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.

SUNSHINE POST |

March 31, 2008

SUNSHINE POST
Name: LT G
Posting date
: 3/31/08
Stationed in: Iraq
Hometown: Reno, NV
Milblog: Kaboom: A Soldier's War Journal

The few remaining authority figures in my life that I respect all have warned me that my writings are becoming increasingly bitter and hostile in intent. My bad, yo. While I’m aware this is the natural sequence of events for a young man at war, there is still a protected soft (and delicious!) nut in my pistachio shell of a soul who believes Hope can become Action, who would prefer being labeled an idealist and a fool any day if it means avoiding the black hole of cynicism, and who jams out to the Crocodile Rock shamelessly. I let that crazy kid out for the day to pen a post about the people, things, and events that make both of us smile appreciatively during our experience in the Iraq War. This is what he wrote. In orange crayon, no less. He likes lists, too, and made me put down the Hater-Ade I’ve been sipping recently. Consider this his counter-move to the last three months of my life:

THE SUNSHINE LIST, IRAQ VERSION

-- I’ll admit it. It’s pretty cool looking at my right shoulder and seeing a combat patch underneath the camo American flag.

-- The terp Biggie Smalls. From his always-present smile, to his old man hobble feigning a soldier’s stalk, to his goofy eyewear of Birth Control Goggles, to his unprovoked proclivity to yell at teenagers, to his thorough knowledge of Middle Eastern and Northern African history, and to his dinner plates always containing more than the allotted portion, Biggie Smalls has become an adopted Gravedigger through sheer power of persona. My platoon jokes that he is now “Mr. Untouchable,” because the Lieutenant would fire every one of them before Biggie Smalls went anywhere. While that is probably not true, I’ve reminded them that none of them get out of bed as quickly as Biggie does when I wake them up for mission.

And then there’s this gem of a quote, mined out of a lecture directed at myself, SGT Chico, SPC Flashback, and PV2 Boomhauer about the benefits of having multiple wives at the same time: “Americans are crazy (for attempting to maintain monogamy). Many wives means many childrens which means many of the sex! This is why I have two wives in the same house. One live upstairs, one live downstairs. I make them fight for me.” Biggie Smalls, ladies and gentlemen, keepin’ it real, from the Sudan to Anu al-Verona and straight into your living rooms.

-- For all kinds of OPSEC reasons, I can’t discuss the following mission beyond referencing it in passing, but I can say that “Other Unit” cats who go by “Pedro” and “Snoopy,” and are generally too cool for last names and other standard Army-isms, warm my heart. Their escalation of force rules, that somehow includes an AC-130 Spectre Gunship dropping 105-mm artillery shells? Not so much. And you’re damn right I’m jealous we don’t destroy *abandoned* houses on a whim.

-- Some of my gunners' occasional playing of the “Jack Sparrow Anthem” out of the Strykers’ speakers when I dismount to talk to the locals. It definitely feeds my inner-swashbuckler, vain monster that he is. Pretty handsome awkward.

-- Coors near-beers. All the taste, none of the plastic cup politics.

-- Making a difference in this counterinsurgency our way. A week or so ago, the Gravediggers were invited to dinner with Sheik Stack-On-Me (the nickname derives from another story for another time, but it involves CPT Whiteback, two intel soldiers, and the Sheik forming a four-man stack to clear a house on their own), a local leader who has been slow to reconcile. While one section maintained security, the other section went in and chummed around with the Sheik in question and his posse. Beyond the multitude of Middle Eastern delicacies brought in for the feast, we simply chilled out with the Iraqis all night. No business was spoken -- just general discussions about politics, history, and women, with a lot of joking and laughing intermixed. For one night at least, we were just men being men, bullshitting for the sake of bullshitting.

A few days later, we got a call from Sheik Stack-On-Me. Some of our top targets, who we’ve been unable to capture due to their escape ability and thorough back-alley knowledge of Anu al-Verona, were at his headquarters, looking for money. The Sheik had already called the Iraqi Army, who were in the process of detaining our targets, so he figured he’d give us a courtesy call too. Who knows if our dinner had any effect on this sequence of events. I don’t know, and don’t believe there’s any way of ever finding out for certain. I do know, though, that a lot can happen when you recognize the humanity in others. When you’re involved in an ever-evolving guerrilla fight like we are, coincidences don’t really occur.

-- The recent batch of Lindsay Lohan pictures. Thank you New York Magazine. I like to think that she did that photo shoot specifically for me, as she has discovered her inner yellow ribbon and wanted to give LT G some much-needed motivation. LiLo -- America’s neo-patriot.

-- An honest to God, twenty-minute debate amongst most of the Gravediggers as to which of Madonna’s songs has proven to be the most lasting. Finalists included “Papa Don’t Preach", “Frozen", and “Material Girl,” but pending a hanging chad, “Like a Virgin” took home the gold.

-- The badass switchblade given to me by a Sheik’s son, as a gift. It’s as sharp as a lobbyist’s tongue, has strange Arabic etchings on the side of it, and is long enough to draw the ire of U.S. Customs. It also kind of makes me feel like a character in S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders. Take that right in the gut, you no good Soc.

-- New flavors of Rip-Its! No worries Momma G, I haven’t figured out how to freebase liquid energy fuel. Yet.

-- My men are redefining the limits of flexibility; I couldn’t be more proud or awestruck. Embrace the Suck is now more than a mantra. It’s the Gravediggers’ way of life.

-- PFC Cold-Nuts' civilian pajamas that he wears to bed at the combat outpost. We all have our ways of holding onto the old world. Flannel pajamas given to him by his wife happens to be his.

-- Care packages galore, bursting with healthy foods, fluoride toothpastes, toothbrushes, learn-to-read books, and small toys. The friends and families of the Gravediggers have responded to their sons’ current life-station, and bombarded the postal system with the pragmatic. Being able to pass these gifts out to the local Iraqis, on even the most mundane of patrols, reminds this soldier to give credit to the Great American Empathy. It still exists and still can be poignantly efficient, when properly informed and utilized. Big ups to these full people full of full words and full actions.

ONE |

March 28, 2008

ONE
Name: Alex Horton
Posting date: 3/28/08
Returned from: Iraq
Hometown: Frisco, TX
Milblog url: armyofdude.blogspot.com
Email: hortonhearsit@hotmail.com

Media outlets are bursting at the seams with hard numbers this week: five years of war in Iraq and nearly 4,000 soldiers killed since March 2003. But for the few Americans that have seen action in Iraq and Afghanistan, there is a number that is more somber and reflective than any body count: one.

Some of us were lucky to not have friends die, others had many comrades killed in action. My battalion suffered twenty-one KIA in our fifteen month deployment, but many in my platoon and company were affected by the loss of Brian Chevalier the most. We got him a few months before our deployment and like all new guys, he was treated like shit for a good while before he was accepted into the 'crowd'. We poked fun at him for his badly drawn tattoos and his thick Georgian accent. Unlike most of us, it rolled off his back and he took it in stride.

It pains me today that in the year that I knew him, I didn't get to know Chevy as well as I could have. He was sarcastic and quiet, qualities we both share. We would've gotten together great if we had the time.

This past Friday my old platoon got together to honor the man that was Brian Chevalier. I wrote about the events that night earlier this week. Accompanying us was a reporter from CBS News who was interested in a story of soldiers transitioning back to civilian life, post-combat, and all the roadblocks we endure along the way. Her writeup of the night captured the essence of what we felt: a tangible loss that transformed our lives. While in country, we debated the merits of war, our reasons for staying and the effects of leaving. But that didn't affect our dedication to the mission. It wasn't a free democracy in the Middle East or the quelling of sectarian violence. It was to bring everyone home alive.

There were twenty-one failures in that mission, and Chevy was the third but the hardest to take. The two deaths before him -- one in Mosul and one in Baghdad -- happened in another company. We sat and mourned them at their memorials, but few of us knew the deceased. Chevy's death not only ended the life of a father but shattered the notion that we'd all make it out of Iraq alive. It was a wake-up call for us, not only in the realm of safety and awareness, but our mortal presence and the friendships that were forged in the states and strengthened in war. It was becoming clear that anyone could be next, any moment could be your last. We tread carefully, not forgetting the sight of Chevy put into a body bag as rounds zipped and cracked overhead.

It's been a year since that moment, and Chevy's death, along with those of 3,990 of our countrymen and women, are counted like vertical slashes in a tragic tally in the media to mark five years of war. The only Americans who see more than milestones and figures are the 3,991 families that shoulder the burden of loss, where the number one represents their sacrifice more than anything else.

WHERE HAVE ALL THE GOOD LEADERS GONE? |

March 27, 2008

WHERE HAVE ALL THE GOOD LEADERS GONE?
Name: Mike T.
Posting date: 3/27/08
Stationed in: Afghanistan
Milblog: c/o bouhammer.com

In 1997 I started my career on Active Duty and had some amazing leaders. Ten years later, I am disgusted with what has become of the officer and senior non-commissioned ranks in the US Army. I know some are blind to the reality of what the “big” Army has become. I am an NCO* myself with only 10 years in, a mixture of active and reserve time; I am abrasive, opinionated, and I ask a lot of questions. The questions come because I feel it is pretty important to know as much as possible when it concerns your own life and the lives of your buddies.

I have been accused of being rude and disrespectful, but never have I been accused of not knowing my job. Some have even regarded me as a Subject Matter Expert, a title I personally feel is overused and untrue; no one is an expert on anything. I have lost rank, caused a few disturbances for standing up for my men and for what I believe in, but hell I was being a good NCO! So with that introduction done and over with, let’s get back to what the title of this post means, and what the hell is going on here.

I am currently located in Afghanistan, and have had the eye-opening experience of seeing officers and senior NCOs pushing aside their subordinates and pressing issues to do the following: complain in staff meetings about people taking too many goodies out of the chow hall, or wearing a patch that is unauthorized by Army regulations (for many ETT/PMT* members here anyways); a CSM* that we have all seen just once, at indoctrination -- out of 20 guys only two know his name or actually have seen him on camp; a MSG* who has a skill set of level one soldier but is in charge of JOC*; a senior officer who claims to know more about Army regulations than anyone else (by the way, he is in the Navy), and feels he has the authority to approve or disapprove awards (type the shit up and shut the hell up).

