: 8/9/07
Stationed in: a military hospital in the U.S.
Email: clarahart2@yahoo.com

I rolled out of bed this morning, tied on my running shoes, and headed out the door determined to get a little Army 10-miler training in. Saturdays are usually my days to complete a long run, and although I relish my time to sleep in, too many thoughts were racing around in my head for me to stay under the covers. Finishing my stretches I started down the trail I love to run, letting my mind wander.

My thoughts turned to the past week at work and to my patients. Up on the floor I poked my head in on one of my OIFs in time to hear him talking to the nurse, giving her 101 reasons he did not want a roommate. When she left the room I asked him, “What’s the real reason you don’t want a roommate?”  He stared at me for a minute.

“Because I see them get better and then go home. Not only do I not get to go home, I can’t even get out of bed. It really bothers me, and I think makes me more depressed”.

OK then. That makes much more sense than, “I can’t have my friends visit and I can’t play my music too loud”. We chatted a bit more, then I left to head back to the OR. 

As I walked down the hall I saw his nurse, and pulling her aside I explained the true reason he didn’t want to share his room. She took in all the information and then sharply asked, “Who are you?”   

“Uh, I’m one of the PACU nurses," I stammered, feelings hurt from being spoken to so defensively.

“No, I know who you are,” she exclaimed, “I just want to know how you do the things you do! How you get them to talk to you and tell you things they won’t tell us?”

Surprised, I said, “Maybe because I’m a civilian they feel more comfortable with me. Maybe because I try and check up on them when they’re not having surgery. Maybe it’s simply because I listen to what they have to say. I really don’t know."

“Well, whatever it is you do, thank you,” came her salutation. Shocked, I could only nod my head and hurry off.

As I continued to run, my thoughts floated to another patient. OIF injured almost two years ago, he was now back for additional surgery. As anesthesia rolled him to a stop near me I was briefed on his condition and then, based on his past history, cautioned that he could be a pain management challenge. Calling one of my coworkers over, I asked her to review his orders and help get the meds needed for pain control. 

As we worked I looked up to see him, body arched, head thrown back, mouth open in a silent scream. Quickly I drew up and pushed pain medications into his IV, assuring him he should feel better soon. Eyes wide, he looked at me. “Ma’am, I’m in so much pain,” he whispered. 

“I know, I’m giving you pain meds now," I repeated.

“Please, ma’am, I’m hurting,” came the mantra from my young guy. Again and again I would watch his face relax and body slacken only to be replaced minutes later with contorted expressions and silent screams. Military politeness melded with agony as his eyes frantically searched for me around his bedside.

“Ma’am, the pain is so bad, can I please get some more meds, ma’am?”

Hours passed, and we continued our repetitive dance, pain under control, patient sleeping, pain not under control, patient screaming. At 1700, with the end of my shift, I gave my report to another nurse and passed his care to her. I walked out the door feeling I had failed, failed in my job to take away his pain and ease his suffering.

Running on, my mind continued its unfocused drift, and at that particular thought of my patient’s pain it went to my own. Having been offered and accepted a job in a medical clinic in the Green Zone in Baghdad, I was in the process of completing the required security and medical clearances. After half a liter of bloodletting and a gazillion exams I was informed that something abnormal had been found in one of my tests. Currently scheduled for outpatient surgery, my brain pings as only a medical professional's can, filled with worst-case scenarios. Uncertainly and anxiety have now become my foes.

Five miles into my run, lungs burning, I increased my pace as I thought of the day last week when my significant other announced he was seeing someone else. “What’s wrong with ME??” I wanted to scream at him. Instead I opened the front door and asked him to leave. Pain and devastation coursed through my body as I tried to pound out my angst with each step. Fear and sorrow weighed on me, and I wondered who would support me, encourage me and keep me strong when I felt so weak and ineffective. 

As I entered my sixth and final mile, steps slowing, I asked God for His help, and I thought about my blinded patient Joe. My running partner for the Army 10-miler would be happy to know that at 41 years old I was running 8-minute miles.

