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.

YOU DESERVE THIS |

February 29, 2008

YOU DESERVE THIS
Name: SPC Beaird
Posting date: 2/29/08
Stationed in: Afghanistan
Milblog
: allexpensespaidafghanvacation             

A few weeks ago we had our monthly “town hall” meeting for our PRT (Provincial Reconstruction Team), where our commander usually puts out new information, addresses any problems going on, rumors are put to rest (I swear the rumors that fly around here are worse than among a group of kids in junior high), and awards are often given out. There were quite a few awards this time, mainly from the events back in November when we caught and detained a few high value Taliban, and from a day when some faceless cowards tried to blow up one of the trucks in our convoy during a rotation at our outpost.

For the missions that resulted in capturing the group of bad guys, some of the leadership were given ARCOMs (Army Commendation Medals). For the IED ambush, all those who were there were given CIBs (Combat Infantryman Badges). For the infantry, the CIB is one of the most sought after badges. It shows you have been in the thick of things, being “under hostile fire”, and deserve a certain level of respect. The requirements were changed to include the IEDs used in today’s wars, although occasionally certain high-ranking fobbits un-deservingly write themselves in for a CAB (Combat Action Badge) for being a mile away from a mortar hitting on the complete opposite side of some base.

Framed_beaird_browning_cib_3 Every time we wear the CIB it represents the first time we saw contact. Fortunately for the group that received their CIB that day it will never be associated with any casualties or harm to our guys. Mine will always be tied to the day the war became real and we lost one of our strongest soldiers. I’d give it back in a heartbeat to erase what happened.

We had a dedication ceremony last week for the newly remodeled gym here on our FOB. It was dedicated to SSG Charles Browning of our platoon, who was killed in action June 1st of last year by an IED. After he died there were plans for renaming the gym in his honor, but we were waiting until we got some new equipment in and the gym could be remodeled and officially reopened under his name. The chaplain began the ceremony, and Browning’s squad leader, SSG P, who was in the convoy with us when Browning died, came up to speak. It was good to have this man speak, as he wasn’t able to give any words during the original memorial ceremony we had in June because he had escorted Browning’s body back to the U.S and was there for the funeral.

Framed_beaird_browning_ceremony_2 I have a lot of respect for SSG P, for being able to go up and talk in front of everybody about Browning and how great a friend, a soldier, and a leader he was. I don’t think I could have held it together for a speech like that. It’s bad enough to lose a fellow soldier while out on a mission, but SSG P was not only Browning’s squad leader, he was his best friend of 20 years.

They joined the Army together, were stationed together, went to Iraq on their previous deployment together, joined the Guard, and then for this deployment Browning volunteered when he heard his best friend would be going to Afghanistan. When asked why he had volunteered, Browning said it was because SSG P was going, and he had to be there to watch his back.  How many people can say they have had a friend like that?

SSG P said there’s not a day that goes by that he doesn’t think about June 1st in one way or another. (Me too.) But despite all of the horrors of that day, he never wants to forget it, because to forget it would mean to forget the sacrifice Browning made that day. Well said. It was a heartfelt ceremony, tough but good.

Browning had spent a lot of time in the gym while here. He was training for a marathon for when we get home this summer. That's one of the reasons for renaming the gym after him. Our platoon is planning to accomplish part of his goal by running in the Pat Tillman run when we get back, in his honor. The gym looks great and an awesome dedication plaque, hand-made by one of our soldiers, now hangs inside.

We miss you man, you deserve this. And much more.

NINE MONTHS IN THE REAR VIEW MIRROR |

February 28, 2008

NINE MONTHS IN THE REAR VIEW MIRROR
Name: Adrian B.
Posting date: 2/28/08   
Stationed in: Afghanistan
Milblog url: The Satirist at War

In his book Infantry Attacks, Erwin Rommel discusses the feeling one experiences upon leaving one's first unit; the unit that forms most of one's ideas about leadership. I'd already experienced that gut-wrenching feeling during training in Germany, when our Company Executive Officer was (correctly) fired for gross incompetence, and I, as the Senior Platoon Leader, was moved into his position, saying goodbye to the Platoon I'd trained and trained with for eight months.

My Platoon Sergeant had already left the unit, which was hard too; he was, as NCOs go, an outstanding mentor and tutor, and the whole thing felt sudden and contrived. As Rommel observed nearly a century ago, this is the way of Armies; leaders are constantly rotated through different positions, for professional development and as a way of keeping fresh ideas and motivation in circulation. Make no mistake; I don't have enough time in the Army to make any kind of criticism about how personnel moves are conducted, and it seems that these moves are always justified. All I'm saying is that change, and movement away from the soldiers one has grown to know, intimately, is unimaginably difficult.

So I come to the story at hand. After a year and a half with the only unit I've ever known in the Army, the powers that be said "enough is enough", and moved me to a new unit, a horizontal move into a more difficult logistical position. Suffice it to say that the new position has been equal parts challenging and rewarding; new location, different scenery, more responsibility, more latitude to implement our Commander's vision. And, for the moment, more patrolling. So many faces had joined and left my old Company since last July when I joined it, that it didn't even feel like I was leaving C Company. It felt like I was the last one to board a ship departing for the New World.

Since leaving two weeks ago, I've had enough physical and emotional distance to think about certain events, and today I wanted to write about one of those, because it's been on my mind a lot lately, and not in a good way. It's one of many things that's been contributing to a low, low mood; the inexorable advance of old age, an impossibly frustrating inability to be present for the people I love during their moments of hardship and crisis (my grandfather died during an operation, the last person in our family that had any direct knowledge of what I'm going through right now), and the fact that I cannot properly court the woman I love from the mountain valley prison I call home. Add to this angst and ennui the realization that when I return to the problems of civilization, I will certainly yearn for this time and place, and wonder why I took its beauty for granted.

But here's the thing I'm remembering now -- and getting off my chest, because along with everything else it's been putting me in a rotten mood and I can't do anything about "everything else". A few months ago, we were doing a patrol (really more of a simple escort), delivering gravel to reduce dust-off on a regular HLZ* site. The gravel was needed, on short notice, and we happened to have some jingle truck drivers sitting around after a delivery, so I took it upon myself to convince them to make the trip. It was a hard sell, but in the end, after appealing to their pocketbooks and their patriotism, they agreed to make the dangerous trip. Once.

Six loads of gravel wasn't going to do much, but it would be better than nothing, and I figured that after the first successful trip, it'd be easier to convince them that there was nothing to worry about.

But as it turned out, there was an IED in the road. My vehicle and two other HMMWVs rolled right over it without setting it off. One of the jingle trucks wasn't so lucky, and the IED blew up its cab and sent the poor driver flying through the air like a broken rag doll, to land in a heap 40 meters away. This driver's brother was in the convoy, and the brother was in such bad shape that he fainted. I'd never seen someone faint before, and had actually been under the impression that fainting didn't exist. A liberal female teacher had made us read several articles proving that "fainting" was some kind of hysteria limited to Victorian Era Women, and somehow was a tool used by the patriarchal establishment to keep women down. Anyway, when this dude saw what remained of his brother's body, he totally fainted.

We established security and chased down a couple shepherds who were, as it turned out, simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. The Afghan Police questioned them and established their innocence and they were released to their tribe.

It's my reaction to the event that's been on my mind. At the time, I remember feeling an extraordinary mixture of relief and horror; relief that the heap of skin and blood and shattered bones lying on the side of the road wasn't me, horror that said heap used to be a person, and that that person had, not an hour ago, expressed misgivings about driving such a dangerous stretch of road, concerns that I'd dismissed out of hand as frivolous, and which I'd had the audacity to ameliorate with cash.

Since that time, I've protected myself by saying or thinking things like: "Well, he bought it cheap," or "Guess he should've gone with his gut, instead of grabbing for the money," like it's his fault; or, quite obviously, like it's not my fault.

I'm not looking for sympathy here. I signed up understanding the spiritual risks I'd be incurring as an officer. Nothing's simple. Since arriving in Afghanistan I've attended countless Shuras*, seen a couple Jirgas*, watched as two towns were transformed by CMO* projects and the hard work of those Afghans who are tired of ceaseless warfare and just want peace and a chance to make a better life for their families; they're making progress.

That makes it all worthwhile; you talk to these people about the "Russian" times, how entire villages would be wiped out, how every man woman and child would help resist the invaders. Everyone over 30 has seen both sides of the coin, and understands that this is different, we're here to help. The foreign jihadists, the Arabs, Chechens, Uzbeks, Turks, they're the new foreign army, working against the prosperity and self-determination of Afghanistan.

And if I didn't have that knowledge, gained from firsthand experience, to balance out the horror and hatred, also gained from firsthand experience, I don't know what I'd do. I can't imagine how those poor, conscript Russians felt, fighting for old Karl Marx's vision.

*   HLZ: helicopter landing zone
    Shura: reconciliation council

    Jirga: tribal council
    CMO: Civil Military Operations

 

MARCH OF THE IMAM |

February 27, 2008

MARCH OF THE IMAM
Name: Eddie
Posting date: 2/27/08
Stationed in: Iraq
Milblog: Eighty Deuce on the Loose
Email: airborneparainf82@blogspot.com

There was a Muslim religious holiday recently, honoring a fallen Imam named Hussein. On one of the big celebration days the people come to the streets by the thousands, and parade around and punish themselves by whipping themselves in the back with chain whips.

During these kinds of celebrations we try to keep our distance and not interfere with what they are doing. But at one point we had turned onto a street and started heading down it when we noticed a huge procession of people coming towards us. We couldn't turn around and so, in an attempt to stay out of the way as best as possible, we pulled off to the side of the road and waited for them to pass.

Framed_eddie_imam There were thousands of men, women and children marching, some of them playing music, some dancing and singing, others dressed up in costume and the rest just walking along with it all. It was not the best situation for us to be in, so we locked our doors. We were surrounded by thousands of people, and if they wanted to get to us it would have been a lot easier than at any other time. It took 30-40 minutes for the procession to pass, and the whole time we just sat in our seats and watched the people go by, occasionally waving when they waved at us.

It was pretty surreal, because normally we try to keep people away from our trucks as best we can when we are out there. But there was nothing we could do, and our trucks were completely surrounded with people putting their faces right up to the windows. Once the crowd thinned out and we could drive off without interfering, we did so.

We had a basic idea of what the holiday was about but we wanted to know more, so I went to our interpreter and asked him. He explained that this was a Shiite holiday, and the story behind it deals with the split between the Shiite and Sunni sects of Islam. A big group of the Muslims felt that the Imam, Hussein, should be the next to run all of Islam. He was on his way to Iraq from Mecca in Saudia Arabia to talk with the people who were calling for him to be in charge. But an army was sent out after his caravan to kill him.

His caravan consisted of mostly women and children, so he did not have much of a fighting force. When he learned an army was coming for him, he went into the nearby city and called out for people to join him and help him fight. But no one came out, and in the end he was slaughtered and had his head cut off and brought back to the king to prove he was dead.

This is why the Iraqi people come out into the steets and whip themselves -- to show their support for him now, and punish themselves for what they did to him then. I find it pretty interesting to learn about the history and holidays of Islam, but I have noticed that there seems to be much violence in it. Maybe that is why things are the way they are for us in this region.

I hopped on Google the other day and looked up the area that we are in. It is the oldest part of the city, and is where Baghdad was founded, many, many years B.C. It's kind of crazy to know that probably some of the streets and alleyways that I patrol were originally paths that people have walked on for thousands of years.

GOODBYES |

February 26, 2008

GOODBYES
Name: CAPT Mike Dunn
Posting date: 2/26/08
En route to: Afghanistan
Hometown: Brooklyn, NY
Milblog url: TheNewNormal   

The school bus for my youngest son waits in front of our house. Holding his six year old hand in mine, I walk out into the early morning half light very much aware this will be the last time I will perform this ritual for a year. Half way down the front steps I scoop him up into my arms, which causes him to reward me with a smile and a laugh I’ll not forget. The total joy in his face tells me that in his world all is right. Mildly autistic, he still is not aware that I’ll not be putting him on the bus again for some time to come. Or that I won’t even be home for dinner that night, or the next, or the next.

The bus driver and matron, seeing me in my ACUs, Army Combat Uniform, pick up right away that’s there’s something different about this morning. I put my son on the bus and tell them I’m going away. The driver asks, “Yeah, but your not going over, are you?”