We have an executive officer at the Regional level who has no concept of convoy operations, and thinks driving four hours without a break is acceptable. We had men order cold weather equipment in August of 2007; it arrived late January of this year. It takes months to get parts for our trucks, paperwork disappears, officers argue in public about who is getting what awards regardless of position. According to them, they are a certain rank so they deserve it, right?

Where are the priorities? And please do not give me usual answer, "You don’t see the big picture." What is the big picture here? I sure as hell cannot see it through all the pettiness. Are certain individuals' personal crusades and agendas more important than the young officers and enlisted that have to accomplish their tasks with little or no backing? What mission is so important to you that you would sacrifice manpower and equipment to accomplish it?

I am going to attack the National Guard here for a minute, and those in power would probably get really pissed about it if it wasn’t so true: Those who come to active duty and are reservists gain a large amount of power quickly, and it has been my experience that these men cannot handle it. It is as if they are given a limitless credit card when they are on active status. I find these are men with little control over their personal lives (I had a LTC* screaming at his wife on the phone next to me at the phone center, which is very professional), and they are not looked upon as real leaders or respected by the troops of their units. They abuse their position and think their rank entitles them to be right at any cost, or to bend Army rules and regulations when it behooves them. They make the assumption, “Well we are active duty now, and this is how active duty is." Where the hell did that idea come from?

While in Iraq we had females in bikinis and guys in swimming shorts sitting around pools on their days off. That was part of the active duty I was on. We could wear civilian clothes to the gym. My God, the chaos that just might cause if we allow this here in Afghanistan.

I had an officer talk to me the other day like I was five because I questioned the way his operation was going to go down in a discussion I was part of. Apparently he can remember every military definition, yet cannot realize possible ambush sites if they kick him in the face. If I have to hear one more speech about duty and all that other bullshit I am going to puke. For most of these guys, it’s their first and last tour, yet they speak as if they have been to hell and back. I take these speeches personally, because most of these jerk-offs will never deploy again yet they feel as if they are the ones winning the war. So I ask, WHERE HAVE ALL THE GOOD LEADERS GONE?

If you are a good leader and your men respect you, continue to stand up and do the right thing. If you took this post personally and feel that I am simply crying, well look in the mirror and ask yourself how much have you done lately to make sure your troops have everything they need. I bet for some of you that will be very hard to do. So get back to your desk, write your BS* OER/NCOER* and continue to be a self-proclaiming jackass that can care less about the kids on the ground duking it out. Your master plans on winning this war aren’t working and haven’t for a long time. Grow a set of balls and tell your bosses what the real deal is!...

Common Sense. Do what you are supposed to do, without someone having to tell you, despite your own personal discomfort or fear. SH-21-76 (Ranger Handbook).

*
NCO: Non-Commissioned Officer
ETT: Embedded Training Team
PMT: Police Mentoring Team
CSM: Command Sergeant Major
MSG: Master Sergeant
JOC: Joint Operations Command Center
LTC: Lieutenant Colonel
BS: Bullshit
OER: Officer Evaluation Report
NCOER: Non-Commissioned Officer Evaluation Report

WHEN I CLOSE MY EYES |

March 26, 2008

WHEN I CLOSE MY EYES
Name: Teflon Don
Posting date: 3/26/08
Returned from
: Iraq
Milblog url: acutepolitics.blogspot.com

The Idaho Statesman began a five-part series yesterday on the "Five Years of War". It opened with a fairly well-balanced article on ordinary life in Baghdad and a leading question: "When you close your eyes and think of Iraq, what does your mind's eye see?"

When I close my eyes, I don't see Iraq. I hear it. Every night when I close my eyes and go to sleep, the quiet night is broken by the ringing memory of bombs long blown apart. I heard Iraq once in the gunshots as a man died in a bad drug deal nearby, and I hear it still every afternoon when the grade school across the fence recesses.

I still hear the music, too. Music is a big part of a lot of soldier's lives in Iraq -- it is both calming and girding, and embraced in virtually all its forms. Music often turns surreal; the way "Highway to Hell" would start up on the truck playlist as we turned down Route Mets and play on as we passed the crater in the road where once we lost three good men was eerie. I sat through a virtual monsoon once while listening to "Welcome to the Jungle" and watching the rain whip trees sideways.

Some guys listen to death metal before missions, some listen to melodic pop during firefights -- whatever it takes to get you through. I had a pretty eclectic mix that ranged from the hardcore yet not hate-filled Project 86 to soft and dreamy Nickel Creek, with the drunken Irish bagpipes of Flogging Molly and Dropkick Murphys playing the punkish counterpart to the timelessness of Guns and Roses.

The other night I heard the music again, and the surreal undertones punched me in the gut. I was driving home at night, and the rain was coming down hard. The radio was playing Nickelback -- it was one of SGT Clevenger's favorite songs, one that played at his memorial:

If everyone cared and nobody cried
If everyone loved and nobody lied
If everyone shared and swallowed their pride
We'd see the day when nobody died

I came over the top of a hill, and in front of me was a church billboard, one that always has bright lights spelling out a Bible verse and some "Jesus loves you" message. As it came into view the billboard flashed big and orange letters: "DIED".

Weird. Thanks, but I knew that well, and don't need reminding. I reached out and punched the button to turn my stereo from radio to CD player, and as a mix CD starting playing Dropkick Murphys, the billboard lights reorganized themselves: "FOR YOU". Every time I think of Clev, I remember that if a series of last minute decisions had gone differently it could be my ghost courting the visitors of some marbled estate.

The CD player piped out the Dropkick cover of "Green Fields of France":

Did they beat the drums slowly
Did the play the fife lowly
Did they sound the death march as they lowered you down
Did the band play the last post and chorus
Did the pipes play the flowers of the forest

And I can't help but wonder, oh Willy McBride
Do all those who lie here know why they died
Did you really believe them when they told you the cause
Did you really believe that this war would end wars
Well the suffering, the sorrow, the glory, the shame
The killing and dying it was all done in vain
Oh Willy McBride, it all happened again
And again, and again, and again, and again


I was past the billboard before it flashed back to the beginning "JESUS", but I mumbled his name to myself as I flew by, the stereo completely off now. All I wanted was to get home, text my girlfriend to let her know I was home safe, pour a stiff shot of scotch, and forget the drive.

You can't make that shit up, but what can you do about it?

UNFINISHED BUSINESS |

March 25, 2008

UNFINISHED BUSINESS
Name: SPC Beaird
Posting date: 3/25/08
Stationed in: Afghanistan
Milblog: All Expenses Paid Afghan Vacation

Framed_beaird_unfinished_him_3 We’re getting into the stages of "last time doing this", "last time doing that" and so on now. I can’t believe it’s almost all over. Some of the days seem painfully slow, but looking at large blocks of time it has gone by quickly.

It seems like just at the end is when things have started getting good around here. The gym has been completely renovated, the weather has warmed up to being perfect, and a new aviation unit is in country with a lot more assets than the last one -- meaning we have air support and escorts flying overhead on a lot of missions now. Just the other week one of our trucks was able to return fire on a baddie position (very small small incident with just a few shots). There was even a brief upturn in the chow hall; I saw chicken nuggets for the first time in a year, and they actually tasted pretty decent.

It’s definitely a big boost on the awesome scale and confidence level to have a couple helicopters flying overhead while out on mission in case anything kicks off. They can see a lot that we can’t and are able to be a forward recon, relaying what’s ahead and providing a lot of firepower if we need it. I only wish we had seen them around earlier in our deployment. Nothing happened with any type of enemy contact for those missions, but I kind of wish it had, so we could rock their world. Yes I’m crazy, in case you were wondering.

I can’t believe how quickly it has warmed up. Just a few weeks ago it snowed for a couple hours in the morning, and now it feels like we are back into the 70s during the day. The last couple missions I went on I broke a sweat for the first time in a long while. Part of this was due to the warmer weather and partly because they were dismount missions.

Actually I don’t think they would classify as real dismount missions, considering we were only walking to a few buildings which were right outside our base. But since they were still technically “outside the wire”, we still had to suit up in full battle rattle to escort our big wigs and CA* reps to go carry out their meetings. It was nice to go out for once and not be stuck in the turret, standing in a little three foot diameter circle for a whole mission. I miss my days as a GIB* when I’d dismount on missions.

Framed_beaird_unfinished_kids_3 One of the missions was to provide security while one of our PRT* officers answered questions during a live radio interview in which locals could call in. The kids from the nearby villages came out as usual looking for any handouts. But as my fellow PRT member Desert Dude said, you get hounded so much by the kids that you learn to save your generosity for the ones that look like they really need it, or the ones that are the least annoying. I gave a couple water bottles to a little boy and girl who were herding a big group of sheep around. I found out they were cousins. They must not have been more than 10 years old, though guessing age can be hard, as people seem to age much quicker here. Even the kids' faces show the hard life they live, with the wrinkles and wear and tear of a person twice their age.

While waiting for the interview and meeting to finish, I chatted up one of the workers of the radio station. He actually spoke English really well, almost as good as some of our terps. I had a good time talking a bit of politics with him, as he listens to some of the election news from the States. He runs his own show on the radio, playing music and also teaching a bit of English on the air to listeners. You learn something new every day. When he told me he was only 18 years old I was surprised again, thinking he looked 25 or 26.

You may wonder how I could want or hope for a TIC (troops in contact) or a firefight, and think I’m nuts. Well I probably am. I guess anybody would have to be somewhat nuts to join the Army while there are two large scale wars going on -- and choose to be in the infantry. But even through all the shit this year, I can’t help feeling like I’ll be leaving with some unfinished business. I never got to shoot off a slew of rounds returning fire on an enemy position. Maybe I’m immature or naive to think this way, and maybe I’m better off not having that memory from this deployment, who knows. But I think if you haven't been in this type of environment, you would never understand.

