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.

HOME FOR CHRISTMAS |

December 31, 2007

HOME FOR CHRISTMAS
Name: 1SG Troy Steward
Posting date: 12/31/07
Returned from: Afghanistan
Milblog url: bouhammer.com

Unlike last year, where Christmas was just another day and the only real joy I had was talking to my family over a static-filled and sometimes-cutting-out Afghan wireless cellphone, this year I enjoyed my time home with my family.

Not only did I enjoy it at home with my family, but I enjoyed it at home with my oldest son, who is about to leave for war himself. He won’t be with us next Christmas, as he will be spending it in Afghanistan. He leaves in a few days to start training up for his own mission and time over there. A boy who grew up playing Army, dressing in my old uniforms, and then playing video games as if he were a soldier. A boy that went to ‘family days’ on base and as an eight year old got to sit in the cockpit of an Apache helicopter, and as a ten year old had the chance to jump off the 34-foot jump tower that we use for concurrent airborne training.

He is about to go over and do it for real. He will probably find himself recognizing the distinct sounds of 7.62x39mm rounds leaving the end of an AK-47, and getting to know the “whoosh” that an RPG makes once it is shot. He may find out for himself what it is like to be down on his knees sticking someone (American or Afghan) with an IV or putting a tourniquet on a stump as the person screams in pain. As a medic, he will be the one that everyone else looks to as their “Doc”. They will all have had Combat Lifesaver Training, but he may very well be the only guy on a mission whose sole job is to treat injuries and save lives.

I know first hand, many times over, that anyone of any age that goes to combat for a year will come back five years older. It is a simple fact of life. I don’t mean just hanging out in a combat zone, I mean truly facing combat. With all the shots, explosions, screaming, smells, blood and adrenaline that come with true combat.

So not only was this my first Christmas home in two years and one that I was glad to be here for, it was the last with my oldest “little” boy. He will not be the same when he comes back. A lot of innocence will be gone, if not all of it. And so this holiday, unlike the Christmas, Easter, July 4th, and many other holidays that I missed while in Afghanistan, each of which was just one more day on the calendar until coming home…this one had meaning.

I had a moment on Christmas Day where I just reflected on how special it was to be home, and how lucky I am. I mentioned to my wife that I was so glad to be home, so lucky and fortunate. She kind of looked at me puzzled and said “Lucky?”

It was one of the first times I let the cat out of the bag to her and said, "Honey, if you only knew how many times I could have been killed or maimed. I am glad that I am spending this Christmas at home and not at Walter Reed recovering." I am not sure why I shared that with her, but I did. Maybe it was time, maybe I just had a weak moment.

It was great being home on Christmas morning, watching the faces of everyone as they opened their gifts, sharing the joy and the surprise. It was great to be able to just pick up a phone and talk to family and friends. It was great to be home.

CHRISTMAS IN THE LAND OF SANDCASTLES |

December 28, 2007

CHRISTMAS IN THE LAND OF SANDCASTLES
Name: Old Blue
Posting date: 12/28/07
Stationed in: Afghanistan
Milblog url:billandbobsexcellentafghanadventure

Christmas wasn't, and it was.

The past weeks have been all about a slow journey to a new assignment. I've run into a number of people who I've already met, and gotten to know a few new people during the journey of less than two hundred miles. It has taken that long to go such a short distance.

On Christmas Day, the journey finally ended. CPT Mac and I arrived at our new duty station. We both came from other provinces to replace the provincial team here. The two of us will replace the three who are leaving in a couple of days.

Christmas morning hadn't dawned yet as I loaded all of my gear into a humvee trailer for the CONOP* to the new FOB. I scarfed down a quick breakfast and before gathering the very last of my gear, I called home.

As the Afghan dawn began to break over me, my family was having our traditional Christmas Eve gathering at my sister's house. All the siblings and our kids always get together at her house on Christmas Eve. Christmas morning we are occupied with our respective broods; but Christmas Eve is for the whole family.

I spoke for a few minutes with each of my siblings and all of my kids. For a few minutes, I was there with them, and I could feel the feeling of comfort and serenity that comes from being with my children on Christmas Eve enjoying the family. For those few minutes, it was Christmas.

Then I crammed my sleeping bag into its stuff sack and that in turn into my remaining duffel bag and schlepped it out to the waiting humvee. I dropped the mount into the pintle, the machine gun into the mount, and slipped the ammo can into the rack on the side of the mount.

We got radio checks with each other and lined up for our movement. The SECFOR* were all set, and before the sun was fully up, four humvees left the ECP* and headed down the road.

Behind the gun, turret faced to the side as we were in the middle of the convoy, the morning wind was cold. People were already in the street, and I did as I always do, waving to show them that I was aware of them, show respect, and get a temperature check. Most were friendly. I continued this all the way to the new place. The further away from the main road up the long valley, the more less-than-friendly people we encountered.

Although most people would return a wave, some would ignore the wave and just stare with a curious look. A few would look unhappy. A very few would not be able to contain their negativity and would actually shake their heads no. One indicated his holiday greetings with a single finger.

That's unusual. "Merry Christmas, chucklehead," I thought towards him as I looked further up the road.

At least he wasn't armed. You can flip me off all day; just don't shoot at me. That's when I get irritable. Especially not on Christmas.

We had no such problems.

We arrived without incident at our new neighborhood, run by elements of the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team. Seems like a nice enough place, surrounded by mountains; beautiful in that stark, Afghan way. Two mountains in the distance, about 25 kilometers away, bear snowy caps. The rest are the striated browns, tans, and granite grays of the Afghan mountain country.

It was still a workday, and we dropped our gear next to empty cots in a floored tent. This tent will be our shelter for a few days until the team that we are RIPing* leaves. It has a wooden floor and stalls for privacy, and it has heat.

It also has a cricket that thinks my Timex travel alarm is the sexiest thing it has ever heard.

The rest of the afternoon was spent learning a little bit about our new AO* and the general lay of the land within the FOB. We were briefed on the following day's mission, and I tried to make this post. The internet situation here is miserable; absolutely, completely, beyond-believably miserable. The system here wouldn't even load Google's login page.

I had a picture to share of the Charlie Brown Christmas Tree here on the FOB. It is hopeful in a pathetic sort of way. The system will not allow me to load it. The only reason I don't shoot this computer right this second is that I left my 9mm in the tent and the guy next to me won't let me borrow his weapon. I think he knows what I have in mind. It took me so long to get on to Blogger that I'm terrified to turn my head, much less go retrieve my pistol.

The computer lives another day.

Everywhere you go, there are things that work well and things that don't. I really have very few requirements to be truly content. I would like to have my own place to stay. Most people of my rank in this country have a room that they can call their own; usually a plywood walled-off cubicle in a plywood shack called a B-hut. I would like the same thing.

I like to have decent sanitary facilities. Nasty showers that smell vaguely of cabbage boiled until slightly burnt are not a plus.

Internet that works. My primary means of communication is the net. I have not mailed a letter since I've been in this country, but I've written tons. Of course, there is the Adventure to keep up with as well.

There are a few other nice-to-haves, of course; good food is a plus, for instance. But the big three above are key to the misery scale; unless, of course, I'm doing something absolutely fascinating.

The month that I spent with my ANP in the valley, sleeping on cots next to my humvee and roaming the valley in search of trouble, was the best single month of the entire deployment to this point. I loved what I was doing. I look back on it with nostalgia. It also had not a single one of my big three. Not one.

It did have a high fascination factor, though.

Everyone here loves the FOB. It is very nice. The sanitary facilities are acceptable. Most people place good food higher on the scale than internet access, though. The food here is good. "Christmas dinner" was very good.

To me, it wasn't Christmas dinner. I had Christmas dinner at the crack of dawn on a cell phone in Jalalabad. My butt was in Jalalabad, but my heart was having Christmas 7100 miles away.

*
CONOP = Convoy Operation
SECFOR = Security Forces
ECP = Entry Control Point (the heavily protected gate to the FOB)
RIP = Relief In Place
AO = Area of Operations

DECEMBER 25, 2006 |

December 27, 2007

DECEMBER 25TH, 2006
Name: Josie Salzman
Posting date: 12/27/07
Husband returned from: Iraq
Milblog url: lifeinacrackerbox.blogspot.com

It was crisp and clear with minimal wind. Perfect for flying. A relief for my exhausted mind that wouldn't be able to take another setback. I had waited long enough. I was finally going to see my husband for the first time since he lost his arm to a roadside bomb.

I don't remember sleeping the night before. There were so many thoughts and fears running through my head. How many tubes would he have running into him? Would he be really drugged up? Would he recognize me? Would I be able to even hug him? Does he realize that he's lost his arm? Do I realize that he's lost his arm? I couldn't shut my brain off. All I could do was run around the apartment and continue with my busywork.

I went down the checklist:

Dust
Vacuum
Unplug all appliances including washer and dryer
Clean bathroom
Wash sheets and remake bed
Clean towels
Water heater off
Breakers flipped off...

And the list went on. I wasn't sure just how long I would be gone for. It's scary to leave home and not know what the future holds for you. To not be sure when you will walk in the door and sit in the familiar surroundings of home. I lugged the million-pound suitcase to the car. It was filled with clothes varying from dress-up to sweats, a few summer shirts, and many winter sweaters. I tore as much as possible out of my closet and filled the luggage as full as I could make it.

After loading the car I took one final look around the apartment. With a deep breath I bit down on my lip and told myself now was not the time to cry. I walked out the door and climbed into my car.

As I drove to the airport I made a mental note not to speed. Although I was confident no cop would actually give a ticket to a young wife on her way to be by her injured husband's side, I didn't want to risk a ticket. So I drove slowly. The entire way to the airport I kept asking my parents if we had remembered everything. They reassured me all was packed and loaded and that they would do a double check of the apartment when they returned.

I walked into the Minneapolis/St. Paul airport and the timing couldn't have been more perfect. J.R.'s parents had walked in just moments before and they were there to greet me as I came in. I said a brief goodbye to my parents and ran through the line to check my luggage.

"Next!"

"Yes, hi. I just need to check these two bags please."

"Where are you traveling to today?"

"Washington, D.C."

"No, what airport are you flying to."

"I don't know. Washington, D.C. Is there more than one airport?"

