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.

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

 

Comments

I clearly see why Garry Trudeau added your writing to the book The Sandbox. Thank you Sir, for writing a most moving piece of truth on our Heroes. You, Troy and so many others have been given the gift of gab and writing. Yet you use it wisely. All of us 'readers' Thank you!
Excuse me, I need tissues.

Your writing has the power to bring tears to my eyes. Ky Woman said it so well, I feel the same way.

Owen,

What a piece of art this is that you wrote. Wonderfully sculptured and presented. I have been writing multiple blog entries on my site bouhammer.com about the trip, thinking that I was capturing just about everything. However reading your post here reminded me of a few things that I had forgotten (like the rooftop scanning), which I guess slipped into the abyss of my mind because it was second nature for so long. It was a true honor to gain Barbara and yourself as friends and I hope we do our best to stay in touch.

welcome home brother!

i just droped into the sand box on a whim today. your words griped me from the first sentence. i didn"t go to iraq, but i did go to vietnam. your words brought me back there instantly. i gues i get to think about the nam twice today. my time in vietnam has scarred over, but i can"t stop thinking of this generation of warriors. will they heal, and scar over. or will their wounds just bleed forever? how can i help?
welcome home
jim

Well said! I spent some time with Troy in Afghanistan and maybe someday we can meet too! Your zest for getting the word out has caused many of us to do the same. Welcome Home!

Well said! I spent some time with Troy in Afghanistan and maybe someday we can meet too! Your zest for getting the word out has caused many of us to do the same. Welcome Home!

OMG Owen- What a piece of literature! Glad to see I am not the only one with tissue in hand after reading this. Mark's comment to you and Troy really did a job on my heart. God Bless Mark and ALL our troops. I can tell you are an honest person because you, like Troy, tell it like it is. Thank you for your sacrificies and May God Bless you and yours.

very pleased to have heard in recent weeks that you are doing comparatively well. Having read the "BONKERS" entry and taken awhile to find your brother's blog, I had been concerned you were getting railroaded by the army for being human, reacting to a crazy situation in a sane way. I hope you continue to heal, and I appreciate your writing and your sacrifices.

ALL OF YOU DONE A OUTSTANDING JOB.KEEP UP THE GOOD WORK.I SALUTE YOU.GOD BLESS!DE OPPRESSO LIBER!

Thank you, Roy! Everyone has been informed I want a copy of this book for my Yuletide gift, I remain jealous of those who will get one signed by you and Mr. Trudeau. But you deserve to be in that book, your writing is evocative and moving----bard material, Sir, that is what you are!

Good writing, Sgt. Batty! I knew from the first sentence where you were standing. Keep your equilibrium and keep writing.

Dang, you and Nurse Clara are always making me cry. It's been a privilege and a pleasure to read you. Thank you for "memorializing" your trip to DC.

Thank you very much, sergeant, for reminding us eloquently and touchingly why we are fortunate to have men and women such as you representing our country.

I sent this superb essay to friends, family members and colleagues so they also can be uplifted by your insights and humility.

As a writer, I greatly admire your precision and narrative skill. I'm confident that you reinforce a sense of national pride for anyone reading your latest reflections.

Well-done, sir.

Thank you very much, sergeant, for reminding us eloquently and touchingly why we are fortunate to have men and women such as you representing our country.

I sent this superb essay to friends, family members and colleagues so they also can be uplifted by your insights and humility.

As a writer, I greatly admire your precision and narrative skill. I'm confident that you reinforce a sense of national pride for anyone reading your latest reflections.

Well-done, sir.

Thank you very much, sergeant, for reminding us eloquently and touchingly why we are fortunate to have men and women such as you representing our country.

I sent this superb essay to friends, family members and colleagues so they also can be uplifted by your insights and humility.

As a writer, I greatly admire your precision and narrative skill. I'm confident that you reinforce a sense of national pride for anyone reading your latest reflections.

Well-done, sir.

Once again, fantastic work. It's just what I've come to expect from reading your stuff. Keep it going.

Owen --

To you personally, simply Welcome Home!

As a post-script to your excellent blog, might I add to all to also remember those who will be returning with wounds that are apparent now or that only time will reveal: PTSD.
'nuf said.

Jim
USN during the 'Nam

Trudeau just GETS IT. Check this Doonesbury strip
http://images.ucomics.com/comics/db/2007/db071028.gif
I get choked up.

SGT.,

You are an outstanding soldier and one I would gladly serve with. As a nurse, military brat, sister of an Iraq vet and fellow PTSD sufferer, I encourage you to respect your disease, don't feel ashamed and allow yourself time to heal. And don't forget, this is not something you can do by yourself. G-dspeed!

Cathy

SGT.,

You are an outstanding soldier and one I would gladly serve with. As a nurse, military brat, sister of an Iraq vet and fellow PTSD sufferer, I encourage you to respect your disease, don't feel ashamed and allow yourself time to heal. And don't forget, this is not something you can do by yourself. G-dspeed!

Cathy

SGT.,

You are an outstanding soldier and one I would gladly serve with. As a nurse, military brat, sister of an Iraq vet and fellow PTSD sufferer, I encourage you to respect your disease, don't feel ashamed and allow yourself time to heal. And don't forget, this is not something you can do by yourself. G-dspeed!

Cathy

SGT.,

You are an outstanding soldier and one I would gladly serve with. As a nurse, military brat, sister of an Iraq vet and fellow PTSD sufferer, I encourage you to respect your disease, don't feel ashamed and allow yourself time to heal. And don't forget, this is not something you can do by yourself. G-dspeed!

Cathy

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