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.

AT THE DFAC |

October 31, 2007

AT THE DFAC
Name: Kevin
Posting date: 11/1/07
Stationed in: Iraq
Hometown: Oakland, NJ
Milblog url: iraqpartii@blogspot.com

Since nothing much is going on, I decided to write about what us Taji-confined soldiers truly cherish most: the Dining Facility (DFAC, Armyspeak for mess hall). Conveniently situated only one mile from our living area, the DFAC is well worth the trudge through the heat, dusty parking lots, and PortaPotty-induced olfactory horrors that make Camp Taji the wonderful place I already know it to be.

I spend about two hours a day at the mess hall, so I wanted to write a little bit about it. The Taji DFAC looks nothing like the stereotypical mess hall. It is well-lit, clean, offers a great selection of foods, and is run by civilian contractors. I have to hand it to Gulf Catering, the contractor who runs our mess hall. Their dozens of Indian servers do a really good job, and are very nice to us troops coming through the lines. On the days the DFAC serves chicken or beef curry, you’ll see a line of Indian workers wrapped around the side of the mess hall. That’s how I know it's good curry.

Their company is a subcontractor for KBR, which is a subsidiary of Halliburton, Dick Cheney’s old firm. Evidently, our Vice President is very good at contracting things out, just as he contracted out his responsibility to serve in the Vietnam War to less fortunate Americans by obtaining five draft deferments.

At breakfast, I am put in the enviable position of deciding amongst a made-to-order omelet, scrambled eggs, bacon, sausage, ham, hash browns, grits, French toast, pancakes, and oatmeal. Just when I think I’ve seen enough food to last me all day, there is the cereal table. Alongside the blander Cheerios and Special K boxes are the more decadent cereals like Fruit Loops, Lucky Charms, and Cocoa Puffs, treats my Mom never let me touch. Because she is now 10,000 miles away, I’m already starting to put on a little weight, something I thought was not possible due to my naturally high metabolism. Oh well, I have a lot of time to work it off before returning to the States next spring.

Lunch and dinner feature more of the same, but go even more overboard in terms of the variety of foods served. Overboard is nice, but I have to ask myself how much KBR charges the U.S. Government for a soldier to eat a meal here. That issue being way above my level as a lowly Battalion Logistics Officer, I instead focus only on what I throw on my plate. For lunch, I can get a sandwich, soup, burgers, hot dog, cheese steak, salad, pizza, tacos, rice, mashed potatoes, fruit, and just about any other basic sort of food.

Dinner is equally good. We even get crab legs on Sunday, although the shells are dangerously sharp. Probably the most dangerous thing I do all week, breaking up crab legs in a hostile fire zone is not a task I take lightly.

Framed_kevin_food_2

A recent lunch at the DFAC: no, those aren't worms on the steak. They're onions.

STRYKER SANDWICH |

STRYKER SANDWICH
Name: The Usual Suspect
Posting date: 10/31/07
Stationed in: Iraq
Milblog url: theunlikelysoldier.blogspot.com

It was yet another boring horrible mind numbing monotonous nauseating suckfest of a day, repetitive and relentless with more than a dash of dull. I was sitting in the back of the Stryker, looking at my assault pack, holding my radio with a complete and absolute disdain that would melt the face off of any average Hot Topic goth wannabe.

Being that we were undermanned, I was the only one actually sitting down. I contemplated standing in the unoccupied air guard hatch. My friend was in the other. After a careful bout of deliberation (a solid three seconds), I decided no, I would not follow that course of action. I was going to be walking around with that radio on my back all day long, and to be honest, I'm a whiny little baby.

So I slouched on the bench while my ass went steadily numb, and I hooked my hand through one of the straps hanging from the ceiling. It held my wrist like an untightened noose. We slowed or stopped or something, and all this dust started pouring through the hatches.

"Wow, that's a lot of dust," I thought, and was immediately thrown in the direction of the front of the truck.

I stopped, pondered. Felt like I had almost maybe been close to pulling a muscle in my arm, nothing more. So what the hell was that? Did we get blown up? Was I so disoriented that my mind processed the dust before it could grasp the impact or explosion or whatever the hell that was? Can't be, because it wasn't quite like that when we got blown up on top of that house... so what then?

A second impact buried my face in my assault pack again. It was now obvious that motor vehicles of some sort were striking us. But come on, our own trucks? That can't be.

My friend is writhing around inside the truck, apparently in pain. I don't know, I guess it hurts when a massive military vehicle rear-ends you doing 30-40 miles an hour. But that's probably just hearsay.

Everyone's yelling at each other, "Is everyone all right?" and all that other AllState commercial gibberish. I decide that perhaps I should stand up in the hatch, since my compadre is banged up, and I don't feel like being yelled at.

"Whoa, don't drop the ramp," I told the driver. "Our ass end is like... on top of their truck."

What had happened was we were about to cross over a median to the other side of the road, but a separate convoy was oncoming, so we stopped on the median to let them pass. This was a dusty area, and it kicked up a brownout. The other two trucks didn't see us stop, so the second nailed us, and the third managed to slow down before smashing the second up.

A friend of mine from one of the other trucks cut his forehead pretty deep and had to be checked out for concussion and whatnot, but he's fine now, munching on percocet and watching Spongebob or something. The other guy is doing well too, just a bit stiff.

The cages on the trucks took a pretty severe beating, but it was amazing how little damage the Strykers actually took. So uh...thanks for the tax dollars. They seem to be keeping my ass quite safe.

COMING HOME |

October 30, 2007

COMING HOME
Name: Alex Horton
Posting date: 10/30/2007
Returned from: Iraq
Hometown: Frisco, Texas
Milblog url: armyofdude.blogspot.com
Email: hortonhearsit@hotmail.com

Lauren told me recently, "You're the most sentimental person I know." If you're one of the faithful few that have read my blog in its entirety, you're most likely to agree with her. I'm a sucker for milestones. I wrote about how it felt to be exactly one year away from getting out of the Army, and a fictitious account about coming home the day we were scheduled to, before being extended three months. A week after we returned home, I described what it was like to be back.

Now it has been a month since I've returned to the States, and this week I've come back to my actual home. At some point in Baqubah I developed a hernia, and waited until I made it back to Ft. Lewis to have it properly diagnosed and treated. I went into surgery last week and am recovering just fine. It still hurts to laugh (which is bad news for someone who giggles at his own jokes). They gave me two weeks for recovery and I decided to take that in my hometown.

Far away from a military base, the question arises with ferocious intensity: What does it feel like to be back? My usual short answer is, "It's nice to have a warm bed again." But that's not quite how it is. It almost feels like it gets harder, not easier.

Last week I was invited to a dinner hosted by Lauren's mother. Joining us would be Lauren's sister, her cousin who I had already met, another cousin I hadn't, and her fiancé. I retained my "quiet with a few clever puns" persona, and as such didn't contribute much to the conversation. It felt like I had nothing of relevance to say about the topics that came up. My grasp of news and politics was more than a year old; only the biggest stories made their way across the ocean.

By taking part in the biggest thing happening in our culture, I sacrificed being in the culture itself. I refused to be that guy who starts off every sentence with "This one time in Iraq...", but my options are slim. I could recall stories of my trip to Europe in April, but then it would be, "Dude, this one time in Amsterdam." There's only so many times you can regale people with stories about aggressive transvestite prostitutes.

With my Texan accent sticking out like a Dutch hooker's crotch, it was only a matter of time before Lauren's cousin asked where I was from. I told her I had lived in north Texas most of my life, and went back to poking around the sausage in my spaghetti. Lauren's mother then gave an updated biography, saying I had just gotten back from Iraq and that I chronicled my deployment in a blog (wink!).

After she asked what I wrote about, I launched into a tirade about applying personal experiences of the war to the larger aspect that isn't in the mainstream media. I must've looked silly, talking with urgency and saying more words in one minute than in the whole evening prior. I realized the conundrum I was in. The subject I didn't want to come up was the only one I could apply myself to. An elephant in the room that only I could see.

After a month I'm still not quite comfortable with being in small, crowded and loud places like bars. My senses are more refined now. I'm a more attentive driver, and I can see and hear things a lot differently. A club with a thousand different conversations used to be collective noise. Now I hear an endless number of distinct voices and every note coming from the DJ.

I'm agitated by people coming too close or brushing up against me like never before. I don't jump, twitch or moan when I hear an expected loud noise.You know the feeling you get when you narrowly avoid a car crash? That's what I get. I'm perfectly fine at first glance, but the blood drains from my face and my scalp tingles. I may or may not break into a sweat.

I didn't recall many dreams while I was in Iraq, but now they flood my subconscious. In one I'm riding in a bus and hanging out the window. Another bus in the opposite lane passes by, and Jesse Williams is waving to me from inside. I wave back. Another has me on a routine patrol when I find half a body on the side of the road. It's Chevy. His face is twisted but recognizable. His lower half is gone, despite his body having been intact when he died.

Despite the hardships we face alone, I feel incredibly lucky to have my family and friends here for me, who understand the best they can. It was fitting I started this entry with Lauren, wise and empathetic beyond her years. A month with these challenges seems minuscule when compared to the month of joy I shared with her.

For everyone else, the nature of this war prevents the public from a full grasp of understanding. In the wars of past generations, soldiers volunteered or were drafted by the millions. In the case of World War II, families endured rations and donated to the war effort. Almost every single American contributed to victory. In the case of Iraq and Afghanistan, the war is squeezed into a half hour of prime time television. In WWII, in Korea, in Vietnam, we were a country at war. Now we're a military at war, with less than 1% of the population in uniform. Unless you have a friend or family member in the military, it's a separate reality. In airports and in living rooms, you can see for yourself the effect in the eyes of a soldier who's been at war for fifteen months at a time, hidden behind a smile that conceals a secret: you'll never quite understand what we did there.

Like Atlas, we carry the immense burden of the country on our shoulders, waiting for the day, seemingly long into the future, when the American people say, "That will do."