KNUCKLES |

August 08, 2007

KNUCKLES
Name: LT Carl Goforth
Posting date: 8/8/07
Stationed in: Anbar Province, Iraq
Milblog url: desertflier.blogspot.com
Email: cwgoforth@gmail.com

Indigenous to Iraq and most of the Middle East, hedgehogs are occasionally found on-base and the surrounding area. "Knuckles", our resident hedgehog, was found by some KBR contractors and brought to Charlie Medical.

There are 16 species of hedgehog. They can be found throughout parts of Europe, Asia, Africa, and New Zealand. There are no hedgehogs native to Australia or North America. They adapt well to dogs and cats, but can be threatened by them; i.e. they will spend a lot of time rolled into a ball.

Framed_goforth_knucklesKnuckles has hundreds of hard and pointy spines, which are hollow hairs made stiff with keratin. They are safe to touch, and are non-poisonous and aren't barbed. Their best defense when threatened is to roll into a ball with all of their spines exposed, although they are also known to make a run for it or attack back by throwing their spines against the attacker. Think 'Sonic'.

His nose is more of a snout, similar to an Aardvark's, and is specially designed as a bug vacuum.

Hedgehogs make great pets if 1) you don't mind the fact that they are nocturnal and will be running around the house all night, and 2) you don't mind that they chirp and sing all night, too. It is illegal to own hedgehogs in certain states, though I have no idea which ones. Iraq doesn't count. So Knuckles is here to stay as long as he likes.

WAR AND FAITH |

August 07, 2007

WAR AND FAITH
Name: SPC Freeman
Posting date: 8/7/07
Stationed in: Iraq
Milblog url: calmbeforethesand.blogspot.com

War and faith, it seems to me, must always have had a close relationship. Ironic, since many mainline forms of religion would consider war antithetical to their charters. That being said, for those close to death, there are few more effective salves for the spirit than faith. Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, or Pagan -- the true diversity of our military is reflected in our expressions of faith.

Our Constitution refutes the assertion that America is an expressly Christian nation. And yet: Christians, particularly Evangelicals, dominate the American military. Not surprising, I suppose, given the way that faith and politics have intertwined in recent years. Faith gives people a story and a role; politics gives us the means to enact that role. Even our films and books portray the end times arising from political auspices. When the lines between Church and State blur, what else is to be expected?

And so we are told that we are fighting a Culture War. The running storyline: America, the last bastion of Christian democracy, is locked in a battle-to-the-death with wild-eyed heathens in a distant land. America, they tell us, is in grave danger of being wiped out by dark-skinned foes; foes who want to burn down our churches, bomb our urban centers, brainwash our children, and subjugate our women. They say that unless we take the war to their soil, the hordes will descend upon us like a plague of Old Testament locusts. So to their soil we take it. And all the while, good men and women die as powerful old men, safe in air-conditioned offices, reap huge profits and tell us the economy has never been better.

The subplot: The Arab world, the cradle of civilization, is locked in a war with pale-skinned occupiers from a distant land. The Muslim world, they tell each other, is in grave danger of being crushed under the jackboots of latter-day Crusaders; sinners and unbelievers who want to tear down the mosques, ransack the local culture, brainwash children with dreams of materialistic excess, and befoul the purity of Muslim women. They say unless all Arabs take up the cause of jihad, the heart of everything Muslim will be gutted and sold to the highest Western bidder. And yet, as people leap upon the sword of the American juggernaut, the clerics who sent them there only grow in power.

There, as here, some people believe the hype more than others. Reasoning minds rise above the bloodshed and call for peace. But for those with little or nothing but faith, the perceived Divine call for vengeance is tempting. Christian. Muslim. Church. State. Theocrat. Theocrat. Are we really so different? And where is there room in all of this for the Buddhist?