"Yeah. Are you going to Dallas?"

"Why would I go to Texas... I'm going to D.C."

"No... Dallas.. it's an airport in D.C."

"I dunno, what's the ticket say?"

"It's right here you're going to Dallas."

With great confusion I looked at the ticket only to realize she was saying "Dulles". Gotta love language barriers.

"Yeah, sure, I guess that's right."

"Please place your bag on the scale." With difficulty I threw the bag onto the metal ledge. "Your bag is too heavy. Either remove some items, or pay the fee."

"No, it's not too heavy." By this point I'm flustered, tired, and I just want to be at the gate. "I'm on military orders and see... umm.. hold on.. let me find the spot. God damn it. It's in here. Hold on. See.. see right here... this line. My bag is allowed to be overweight."

"Ma'am the government doesn't make our rules and regulations. You'll have to pay the fee."

"No, no, no. I'm on my way to see my husband. My husband that just got his arm blown off so that you could stand here and have a job. These are government orders. I'm not removing anything from that bag and you will not charge me extra. Comply with the orders or let me speak with your supervisor."

"Here's your boarding pass, have a safe flight."

Boarding pass, ID, in-laws, and wow look at that security line. I was amazed at how many people were in the airport on Christmas day. How many of these people were on their way home to celebrate? How many of them didn't have anyone to celebrate with? And how many of them just simply didn't celebrate Christmas? All questions that I will never have the answers to, but they gave my mind something to think about besides my husband laying in bed with one arm.

It wasn't long before we boarded the plane and were safely in the air. This would be the first of many flights between Minneapolis and Washington. It was also the longest. The crew did their best to entertain everyone as it was Christmas day. At one point in the flight they ran toilet paper from the rear toilet up to the front of the cabin. They then hit the flush button and we all laughed and cheered as we watched the line of paper fly down the aisle and down the loo. I highly suggest trying to convince your next flight attendant to perform this experiment. It's very entertaining.

After touching down in D.C. I practically ran to the baggage claim. We met up with our driver and made our way to the car. They picked us up in a nice car with a man dressed in a suit. This would be the only time that ever happened. We drove for what seemed to be hours. Finally we exited the highway and made our way down Georgia Avenue to the front of Walter Reed's gates. I stared at the hospital. Knowing that J.R. was inside I wanted nothing more than to open the car door and run inside the building. But first, we had to check into the Mologne House Hotel.

We walked through the doors of Mologne House and my first reaction was "wow." The Christmas decorations were out and the grand staircase was right in front of me. It was a beautiful room and my first thoughts were convincing myself that this couldn't possibly be that bad. We checked in, found the room, and hauled all the luggage in. After throwing the last bag down I was running to the hospital. We were now not on government hurry-up-and-wait time but my time, and I was going to see my husband NOW. By this point it was raining and dark. I had no idea where I was on post and I didn't know which direction to go.

With one failed attempt at finding the hospital, we returned to the front desk of Mologne House and asked for directions. This time I was sure I knew where I was going as I bolted out the door and with J.R.'s parents in tow,  walked briskly towards J.R.

We walked in the front door of the hospital only to realize that we had no idea where to go. It was Christmas day, late at night, and there was nobody around to ask for help. All I knew is that J.R. was in Ward 57. We found the elevators and went down to the main level and found an information desk. They weren't much help. They told me all the information I already knew and told me to go back to the elevator and go to the fifth floor. Off we went. The elevator doors dinged open as we arrived on the fifth floor. I turned left and saw the sign for Ward 57. I'm pretty sure I ran.

As I walked into the ward I wasn't sure what to do. Cry, smile, laugh... which emotion was it running through my body? Then it dawned on me, there are dozens of rooms. Which one is his? The nurses station was empty but standing just across the hall was a family of three handing out Christmas packages.

"Who are you looking for?"

"Salzman. My husband. Do you know what room he's in?"

"Yeah, he's right in here. He's been asking for you. He's been wondering when you were going to get here."

I walked to the door and there sitting up in bed was J.R. He was pale, dirty, and looked exhausted, but he was sitting up.

"Jo, I need a bucket NOW."

"Where, where J.R. where is the bucket?"

"Jo, hurry up."

"J.R. I don't know where the buckets are. Who knows where the bucket is?"

"Here." The volunteer mother grabbed a bucket and threw it under J.R.

Moments passed and I kept waiting for him to throw up. But finally he just asked me to take the bucket back and announced that he was fine.

I threw my arms around him.

"Are you okay? Are you sure? I love you. You scared me. You're sure you're okay? How's your arm feeling? Is it okay? Are you sure?"

He probably wanted to knock me out but hey... it's a wife's duty to make sure everything is ok.

After hugging him for what seemed to be an hour I let go and moved aside. His parents swooped in and he once again listened to a series of questions regarding his current state.

Time passed much more quickly now that I was finally with J.R. Soon it was late and his parents left for the hotel room. It was time to get down to business. J.R. had barely had a sponge bath since his injury. He was dirty, sweaty, and his face needed attention. I rounded up all of the supplies that were going to be needed for a bath. I scrubbed every inch of him down. As I washed him we both resisted tears. Never in a million years could we ever have imagined this. Faced with caring for my husband who had very little use of his hands, I began to realize what I was up against. After his bath, I brushed his teeth. By the time we were done cleaning him up we were both exhausted and frustrated. The idea of sleep began to sound very inviting.

I began to make my bed in the pullout chair for the very first time. It wasn't until I sat down that I realized how hungry I was. I'd barely eaten in a week, and had had nothing but a handful of trail mix all day. I ran to the nurses station and asked if there was a cafeteria or any food being served in the hospital. Negative. I was suddenly facing a night with a very empty tummy. Seeing my state of despair and frustration the nurse left on a mission. Moments later he returned with a steak, baked potato, and green beans. I cried. I cried over food. I cried over J.R.'s arm. I cried at my clumsiness when giving J.R. a bath. I cried from exhaustion.

But mainly I cried from happiness. I had my husband alive and in front of me. I could see his face and touch his skin, he was real. What more could I possibly ask for?

WHO IS DEPLOYING? |

December 26, 2007

WHO IS DEPLOYING?
Name: Eric Coulson
Posting date: 12/26/07
Stationed in: Ramadi, Iraq
Milblog url: badgersforward.blogspot.com
Email: [email protected]

Interesting stats in Stars and Stripes recently...

According to US Army Human Resources Command there are 515,000 Active Duty Soldiers:

200,000 have one combat tour.

70,000 have two combat tours.

15,000 have three or more tours.

59.5% of enlisted personnel have deployed.

62% of officers have deployed.

40.6% of the Active Duty Army has not deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan. They break down this way:

1.6% are non-deployable due to medical conditions, legal status, or family problems.

8.7% are in Initial Entry Training.

10.8% are units scheduled to deploy.

10% are in units deployed in other operational circumstances, i.e. Korea.

0.6% are Drill Sergeants and Recruiters.

27% are in health care. Taking care of our wounded warriors.

7.2% have been identified for assignment to deploying units.

To me the most interesting number is the one indicating three or more deployments. Reading screeds on the internet, one might think most Soldiers were heading for their third or fourth deployment. Not true.

Good information to have if you are talking about the state of the Army with people.

JUST ANOTHER DAY |

December 25, 2007

JUST ANOTHER DAY
Name: The Usual Suspect
Posting date: 12/25/07
Stationed in: Iraq
Milblog url: theunlikelysoldier.blogspot.com

I go to the shoddy movie theater to see some MP girl play her guitar and sing. And she's good, really good. But they plugged in a Christmas tree, off to the side of the stage, and it's a complete distraction.

I shift in my seat and furrow my eyebrows in slight confusion. What's the sense in this? Poor excuse for concert lights, and besides, what is a Christmas Tree doing here anyway? Oh wait, it's December? Well gollll-lllly! Who'da thunk it? I mean, ya coulda fooled me, bub, what with the absence of snow on the ground, with everything looking exactly the same as it always does, except not with the thermostat set to "Kenya". You shittin me, Powers That Be? You telling me that it's that Holiday Season again?

Nah, I don't buy it. There's people running around out there with suicide vests hiding weapons and planting bombs and shaking our hands and terrorizing their neighbors and threatening everyone all to create their ideal of what the country should be, and there's no snow. No one's wearing those hideous sweaters or wrapping expensive shit to give to each other.

Can't be, cuz here I am, at [X location] conducting [X mission] just last [X date] and I'm being called a Bleeding Heart for treating the locals with respect, because you see, this was the situation:

[Entry deleted, as per what may fall under OPSEC restrictions. When in doubt, cut that shit out, right?]

So yeah, it is kind of strange, I know, but the truth is that I'm actually a pretty compassionate person and I treat people the way I'd want to be treated. I just like to see a semblance of humanity now and then, and when you can cross a cultural barrier and connect with people even briefly, it's quite cool, and who knows, maybe these little things help us out, even if only a little. So yeah, I'll be the bleeding heart. For the common people? Yeah. I'll act the way I was raised.

But hold on, Powers That Be, you didn't completely sidetrack me here, I still wanna know: What gives? This is the month of all things Holy as well as Commercial? I'm standing out of the hatch as we drive by, and I'm waving to these kids, but they don't look like they're getting ready for Christmas.

Sorry bud, I don't buy it. I didn't acknowledge that last birthday, why would I acknowledge this poor attempt at celebrating a holiday that's all about being with your family? Sorry, but your fake plastic tree isn't going to make us feel like we're not in a war torn country a million miles away. For those who still want to acknowledge their holidays, I say go for it. But me personally? Just another day.

"What'd you do for your birthday?"

"Patrolled."

"What did you do on Thanksgiving?"

"Tower guard."

"Did you get bombed on New Years?"

"Bombed as in drunk or bombed as in shit exploded?"

OK OK, you get it now. I'm not going to acknowledge the army's attempt at making the holidays seem....existent. So you ask yourself, "Damn man, you all right?"

The answer is a resounding yes. I'm still in this limbo and I've got my health. I've accepted everything that's happened so far and I accept that this is not the war I thought I signed up for. I've come to an understanding with The Force that's orchestrating this chicken-clusterfuck. Just slide on. You keep things simple for me, I keep things simple too, keep on trucking all Happy Go Lucky-like. Not too much to ask for.