I shake my head and give them my one word answer, “Afghanistan.”

Not knowing what to say, they sigh and give me a look of sympathy as I place my son on the steps of the bus. I hug him, kiss him on the head, and tell him I love him and will miss him very much. Grinning, he takes his seat as the driver pulls the bus away slowly so this moment will last longer. He laughs and waves at me as I wave back and try not to choke up as he disappears down the Brooklyn street.

The oldest, the nine year old, is a different story. This isn’t the first time I’ve gone away for a long time. The GWOT over the past few years has taken me to other Army posts where I’ve worked with other soldiers either going to war or coming back. He grasps that I’ll be away for some time, and he’s aware that there is a war going on. The difference is that this time I’ll soon be in it. The previous few weeks he asks me repeatedly about what I’ll be doing and where I’ll be. I constantly assure him that I’ll be with many other soldiers, that I’ll be safe and very well protected, and that I’ll be home before he knows it. He doesn’t completely believe it. I don’t either.

But I walk him to his school, my arm around his shoulder, reassuring him the best that I can that all will be okay. At the entrance to the school, I hug him, kiss him on the head and tell him also how I love him and will miss him. He hugs me back, gives me a brave half smile, then, head down, shoulders slack, trudges through the doorway of his school. I walk the two blocks back home, again trying not to well up into tears, at least until I can get home.

My wife greets me at the doorway, coat on, car keys in hand, ready to take me to my armory in Manhattan where I’ll continue my journey. Earlier in the week we went back and forth about taking the boys out of school for the day so they could see me off from my armory, or "the castle” as my youngest calls it. Ultimately, we decide against it as there will be enough disruption in their young lives, and the best thing we can do is try to keep them to as normal a routine as is possible. Normal, such as normal is anymore.

Holding each’s other hand, she drives me northward towards Manhattan as I take in the scene of lower NY harbor, the Verrazano Bridge, Staten Island across the narrows, upper NY harbor, and then the Manhattan skyline on the other side. Two things I notice as I always do. First is the Statue of Liberty, which looks so tiny and lonely on the other side of the harbor, symbol of hope, and aspiration of the promise that is our nation. The second is the Manhattan skyline. Or more accurately, what is missing from it. Anyone who has lived in NYC in the last quarter century knows exactly what I’m talking about. We remember what once was and it hurts. It’s a pain very much like that of an amputee’s phantom limb.

We cross through the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel and get on the FDR drive on the east side of Manhattan. I’m silently grateful not to have to go up the West Side, past the Pit, the reason why all this has come into our lives. But I am also very much aware of the friends we both lost there that horrible morning. I say my goodbyes to them in my thoughts as my wife and I make small talk while driving north along the East River.

We finally arrive at my armory in mid-town Manhattan where the inevitable has to happen. We have one long last kiss goodbye, and then it’s time. I pull my gear out of the car and wave to her as she drives off into the city traffic. She rounds the corner onto 23rd street and is gone. For a year. I pray to God that we both have the strength to get through whatever the next year has to offer.

FLIGHT OF THE VALKYRIES |

February 24, 2008

FLIGHT OF THE VALKYRIES
Name: The Usual Suspect
Posting date: 2/25/08
Stationed in: Iraq
Milblog: The Unlikely Soldier

Oh-Dark-Fuck-Me-Rotten and we throw our gear on. I'd spent the previous night preparing.

"Suspect, here ya go, we're supposed to carry these," says our resident New Guy. He hands me a frag grenade, a flashbang grenade, a smoke grenade, and a star cluster thing. They've never given me grenades before.

Ah shit, what's this all about? Fuck, this is going to be some kind of crazy-ass hardcore mission or something isn't it? The Last Bastion Of Anti-American Bastards in a crazy Alamo fight, with every type of ordnance and dirty tactic in the book, ten-foot-tall desert warriors, complete devastation and total annihilation. Why the hell are they putting me back on the ground now? I'm short! I go on leave real fuckin' soon! What kind of fucked up God would let me get hit right before leave?!

They'll set up all kinds of crazy traps and ambushes, then they'll run us down like dogs! I'm not trying to take a Hamburger Hill, I'm trying to suck down liquor and chase women with negotiable morals. What the fuck, over?

I double-check everything, and I clean my rifle and oil it. It's almost silent when I pull the charging handle back. Nice. I stick fresh batteries in my NODs. Fresh batteries in the optic sight on my rifle. Fresh batteries in the SureFire tac-light on the same rifle. Getting all ready to rock and whatnot, motivated, pseudo-high-speed type shit, Brand New Private kinda thing.

So there I am, Oh-Dark-Fuckin'-A, at the helipad. We're getting our brief and I take my NODs out and attach them to my helmet, then I flick them on to check them again.

Nothing.

I yank the helmet off and look at the NODs. Just like I figured, the battery cover had come off and was still inside the pouch on my body armor. One guy is holding my rifle for the light on it while I'm dicking with my NODs, trying to snap the cover closed (I don't have the normal one-battery slot most NODs do). I try them again.

Nothing.

At this point, I'm getting pretty damned nervous. Here we are, about to go on some big ol' super secret Army Strong mission, and my fucking nightvision doesn't work. I try different battery configurations, then I put another fresh set in, still nothing. Until I finally realize that the piece of metal on the lid that completes the circuit or facilitates the black magic or whatever, it's missing. It was in the bottom of my pouch, and we had to ghetto rig it just to get the bastard to work, but it finally did. Just in time to get on the bird and wait. And wait.

We're sitting on the benches that line both sides of the bird and I snap a picture. This sets off a chain reaction, and now everyone's going through the Pre-Mission Ritual that we went through back when Iraq was still new and interesting to us.

And then we waited some more.

The engine started, a damn near deafening whine, and still nothing. Then the bird started to shake, vibrate, gyrate, whatever. But nothing. The back ramp raised up, but nothing.

I kept looking at my watch, wondering when the hell we were going to actually lift off, when the rotors sped up and the ground shifted. I flipped my NODs on and looked out the open back.

A friend of mine will gladly tell you what a fag I am for thinking the following:

Through monochromatic shades of green, the helipad dropped out from underneath us, and the whole FOB followed. We leaned to the bird's left and the world tilted, bright green sky, lights glowing from here and there, and we were up and away.

Fucking breathtaking.

I stared in awe out the back, like a complete tool, as we passed clusters of houses and road and open nothingness and palm groves. Then a village panned behind us, every light like a glowing emerald. I closed the eye that looks through my NODs. Lame. I opened my nightvision eye again. Groovy.

It was almost like it wasn't even real, like no way could this be happening. This is too not mundane. Like there was a movie screen on the back of the bird with all sorts of crazy wind blowing in.

Then the darklights blinked a few times. Two minutes.

We continued to pass villages and desert wilderness until the bird sank down, leaning this way, then leveling, and then the ramp dropped and we poured out, the rotors whipping the shit out of the air. I took a knee once I was far enough away, but when the bird lifted off again, it still blew me over and I had to catch myself with my free hand.

And so began the mission. And it was productive.

ENGAGING THE POPULACE |

February 22, 2008

ENGAGING THE POPULACE
Name: Gruntshit
Posting date: 2/22/08
Stationed in
: Iraq
Hometown: Clarkston, Washington
Milblog: The Angry American

I found this posted in the area and had to put it up because it's true of going out and talking to the Iraqi people. Some of it I think is that maybe our conversations get lost in translation between the Iraqi and the Interpreter, but it happens so often; like after an RPG was fired at our COP, no one in the area had heard the rocket launched.

This is a no bullshit conversation between a Platoon Leader (PL) from one of our sister platoons, and a Local National (LN):


PL: Good afternoon.

LN: Hello hello.

PL: Do you mind if I ask you some questions about the mosque?

LN: Yes, yes there are a lot of people who go there to pray.

PL: Thanks, does this mosque broadcast a message to the area on Fridays?

LN: Yes it does, it is Shiia mosque so every Friday around 12:15.

PL: It's 12:30, did it broadcast a message today?

LN: Umm no, but it should soon.

PL: Ok, thanks, so last week it gave a message?

LN: No, I don't think this mosque gives messages.

PL: But I thought you just told me it should broadcast a message soon?

LN: What? NO. What mosque I don't know of any mosque around here.

PL: (Pointing to the mosque 100ft away) That mosque right there.

LN: I don't see a mosque.

PL: Is this guy serious?

RTO: I don't know?

PL: Sir, do you see that building, it has a dome and two huge blue and purple towers right in front of you... That MOSQUE?

LN: Oh wow, I've never seen that before, it must be new.

PL: So....

LN: I mean I'm new to the area I don't know anybody.

PL: You just told me a lot of people go to that mosque.

LN: What mosque?

PL: Okay, thanks for the help, I'll see you later.


We don't make this shit up. Seriously. Thank you to the PL from the sister platoon for relaying the info.

CRANK DAT IN IRAQ |

February 21, 2008

CRANK DAT IN IRAQ
Name: LT G
Posting date: 2/21/08
Stationed in: Iraq
Hometown: Reno, NV
Milblog: Kaboom: A Soldier's War Journal

SPC Haitian Sensation attempts to teach LT G the Crank That Soulja' Boy dance in Iraq. Hilarity ensues.

PICTURE US ROLLIN' |

PICTURE US ROLLIN'
Name: LT G
Posting date: 2/21/08
Stationed in: Iraq
Hometown: Reno, NV
Milblog url: kaboomwarjournal.blogspot.com

Today is just like any other day except for the ones that are different.

A giant alarm clock, appropriately nicknamed Big Ben by SFC Big Country, rings with acrimony, breaking in the day far more brusquely than God intended when He designed the sluggish rising of the sun. I yawn loudly, slap myself in the face, and hop off of the top bunk and saunter towards the TOC for intel updates, while SFC Big Country turns on the coffeemaker and goes to the soldiers’ rooms to wake them up. When I return from the TOC, SFC Big Country hands me a fresh cup of coffee, SSG Boondock is staring at the wall cursing to himself, and SSG Bulldog -- a notoriously slow mover in the morning -- grunts from somewhere deep inside his sleeping bag.

“Time to get up, Sheik,” I tell him. “Your doting followers await.”

Some mixture of profanity-laced grogginess and Southern slurring usually let me know that he’s awake. Then it’s to the gear racks, where modern-day knights adorn their layers of cumbersome body armor, swelling in size and weight like a balloon discovering compacted air.

Some thirty minutes later, after whatever snack the Gravediggers manage to cobble together for breakfast, 19 chasm-black sunglasses hiding alert and dazed eyes alike bow towards my map, listening to a plan they know will change on the move. A background of pounding bass, coming from SSG Boondock’s Stryker, provides a steady backdrop for my words, the same words I said the day before about rules of engagement and the same ones I will say the day after. After I finish and answer any questions, I tell the platoon to mount up, and SFC Big Country barks last-minute priorities of work to the junior NCOs.

“Let’s rock and roll, you stupid bastards,” PV2 Van Wilder crows, as he rolls into his driver’s seat. “I got a hot date tonight with a fat Iraqi chick, and I don’t want to be late. Fat chicks love my molest-ache!”

I climb into the back of my Stryker, which has already been prepped immaculately by SGT Chico, SPC Flashback, and PV2 Boomhauer. All I have to do is plug in and start conducting my lieutenant radio calls; I used to try and help my guys ready the vehicle, but SGT Chico would get bothered and/or horrified by this, thinking it reflected poorly on them, so now I just stay out of their way and let them do their jobs. The terp Billy the Kid is already loaded up and bantering back and forth with PV2 Boomhauer, still arguing about some video game fallout from the previous evening. I give the platoon three or so minutes, and then ask them if they’re ready to move, in Army speak.

“Gravediggers, this is Gravedigger 1,” I say. “Report your Redcon status in sequence.”

“This, uhh, Gravedigger 2,” SSG Bulldog drawls. “We Redcon 1.”

“Gravedigger 1, this is Gravedigger 3, we’re Redcon 1!” SSG Boondock bursts.

“This is 4,” SFC Big Country thunders. “Let’s roll.”

“On your move 2,” I say, watching the wheels of my senior scout’s vehicle begin to churn forward. I let X-Ray know we’re departing and then, just like every day, our Strykers move past the gate, out of the wire, and into a war zone.