PICTURE TIME |

October 29, 2007

PICTURE TIME
Name: Old Blue
Posting date: 10/29/07
Stationed in: Afghanistan
Hometown: Cincinnati, Ohio
Milblog url: billandbobsadventure.blogspot.com

Here are a few pictures of some of the recent happenings in The Valley.
Framed_old_blue_the_valley
The Valley has a lot of farms. They primarily grow wheat (already harvested), corn (pictured), potatoes, tomatoes, onions (they love onions), melons, and cotton.
Framed_old_blue_sunrise
Sunrise in The Valley. Pictures just don't do the mountains justice.
Framed_old_blue_on_patrol
On patrol with the ANP. This guy's carrying a 120mm Russian mortar round that we captured. We blew it up later. BIG boom. This round can be used to create a powerful IED.
Framed_old_blue_the_radio
The radio operator during an operational pause in The Valley. We didn't know it then, but he had about a month to live. He was killed by the IED that claimed four of our ANP in September, 2007. He was the guy who was always right there when I turned to talk to the ANP Commander. A good, hardworking kid. This is what an Afghan hero looks like.
Framed_old_blue_763
7.63 x 54R ammunition captured in The Valley. This type of ammunition is used in Russian-made machine guns and sniper rifles. It's actually a little larger than American 7.62mm ammunition. A very powerful rifle cartridge. This was part of a small ammunition cache.
Framed_old_blue_afghan_blonde_2
Afghan blonde hash. To Afghans, marijuana in all of its forms is called hashish. This is the processed end result of the marijuana plants we found all over the valley. The Afghans smoke a lot of hashish.
Framed_old_blue_raw_opium_2
Raw opium. They grow a lot of opium poppies in The Valley. We found and confiscated all sorts of opium harvesting tools during our searches, and about four kilos of raw opium. That's a drop in the bucket as far as the total output of The Valley, but operations didn't begin until the opium harvesting season was well and truly over. Politics. In any case, they use small pieces of wood with razor tips to score the poppy bulbs and then scrape off the black resinous sap that oozes from the cuts. That's raw opium. This was either for personal consumption or was waiting to be sold to a Taliban-controlled buyer to be transported elsewhere for processing into heroin. Afghanistan supplies 90% of the world's heroin, and this is where it starts.
Framed_old_blue_ana_2
ANA, ANP, and troops of the 82nd Airborne Division working together in The Valley.
Framed_old_blue_anp_followed
ANP, followed by soldiers of the 82nd Airborne, emerge from a village following a cordon and search operation in The Valley.
Framed_old_bblue_anp_soldier
ANP soldier, foreground, and an ANA RPG gunner, background. The ANP and ANA worked very well together in my sector.
Framed_old_blue_searching_2
Searching a house where the Taliban were having chai within an hour of our arrival. We didn't catch anyone this time, though. This is a fairly typical Afghan compound. Note the steps made of mud, and the general construction.
Framed_old_blue_an_afghan_nat_2
An Afghan National Army M-113 armored personnel carrier (American made) with a Russian "Dashka" .50 caliber machine gun mounted on it. To an old Cold Warrior like me, this is the height of strangeness. Seeing M-113s parked next to BMP-1 Russian armored personnel carriers, all painted in the same livery, was just plain weird. It's a brave new world.
Framed_old_blue_our_bedroom
Our bedroom one morning in Afghanistan. My crew took turns at night sitting up with the NODS to provide security. There were four of us, a terp, and 100 ANP.
Framed_old_blue_the_landscape_2
The landscape in The Valley is just plain striking. It is a harsh environment, but the Afghan farmers do a great job of water management on the local level.
Framed_old_blue_afghanistan_can_2
Afghanistan can be visually stimulating.
Framed_old_blue_someday_this_3
Someday this country may actually have a tourist industry. I've already figured out where the golf course should go in The Valley. It will include a par-3 with a 200 foot vertical drop. Very challenging.
Framed_old_blue_our_convoy_2
Our convoy coming up on a favorite ambush spot on the road in The Valley. Sometimes they hit you here, sometimes they don't. This kind of behavior is why they don't have a golf course and a tourist industry. There are a couple of prime skiing spots that need to be de-mined.
Framed_old_blue_this_is_what_2
This is what it's all about. You can see a lot of the emotions of Afghanistan on their faces. Determination, friendliness, happiness, uncertainty, and trepidation are all there on one face or another. The children of Afghanistan are the future of Afghanistan, and when these children are educated and grown and live in an Islamic democratic society that works, there will be no home in Afghanistan for extremism. That is what will make our country and all the countries of the world safer.

It is not something that will be fixed overnight. And in the meantime there is more work for soldiers and police to do. Either we can do it, or our sons can do it for us. I know that I would prefer that my sons not have to do this.

REMEMBER |

October 26, 2007

REMEMBER
Name: Owen Powell (aka SGT Roy Batty)
Posting date: 10/26/07
Returned from: Iraq
Stationed in: Germany
Hometown: Yellow Springs, Ohio
Email: sgtroybatty@yahoo.com

Golden sunlight dapples through the slender branches of the October trees, gracing the form of the three men in front of me. Their faces may be young but their expressions are those of much older men — frozen, confused, traumatized, as if they have freshly emerged from some shotgun terror hidden in the thin green copse behind them. One of them holds a short black rifle, much like the one I left behind in Baghdad just a few short months ago, and another carries a machine gun on his shoulder, as if he has marched a long way from the battlefield, yet still hasn’t reached that final patrol base, some unseen sanctuary that perhaps waits across the long field behind me. The staccato chop of a single helicopter echoes up from the depths of the marble city, and I look up as it flies low along the river, and yes, improbably, it is a Huey, a relic these men would remember well. The sound of the slick wells up, and a low shiver starts at the base of my spin and climbs towards my shoulders. Time expands and dilates, and for a long treacherous minute I am unsure of where I am. Is this Combat Outpost Callahan on an impossibly crisp morning, back in Iraq, or is it the Perfume River in Hue, forty years in the past yet connected by the same lethal, heady cocktail — fumbled mistakes and blind American arrogance? The gaze within the bronze eye sockets of the soldiers draws me in, holds my attention for a slow heartbeat, and then I turn to see what it is that has stopped them, forever, from their long walk Home.

This is not the Middle East, and no, it is not Vietnam. The sound of my wife’s laugh brings me back to earth, and the final bullet to my mid-afternoon trance is the sight of the low black wall behind me. I can’t see the names etched upon it, but the dark scar in the green expanse of the Mall can only be the Vietnam War memorial. This is Washington, and I am here, bizarrely enough, to help publicize the release of our book, Doonesbury.com’s The Sandbox.

I say "bizarrely", because, sitting back at Callahan, typing doggerel into a battered laptop while waiting for the next mortar attack, I never thought that I would be sitting at the Pentagon with Garry Trudeau, signing books for an endless line of colonels and generals, all while wearing a new suit and a shit-eating grin. But somehow that’s exactly what has been going on for the past three days, and it has been heady stuff. We’ve been to the Office of Veteran’s Affairs, Walter Reed Army Medical Center, and to the Pentagon. We’ve been interviewed by the Washington Post and by National Public Radio. We’ve sat in the press center deep in the bowels of the Pentagon and stared into the mirrored gaze of TV cameras and their attendant bright lights, courtesy of the Pentagon Channel and Defenselink.com. We’ve been recorded and quoted and asked for our insight on American foreign policy. Fortunately, if you want a celebrity that can teach you, by example, how not to be carried away by your intoxicating 15 minutes of fame, Garry is the top choice on a very short list. The sudden materialization of reporters and photographers and fawning bigwigs is greeted with the same ready grin, quiet manner, and a sense of humor so understated that I keep finding myself smiling at a witicism minutes after he delivers it.

Framed_roy_with_troy_2 Oh, and I’m not alone on this psychedelic trip into the world of the yellow press amid the splendours of our nation’s capital. Along with my wife, Barbara, Troy Steward is here, newly returned from Afghanistan (that's him on the right). I enjoyed his posts and iconic pictures while I was downrange, and it is reassuring to have another soldier with me amid this sudden excitement. We both kept yo-yoing between our deployment mindsets and our new found role of published authors. The other day, when we pulled up to the VA building, we exited the car with Garry, our editor David Stanford, and Shelly Barkes, our publicist, only to be greeted by waiting reporters and photographers, along with a phalanx of Secret Service officers and the flashing blue lights of their patrol cars. No, it turned out the Feds weren’t there for us, but were securing the route for the Dalai Lama, who, equally surrealistically, was visiting Congress with our illustrious Commander-in-Chief the same day.  Still, I found myself locked back into Baghdad mode, scanning the rooftops and blank windows around us, suspiciously eyeing the DC traffic, moving into diamond formation around our dignitaries. I looked at Troy, and saw that he was doing the same thing. We both laughed when I leaned over and whispered, “It’s just like being on PSD (Protective Services Detachment) detail, isn’t it?”

It was great to put faces to names that previously I had only seen online, like our editor, David: A shock of white hair, a genuine smile, and a heartfelt hug are the things I think of first when I recall him, along with the amazing conversation we had while walking the Mall, talking about writing. The Internet, this modern marvel, somehow lets you know people from the inside out, even before you meet them.

All of my friends and family have asked me the same thing about the trip — “Well, what was the best part?” The best part was also the hardest part, even when it was really the purpose, not only for the trip, but also for the book itself. 

Fisher House.

All the royalties from the book are going to the Fisher House, and when we went to Walter Reed we visited one of the Houses, of which there are dozens spread throughout the United States and Europe. The Fisher House looks like any other suburban home, even when it is nestled incongruously among a myriad of blank military buildings. The House offers a comfortable place for wounded soldiers and their families to stay during medical treatment, which, in the case of amputees from Iraq and Afghanistan, can stretch on for months. Many of the soldiers would have a difficult time paying for their families to stay in hotels, given the sad state of military pay, and so the Fisher House offers a very real help during a time more traumatic than most of us can imagine.