They say violence is down XX% thanks to the Troop Surge. That's us, we're The Surge. We boarded planes and poured into all orifices of this country and impregnated it with a little more "order" and the Bad Guys don't have as much room to breathe and the "ball" is in their "court" and I'm still in limbo.

Keep it simple, and I will too: Take a knee, pull security, drink water, drive on. Scan the road, scan the rooftops, scan the windows, scan the alleys, scan it all. Bustling Third World life. And after all, why not? It's just time.

The absolute truth, if you must know it, is that we're preparing for a secret operation, large scale. Our whole brigade, in fact. Very hush hush. Y'see, in a handful of months, a rather big handful of months, we're going to get all of our shit together, and stealthily board planes. We're invading the United States. Taking Fort Lewis first.

I've outlined a plan with my hand-picked squad. Our first objective is to secure a patrol base in the new barracks. Simple. Immediately afterwards, we leave a security element in place and we mount up and drive to our next objective. Dismount at the Class 6 liquor store for a supply run. A major one.

We'll then return to said patrol base and secure it with loud music to frighten away lesser enemies, and we'll consume copious amounts of liquor to fortify our own courage, should anyone attack us. It shall be a triumphant and intoxicated last stand before we're expected to function in this strange new world.

Possible reconnaissance locations include Fox's Gentlemen's Club, depending on morale. More to follow.

TOGETHER |

December 24, 2007

TOGETHER
Name: Toby Nunn
Posting date: 12/24/07
Stationed in:
Kuwait / Iraq
Hometown
: Oakland, CA via Terrace BC CANADA
Milblog url: tobynunn.typepad.com

Since we have been here there has been a small group of us that have talked and mentioned different and perhaps better tactics that our leadership could use to accomplish our mission. I am by no means a great tactician but I do have a grasp on tactics and small amount of experience, at least enough to get me in trouble.

Framed_nunn_xmas_2 We have the typical military problem, Troops to Task. I have mentioned, along with a couple other platoon sergeants, that we could better serve and protect if we took a different approach to our manning of missions. It is always nice to have more people than less, but we have to make do with less because we just don't have what we need. This Battalion did not have enough people to fill its ranks, so it pulled the majority from the IRR and other units. I myself, along with the entire Bad Voo Doo Platoon, have been pulled from a different unit to be in this one to accomplish this mission. Of course it is our job, and when the nation calls we always answer. And in the words of Donald Rumsfeld, "You go to war with the Army you have not the one you want." But we have made do. I am proud of the platoon's ability to overcome some of these challenges to make mission and look out for each other, even when there is not enough "each other" to go around. So why am I bitching, you ask?

It is the winter, and the enemy has demonstrated throughout the ages and this conflict to not want to engage as much in these colder months. We have thermal underwear and gore-tex while the "man dress" does not keep the old nuggets warm enough to even want to attack. So in these times throughout the cold, and also during the Hajj, we enjoy a slight break in the action, which is very convenient for us since it is also our holiday season. There is nothing I want more than to have the guys home, but if not, at least able to call and chat on Christmas. Not just for themselves, but also for those at home, to provide a few moments of comfort.

Well, I got my wish, and now we are manning things differently, not because it is more tactically sound though, but because our leadership just doesn't want to let the guys have idle time on their hands. At least we will all be together.

NOW IT MAKES SENSE |

December 21, 2007

NOW IT MAKES SENSE
Name: Combat Doc
Posting date: 12/21/07
Returned from: Iraq
Milblog url: candle_in_the_dark.blogspot.com

Oh. So this is what they're talking about..."P" TSD. Now it makes sense.

I have days when I just laugh out loud at some of the near misses I survived in Iraq. RPGs, IEDs, small arms fire pinging off the ground at my feet. I remember the shrapnel that hit my chest when I was running to the tower after the RPG near-missed a Kiowa helicopter. I remember walking through pitch black fields during no-moon nights in Fallujah using only the green-filtered nightmare of what Vietnam vets called a Starlite scope to open the darkness the Hajj used to hide right beside us. I remember the raids when we'd bust through the smoke and fragments left by the water-impulse charge after blowing the door and entering the room that was usually empty; sometimes it wasn't.

But none of that keeps me up at night.

Jake's face followed by Alcantara, Gummersal, and Khan. Then the blast. John outside crying into the arms of a Platoon Sergeant doing the same. Knowing I wasn't there. Knowing that I had no hope of saving or even seeing his last smile before he called me a fag and went in. Not being there when Hector was shot because of a lazy Iraqi cop mistake and bad commo. Not being there when Strong's legs were blown out from under him as he stood in the hatch pulling security in a place where that phrase is an oxymoron.

Why do those of us who stayed behind, those of us with responsibilities outside the Army, those others who chose lives after Iraq, those of us who still wish to feel the need to be there when it happens yet knowing it could have been us. Why does THIS and not the near-death punctuated blur of combat affect us?

Worse, why do they understand. Why does no one pass judgment. Why does no one say, " You shitbag, you abandoned us."

Both sides have reasons and valid points, but what America doesn't understand when they choose a side is that we hold both opinions.

They don't pass judgment, they don't complain, they don't hate because they feel the same as I do, and they would feel the same as me if they were here with me.

So they know what I'm feeling without asking...and they'll never ask.

IFTAH KHARULLAH |

December 20, 2007

IFTAH KHARULLAH
Name: CAPT Benjamin Tupper
Posting date: 12/20/07
Returned from: Afghanistan

A good friend of mine got killed recently in Afghanistan. He was the First Sergeant of the Infantry Company that I was assigned to. Mention of his death won't be in your local newspapers, nor listed on any web sites honoring the fallen, so you probably don't know about him or how he died. He was a great soldier nonetheless, and we have all lost a man who committed his life to the goals of a modern, tolerant, and peaceful Afghanistan. His name was Iftah Kharullah.

Word of his death came last night, while I was sitting in my comfy reclining chair, bathed in the heat of my wood burning stove. The living room where I sat was decked out with colored Christmas lights, a sparkling decorated tree, and my four noisy children who were all getting ready to watch a much anticipated Christmas movie.

I was busy between getting the DVD player up and running and getting my kids situated with snacks, when I saw I had an email from my old Afghan interpreter. It had been weeks since I last heard from him, as he had recently gotten married. Suffice to say, I was expecting some good news.

Instead, in broken English, he had written the following sentance:

"Tooran Tupper…3th company 1st sgt got killed in an action."

I should take a moment to explain that "Tooran" is Dari for "Captain". This was my rank while I was embedded in this Afghan National Army Infantry unit. Everyone called me "Tooran Tupper", from the lowest ranking soldiers of 3rd Company, all the way up to First Sergeant Iftah Kharullah.

The Christmas movie started. The kids laughed. I whispered to my girlfriend that I had just learned of the death of a close Afghan friend. It was such an awkward mix of tragedy and holiday lightheartedness that I think she was caught at a loss for words.

I said nothing of the news to my children. Even though I wanted to tell everyone and anyone this dark news, I didn't want to damper the festive spirit of the evening.

My silence did nothing to lessen Kharullah's memories, which visited me throughout the evening like Marley's Ghost of Christmas Past. I tried to drown him out with a few more beers than normal. I drifted off a few times during the movie to memories of Afghanistan, as I sat there next to the warm stove. But I was always drawn back by the laughter of my children at comical points in the Christmas-themed movie.

First Sergeant Iftah Kharullah died on a very typical mission for 3rd Company. Members of the Battalion had been ambushed in Qarabagh District. Like we had done so many times before, Kharullah's Afghan Company rode out as a quick reaction force to assist the besieged Afghan Army unit. The Executive Officer of 3rd Company was shot and wounded in the ambush, and First Sergeant Kharullah organized a team to go recover him and bring him out of the kill zone. During this attempt, he was shot in the kidney and heart, and died.

The email from my Afghan interpreter went on to say that after First Sergeant Kharullah was shot, the Afghan soldiers moved to recover his body. In this counter attack, seven Taliban were killed. This news gave me a momentary sense of satisfaction that his death had not been for naught. But even with this lopsided final score favoring the Afghan National Army, I was left feeling empty and defeated. No amount of festive holiday spirit could lift my heart from this cold news of a long distance loss.

Framed_tupper_khanullah

Here is a picture of me with Kharullah (on the right) and the XO (on the left). In a separate incident last fall the plump officer in the middle was shot three times, but survived.

TOWER RANTS |

December 19, 2007

TOWER RANTS
Name: SPC Beaird
Posting date: 12/19/07
Stationed in: Afghanistan
Milblog url: allexpensespaidafghanvacation

I’m on a tower guard rotation this week, definitely my most despised duty while I’m here. It is comprised of 12 hours of nonstop boredom sitting in a guard tower pulling security from sunset to sunrise. The highlight of each night is midnight chow, the best meal of the day, when a different set of cooks comes into the kitchen and makes the meals from scratch rather than just reheating schlop. Being a smaller FOB, compared to the bigger bases like the one at Bagram, we still have a chow hall run by army personnel instead of KBR contractors, which makes a huge difference in the quality of food.

Other than the exciting midnight chow, we pass the time by watching the Geminid meteor shower through our night vision goggles. It is easy to see them even without the optics because of the zero light policy of our base at night, and the lack of lights on the dirt roads and mud huts of rural Afghanistan. Adding this week to the slow week before, I’m getting a slight case of cabin fever from not leaving the base for so long. I’m glad I’m not a Fobbit that never gets to leave, or I would go nuts.

Being in a guard tower for so long causes your mind to wander. You think about almost everything imaginable, which often leads to some interesting conversations and debates with your partner for the night.

And yes, sometimes you even talk to yourself, haha. You’ll think about things that have happened since being here, think about the time that's left, and daydream about going home, imagining how weird some of the daily activities back home will be once we get settled back in -- so different from what we’ve become used to here and do routinely, like the two are parallel universes.

I had a small taste of this when I was on leave in Barcelona, of seeing how sometimes my mind was still processing the environment as if I was still in Afghanistan. My first day there my buddies were walking with me down to grab some pizza at a restaurant in the Gothic quarter of town. There were lots of narrow stone streets with buildings four or five stories high; real picturesque. However I was zoning out for a bit and they asked me, “Hey, what’s up? You’re extra quiet right now.” I told them how I was just thinking how much it would suck to get ambushed in a narrow street like that, with tons of rooftops, windows, and hiding spots for people to pop in and out of.