It's not easy being a Buddhist in the military. On my time off, should I want for spiritual counsel, can I count on the local Chaplaincy? Not likely. Try as they might, there are too few in this military who know anything about the Buddhist faith, let alone how to give solace to one. On my time off, the best I can hope for is to find a quiet spot for my altar and a few undisturbed minutes for meditation. Buddha, yes, Dharma, yes, but no Sangha. A faith supported on two pillars cannot stand.

The Buddhist prizes Detachment where others prize Purity; the Buddhist prizes Compassion where others prize Salvation. The Buddhist rejects Suffering where others try -- always failing -- to reject Sin. Buddhists may not be strangers to War, but we are particular about the wars we choose. So what happens when we find ourselves fighting other faiths' wars? I cannot detach myself from this. I cannot be at peace amidst this. Christians die, Muslims die; good people on both sides of the fence die. And on both sides, the faithful are sent to slaughter by people in power, who always claim to hold the Moral High Ground. Power as Virtue. War as Faith. I'm standing in the middle of a stampede, motionless. And the dust is only making it harder to see.

A LUCKY DAY |

August 06, 2007

A LUCKY DAY
Name: Eddie
Posting date: 8/6/07
Stationed in: Baghdad, Iraq
Hometown: Phoenix, AZ
Milblog url: airborneparainf82@blogspot.com
Email: airborneparainf82@blogspot.com

Our battalion had a lucky day recently. One guy was shot in the hand while on guard duty, by a small caliber weapon. Another guy was shot in the head on guard, but nothing serious; again by a small caliber weapon. A third guy out in sector was shot in the head by a sniper. The round entered the front of his helmet, traveled along the top of his head, and burst out the back of the helmet. Other than a cut along his head (and I'm sure one hell of a headache) he's OK. I don't know what made God watch down on us that day, but he sure had other plans for those three guys. The one that was hit in the head on guard used to be in my company, and me and him are pretty cool. I haven't had a chance to talk to him yet, but I did see him walking around the other day with his head bandaged up, so he's doing good. This was his third deployment, and this time he became a "fobbit" and doesn't have to leave the FOB. How ironic that on this deployment he gets shot.

As I'm sure many of you have heard, there has been a big soccer match going on, I believe in Asia. Iraq has been doing well, and they celebrate with gunfire. Yesterday apparently was the finals, and it was Iraq vs. Saudia Arabia. My squad was on our patrol shift throughout the game and afterwards, and decided that if Iraq won we would go out and see if we could find some of these guys that are out there shooting machine guns in the air. For the record, no Iraqi is allowed to own a machine gun.

Well, Iraq ended up winning, and as expected the whole city erupted in gunfire. As this was going on, we were getting our gear on and getting ready. We were waiting for the massive barrage of gunfire to die down before heading out. I was excited, because this was the best chance of getting into something that we have had in a long while. I figured with everyone out shooting, there might be a person or two that would get ballsy enough to take a few shots at us. To my dismay, word came that we were not to go out. I was pissed. Things have slowed down a lot, and I really haven't felt like I've accomplished much over here lately. It's hard, because I try my best to stay positive, especially considering how much time I have left, but this place manages to suck the motivation out of you. Especially when others around you aren't as positive.

So today I was chilling up on the guard tower. Nothing really noteworthy happened until just near the end of the shift, when I heard an explosion. Nothing loud, just a normal explosion (I know that sounds crazy). I wouldn't have thought twice about it except that I hadn't heard any all day, so I started scanning to see if I could tell where it came from. I couldn't see anything from my tower so I ventured outside, and that's when I saw a plume of smoke. I radioed the other tower to ask them if that smoke had been there all day, and they said no. Slowly the smoke became thicker and thicker and my heart sank. I knew what this was. Something I've become all too accustomed to; a car bomb. Surprise, surprise. It seems endless, the death and destruction they rain down upon each other.