Our stated mission for the day is to conduct an electricity assessment of one of the local Anu al-Verona blocks. We’re not supposed to use the term “presence patrol” anymore -- it used to be doctrine until some general officer got another star assessing that the term presence patrol was not clear enough guidance for soldiers involved in a counterinsurgency fight -- but pretty much anytime an American convoy of combat vehicles maneuvers, it acts as a presence patrol. At every corner and sidewalk of Anu al-Verona, be it a Shi’a or Sunni neighborhood, the reactions are the same -- the children wave giddily hoping for chocolate, the women dressed head-to-toe in black robes stare rigidly at the ground, the old men nod with hard eyes that have seen far too much suffering in one lifetime, and the young men stare back at us callously, giving what Hawaiians refer to as “da stinkeye.” All clear way for our Strykers, though. Somewhere over the course of this war, they’ve learned not to get in the way of the Ghost Tanks embellished with machine guns and projecting raw firepower of instant death.

We arrive to our destination. SSG Bulldog finds a position for us to pull our vehicles into a tight platoon coil. “This work, 1?” he asks.

“Yep,” I respond.

“I knew it was already,” he cracks. “I was jus’ sayin.’”

SFC Big Country, ever the perfectionist, adjusts the vehicles slightly, optimizing security scans for our gunners. Then I give the order for the dismount teams to kick out, knowing full well they already are prepping to do so. We’ve reached the point in our deployment where SOPs are repeated out of habit instead of being stated as guidance.

Tired, dirty boots meet Mesopotamian soil for the umpteenth time. Like locusts descending upon ancient Egypt, we are immediately surrounded by Iraqi children, clamoring for our attention and clawing at our pockets. “Mistah, mistah, gimme chocolata!” they scream. “Gimme football! Gimme, gimme gimme!” My men react differently to the horde, depending on their general patience disposition and amount of sleep they got the night prior.

“You gimme chocolata!” PV2 Boomhauer responds, picking up one of the kids, twirling him around.

“Gotta love the effects of the welfare state. Go play in some traffic,” SPC Flashback says, while reaching for a cigarette, and ignoring the children gathering around him.

“Nothing like enabling future terrorists,” SSG Boondock says, all the while handing out candy. He notices me arching an eyebrow his way, and starts chuckling. “Don’t judge me, LT, and don’t think I have a soft spot, either. It’s all a part of my master plan.”

I turn to a small child with doubting eyes, ruffle the hair on his head, and point at him. “Ali Baba?” I ask, using the Arabic term for thief and general villain. The group of kids around him giggle hysterically and chant “Ali Baba! Ali Baba!” while the victim of my slandering protests his newfound label. I put my hands out and let the kids play with the Kevlar that lines the knuckles on my gloves, something that always fascinates them.

The children run away from PVT Das Boot, petrified that the American Giant will accidentally step on them. They point and whisper from afar though, and Billy the Kid translates their murmurings: “A man that tall must be able to see the whole world.” PVT Das Boot just snorts and shakes his head, and bums a cigarette from SPC Flashback.

“Don’t these fuckers ever go to school?” SGT El Nino asks. I don’t think it is a serious question, although it is a legitimate one.

I look across the coil and see CPL Spot turn to SGT Axel. “Think it’s cool if I give them dip and tell them it’s chocolate?”

“No,” SFC Big Country says, walking up behind them. He has a large trash bag filled with toys. He attempts to organize the gaggle of children into a single-file line of disciplined order, a concept so foreign to them that they simply laugh at his directions, while encircling him. Most of the children barely come up to his waist, and while towering over them, my platoon sergeant begins to pass out small plastic cars. Pandemonium ensues.

“Stay in line! God damn it, stay in line!” he yells, without effect. He ignores the temptation to just throw the bag into the middle of their youthful jubilee though, and hands them out to the snatching hands one at a time.

“Now the fireworks start,” SGT Cheech says to SPC Haitian Sensation, watching the kids begin to steal the cars from one another, often using the toys themselves as synthetic weapons of mass destruction. This phenomenon of plastic meeting skull inevitably leads to hysterical wails and tears. SSG Bulldog struts over to one of the head-cracking bullies, grabs a toy away from him in a grunting huff, and brings it over to a well-mannered runt standing away from the mass, watching quietly.

“Time to go,” I say, moving away from the vehicles with one dismount team, while the other one stays with the vehicles for local security. Half of the children follow our movements into their neighborhood, something I really don’t mind. Being encircled by a bubble of Iraqi street-urchins probably contributes to our security element in ways I can hardly comprehend. The enemy has to fight the public relations battle, as well, and shooting at Americans surrounded by local kids might not go over well with Iraqi soccer moms.

The Iraqi children spiral around our wedge formation, collecting rocks out of sewage dunes the way their western world counterparts pick out seashells on beaches of white sand. I sporadically select local citizens to engage, sometimes seeking out the welcoming faces, sometimes seeking out the hostile ones. This day is like any other day spent asking the populace to explain the details of their daily existence: Life in Iraq sucks and has always sucked and continues to suck. It doesn’t matter what neighborhood it is, the citizens of Anu al-Verona all have the same complaints. “We don’t have clean water,” they say. “We don’t have jobs,” they state. “We only have fifteen minutes of electricity per day, because the Others (cue Shi’a and Sunni divide) take it all. They Ali Babas, we think America very good. Gimme water, mistah. Gimme job, mistah. Gimme power, America.” Gimme, gimme, gimme.

“We’re trying,” I tell them, “but shit like this takes time.” I say shit just like that too, something I don’t know or care if Billy the Kid translates directly. I feel momentarily obliged to lecture the locals about turning to their own government for these civic matters, as a way of empowering themselves, but quickly discard such thoughts. I’ve already learned that lesson. Mere mention of the Iraqi government just leads to another stratosphere of bitching from the Anu al-Verona citizenry.

I also internally debate whether or not I should waste oxygen discussing the history of America’s evolving democracy, and explain that civil services take time to establish themselves, especially in third world countries. Ever heard of the Articles of Confederation, Mister Unkempt Iraqi Man addicted to the Handout? They make the Paul Bremer years look like pure genius. I smile to myself, in spite of this lunacy. I had tried that approach once, some weeks ago. Let’s just say it hadn’t spawned the intended effect.

I sometimes can literally feel my compassion for fellow human beings leaking out of me like oil leaving an engine, so slowly it’s barely evident, and yet dripping with enough regularity that I know the problem is severe in nature. I’ve only been here for two months; 13 more months of seepage awaits. I really do hope being cognizant of this leak will help me plug it back up, when the time comes to do so. Not that such a time awaits on any near horizon.

I take another sip of chai. I am now conversing with a group of local men who claim the Others don’t let them use the fuel station on the other end of town. They also insinuate that the Others are housing a sniper somewhere near this fuel station, knowing full well that the word “sniper” immediately captures our attention the way the tabloids lord over a long line at the supermarket back home -- even if “sniper” for Arabs usually just means an unknown person firing a gun somewhere within audible distance, thus qualifying 90 percent of the people in Iraq as snipers.

I catch a fleeting glimpse of two pairs of alluring dark eyes peeking out at us from behind a cracked front door from across the street, alluring dark eyes that belong to young female faces and flowing black robes that usually fail to cover every curve the way they are designed to.

I’m not the only one who takes notice. Billy the Kid leaves me alone to discuss business in broken sign language with the men, while he walks across the street, waving the young women out. Usually this direct tactic fails to work, but today it manages to somehow succeed; I assume the girls’ parents are not home. Without my terp, my conversation with the locals quickly dissipates, but Billy the Kid’s exchange is just now beginning to develop.

We spend the next ten minutes pulling security around a house in an alleyway of Anu al-Verona, so my 21-year old terp can flirt with two giggling Iraqi teenagers in Arabic. Welcome to this week’s episode of Real World: Iraq. I finally yell “Billy! Wrap it up,” and give him the international hand signal for such. He smiles, embarrassed upon finally realizing an entire section of scouts are watching him, but still pulls out a piece of paper to write his cell phone number on. He gives one of the girls the paper, and waltzes back over to me.

“I big pimp,” he says.

“You big liar,” I respond. “Those chicks think you’re an American, don’t they?” His midnight black skin, northern African heritage, and dummy rifle often confuse the locals.

He shrugs his shoulders and repeats one of his favorite mantras, picked up from watching SSG Bulldog play poker. “If you ain’t bullshittin’, you ain’t tryin’ hard enough.” A fair statement from a guy who claims to have four girlfriends in the greater Anu al-Verona area.

When we return to our Strykers, a Frago message awaits from CPT Whiteback, a follow-on mission unplanned by the operations staff until the last minute, that they never bothered to pass along to the enactors of their typed words. Shocking, I think to myself, cynically. I really do hate the TOC-roaches with every ounce of my Celtic spite at this moment.

Off we roll to another part of Anu al-Verona, to knock on a door of a purported insurgent. If the knocking doesn’t work, we’ll kick the door in and initiate a social engagement that way. I let my guys know we’re probably going to have to work through lunch, so hopefully they brought a brown-bag from home. Some of them laugh, some of them curse, but none of them are surprised.

Three Fragos and a life-frame later, I check my watch as I climb into the back of the Stryker with PV2 Boomhauer and Billy the Kid, who yawns noisily. Somehow eleven hours have passed since we departed the relatively safety of the outpost’s gates. Time passes differently while on mission; seconds and minutes and even hours disappear into an abyss of repetition and flickering echoes, sometimes slowing things down, sometimes speeding them up. Today proved to be the latter. I give the platoon three or so minutes, and then ask them if they’re ready to move.

“Gravediggers, this is Gravedigger 1,” I say. “Report your Redcon status in sequence.”

“This, uhh, Gravedigger 2,” SSG Bulldog drawls. “We Redcon 1.”

“Gravedigger 1, this is Gravedigger 3, we’re Redcon 1!” SSG Boondock bursts.

“This is 4,” SFC Big Country thunders. “Let’s roll.”

“On your move 2,” I say, watching the wheels of my senior scout’s vehicle begin to churn forward. I let X-Ray know we’re returning back to the outpost. Some minutes later, just like every day, our Strykers move back through the gate, into the wire, rising above a war zone in an American fortress of concertina wire and Jersey barriers.

As I strut back inside from the motor pool, cocksure ego and defiant nature still intact, I stop on the front stoop and pause to watch the desert sun slowly fade into the abstract possibilities of tomorrow. The austere chants of a Muslim call to prayer blaring over a nearby Mosque contribute to this idyllic clip of a stranger in a strange land. It seems like the kind of moment I’ll remember -- or want to remember, more accurately -- when I’m old and grizzled, looking back on my time in Iraq over a few beers, and too stained by the dirty tricks of memory to recall the more miserable moments.

The Gravediggers move into the combat outpost behind me, weary but still lively, swapping stories and uttering the normal soldier exaggerations, hoping there’s still some hot chow left. The Joes flock to the phone and the internet, while the NCOs head to their makeshift poker table. I have a patrol debrief to put together. Three hours, I tell them, before they are absorbed into the urban camo of accumulation. You have three hours. A night patrol awaits.

Today was just like any other day except for the ones that are different.

Any time y’all wanna see me again
Rewind this track right here,
close your eyes
And picture me rollin
       -- 2Pac, “Picture Me Rollin’”

A COLD DAY |

February 20, 2008

A COLD DAY
Name: SPC Beaird
Posting date: 2/20/08
Stationed in: Afghanistan
Milblog: allexpensespaidafghanvacation           

We’ve had snow on the mountains around us since early December now, yet there hasn’t been enough cold or precipitation to see snow at our level. That all changed a couple days ago on a cold and rainy morning, with the freezing rain slowly turning to huge snowflakes the size of silver dollar. While it was short lived (the snow only stuck on the ground for a few hours till the afternoon) it was still quite a sight for all of us -- considering we’re from Arizona, and how hot it felt here in the summer. Baghdad had some light snow too for the first time in like 75 years or something. What happened to global warming?

Framed_beaird_cold_day_1_3 The snow was fun and all, I just didn’t enjoy being up in the turret as we were driving out on our missions that morning. With the wind chill, standing through the roof of a moving vehicle, my face was numb at times. The freezing rain actually stung worse, but you could still feel every snowflake that would collide with your face while on the move. I was expecting to be pegged in the face with a snowball from some of the little kids who like to throw rocks. Luckily I wasn't, or else I might have flipped out. Although I guess I shouldn’t complain too much, after all, I was able to come back to my comfortably heated room.