I was only doing what it's been ingrained in me to do since we came here; upon entering into a new location, to immediately start to process the surroundings, looking for possible avenues of attack from the bad guys and defensive positions for us in case the shit hits the fan. I’m glad most of the environment we see in Afghanistan is small villages in rural areas, and we don’t have to see too much of the urban fighting like guys in Baghdad are seeing, though the rough terrain and mountains in this landscape can sometimes be more overwhelming.

Another thing that popped into my head the other night was a mission we had a couple weeks ago where we were making several stops with our civil affairs and engineer teams checking out ongoing projects. One of our stops was a boys school, elementary age from what I saw. There must have been a few hundred kids there, of which a large number were having their classes outside because, I assume, there wasn’t enough room for everyone in the building. There was some digging for the foundation of another building under way. So there were mostly kids around, and as usual we attracted a small crowd of curious onlookers.

You’d think with so many kids around we shouldn’t have too much to worry about security-wise, but not necessarily. There have been reports in the news and we’ve had intel briefs about the Taliban training up and brainwashing young boys to be suicide bombers, and just recently in the news there was a female suicide bomber on the border of Afghanistan/Pakistan. So not only do we have to keep an eye on males of the fighting age, but now also women and children.

And so, when I saw a boy, probably around the age of eight, with a bulky object underneath his man-jammies, I didn’t think much of having one of our guys go check him out and have him show what he had on his stomach. I sure as hell wasn’t going to check it; he could have a bomb strapped to his chest!

Just kidding. I was in the turret and couldn’t leave, so one of our dismounts checked, who happened to be the lowest ranking private. It's standard operating procedure, having the lowest ranking guy check things out that may go boom, like when we find a possible IED we have a Private go run up and kick it to see if it explodes. No, we don’t really do this, it’s just an old joke in the military.

It turned out to only be some books and papers he had wrapped up in a plastic bag stuffed around his waist. At the time I didn’t think much of it. But later, after coming back, and with my extra time in the tower this week to “think”, it disturbs me a bit. What kind of messed up, twisted war and place is this, and what kind of people are we fighting that we have to check out little kids to make sure they’re not going to go kamikaze on us?

MAKING UP FOR LOST TIME |

December 18, 2007

MAKING UP FOR LOST TIME
Name: Eddie
Posting date: 12/18/07
Stationed in: Iraq
Milblog url
: airborneparainf82.blogspot.com
Email: [email protected]

In the past few months, I can honesty say that I have not been on any raids. Not that raids were not happening, it just worked out to where I didn't end up on any. It seemed as if for me there was going to be no more kicking in doors, rushing into homes/businesses and all the craziness and excitement that comes with them. It has been so long since I engaged a known enemy, and raids were the last form of rush and excitement left.

All that changed over the last week. In one of my previous posts I talked about a nighttime raid with masked and armed local guards. Apparently that was to be the first in a series of raids for me and the others of my squad. The next raid was to go after some guys that we wouldn't mind capturing. These were to be "snap raids", where we get info at the last minute and head out to the target location without any real plan. This isn't a bad thing, because we have been doing these for a while and everyone knows what to do as far as the little stuff. The major stuff usually gets hashed out between the squad leader, myself and the other team leader quick-like and then we roll from there. We've gotten quite good at this and it allows our reaction time to info to be quick.

The first place we ended up going to was a bust, so we headed out to our next location, which was in a "business" type of section. The place we entered was pretty big for the number of guys we had -- nothing new -- and we quickly cleared the floors and rooms. Again, no luck. There was only one occupant, but there were some cups of chai tea (the typical Iraqi tea drink) that were still warm, leading us to believe they had escaped as we were got there or just before.

We weren't going to call this one quits just yet and began searching around to try and find them. While searching the home we found some vests with body armor, and ammunition vests. Now we really wanted these guys.

The roof connected to many other same-level or close-to-the-same-level roofs. At one point while searching these adjacent rooftops the other team awoke a family living below, and out of fear they fired a couple of warning shots from their AK rifle. The shots ringing out had us on high alert and careful going into that home. Like I said though, it just turned out to be a man trying to protect his big family from unknown invaders.

We never ended up finding the guys we were looking for, but it was good to get out there as a squad and conduct these raids and get back into the swing of things.

Another day we had some good info on a meeting that was taking place for some of the local militia, and we decided to act on this quickly. We headed out with a good amount of people for this raid and my team was to be the lead team. We linked up with the leader of the local armed security guys and they went with us to the location. As we started getting close, these guys began running and then sprinting, trying to get there as quick as possible, and of course we had to keep up with them. The thing is, I'm not sure the guys up with me knew where they were going, and we began running all around this one neighborhood, but not towards the area we were supposed to go to.

It was exhausting, and to make matters worse, no one really brought any water because we figured this was going to be quick, in and out. Now we were exhausted from sprinting around all over the place and had almost no water to replenish. This was beginning to suck.

We finally made it to where we were going and it ended up being a huge area. With the help of the security guys we secured it and rounded up all the people that were around there, for identification. This was where it got crazy, because there had to have been over 100 people, and we herded them all tightly together and began the long process of identification. I can't recall how many we ended up taking in but it turned out to be a lot.

The crazy thing was how many of the local security guards had showed up to help us out. It had to have been over 30 of them, which in many ways makes our job easier. Like when we were on the way back with the detainees, the security guards had gotten word from someone along the way about a possible weapons cache, so we stopped real quick and my team along with several of these guys went in to this "yard" and immediately began searching around like crazy. We pretty much just sat back and let them do the work. I'm not going to lie, it was pretty nice.

We didn't find anything, and so we finally headed on back after many hours of being out. We were all exhausted and thirsty and it was nice to finally chug a good bottle of water.

It's been good getting out there and doing these raids again, especially when they yield the positive results. Hopefully this trend will continue and we can continue to be as proactive as possible.

ONE THIRD AND A WAKEUP |

December 17, 2007

ONE THIRD AND A WAKEUP
Name: Old Blue
Posting date: 12/17/07
Stationed in: Afghanistan
Hometown: Cincinnati, Ohio
Milblog url: billandbobsadventure.blogspot.com

It's been eight months since the plane touched down at Bagram. That was the most physically uncomfortable plane ride I ever had. The C-17 has palletized seats that roll into the aircraft and lock into the floor. They look like airline seats.

They are not.

What they are is fiendishly clever torture devices specifically designed to cause pain, numbness, and stiffness. I am convinced that this is so no encouragement is needed to get those on board to absent themselves as quickly as possible when the plane lands. It also has the secondary effect of making your first steps in Afghanistan seem pleasant by comparison.

I remember how strange it all was in the beginning. I remember being amazed at the international village that was Bagram at first sight. I remember wondering if I was going to get lost trying to find my way back from the chow hall to the flight line where we awaited transportation to Camp Phoenix.

That seems like it was forever ago.

I remember the first ride through Kabul and the sensory overload of the turbulent river of humanity, animals, and machines that swirls around you as you pass through it like an alligator. Those first few times it was like an alligator on acid -- senses overhelmed, overcautious, perceived dangers everywhere.

There were the speeches from unseasoned officers who spoke as if they actually knew what they were talking about. They warned of the same dangers, spoke of ineffective TTPs, and prognosticated about what danger would actually look like as if they had seen it themselves.

They were just trying to do their jobs. Each of us, internally, was doing the same thing. We saw the SECFOR* guys from the Kabul FOBs driving in a super-aggressive manner, and we assumed they were professionals. We assumed that they knew what they were doing. We imitated them. This is how you stay alive.

No, this is how you piss off the local nationals. Those SECFOR guys, gate fobbits on wheels, had no idea what they were doing. They threw water bottles at local national drivers as if they were passing out candy. They pointed machine guns at the least provocation.

I now realize they didn't drive like they knew what they were doing. They drove like they were scared. To us, at the time, they were veterans. Now, in retrospect, I realize that they were just tower guards on a day outing.

Not that there's anything wrong with tower guards. Thank God for them. And thank God I'm not one of them. The point is; they don't really spend a lot of time outside the wire, and when they do they have a distorted view of the danger level involved.

Since then I've learned that you have to be a relatively aggressive driver or the local nationals will cut you off. In Kabul, that is. You've just got to get out there and let them know that you know you have the right of way. There is no reason to ram, rarely a reason to scream or throw water bottles, and almost never a reason to point weapons at them.

None of those guys had any overt desire to actually shoot someone. They did, however, have a strong desire to remain unharmed. Their leaders should have helped them to calm down. That was a failure in leadership. I didn't see that then. I didn't know what I was looking at.

The person most likely to shoot a local national unnecessarily is a fobbit. Armed fobbit = danger to the locals.

The fobbits are all armed. Yeah.

Horns are okay, though. Afghan drivers need to focus forward in the chaos and rarely use the multitude of mirrors that are attached to their vehicles. Mirrors are for jingle, not for situational awareness it seems. Horns assist local nationals with their situational awareness.

Humvees need better horns. They sound like old Volkswagens with anemia.  Something along the lines of a foghorn would be nice.

Now it all looks so clear. I laugh at myself in retrospect.

It takes a while to get to know what normal looks like. Your greatest safety lies in knowing what normal looks like so that you know what abnormal looks like. When someone, or a group of people, is behaving abnormally, that's when it's time to poise for an attack. The guys say that their "spidey senses are tingling".

Most times, nothing is wrong. But that's when you become hyper-aware. The rest of the time, you literally cannot afford to remain hyper-aware. I think that's one way people wind up with PTSD.

I did realize when I was home that these days not being hyper-aware for me is hyper-aware for people at home. I'm sure that'll wear off with extended periods of time in a relaxed environment. At home, though, it was annoying. I was constantly scanning around me, and I realized that I ignored women and children until I had checked all the men for signs of hostile intent or aberrant behavior. Then I checked everything else. Eye contact drew my attention immediately and I had to remind myself that everyone was assumed friendly in Ohio.

The thing is, here that's not what I consider hyper-aware. I just consider that being aware of your surroundings.

I still make a habit of waving a lot; it's an instant temperature check on mood and sometimes it causes dead giveaways.