Just before our shift was ending we got word that we were to head out there and check it out, and take pictures and whatnot for our company commander. I wasn't too thrilled about the idea of heading down to check out another VBIED (Vehicular Borne Improvised Explosive Device), but I had no say in the matter. We rolled out to one of the markets in our sector, but when we arrived I was quite surprised to not see much carnage. In terms of car bombs, this one was pretty pathetic. By the time we left they were saying that only five people had been killed and 20 wounded. I hate to use the world "only", but after seeing the carnage at another site where over 180 were killed, five is really nothing anymore. But this just goes to show that our mission of "protecting the markets" is a waste of time. The only way to stop this is to go after those making the bombs. Until then, I will continue to wonder every day if today is the day I'll drive by a VBIED.

One thing that I noticed, and was talking with my grenadier about (he was gunning and I was driving), was how Iraqi civilians react to these explosions. They will walk by, sometimes stop, maybe exchange a few words with the others around, then walk away, still looking at the blast site. I guess the best way to describe it is to say that it's the same way Americans treat car accidents; they drive or walk by, staring at the scene, then just continue on their way like nothing happened. It's just a part of their lives, and I guess they've become adjusted to it.

Yesterday while I was out guarding the gate, this little kid came up and started talking with me. I guess his mom or family had come inside for something but he had stayed outside. I don't know why, but this kid didn't annoy this shit out of me like a lot of them tend to do. He was really cool, spoke pretty darn good English for his age (he looked about six, but was actually 10) and we had some good conversations.

It was pretty cool, but then out of nowhere he started telling me some stories. One was about how his friend was killed in a sectarian driveby, shot in the head, and how others were shot in various appendages. He also told about another time when someone threw a grenade at them, and he made the hand gestures of pulling the pin, throwing, and then the explosion. I remember thinking, how fucked up is it that this kid should even have these kinds of stories and memories to be able to tell? He's so young, yet he's had to learn some of life's hardest lessons. Things I don't even know if I'm fully capable of handling at my age. It just truly sickened me, and I wished I could take him away from all of this. Instead, all I had to offer was the rest of my Cherry Kool-Aid.

THE GOOD BAD GUYS |

August 03, 2007

THE GOOD BAD GUYS
Name: Teflon Don
Posting date: 8/3/07
Stationed in: Ramadi, Iraq
Milblog url: acutepolitics.blogspot.com

In America, "neighborhood watch" means a sign with an all-seeing eye bolted to a pole, and perhaps a slightly higher chance that the residents of the area will call the police about suspicious activity. In Iraq, Neighborhood Watch means men with AK-47s and medium machine guns manning hasty checkpoints built from cinder blocks and rubbish.

There are three general divisions of Iraqi Security Forces:

The highest level is the Iraqi Army. The soldiers of an IA brigade are drawn from a broad region, and generally have the best training of Iraqi troops. Some IA divisions are considered to be quite competent -- for example, I have heard good things about the 1st and 5th IA, both from American observers, and from Iraqi troops who have served in those units.

Below the level of the IA is the Iraqi Police. Policemen are generally drawn from a city and the surrounding rural area. The quality of IPs varies widely by location: in al-Anbar province, most IPs are good men, trustworthy, and decently trained. In other areas, IPs have sometimes proven to be corrupt, or worse -- more loyal to their tribal connections than to the government. IPs also have to deal with the dangers inherent in serving the Iraqi government near their hometowns; if they are recognized, their families could be in danger. One can tell the security situation in an area has improved by looking at the faces of the IPs -- in Ramadi last year, most IPs (when they were present) wore face masks out of fear for their families. Now, they are usually uncovered.

The lowest level of ISF is the Provincial Security Forces. They come from an even smaller slice of countryside than do the IPs, and they attend a short academy that teaches basic skills before being put into the field. PSF often serve directly alongside IPs, manning vehicle checkpoints and patrolling villages. They lend a direct knowledge of small communities that the IPs for the broader area may lack. Many PSF will prove themselves on the beat with the IPs, and will go on to the IP academies to become policemen themselves.