Imagine going out on countless missions, sitting behind your crew serve weapon of the day -- MK19 or .50 Cal with an M4 on the side and a pistol on your hip, a massive amount of firepower at your fingertips -- with this view:

Framed_beaird_unfinished_gun_3

Now imagine seeing a couple of IED ambushes go off in your convoy, one of which killed Browning, then the bad guys start shooting some small arms fire. Or on other occasions being mortared and rocketed at your outpost, or waking up in the middle of the night to the FOB being shot at, and manning a fighting position on the wall for two hours looking for another hit. But with each of those incidents you never once get a positive ID on the bad guys, on where the triggerman is, or where the small amount of AK or PKM fire is coming from -- just enough fire to piss you off, but not enough to let you pinpoint where they are.

Just one of those times I wish I could have seen a muzzle flash or somebody with a weapon so it would not have been only a one-way live firing range but a two-way. I didn’t come here feeling that strongly about this, but when you take enough sucker punches from cowards who hit you and run, you wish the bad guys would stick around just long enough for you to get eyes on them and return fire. But that’s the way these wars are. At times it feels like we’re fighting ghosts.

The majority of the times we’ve gone out nothing much has happened. Mostly life here has been pretty boring. Missions were mostly just a whole lot of sitting in my turret providing security for an area while our CA or engineer reps did their thing in meetings or on project assessments. And the few times something has happened when I’ve been out, I never even got to fire a single shot. Some guys on our FOB* have had the luxury of doing that, and I wish I could say the same.

On my last day in Afghanistan I’m hoping my platoon will start a big round of celebratory fire, like they do in the scene at the end of Jarhead, spewing bursts of bullets into the air, letting out all the bent up aggression and burning up all the ammo we never got to shoot. But I’m not holding my breath...

I’m ready to head home, but I can’t help but feel like I’m leaving with some unfinished business.

*
CA: Civil Affairs
GIB: guy in back
PRT: Provisional Reconstruction Team
FOB: Forward Operating Base

DIRT |

March 24, 2008

DIRT
Name: Charles
Posting date: 3/24/08
Stationed in
: Camp Taji, Iraq
Hometown: Quinton, VA

I would have to say that Iraq is the dirtiest place I have ever seen, or hope to see. When one thinks about the Middle East it is sand that comes to mind, not dirt. But oh boy, do we have dirt. Dirt on the ground, dirt on every single object,Framed_bowery_dirt_air_1_15 indoors and out, and the bane of my existence as a helicopter pilot, dirt in the air! Kuwait has its dust storms, and Iraq even has dust storms, evil conflagrations of Kool Aid-orange whirling dust. But here in the northern outskirts of Baghdad, we live in a world of suspended dirt; walls of dirt that reduce visibility to a half mile or less for days at a time and ground our aircraft. One has to wonder what the long term health effects might be of breathing in all this dirt.

And when the rains come here at Taji, we get mud. Mud like you've never seen before. The powdery dirt on the ground becomes a glutinous, slippery mass that covers everything, as far as the eye can see. It takes days to dry, and makes everyone a few inches taller and a few pounds heavier as they walk around.

When I go back to the land of grass and trees, I won't miss the dirt.

DOGS AND PONIES |

March 21, 2008

DOGS AND PONIES
Name: Gruntshit
Posting date: 3/21/08
Stationed in: Iraq
Hometown: Clarkston, Washington
Milblog: The Angry American

Framed_gruntshit_dogpony_1

What? You guys in a hurry?

There is probably nothing so unnerving as walking up and down one of the most deadly pieces of highway in Iraq. Okay, yeah there is. It’s setting up a Traffic Control Point on said highway. Especially after we’ve gone after terrorists who are known to build and traffic vehicle-borne IEDs (VBIEDs: "v-beds"). What makes it worse is knowing the destructive power a VBIED has. I’ve been near to these massive explosions, caused when some fuckhead loads up a truck or car with as much explosives as he can. They are fucking crazy. I think the only people that don’t respect them are those who have never been near one.

Somewhere up the chain someone figured that doing these TCPs along major thoroughfares was a stupendous idea. Once you stop traffic it takes about five minutes for that shit to back up about 400m with cars jam-packed in across all the lanes. Anyone who has ever driven on the Beltway or any major freeway and has seen what an accident will do to the traffic has an idea of what I’m talking about.

Take that and put it in a place where snipers live on the left and right of you, and maybe someone has a VBIED in the garage nearby (it's not like they don’t know what we're doing; we have kind of fallen into some patterns) and plans on hooking up with 40-some-odd virgins on this lovely day. I forgot to mention that in the past there were a couple of RPG attacks on this lil stretch of lovely asphalt.

Framed_gruntshit_dogpony_2
D-Roll searching a truck with a dead sheep and a live sheep in the back. Good job D-Roll, yes yes you do have to search the dead sheep. It might have a bomb up its ass. Okay D-Roll, roll up your sleeve, time for the live one.

My job in all of this is to initially stop traffic. Me and my boyz have some tricks up our sleeves to try and mitigate the risk for all those involved. (No, I’m not telling you.) The men of 2-2, our piece of the pie is to stop traffic and begin to funnel it to the search guys. The search guys have it the worst, but that’s as far into that as I’m gonna go. Use your imagination. We do all this and all the while you couldn’t fit a BB up our asses. One day we got Froggy and handed out newspapers to those stuck in traffic. Hindsight being what it is makes me think, “What the fuck was I thinking?”

Framed_gruntshit_dogpony_3
Attempting to get traffic to stop and move in an orderly fashion, with a little help from the National Police.

So we’ve somewhat got a system down and we really do what we can to mitigate risk. But honestly, I just don’t see the logic behind it. Seriously, if you've got some bombs in your trunk and you're coming down the highway and you see traffic backed up, are you gonna take the risk and wait? Now don’t sit there and Armchair General, because anything you're thinking we’ve thought of. Trust me!

Here’s the meat and potatoes of all this. If you’ve been in the military, or hell if you work somewhere that has “Big Bosses”, you know that when the head cheese comes around -- a General, Congressmen, Regional Managers, whatever it may be -- things get dumb. Clean isn’t clean enough. And on the fine day I’m describing, the idea was for a visiting General to “See us out there.”

The whole day’s events were orchestrated and timed in order for us to be out walking up one of the deadliest highways so that the General could “see” us. You think this guy saw a dismounted element on the ground on the side of one of the most deadly roads in Iraq and stopped? No, he didn’t. I’m not even sure he waved.

This isn’t the first time we’ve played this game. The honorable Senator Joe Lieberman once came out to visit the market in our sector. It happened to be as hot as donkey balls (that’s really hot) and we walked it once to secure it, which is Officerese for "to kill time". Something I learned you can count on with VIPs is that they will always be late, so your ass can hang out in the breeze. And when they come through they are gone faster than they arrived. Senator Lieberman walked about 300m, got his picture taken, and rolled out. We'd waited three hours for him.

I get it. Everyone wants to look good. But if you already look good then why go out of your way? I understand the Army side of it, and the political side of it. It’s a game and you just have to play it. My problem with it is that the pawns have names, families and lives. Why do something just for the sake of doing it to show face, when it doesn’t have any tactical value?

The walk up the road for the General; we had already been doing that shit. The TCPs we set up before that do serve a purpose for the most part. Do we like doing them? Fuck no! They are dangerous as hell. But you know as well as I do that when big heads come around, mid-management likes to put on the Dog and Pony show.

Here is a video to give you an idea of the magnitude of these fucking VBIEDs. It's an old video that I found on YouTube, but you'll get the idea...

DEUCE DEUCE OUT!

A DIFFERENT WORLD |

March 20, 2008

A DIFFERENT WORLD
Name: LT G
Posting date: 3/20/08
Stationed in: Iraq
Hometown: Reno, Nevada
Milblog url: http://kaboomwarjournal.blogspot.com/

Here’s an anecdote LT S conveyed to me one night out at the Crow’s Nest over some cigarettes and near-beers. I wasn’t there to witness the following events first-hand, luckily. I probably would have done something hilarious and irrational that would lead to losing my job.

The setting: While on the grand tour of our combat outpost, Major X, a visiting field grade, picks up a stack of newspapers and engages LT S about them.

Major X: “What are these here, Lieutenant?”

LT S: “Copies of one of the Iraqi national papers, Sir.”

Major X: “Why are they here, and not being distributed?”

LT S: “Oh, we do distribute them, Sir. Every patrol that goes out picks up a stack.”

Major X: “That’s excellent to hear. I assume you’re gathering the atmospherics of this distribution?”

LT S: “Atmospherics, Sir?”

Major X: “Why yes, of course. Atmospherics. We need to check on the local-nationals, and ensure they are reading the newspaper.” (Note: While I’ve conducted no official census, I’d be shocked if more than 10 percent of the Anu al-Verona population qualifies as literate.)

LT S, purportedly perplexed: “Why would we … may I ask why, Sir?”

Major X: “Because, it’s important to find out if they are reading them. Like this article here,” finger slams down onto paper brimming with Arabic words, “ -- what is this article about? If we read it, then you could talk to the local-nationals about it, when you’re on patrol.”

LT S: “Sir, that article is about dinosaurs evolving from birds.” Awkward pause. “And Sir, in all honesty, I’m not sure that the papers we give out are really being read right now. I think most of the people use them to stay warm at night.”

Major X: “What? That's absurd! Like for blankets?”

Really awkward pause.

LT S: “Uhh, no, no Sir. For their fires.”

I’ll spare the commentary, and stick with reporting the facts. And not just because I need to start a report that CPT Whiteback delegated from the operations staff to his senior platoon leader to “construct a flow chart detailing the trends and movements of displaced persons (the politically correct term for refugees) returning to Anu al-Verona.”

Uhh … what? Say again, over? A flow chart? Couldn’t you just look it up on Wikipedia? I have a patrol I need to get to.

How we managed to win two world wars without Microsoft Office products, I’ll never know.

THE ARMORY |

March 19, 2008

THE ARMORY
Name: CAPT Benjamin Tupper
Posting date: 3/19/08
Returned from: Afghanistan
Hometown: Syracuse

Syracuse has a gem of a night life area known as Armory Square, named for an old National Guard Armory that sits in the center of a small business district. It's not hard to find historical photographs of this Armory, that span a century of history. I've seen pictures of young Doughboy soldiers, literally on the front steps of this same sturdy Armory, marching off to war in Europe. The black and white photos show smiling men shrouded by the flags and bunting that adorn the large stone building. Throngs of smartly dressed men and women form the backdrop, waving enthusiastically in support.