Driving out in the provinces is a totally different protocol. Most places, they are used to the drill. They also aren't nearly as resentful as the Kabul drivers, who have had quite enough of fobbit drivers on their hyper-aggressive day outings.

There are many other things that I've learned since I've been here. I've learned that Kabul is no more a microcosm of Afghanistan than New York City is a microcosm of America. It is its own entity, whole and nearly complete in and of itself. It is magnet and repellent, it is capitol and symbol, it is heaven and hell all at once in its compressed humanity. Millions of souls, each seeking its own way, all forming in their aggregate a living organism that is truly enormous and completely out of any one's control. It is a parabolic mirror of Afghan society, focusing the energy and ethnic variety of Afghanistan on a very small piece of terrain.

Let's see...I've also learned that our training at Ft Riley was wholly inadequate. We didn't train realistically, and we either didn't train at all or trained very little for the types of missions that we do most.

I've learned that we overcome that deficiency readily.

I've learned that the biggest factor in play here is adaptability. You just have to do the best that you can with what you have and then be a drama queen when requesting anything, because the squeaky wheel gets whatever lubricant is available.

The most dramatic drama queen doesn't get anything, so it's got to be skillfully played.  No Gone With the Wind scenes.  A little subtlety goes further.

I've learned that the geographically-closer squeaky wheel gets the available lubricant more quickly, with no regard as to wait times or level of need. Unless they do a Betty Grable, in which case they still get nothing. The Clark Gable reflex kicks in.

The American experience in Afghanistan varies widely. Some areas get no activity, some areas get excessive activity. The fobbits of Bagram may never leave the confines of that most august enclave for their entire tour. The fobbits of Phoenix may only boast two CONOPS* in their entire tour.

Fobbits abound.

The young men out in Kunar get shot at nearly every day.

The young men and women at Bagram and Phoenix get shot at never.  Ever.

Fobbits are necessary, and generally they are quite acceptable creatures unless they become Black Ops Store junkies or FobaThors, or Fobasaurus Rex's. FobaThors are fobbits with dramatic tales consisting of "This one time, at FOB camp..."; stories of heroic imaginings, like the time they nearly fought the vicious Chicken of Tagab.

"I am FobaThor, deadliest of all the fobbits!  Gaze upon my Black Ops gear and fear me!"

Then, of course, comes the dreaded Fobasaurus Rex. The F. Rex often takes the form of a logistics daemon who somehow forgets the reason that a logistics system exists and begins to terrorize needy supplicants who drove hours to get there, often denying the presence of needed supplies and bellowing at their customers with F. Rex roars that sound a lot like, "You don't understand how the supply system works! First, you gotta submit a..."

"Okay, did I mention that our phones don't work out where we are and the internet is something that we vaguely remember?"

O. once nailed an F. Rex right between the eyes. It roared at him, "You don't understand how the supply system works. Lemme 'splain this to you..."

To which O. replied, "No, let me explain this: You order the bullets. I shoot them. Get more bullets. I'm taking what you have."

Chalk up one stuffed Fobasaurus Rex head for O.  I love that guy.

Another sub-species of F. Rex has a fetish for reflective belts and specializes in smoking enforcement and ensuring that tower guards are completely miserable at all times. I have seen senior officers in this country perform acts of dereliction that in previous conflicts would have resulted in firing squads, and they get away with a medal. A young Specialist in a tower in a FOB that hasn't been shot at in ages takes off his helmet and gets an Article 15 and loses rank.

Justice?  Denied.

The main visual difference between the F. Rex varieties is a different stripe pattern.

Most supply and logistics people do amazing jobs to get the stuff that we need out to us. Most are nearly overwhelmed with the magnitude of their tasks. Most are hamstrung by the fact that we are the forgotten front. Everyone is preoccupied with Iraq, and we get what's left.

The civilian contractors up at BAF* who provided maintenance for our up-armors were the coolest people who have ever been born. If I needed blood for my power steering fluid, they would slice their own jugular to get it. Fabulous. Those guys deserve a medal.

We don't train our line units in counterinsurgency. We train them as maneuver units, and they are damned fine soldiers; the best in the world. However, they often don't play well with others. Treating your host country's forces with disdain is a huge mistake. I saw this mistake blatantly made out in The Valley by junior leaders. It made an impression on the men who I was working with, the Afghans. Everyone can tell when they are being disrespected, even in another language; and it is not a motivator. In fact, it is not a positive in any regard. To my Afghans, the American platoon making this major error did not look like a force that they wanted to emulate; they looked like assholes. Ugly Americans.

Those young Americans, even if they read this, would never put it together. They see nothing wrong with their behavior. They will go home and tell stories about how f'd-up the Afghans were. That's like making yourself look better by racing against a guy with broken legs. They will totally misrepresent the progress being made here and unwittingly perform the same function as PVT Beauchamp, degrading our efforts and calling into question the very reason why we are here.

Fortunately, they didn't see that from all the Americans they dealt with. The other small group of American combat forces out there were very patient and had a sense of humility. They were also a bit more elite. The higher the level of training and self-sufficiency at the small unit level, the more respect they showed for others.

It's a reflection of us as a nation, though. We are an isolationist, myopic country with tremendous arrogance and a complete misunderstanding of the depth of what we are involved in. We are not global citizens, but we are global consumers. The fact is that we do actually look down on the rest of the world. The rest of the world gazes back at us in amazement, wondering what in the hell we are thinking about to feel so self-righteous.

We should point with pride to the buttprints on our national couch.  We have given  the world 90210 and Baywatch. Oh, and music television and excessive consumerism. Fear us. Respect us.

We developed the sitcom. Don't ever forget that.

We don't have to give away the farm and please everyone, but there's a huge difference between pleasing everyone and treating them with disdain.

We need to look at our training model. We break young trainees of many other bad habits, but we reinforce the arrogance. There's something wrong here. Yeah, okay, you jump out of planes and you're a bad-ass...Have some humility, kid.

It starts with leadership.

I've seen a huge difference between how we are treated here and how the Russians were treated. Everyone fought against the Russians except the ones who worked for them. In this conflict, most of the people aren't fighting on either side. There are Taliban, and they have their supporters, and there are the ANA, who are enjoying a growing reputation among the populace, and then there are the local governments who vary greatly in effectiveness and ethics. The ANP, being local, often do not enjoy local favor due to corruption and shaking down the populace. We are working on that.

Be that as it may, a lot of mujihideen from the old days are sitting this one out. There are a lot of places where we see the remnants of old Russian vehicles and we never get attacked there. This is significant because the Afghans always use the same ambush points. They go with what has worked for hundreds of years.

On the other hand, the Russian response to being shot at from a village was to raze the village. We have to have an act of Congress for someone to drop a bomb. We pass out candy that doesn't kill and toys that don't explode. I think most of the Afghans can see the difference.

And, we have never gassed them; always a plus in the hearts and minds arena.

What else have I learned in the past eight months? I will have to reserve much of that for later, as I don't want to get into ranting at the nobility at this point. I've learned that I like Afghans... most of them, anyway. I've learned that I can do my job in this war. I've learned respect for the local national forces that I've worked with and I've earned their respect.

I've got one third of my tour left. And a wakeup. I'm sure that there's more that I've learned, but this was a little stream-of-consciousness, and now it's all receded like a wave from the high water mark. It seems like yesterday and ten years ago that I was looking with dismay at getting to the one-third-complete mark, wondering if I could really take it for that long. In about three weeks, I will become a "double digit midget" counting down to seeing the people who I know and love after having done my job.

No one can ever take this away from me. The biggest things that I have learned are inside. They are for and about me on the inside. I am tried and tested inside myself, and that's what really counts. I have seen myself in circumstances that I could only have imagined before (and a few that I could never have imagined) and I know what I do when the chips are down. That will be with me always. Many things can be taken from me, but not that.


*
TTP: Tactics, Techniques, and Procedures

SECFOR: Security Forces
CONOPS: Convoy Operations
BAF: Bagram Airfield

FINDING SANTA |

December 15, 2007

FINDING SANTA
Name:
RN Clara Hart
Posting date:
12/15/07
Stationed in
: a military hospital in the U.S.
Email: [email protected]
Milblog url
: mcneillysperspective.blogspot.com

“Ms. Clara?” came from the tiny voice at my side.

“Yes, Jonathan Matthew?” I responded.

“Do you think Santa will find me and Thomas here?” was the earnest question.

“Most definitely Santa will find you!” I assured my small friend. That comment was met with silence as the five-year-old boy contemplated the answer. The son of one of my wounded patients, he had climbed up to sit beside me as I sat in an alcove completing a chart.

“Are you sure, Ms. Clara?” pled Jonathan Matthew. “I mean, I’m not asking for me, you know? I’m asking for Thomas because he’d be really upset if Santa didn’t find him. He’s littler than me and this is his first Christmas." Thomas was Jonathan Matthew’s two-month-old brother. “Do you suppose you could talk to him for me?”

“Talk to who?” was my perplexed response.

“Santa, Clara. Santa!” Jonathan Matthew disgustedly exclaimed. I felt a lump start to form in my throat as I looked down into his earnest face.

Not quite sure how to respond, I was momentarily lost for words. Not getting an immediate response caused Jonathan Matthew to tell me, “My mom says you’re an angel on earth, so I figured since I know angels talk to God you’d be talking to God too. And if you’re talking to God you gotta be able to talk to Santa."

Oh Wow! Holy Hooeee. What do you say? Now I was truly at a complete and total loss for words and the lump in my throat had just grown. Eyes burning with tears, I cleared my throat and as I was ready to speak I saw Jonathan Matthew’s grandmother turn the corner. The expression on her face told me she had heard the conversation we were having.

“Hi, Grammie!” said this small boy, “Clara and me were talking about Santa and I was asking her to talk with him about making sure he found Thomas on Christmas," all his words ran together. “Cuz mom says she’s an angel here on earth so if there’s anyone who can talk to Santa I know it’s her. And since I know she already talks to God to help Daddy get better it should be easy for her to talk to Santa."

“Jonathan Matthew,” Grammie started to say. I quickly held up my hand to stop her flow of words.

“I’ll tell you what, Jonathan Matthew..." My voice broke and I had to clear my throat before continuing. “I’ll make absolutely sure Santa finds you and Thomas."