Below the scope of government security operations is the Neighborhood Watch. These are volunteers from the local population, often managed by the local sheik and unpaid by the Iraqi government. The appearance of NW is often the portent of change in an historically violent area, because the formation of a local security force (as compared to outside intervention by Coalition Forces or ISF) represents a shift in the attitude of the local population. NW members are normally encouraged to join one branch or another of the ISF -- after vetting, many of them eventually do become soldiers or policemen.

American troops call them the "Good Bad Guys" or GBG, a title which reflects the checkered past of many of these fighters. One sheik, among the first to stand up a militia in the Falluja area, now commands a company of PSF troops. His men began as a militia, became recognized as NW by the local Marine command, and many eventually went to the academy to become PSF. The sheik himself was wounded fighting Americans in the battle for Falluja. He has been working with us now for close to a year. His community near the river is beautiful, acts of violence are extremely rare, and we have never had problems with him or any of his men.

This sort of turnaround is the future of al-Anbar province; convincing former insurgents that America is here to give them help, not to take their land, their oil, their culture, or their religion. Many have come to realize that we will leave once our job is done, and have turned their attention to helping root out the stubborn and the terrorists -- the ones who will never stop fighting.

Over the course of the last year, I have had the opportunity many times to see various Iraqi units in action. The Iraqi Army and Iraqi Police have greatly increased in number. There were few of either evident in Ramadi last October, and they are everywhere now. I like to see IAs and IPs; I like to see that Iraqis fighting for their own country. However, the guys I really like to see are the PSF and Neighborhood Watch fighters.

I have witnessed the appearance of local fighters in an area several times -- an advent that is normally followed quickly by relative peace.

Framed_teflon_militia_1_4 Tribal fighters man a checkpoint near the Euphrates.

The first area in which I saw local fighters appear was along the Euphrates river near Falluja. The newly-formed Neighborhood Watch was controlled by the sheik I mentioned; the one that was wounded fighting American troops in the 2004 battle for Falluja. It is mainly because of him that so many units began calling the neighborhood watch the Good Bad Guys. There are many Iraqis like this sheik and his men, former insurgents who have grown to see Americans as allies, and al-Qaeda and foreign fighters as the real threat to their future. The region controlled by the sheik is marked by fighters manning checkpoints -- originally hasty affairs built from rusted engine parts and cinder brick, and upgraded to sand-filled plastic Jersey barriers as the local forces transitioned to PSF.

Framed_teflon_militia_2_2Children make their way to school.

Now the sheik commands a company of PSF fighters, as well as unincorporated Neighborhood Watch along his eastern border. He receives funds fom the Iraqi government to provide a stipend for his men and to help pay for equipment. As far as I am aware, there has been only one attack in his territory since the local citizens stood up -- a double IED strike one night that was followed by the PSF going house to house looking for the bomber. The problems and friction that many feared have not developed, even during the transition from the Marine unit that initially held the area to their successors.

The second time I saw a local militia form, it happened almost overnight. The region was an agricultural area northeast of Ramadi. It was a bad area, one that we frequently patrolled and often found IEDs in. Blast holes lined the roads, and in some places nearly blocked the narrow, elevated lanes. Two companies of Marines had spent months trying to gain control of the area, mainly on foot because the roads were continually seeded with IEDs. One day the ever-elusive enemy launched mortars at us while we paused at a Combat Outpost. None of the rounds hit our patrol or the COP, but at least one hit a school. We took four children and three adults to Camp Taqaddum, near Habbaniyah, for medical care.

One little girl died later at TQ, and more had been killed down in the village. In all, twelve children died.


Framed_teflon_militia_3_2The COP minutes before the transformational attack.

The next time we patrolled the route, later that week, there were militia fighters standing alongside Marines all along the road. We never found another IED in the area. I recently spoke with a Chief Warrant Officer who had been serving at the COP during the transformation. He did not know it had been our platoon in the area that day, but he directly credited our aid and the PSYOPS followup as the events that sparked the transformation. The Marines had spent months laying the groundwork -- interfacing with the villagers, offering aid, and sweeping for bad guys. The Iraqis weren't buying into it. In one day, that changed.