Today, almost one hundred years since these pictures were taken, festive crowds still flock to the Armory's environs. But times have changed, and today they come to drink and socialize, and not to celebrate their community's sons and daughters going off to war.

This historical irony was not lost on me as I sat in my favorite bar awaiting the arrival of my friend Paul, who is also a National Guard soldier. From the corner windows of the bar I could see the Armory's stone walls, grey and cold in the Syracuse winter night. When compared to the neon beer signs and trendy facades of neighboring bars, the Armory's architecture of armored doors, barred windows, and gun-slotted towers gave it a hostile and menacing aura. On this night, the Armory felt like an alien creature. It was an unwelcome habitual offender, guilty of reaching into generations of youth and plucking them out of their comfortable world of drink and friends, and casting them off to war.

Yet this impression would have been lost on the casual observer passing by. The Armory was a forgotten backdrop to streets and sidewalks warmed by  neon lights and cheerful tipsy groups wandering from bar to bar. I could easily have been mistaken for a member of this carefree crowd, yet my purpose at the bar was more in line with keeping true to the legacy of the Armory. This evening marked the first time my soldier friend Paul and I had gotten together since I returned from war in Afghanistan, and it was the last time we would get together before he left for Afghanistan in the coming days.

Outside of the soldier connection, Paul and I have a lot in common. We are both thirty-something guys with four kids. We talked about the family stresses he could expect to evolve out of the prolonged emotional and geographic distance. He was optimistic all would pan out well with his wife and children. I remembered feeling the same way before I deployed, but I returned home to a summary separation and pending divorce.

I decided not to dwell on my circumstances, and shifted the conversation to lighter Army gossip of who was getting promoted, transferred, or leaving the Brigade due to the upcoming deployment to Afghanistan. After the second round of drinks, we got down to the brass tacks of the evening: what should he expect in the heat, sand, and stress of war?

I was well suited to provide him with good advice. I had just completed a yearlong tour as an embedded trainer within the Afghan Army, and Paul was about to begin the same specialized mission. I spun through a year of rules on how to maneuver through the figurative minefields of culture, language, and religion, as well as the literal minefields of IEDs and ambushes. I offered my suggestions on winning and keeping the loyalty of the Afghan soldiers he was going to lead. By the end of the night, my voice was hoarse from countless vignettes of battles fought and lessons taught.

Throughout more than five hours of conversation, despite our comfortable tavern setting and being warmed by quality beverages, the Armory was always there in the back of my mind, serving up bittersweet reminders of my time in Afghanistan, and taunting Paul with the unknown of his upcoming year at war.

When the night was done and the bar was poised to close, we exchanged handshakes and a hug. Our quiet, anonymous evening was unlike the celebrations that the Armory had witnessed in previous generations. But Paul and I didn't need any waving flags or cheering crowds to commemorate the occasion. Our camaraderie and hours of conversation had been enough to mark the coming and going of two soldiers.

BAD VOODOO'S WAR |

March 18, 2008

BAD VOODOO'S WAR
Name: JP
Posting date: 3/18/08
Stationed in: Kuwait / Iraq
Hometown: Burke, Virginia
Milblog url: milblogging.com
Email: milblogging@gmail.com

As many of you know, I’m a member of Bad Voodoo Platoon and I’m currently deployed in support of OIF. Over the last year several of us, including fellow blogger and Sandbox contributor Toby Nunn, have been videotaping our experiences. Deborah Scranton (director of The War Tapes) has made a film for PBS FRONTLINE called Bad Voodoo’s War that will be airing on April 1st.

I did take quite a bit of film myself and I do show up in a few scenes, but it turns out I’m pretty shy in front of the camera. Well, when God gives you dashing good looks and a 170 I.Q., it’s only normal that one would have a couple flaws... say like, the "inability to fly” and “shyness”. I mean, I'm only human. Although these 80-inch biceps of mine might disagree.

Here's a link to the Press Release for the program. And here's the trailer:


 

HAMID AND FREEDOM OF RELIGION |

March 17, 2008

HAMID AND FREEDOM OF RELIGION
Name: CAPT Doug Traversa
Posting date: 3/17/08
Returned from: Afghanistan
Milblog url: Afghanistan Without A Clue

Once more into the archives for one of my discussions with Hamid. This one was precipitated by my hut mate, Mike, who was venting during lunch about the corruption of the Afghan officials he had to deal with. After he finished eating and left, Hamid and I continued the discussion.

It would be very easy to start bashing the Afghan leaders for the way things are run over here, but the only difference between corruption in Afghanistan and corruption back home is that most folks back home are far more careful and discreet. I have no way of knowing what the actual statistics are, but humans in general are a pretty corrupt lot. The ability to use power and position for personal gain is too strong a temptation for most. I suspect many seek power and position just so they can benefit personally. I assured Hamid that I did not believe Afghanistan was any different from most other countries in this respect.

It is very frustrating for Hamid, as he hates to see people ignoring the teachings of the Qur’an. In fact, it was at this point Hamid paid me one of the nicest compliments anyone has ever given me.

“Sir. I wish you were a Muslim. You would be a great example of how a Muslim should live. You never lie. You never steal. You never murder. You never cheat on your wife. You act like a Muslim should. I wish Muslims could live like you.”

What do you say to that?  Few words have ever done me such honor as these. I will remember them as long as I live. But enough of that. We moved on to the meaning of Life, The Universe, and Everything.

Literally.

Hamid leaned forward as he does when he wants to launch into a Deep Discussion.

"Sir, what is life?”

Yes, gentle readers, if you imagine my mind seizing up, you’ve grasped it nicely. Hamid is getting pretty good at playing Stump the Dummy.

“Come on Hamid, you can’t ask me that. You have to be more specific. What are you looking for here?”

“But, Sir, I am serious. What is life?”

Sigh. I gave it a shot. Hamid would tell me where this was going soon enough. “Life is the sum total of all your experiences, everything you see, hear, touch, taste, and so on. Am I warm?”

“To me, this life is a test from God. My real life starts after I die.”

“That’s not much different from many other religions,” I commented.

Here we entered into a long discussion of the beliefs of major religions. Try explaining the Trinity or the atonement to a Muslim who has never heard of these concepts. You might as well try explaining quantum physics. It was, however, a very enjoyable discussion.

Hamid concluded by saying, “I wish I knew the Qur’an better. Maybe then you would become a Muslim.”

“Hamid, I will never become a Muslim. Do you know why? I believe everyone should have the right to believe whatever they want, to worship any way they please. The Qur’an teaches that infidels like me must either convert to Islam, or submit to Muslims, or be executed.”

Hamid shook his head. “The Qur’an does not teach that.”

“Hamid, how would you know? You’ve never read the Qur’an. You only know what your mullah teaches you. In this country, if a Muslim wanted to convert to another religion, the government would throw them in jail and execute them, right?”

“Yes,” he acknowledged.

“Do you have any idea how angry this makes Americans? The freedom to worship any way you wish is the most important principle in the founding of our country. Remember last year when you had that man here who stated that he had converted to Christianity, and many wanted to execute him?”

“You mean the man who ended up going to Italy?” asked Hamid.

“Yes. That story was everywhere in America. People wanted to know why we were supporting a country that acted this way.” I paused and looked him in the eye.  “Most Muslim countries are the same. They force people to believe a certain way. I want no part of that. So don’t blame yourself; I will never become a Muslim. It doesn’t mean I hate Muslims, since clearly we are friends. But I will never believe this is God’s will.”

Hamid really seemed to be pondering this one. I doubt anyone had ever made him think about things this way.

“So you don’t believe what the Prophet has said?” he asked.

“I haven’t met the Prophet, and neither have you. You and I don’t know what he said. You only know what men have told you the Prophet said. I don’t care what men say to me in the name of God. You are talking about believing something based on faith. Most religions require their people to have faith.”

“But it is not faith for us. The Qur’an wrote itself, and is God’s Word.”

“How do you know?  Were you there?” I countered.

“But this is what the Prophet said,” protested Hamid.

“How do you know that either?  Did he speak to you? All you know is what men say he said.”

Yes, I really am this annoying. I still marvel that Hamid wants to talk to me.

“See, you have faith that the Qur’an is the eternal word of God, but you have no proof. Most other religions also require this kind of faith. They all like to say it’s based on evidence, but if you start asking the hard questions, ultimately you have to take it on faith. In this sense Islam is much like all other beliefs.”

To his credit, Hamid did not change the subject. We kept plowing on, and so we came to the topic of Hell.

“Hamid, does it bother you that according to Islam, all infidels go to Hell for eternity?

He looked puzzled. “What is an infidel?”

“You’re kidding. You don’t know what an infidel is?”

“No, Sir, I don’t know.”

This surprised me. “An unbeliever, a non-Muslim. We all go to hell for eternity. Does that bother you?”

“Oh, it’s not for eternity. You are punished for your evil, then you go to Paradise.”

“Wali (another of our interpreters) says it’s for eternity. If I don’t become a Muslim, I’ll spend eternity in Hell.”

“Well, that would be true for people who aren’t Muslims,” he acknowledged. Sometimes we have these strange miscommunications.

“Hamid, I’m not a Muslim. I’ll be in Hell for eternity if you are right. Does that bother you?”

He looked uncomfortable.

“And there are many branches of Christianity that believe in Hell too, and if they are correct, you and all your fellow Muslims will be in Hell forever. I used to believe that too, but I don’t anymore. I can’t believe God will send all of you to Hell. It doesn’t make sense to me. You certainly don’t deserve to be tortured for eternity.”

Once again Hamid was thinking hard. I added, “You have to understand, there are many Christians who don’t believe in Hell, and don’t believe you are all going there. There are many different types of Christians. I’m just telling you about the beliefs of some.”

When we headed out, Hamid was in good spirits. “You ask very hard questions. I have never heard questions like this before. This idea that people should not be forced to believe something, I have never heard this. And proof and faith, this is good too. I must talk to my mullah about this.”