What made it all so hard for me was coming face to face with the soldiers themselves. Every morning in Baghdad, rolling out the gate in my up-armored HMMWV, I would be confronted with the same fear — not that I might get killed, even though that was always possible. The one great thing about a quick and violent death is that you don’t have to worry about anything anymore. It’s much more disturbing to think about getting cherished pieces of your anatomy blown off, and then having to deal with the day to day realities of having "one sock too many" for the rest of your life. Every morning I would lead my fire team in the Pre-Mission Prayer, and then we would grit our teeth and lock and load, and lurch our way into the morning rush hour traffic, eyeing the side of the road with great intensity.

Here’s the thing — the guys at Walter Reed are living our nightmare every day, and I really worried about how they would take some dickhead in a three piece suit dropping by to say hi. I thought a lot about how I would want to be talked to if I was in their shoes. I sure as hell wouldn’t want to be gawked at like some specimen in a particularly upscale zoo. Eventually I figured out that I would probably just want to talk to another soldier, as a soldier — just another "Joe". And so that’s what we did.

Framed_batty_fisher_2 The thing that really surprised me was the eagerness with which the guys responded to us. We had dinner with Mark, John and Marko, all of whom were amputees. Marko was missing both his left arm and a leg — and yet all of the guys were really friendly and open about their experiences. We talked about where they were stationed at in Iraq and Afghanistan, and it often turned out that we had been in the same places and had driven the same routes. We talked about which FOBs really sucked, and which had the best PXs. We talked about gear, and the cool gadgets we had added onto our weapons. We talked about asshole platoon sergeants, and the guys who really came through when the shit hit the fan. We talked about getting hit, and what happened when the dust cleared. The guys showed us their prosthetics, and explained how they worked, popping them off to show me the sensors. We talked about our families and the difficulties that they had endured during the whole process. We talked about what we wanted to do in the future. And then we went off and played Halo 3, which made me laugh, because it was such a soldier thing to do. Back at FOB Shield, the guys in my platoon had hooked up a wireless LAN, and any time we weren’t on mission, the Thunderdome, with its open communal roof, would resonate with the yells of victorious cyber-warriors. The Fisher House was no different.

One moment in particular really affected me. We were talking about the term "hero", a term which, with the best intentions, is often overused in today’s Army. I had signed Mark’s copy of The Sandbox, and written "to a true Hero, no bullshit."  Mark said “You know, there is always someone who has it worse than you. To me, my brother is a hero. He was badly hurt in an industrial accident, and yet he’s here with me now, and has been the whole time, helping me through all of this shit. I look at my buddy, Marko, who’s sitting here missing an arm and a leg, and he’s a hero to me, because it doesn’t faze him, and he just keeps driving on.”  Mark paused for a minute and then he looked at me, in the eye, very intently, and then at Troy. “And you know,” he said, “you guys are heroes to me, because you made it home and yet you’re still putting the word out, letting everyone know what we all went through.”

Let me tell you, sitting there looking at these guys, seeing their wounds, and having a bit of an idea of both what they had been through, and aware of the difficulties which they will still have to face,  I had to work very hard not to lose it right there. I looked away, my eyes glistening. It is the single most generous thing that anyone has ever said to me.

So, that was Washington. It was fun and it was great, and it was all over very quickly. I’m back in Germany now, back "home".  Leave will be over soon, and then it will be back to whatever drudgeries the Army has to offer — at least until it’s time to prepare for the next deployment. Still, there are a couple of things that I’ll take with me. Meeting new old friends. Hanging out with the guys at the Fisher House. Mark’s compliment and the drive not to let him down; to keep getting the word out.

That, and remembering the cold sunlight on the faces of the bronzed soldiers at the Wall, and the feel of their gaze on my back as I walked away. They’re trying to tell me the same thing, I think.

Remember.

Framed_owen_statue

 

WHAT A WONDERFUL DAY |

October 25, 2007

WHAT A WONDERFUL DAY
Name: Eddie
Posting date: 10/25/07
Stationed in: Iraq
Milblog url: airborneparainf82@blogspot.com

Today started off with me waking up at 0700 in the morning. Considering I have not been working, and have nothing to do but waste away on the internet or playing games or watching movies, my sleep schedule has been all wacked and I have been staying up late. Late last night/this morning my old squad leader came back in off of leave. The reason I refer to him as "my old squad leader" is due to some shifting and changes that came about within our company the past couple weeks, while he was on leave. More on that another time. Anyways, he stopped by and we ended up talking and whatnot for a while, and by the time I finally went to bed it was somewhere around 0300. Needless to say I was pretty tired when it came time to get up.

I had to get a nice uniform ready, because the reason we were getting up was to attend a ceremony to receive our CIB, or Combat Infantrymans Badge. The CIB is a distinctive combat badge that is only worn by Infantry soldiers. It is something that every Infantryman looks forward to receiving one day, for it means that you have been through the ultimate test in your profession; to handle yourself while under enemy fire. The CIB represents an experience that all owners will take with them for the rest of their lives, as combat-proven Infantryman. Others that see the CIB will know you've probably seen some shit that they wouldn't care to, and that you volunteered to do so.

The thing is, when I think back to the soldiers of WWII and Vietnam, I realize that I really haven't done shit compared to what they did. To them a CIB meant fierce fighting for days and weeks on end, countless lost friends, and years of their lives fighting a determined and tough enemy. My experiences here are nothing like that, although according to the criteria for the award, I have earned it in every respect -- something that is not always true for many people that come over here. I have been shot at on countless occasions and had the opportunity to fire back and engage the enemy on most of those. I've spent the past nine months in a hostile combat zone, with an active enemy, living and working every day in harm's way.

But am I really a trial-by-fire tested combat Infantryman? Would I have handled myself in the same way that those who came before me would have? I would like to think so, but I will probably never know. This is probably a good thing, and I should be thankful that I don't have to experience that, but it gets me thinking about the meaning of the badge I will be wearnig. Don't get me wrong, I will wear my CIB proudly, and I am honored to have been able to serve my country and to help, in what ways I could, the Iraqi people. I am forever grateful to have been given that opportunity, and will carry those memories with me for the rest of my life.

So, with that said, we have officially been given our CIBs. After all these years of waiting and wondering if I would get mine, I finally have. As an added bonus to the day's celebrations, I got word that my flight out of our FOB, and the first leg of my journey home, will begin a day early. Not too long from now, if all goes well, I should be on my way out of here! I still haven't packed though. I am incredibly lazy, I know. I'm going to go do that as soon as I finish this.

I was watching a movie earlier, and halfway through I paused it to go have a smoke and all of a sudden like a ton of bricks it hit me, and I got butterflies and a very giddy feeling: I AM FINALLY GOING HOME! For the longest time it had seemed so far off, and even as it got close it really didn't feel like it was close. After nine months, one week, and one day straight in this place, I am finally getting a much-needed break. I can't wait.

IM SH'ALLAH |

October 24, 2007

IM SH'ALLAH
Name: Toby Nunn
Posting date: 10/24/07
Stationed in: Kuwait / Iraq
Hometown: Oakland, CA via Terrace B.C. CANADA
Milblog url: tobynunn.typepad.com

There are plenty of political opinions about Iraqi Forces and the state of security within the borders of Iraq. Being a participant and not a sideline player or armchair general I sometimes develop my own opinions. I spent the equivalent of half a tour (six months) training the Iraqis the last time I was here, so I have seen that what they get taught is instrumental. I am always paying attention to their actions so I can see the advancement or regression.

In speaking with a former boss of mine a few weeks back I was happy to learn that the key leaders who made the unit we stood up successful were still at the helm and taking the fight to al Qaeda and criminal groups seeking to exploit a weak security state. It was very rewarding and validating to get such an update.

The reason this has been on my mind the past week is due to my last trip to the north. While heading home and entering an Iraqi Forces checkpoint and overwatch area we were blown up by an IED. The position was under the control of Iraqi forces and was manned at the time of the event. A group had just passed through the checkpoint without incident, then around five minutes later we got blown up by a pressure switch detonator. And the entire time we were dealing with everything that goes with being blown up the Iraqi Forces just sat there and watched -- not once offered to help or approached the scene to see what had happened at their checkpoint. It took every ounce of discipline not to go through that place and systematically remove or detain them.

While conducting my evaluation of the site I did notice paintball splatter on the bridge where the Iraqi Forces typically sit and sleep, which raised a concern for me that perhaps our forces were harrassing them while they slept and our event was the retaliation. We do all look alike, but we do not all act the same. Just like when those scumbags and jackasses at Abu Graib took those photos, and the entire country and US Forces suffered from their immaturity and ignorance.

It does frustrate the hell out of me that the Iraqi Forces that are supposed to be watching over their country don't care enough to stay awake to fulfill their duty. But this is a cultural difference. We as Westerners believe that the task will get accomplished if you put effort into it, but here the culture promotes the belief that something will happen if God (Allah) wills it. There is an Arabic saying for this: "Im sh'Allah", pronounced "In Shalla".

I don't think God played any role in the emplacing of that bomb, just in the safe delivery of the guys. I also believe he saved the enemies' lives that night.

LEFT OF BOOM |

October 23, 2007

LEFT OF BOOM
Name: Teflon Don
Posting date: 10/23/07
Returned from: Iraq
Milblog url: acutepolitics.blogspot.com

The Washington Post recently published an excellent piece of journalism entitled Left of Boom: The Struggle to Defeat Roadside Bombs. The article is a series of four parts, chronicling the appearance of IEDs and how the often frantic efforts to counter them have finally moved "left of boom" -- to neutralizing IEDs and IED networks before the bombs send more young men home.

I found a very interesting graphic on the article site: the snapshot "Iraq Hotspots" shows the IED activity in some of Iraq's hottest cities in May 2007:

Baghdad:     418 IEDs found,  538 attacks
Basra:          6 IEDs found,     13 attacks
Diwaniyah:  46 IEDs found,    82 attacks
Mosul:         78 IEDs found,    109 attacks
Tikrit:         383 IEDs found,   512 attacks
Falluja:       195 IEDs found,   34 attacks

According to the numbers used to construct the graph, the only "hot city" where the find rate for IEDs was over 50% was Falluja. In Falluja in May 2007, the find rate was 85.2%. I have always bragged about the good work that we did in Iraq; this is a material indication of the kind of impact we made.