I was told that the Army PSYOPS unit attached to the Marines put on "the show of a lifetime". They went out onto the roads proselytizing via loudspeaker: "The insurgents say they are here to help you, but they only kill your children.The Americans are the only ones you can trust to help." They opened the mike up to the villagers, and the response was overwhelming. People came from their houses to tell the insurgents, "You killed my daughter. I will not sleep, I will not eat until I see you die!"

Iraqis came up to tell about the strange men that had appeared, threatening to kill families if they were not provided with shelter. They led Marines to caches and IEDs. Perhaps most importantly, they began to work with the Marines to secure their villages. Now the Marines are gone, save for a small contingent left on the main road to the south.

Framed_teflon_militia_4_2 A soldier gives first aid to an adult wounded in the mortar attack.

Standing up to the insurgents is not without risk. There have been several times that our patrol has passed dusty little cemeteries nestled among the trees, clustered with mourners burying fallen brothers. The non-uniformed forces in Iraq such as PSF or NW are in danger from multiple sides; from insurgents who wish to kill them, and from trigger-happy Americans who may shoot them thinking they are the enemy. Both have happened on occasion, but the tribesmen continue to serve.


Framed_teflon_militia_5_2Mourners gather at the funeral for seven fighters killed by insurgents.

Insurgents still hold out in Zaidon, sandwiched between Falluja and the Euphrates. The bombs there have gotten bigger and more numerous, as well as appearing in previously calm areas and including VBIEDs. Recently, a stretch of several bad days saw multiple trucks from each route-clearance patrol in the area strike IEDs. There is a possible light in the tunnel, though -- several new classes of PSF have just graduated, and some of those men are serving now in Zaidon. IED activity has already been markedly reduced. If the past is any indication, the Iraqi effort will spread wider and encompass the entire area, helping American troops to bring calm to one of the last major centers of violence in al-Anbar province.

RULES OF ENGAGEMENT |

August 02, 2007

RULES OF ENGAGEMENT
Name: American Soldier
Returned from: Iraq
Posting date: 8/2/07
Milblog url
: soldierlife.com

I shot a man once for driving his vehicle towards me in Iraq. He was off the road and at an accelerated pace. He was within 100 meters before I shot him and even then it would have been too late if he had set off his charge. The scenario played out in my head over and over after, and to this day I think about it.

I wondered if he was just a pawn trying to test our limit and how we would react to that situation. The terrorists we fought against were testy little pricks. It was almost like a game of cat and mouse sometimes.

They knew our ROE (Rules of Engagement) and always seemed to reach the point of almost getting killed. However, this time it played out a little different. I never tried to go out of my way to hurt anyone.

Sometimes you had to be rough and other times it wasn’t needed, but you never gave an inch. This particular day was like any other day in Ramadi. It was morning and curfew was just coming off. We were doing our rounds in and out of the city, keeping the main roadways clear and sustaining a watchful eye for people stopping and dropping. This was a common method -- a vehicle comes to a stop, drops an IED, and then just drives on.

One thing that was a challenge in the city was the amount of traffic in the morning. It would build up, and despite having an up-armored vehicle you couldn’t move an entire column of traffic. You could bump and grind at times, but things always seemed to bottleneck at certain points. You tried your best to not get into those situations.

On this particular morning my crew and I had decided to stay at the lower part of one road.There was a Bradley at the other end, and they could also watch for people dropping things from their vehicles.

I decided to stop a car to inspect it. It was lowered in the rear. Nine out of ten times the weight is from tires, bad shocks, or just random items in a trunk, but you can never be too careful. So I had my other truck pull security in front of us by pulling ahead of the suspicious vehicle, and my gunner turned around to ensure no other vehicles came towards us. I always tried my best to provide 360 degree coverage. Anyway, the search was routine. Most are, when you have guns pointing in your general direction.

I was looking under one of the seats when I heard one of my guys yell, then a shot rang out. I jumped out and saw this vehicle moving towards us fast.