We saw a few kids running around barefoot despite it being cold enough to snow out. Wow. There are people who literally freeze to death in some parts of the country in snowstorms. Some PRTs* help out in these cases, providing HA* or other assistance to locals not equipped to handle the weather. Bet you don’t read about that in the news. Read about it here and here.

We actually went out twice that day, once for a meeting, but got cut short after an “escalation of force incident". Americans have been in this country how long now, over six years -- and some locals still can’t figure out what to do when we signal and tell them to stop?
Framed_beaird_cold_day_2_2 Our dismount team was out walking along a street and was stopping all traffic at one point. All the local drivers knew what to do when a group of American soldiers with guns waved at them to stop, all except one, who for some moronic reason went around all the stopped traffic, and came up on our guys rather quick. They went through the proper steps of trying to get the guy to stop, but even after multiple people pointing their weapons at him he still wouldn’t stop, so one of my buddies shot a single round through the hood of his car. The driver stopped after that, thankfully, because if not they would have been forced to shoot to kill rather than just use a warning shot. What happened in that split second after the warning shot was the difference between that man living and dying. We came back to base after that, and every time you pull the trigger nowadays you have to be accountable for it, so lots of paperwork and sworn statements as to what had happened ensued.

We'd been back for not even an hour when we got called back out for another mission, this time to go locate and demo’ an IED. While we waited for what seemed like an eternity for our EOD bomb squad team to do their thing, the usual crowd of curious locals formed outside, with lots of kids attracted to our trucks. Of course the demands for pens, chocolate, and water started right away from the kids.

Sometimes you give things out, other times you just don’t feel like it, but most of the time you wait till you leave to hand out the stuff. And there are certain missions you hand out things and other ones you don’t. This was one of those where you don’t. You could give these kids bars of gold and they would still be bugging you for hours on end.

So for the time you’re sitting there not giving out anything, dozens of kids are non-stop with “mishta mishta” and demanding all sorts of items. You try to ignore them because even if you, say, explain back in their own language you don’t have anything, they only hound you more because you talked to them and gave them some attention.

Luckily one of the kids was a young teenager who we see often working at our bazaar, and who brings us local food sometimes while out on a mission. I say luckily because this kid can actually speak surprisingly decent English. So I used him as a translator to tell the kids I’m all out of things to hand out, and occasionally to keep them from going too close to the blast site by saying it's dangerous.

We finally blew the IED, and almost immediately after, the dozens of kids who were begging for handouts before started yelling “Thank you! Thank you!” and “Very good.” It felt kind of good for a bit. Though the adults around didn’t vocalize it like the kids, I hope they felt the same way. I guess they were probably not too happy with bombs being planted in their neighborhood and were glad to see us get rid of this one, even if it was meant for us. We’re happy too, as long as we are finding these IEDs or the locals keep reporting them to us before they go off underneath one of our trucks.

*
PRT: Provincial Reconstruction Team
HA: Humanitarian Assistance

BANDIT RED |

February 19, 2008

BANDIT RED
Name: Teflon Don
Posting date: 2/19/08
Reporting from: Iraq
Milblog url: acutepolitics.blogspot.com

(Frequent Sandbox contributor Teflon Don* recently returned to Iraq, this time as a photojournalist accredited by Public Multimedia. Proceeds from the sale of high-quality prints of his photographs help support TD's independent journalism.)

I caught up with Bandit troop’s Red platoon on a dusty road within sight of PB Meade. They were on mission to search through the fields and canals surrounding the site of a huge cache, and had been diverted to check out a report from an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle team, of men digging in a field.

Framed_teflon_red_1_2
SGT Rose and Iron search for buried weapons.

The report sounded promising enough; 4-5 men digging near the road until a bongo truck (the distinctive middle-eastern version of the pickup truck) pulled up, at which point the men started unloading items into the hole. It sounds like IED-planting or cache-digging, but my experience with UAV intel has been poor enough to leave me a cynic. I made a gentleman’s bet with the gunner that the search would turn up nothing. The dismount team found farmers working in the fields. Score one for cynicism.

Framed_teflon_red_2_3

Red platoon soldiers set fire to a canal.

Red platoon’s plan for the day was to light the reeds lining the canals in their search areas on fire, search the fields nearby while the canals burned, and return to check the canals after the flames turned the concealing reeds to ash. The danger in burning canals is that loose ammunition tends to explode like popcorn, and there is always the chance of an artillery shell “cooking off” in the fire. It is best to stay far away as long as the fire burns.

Framed_teflon_red_3

A Red platoon soldier runs from an explosion.

The area where Red platoon was searching had come to Bandit troop’s attention a few days prior; White platoon had been patrolling nearby when they saw an explosion out in a field. They investigated, and found a trench cut in the earth with two men inside. They chased the men across the fields, catching one, at which point he confessed to being an al-Qaeda fighter conducting a sort of IED attack training.

He proceeded to turn over his companion and lead White platoon to a series of large caches scattered across a few hundred meters of farmland. Rockets, artillery shells, ammunition, RPGs, over 200 anti-personal land mines and more all came out of the earth.

Framed_teflon_red_4_2

1LT Walker stands over the IED training trench.

Searching for caches is as much art as science -- “needle in a haystack” is an oft-used phrase. Human intelligence, the informants that soldiers call “bird dogs”, is an important tool to use in the search. Shepherd boys and farmers are often just as important as AQI fighters and facilitators that can be convinced to give up information, because it is often their fields that have been turned into caches and fighting positions.

Framed_teflon_red_5

SSG Cruse comes up out of the reeds with a 155mm artillery shell.

In Arab Jabour, though, many of the locals fled or were forced out by AQI, and are only now returning. As security improves and refugees trickle back, they often return to homes once used by AQI. They call in the war supplies left in their houses -- as for what is buried in the fields, the search often turns into a treasure hunt like the one Red platoon was sent on today.

Framed_teflon_red_6

SSG Cruse feels out a homemade RPG launcher. This one had a round explode in it when the fires passed over.

Just a few days before I went out with Bandit troop, a local farmer had approached them with the names of two men whom he claimed had been involved in Al Qaeda in Iraq. Bandit troop went out to question the men -- cousins, as it turned out. Both men lead led Bandit to cache sites; both were detained after admitting they had helped dig the caches.

Framed_teflon_red_7

1LT Walker and his interpreter talk to a local shepherd.

After being detained, one of the men told Bandit troop, “You don’t want me; my brother is the really bad one." His mother came out waving a white flag to say goodbye to him, and substantiated what he had said about his brother. The next day, she returned -- with her second son. She sat him down in front of the Americans and told him to talk or he would get worse than what his brother had gotten.

The second brother, the “bad one”, would go on to help Bandit troop find yet another giant cache. This is just a simple story, but it substantiates a point about Iraqi culture that bears repeating: the men hold all the visible power, but winning over the women is extremely important to succeeding at counterinsurgency.

Framed_teflon_red_8_3

SSG Cruse calls EOD to report the day's finds.

*Here are some of Teflon Don's previous Sandbox posts, from his 2006-2007 Iraq deployment:

The Good Bad Guys
A Day of Firsts

Mission
How Human Are We? 

Beauty in the Dirt
Dreams

A Surreal Day
 

PROTECTION |

PROTECTION
Name: JP
Posting date: 2/19/08
Stationed in: Kuwait / Iraq
Hometown: Burke, Virginia
Milblog url: milblogging.com
Email: milblogging@gmail.com

Framed_jp_ashwednesday_2 Here’s a picture of me celebrating Ash Wednesday shortly before going out on mission.  The Catholic Priest also blessed all of our Gun Trucks. You can’t ask for much more protection than that when doing Convoy Security. Unless of course, I painted a picture of a unicorn on the side of my Gun Truck. I don’t know anyone who could hurt a unicorn. Especially one that has magic dust. Those are my favorite.

TWO LIVES TO LIVE |

February 18, 2008

TWO LIVES TO LIVE
Name:
CAPT Benjamin Tupper 
Posting date:
2/18/08
Returned from: Afghanistan 

A cat has nine lives. Most of the people I know have one. But apparently, if you are an Afghan National Army 1st Sergeant named Iftak Kharullah, you have two lives to live.

Iftak, who I eulogized in a previous Sandbox post after his purported death in combat in December, has pulled a Lazarus on me, and risen from the dead. So I offer this post to those who previously read about Iftak's demise, to correct the historical record, and also to demonstrate how difficult it is to communicate, understand, and process information in Afghanistan.

To recap, I received an email from my personal Afghan Interpreter Janis a few months ago, which informed me that the First Sergeant of the Afghan Infantry Company that I mentored for six months had been killed in combat. He never mentioned him by name, and knowing that soldiers switch positions, I made the precautionary effort to confirm that it was Iftak who was killed before I sat down to write a story about his death.

I sent Janis a photo of Iftak, and asked him to confirm in fact it was the man in the picture who was killed. In a following email, in jumbled and broken English, he agreed it was the man in the picture. Or so I thought.

Last week, I got an email from my partner Corporal Polanski, aka "Ski", who made up the other half of our two-man embed team in 1SG Iftak Kharullah's 3rd Company, which simply said, "Yo, Iftak isn't dead. I talked to the terps -- it was some new guy who had only been there for two days who got killed."

After my initial relief that Iftak, a close friend and comrade, was in fact alive and well, I was reminded that some other poor soul was killed in action while fighting against the Taliban. But I don't know his name, I never met him, and as wrong as it may sound, I'm glad it was this nameless and faceless soldier who died and not my close friend.

But Iftak's resurrection is not the important point of this essay. The scenario should serve as a simple and poignant example of how easy it is for us as Americans to mistakenly think we know what is going on in Afghanistan. From such a basic level as notifying me of the identity of a soldier who has died, to the more complex and comprehensive efforts being made as part of the overall COIN (Counter-Insurgency) campaign, it's clear that there is a great deal of miscommunication between Americans and Afghans.

I cringe at the thought of the many times I stood before a gathering of Afghan elders and rattled off an eloquent speech on our good intentions and well wishes for their village, only to have the interpreter look at me, confused, and mumble a few words in Pashto to the assembled crowd. The elders, instead of responding to the good news, looked equally befuddled by the message brought by a strange foreign-speaking soldier. The margin for error in these situations is slight, and having even one word miscontrued can easily have dramatic results for those involved.

Just ask Iftak. He was dead for two months.

SINGLE DAD SOLILOQUY |

February 15, 2008

SINGLE DAD SOLILOQUY
Name: CAPT Lee Kelley
Posting date: 2/15/08
Returned from: Iraq
Hometown: Salt Lake City, UT
Milblog url: wordsmithatwar.blog-city.com
Email
: wordsmith16@excite.com

Just yesterday, it seems, I was in the middle of an 18-month deployment. And my life back home, and my family, went through drastic changes during that time. I felt that the pieces of everything I found familiar were being shattered apart like a busy marketplace during a suicide bombing or a thousand sparrows lifting off from a single tree. I wrote this, and this, and this to describe my feelings back then.

These days my life is mostly defined by the fact that I am a single parent. After all, transitioning from a married man with two kids, to an active duty Army officer in Iraq, to suddenly fulfilling the roles of Dad, caretaker, cleaner, cooker, provider, driver, chauffeur, good guy, bad guy, breadwinner, tooth fairy, Santa Claus, birthday planner, shopper, medic, and mentor, does require a bit of an adjustment to the way I approach the days, my awareness of time passing, and to the overall pursuit of happiness and meaning.

All of the things I dreamed about in Iraq I have since experienced time and time again. I have sat beside a mountain stream, fishing, contemplating my place in the world like a character from one of Hemingway's short stories. I have been reunited with family and friends, and spent countless hours with my kids. I've gone to restaurants, movies, and parks with them. I have had conversations with them and laughed out loud one million times.

So now I've swapped the cot for the couch, the machine gun for the microwave. I've changed from a company commander to a member of working class America. Bullets and beans, sand and carpet, HUMMV and S.U.V., day and night, marriage and divorce, helplessness and hopefulness, tears and laughter, thousands of miles of distance and now a hug from my kids each day -- such are the glorious juxtapositions of the life I'm living.

And yet I think about Iraq often, mostly about those still fighting. I empathize. I really can't say how it's all going to end, but I want it to, somehow.

I was gone for 520 days of a 544 day deployment. And I spent 11 and a half months landlocked on that base in the Sunni Triangle, leaving the wire only when I was called upon for combat missions or emergency leave. People often ask me about my experiences there, and I enjoy talking about it. I still use my digital photos from Iraq as a desktop background or screensaver sometimes, to remind me.