Lest anyone think we had it easy out there, most IEDs in the Falluja region from March-April on were large (100lb+), deeply buried IEDs. Deep buried IEDs are the difficult to detect specialty of the Sunni insurgency, and they kill more American troops than all other types of IED save EFPs. No wonder the commandant of the Marine Corps wishes he had more route clearance!

The article is quite thorough in discussing the various high-tech approaches the military has taken to minimize the IED threat. In Parts 2 & 3, there is an extensive discussion on electromagnetic countermeasures (ECMs, or simply "jammers"), in which the author notes the complexity of maintaining the multiple distinct systems used in Iraq. Adding to the complexity that the author mentions is the fact that certain types of jammers wreak havoc on certain other types.

The problem was a nuisance at best -- at worst, a passing patrol could burn out the incompatible jammers on another patrol and leave the second team vulnerable to radio-controlled IEDs. Such situations were not common, but they did exist -- perhaps such troubles are a natural by-product of the rush to field new equipment. In war, the battlefield becomes the testing ground as disparate systems are thrown together in an attempt to make something work.

The author covers nearly every portion of the IED fight of which I am aware, with one glaring exception -- route clearance. He relates that the human eye and the soldier behind it is "more adept at finding bombs than any machine", but does not follow the thought through to the logical conclusion -- make teams of soldiers to hunt IEDs, arm them with specialized equipment, and turn them loose.

This lapse is not one that I blame him for -- the military is notoriously close-mouthed about route clearance assets. In the past two years, I know of three articles written about route clearance: two were in the military newspaper Stars and Stripes, and another was in some other soldier publication. None were informative. I understand the need for secrecy, for preventing the enemy from knowing our strategy and tactics, but this is ridiculous.

While we were in theater, our enemy was circulating videotapes detailing what they thought we did and how they thought best to kill us. Every Iraqi can stand on the corner and watch us pull an IED from the ground. Route clearance units are no secret to them. Here, back home, almost no one knows that anyone does or can do what we spent a year doing.

I still get emails with words to the effect of, "It's so great what you are doing! I never knew we could even find IEDs; I thought you just drove and hoped not to get blown up." That represents a criminal lapse. The Washington Post article makes the point that IEDs have more strategic impact than tactical. Commanders and troops see an IED just like a sniper -- a battlefield threat to be minimized and then accepted. Mothers and politicians, however, see a rampant killer. Terrorists see an impotent occupier.

In that kind of strategic environment, it is a crime to allow the enemy to think that there is nothing we can do to stop them.

SETTLING IN |

October 22, 2007

SETTLING IN
Name: Kevin
Posting date: 10/22/07
Stationed in: Iraq
Hometown: Oakland, NJ
Milblog url
: iraqpartii@blogspot.com

My unit is responsible for manning several guard towers and entry control points around Camp Taji. We haven’t had any incidents yet, except for the other day when some gunfire (I think celebratory) hit near one of our towers. Camp Taji has been really quiet so far. The outgoing force protection officer said that the area around this base used to be really violent. Mortar and rocket attacks were a common occurrence up until a month ago.

Framed_2kevin_hirez_setttling_in Our guard towers are now made of concrete and bulletproof glass, so our soldiers are pretty safe on their shifts and still able to fire their weapons out when they need to. Only a few months ago, the towers were made of just steel and wood. The unit we replaced had a female soldier severely wounded by shrapnel from an RPG blast and another soldier sniped from a high-powered rifle. The bullet grazed his ear, miraculously went in his helmet on one side, curved around the inside back of his helmet, and exited the other side.

The main highway in Iraq, MSR (main supply route) Tampa, skirts the western wall of our base and is probably the most dangerous road in the world. I live about 300 yards from this road and can see the tops of the trucks driving by at all hours of the day. I used to drive on MSR Tampa back in 2003 with no body armor and no armor on my Humvee. Times have definitely changed. Although the portion of MSR Tampa near Camp Taji has been safe this month, there are still incidents. Two months ago, an American ASV (the vehicle in the picture) ran over a pressure plate mine on the highway only 30 yards from one of the guard towers. Despite the mine’s small charge, the explosion was powerful enough to flip the ASV over. Almost immediately, the vehicle caught fire and the soldiers inside got trapped and were burned to death. The soldiers in the nearest guard tower inside the base perimeter had to stand helplessly by as the soldiers screamed in agony. My friend who went out to assist said he is still haunted by the sound of those soldiers dying.

We’ve been busy over the last few days improving our buildings and surrounding areas. Our new headquarters building was an empty shell when we got here, so we have our work cut out for us. As the logistics officer, I’m setting up some contracts for things such as gravel, vehicles, blast walls, copiers, and printers. The work keeps me busy and allows me to meet a lot of different people on the base, from 1st Cavalry Division guys to KBR (Kellog Brown and Root) to Iraqis who come into our base to sell items that the Army needs.

A BREATHER FROM THE VALLEY |

October 20, 2007

A BREATHER FROM THE VALLEY
Name: Old Blue
Posting date: 10/20/07
Stationed in: Afghanistan
Hometown: Cincinnati, Ohio
Milblog url: billandbobsadventure.blogspot.com

We got an unexpected break from The Valley today. We have been in one of the valleys that have been in the news lately, hunting the Taliban and their accoutrements with some small degree of success. We have been there for a month today, and we got a sudden break to go to Bagram for a day of rest and refit.

My humvee is in the shop as I type this, getting an oil change and some other important work done. I am going to get a haircut for the first time in over a month. The back of my neck looks like a heavily worn carpet. I ate cooked food that wasn't cooked by Afghans and eaten out of a communal plate with my fingers for the first time in weeks last night when we got here. I didn't even want breakfast this morning -- but I did want hot, brewed coffee. Man, was that GOOD! Drinking lukewarm instant coffee out of a water bottle was getting old. Chai is good, and the Afghans can't give you enough of it, served in whatever cup someone just finished with and rinsed out with chai. But it's not coffee.

I've only got a little while. There's lots of work to be done, the haircut to be had, etc. But I wanted to post real quick and give some idea of some of the experiences of the past month.

I am a Police mentor. We have been out with the Afghan National Police searching the countryside and the houses for Taliban, weapons, and as it turned out, drugs. We have confiscated caches of weapons, explosives, and a few kilos of raw opium. We have also cut down a few hundred marijuana plants that would make a pothead cry like a baby. The "hashish" (that's what they call marijuana in all its forms) is grown literally everywhere in The Valley and all of its sub-valleys. It's like the local pastime there. I can smell it when I'm close to it now. It smells like springtime when the skunks are out seeking mates. Smell a skunk, look around -- there it is, hashish. Sometimes  you've got the time to take some action. Sometimes, you are busy looking for more dangerous things, and you mark the grid coordinates and go about your business. There's lots to see and do.

B-Mo O and the Maniac have their own teams elsewhere in The Valley, doing much the same thing. Some of us have had altercations with the enemy, some of us haven't. We have all been looking for them with ardor. The ANP are where the ANA were five years ago; they need a lot of work, and there are a lot of problems to be solved, but for the most part they try pretty hard. They have actually done better than I have expected them to. Sometimes, though, my frustration level peaks. More on that another time.

O and I have had to laugh at having the same thought; we have both had experiences that made us think, "Wow, I feel like I'm in a National Geographic Magazine article!"

Counterinsurgency is a strange game. I've had chai, nan (flat bread) and cheese with Taliban members, everyone acting like we actually are civil to each other. I've had chai with minor officials who were trying to talk me out of sending a guy who had senior Taliban leaders in his house within an hour of our raid to detention so he could be questioned. "Tea with the Taliban and chai with the bad guy." I've sneaked through the night, with people who don't know how to sneak at night, to wake a man up and arrest him before he can leave to hide in the mountains for the day, found deadly explosives and rockets buried three feet from his house, and had him tell me that another villager who wanted to get him in trouble had buried the stuff there. He left with us, wearing hand cuffs. He was an affable man, chatting up the ANP until I explained in detail to them that all that stuff laying out as if on display before them was meant to kill them.

I've sat in Shuras as the village elders pled their case, insisting that they hadn't seen any Taliban in months, only to have a citizen on the outer reaches of the circle stand up and throw the "bullshit flag," recounting a recent event. That changed the song, which became, "What are we to do? They will kill us if we tell you anything about them."

Lying is an art form in Afghanistan. At times it seems as if everyone is lying about at least some part of what they are telling you. Even the estimates of enemy strength are basically lies. There are always "200 Taliban" in whatever village or valley, lurking with their weapons, demanding food from the local populace and demanding immediate attention. The more accurate number would be fifteen or so. They rarely congregate in large groups.

I have been alone in the middle of the night, miles from any other American, a hundred and fifty Afghans and my "terp" (interpreter) as my only company. I've been told by hard-core paratroopers of the 82nd Airborne that I'm insane. O has had the same treatment. We tell them that it's our job, and it is.

I've been the only American to ever be in a certain place. It was absolutely beautiful; green, terraced fields climbing the mountainside to above 8,000 feet, water from mountain springs channeled to small canals that wind alongside the mud-walled houses around the valley's sides, Afghan engineering at its finest. The houses were as immaculate as houses made of dirt could be. We stood on a rock outcropping 200 feet (GPS is so cool!) above the house that our ANP truck (I'm not sure that a humvee could make it up there -- too wide) was parked next to and noticed that the mud roof had been swept.

That valley was like a separate Afghanistan. Everything was clean, the people were friendly, their clothing was immaculate, their children on the way to school in the morning, the fields well-ordered in their stair-step climb up the mountainside towards the 12,000 foot peak towering above. Shangri-La in the Hindu Kush. The two burned-out Russian armored vehicles a mile or so down the rocky road belied the apparent perpetual tranquility of this valley, hidden from time by huge fingers of ridgeline barely cracked open at the western end.

We stay awake at night, taking turns overwatching the security of our sleeping brethren with our night vision until day dawns and the Afghans begin moving about. On the mornings that we don't have an early mission we grab some extra sleep, awakening to find Afghan children watching us the way American children watch Saturday morning cartoons. We give them lollipops (thanks, Rosemary) and packets from our MRE's. They still sort through our MRE pouches full of the detritus of our meals, keeping whatever it is that they find interesting and strewing the rest about like a campground raccoon. Afghans are inveterate litterbugs. It is just as natural as breathing for them to drop whatever they are done with wherever they are.