So ended another joint effort to understand the world. To all my readers, be they Christians, Muslims, atheists, or anything else; my goal is not to convert Hamid to any way of thinking. We talk because we are friends trying to understand each other’s world. I am not mocking his beliefs, nor would I mock yours.

Freedom of Religion, Freedom of Thought, Freedom from Coercion, these are the foundations of our great country. If I don’t believe the way you do, hopefully that doesn’t upset you. As long as your faith doesn’t want to deny me my freedoms, I don’t care what you believe or don’t believe.

Hamid and I are exact opposites on many issues, yet we are good friends. There may be a lesson in there somewhere.

THE FOG OF LIFE |

March 14, 2008

THE FOG OF LIFE
Name: MSGT Ken Mahoy
Posting date: 3/14/08
Stationed in: Afghanistan
Milblog: Third Time's A Charm!

I struggle. I struggle with what to even write sometimes. We have all reached the stage of this deployment where we can officially declare, “The honeymoon is over.” No more silent anxiety from the rookies worried about traveling to a war-torn country, no more pumped up bravado from men wanting to kick the enemy’s tail, no more patriotic propaganda and pep rallies urging us to “Be all we can be!" Just hard, cold reality setting in. Those realities that finally catch up to you when you just can’t push past the pain of how much you miss your kids, or how much you miss your girlfriend or wife. And other realities, such as realizing how frustrating even some of your fellow comrades are, and how damaging they can be to everyone’s morale.

That’s where I’m at today. I suppose there should be a “blogging prerequisite” or S.O.P. that states you shouldn’t write when you’re tired and frustrated, but I can’t help it. When I was in Iraq five years ago I kept a daily journal in which I would write the events of the day along with my most personal feelings. It was filled with my most private experiences and only one person has ever been allowed to read it.

I’ve come to realize that I can’t really do that here in this blog. This is not a diary. Quite frankly, you don’t want to know what I’m thinking sometimes. But allow me this rare moment to speak about the “other” side of war that most don’t get to see.

Framed_mahoy_struggle_1_3 I miss my kids. As a divorced father, I came here prewired with guilt about my failures as a father and husband, but traveling halfway around the world just exacerbates those feelings. I worry about them. I wonder how they’re doing. I wonder how they’ll cope if somehow I don’t make it home. I wonder if they begin to forget about me -- if their mother even includes me in their lives by mentioning my name.

Moreover, do my “kids” even talk about me much? I’m painfully aware that they read this blog, so I hope that they also understand that their Daddy is a human being with feelings -- and with flaws -- who thinks about them every minute of every day. To my kids: I love you!

Framed_mahoy_struggle_3_2 Shortly before deploying, my visitation with my kids, while much too short, was filled with lots of fun-filled days and new memories. I still see vividly in my mind all of us dancing around and lip-synching to the music of High School Musical 2. We even had wigs and a play microphone. My youngest son loves to play his mini-electric guitar and jam to the music playing in the background. I can still see him rocking out to “Rockstar” by Nickelback and running and sliding on his knees while never missing a riff! *lol*

Framed_mahoy_struggle_2_3 I miss finding my older son lying on the floor next to Ellie, our black lab, and quietly stroking her belly. He claims -- and I believe him -- to be able to talk to all animals in their language. He is such an encyclopedia of animal facts and trivia, he just amazes me!

I miss cooking with my daughter, my oldest child. It doesn’t matter how little time my kids have at my house, she always wants to whip something up. She has her own separate “nook” in the kitchen with her own cooking utensils, cookbooks, ingredients, and apron, and she uses it like there is no tomorrow. Hmmm. Ironic.

I miss my best friend, the one who has evolved into an inseparable part of my life. The other half of my once-broken heart. All of the difficulties of the past few years have always been met with her encouraging words and unconditional love and support. She has reminded me more times than I care to admit that it’s not the end of the world, and that while God may close a door, He also opens a window -- if we just look. She was so right. I miss her encouragement. I miss her smile. I just...miss her!

Framed_mahoy_struggle_4_5 Update: As I typed that last sentence I just received an email from her, and learned of the passing of her grandpa. This is yet another side of deployment that is heart-breaking. The passing of loved ones, the births of children -- significant events in your life that you can’t be there for. I want so badly to be there to comfort her in this difficult time but have to sit here and wonder how she is doing. Is she holding up? Is she struggling like I am?

The pressures here are great. But while we’re human, replete with our many anxieties and flaws, we don’t have the luxury of letting those feelings consume us and detract us from our mission at hand. We are so pent-up at times fighting our true feelings -- often stoic -- that it’s no wonder so many soldiers suffer from PTSD when they return home and have trouble adjusting to a “normal” life again. You find that PTSD has really very little to do with “the fog of war” or actual combat, but rather “the fog of life.” At least the “life” we know while serving overseas, as we await the return of our “normal” life back home. Until then, I think I will continue to struggle.

ONE LAST CIB |

March 13, 2008

ONE LAST CIB
Name: Eddie
Posting date: 3/13/08
Stationed in: Iraq
Milblog url: Eighty Deuce on the Loose
Email: airborneparainf82@blogspot.com

The other night, the CLC Group (Concerned Local Citizens) swung by the outpost with a guy they had detained. Apparently they found him out walking around and he had what looked to be a homemade grenade. I had never seen one like this. It had a plastic body and just looked old-fashioned. Over the past week or so there have been a few incidents with people throwing grenades at IA (Iraqi Army) and IP (Iraqi Police) checkpoints, so I can only imagine that this is what this guy was going to do. So far they haven't targeted any US personnel with these grenades.

Once we had this guy in our custody, they began questioning him and apparently at some point he stated that he would take us and show us where some more stuff was. A group of our guys headed out to go hit this target building, while myself and the rest of the guys of my squad continued to pull our guard shift, knowing that we were probably going to be extended because the guys going out were the ones that were to relieve us.

Eventually we got word that they had found quite the little cache of more grenades and other stuff. The platoon that was out on patrol that day sent out a dismounted element to link up with our guys. Shortly after they left we heard some shooting off in the alleyways a little bit, but we didn't think too much of it. It wasn't until a pretty loud burst that we wondered, especially when the call came up to us in the towers asking if we heard any gunshots. They usually don't do this without a reason, and we later found out that was the CLC guys who had come in contact with a couple guys shooting at them. Nothing major though.

Some more time passed, and we were well into the next guard shift when we heard a couple bursts of AK fire a couple hundred meters down the road from the outpost. I stood up and headed outside the tower as all hell broke loose for about a minute or so. There were a couple explosions that I could see and of course hear, and we called those up. That's when we learned that it was our guys that were in contact. Sons of bitches! I was officially jealous at this point.

While I was standing on the roof scanning around, from off to the side of the outpost a shot rang out and flew overhead, coming from an area a good distance away from where our guys were in contact. After a minute there was a short burst, again fired from the same area and in our direction. The thing was that since I really didn't know the locations of our guys, I couldn't just indiscriminantly fire into the area the shot came from. Oh well, its not like they were hitting close to me, just definitely shooting in our direction.

After a little while the guys returned to the outpost and of course the rest of us were eager to learn what had happened. Apparently while they were on the roof of the place where the cache was, a couple guys a couple rooftoops over began shooting at them. They of course returned fire, launching a couple high-explosive grenade rounds from the grenade launchers, which explained the explosions we heard.

The other platoon's guys went to maneauver on them, and I guess at some point they were shot at as well and returned fire. All in all it was a pretty quick little engagemnet. The one thing of note was that the last guy in our platoon that had not received his CIB (Combat Infantryman's Badge) was out there that night. So now, at the very tail end of our deployment and running combat missions, he finally earned his CIB.

How crazy!

REPENT! THE END IS NEAR! |

March 12, 2008

REPENT! THE END IS NEAR!
Name: Old Blue
Posting date: 3/12/08
Stationed in: Afghanistan
Milblog: Bill and Bob's Excellent Afghan Adventure

I've been back at my current FOB for over a week now, and have made a conop* to Kabul and back in the meantime. The day after we got here, we made a major thrust into the country to the north of here, which is generally accepted to be "Indian Country." It was sudden, it was in force, and it was a surprise.

The enemy did nothing.

He didn't fail to act because he was so frightened of our massive firepower. He just didn't know that we were coming, and it was too late to throw an impromptu party, so he watched how we operate. He noted how we move, what kind of weapons, how long our helicopters can stay on station, and where we appeared to be vulnerable. He noted what kind of things we seem to be interested in, and where our vehicles seemed to have problems.

We returned completely unscathed. For some, it was their first foray into such territory. To me, it was just like any trip into The Valley. As I wrote to a friend recently, it's like a box of chocolates, you never know what you're going to get.

That friend, who happens to be a professional writer, clued me in to a co-worker who had coined the phrase (no, it wasn't Forrest Gump), a writer for The Washington Star. That was my trivia for the week, and now it's yours.

Speaking of The Valley, I had my last trip into The Valley while I was in Bagram. My old team was going down there, and I was waiting for a flight to my FOB (they don't happen every day) and I couldn't sit on my thumbs while my buddies went down there, so I hitched a ride as an extra gun. It, too, was uneventful. A convoy got shot up there the next day, but our trip was like a drive in the park. Box of chocolates.

I got to talk with some guys down there who worked a little with my old bunch of ANP, and one of the guys told me that the ANP there still talk about me. I can't explain how that makes me feel. Having the respect of the Afghans I've worked with so closely means the world to me. It was one of the coolest things I've heard all year.

I also got to have one last operational ride with O and the Maniac and Jacques Pulvier. MAJ (Stone) Cold was there, too. He's being promoted to Lieutenant Colonel any time now. There is some justice in the Army after all. That man is one of the finest officers I've ever met in my 26 year career.

In about a week I will leave this FOB where I've only spent a couple of months (and been gone for almost half of one of those). I've gotten to work with the local ANP, but not like I came to know the men up in The Valley. It takes awhile, and some shared difficulty and challenge, to establish that kind of bond. There hasn't been that kind of time or challenge here. They're good guys, and I love working with Afghans, even when they are three different flavors of f*#%ed up.