I live beside these Utah Mountains but sometimes send my thoughts back to the dark Atlantic, tracing my journey from the start. They travel below the surface of the water, looking imploringly up into the sky and stars. They leap out of the ocean and mingle with the dust in the air at Kuwait International Airport, dry and excited by the turbulence. They follow me into Iraq where I smoked a cigarette in the dark, praying alone before the attack helicopter flight that would finally land me in Ramadi. But then they race out ahead, arcing over the concertina wire and concrete barriers, over the homes of the Iraqis, and finally angling down into the F.O.B. like a rocket's projectile. But they won't harm anyone. They'll just slink and drift around the familiar base, a daydream waiting for me there, forever, like a loyal dog.

Here is the chapel. The chow hall. Charlie Med. My old room. The gym. The bunkers I crouched down in. The old BMW we confiscated and drove around the F.O.B. The Internet café. The bridge of pallets across the vast muddy spaces. The room where I received a life transforming Red Cross message. The endless sandbags that created their own dirty geography. South Gate. Observation Post. The confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates. The lonely palm trees praying for photosynthesis.

This concept we call time -- this unstoppable momentum -- has certainly begun to heal my invisible wounds since I've been home. The worst memories have gathered a light coat of dust. A mother lost during a deployment can now be watched on old home videos while the good kind of tears come, the kind that slow down on the crease of a smile. I've witnessed the sun glinting off the windshield of my mechanically miraculous car as I drive through a canyon in the evening at dusk and found it just as fascinating and surreal as the play of wind on trees in summer, especially the sounds they make, and the way they look at dusk when light dies a beautiful symbolic death. I have become more grateful for my life than ever before.

A friend of mine has a tattoo on his back. It is a flaming yellow sun with the words "Time Heals Nothing" around it. He had it done months after a nasty divorce. He and I always disagreed about the word choice back then, but that was over ten years ago. I remember telling him that the word "nothing" should be replaced by "all." And sitting here thinking about all that's happened, I still feel the same way about his ink.

These deep etchings in the grain of my awareness, these phenomena of human interaction and growth and parenthood, quick cold breaths of remembrance, share the air with that distant desert now bleached with blood and baked by the convection oven star we call Sun. But I live in the present, not the past, and I can see my future reflected in the shine on the retinas of the two kids sitting in the backseat of my very existence and smiling with their eyes in the rear view mirror as I accelerate and merge across this big 16-lane interstate of a world. I turn on the blinker and smile back at them.

NIGHTTIME IN SHADES OF GREEN |

February 14, 2008

NIGHTTIME IN SHADES OF GREEN
Name
: Old Blue
Posting date: 2/14/08
Stationed in: Afghanistan
Milblog url: billandbobsexcellentafghanadventure

I stand on the metal roof of a district center in a small town in eastern Afghanistan. The sun has just gone down, and the chill in the air is cutting. I am warm, though. The Army-issue cold weather system components that I am wearing are doing their job. I'm glad that I changed my socks just prior to climbing the 2x4 homemade ladder to the exposed metal roof.

The sky has darkened, but there is a faint residual glow in the southwest where the sun has only recently fled behind the mountains, bound for my favorite side of the world. The moon has not risen yet. The fields are dark. The dim lights of the gas station across the road barely light the area around the single pump.

Shadowy figures move about the bazaar; men in man-jammies and thin wool blankets that provide the traditional "coat" perform their final evening checks and securing of personal property and storefronts by flashlight. A dog barks. Another down the street answers.

I reach up and pull the AN/PVS-14 monocular night vision device, or NOD (Night Observation Device) into place. It is mounted to a plate screwed into the front of my helmet on a metal device that allows it to be lowered into position directly in front of my eye. I rotate the switch and my right eye is instantly bathed in green light. Suddenly the shadowy figures are distinct as men, clearly visible as they make their evening rounds. The ANP guard on the road in front of the ANP khalat headquarters walks slowly around in a circle to keep warm. The primitive gas station is bathed in light.

A dog canters up the street, meets its neighbor, and they are joined by a third.

The dogs of Afghanistan live short, brutal lives. They are often mistreated by Afghans, who do not appear to treat any animals with affection. During daylight, they skulk about and appear skittish; but at night they come into their own. Suddenly the sprightly step that we are accustomed to seeing from dogs is in evidence. They now own the town, and their changed attitude displays their comfort.

A few men are making their way home, walking along the newly paved main road. Two men drive a pair of cows along in the traditional way; using a long switch with which they transmit their intent to the tethered beast. The cows, resigned, plod along unconcernedly.

My NODs detect a faint glow in the distance. I know that a vehicle is coming long before any light is visible or any sound is heard. I can see the headlights playing across the mountainside as the vehicle twists along the road a couple of miles away. My left eye, naked to the darkness, detects none of this, but the enhanced right eye is fully aware.

As it approaches, the car illuminates the two men and their cattle briefly, then passes them and pulls into the tiny gas station, honking its Toyota horn for the old man who runs the station. He comes out the door, and I hear Pashtu as the driver asks for fuel. The station owner agrees and bends to start the gasoline engine that powers the lone pump. I direct my attention back to the two men with their cattle. In the distance, I see two dark shapes apparently stationary about 600 meters down the road across the fields. I  reach for my M-4/M-203 and turn on the power on the PEQ-2 laser sight. I double-tap the button and the laser floodlight with the bright aiming dot in the center lights the field in front of me. I train it on the two dark shapes and see the two cows. I wonder what's going on. Where are the two men?

Moments later the cows begin moving again, and the men are again in evidence. One was probably answering the call of nature, unaware that his cows were spotlit in the glow of an invisible laser and observed by a curious American hundreds of meters away in the darkness.

I note that the driver of the car and the gas station owner have concluded their business. The station owner has shut down the generator and locked his pump. The driver is paying him, probably in rupees, and getting back into his car to continue up the valley. I scan the fields and the distant khalats.

Two of the khalats in this part of my sector of responsibility have some sort of power, possibly solar arrays like the district center, storing the electricity generated in what appear to be a series of car batteries. I note that one of them is not showing lights tonight, then notice that the tree in the center is lit from beneath. Ahhh… so they are home.

I can see several hundred meters at this point, but I glance at the mountains to the west and note that the mountaintops are lit. Not noticeable to the naked eye, the moon is beginning to rise, and it lights the mountaintops first. Just the reflected light from the distant mountains makes the fields in front of me easier to see. The NODs sparkle in the dim starlight, an indication that there is not enough light for a crystal clear image. But I can still see very well.

The three dogs bark a challenge from the road in front of the gas station. I look to see the orientation of the dogs, then follow that line to the object of their attention; a single dog is intently sniffing something out in the fields, two hundred and fifty meters from the dogs on the road. I begin to have an appreciation for the night vision of dogs. I cannot see the lone dog in the field with my naked eye. I note that the wind probably did not carry the scent in that direction. They have seen the lone dog, not smelled it.

The dogs trot up into the fields, giving short barks of challenge. The lone interloper breaks for home, and the chase is on. The three dogs from the road are in full pursuit. It appears that one may catch him, but the chase is called off, and the victorious three trot back in obvious triumph, tails erect and bobbing slightly to and fro, heads held high; the light trot of the victor.

The gas station owner comes from the front door and calls quietly to one of the dogs. The other two, obviously interested, keep their distance. The man is feeding the darker colored collie-like dog that nearly caught the interloper moments before. Ahh… his dog. This dog is his early warning device. The man shoos the other two from his dog's food and goes inside. As soon as the door shuts, the two emerge from the darkness to feed alongside their friend.

Movement in the foreground; between the district center and the road there is a mosque. In the yard around the mosque a man is moving slowly, as if picking a spot. He is. Once he has chosen, he assumes a squat, head bowed. I know the posture instantly; he is urinating. Afghan men assume a squat when they perform this task, opening the enormous top of their man-jammie trousers, which have no fly. The long tails of the tops provide a certain level of privacy. As long as they have their back to the world, they are unobserved.

The two dogs that do not belong to the gas station owner are frolicking while the owned dog eats. It is a mating dance. I scan to the right and note that the moonlight is making its way down to the base of the mountains to the west, the reflected moon glare from the mountains lighting the fields more and more. Movement; the eye is drawn… a golden jackal is beginning its nightly foray. The dogs, distracted by other instincts, do not notice. The jackal moves about the fields unmolested, working his way northwest.

My hands are cold. I place them into my body armor at the arm holes, thrusting my hands in behind the twenty pound ceramic ballistic front plate; an excellent insulator, as I discovered in the Afghan summer. It still works just as well, but the effect is now appreciated.

More vehicle traffic; a couple of trucks. Their headlights cause a halo in my NODs, but I can see into the beds before they are clear. The ANP at the checkpoint on the road stops them and gives a cursory check. The trucks move on. Badly tuned Russian diesels clatter through the bazaar, heading north. Quiet settles in again.

"Whoa! Oh whoa batcha!" the ANP calls out into the darkness.

"Whoa!" comes the response, fainter, from up the road.

"Whoa!" a third, further up the road.

Satisfied, the ANP resumes his small patrol around the few shops in his sector. He will repeat this call at irregular intervals throughout his time on guard, as will the man who succeeds him. It is their communications check.

The moonlit area is edging towards the district center across the fields. The mountains to the west, miles away, are lit in brilliant green relief. The folds and contours of the mountains appear almost animated in the green glow of the NODs. Drawn in shades of green, the texture altered subtly by the black and white contrast effect of the image intensifier, the mountains appear more distinct. The snow on the angular surfaces increases this effect. The overall impression is one of stark majesty, as if the mountain were newly thrust skyward, cutting like a shark's tooth through the earth's crust; all viewed through an emerald lens.

As the moon clears the mountain, it seems to accelerate. I can actually see the motion of the moon progressing over the mountain. In the NODs it is as bright as a car headlight, creating an aura around it in the image intensifier. I glance back at the fields, now aglow.

The clarity of the image is fantastic. I can see for hundreds of meters in the distance, and motion is especially obvious. Any dim light is magnified hundreds of times, so that the glow of a flashlight is evident far off in the distance. Someone is moving in the ANP checkpoint, half a mile distant.  Car headlights up a small sub valley a few miles away carom off of the mountainsides, giving advance notice of a vehicle's approach.

Glancing further right, I see another glow; a flare, followed by a pinpoint of light. Someone has taken a drag off of a cigarette, bathing the area around him in infrared light, which I can see.

I quickly scan the entire area again and turn my gaze upwards. The Milky Way is unbelievable when viewed through a PVS-14. There are easily a hundred times more stars visible, densely packed into the sky like salt spilled on a backlit green tablecloth. While the NODs destroy depth perception, I can still see the incredible depth of the universe. I consciously remind myself that I am seeing stars that I have never seen before, looking so deeply into space that I have never been able to perceive before.

The enormity of creation is mind-boggling. Here I sit in the Afghan night, watching on the off chance that some lunatic might try to carry harm our way, pondering the imponderable. I am so small, in this little valley in the backcountry of Afghanistan, somewhere in Asia on this planet whizzing through space as part of a solar system that is so impossibly tiny in comparison to this galaxy; which is one among God knows how many thousands or millions more. I stand amazed in the darkness, allowing myself to feel the awesome power of creation; a luxury in the crisp night air. I bring myself back into the near reality.

The dogs have consummated their dance, and are lolling in the frigid dust a hundred and fifty meters away while the collie-like alarm dog stands and stares at them. The jackal is five hundred meters west, detectable only because of its motion. It disappears behind a khalat wall. Dogs in the distance, becoming aware of the jackal, bark in the nighttime chorus of Afghanistan.

* khalat:
    A (usually) mud-walled compound enclosing the family area. The actual house is typically built against the back wall, although sometimes they are on more than one wall. The walls are usually 15 to 25 feet high and are three feet thick at the base. They are tough enough to withstand .50 caliber fire.
    The khalat usually has a metal gate, like the one in this Sandbox post. Sometimes the gate is much wider if they have a vehicle they park inside. Some khalat compounds are very large, 35 to 50 meters on a side. They are generally square or rectangular, and often have turreted tower-like structures at one or more corners -- lending the appearance that inspired me to refer to this as "The Land of Sandcastles." The walls are usually made of sandy mud mixed with straw, but in some areas they use stacked stones, which may or may not be cemented. The uncemented ones are amazing. Nobody can stack stones like the Afghans.