"Cuz you’re an angel here on earth and you can do things like that, right?"

“Well, I’m not sure about the 'angel here on earth', but let’s just say I know the right people."

“Ok, Ms. Clara, if you say so I know it will happen." He leaned over, wrapped his small arms around my neck and squeezing said, “I don’t care what you say, you’re my daddy’s angel and I love you."  With that proclamation he abandoned his seat next to mine, grabbed his Grammie’s hand saying, “Let’s go tell Thomas Ms. Clara is gonna make sure Santa finds him." Tears in her eyes she gazed at me, a silent “thank you” forming on her lips as she turned and followed Jonathan Matthew down the hall.

Trust me when I say I will do everything in my power to make sure two little boys receive a visit from Santa, if I have to go rent the red suit and beard myself!

PEACE OUT |

December 13, 2007

PEACE OUT
Name: Alex Horton
Posting date: 12/13/07
Returned from: Iraq
Hometown: Frisco, Texas
Milblog url: armyofdude.blogspot.com
Email: [email protected]

On August 4, 2004, I turned my back on my family. They dropped me off at a hotel in Dallas so I could begin my Army career. As I walked toward the door, my dad said to me, "You're a man now, Alex." They didn't see that as I checked in, I had tears in my eyes. I'd had a few jobs before then, but it would be the first time leaving home. Needless to say, my environment was going to change a little.

I signed up for three years and sixteen weeks. The sixteen weeks accounted for basic training and infantry school. The three year countdown started when I graduated on November 24, 2004. I got my orders to go to Ft. Lewis, Washington to be in the "Stryker brigade". Well, what in the hell was a Stryker?

Pulling into Seattle for the first time, I was a little startled. I never saw trees so green and water so blue. I figured I'd like this place.

It took only a few months to find out the Army wasn't for me. I was among a group of new guys that was integrated into a unit that had just gotten back from Iraq. That meant hazing, and a lot of it! Since we hadn't been to Iraq, they had a free pass to do whatever they wanted. They laughed and joked while we crawled down hallways with our faces dragging on the floor, grinding the dirt and dust that came off our boots. I made it a point to stay in my room, even abstaining from using the bathroom.

It was from this treatment that the new guys formed a bond that we would carry throughout the years. Some moved up in the ranks and became one of 'those guys', others couldn't get past the paradoxical Army life.

To kill time during that first year, we would go out into a field and lay down white tape on the grass to simulate rooms of a building. They would show us how to clear a room and then have us try. Finishing up for the day, one of them said to me, "By the way, that isn't how we clear houses in Iraq, at all."

"Then why don't we train in the real way?" I asked. "Isn't this just a waste of time?"

"Shut the fuck up."

For those of us who couldn't stop ourselves from asking the ever important "Why?", we counted the days until we fulfilled our obligation, resisting the calls to reenlist before, during and after our tour in Iraq. Some fell for the not so subtle coercion and blackmail, sadly. The rest banded together to wait it out.

Framed_dude_peaceout_1_2

Personifying 'Army of Dude': Long hair and hands in the pockets. From left to right: Steve, Dozer and me in Yakima, 2005

Everyone has heard the saying that war is boring with short bursts of intensity. Imagine how exciting it is to train for one! Making two trips to eastern Washington, we would find out. There were a few intense, realistic missions spread out among two weeks of freezing weather and sitting around.

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Attention taxpayers: This is how we spend your money. Ta da!

It was these moments that made all the unbearable times a little easier to take. Inside jokes were born. Arguments and debates went on without end. Friendships flourished. We were together all the time in cramped quarters, getting to know each other better than our own friends and families back home. Our speech patterns and slang words were interchangeable. We'd be going to Iraq as a family.

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Before the loss of innocence. Kuwait 2006

More of those boring moments crept up throughout the deployment with a certain element of danger. We'd stay at an outpost for a couple days at a time away from decent bathrooms, internet and phones. We'd complain the whole time but managed to keep up the jokes and friendly arguments. Chessboards would come out and crowds formed around heated matches.

Our platoon once drew a mission to escort some guys north of Mosul to an open desert. They would be looking in abandoned bunkers for signs of WMDs and weapons material. After a while we decided to get out and walk up a hill overlooking a village in the distance. Realizing we were dozens of miles from anyone important, we took off our helmets.

Framed_dude_peaceout_4

Dudes on break from left to right: Me, Dozer, Matt and Jesse


The rest of the deployment after Mosul wasn't all fun and posing. In Baghdad and Baqubah, our men lost limbs and minds. Chevy was killed in March, and Jesse (pictured above) was killed in April by a sniper. We spent days shoved into tiny rooms of the outposts we created, carrying on the friendships we had left.

On September 12, 2007, Bravo company returned to the States without two of our own. The guys getting out by the end of November would start the process of paperwork and mandatory briefs. As always, we did this together. On November 30, we would say our final goodbyes.

I spent three years, three months and twenty five days in the Army. I saw the best and the worst of the men this country has to offer. I have seen and experienced every extreme of the human condition. I saw and did things I'm proud of, and other things I would only tell the guys I was with. Fifty years of life experience were crammed into 173 weeks.

I'm often asked if I would ever do it again with the hindsight I have now. I would, only for the people I've met. The other parts of Army life made me leave. I'm just another vet now, full of memories and a shorter temper. However you take the contents of this blog, I'm satisfied with how my short career went down. I just miss my friends, alive and dead.

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A LIFELINE HOME |

December 12, 2007

A LIFELINE HOME
Name: SANDBOX DUTY OFFICER David Stanford
Posting date: 12/12/07

This audio story by Fitz Cahall appears on his interview website, dirtbagdiaries.com. We appreciate his giving us permission to post it here:

Framed_cahall_climbwall_2 There was nothing exceptional about how Ryan Utz and Micah Helser became friends. After nodding at each other in the office hallways for weeks, they happened to discover that they shared an interest in sustainable building. They got to talking and pretty soon found that they also shared a love for climbing and the great outdoors. While the beginnings of their friendship sound average, the circumstances were anything but.

Micah and Ryan were members of Charlie Company, a medevac unit serving the Baghdad area. Together, they were responsible for shepherding the wounded and the dead from Iraq’s battlefields to the hospital in a Blackhawk helicopter. They cared for fellow soldiers, Iraqi police and the civilians who got caught in the midst of the violence. In the process of saving others, they dodged bullets and mortar rounds.

In the long empty hours between shifts and missions, they needed to find a way to escape back to the things they loved the most. So in a flat, arid country, they set out to do the one thing that might seem impossible -– to go climbing.

Today we bring you the tale of two friends -- both climbers, both soldiers -- and their quest to create a lifeline back from the frontlines to the things that matter the most -– friends, family and that freedom found only in open spaces. We are headed to the world’s most improbable climbing wall. This is Camp Taji.

Click Here To Listen

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I WASN'T PREPARED |

December 11, 2007

I WASN'T PREPARED
Name: Old Blue
Posting date: 12/11/07
Stationed in: Afghanistan
Hometown: Cincinnati, Ohio
Milblog url: billandbobsadventure.blogspot.com

I had to hurry to get to Atlanta by 1300 so that I could in-process for a flight that boards at 1815 this evening. Typical. Hurry up and wait. God bless the United States Army.

The wonderful people of the USO provide free wireless internet, which I am now gratefully using to post to the Adventure as I wait for my flight back to the war.

I had prepared for saying goodbye to my children. I set a calm and cheerful example, and being prepared for it kept my emotions more manageable. My kids did pretty well with it, and I'm pretty sure that being calm myself really made a difference for them. I was prepared to say goodbye to my family. It's not easy, but it's something that you know is coming. It's like when you know that you're going to get an innoculation; the pain isn't a surprise.

I was prepared for traveling in uniform. Every soldier has been out in the public in uniform and knows that feeling of being something of a curiosity. It's like being a circus clown; people don't see the person inside, they just see a circus clown.

When people see you in uniform in public, they just see a soldier. That's why we have the responsibility to maintain the dignity of our uniform.

I would like to say that I've been nothing but supported when people have seen that soldier and it's me inside. People have said many kind and supportive things. People have shaken my hand and wished me luck. People have told me that they pray for me and for all of us (prayers are always welcome!).

But I wasn't prepared for what happened today.

As my flight from Cincinnati to Atlanta was beginning its descent, the flight attendant began her normal spiel about landing and gates, and assistance finding your connecting flights and so on. Then she announced that I was on board and on my way back to Afghanistan after spending two weeks with my family.

The plane erupted into applause. I was stunned.

I nearly burst into tears. My emotions, barely contained under the thin fabric of my ACU uniform, rushed towards the surface and nearly made it out. Somehow, I managed to keep it all together, but it was close.

We arrived in Atlanta with only about half an hour before my report time to the USO for processing for my flight to Shannon, Ireland and then Kuwait. I had to get a quick nicotine fix and find something to eat. At the USO they formed us up, probably 200 or more of us, and took us downstairs in two long lines. Soldiers and Marines paired two by two in a long line snaked through the airport towards the Army Personnel Command desk to do our formalities. As we wove through the airport, the throngs of travelers began to applaud.

I wasn't prepared for that, either. Again, I struggled not to lose it. It was like cracking the seal on a warm, freshly shaken coke. All the bubbles rush towards the cap, bringing the contents of the bottle along. That's what it felt like. I managed to keep all my fluids contained; but it was another close call.

How could I be so prepared for saying goodbye to my children that I could put a brave and cheerful face on, and nearly lose it when perfect strangers applaud?

100 DAYS |

December 10, 2007

100 DAYS
Name: SPC Beaird
Posting date: 12/10/07
Stationed in: Afghanistan
Milblog url: allexpensespaidafghanvacation

100 days until I am home.

100 days until I can have a tasty, cold beer.

100 days until I can see the face of a woman and not think it is a rare sight.

100 days until I don't have to bring a gun and wear body armor and a helmet each time I go "out".

100 days until I can travel down a road without wondering if a culvert, pothole, parked car, or pile of rocks is going to explode as I pass by.

100 days until I don't have to analyze people and cars up and down, looking for weapons or signs they may be a threat or a suicide bomber.

100 days until I will no longer be woken up in the middle of the night because someone is attacking the place I call home, or we're being spun up for a QRF mission at any hour.