The bazaars offer ample evidence of the Afghan litterbug at work; whatever wrappers or packaging on anything that is opened and consumed in the bazaar is strewn wherever the item was unwrapped. No thought about it at all. They have no idea what a trash bag or barrel is. Cardboard, on the other hand, is never discarded unless it has been soaked with some type of fluid. It is fuel for fires. The children will fight each other over our empty MRE cases.

I have two medics on my crew. Doc has office hours every morning and evening. He has performed minor surgery, stitched up wounds, and lanced the most incredible ingrown hair I have ever seen or heard of. The hairball he pulled out of that guy would have made a cat blanch. Afghan medical oddities are truly something else. I could write more, but the details would make the hairball story seem like dinner conversation.

Afghan soldiers and American medics have a chemical affinity that is triggered by the sight of an open medical bag. The average Afghan soldier is drawn to a medic with an open medical bag like the backdraft from a fire seeking oxygen. They go together like peas and carrots... like peanutbutter and ladies... like waffles and cocaine (thank you, Forrest Gump and Talladega Nights.) Upon the opening of an American medical bag, Afghan soldiers begin a movement towards the aforementioned bag and its attendant medic that astronomers would liken to the behavior of stellar gases being drawn into a black hole. Suddenly, everything hurts. Mysterious ailments arise phoenix-like from the ashes of their health. While some merit serious attention, most are miraculously cured by Motrin and a few moments of attention from Doc. Doc is seriously considering the medical applications of Skittles for the stimulation of the placebo effect.

Doc has performed simple medical services that have implications beyond his treatment of a simple wound or headache. His least efforts have resulted in the opening of the eyes of dozens of Afghan villagers to the fact that American soldiers have a heart. It is the beginning of a new world for them. For those villagers, for the parents of the sick child who were given a pass to see the Special Forces medics, for the 70 year old man who fell from twelve feet up a tree and now is home and alive, we are no longer space aliens in a humvee. We are people who care.

I must keep my stories anecdotal for now; our operation is still in progress. But I have dozens of stories and hundreds of pictures from the past month and from the weeks preceding the operation. In time, I will be able to share these stories. Some of them are funny, some of them are unusual, and some of them are sad. Some of them are stories of quiet courage, like my new assistant, SGT Surferdude, who said to me, after a long mission in the middle of the night into an area that even the Special Forces had never gone, "I have to admit it, I was scared." I would never have known from his actions that night. He did his job and did it well. That is courage. Courage is not the absence of fear, but the ability to keep going in the presence of fear.

This American soldier, asked to do something with only one other American and forty Afghans in the middle of the night, going into an area where there was no hope of help within hours, and no communication to ask for help if it was needed, followed me and did his job without hesitation. I never knew that he was scared until he told me the next day, after we returned. We finally made it back to our little patrol base after noon. The mission had started at one am. Nobody except me knows just how courageous that man is.

LEADERSHIP NOT LIKERSHIP |

October 17, 2007

LEADERSHIP NOT LIKERSHIP
Name: Toby Nunn
Posting date: 10/17/07
Stationed in
: Kuwait / Iraq
Hometown: Oakland, CA via Terrace B.C. CANADA
Milblog url: tobynunn.typepad.com

I try not to get on my high horse too often, but there are times when I just can't help myself. The reason the United States Army has been so successful is LEADERSHIP. Our enemies have known for several centuries that we train, mentor and empower leaders at all levels, so that if a leader falters there is another ready to take his place instantly. I try to place the mantle of leadership on my subordinates as much as possible. My father taught me to swim by letting go in the deep end, and I try to do the same -- let them swim on their own, but stay close enough so that if they start to sink I can bring them back up to the surface.

This technique does bite you in the ass sometimes. One can place too much in their cup and they get intoxicated by it. The reason this is an issue with me right now is simple. Leaders are expected to make hard decisions, and I came to terms with this as a very young buck sergeant. It was drilled into my head by my leaders, through Army schooling and real world experience. Before I could become a leader not only did I have to exhibit the potential but also the skills. Those around me were also promoted on this standard and not one of "he's a good guy."

Since coming into the Guard I have witnessed more Failures in Leadership than leadership failures. There has been a culture of promoting friends and buddies rather than looking at the best man for the job. Within the Army there are checks and balances. You can have great leaders but they are only there for a short period of time then move to their next duty station. That's the bad news. The good news is you can have a terrible leader, but again, they are only there a short period of time till they move on. Of course as in all bureaucracies, if you mess up you move up in some cases, but bottom line you move. In the Guard people stay their entire careers in the same unit with the same people, and when new guys come along the "originals" are threatened. Leaders start making decisions based on politics instead of sound logic and tactical necessity. I believe a lot of the decisions are driven out of fear of the establishment.

The Army holds seven values as its benchmark for all that enter. Soldiers of all levels must hold themselves to these; Loyalty, Duty, Respect, Selfless Service, Honor, Integrity and Personal Courage. If you look at the first letter of each you will see it spells LDRSHIP, coincidence? I think not.

There are those that have become too comfortable with the "Old Guard" and not come to terms with the reality that we are all soldiers. That's why the Army came out with the motto "An Army of One" that encompasses everyone, Active, Guard and Reserves alike; because we are all deeply involved in the current War on Terror. This is not a pretend unit that gets together for barbeques and plays guns anymore. Those days are long gone. One cannot be afraid to make a decision that might hurt someone's feeling as opposed to getting a person hurt. Egos are meant to be bruised; better them then the wonderful young men that serve selflessly. Politics are an important part of our society and we must embrace that, but success on the battlefield does not come from decisions made in capital buildings or offices. It's made by young men on the ground that lead from the front and inspire their subordinates to serve. Great Leaders are also great followers, and disagreement is not disloyalty.

In several camps I have visited, upon entry there are little signs that, like a Hallmark card, say it better than I can: We need LEADERSHIP not LIKERSHIP!

HAMID AND THE SNICKERS BAR |

October 15, 2007

HAMID AND THE SNICKERS BAR
Name: CAPT Doug Traversa
Posting date: 10/16/07
Returned from: Kabul, Afghanistan
Hometown: Tullahoma, TN
Milblog url: traversa.typepad.com
Email: traversa@gimail.af.mil

Without a doubt the stories people enjoy most are the discussions I had with Hamid, my friend and interpreter during my year in Afghanistan. I’ve gone into my archives to share some more with the readers of The Sandbox. This story took place a few days after I sent some cookies (snicker doodles) home with Hamid to share with his family. As usual, the conversation took place in the chow hall during lunch.

“How did your family like the snicker doodles?” I inquired.

“Snicker doodles?” he asked, looking puzzled.

"The cookies you like so much. I gave you a bag to take home. They’re called snicker doodles.”

“Oh, I did not know.”

“Did your family like them?”

“Of course,” he laughed.

I rolled my eyes at him. “Don’t say,‘Of course.’ Just because you like them doesn’t mean everyone else will.”

“Everyone likes them. Now they ask every day if I’ve brought something home.”

This is not unusual. Wali (another interpreter) takes candy home every day for his cousins. It’s a good thing I have lots of stuff to put in the pumpkin (a plastic Halloween pumpkin filled with candy I kept on my desk).

Framed_traversa_snickers “I’m glad you shared with everyone.  I thought you might hide them and keep them for yourself,” I accused in jest.

Hamid laughed. “Oh, no. You know I wouldn’t do that. But I do have a question. Do you have any of the candy with dried fruit in it? You brought some in before.”

Now he had me stumped. I couldn’t think of anything I had brought in with dried fruit in it. “Do you mean little boxes of raisins?”

Hamid shook his head. “No, it is chocolate with dried fruit in it.”

Often Afghans use the word “chocolate” to mean “candy,” so I had to confirm that he did indeed mean chocolate.

“Sorry, I can’t think of any candy bars with dried fruit in it. Do you mean the chocolate-covered cherries?”

“No, it had dried fruit, like raisins, or nuts.”

The light came on. “Ah, I think I see the problem. Nuts are not fruit. So did it have raisins, or was it nuts?”

Hamid was clearly struggling with this one. “I think it was nuts.”

I rattled off questions. “How big was it? What shape was it?  What did the wrapper look like?”

We finally figured out it was a small, block-shaped chocolate with nuts in a brown wrapper.

“That has to be a Snickers,” I concluded.

“Well, do you have any in your hut?” asked Hamid. He is not shy about asking for stuff. Sometimes I think I am just a grocery store for him.

“No, sorry, no Snickers, but I’ll put the word out. I’m sure all my friends back home will drop everything to get you some Snickers. ‘Oh, no,’ they’ll cry, ‘Hamid needs Snickers. Let’s get to the store immediately.’ After all, the only reason I have a blog is to get stuff for you.”

Hamid is laughing quite a bit now. He finds my sarcasm to be most entertaining, even if it hits very close to the truth.

Yet showing more chutzpah than he usually does, he asked me if I ever got any extra shampoo from care packages.

Mere words don’t do justice to the show I put on. I act exasperated and sigh.

“No, I don’t have any extra shampoo. All I ask for is candy for the pumpkin and snicker doodles for you. But is that enough? Nooooooo. Now you want Snickers too. Of course, Snickers, snicker doodles, you love all food that begins with ‘snicker.’ That explains it. Of course, I didn’t know you needed shampoo too. If you had told me earlier, I could have requested it.  After all, the only reason I’m in Afghanistan is to make sure you have all the goods you need.”

By now Hamid is clutching his stomach from laughing so hard. I’ve learned not to take offense when he asks for stuff, but I always give him a hard time. Once he mentioned that the previous group had left laptops behind as gifts for their interpreters.

“How lucky for them. Clearly the previous group was much more generous than I am. I assure you I am not giving you my laptop. Don’t get your hopes up.”

“Well, could you buy me a laptop CD player so I can watch movies?”