 

IN THE ZONE |

February 13, 2008

IN THE ZONE
Name: MSGT Ken Mahoy
Posting date: 2/13/08
Stationed in: Afghanistan
Milblog: Third Time's A Charm

Some days I really love my job. We can moan and complain all we want about the living conditions here, the weather, the absence of most amenities we enjoy back in the states, much less the fact that there is an element of danger living here, but every now and then there are weeks when you realize why you’re here. This week was one of those.

It is easy to forget sometimes that there is still a war going on, if you are not here. The lion’s share of what I do each and every day you never hear about because, well, it’s boring. At least I think so. But also because it’s just not the sort of thing that most people want to hear about. We are a society -- scratch that -- a country that’s fed up with the War on Terror, and while most support those of us who are serving their country, most don’t want to hear the details of what actually goes on in Afghanistan, Iraq and abroad. It was also my choice not to brow-beat the war efforts into any of you reading my posts. But allow me this rare instance to speak a little about what an average day is like for me here when I’m “working".

I have set hours that I am supposed to be “in the office” so-to-speak, but we all kind of chuckle at that posted schedule because we are always there before, during, and after our posted hours. Case in point, I worked 21 hours yesterday, slept four hours, and then worked 19 hours today (I really should be in bed now!).

My days typically begin around 5 am with a quick check of email after putting on my uniform, and then the usual cold jaunt across the compound to the chow hall to get breakfast. A quick cappuccino on my way out, and off to the Comm Shack I go.

I am considered a “maintenance group” guy and I am the NCOIC (Non-Commissioned Officer in Charge) of the other enlisted “maintenance” guys here. Our day began with a problem for the “operations” guys in the command post (called the CJOC –- Combined Joint Operations Center), and when I went to respond to it, there was a TIC (Troops In Contact -– basically our troops were in a firefight) going on to the east. We couldn’t scramble any aircraft out to help them by providing close air support, because the systems I support were not working. Sparing you the details, the “fix” was dependent upon another admin from another unit elsewhere on base fixing the server I had no access to. That required me to go to the “helpdesk” and ask for their assistance.

In my years in this business, and especially through my past deployments, I’ve learned that there are times when you can't be the "nice guy", and have to be a thorn in someone’s side to get the desired results you want -– if  there is a sufficient emergency to warrant it. This was one such occasion.

I went to the helpdesk, cut in line past four other people -- much to their chagrin -- and explained my situation. The answer I got back was, “You’ll have to wait, they don’t come into work until 11:30.”

Heh heh...What followed was a heated conversation with a fellow Master Sergeant that I’m not particularly proud of, but he quickly got a new sense of urgency and heeded my demands that he get “what’s-his-name” out of bed -- NOW! –- and get him in here to fix this problem. “Ummm. Okay. I’ll send someone to get him.”

“No! YOU will go get him now and then come find me at the ASOC desk in the CJOC!” I replied. (Okay, so I was a little hot under the collar. But our guys in the field were in a firefight, with no help, and this guy is moaning about having to wake someone up to help? Come on!)

Soon, “what’s-his-name” was in. He fumbled around for ten minutes and then determined that he didn’t know how to fix the problem. What?! He then told me that there was one other person who could fix it but she was not there either. Well what do you think happened next? (*grin* -- any takers?) Yep, I made him wake her up as well.

While she was working on the problem, I went to do what I could back in the CJOC. Scotti had just left to go to bed after yet another double-shift (like he’s been doing for the past week). He'd been trying to get a system working which provides a Predator feed (an unmanned aerial vehicle that flies over and provides reconnaissance video to us) back to the CJOC. After fighting night and day for a week he had finally just got this system working, and went to bed exhausted, knowing that he had accomplished what he set out to do.

Less than 30 minutes after he left, one of our CH-47 Chinook helicopters crash-landed east of here. We were immediately able to get a video of the downed chopper up on the large screen on the wall so that we could direct efforts to scramble aircraft to protect it, send another Blackhawk and Apache helo’ out to provide support, and send an A-team out as well to provide security as they rescued the 13 people that were on that helo’.

Without the Predator feed that Scotti got working none of this would have been possible. And he slept through the whole thing! But he while he slept off the exhaustion of the past week, he helped save the lives of four crew members and nine very grateful  passengers.

As the day went on, we had four or five other TICs that we responded to, and I had various other computer system “glitches”, which always appear as a result of a new team coming in to work. Call it “turnover terror” if you will. There are only so many things an outgoing unit can tell us in three or four days' time, so all these “glitches” were ones they had experienced as well but just forgot to tell us about, or didn’t have an answer for.

Ugh. I ran around from office to office, compound to compound all day throughout these emergencies to finally come to a point where I was almost done with my double-shift as well. Then we had Italian and German military guys come to the Comm Shack, upset because they'd destroyed one of their satellite antenna cables. We didn’t have a spare one to give them, so we soldered and repaired it for them.

Later that night we had a scheduled outage of our satellite to upgrade our bandwidth. It was using modems, terminals, GPS clocks and other equipment that we’ve never even seen before, much less used. What was supposed to be a two-hour downtime ended up taking five hours, but we accomplished in one attempt what the preceding unit hadn't been able to figure out in three previous attempts over the course of the entire year they were here in Afghanistan!

A couple days ago we made national news because of a TIC we maintained that lasted for over 21 hours with no lives lost. Today we simultaneously controlled aircraft for five TICs, one of which lasted for over 20 hours.

Anyway, I am not saying all of this to put a feather in our cap. I am just really proud of the guys here and the job they have been doing and continue to do. It’s the sort of thing that reminds you why you chose the military and why you love what you do. We’ve had little time to get spun up on what the outgoing unit left for us, but despite that fact, I can comfortably say “We are in the zone!”

DEAR JOHN |

February 12, 2008

DEAR JOHN
Name: LT G
Posting date: 2/12/08
Stationed in: Iraq
Hometown: Reno, NV
Milblog: Kaboom: A Soldier's War Journal

The first of my guys received a Dear John letter the other day. (Well, to be completely accurate, it was a Myspace message. Whatever. Same concept, new century.) While I'm not surprised it happened, I am a bit perturbed that it happened in the first freakin' month of our deployment. Who knows how many more Dear Johns await the Gravediggers. Here's hoping that my illustrious and beautiful girlfriend, City Girl, at least has the decency to Facebook my Dear John letter -- a Facebook message is way more classy than a Myspace message. (I kid, I kid ... not about Facebook being more classy, though.)

Anyways, if you're unfamiliar with the contents of a Dear John letter, or are interested in penning one yourself, I've gone ahead and drawn up a template. All you have to do is fill in the specifics. You are more than welcome. Remember, I'm here to serve you. And yes, I'm aware that my writing can occasionally slip into the anachronistic and mysogynistic. Sometimes such is fair, sometimes not. This definitely falls into the former category, given the situation that sparked this post.

Dear (insert rank and name here):

Hi. I know it’s been a while since I’ve written. I’ve gotten all your letters...it’s just hard, you know? With you in (insert foreign nation here) fighting in (insert war from American history here), it’s not like things back home have been easy. Or simple. I don’t really know how to say this, so I’m just going to tell you like it is:

I’ve met someone else. His name is Jody. I swear to God, I wasn’t looking for anything like this to happen -- it just did and now we’re in love.

I know you have to hate me. I promised that this would never happen to us, but it did. Life’s funny like that, isn’t it? While you’re half a world away, getting shot at for a living by (insert enemy here), protecting freedom, justice, and the American way of life, I’m discovering my inner concubine, getting penetrated by Jody’s inferior geothermal thunderstick on a nightly basis. But he’s a far better cuddler than you ever were, he flatters me every morning, and he communicates with me! Imagine that, you insensitive prick.

What else needs to be said? You’re probably going to go crazy now, so you should recommend to your C.O. that he take away your weapon for a couple of days. Suck it up, tough guy -- remember, like you always told your friends, you can’t make a ho a housewife.

From your former dream forsaking you to a lifetime of what-ifs,

(insert every horribly negative term for a female here)

P.S. I’m keeping the dog.

STOP KICKING ME |

February 11, 2008

STOP KICKING ME
Name: RN Clara Hart
Posting date: 2/11/08
Stationed in: a military hospital in the U.S.
Email: clarahart2@yahoo.com

"Will you please stop kicking me!" I scolded the soldier standing next to me. "I'm going to report you for nurse abuse if you don't!"

He stood there and with a look of "Who me?" on his face. "They'd never believe you. They'd take one look at me and cart you off."

"Yeah, you're right," I said. “But, really now, QUIT KICKING ME!” Giving up, I shared a laugh with the man.

A bilateral leg amputee, he was kicking me with his prosthetic legs and having quite a jolly time. In frustration I kicked him back, which only served to make him laugh harder.

"That didn't hurt a bit."

The sad part is that he does hurt. He and other veterans like him suffer daily with phantom pain, suffer daily with nerve pain and pain that takes over their lives. It becomes all-consuming and never-ending. Life as they knew it ceases to exist. They suffer from pain you cannot take enough medications to make go away. Marriages suffer, families are torn apart, and the mental anguish is indescribable.

I recently sat in a meeting and listened to an OEF veteran talk about dealing with his pain. For three years, after many, many surgeries, an amputation, and ongoing physical therapy, his pain persists. He often wonders if the pain will ever go away, and he admits to fleeting thoughts of suicide. And he is not alone! As I sit here right now at least dozen of my former patients come to mind.

Although it is almost impossible, try and place yourself in this position. Can you even begin to imagine how living with pain every minute of every hour of every day would affect you? What kind of life you would have?

I often hear people make the comment, "I wish there were something I could do." Here's a suggestion: Legislation has been proposed which would give our OIF/OEF veterans better resources, benefits and assistance when it comes to pain and its impact on their lives. You can learn about it by going to the American Pain Foundation's website and clicking on "Military/Veterans and Pain". On this site you will find plenty of ways to assist our wounded warriors. Only when we understand better and take the initiative to make our voices heard will change come about. They need our help!

ASHURA |

February 08, 2008

ASHURA
Name: Gruntshit
Posting date: 2/8/08
Stationed in: Iraq
Hometown: Clarkston, Washington
Milblog: The Angry American

Framed_gruntshit_ashura_1_3 The last couple of days have found us pretty busy. Today we were able to take a break and tend to maintenance with the vehicles and other annoying shitty admin things that have to be taken care of. The Iraqis are celebrating Ashura right now. I don't know if "celebrating" is the right term, maybe "mourning" the Ashura. Essentially the Ashura is "a major festival, the tazia (ta'ziyah). It commemorates the death of Husayn (also spelled Hussein), son of Imam 'Ali and grandson of Muhammad, on the 10th of Muharram, AH 61 (October 10, 680), in Karbala, Iraq. The event led to the split between the Sunni and Shia sects of Islam, and it is of central importance in Shia Islam." Like on any Iraqi holiday the streets and Mosques are decorated with the colors of Islam: Green is Islam, Red is Sacrifice, White is Purity, and Black is for Martyrdom.

Framed_gruntshit_ashura_2 Our balls-to-the-wallage began with going out and taking pictures of billboards, to make sure that there were not any anti-ISF, or anti-coalition sayings on them. This kinda prompted me to start taking more pictures of billboards, but that is for another post. The downside to this was driving up and down the main roads, which in recent days became a hotbed for EFPs. It snowed and hajj got all nutty and broke out the EFPs he had in the shed or something.

After we drove around taking pictures of signs we went and investigated some houses next to where an IED was found. The houses were just squatter shacks, built of mud bricks. I met some kids there who were actually not that annoying, and very lovable. I seldom feel this way but I really wanted to take them home. Maybe it was because they were about my daughters' ages.

Damn the Groundhog Dayness of this place, because I know we did some other shit, but since I didn't write it down I can't even remember what. We did go out and try to give money out to local businesses, and engage the population, and hand out tip cards. We secured an area and waited forever for someone to come out and do a meet-and-greet, but lo and behold, said someone was running late, so we waited an hour for nuthin. But I got to meet the dude with the coolest mustache in all Iraq. I had seen him walking as we drove by about a month ago, and I was totally stoked by his muchacho mustache, a mustache that screams "I'm a fucking bad ass." After talking to him in minced English and Arabic, this guy ended up being a pretty bad ass dude, in a good way.
Framed_gruntshit_ashura_3
Ah, now I remember what we did. We went and looked for supposed militia members renting out supposed houses, and my guys came across some old-school jet fighter helmets and flight suits in one house. It turned out the guy that lived there was once a fighter pilot in Saddam's army, back in the day.