100 days until I see my family and friends again.

100 days until I am home.

Framed_beaird_mtns_2I am glad to say we are now under the 100-days-remaining milestone for being in country. It’s hard to imagine I have been here for eight and a half months, and that it’s been 11 months since I left home to start our mobilization training at Fort Bragg. We’ve gotten word about our replacements coming and I can say I should be home in Arizona by the end of March -- maybe the first week of April at the latest (nothing is ever set in stone in the Army). We have also heard that with the new National Guard and Reservist deployments that the total deployable time will be reduced from the standard 15 months to 12 months max, including mobilization time -- meaning they’ll probably only be in country for 10 months. Lucky bastards.

Many higher ups will say soldiers on deployments become complacent or start to let their guard down once hitting the 100 day mark. Maybe this is true somewhat, but I assure you that I and my platoon and PRT* are just as vigilant when we go outside the wire as when we first arrived. I think what changes after being here so long in this environment is that much of the “shock” value for certain things that we experience or hear about from intel briefings has worn down to a certain extent. I can see the light at the end of the tunnel. Now I just have to make it through a cold Afghan winter.

We had our first rain in over two months, which left a good sight on the surrounding mountains: snow. A sign we’re that much closer to leaving. When we first arrived in April there was still snow on the caps of the mountains, and with the recent drop in temperatures I imagine the snowfall from a couple days ago will be there until next spring.

Here is a video slideshow I put together from pictures of our first three months in country.

* PRT: Physical Reconstruction Team, a mix of Army and Air Force whose mission is rebuilding infrastructure (water, dams, roads, electricity), local government, health facilities, and schools. My infantry platoon makes up the security forces side for the PRT, accompanying civil affairs teams on various missions, among other duties while in theater.

 

 

THE ULTIMATE SACRIFICE |

December 07, 2007

THE ULTIMATE SACRIFICE
Name: Eddie
Posting date: 12/7/07
Stationed in: Iraq
Milblog url: airborneparainf82.blogspot.com

It is a trying time for the soldiers of our company as another one of our brothers made the ultimate sacrifice, trying to bring peace and freedom to a nation that has not seen such a thing. His platoon was attacked by a faceless, cowardly enemy who will do anything to prevent such a bright future for their country.

I was a part of the QRF (Quick Reaction Force) that was called up immediately after the attack. It was chaos getting up, ready, and out to do what we could to help our fellow soldiers and friends. There was no hesitation, and the words struck deep into us as we were told "They've been hit by an IED! They have casualties!" We were in such a mode that got things happening FAST, despite the chaos, confusion and worries.

By the time we got to the scene another unit was there and had secured the area. Our guys had already rushed off with the wounded soldiers, so we went to recover the vehicle. Once we had the truck back, a couple other team leaders and I made sure to keep the soldiers away, and began to sort through everything and recover important equipment that was left behind.

From the sight of the vehicle and the way things looked inside, I can only imagine the chaos that had fallen upon the guys in that convoy. One of my friends was the TC (Truck Commander) of that vehicle and he suffered some minor injuries. My heart goes out to him, the other guys in the truck that were hurt, as well as all the guys in that convoy and our company. We learned not too long after we had the vehicle back that SPC Matthew K. Reece had been killed. There was utter disbelief. They weren't sure if another soldier in the truck was going to make it or not. Thanks to the great job of the soldiers and their medic that day, he will live.

It seemed things had been going well lately, and with the end of our deployment nearing, a lot of us had felt that we would ride the rest of the deployment out without incident. But just like that everything changed. Once again the true nature of this war and our enemy came back to haunt us, and the men of Charlie company have to endure the pain and emotions of another lost soldier.

Although he may no longer be with us here physically, Reece will live on in the hearts and minds of the soldiers who were lucky enough to serve with him.

May God watch over you and your family and know we are thinking of you and your sacrifice down here.

UR |

December 06, 2007

UR
Name: SPC Freeman
Posting date: 12/6/07
Stationed in: Iraq
Milblog url: calmbeforethesand.blogspot.com

The Ziggurat of Ur. Built on the edges of the al-Hijarah Desert in the early 2100's B.C.E., it once served as both a temple and a royal crypt for the Sumerian city of Urim. For half a millennia, it towered over the banks of the Euphrates River, the highest point in a crowded, walled city. Despite being only four kilometers in width, it housed an estimated 250,000 people.

If the historical accounts are accurate, then perhaps as a child the Semitic prophet Abraham would have been able to stare west from the rooftop patio of his merchant father's well-appointed mansion, and see it atop the hill. Perhaps he stood watching worshippers and royal priests as they climbed the stairs, preparing to offer their devotions to the Sumerian moon-goddess, Nanna. Perhaps he closed his eyes, listening to the songs of prayer and supplication. But who can say. The rivers of Eden have shifted away now by miles. All that remain of the region's once-lush deltas are the fine dust -- once lowland silt -- of Iraqi sand, and the impressions left by woven reed, used to strengthen the tar between Sumerian bricks.

The city, long abandoned, lies half-excavated from the layers of dust which have since entombed it. What was simply an unassuming ridge before British archaeologists came now reveals the Pompeiian memory of a long-dead city. But where fire murdered Pompeii, It was wind and sand left Urim to slowly wither.

There is a bus that leaves LSA Adder several times weekly, chartered by the local Chaplain's office. It transports groups of Coalition soldiers and contractors out to the site where the bones of Ur now rest. It is an uneventful drive; a winding road that twists and turns for several minutes over the desert hardpan, before depositing its passengers at the foot of the Ziggurat. There was a commotion, several years ago, when over the American news it was revealed that the Ziggurat had opened to tourists. The area had been off-limits to visitors since the 1980s, when Saddam Hussein established Tallil Air Base during his ongoing war with Iran. Given the view afforded from the crumbled top of the site, I can see why. The structure rises over a hundred feet out of the surrounding plains, so it would make a perfect position from which to scout the installation.

Still, when I depart the bus, I immediately notice the amount of tourism-related infrastructure -- rather, the complete lack of it -- and feel heartened. I may be walking on this soil as an admitted occupier, but I take some comfort in the fact that, at least for now, we haven't completely soiled this land with our consumerist feces. There are about fifty of us; American soldiers, all. We stand around in an awkward circle; talking, joking, nervously eyeing the horizons. Our area is peaceful enough so that we can move about, for the moment, unencumbered. Still, old habits die hard.

After several minutes, we are greeted by a small, thin Iraqi man, a Chaldean Christian. Looks to be about fifty, wears a white dress shirt and gray slacks. He sports a Hard Rock Cafe baseball cap, and displays a trimmed, salt-and-pepper beard. He greets us in clear, albeit severely broken English. When he speaks, his bird-lipped mouth displays a jagged array of greyish, decaying teeth. He spends several minutes briefing us about the tour, making small talk. After this, he gestures toward the Ziggurat behind him. He launches into a well-rehearsed lecture about the history of Urim (Or Ur-Namu, as some call it, or Ur of the Chaldees), telling us about the age and origins of the city. Using a homemade Powerpoint bound in looseleaf, he gives us a host of various facts about the city -- rulers, economy, relevance in the Abrahamic religions, decay, rediscovery.

I can't help grinning. Despite his mangling of the English language, he speaks clearly and manages to remain at once both entertaining and serious. He jokes with us as he points out various landmarks, and after a brief debate asks us which we desire to see first -- the Ziggurat, or the tombs and city itself. We choose the City -- best for last is the reasoning. We soon learn that our tour guide's grandfather worked with the first British excavation crews during the early 20th century. When the British left, the property was left to his family, then later taken by Hussein. When Hussein disappeared and his government fell, the grandson, himself now an old man, was waiting.

The rest of the tour is a blur. We wander first into the City, moving over ridges that expose rooms, houses jutting out of ancient gullies. It looks surreal. We are taken over the foundations of the Royal Palace, a two-foot high layer of brick all that remains of the once-sprawling structure. After this, the Crypts, deep chambers of brick, built underground and smelling strong of guano. The blur of facts and anecdotes given by our guide whirls around my head -- if only people could see this as I do. Who am I kidding, though, I think to myself. I know as well as anyone that most of the Americans I know couldn't care less. They'd look at the one lonely souvenir stand, the emptiness of the surrounding terrain, and deride it as a "tourist trap." These days, if it doesn't have at least one roller-coaster and a Burger King, it's not worth seeing.

Shit, even the military bases here in Iraq have Burger King.

This first portion of the tour lasts for perhaps an hour. We go at last to the rebuilt foundations of the House of Abraham, and here is where I see the things that amaze me most. Here are winding, cobbled streets, and mud-brick buildings of most unusual design. Here are courtyards and terraces along the streets which, if I close my eyes, I can imagine as being dotted with potted date-palm and olive trees, lit by torchlight in the evening hours. We're told that the House was refurbished for a visit by Pope John Paul in 1999, which was canceled after Hussein changed his mind and banned the Pope from entry into the country. Ironic, considering the primarily Christian (if not Catholic) make-up of this region of Iraq, the only like it almost anywhere.

We spend half an hour wandering the rooms of the House of Abraham. Doors, stairways, and secret passages abound. I close my eyes as I enter each room -- here a kitchen, here servants'-quarters, here a hash-parlor, there a bedroom or atrium. It is strange, to have History look in you in the face. I felt this way in Germany, too, me the American, with my fleeting sense of the past, two centuries seeming ancient until considering forty-two. I wonder if anyone else thinks these things as I do. I wonder about when THIS -- this house, this city and all its life -- was the present, the sun rising on a new morning in Ur, with its chores for the servants and the rush and shout of the merchants going to market. I think of bidoun wanderers (the name meaning "without" in modern Arabic), and think of them as the only thing which ties this place to its long-dead history.

I wander with Sergeant Mueller and SPC Elder, taking pictures and pointing as we go. SSG Mueller gets a shot of me atop a wall, grinning and flashing a "Bloods" gang-sign. Slowly, we filter out of the House, making our way along the edges of the excavated Lesser City, back past the Crypts and the Palace, back toward the Ziggurat. A few minutes pass, during which the collected soldiers chat, smoke, and mill about aimlessly. I look at the wandering hands, the bulging cargo pockets, the way nobody dispenses with a butt by dropping it on the ground. I normally deride such unconscious acts as the product of Boy-Scout military conditioning, but in this place I am pleased. Let none drop their trash here, I think.