If it weren't for missing my kids so much I'd stay for a few more months, except my own Army is seriously pissing me off. I've seen so many things I never thought that I'd see from my own team. I've seen things I can never write about, and I don't want to get into bashing, but I will say that I am shocked, dumbfounded, amazed, and pissed off.

None of the above relates to any acts of barbarism or war crimes, let me say that; it's more acts of extreme parochialism and fraternal cannibalism. Try to make sense of that, if you will. I am sick of it, and so I will go home. I will write about some of it later, and I will write some of it for Army eyes in the vague and mildly insane hope that it will make a difference to someone somewhere who can do something about it. We repeatedly shoot ourselves in the foot by shooting our brethren in the foot and thinking that it is not, in fact, our own foot.

Many of these things are institutional problems, just the way it is, more or less.

We are winning this war, no matter what anyone says, no matter what the New York Times says, we are winning. The improvements that I've seen since I've been here are many and significant. I've seen so many roads built, so many soldiers trained, I've seen rank reform begun within the ANP, I've seen corruption uncovered and worked on, I've seen soldiers who get paid on time when in the past they were getting paid late and getting shaken down for it. I've seen the ANP receive new equipment, I've seen them begin to function. I've seen it spreading like an inkblot.

The ACM* have ratcheted up their violence, sure. It's desperation. They have to. The GoA (Government of Afghanistan) is extending its influence further and further into previously ungoverned areas. The Afghan National Army is no joke; they can fight, and when they do, the ACM usually come out mauled.

The Afghanistan National Police are ten times more likely to be killed in combat than their ANA counterparts. Hopefully that number will start to decrease. The ANP are the last piece of the puzzle. When the guy in the village with the automatic weapon is an ANP and life under the ANP is better than life under the Taliban, then we will really win. Then Afghanistan will really win.

I think that we're on the way to that end, if we are allowed to continue -- and if they will send enough mentors over here so that every district in every province has a mentor team.

We are not winning because we are master counterinsurgents. Our line units are apparently completely untrained in counterinsurgency. We've got some young soldiers who were sent here to train ANP on soldier skills, who not only are untrained in counterinsurgency but don't want to hear it, either. We are doing a terrible job of evangelizing counterinsurgency doctrine, the only doctrine that will win against an insurgency.

We're not winning because we're so damned great; we are winning because there are enough Afghans who really want a better country and are willing to put their butts on the line to have it.

When you speak to someone who has been here and tells you they hate Afghans, know this; you are speaking to someone who doesn't get it, who was too damned lazy to try to get past the differences and see the men inside -- one of the people who feel superior by virtue of what they have that was freely given to them, not because they are inherently better or because of some earned superiority.

They will complain of Afghans not being able to read. Remind them that they can read not because they are so virtuous, but because they live in a society that will not permit them not to go to school. They will complain of Afghans being primitive, but they themselves did not build the water treatment plants, or the power stations that make them so advanced. That was all there when they were born into their pristine hospital beds.

They will complain of corruption, when most of them have never had to worry about feeding their family on a salary that is woefully short of what it takes to feed the kids. They will feel that their education makes them superior; or that they use silverware to eat with, or even because they are Christians (I once had a Captain explain to me why all 26 million Afghans will find their way to Hell because they are not Christians. I don't think he's alone).

None of these things are things that they have done for themselves. So we are superior by nature of our birth. Nobility, we are.

Smokey, one soldier who is struggling with the concepts of counterinsurgency, came here to kill everything he sees (let's see how long that holds up when he gets shot at the first time). He explained to me how hard he worked to get his college degree in graphic design. I told him that he has no idea what hard work is until he's seen an Afghan work acres and acres with a hoe and a shovel.

We are arrogant, self-centered people, and our Army is a reflection of the nation. Yes, we are winning in Afghanistan. No, it's not really our victory completely. We would not, could not, win without the dedicated, uneducated, illiterate, Hell-bound savages whose bravery is often unbelievable.

Don't ever tell me that the Afghans need to put some skin in the game. I've put four of them in vinyl bags with their skin in pieces and seen the rest of them continue to do their jobs. They lost two more in the same way in nearly the same spot. Another was shot clean through the head, and his brethren kept going into that same area. That's skin in the game, and in the earth, and in the grave.

Yes, sometimes there are acts of cowardice. I've seen more amazing feats of cowardice from an American officer who will go home claiming to be a hero. We are not superior by nature of our births, or the training that our Army can afford to give us. What makes a man superior is his actions, and I could point to many examples where we do not deserve that title.

We train our soldiers to be arrogant. Is there no way that our soldiers can be superbly trained and confident without having to look down on the rest of the world?

So, when you meet the guy who hates Afghans, know that he never got it. You may give him an opportunity to explain, perhaps, that he is tired of Afghans; they require a lot of effort to understand, and sometimes to tolerate things they do that will never make sense to us. Sometimes being tired of them will be stated as hate, but it is not the same. If he still insists that it is hatred, then welcome him home and pray that he is never again sent forth as an American counterinsurgent. We do not need him.

I'm going home soon, and I've still got stories to tell.

*

CONOP: Convoy Operation

ACM: Anti Coalition Militia (Not all ACM are Taliban, many are also HiG, or Hizbi Islami Gulbuddin; they are the militia of the HiG party, led by warlord Hekmatyar Gulbuddin. They claim to be a political party. There are other smaller ACM's also, like Jamyaat. The main ones in the areas where I've worked have been Taliban and HiG.)

UNDER THE CRESCENT MOON |

March 11, 2008

UNDER THE CRESCENT MOON
Name: Lt G
Posting date: 3/11/08
Stationed in: Iraq
Hometown: Reno, NV
Milblog: Kaboom: A Soldier's Journal

We slip out under the crescent moon, carefully treading our way through the midnight blackness, adjusting to our night vision devices while locking and loading our M4s. Red direct, fingers and minds ready to switch from safe to semi in an instant, trained to kill without hesitation and without mercy. Shades of green ebb and flow into our vision, like a Poe hallucination where color and depth perception disappear into a hazy mist of the amorphous. I utter a quick message to our Headquarters element over the radio, letting them know we’re departing, and follow the shape in front of me disappearing into the dark horizon.

“Sir?” PVT Das Boot says from behind me, as I leave both him and the radio on his back.

“What’s up?”

The young private’s German accent crackles with anticipation. “SSG Boondock told me to stay 10 steps behind you. Is that okay for you for when you need me to bring up the radio?”

I nod, and then remember there is no way he could have seen my acknowledgement. “That’s fine, man. That’s fine. I’ll let you know when I need you.” I turn back around and start observing my surroundings carefully. SGT Cheech has assumed the point position for tonight’s patrol, and the platoon falls into a staggered column behind him with nary a pause. SSG Bulldog’s Alpha section in front of me, SSG Boondock’s Bravo section behind me.

“Better keep up, Lieutenant,” my subconscious tells me.

“Don’t worry asshole,” I respond, silently. “Won’t be a problem.”

There are few things I’ve experienced in this life as eerie as a late-night dismounted patrol through the pitch black of Anu al-Verona. Sure, fear is a part of it, and an expected element, at that. But when you’re surrounded by twenty stone-cold warriors bred on machismo and testicular fortitude, it’s relatively simple to ease yourself out of the trepidation you imagine one should feel during combat operations. It’s not just the nerves, either. "Corporeally stimulating" makes it sound too much like a natural high, "feeling alive again" makes it sound too much like a daytime television talking point. All things considered, it’s simply sensual overload -- every sense churns away on the fumes of our remaining wits to keep us alert, with every turbo button being pressed maniacally to keep us moving; these are the moments that will make the rest of our lives grey and mundane in comparison. Sunday morning trips to the supermarket with the wife and the kids just won’t be able to compete with the dynamic vitality of this, the world’s oldest hunt.

I see the smoke from burning tires smoldering away all over the town. I smell the raw sewage toxins so prevalent in this Iraqi province. I hear the insurgency of barking wild dogs chronicle every explicit detail of our winding movements. I touch Biggie Smalls’ shoulder next to me to guide him through the dark as he leans over to whisper the historical significance of Muhammad’s grandson, Hussein, while we pass the Shia mosque towering alone in no-man’s land. I taste cool, bracing water from my Camelbak as it rushes into my dry throat -- and I walk, and then walk some more, all the while scanning for enemy activity in the urban ghettos, exchanging various hand-and-arm signals with my men to my front and to my rear. Stop. Take a knee. 360-degree security here. Linear danger area ahead. Bring up the LT. Send an update back to SFC Big Country and Bravo section. Keep moving.

While I am impressed with our stealth -- as are the various groups of locals we sneak up on, shocking them into quiet conciliation while they huddle around burning tires and newspapers for warmth -- we are by no means Delta Force, and certain missteps occur during the opening minutes of our patrol. Some of the younger soldiers in front of me begin to bunch up the formation, seeking out subliminal comfort with closer proximity to another human being. SSG Bulldog quickly remedies this however, maneuvering through his section with a hammer’s grace, physically moving the Joes back into proper place and distance. A few minutes later, I see a body -- I register the stocky cut and hasty strut as (newly promoted) PFC Boomhauer’s -- fall over a curb some ten feet in front of me, stagger up, and follow that up with some muffled expletives. I smile to myself, something that inevitably brings on the god of karma, as I do the same thing five minutes later.

“Mother fucker,” I hiss, as I stand back up, unrolling my ankle, cursing at the terrorist hole that had seized my leg, instantly more sentient to the 60 pounds of additional weight compressed around my chest in armored plates and various gear additions. “Stupid ass country and its stupid ass bullshit.”

“What was that?” Biggie Smalls asks. “Are you okay, LT?’

“I’m fine, Biggie,” I growl, temporarily livid that a near-blind terp with a hobble and without the benefit of night vision goggles somehow manages to never fall. We keep moving. Stop. Take a knee. Crossing a linear danger area. Bring up the LT.

I saunter up to a typical Sons of Iraq checkpoint, while my soldiers fan out around me, posting far-side security. A group of Iraqi men, ranging in size from small to smaller, are gathered around a small fire, AK-47s hanging loosely from their backs, all sporting the same matching white hats and white jackets that serve as a uniform in this sector.