Lately the militia has been threatening the locals, and people who are actually trying to help Iraq and make it better. We went to investigate this on the day before Ashura. People had the decorations up and the neighborhood was friendly enough. Our mission was to get out and talk to the people. You can always tell when you're in a militia-rich environment because the people will tell you, "No meester, no militia here, this is a good area." They will also tell you, "Everything is fine, I cannot talk to you." After they tell us repeatedly at every house on the block that there is no militia, you see these:

Framed_gruntshit_ashura_4

Yup, no militia here!

Framed_gruntshit_ashura_5

Another big indicator is if we try to get a young male alone to talk to him and his family starts freaking out.

The people are either affiliated with the militia in some form or another, or scared to death of them. You won't ever really find a guy willing to rat out the militia, because they know that if they are caught they are going to end up in some remote location with their head missing.

Muqtada called for a ceasefire among the Jaysh Al Mahdi, to "clean house" as some have put it. Other news sources report that he is trying to get on board and make positive changes in Iraq. Hey, I'm all for it. It's been quiet for the most part. It's frustrating because the militia is the major problem we have in our area. Some will tell us "Fuck the Mahdi!", or spit at the name of Muqtada, but you can't always tell if they mean it or if they are hiding something. Maybe they are part of a militia splinter cell and just don't like Muqtada for trying to make Iraq a better place.

One thing for sure is that the Iraqi people fear the militia, and if they would just take a stand against it and help us maybe we could make bigger gains in defeating them. Shit, the Sicilians are starting to unite against the Costra Nostra. From what I understand the Jaysh Al Mahdi was formed in order to protect the Shiia from Sunni violence, but what it boils down to is that they actually bully and terrify their own people. I hope that one day we can just work together for the common good of Iraq, because I think that it has every possibility of being a great nation.

That's about it, other than receiving a lil' info about a possible IED and going to investigate it as if we were some form of EOD*. I hate that shit: "Um, ya we have a possible IED at such and such grid and we are going to investigate it." Does it say EOD on my fucking shoulder patch? No. Why don't you have the experts look for that shit. The only time I seem to find the damn things is after they blow up on my fucking truck.

No, it's not that I'm not looking, cuz I am. I look so hard that when I redeploy it will be months before I'm driving down the interstate not looking for them. It's that they hide the fucking things real good, not to mention that in my mind everything is a possible IED because it doesn't look right, and if it were up to me I'd make EOD clear every five feet of road in front of me and we would never make it anywhere on fucking time...

* EOD: Explosive Ordnance Disposal

THE TALE OF TWO MOUNTAINS |

February 07, 2008

THE TALE OF TWO MOUNTAINS
Name: CAPT Benjamin Tupper
Posting date: 2/7/08
Returned from: Afghanistan

I've told and retold this story many times to friends, counselors, and family. Unfortunately, repetition has not cured me of the need to continually bring it up for reflection and comment.  Even though the events occurred over 15 months ago, they still feel fresh, and urgently in need of expression. They beg an answer, an explanation, which to date no one has been able to provide me.

As any good storyteller knows, a story needs a title. I call this one "The Tale of Two Mountains". One mountain produces a tragicomedy of my own errors that ends in accidental success. On the other mountain a similar mission, well planned and aggressively executed, ends with my buddy dead.

The two mountains lie in Eastern Afghanistan. SFC Bernard Deghand (or "Deg" as we called him) and I were tasked with nearly identical missions. Our objectives were straightforward: to assault the two mountains, destroy Taliban base camps, and kill or capture Taliban fighters. We were both leading Afghan and American soldiers in these assaults. We had both conducted similar missions in the previous months in the same general area. But the similarities end there.

My Afghan and American soldiers attacked a Taliban camp we discovered on a mountain named Tand Ghar. The enemy was routed and their base was destroyed by artillery we requested. Word of this successful mission spread quickly through the media pool, and reporters desperate for a story were summarily embedded into my small group. Within days, my merry band of warriors were heroes in my hometown press. I made it into the pages of newspapers across my home state, and my ugly mug was even on the nightly news in France.

On the other side of the mountain range was my buddy Deg, who by all accounts did everything correctly and by the book on his mountain assault. Yet when his mission ended he lay dead, through no fault of his own.

Framed_tupper_deg_1_2
Artillery shell exploding on the Taliban camp on Tand Ghar.

As I previously mentioned, the details of my success are both comical and embarrassingly sophomoric. For the mission onto Tand Ghar, I had a couple of American soldiers and about fifty Afghans under my command. Despite high hopes for contact, a day had passed in our search without a single enemy encounter. The lack of action, coupled with the heat, pushed us into a careless and carefree mindset.

While having Chai in yet another nameless village, we got intel from the elders that the Taliban in fact had a night camp literally right next to us, on the top of Tand Ghar, a modest but impressive rocky mountain. We checked it out with binos. We had A-10 fighters do a flyover.

Nothing moved. Nothing was spotted. Our initial excitement wilted in the noonday sun.

Despite the lack of activity, I was inclined to lead a climb up Tand Ghar. My fellow American soldiers were skeptical, and pleaded with me not to bother.  Being the Commander, I got the final say in the matter, but I issued a compromise order and said only two squads of us would bother climbing to the top. The majority of Afghans and Americans would remain at the foot of the mountain.

By the time we made it three-quarters of the way up the rocky slope, my group had shrunk from about twenty Afghans to only five, one fellow American, and an interpreter. Having succumbed to the group-think of low expectations, I didn't even bother to bring a radio, or extra ammo, or to advise higher that we were embarking on this climb. I pretty much broke all the rules in the book, due to a complacency honed by months of wild goose chases that turned up nothing. The other American and the interpreter, equally uninspired, decided to shift to the right to get a better view of the valley, and were out of eyesight and earshot.

So it should be no surprise that I nearly dropped a deuce in my ACUs when all the Afghan soldiers, who were about forty meters ahead of me, began firing their AK47s once they crested the ridge.

It was then that I fully realized the depth of my folly. I was on a wide open rocky mountainside with nowhere to take cover, no radio, no interpreter, undermanned, and physically exhausted by the climb and the altitude. And to dramatically add a heaping dose of tragicomedy to this perilous situation, the Afghan soldiers who I'd left down at the base of the mountain mistook me for a Taliban, and fired hundreds of medium and heavy machine gun rounds at me as I moved along the ridge line.

In the end, for reasons that remain unexplained and unknown, the larger, dug-in, and well-defended Taliban force on Tand Ghar decided to run. We routed them off the mountain and destroyed their camp with artillery. Despite my errors, we didn't suffer one friendly casualty.

Framed_tupper_deg_2_2

Deg, on the last mission the two of us did together.

And then there is my buddy Deg.  He had many things going for him for his mission.  His mountain assault was well planned, as he had days to prepare for it. He and his Afghan soldiers had even war-gamed the assault with the American units that were also involved. He had a larger force of Afghans in the fight than I had, more Americans on his left and right, and an interpreter literally by his side. He had radios, ammo, and everything that should have guaranteed success.

But it didn't. He was shot and killed by enemy small arms fire as he moved up his mountain.

At this part of the story I ask myself, "Why? Why did I live, and Deg die?" A good story should have a proper ending, an explanation that puts everything in place and makes sense of the facts presented. A "moral of the story", if you will, seems necessary here given the severity of the outcome for Deg. Yet my story doesn't have these things. Instead it leaves the audience to consider such an unlikely outcome for both parties, and an equally frustrated, guilt-ridden and confused storyteller.

In the end, I'm left with some pictures I took of Tand Ghar, some newspaper clippings of my "success", coupled with some of articles about Deg's death, and a sense of remorse that maybe the wrong guy made it home alive.


A NEW HOPE |

February 06, 2008

A NEW HOPE
Name: The Usual Suspect
Posting date: 2/6/08
Stationed in: Iraq
Milblog url: theunlikelysoldier

All right, before I bust another literary nut with reckless abandon and no consideration, I think I owe some of you an explanation.

I'm not a hateful rebellious little bastard 24/7. I've still got the ol' priorities straight, I still stay as sharp as I can out in sector, and I know better than to get myself in trouble with my superiors. It breaks down like this, chief:

This was a nice, heartwarming little blog all nice and generally innocent and tongue in cheek. But shit started to catch up with me. I was having nightmares about Iraq every night, not sleeping for shit. Getting stressed the hell out over stupid shit, losing my patience, damn near having anxiety/anger attacks. Heading towards a level of crazy that Pink Floyd could never fathom.

It got to the point where I said "Fuck it." I told my platoon sergeant that if he could let me stay back, and count it as an off day, I had something I needed to take care of. I didn't tell him what. Then I took my raw nerves and rabid ass to see the combat stress docs. I filled out paperwork, answered literally hundreds of questions, I threw it all out there for them. Opened the floodgates. Talked about explosions and whizzing bullets and dead bodies and losing guys, the kind of guys you wish would always be around. I straight up popped a verbal X-Lax and went to town on these guys.

They stood there, nodding, and then they gave me fucking Benadryl as a sleep aid. I could have gone to the PX, bought some myself, and been done with the whole ordeal in a half hour. When I came back for a follow-up, they told me I have some PTSD symptoms (nothing too extreme thank God) and a strange case of depression in which I have absolutely no feelings of sadness. Granted, the questions they have you answer on paper don't leave much room for explanation, so I brushed that one off.

Here's the kicker. You know what they told me?

"Suspect, what you should do, is you should start writing about what you experience here. You'll find that it's a great outlet and it's very therapeutic."

I'm reminded of A Perfect Circle's "The Package" as I nod and nod and acknowledge and try to get them to get to the point, the end result, so I can go on about my business. Where they stop jerking me around and tell me "This is what's going to happen." I nodded my head through two hours of foreplay to find that it was all just a cocktease.

The Benadryl left me groggy and feeling like shit the next day. All that horseshit about Combat Stress Control being a great program and really helping soldiers, all the pamphlets and smiling Joes shaking hands with Majors and everyone's completely carefree, it's all just another handjob for the mind. In the picture, everyone's happy and having a great time, but where are the guys that were killed out here? Where's all that baggage that brought Joe in there?

Maybe I just wasn't sent to the right exorcist.

I finally just got fed up. I sat down at the computer one night and realized that I wasn't even being honest with myself, and as a result, I wasn't being honest with anyone who reads this. So, ladies and gentlemen, the gloves came off. I stopped pulling punches and I let it all out, full bore, Shotgun Journalism, raw and full of piss and vinegar, with a lot of ignorance and lack of wisdom, because that's what Joe is. He's uninformed and sees only the little picture, and it's a fucked up little picture too, and he gets pissed, and he bitches and fumes.

This shit-for-brains blog became a drain, and as a routine, I'd sit down and cut open that putrid vein and bleed all the bullshit out. And you know what? Since taking off the Disney label, I haven't had one nightmare about Iraq. I've slept like a baby, and I haven't come even close to losing it.

The downside is, as great as I feel, you hardly ever get to see it. You get the Hate, the dump. Because if I wasn't writing about that, I wouldn't be writing at all. Nothing interesting has happened lately.

So there you have it. With that said, let's move right along for your Feel-Good Moment.

I was behind the wheel of a God-knows-how-many ton green monster, flying down the road past districts and towns and villages, eyeballing the sides of the road, avoiding anything that might even be confused as something suspicious, checking out the people outside, looking at the rooftops, the windows, pretty much everything you can take in while traveling forty miles an hour.

We turned a corner and passed a bunch of Iraqi Army vehicles, something we normally look down on, when something dawned on me.

They had the area cordoned (blocked) off, and they were clearing an entire village. By themselves. No Americans helping them out. And it looked like they were doing it right. I was blown away. I did a double take and damn near went off the road.

It wasn't monumental, but dammit, it was something. I felt good about that. So who knows, maybe there's still hope for this hellhole.

TIMES ARE CHANGING |

February 05, 2008

TIMES ARE CHANGING
Name: SPC Beaird
Posting date: 2/5/07
Stationed in: Afghanistan
Milblog url: allexpensespaidafghanvacation

Things have been pretty busy around here lately. Missions and QRF have been keeping us quite active, and there's lots to do organizing mounds of clothes and gear to figure out the final packing list heading home and getting our footlockers ready to ship. And in the free time I have had I’ve been extremely lazy and tried to sleep as much as possible. It helps the down times go by that much faster.