SSG Mueller threatens to drop the last soldier up the imposing stone stairway, and so we oblige, Elder and I, laughing and trying not to elbow each other as we race upward, grinning like a pair of seventh-graders. It's tough -- the stairs are steeper than they look -- but soon enough I'm at the top. I pause to catch my breath. Behind and below me, others are talking and laughing as they climb. I wobble a bit; the wind up here is stiff and strong, and the heat of ground level is nowhere to be felt.

A strange silence falls over the gathered warrior-tourists. People wander and take pictures as before, but a hush has descended, people trying to whisper over the wind. We stand on the crumbled remnants of the second level, some eighty feet up. The third and fourth levels, which housed a veranda and roofed altar, have long since fallen. To the south, LSA Adder, a huge fenced enclosure of tents and trailers. Military traffic rumbles to and fro along the streets, too distant to be heard. To the East, the Euphrates, now dammed and girded with electric-line towers. And to the north and west, endless hardpan, cracked and split by lonely roads. Truly, I think that I have never understood the desert until now. We linger for I don't know how long, but I keep to myself, lost in thought. I feel a strange loneliness, a sadness at the state of this place. Mostly untouched, to my relief, but parked forlorn, a tourist attraction for a foreign army. A scrap of history open only to a conqueror like myself; a note from Time's dusty record, a collection of bricks making a statement in a language none understand; a message that endures long after everything it once stood for has faded.

I stand atop that place for a long time, facing south and west. The wind tugs at my patrol cap, howls untranslatable admonishments in my ear. To the south, Adder coils silently in the desert sun, and from here it seems so impermanent, so transitory. How long, I wonder, will it be before the memory of this place is lost to the dust, and our presence with it? How long before we are forgotten, and will it matter? The Ziggurat, I think, will remain standing long after Adder's tent-pole ribs bleach in the sun. Its people, its creators, they too have been forgotten, but the Ziggurat is not.

It speaks, even now, and there are none to translate what it says.

There is no need.

HAMID STORIES |

December 05, 2007

HAMID STORIES
Name: CAPT Doug Traversa
Posting date: 12/05/07
Returned from: Kabul, Afghanistan
Hometown: Tullahoma, TN
Milblog url: traversa.typepad.com
Email: [email protected]

Continuing to look through the archives now that I'm home, I found these Hamid stories:

The massive snows of the winter led to equally massive melting of snow in the spring. As a result of all this runoff, Hamid’s house was slowly sliding down the mountainside it was situated on. Apparently the walls were starting to separate, and the mud brick wall that surrounded his yard was also
suffering damage. I questioned him about his home at length. His house is over 100 years old, and made out of the inferior sun-dried mud bricks, so it leaks when it rains. The roof is flat and supported with wooden beams, so it is not in any danger of collapsing.

Talking about the house led to this conversation:

“Hamid, do you have any photographs of your house you could bring in?”

He shook his head. “No, sorry.”

“Too bad. I really wish I could come to your house and visit. I would love to see it and meet your family.” As I said this, it suddenly occurred to me that I would not be able to meet all of his family. “Hey, if I came to your home, would I be allowed to talk to your mother and sister-in-law?”

Hamid laughed. “But my mother doesn’t speak English.”

“I know that. But could I talk to her through you? Would I even be allowed to see her, or be in the same room?”

“No, she would have to go in another room.”

“And you only have two rooms, so she and your sister-in-law have to go hide in the other room while we visit. Is that right?”

“You are right. When my friends come to visit, they must go in the other room. If you are very close friends, you may speak briefly to the women, but just to give greetings, then they leave.”

I wish I could say this surprised me, but it doesn’t anymore. This is the Afghan way.

“If no one is visiting your home, and you are all home alone as a family, how may women dress? Are they still required to show only their face and hands?”

“No, if we are alone, they may dress as they wish,” Hamid replied.

“So does either of the women in your home like to wear western clothes?” I asked.

“My mother is very old, so she always wears traditional clothes. My sister-in-law likes to wear Indian clothes sometimes. She does not need to cover her head or face in the house,” he explained.

“So she has to cover her face when she goes out? Is this Afghanistan or Islam?” I was surprised to hear she had to cover her face.

Hamid probably thought I was being a bit dense. “Sir, as I have told you, Islam says a woman may show her face. However, many in Afghanistan only allow the women to show their eyes, as they do in Saudi Arabia. Actually, it is the husband’s choice.”

“So your brother requires her to dress like this?” I wanted to make sure I had my facts straight.

“Yes. He believes other men will look at his wife if she shows her face.” By this he meant “lustfully look at".

“If you were married, how would you let your wife dress?”

“She could show her face. I am not worried that other men would look at her.”

On another topic, we were reading the paper at lunch (two of my hutmates had joined us) and were discussing a recent suicide bombing. The AP story from the Stars and Stripes discussed the bombing and another attack, and then added a comment to the effect that the current government was widely regarded as more corrupt than the Taliban or the Russian-allied government.

Why would this sort of comment be added to an article about suicide bombings? It is dead wrong, at least based on what I’ve heard. I asked Hamid if the current government was more corrupt than the other two. He did not think so.

“Do most Afghans think this is the worst government?” I continued.

“No, not at all.”

“Of the three governments, which one do most people like the best?”

“The current one.”

“Well, this reporter says that most Afghans think this government is the most corrupt of all.”

Hamid snorted. “This is not true.”

This is hardly a statistically significant survey, but it does jive with what I’ve heard from others. Why would a reporter feel the need to insert such a comment? How would would a reporter know what "most Afghans" think about anything? I suspect that surveys around here, if they are conducted at all, are dodgy affairs at best. And if a reporter had, say, a liberal bias and hated the current administration, might they not want to put everything in a bad light? Luckily, news no longer needs to go through the media filters. Isn’t blogging grand?

REMEMBERING |

December 04, 2007

REMEMBERING
Name: Soldierswife
Posting date: 12/4/07
Husband returned from: Iraq
Milblog url: soldierlife.com

Today I was reading a book that brought back some memories of Husband's deployment.

It was talking about soldiers going to the showers after an explosion near the base had woken everyone up. I remember A.S.* telling me how he would shower every few days. I would joke with him about how gross that sounded. And he would assure me he was using extra deodorant in between those days.

Or the times when we got to see each other on vid cam. I would watch him pack his gear before a mission.

Or unpack afterwards. I remember seeing his room behind him -- the snacks sent from home, the cards from the kids. How I felt so lonely without him. And how he must feel without us. I remember watching him go to sleep on numerous occasions. It was nice to see him slip into bed, pull up the covers, blow me a kiss for night, and fall asleep. It made me feel closer to him. After that I would go back to bed knowing he was in the same place as me.

Or one night I was talking to him and all I could hear in the background was gunfire. And then the phone went dead. He called me back to say things were not so quiet that night. I remember wondering how anyone could sleep through all of that.

Then there was the time he said he really wanted me to send him his favorite -- scoops and salsa. So I did. But by the time it got there the box had been dropped and the salsa jar cracked. He said it was wet and smelled of salsa. But he was glad that I at least tried to get it to him.

And every now and again I will hear songs that make me think of his being gone. There’s one by Rascal Flats, “What Hurts the Most." That one never fails to bring me to the verge of tears.

It’s amazing that he's been home a year and a half and I can still be brought to tears thinking about him being gone. And how small things make me remember what it was like while he was gone.

* A.S.: American Soldier

THE VOICE OF GOD |

December 03, 2007

THE VOICE OF GOD
Name: The Usual Suspect
Posting date: 12/3/07
Stationed in: Iraq
Milblog url: theunlikelysoldier.blogspot.com

A fierce and angry, soul-snatching claw wraps around my ankle and jerks at my sleeping bag. I look over my shoulder with perma-sealed sleep eyes and my headphones fall halfway off of my head.

"Wake up, CO needs one vehicle crew to be ready to roll in 20 minutes."

I look at the clock on my computer. The math doesn't add up, because wake-up was supposed to be 0630, but it is clearly two in the morning. No, something about this doesn't add up at all.

I put my uniform on in a stupor, wondering what the hell the deal is. Today's mission was supposed to be another routine borefest, but not in the small hours of the morning. Bullshit.

Out at the trucks, we suck down tiny cans of RipIt, the Army's outsourced energy fuel since RedBull is made by liberal Nazis or something. We wait to leave, rubbing the hibernation sickness out of our eyes.

Standing out of the air guard hatch, flying down the road in the middle of the night with my NODs on (the nightvision shit), the whole world has this bizarre surreal feeling to it. The street lights in the distance along with all the other ambient light create strange glows, and the scenery is all hues of green passing by at 40 miles an hour.

We reach our destination and the ramp drops. I pile out and throw the sling over my shoulder, then start scanning for that boogeyman that isn't even there. We begin our walk to our target. Nightvision in one eye, dim street lights and shadows in the other. Speakers on top of buildings crackle and begin to play.

It's a man alone singing in Arabic. The singing comes in starts and stops, in bursts. The pause...then the next line or verse. It's that haunting Middle Eastern style, the blatantly religious one man choir. Call to Prayer? Or Call to Arms?

My shadow follows me along the walls of courtyards. From the corner of my eye I can see my reflection, all that gear, the rifle, the helmet, and the nightvision optic jutting out. I'm carrying a loadout worth more than my entire enlistment bonus.

The voice starts and stops and we go about our friendly American-style wakeup procedures. Five Star Hotel in nature.

They have some interesting music that creates an odd mood. But then again, so do we...

It is mid afternoon and I am slouching in the back of one of our trucks. We have rigged up speakers and a subwoofer, and I've brought my laptop to plug in so we can have some music on another long and boring day. Until a surprise command of "Dismount" slaps me out of my stupor.

"The Mark Has Been Made" by Nine Inch Nails (featured in the film Man On Fire) is playing as the ramp lowers. Just as the song gets cold and ugly and the drums kick in to deliver that ragged badass moment, we step off of the truck.

An old man with the headdress and all is sitting twenty feet away from us, staring. Kids were running around in the field -- now all their eyes are fixed on us. I wonder what kind of moment they had.


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