“We got four of ‘em, Sir,” PV2 Romeo says back to me, as he moves to his far-side position. “Roger,” I say, and continue my movement up to the Iraqis.

“Salaam aleichem,” I say, hand raised.

“Hello mistah!” they respond, trying to act as awake and as alert as possible, scrambling up to shake my hand. We’ve snuck up on them by emerging silently out of the shadows of the night, surprising them by not rolling by in our monstrous Strykers first. They know they should be closer to the street, in order to stop any late night traffic that comes by. There should also be six Sons working at this hour at this checkpoint.

“Where are the other two?” I cut straight to the point of the discussion -- I don’t feel like dealing with the normal bullshit and glad-handing at this hour. Biggie’s voice matches mine in both pace and tenacity; this is his fourth year of interpreting and I’m his seventh lieutenant. His English may at times be shoddy, but his understanding of American SOPs and platoon leader moods is not.

A rapid flurry of Arabic words emerges post-translation. “Don’t bullshit me,” I warn, not bothering to wait for Biggie. I’ve had this discussion before, and heard the excuses before. All they’re doing right now is delaying my ability to crawl back into my sleeping bag at the combat outpost.

There is an awkward pause, and then one of the Sons speaks to Biggie. “He say that the other two are sick, and they were unable to find replacements,” the terp says, voice dripping with disgust.

I smile to myself. This bothers him more than it does me. I pull out my notebook and red lense flashlight, and begin writing with great demonstrative flair. “Tell them we’ll be letting their Sheik know about this, and that CPT Whiteback will be docking their pay. Again.”

Keep moving. Stop. Take a knee. 360-degree security here. Linear danger area ahead. Bring up the LT. Talk to the Sons of Iraq. Keep moving. Send an update back to SFC Big Country and Bravo section. Keep moving. Scare off another growling wild dog with a rock tossed its way. Stop. Take a knee. Keep moving.

We are walking up one of the main routes in southern Anu al-Verona now, staggered column intact, silence assured. The mental tracker I keep in my mind places our positions just short of Sheik Abu Franco's sprawling compound of slumlord excess. I impulsively check my watch; it has been three hours since we left the combat outpost. I chide myself for letting my mind wander over the course of the patrol, thinking about things and people and dreams that were left across the sea, instead of concentrating solely on the mission at hand. It’s not going to be like it was, anyways, I remind myself. Or how you want it to be. Or how it should have been. Why bother.

I hear shouts in Arabic to my front, and the sound of an AK-47 cocking reverberates into the still of the night. My men immediately drop to the ground, and seek out whatever cover they can find; I spy PFC Cold-Nuts just ahead of me huddling behind a generator, and SPC Flashback across from me rolls into a ditch on the side of the road. I’ve moved to my left, and find myself kneeling in a door frame of a store, and can feel Biggie behind me, crunched over in the same position. Twenty upgraded M4 Carbines are wedged tightly into shoulder pockets, oriented systematically to our north, night vision lasers dancing around multiple shadows and shapes that resemble human silhouettes. Three seconds -- maybe -- have passed since we heard the AK lock and load. I know my men. They are aching for positive identification of the enemy.

“Hey mutha fucka!” It’s SSG Bulldog, somewhere to my front right. “We Americans, Whose you is?!”

It must be Sheik Abu Franco’s bodyguards, I think to myself, wandering on their own dismounted patrol. It’s gotta be. No one else would be down here this time of night. If they weren’t his bodyguards, they would have shot already. Unless they hadn’t seen us yet. I refocus my night vision. Three green blobs, all standing up and holding rifles, are pacing frenziedly, heads scanning for our movements.

I can hear SSG Bulldog yelling again in the direction of the green blobs, and I can tell he is thinking the same thing I am regarding Sheik Abu Franco’s bodyguards. I am also aware however, that Arabs -- be them Sawha, terp, terrorist, or dilapidated bum -- struggle with SSG Bulldog’s deep southern drawl, and believe it to be a different language than English. Time to execute a shitty plan quickly, rather than wait for the perfect one to develop.

“Let’s go, Biggie,” I say, walking into the middle of the street. “Salaam aleichem!” I yell. “Americans!” I inject as much nasal whitebread suburbanite as I can into my voice, for clarity’s sake. I also swing my rifle back down into the low ready, and begin to stroke the safety trigger. If they start shooting at me, at least my soldiers will finally have their positive identification.

On my fourth step forward, I see the Green Light of God (a poweful naked eye laser) shine past me and center directly onto an Iraqi’s forehead -- SGT Chico’s own way of telling the mystery men that we are Americans ready and willing to turn their lives Jurassic. “That’ll work too,” I think to myself, feeling a smirk stroll across my face. My gunner’s always bailing me out of tight situations.

I continue walking, and come up on three frozen members of Sheik Abu Franco’s bodyguard posse. They stutter their way through a conversation, filling it with apologies, explanations, and offers of Chai. I make them clear their weapons and we keep moving.

I look over at Biggie, who is shaking his head. “Stupid men do stupid things,” he says.

We walk around a corner and start moving back west. The bright lights of the combat outpost shine in the distance, washing out my night vision. Like a proud citadel rising out of medieval lowlands, our home contrasts starkly with the dirty paucity we now trudge through. I can feel my pace quicken slightly, with the visual promise of our mission’s end, and the simple pleasures that come with it. Judging by the patrol’s movement, I know I’m not the only one who hears this silent siren’s song. Ten minutes later, I am counting my soldiers in through a maze of Jersey barriers and razor wire. Twenty Gravediggers out, twenty Gravediggers in. End of mission. Bringing up the rear of our patrol is SFC Big Country, who as always, ensures that no wolf wanders off from the pack.

“Another productive mission,” I say, my words laced with undertones.

He looks down at me, grabs my shoulder for leverage, and begins to stretch his legs. “Hell Sir,” he says, “we all made it back. That’s the most important thing.”

When he finishes stretching, we go take a seat on the front stoop. I accept his offer of a cigarette, and take a long drag. I cough, but do my best to muffle it. I still don’t get a buzz from tobacco, but it makes the headaches go away. Usually. “You’re right of course,” I tell my platoon sergeant, after a few minutes of silence. “That is the most important thing. Mission accomplished.” I pause melodramatically. “Think we’ll get a banner?”

He laughs and says no, probably no banner. We look at up at the crescent moon, still grinning madly. We will sleep before it does. I take another long drag from my cigarette, stifle a cough, and watch smoky embers rage into nothingness on the concrete. Then I walk inside, eager to shed my body armor, hoping that our patrol tired me out enough so that I will be able to sleep instead of think about things beyond my control.

I fall asleep eventually, despite myself

KEEPING YOUR MOUTH SHUT |

March 10, 2008

KEEPING YOUR MOUTH SHUT
Name: LTC Robert Bateman
Posting date: 3/10/08
Returned from: Iraq
Stationed in: Washington, D.C.
Hometown: Cleveland, "We never win anything" Ohio
Email: R_Bateman_LTC@hotmail.com

I now work in the Pentagon.

The Puzzle Palace is a curious place, five sides and political appointees mixing with uniformed professionals results in a potential for chaos which nears perfection. Indeed, it can be bizarre. One ceases to wonder when one finds signs in the latrines which refer one to the “Building Command Post” if there is a toilet blockage (the janitors have a TOC?!) and others which state the obvious to an absurd degree (“Unauthorized personnel are prohibited”). But perhaps that makes more sense when one realizes that this is the one major post within DoD where officers outnumber the enlisted, and by a wide margin. Fortunately, there are pockets of sanity. One of them happens to be in the courtyard.

Google Maps can show you the spot. The Pentagon is a huge hollow structure. Some might argue, “in more ways than one.” The scale of the building is revealed when you realize that the center courtyard is a full five acres. It is, I am told, the largest “no hat, no salute” outdoors area in the DoD. It is also where I go to have a smoke.

Smokers are, probably rightly, a decided minority in America nowadays. Increasingly this is so in the military as well. At least outside of OIF/OEF anyway. (Inside those AOs, obviously, we all have a lot more pressing health concerns. “Massive traumatic lead poisoning” trumps “Maybe someday perhaps cancer” every time.) But smokers are a definite minority in the Pentagon. That status confers a sort of embattled sentiment among us, the offending, which seems to transcend rank and service issues. The mutual emotion of de facto persecution unites. My conversations in the courtyard, at one of the approved “smoking spots” seem therefore to be somewhat more egalitarian than in other places. This is good.

The group which clusters at my usual spot is an interesting cross section. Among the “regulars” are one Specialist, an E5, two E6s, five civilians, a couple of O4s and O5s, and at least two O6s. Army, Navy, and Air Force primarily, with a sprinkling of Marines. But around “our” bin, aside from normal professional courtesy, there is no deference. Conversations flow and spread -- nothing is really off-limits, and this group is sharp. Over the course of a single day the discussion may flow from issues of the 1st and 14th Amendments to the Constitution, to high energy and particle physics, to the nature of “Honor Cultures” and their relationship to the GWOT, to military history of the 18th Century, to name but a few of the issues we’ve wrestled with lately.

That is a lot of intellectual ground to cover, and our eclectic little group handles it well. Anyone may espouse any position -- but they can be absolutely assured that they will be challenged and must present facts in support of any argument they make. Logic rules, and while the debates can range far and wide, nobody is considered to have a corner on the intellectual market. It is one of the few places I’ve seen in the military where de facto salon culture actually exists, and men are entirely judged on the content of their intellectual arguments, completely divorced from their rank.

It was in that spirit, I suppose, that just the other day one of the regular NCOs felt free to ask me, “So, sir, who are you voting for?”

For the first time I had to decline a response. “Sorry, can’t tell you.” This brought the Staff Sergeant up short. We had, in the past, comfortably discussed and debated issues as disparate and potentially inflammatory as immigration policy, macroeconomics, abortion, and the role of religion in the United States. Sometimes we were on the same side in a multi-person free-for-all, sometimes we were on opposite sides. But I had never before balked from a topic or a question. What follows is as near as I can come to an exact transcript of what followed.