“Hamid, quit asking me to buy you stuff. You make more money than most people in Afghanistan. If you want to buy one, I’ll be happy to help. But it’s rude to keep asking people to get stuff for you. At least it’s rude to Americans.”

Thus cultures clash once more. However, I think the fact that he asks me for stuff is actually a sign that he considers me a friend. He has told me that in their culture, you can ask friends for things. So am I just a big gullible sucker? Who knows? I don’t think so. But this does help illustrate again how different our worlds are.

My friends did indeed round up Snickers for Hamid. A couple of weeks later care packages began arriving with Hamid’s favorite candy bar, and soon he had hundreds of them. As for a laptop, I did not leave one for him when I left, but I did send him home with a small television I had inherited.

Being the generous guy that he is, he gave it to his brother.

REALITY |

REALITY
Name: RN Clara Hart
Posting date: 10/15/07
Stationed in: a military hospital in the U.S.
Email: clarahart2@yahoo.com

I think many people live in a fantasy world, believing that if we would simply get our troops out of places they feel they don’t belong, all would be right.  After the past week at work I’m here to tell you it will not. Many of my colleagues and I believe we will be right where we are for another five years, at least. And even if we’re not, the effects are going to be felt for many, many years.

Why do I say this? Why do I believe this? I am now starting to see patients returning to inpatient status, requiring additional surgeries and interventions, years after their original injuries. One of the other nurses said to me yesterday, “Clara, we’re seeing these guys again. It’s been years since his initial injury and now he’s back”

They are back. The ones who can come back.

Some will be medically retired and will be farmed out to the VA system -- an already overwhelmed VA system, largely ill-equipped to deal with the issues and needs of the OIF/OEF Soldier, Marine, Airman and Sailor.

Some will seemingly manage “just fine” until they self-destruct. Too many will allow alcohol and pharmaceuticals to take the place of the in-depth mental health assistance almost all cry out for but may never get.

Some will take their own lives as the horrific pain of dealing with just “one more day” –- one more day of  woulda/coulda/shoulda -- becomes too overwhelming.

Some will never come back. Not the way they left anyway.

Some will find their own way, alone or with help from friends and family, and will progress on -- possibly retaining their military career, or perhaps replacing it with opportunities now afforded.

Why do I write this? Because it is reality. This is the world I live in and see every single day. As one patient physically heals and is discharged from the hospital, another is there to take their place. Over and over I experience this. Whether it is a newly injured soldier fresh from the battlefield or the Marine blown up three years ago, I see it. And these are only the ones I do lay eyes upon. What about the thousands and thousands who come home physically in one piece? The others who return from their 4th, 5th, 6th tours?

Whether we are right or wrong to be where we are is not the question. The question is and should remain, “How do we help those who believe enough in their country, its citizens and its leaders, to do their job?”

Many people write me and ask, "What can we do?" They want to be proactive instead of sitting passively along the sidelines criticizing. Instead of saying, “We need to get the hell out of there,” try donating your unused frequent flyer miles to the Fisher House Foundation or Soldiers Angels, so they can in turn use them to bring families and friends to a soldier’s bedside.

Try learning about combat stress and post traumatic stress disorder so that when your cousin returns from Afghanistan you’ll understand why he hits the ground when a firecracker goes off or a car backfires. You can assure the OIF/OEF vet that they are not going crazy, but are having normal reactions to having experienced very abnormal events and situations.

Urge Congress to put pressure on the military to provide appropriate care and staffing for our wounded warriors. You may not know about it, but there is a nursing shortage and it extends into the military healthcare. We need more staff. Many of our active duty nursing staff are deployed, so we backfill with reservists and civilians, but there is still not enough. We need mental health professionals these guys and gals can relate to, people who actually have a clue as to what it’s like to be in combat. I hate to say this, but I’ve met some of these mental health folks and even I wouldn’t talk to them, and I don’t have a quarter of the issues these injured do.

Give your extra pennies to organizations that help sponsor day trips and outings for the wounded. Simply getting them out of the drudgery of rehab and giving them something to look forward to can bring about a drastic change and improvement in their attitude and outlook.

Earlier this week I saw a t-shirt worn by the mother of one of my injured Marines and it said, “If you don’t want to support our troops feel free to stand in front of them." Kind of speaks for itself.

PARANOIA |

October 12, 2007

PARANOIA
Name: Eddie
Posting date: 10/12/07
Stationed in: Iraq
Milblog url: airborneparainf82.blogpost.com

With my leave coming up just around the corner, I figured I would talk about the paranoia that seems to go around right before people get ready to head home on leave. It's something I always laughed about, and even though I know it's wrong I've used it to slightly play on people's fear. I know, I'm a horrible person. I guess Karma is a bitch and has come to stake its claim on me.

Basically, right before people are about to go on leave they try everything they possibly can to get out of heading outside the wire. This is due to a variation of short timer's paranoia. Worried that something might happen, people tend to snake out of patrols and missions that take place in the last few days before they are to turn in their weapons and go on leave.

It's not a totally unfounded idea. Back when I was in my old squad, during the time when we still had a bad area, we were on a mission to provide security for some engineers as they did some work. I was the TC (truck commander) for a vehicle, with my automatic rifleman as driver and a grenadier from the other team in my squad as the gunner. The gunner was to be going on leave in like two days, and this was his last mission to do. He had the paranoia that something was going to happen, and sure as shit it did. We had someone hop out of an alleyway and throw a grenade at our truck. Fortunately it did not go off for some reason, but it solidified the paranoia.

Well, like I said, in the past few months when my friends would be getting ready to go on leave and would be experiencing the paranoia, I would play on their fears and give them a hard time about everything. The content of our humor is not normal, so I will not go in to the details (those of you deployed now or in the past know what I'm talking about!), but I used to take pleasure in seeing them suffer in agony.

Now Karma has come back with a vengeance. As my time approaches I really haven't been that worried, at least not like some people. But then I realized: The last 10 days of Ramadan, which are the potentially the worst 10 days to be in Iraq as a US Soldier, just happen to be the last 10 days before I go on leave. Hahaha, how awesome! So yeah, now I've got the worry warts. I guess there really is a force that balances out the good and evil in this universe.

THE SANDBOX BOOK |

October 11, 2007

THE SANDBOX BOOK
Name: SANDBOX DUTY OFFICER David Stanford
Posting date: 10/11/07

We are pleased to mark the first anniversary of this site by announcing the imminent publication of Doonesbury.com's THE SANDBOX: Dispatches From Troops in Iraq and Afghanistan  (Andrews McMeel, $16.95, 6x9, 336pp, trade paperback original). Featuring over 90 posts by almost 40 writers (ten of whom are shown on the cover and flaps), the book is a fundraiser for Fisher House, a "home away from home" for the families of patients receiving medical care at major military and VA medical centers. You can order a copy here.

By way of introduction, I'll quote the flap copy:

Framed_sandbox_cover_2Launched as a military blog (or "milblog") by Doonesbury creator Garry Trudeau in October 2006, The Sandbox offers serice members deployed in Afghanistan and Iraq a way to tell their stories to readers here at home. In hundreds of fascinating and compelling posts, soldiers write passionately, eloquently, and movingly of their day-to-day lives, of their mission, and of the drama that unfolds daily around them.

Some posts are eminently practical for the troops themselves -- like Troy Steward's "List of Gear for Sandbox Deployment," and Stefan Ralph's "Two Very Different Conflicts," an annotated list of books he read before his deployment. Others are reflective, like Lee Kelley's piece on Christmas in a war zone, and Gordon "Teflon Don" Alanko's contemplation of ancient dust. Roy Batty's evocative posts from various assignments in Iraq have sometimes come in with the immediacy of a news flash, and are eagerly anticipated on the site; the same for Doug Traversa's series of thoughtful conversations with his translator Hamid. (Traversa got all three of his roommates to contribute to The Sandbox, making them the first fully posted hut in the AO). The gripping accounts of Adam Tiffen form another throughline, as do the posts of Anthony McCloskey (a.k.a. "Tadpole"), a sailor serving with the Army in Afghanistan.

This rich outpouring of stories, from the hilarious to the thrilling to the heartbreaking, helps us understand what so many of our countrymen are going through and the sacrifices they are making on our behalf.

Note: If you have ever posted on The Sandbox you should have received a copy of this book by now, whether you have a piece in it or not. Some of your email addresses aren't working for me, so if you are a poster who has not yet received your book, please write!

 

WAR IS HELL |

October 10, 2007

WAR IS HELL
Name: Kevin
Posting date: 10/10/07
Stationed in: Iraq
Hometown: Oakland, NJ
Milblog url: iraqpartii.blogspot.com

Well, you can now begin counting me as one of the roughly 160,000 troops the U.S. has in Iraq. I landed here at Balad Air Base very late last night on an Air Force C-17. We first took off from Kuwait on a smaller aircraft, the C-130, but had to turn around over southern Iraq because of engine trouble. I didn’t even notice anything was wrong until the pilot got on the intercom and said we were turning around and heading back to Kuwait.

Even with the deafening buzz of the aircraft’s engine, I heard a collective groan from my fellow passengers under the realization that they would be once again have to lug around their hundreds of pounds of bags, protective gear, and weapons, onto another cramped bus bound for a new plane. After a few hours of uncomfortable squirming on our Oompa Loompa bus watching bad reruns of Without a Trace, we eventually got on a C-17 and landed in Iraq about an hour later. Four years ago, I drove to Balad in a two-day convoy, so flying this time was a piece of cake.
Framed_kevin_war_is_hell_1



Speaking of cake, Balad’s mess hall features what amounts to a entire bakery, offering cheese cake, carrot cake, apple pie, and just about anything else. I chose to highlight the high-caloric and sugary aspect of the new Balad because it highlights the improvements made since I left here in November 2003. I lived on Balad for seven months during the first year of the war and had to rough it a little bit. My unit used piss pipes (essentially pipes sticking out of the ground…you had to be pretty accurate) and wooden outhouses. We even burned the refuse of our digestive systems, casting a noxious stench over our living area that I can’t forget.

Nowadays, Balad is a very different place. The gym is enormous and has every piece of equipment you could ever need. There is a Burger King, Pizza Hut, two coffee places, a beauty parlor, a library, a movie theater, an outdoor and indoor pool, etc.