Among the many things that you see or think about differently while on a deployment is the weather and seasons. Being here forces you to look at those things from a new perspective and for new purposes. Each change is vivid and noticeable.

I arrived in Afghanistan at the end of March. The mountains still had snow on their caps, and much of the terrain was green from a spring bloom. We were told both by our higher ups and by the news that the Taliban was mounting a “spring offensive” and we were coming in at the kick-off point. As the warming weather melted the snow in the mountain passes it would free up routes used by the bad guys coming from Pakistan, who are supposedly just seasonal fighters. Though this year was the most violent year yet in Afghanistan, the spring offensive was over-hyped, and not as intense as we expected.

In the summertime the 120 degree heat is amplified ten-fold when you add in having to wear your $6,000 worth of gear that weighs 60-70 pounds. Somehow you sweat so much even the cover on the outside of your helmet gets a sweat stain. With the scorching temps, most all of the green in the land withered away and turned brown with the exception of areas closest to rivers. The heat and lack of any rain was a perfect recipe for stirring up a fine moon-dust that would always seem to coat everything.

A lot of the crops in the summer were full grown, making it easy cover for someone trying to hide from us. Is that guy ducking down in the field just tending to his crops, taking a piss, or is he prepping the trigger device for an IED with your name on it?

The fall became harvest season and the tall crops came down, making it easier for us to scan an area.

Winter came seemingly overnight, and more concealing landscaping was taken away as many of the trees in the river valley shed their leaves. Winter also brought back snow to some of the mountains, and reminded us that time is moving on and seasons are changing and we’re that much closer to heading home. As the temperatures drop, the locals layer up their clothing to stay warm. These bulkier clothes, however, make it seem easier to hide weapons or a suicide vest underneath. Now you have to look extra hard when scanning people for being suspicious, because a dude with a big puffy jacket that may be hiding a suicide vest doesn’t stick out in a crowd like he used to during the summer, when the choice of clothing is much lighter.

Typically the “transient Taliban” take a vacation in the winter and head back to Pakistan before it gets too cold and the routes they use become snowed in. However, there are plenty of local bad guys in just about every province in the country to keep us busy with ongoing activity. The unit we replaced lost a couple people in the winter months last year, so we know all too well to keep our guard up and that it’s not really over till it’s over and we’re stepping on that chopper out of here.

Towards the end of winter comes the rainy season. During the past month we’ve had more rain than we’d seen the entire time up until then. Heavy rains also tend to bring a lot of flooding, erosion, and the washing up of old mines, grenades, and sub-munitions from the Soviet era, giving us lots to do with the task of getting rid of them. (One mission that was originally planned for picking up one of these, turned into finding three total, placing them all together and having our EOD guys wire up a nice little demolition explosion.)* The rainy season also means less air traffic with choppers, with longer layover times between bases, and the mail doesn’t come as often.

The changing seasons means shortening and lengthening of daylight hours, and the illumination of the moon comes into play also. You acutely notice the changing times of sunrise and sunset when there is a complete light blackout policy on your FOB outside any building at night. Am I going to need my flashlight just to go to the chow hall or latrine tonight? Does the bright moonlight mean I need to stay extra alert tonight for that mission? The bad guys like to work more on the nights when the moon is close to full.

Being here forces you to analyze and notice your surroundings differently.

*Speaking of explosions, here's a video I call "Boom". Enjoy.

HAMID AND THE GIANT PURPLE LIZARD |

February 04, 2008

HAMID AND THE GIANT PURPLE LIZARD
Name: CAPT Doug Traversa
Posting date: 2/4/08
Returned from: Afghanistan
Milblog: Afghanistan Without A Clue

Here’s another episode of Hamid and Doug Ponder the Universe. My little story has no real bearing on either the origins of the Qur’an or the resurrection of Jesus. It has a great deal to do with the nature of faith and evidence. I hesitate to share this because some Christian will assume I am trying to prove there was no resurrection (I am not), or some Muslim will become irate because I misrepresent Islam (I do not; I merely relate, verbatim, what Hamid told me, accurate or not). With that little caveat, let us proceed.

One thing that strikes me (with a great deal of force) about the Afghans I’ve met is their absolute certainty that Islam is true and the Qur’an has the answer to all of life’s problems. The notion that Islam isn’t true, or might not be true, never crosses their minds. Of course, this only applies to the ones I’ve discussed religion with, but I think it represents the majority of people over here. You are either a believer or you have deliberately chosen to reject God. The concept of being undecided or an agnostic is hard for them to grasp. This conversation will help illustrate what I mean.

Hamid and I were discussing holy books. He finds the notion of multiple religions fascinating, and always asks if the religion we are discussing has a holy book.

“Sir,” he commented, “you know that the Qur’an wrote itself. This is what the Prophet said.”

“Hamid, as I mentioned before, you weren’t there, and neither was anyone else alive today. If you want to believe that the Qur’an wrote itself, you have to take it on faith.”

“Fate?” he asked.

"No, faith, F-A-I-T-H,” I said, spelling it out. Hamid often asks me to spell new words for him. He is a diligent student of English.

"What is this?” he asked.

“You’ve never heard of faith?” I responded in surprise.

“No, what is it?”

“Faith is when you believe something without any evidence. Most religions require you to believe things on faith. When you believe the Qur’an wrote itself, you believe that by faith.”

“But sir, the Prophet said it happened,” Hamid protested.

“Yes, but how do you know he said this?  Like I’ve said to you before, you weren’t there, so you don’t know exactly what he may have written or said. You don’t have the original Qur’an, just like we don’t have the original scriptures that make up the Bible. People believe these are God’s word based on faith.”

“You make another good point. I don’t know if we have the original Qur’an or not.”

This conversation occurred shortly after Easter, so Hamid asked about the holiday.

“The Major was telling me about your Prophet, Yeesus (this is how he pronounces it).”

“You mean Jesus?” I corrected.

“Yes. He told me that 500 people saw him after he was resurrected,” said Hamid.

“Yes, that’s was written by the apostle Paul, one of the main leaders of Christianity. However, even that still requires faith. Let me tell you a story, to show you what I mean. Suppose I told you that last night, right here at Camp Phoenix, I caught a giant purple lizard that ate rocks.” I held my hands about three feet apart to show how big my purple lizard was. “Not only that, it could fly! Would you believe me?”

Hamid got that bemused look on his face that he gets when I start making him think too hard. He laughed. “No, I would need to see it myself. Would you believe me if I told you this?”

I smiled. “Very good. I would need to see it too. But what if I said that 500 people here at Camp Phoenix also saw the lizard? Would you believe me then?”

He paused, looked closely at me, and replied, “No. I would need to see it.”

I feigned indignation.  “But 500 people saw it!  Don’t you believe me?”

“No, I would want to see it.”

“That’s good, but can’t you find another flaw in my story? Can’t you think of another question to ask?”

He shook his head.  “No, I’m not sure what you are asking.”

“I told you 500 people had seen this lizard. You think it’s a pretty crazy story. Wouldn’t you want to talk to these 500 people?”

“Yes, that would be good,” he conceded.

“But what if I couldn’t tell you the names of any of them, and you couldn’t speak to any of them?  What would you think?”

At this point Hamid was lost, so I stopped.

Hamid, here’s my point. Paul wrote that 500 people saw Jesus after he rose from the dead. This may be true, but he did not give the names of any of these people. So 500 people with no names, and no way to talk to them, proves nothing. I always hated it in church when this was used as a proof of the resurrection, because logically it isn’t. But it’s not the sort of question you would ask in church. The same is true with your view of the Qur’an. You believe the Qur’an wrote itself. This may be true. But you have no evidence of this. You must believe it based on faith. Do you understand what I’m saying? Just because I say 500 people saw a giant purple, rock-eating, flying lizard doesn’t make it true, does it?”

“Oh, sir, you have such tough questions. I have never heard things like this.”

At this point I had mercy on Hamid and we moved on to other topics. But despite his protestations, he always came back for more. Maybe one day we can meet again here, and he and I can sit on my back porch discussing the meaning of life, the universe, and everything.

FROM HERO TO ZERO |

February 01, 2008

FROM HERO TO ZERO
Name: Toby Nunn
Posting date: 2/1/08
Stationed in: Kuwait / Iraq
Hometown: Oakland, CA via Terrace BC CANADA
Milblog url: tobynunn.typepad.com

I really can't participate in my hobbies over here, other than MMA* training, but one thing that I have been able to do is read. I get my hands on a book every now and then, but mainly I read the papers. Yes, I read the papers when possible.

My good friend Deborah hooked me up with a New York Times subscription, and we get the Stars and Stripes on a pretty regular basis. These are very contrasting papers, one left and the other that caters to its military readership, so it's good to see more than one thing. Don't get me wrong, I am not confessing to be a liberal or a conservative. It's no secret I am pro soldier, but that does not make me a face or commercial for a propaganda campaign either.

I don't get my headlines from the papers because they are usually a little behind. The New York Times gets in about a week after print date, and the Stars and Stripes is 48 hours to a week off. For instance, we only recently read about the Michigan primary results.

I was sitting at my desk after finishing some paperwork and picked up the latest paper I'd received via mail. On the front page was a story about soldiers, marines and service members returning to the U.S. and getting into trouble with the law, mainly for killing. Of course this intrigued me, so I read the front page portion and followed it into the back pages. It was a compelling story about several young men who had returned and found themselves in violent situations that resulted in death. The story first brushed over a few scenarios then went into depth.

Reading in a limited space behind my desk, I always fold the paper in a manner that I can only see one page at a time. I do this with many things -- I think it's to keep the surprise, and not spoil  what could happen next. I will be frank. In this case I was not prepared for what I was going to read on the following page.

I turned the paper over and saw the picture of a "biker-looking" guy -- shaved bald head with a thick chin beard -- and it reminded me of me when I got back last time. I saw a lot of myself in that photo, and the face was comfortingly familiar. The story continued and went to Nebraska, where a seasoned veteran returned after his second tour, and got in an altercation resulting in a fatal shooting. The name rang a bell but not loudly, for it was a common name, and for a second I thought about a guy I used to serve with who had that name.

I smiled and remembered laying in the Kuwaiti sands trying to see how far out we could get our new sniper rifles to shoot, and Strasburg getting a solid 1800-meter shot off. I then remembered sitting on a rooftop OP with him and taking turns scanning for the enemy. Some of my friends didn't get along with him and everyone has their differences, but he never did wrong by me and was a great sniper. When we got back from Iraq he ate a couple of meals at the house like everyone else did, and decided to get out of the Army and go back to Iraq as a contractor because of his limited skill sets. I too suffer from this affliction, and almost followed in his footsteps.

Imagine my astonishment when I see a picture of Strasburg in the signature Stryker CCUs* (we were the only unit to ever wear them) and realized I had just read the fate of the man I had been reminiscing with a smile about. I had heard from a good friend of mine and former leader of his that he had found some trouble, but I kind of chalked it up to rumours and bad blood. But the biker-looking face was Strasburg, serving his 24-36 year sentence in Nebraska for murder.

I continued to read hoping that the story would take a twist and things would be different, but only sadness followed. Near the conclusion there was a piece added about CPT Ben Tiffner, a former Platoon Leader in the Tomahawks who was killed here a few months back, and who had written the court to demonstrate support. He wrote about how we are trained to react a certain way, and that Strasburg had done so over here and was rewarded for such actions, and was faced with many situations that required a solid resolution in violence. Perhaps Strasburg could not differentiate between here and there. CPT Tiffner went on to state that he was not writing for a "please excuse this guy" purpose, but in the hope that with his punishment there would be help and some form of PTSD treatment.

From Hero to Zero. This happens far too frequently. I hope all the guys that need help get it, for the sake of their families and themselves. I am not sympathetic to those that murder, but perhaps I understand the willingness ingrained. Thank GOD for my wife and kids who bring light into this dark day.

*
MMA: Mixed Martial Arts

Stryker: Eight-wheeled all-wheel-drive armored combat vehicle, named for two American servicemen who posthumously received the Medal of Honor: Pfc Stuart S. Stryker, who died in World War II, and Spc Robert F. Stryker, who died in the Vietnam War.

CCU: Close Combat Uniform

 


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