Now I know this sounds crazy, but in some situations things seem to just go in slow motion. This was one of them. I raised my weapon up and fixed the vehicle into my reflex sight. Here is how it broke down:

-There was already a verbal warning.
- Visual warning.
- A warning shot.
- The vehicle was still coming.

All of this occurred within a few seconds. I estimated that the vehicle was about 100 meters give or take from us. I squeezed my trigger and a single shot found its ways into the driver’s side window, center mass.

The vehicle turned a little and finally came to a rolling stop.

If the vehicle had blown up, my men would most likely have been killed. One hundred meters with a VBIED is sure death. The Rules of Engagement are a guideline, and you do your best to ensure that you follow them in the order prescribed. Sometimes you have to go from waving them off to a disabling shot or even a kill shot. Every time you pull the trigger, you question your decision, which is reality. You have mere seconds to decide if you will kill someone or hesitate. You develop these instincts in war that seem to heighten the will to survive.

The point of this entry is to give you a glimpse of what reality can be like when faced with such tight rules that can cost you your life. Like I said, you develop the instinct and learn it at an accelerated rate from trial and error. Seeing your buddies hurt or killed is that accelerator. The ROE is your worst enemy in war.

However, it can be your best friend when you rationalize the decision to kill someone.

BUSY DAY |

August 01, 2007

BUSY DAY
Name: Eric Jones
Posting date: 8/1/07
Stationed in: Iraq
Hometown: California
Milblog url: westcoastnotorious.com
Email: ericthered053@aol.com

We leave camp early in the morning to set out for our next mission. Everybody seems ready to go. We get some chow and eat on the run -- hard to do in a gun truck!

As we hit a stretch a road about two hours into our mission, one of the TCNs* has a flat. It would normally take KBR* up to four hours to come and fix it, so the TCN does it himself. We pull security, keeping an eye on the road, when a white Toyota truck (go figure) comes out of nowhere about 150 meters off of our 9'oclock. It moves up the road another 800 meters behind us and stops.

"Keep your eye on them!" I tell my gunner. I call our commander and advise him of the vehicle. Just as I start to describe the situation seven men dismount the vehicle, running to opposite sides of their truck.Two of them go over to a berm at our 7 o'clock. One places something on the ground at our 6, and the others go to 4 o'clock.

"Dismount's in the open, 800 meters, 6 o'clock," I say over the radio as I hear my gunner charge his weapon.

Sgt. N quickly comes back over the net: "Move up and observe!"

I turn my gun truck around and drive towards them about 500 meters and stop.

"Status?" asks the Sgt.

"Moving towards my position 300 meters and closing!" I respond.

"I'm coming up to your position, hang tight!"

"200 meters and closing!" I pull back the charging handle on my M-4 and have my driver move into a right herringbone across the road. This way I can dismount my vehicle and use it as cover to fire or return fire if I have to.

Sgt. N is about 150 meters away from me when all of the men stop their advance, get back into their truck, then head out across the desert to my 8 o'clock and disappear off into the distance. Just then a group of Polish gun trucks comes into view. They drive up to us and a couple of them get out.

"What's going on, my friend?" asks one in broken English.

"Looks like you guys ran off the local bullies on the block," I respond. "Keep your eyes open for possible UXO* back there about 400 or 500 meters. I watched one of them place something on the ground."

Sgt. N drives up and I brief him on the situation. He calls for QRF* so that we can continue our mission. After the TCN repairs the tire we move out.

Another hour goes by and our ASV* spots a 155mm artillery round on the side of the road.

"Break, break, break! UXO in view come left and push through!"

My truck becomes silent and we all hold our breath until we push past and clear it. We call it up to higher and move on.

After the mission we pull into camp and the last thing I hear before I exit my gun truck is Sgt. B: "Busy day."

Yes, it was...

*
TCN: Third Country National
KBR: former Halliburton subsidiary; runs military supply lines and operates U.S. bases in Iraq
QRF: Quick Reaction Force
ASV: Armored Security Vehicle
UXO: Unexploded Ordnance


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