Here's what it looked like outside of my building in 2003:
Framed_kevin_war_is_hell_2
Here's what it looks Balad looks like now:
Framed_kevin_war_is_hell_3
With all these amenities, it is easy to forget that I’m parked right in the middle of a country on the brink of a nasty civil war; that two miles away, there are undoubtedly insurgents conspiring and preparing to kill us. On the base, we’re generally safe. Safe enough to walk around without a helmet, bulletproof vest or loaded weapon. The only true threat we have here is from mortars. Balad gets hit with so much indirect fire from insurgent mortar teams that soldiers call it “Mortaritaville.” When I was here four years ago, eighteen U.S. troops were wounded when a rocket landed near the line for the mess hall. Today, during my first breakfast here, a mortar round landed somewhere on the airbase, but it was far enough away that I didn’t even hear it through the 15-foot blast-proof concrete barriers outside. Because the PX, theater, and mess halls are prime targets for insurgent mortar attacks, we actually installed a separate blast-proof roof over the original roof of these buildings. So even if a few rockets landed on top of the mess hall during its busiest hour, no one would get hurt. Pretty cool, huh?

Balad's outdoor pool in 2003:
Framed_kevin_war_is_hell_4

Balad's pool today:
Framed_kevin_war_is_hell_5

Balad's indoor pool in 2003:
Framed_kevin_war_is_hell_6

Balad's indoor pool today:
Framed_kevin_war_is_hell_7

So much has changed on this base in four years that I hardly even recognized it when I landed. Curious to find out what my old barracks looks like today, I went over and took a look. There was my old building, a former Iraqi Air Force barracks, surrounded by blast walls and looking sleeker than ever. I walked away laughing to myself, knowing that my friends and I were the first ones to occupy it in its original decrepit state of broken glass, no A/C, rusted metal, and mold.

I’m here for a few more days and then I head to Taji, where I’ll spend the rest of my nine-months-to-one-year tour. I hear they've made a lot of improvements there too, so this will probably be a more comfortable deployment than my last. In the meantime, I have to run. The Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders are performing for us tonight.

THE OTHER SIDE OF THE DESK |

October 09, 2007

THE OTHER SIDE OF THE DESK
Name: CAPT Lee Kelley
Posting date: 10/9/07
Returned from: Iraq
Hometown: Salt Lake City, UT
Milblog url: wordsmithatwar.blog-city.com
Email: wordsmith16@excite.com

I will always remember that day in 2004 when I sat on the business side of a Lieutenant Colonel's desk as he "invited" me to go to Iraq with his battalion. Now, as a company commander in the Utah National Guard, one of my duties has been to send others to fight the war in Iraq.

Nor will I forget the day I sat on the other side of the desk and told my soldiers they were being deployed. It was a recent drill weekend, and a sister battalion from Utah had received their deployment alert. My commander issued me a written order to provide soldiers to complement that battalion. Suggestions were made to hold a formation, and simply make the announcement, calling out the names of those who would be deploying.

I chose instead to notify each soldier individually. It took most of the day. Some were young and eager: "Roger that, sir. No problem." They simply acknowledged that their chance to serve was at hand, and they did so with a smile and a certain eager look in their eyes. These kids joined the Army after this war started. They were ready and willing participants.

Others were family men, working on their master's degrees or running their own businesses, and dealing with a multitude of personal issues. Some were close to retirement. I wanted to notify them all of this massive adventure they would be undertaking, this guaranteed change of perspective, one on one, giving each a chance to ask questions, get angry, cry, or express whatever they wished in private.

As each soldier left my office I stood up and shook their hands, wished them luck, and told them not to hesitate to call me day or night if they needed anything. I also dismissed them for the rest of the day. It was a small gesture, but a clear statement that I understood the nature of the sacrifices they were about to make. "Take this time to get home and let your family know, O.K.? And I appreciate all your work here in headquarters," I'd say. I think they could tell by my look that I understood exactly how they felt.

They left last week. The send-off was at the exact airbase here in Salt Lake City where I landed one year ago. There was a battalion of about 450 soldiers leaving that morning for a one-year deployment, and some of them were from my unit. Over 1000 family members turned out. As you might expect, there were speeches, banners, and lots of hugs and tears. I spent the morning shaking hands, giving words of encouragement, and saying to my buddies who have already been to Iraq once before, "You know what to do. So just do it and bring them all back, O.K.?"

As I stood there on the tarmac watching these soldiers pick up their bags and wave before climbing the stairs into the plane, I looked at the huge crowd of spouses, parents, brothers, and sisters crying. I could see sadness mixed with pride. And I saw little children sitting on shoulders, crying intensely as their Daddy grew smaller in the distance, or teenagers bending their heads into a loved one's chest. Their tears were not easy for me to endure, and I was glad to be wearing sunglasses. As the planes taxied away, the Commanding General stood on the flight line and saluted them.

I am still in the Army today, but like many others I have made a personal decision to enter "inactive status." I'll be out in the next couple of months. My superior officers are aware of my decision. The choice took me most of a year to make, but after careful deliberation it is an easy one. I'm proud to join the ranks of American combat veterans. And yet I know that I would never leave my kids again. This fact is at the heart of my decision and I must say that I am very excited. All I need now is a job.

These stories of mine have been deliberately personal. I wanted to portray an honest glimpse into what one American experienced in his travels back and forth across the Atlantic Ocean six times in one year as a soldier in the Iraq war, gracefully lifting from these high Utah deserts, and then flying in low and fast across Ramadi in a blacked out attack helicopter. But these stories hardly illuminate the complexity my life has yielded. They are personal, yes, but only in the way a Polaroid picture of my family at a park one particular afternoon -- when the last of the light broke through the trees in shafts, creating dusty colliding ecosystems with the pollen in the air - conveys a moment in time, a wonderful unmatchable moment.
 

Originally published by The New York Times.

MISFIT SIX |

MISFIT 6
Name: Toby Nunn
Posting date: 10/8/07
Stationed in: Kuwait / Iraq
Hometown: Oakland, CA via Terrace B.C. CANADA
Milblog url: tobynunn.typepad.com

Usually I try to write about the lighter side of my world, and to document the legacy and greatness of our guys, which to me is a pleasure and honor. I also try to ensure that everyone at home has happy thoughts to lighten their worries. I do try to be strong and brave but there are times that it is tough. Right now is one of those times. I have not written for a few days because I have been in a personal low. This is the greatest suck of all for me in this world.

Last week the world lost one of its great young warriors and leaders. I am proud to say that I worked by this man's side on my previous deployment here, and he was instrumental in the development of the Iraqi National Guard with me. CPT Drew Jensen, also known as MISFIT 6, was the officer assigned to assist me in the initial start-up of the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps, now known as the Iraqi National Guard. He was from C-Co 5-20th Infantry, also from the 3/2 SBCT. He was OPCON to the Tomahawks, and that is where they felt best to place him and his men. I immediately liked him, a smaller man in size about the same as me, and with a very like mind. He was a West Point Graduate and classmate of my Platoon Leader Jake Kemnec and another friend of mine CPT Nick Kardonsky.

Within a few short days of our beginning to work together Drew made an immediate impact on me when our camp was attacked with a ferocious barrage of indirect that caused several casualties. He, along with his RTO Ragu and several others of his, joined Wally and I in helping provide aid to casualties. We lost one, but another lived as a direct result of Drew's leadership and poise, and witnessing that made me proud to be associated with him. Later I was awarded for my actions in that event, and found out that the guy who put me in was Drew. A very selfless act to award me and the guys, when he was instrumental in the event and went thankless from the public.

I never was able to express my gratitude to him for everything that he taught me during those short months. I tried to, over a beer back in the rear, but masculinity kept me from truly expressing my emotions. Instead he simply got a "Good times, dude!" And that they were.

CPT Drew Jensen passed gracefully with his new wife present, back in the rear after being rendered paralyzed by an enemy bullet. He received this injury while providing aid to another soldier, again demonstrating his natural heroic being.

I have struggled with this one greatly. Not that any of them have been easy, it's just we need real men like Drew. I know God has a plan and that's what we tell ourselves when we don't understand why we have lost someone so needed and precious. I hope that I will be half the man the Drew was and inspire my men as he did.

Framed_nunn_hirez_jensen_2

CPT Drew Jensen, center.

"Misfit 6, ING 7"
"Misfit 6, ING 7"
"MISFIT 6, ING 7"
"Negative contact with MISFIT 6, ING 7..."

THIS OLD HUT |

October 04, 2007

THIS OLD HUT
Name: CAPT Doug Traversa
Posting date: 10/5/07
Returned from: Kabul, Afghanistan
Hometown
: Tullahoma, TN
Milblog url: traversa.typepad.com
Email: traversa@gimail.af.mil

Now that I have had a few months to wrap my brain around life back here in the states, I can tackle some projects I’ve been putting off. Many months ago the Sandbox Duty Officer, David, asked me for some photo stories, since he knows I’m always taking pictures. He suggested I do one on my construction projects in our B-hut -- the B-hut being the plywood home for so many troops in Afghanistan. It was a great idea, and I’ve been meaning to do it for months, but it always managed to sneak back down to the bottom of my to-do list. No longer!

If you’ve read any of my previous posts, you already know what a B-hut (or hooch) is, but for the newbies, I have all the gruesome details. Without actually having measured a hut (and having lived in one for a year, I am amazed I never did), I estimate it is 20’ by 40’, made entirely of plywood, with a metal roof, and insulation if you are lucky.

Framed_traversa_hut_1
B-Hut Guts

These delightful accommodations house between six and ten people, though that number can double for short durations when troops are coming in or passing through. The huts are arrayed in tight rows, often a mere five feet apart from one another on the sides, a bit more on the ends where the doors are.

Framed_traversa_hut_2

Row of huts

However, these huts can be modified by adding plywood walls, plywood furniture, plywood shelves, and pretty much anything else you can make from plywood. Here’s a photo of my area when I arrived at Camp Phoenix.

