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.


February 28, 2008

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



I hear ya, son. The only remarks I can make, re; "I cannot properly court the woman I love from the mountain valley prison I call home." would refer you to the massive recorded correspondence of civil war soldiers between their wives and girlfriends. Especially on the eve of a battle.

Point is, the good ones will wait for you. They will see their part of the big picture. They will wait, they will endure.

It is a test. Clue; The Jodys are really not that many. Good women will see an unprincipled opportunist for the low sort that he clearly is. Again, the good, clever, worthy ones will get it, and stick by the better man.

At this point, you're better off worrying if you're up to the long distance relationship, not her.

Wow, Knocked me off my chair sitting here in nowheresville doing my 8-5 behind a computer. You were able to write about something so intimate, so terrifying, so personal. I am inspired by your honesty.
Buttermilk Sue

Hell of a post. Moved me and I consider myself the emotional equivalent of a mountain. Keep your chin up.

Sorry about your grandfather.

Girl perspective on long distance courting: I agree with Richard. Also don't torture her with Jody references. Tell her you appreciate her. If she's worth keeping, she'll be there for you. Personally, the long distance stuff has a lot of rewards, too. I'm not going to list them here. My comment would be longer than your excellent post.

Stop beating yourself up over the loss of the driver. It was not your fault. You could not have caused nor prevented it. It is what it is. All things really do happen for a reason.

I don't mean to be trivial, but it is similar to a ball player who gives up points. You can't relive it over and over, you need to be in the present for you and you men.

You are a good man. You try your best to do the right thing. We are forever grateful for the service to our country and so are the Afghans grateful for helping save them.

Keep your chin up and do your best. That's all that is expected of you.

God bless!

You have my respect and thanks, and you think very clearly.

one thing you will add to wisdom will be a "back home" thing: ( " back in the world", different for each war) and ironically you will share it with warriors stretching back into the reaches of time, Russian conscripts to Spartans. For the rest of your life, in matters that burden your heart and sanity, you will only be able to trust anyone who was ever "there". The rest will have almost all the pieces, almost all the understanding.


I really appreciate the thoughts and insights recorded here. Can't express, effectively, how much your support means to me (to all of us out here), I hope that a simple "thank you" suffices.

When I get home, drinks are on me.

As a fellow soldier and NCOIC who has to make those same, sometimes fateful, decisions, I want to encourage you to not let tragedies that were beyond your control consume you. I have seen friends who couldn't let similar events from my past deployments go and it has torn them apart, even after getting home.

You have a literary flair that I thoroughly enjoy reading. God Speed to you my friend.

I agree with Mitch, don't beat yourself up man, it is what it is, not your fault. Long distance relationships survive and test your love!

Well, I can't say I know how you feel, but I can say I know exactly how the truck driver felt. I'm in Iraq as a civilian contractor, and the first week I was here, I saw a mortar round go into a living area just over the blast walls, and it killed three soldiers and a civilian. I need the money badly, if I get killed, I can't blame anyone but myself. I knew the risks going in.


I remember friends who were in Afghanistan and Iraq saying that no matter how careful and competent you are, decisions you make may have terrible consequences. Not because you did anything wrong, but because in the field there's so much that's out of your control.

What astonishes me is that in the face of all this horror you keep doing your jobs, keep doing your best. I'm a firefighter, and anytime things get tough for me I remember you guys and gals over there, putting your necks on the line over and over, every day, to make things a little better for the Afghan people and to keep your own people safe.

Please take care of yourselves. Come home safely.

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