Framed_traversa_hut_3 Room Before Construction

At the head of my bed you can see one wall has already been constructed, so my space was clearly defined. Now I had a year to convert this into my personal palace. Join me, won’t you, as I demonstrate how to convert a B-hut into a mansion.

As you can see, I had one set of selves with a “closet” where I could hang a very few items. I also had a bunk bed without the top bunk. This may seem unimportant, but the top bunk is a major storage area. Without one, I was essentially missing a closet. Still, this was home, and I would have to make the best of it.

Camp Phoenix had an excellent self-help workshop. We could check out tools, and acquire plywood and 2 x 4s at no cost. So on my first day off, I started hauling tools and wood to my hut for the big construction project.  Step one was to build my wall. 

Framed_traversa_hut_4
Construction

A simple frame of 2 x 4s was constructed, and then two large pieces of plywood finished off the wall. Inside, I built a very simple desk, really nothing more than a piece of plywood on top of two plastic shelf sets from the PX. Here you can see the room right after construction. Yes, we had AFN TV and internet, so compared to many, our lives were very good indeed. 

Framed_traversa_hut_5
Post-Construction

Of course, things were still pretty barren, and it wasn’t long before I gutted a calendar to provide some interior decoration. Pardon the mess on the bed; I had just opened a care package.

Framed_traversa_hut_6_2
Wall decorations

Things remained this way for a couple of months, and then I got my hands on the upper bunk for my bed. Naturally I had to build a set of shelves for my new storage area.

Framed_traversa_hut_7
Bookshelf

Since we didn’t have doors for our little rooms, I installed a rod and made a sliding “door” from an Afghan bedspread I bought at the bazaar.

Framed_traversa_hut_8
Door

I also had my wife mail large storage hooks, and as you can see, had a wall full of weaponry and body armor.

Framed_traversa_hut_9

Weapons

I figure ten photos is probably my limit, so here I am enjoying my little piece of paradise. Oh, did I mention our hut got really cold in the winter? That explains my unconventional outfit. 

Framed_traversa_hut_10
Me

Tune in next time when I discuss wall art on “This Old B-Hut.” Thanks for watching.

WELCOME TO BAGHDAD |

October 03, 2007

WELCOME TO BAGHDAD
Name: Eddie
Posting date: 10/3/07
Stationed in: Baghdad, Iraq
Hometown: Phoenix, AZ
Milblog url: airborneparainf82.blogspot.com
Email: airborneparainf82@blogspot.com


There's one thing that I could never imagine, and that's being straight out of basic training and coming right to Iraq. For me, it took almost two years of being in the 82nd before I finally deployed. I ended up getting caught up in restructuring the division, and went places that kept me from deploying sooner. I was always bitter about this. One of my good friends from basic and airborne school got to Ft Bragg, and 30 days later he was on his way to Afghanistan for five months.

I mention this because over the past several months we have had a few new guys come into our company. Our platoon had only received one before, but the other day we ended up getting three. Wow! Well, time to start getting them up to par. My squad didn't get anyone new, so most of the work of getting them trained up would be within their respective squads.

They ended up heading out on patrol with us for their first time, for two days outside the wire. I was filling in for my squad leader, who is on leave, so I was the TC (Truck Commander) which is always fun. Also, when we dismounted I was to be one of the dismount team leaders. Because the new guys don't know how to drive a Humvee yet or how to gun a machine gun properly, they ended up as extra passengers and thus became a part of the dismount team. This would be fun.

The first dismount these guys went on would be a night dismount. I had one guy from my normal team and one of the new guys. I knew he would need extra attention, so I would have to make sure to keep an eye on him. We ended up dismounting and heading back into the alleyways. It was more packed than normal since Ramadan is in full swing. During the day people can't eat or anything, so the night becomes the time for eating, praying and socializing. Fortunately for us, that's all it has consisted of, at least at this point, almost half way through.

Anyways, we were walking through this one busy alley when all of a sudden I see this kid that couldn't have been more than six years old come out of another alleyway with a gun in his hand. He wasn't pointing it at us or anything, but the second I saw it my heart skipped a beat. He saw me notice him and ran back into the alley he'd come out of, but then stopped a few meters in and turned back to look at me.

I wasn't sure if it was a real handgun or a toy. All I know is it looked pretty damn real. Once he stopped I began yelling at him to get away and go inside. It's not safe for him to run around like that, and I was giving him the benefit of the doubt that it was a toy. It is common for all the kids to have toy guns at this time.

Well, new guy, this is Baghdad. You have to be ready to make split-second decisions and be prepared for anything. I was thinking later that I don't know what I would have done if he had fired the thing. I don't want to think about it.

We continued on, and at one point came to a road to cross. My team was in the back of the patrol and everyone in front began running across the street. I remember thinking, before we got to the road, that there was going to be a car that wasn't going to stop. I don't know why I thought that, but sure enough, once I began running across I noticed a car on the far side coming at us. I gave him a second but he wasn't slowing down, so I raised my rifle and clicked my tac-light on. For some reason it didn't look to me like it went on, and I remember thinking, "Well damn. What a great time for my batteries to die on me!"

I guess it did actually go on, but I was oblivious to this. The car still was not slowing down so I shouldered my rifle and yelled at the top of my lungs. It was getting close and I had just flipped my safety off and was a split second away from firing a warning shot when all of a sudden they slammed on the brakes, screeching to a halt. Sheeew. All of this happened as the new guy was halfway across the street, and I can only imagine what he was thinking!

The rest of the patrol was uneventful, and we ended it linking back up with the trucks, tired and sweaty.

The next night we did another dismounted patrol in a different area. Overall it went pretty smoothly, with the exception of constantly being told different directions about where to go. My team was up front this time and I was leading, and we ended up stopping several times to turn around and go a different way. It wasn't that I was lost, because I knew exactly where I was going. Apparently those in charge kept changing their mind about where they wanted to go. Oh well.

Once we got back, the dismount squad leader and I sat down with the new guys to go over the patrols and some other information. We explained a lot to them about what it's like, what to expect and how to be. They seemed to be taking to it pretty well. They all mentioned that the first night they were overwhelmed and nervous, but the second patrol wasn't as bad for them. That's good. Over time you will eventually figure out where to look and what to do and it won't be such an overwhelming experience.

Overall they did good, better than I would have expected for a bunch of new guys. Hopefully they'll continue to take to this quickly, and can integrate into how we do things.

We ended up coming back in, dirty, exhausted and ready to crash. It was a long couple days and my combined sleep for the previous two nights was about eight hours. Thank God for "Monster" energy drinks!

SO MY SON DOESN'T HAVE TO |

October 02, 2007

SO MY SON DOESN'T HAVE TO
Name: 1SG Troy Steward
Posting date: 10/2/07
Returned from: Afghanistan
Milblog url: bouhammer.com

One common feeling that most soldiers possess after being in war is that of, "Hey, I am here so hopefully my son doesn’t have to be." War is an ugly thing and, as I have said before to many people and stated on my blog, “The people that hate war the most are those that have had to be in it." In fact they are probably the only ones qualified to have a valid opinion on it, or at least that is my opinion.

So back to the topic of this post, which is that once someone goes to war, they hope and pray that it is the last one, and that nobody they know will ever have to experience the ugliness and horrors that war produces. Like I said, I will go so my son does not have to….

Well, when the orders came down for the deployment that I went on, part of the decision for me to go was that I knew my brigade in NY was on tap to deploy in 2008, and since my son is in my unit I did not want to have both he and I gone at the same time. That would probably be almost too much for a family to take. I know it would have been very hard on my other boys to have their daddy and brother gone at the same time. So I went to war and did my time, and during that time the possibility turned into a reality. I have not been able to talk about this to too many people outside of the family because DOD had not officially announced the impending deployment of the 27th Brigade Combat Team until recently.

So as I was coming out of war, I was fully aware that my own son would be coming into the place that I could not wait to leave -- and fully aware of the dangers, the stresses, and even the good times he will face. A blessing of me going early is that I can school him on what to expect, and help pave the way for him a little by personally educating him on everything I can about Afghanistan, the place, the people, the enemy and the way of soldier life there.

Needless to say, since my return home and throughout this summer we have been trying to enjoy quality time welcoming me home, and quality time with my oldest son before he leaves. I try to take some one-on-one time with my two youngest, and he does too. And he and I have enjoyed some great bonding time. For example, just the two of us have gone out on my boat and cruised around for a couple of hours enjoying the boat, the water and each other’s company.

Soon I will find myself back on this side of the tracks, wishing someone I care about the best, praying for his safety and sending him letters and packages. I will be sure to turn him on to the support groups available to him, like booksforsoldiers.com and soldiersangels.com, along with sending him the things I know he will need and use over there. Until that day comes, which I don’t look forward to, I will just enjoy our time together as an entire family.

NIGHT OF A THOUSAND SENSES |

October 01, 2007

NIGHT OF A THOUSAND SENSES
Name: CAPT Benjamin Tupper
Posting date: 10/1/07
Returned from: Afghanistan

The day was hot.
Offensive.
Inhospitable.

Now the night arrives.
Cooling breezes.
Scents of a dry earth…pungent hashish…warm flatbread…lamb and beans.
All woven and mixed together with each inhalation.

The air's gentle waves pass through my uniform, soaked in sweat.
Now it feels dry, new, fresh…washed clean by the wind.

The sky to the west dances with heat lightning.
Overhead, it is a sea of distant white stars.
To the east, this tranquility is broken by artillery, firing illumination shells into the expanse of blackness.
The shells rise from the guns -- invisible,
Then, without warning, explode into orbs of yellow light.
Below, the sleeping ground is awakened and lit by these man-made falling stars.
Soon they fade, and the night reclaims its dominance.

Hidden in a valley painted black by the night, a well pump's engine beats a constant rhythmic "thump thump thump",
A mechanical lullaby for the Afghan night.
Escorting dusty children into sleep, like a mother's heartbeat in a womb of sandy fields.

One by one, my senses are tranquilized.
The ethereal caress of the wind.
The firm grip of the earth.
The distant rhythm of war and industry.
The smells of nourishment and pleasure.

The night's act is complete.
My eye's close.
Satiation.


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