“What? No. C’mon sir, who’re you supporting?”

“I can’t say sergeant. Seriously.”

“Why?”

“Because it would be wrong.”

“What? Why?”

“Well, while it is not technically illegal, it runs completely against my professional ethic. Bottom Line: Officers should not endorse or vilify any civilian politician while they wear the uniform. Ever. Enlisted can say what they want, but an officer has got to keep that opinion to himself. Doing otherwise, well, it’s bad for the Republic.” (No kidding, that’s how I talk.)

“Nah, c’mon sir, seriously.”

“I am serious, sergeant. As serious as a heart attack. Any officer who ever tells an enlisted man, regardless of their relationship, who he is voting for is just wrong. You can talk about the positions of various politicians. You can explain or explore their stated policy objectives. You may even disagree with their logic or evidence, as you understand it. But you can never, ever, express a preference for a politician. Especially in an election year. Hell, my own wife and kids don’t even know who I have ever voted for. And that, well, that is exactly as it should be until I hang it up.”

“Whoa, well, uh, okay,” he says, taking his last drag and snuffing it out. “But I’m voting for Obama.”

THE DOWNWARD SPIRAL |

March 07, 2008

THE DOWNWARD SPIRAL
Name: The Usual Suspect
Posting date: 3/7/08   
Stationed in: Iraq
Milblog: theunlikelysoldier.blogspot.com


One year ago, we were nervous and excited and apprehensive. Ready to do this. Green as snot.

We jumped through training hoops at Fort Lewis, counting down months. This epic thing looming in front of us, like some tidal wave we were waiting to catch.

Before we knew it, they stuffed us on buses and into airplanes and flew us to the other side of the planet, jet-lagged and confused as shit, dog-tired and sick of travel, sick of fucking waiting and stopping and going, sitting on duffel bags. Not knowing what to expect.

We spent a few weeks in Kuwait, adjusting to the heat, preparing for our next push into theater, just more waiting, all of it, more headgames. Already we were reduced to phone calls and emails, otherwise effectively cut off from the World.

And then they stuffed us all onto C-130s. Wedged in there, full kit, miserable, everyone scowling and swearing at each other for so much as adjusting in their seat. Two miserable hours of loud droning engines. You're off to war, son.

We had landed, anticlimactically, and still, we were herded like fucking animals, still not knowing a damn thing, and the cycle would never end. And there I was, finding myself in Baghdad, chomping at the bit to get outside the wire, to experience This Fucking War.

Barely 21 and dumber than shit, I was all sorts of optimistic, thinking we were going to do great things and kick lots of ass, GI Joe hero type shit. That we could be cool with the people, and bring the hammer down on the baddies.

Then a low rumble shakes my Stryker, and two of our guys are killed by an IED while they are dismounted. People emerge from their houses and cheer.

Every day we pile out of the trucks and into any random building, clearing house after house after god-forsaken motherfucking house, sweltering heat, sweat stinging our bloodshot eyes. Sucking down hot water and tromping up and down stairs all day. First floor clear. Second floor clear. Roof clear. Repeat and repeat and repeat, and where the fuck are the bad guys?

There's gunfire out of nowhere, and soon it's a squad on one rooftop against the enemy on another rooftop. "Chaz" returns fire with his SAW and watches as his rounds smack into some guy's ribs. He shakes for the rest of the day.

We continue to clear every day, we fire warning shots. And a sniper kills another of our guys. My squad returns to the truck to escort the medic's Stryker back to the Green Zone. The air horn blares repeatedly, over and over again, for what must have been fifteen solid minutes as we race to the hospital.

And then we're back out in it all over again, and where's this apparent enemy? Fucking ghosts. This fucking war.

Through the boredom and the monotony and misery, we occasionally have one of our own get wounded. Sometimes minor, sometimes enough to go back to the states. Shot in the leg. Shrapnel in the ass. Shrapnel in the head or the arm. Sometimes we get one of them.

We bust our asses in Baghdad in support of other units, tackling one of the most notorious neighborhoods in Iraq. Every Iraqi I've ever mentioned this neighborhood to nods in understanding, then mentions that it is "no good". Moo zyen.

And then we move. To a more calm area, where we have our own sector. And the monotony picks up exponentially. Days and weeks bleed together in an agonizing blur.

Then a suicide bomber kills three of us.

Still no visible enemy that we can directly engage.

You go on bipolar cycles of motivation and indifference. Of caring about the people to total apathy. Wanting to wreak havoc or wanting to get back to the tent and kick back. All the while the World moves on without you. You wonder if those people back home will think you've changed.

We were green once.

REST IN PEACE, CROOKSTON |

March 06, 2008

REST IN PEACE, CROOKSTON
Name: Gruntshit
Posting date: 3/6/08
Stationed in: Iraq
Hometown: Clarkston, Washington
Milblog: The Angry American

Framed_gruntshit_crookston_1_2 Recently, Duncan Crookston passed away. He had been severely wounded in the EFP attack that killed Joel Murray, David Lane, and Randy Shelton, and also wounded Joseph Mixson. When Duncan was evaced that night they had told us that he wouldn't make it through the night. He fought hard for five months. He had the Doctors at BAMC* perplexed.

Duncan had come to my squad late in the year in 2006 right before we deployed to Iraq. The first time I met him everyone was like, "You gotta check this guy out he is the smartest dude ever." I walked down to one of the barracks rooms where he was hanging out and watched this kid complete a Rubik's Cube in under 56 seconds.

His knowledge of computers and iPODs and PSPs and electronics were unchecked in the platoon. If you had a computer problem you called Duncan. You wanted games on your PSP, take it to Duncan. Right before we left I had to have him come and fix my home PC because my wife couldn't get online to do her homework for college.

Because of his technical prowess he was moved to the Radio Telephone Operator position in the Platoon. That pissed me off because I knew that Duncan was a good Soldier and I hated losing him, but overall it was the best decision because he was the most qualified Soldier for the job.

Duncan was many things to a lot of people. He was a son, a friend, and husband to a woman that stayed by his side the whole time he was at BAMC. My heart and prayers go out to her and Duncan's family. He is definitely a hero, and a warrior.

You fought so hard, Duncan, now you can be at peace. You made an impression and impact on all those whose path your life crossed. We will remember your humor, your caring, your genius, and the bread you used to make with your bread maker. Anytime anyone picks up their PSP, or iPOD, or opens a program that you got for them on their computer, they will always think of you and remember that no matter what you were always willing to help them. I will remember the Fedalayah water. Just a drop.

I know that when he went, Murray, Lane and Shelton were waiting for him, and because God called for him there isn't any better group of guys that he could be with.

Duncan will be missed but Never Forgotten.

Here is a letter that his mother sent out to us about the battle that Duncan fought:

Dear Friends and Family,

It is with great sadness I write to you today -- Duncan passed away at 3:46 p.m. today after the decision was made to stop heroic measures. Duncan developed another infection over the past two days, the effects of which were causing him a great deal of pain and causing him to run a fever of 108* F overnight. The doctor who treated Duncan said he had never heard of anyone surviving such a high fever, and that normally the body did not allow itself to sustain such a high temperature for even 15 minutes, let alone the two hours Duncan suffered with it. The doctor said it was an indication the hypothalamus of the brain, which regulates body temperature, was damaged.

He also advised us that even though Duncan survived, he would have permanent and widespread brain damage that would eventually cause his organ systems to fail, and that his kidneys were already dialysis dependent, and he was quickly becoming ventilator dependent. Meaghun and I were asked to make a decision, and we chose to allow Duncan to die a dignified and peaceful death, so he was given a morphine drip and taken off the ventilator. He died about 45 minutes later surrounded by his beautiful wife, his mother, his battle buddy Joe Mixson and the hospital chaplain he had come to know during his stay. It is the closest thing to a "good death" one could ask for a young man who fought so hard and long, only to have the limits of his body betray him. Once we knew there was no chance of any sort of quality of life, we felt we could not ask this brave young man who lived life to its fullest to spend his remaining days hooked to machines with no chance of recovery.

Words cannot express the gratitude we feel towards all those who offered support and prayer to Duncan and our families during the past five months. We can take away from this experience the knowledge that good people exist in this world, that evil is worth fighting for that reason, and that Duncan was a proud example of a good person who did not stand by and allow it to flourish by doing nothing. Duncan would have been 20 years old tomorrow -- he will be forever 19 now, and forever missed.

Love, Lee

*BAMC: Brooke Army Medical Center, Fort Sam Houston

TIME IS ON MY SIDE |

March 05, 2008

TIME IS ON MY SIDE
Name: CAPT Beau Cleland
Posting date: 3/5/08
Stationed in: Iraq
Hometown: Florida

Three months down, twelve to go. Piece of cake, right? My little Excel spreadsheet that tracks our time remaining here by percentage, days, minutes, and seconds is smoothly ticking down. We've broken 80%!

It seems like things are going fast until you consider how much is truly remaining on this thing. Summer is coming -- hot, dusty, filthy, stinking, fly-ridden summer. That brief six-month period should feel like a year all by itself. I really wish we could import some American winter. It's far more comfortable than broiler temperatures, and the bad guys don't like the rain and the cold. I always suspected my football coach of having a weather machine (how did those clouds keep going around the practice field?!), and now I wish he'd use it here to buy us a little more time.

The clock is your friend and your enemy here. It really feels like we've only been in-country a few weeks. But it can be very deceiving. A "significant emotional event" occurred for my team just three weeks ago, and when we were going over the timeline recently every one of us was amazed; it felt like it happened months ago. Einstein should have come to this place. Relativity happens every day.

Days "off" (a relative term -- we don't work bankers hours like those clowns in the finance office) fly by at light speed. Busy days with lots of missions fly by. It's those other days, the ones that make up the bulk of a deployment, that can crawl. Days where you're waiting for something, or someone, or the enemy. I've spent more of my time in the Army waiting than any other single activity excluding sleep. It's what soldiers do. You get ready, check, double check, and then you wait. You wait less if you're a leader, but you still do it. I imagine that somewhere way up the chain of command there exists a place where you don't have to wait. Maybe the President gets to get right down to business all the time.

Some people might claim they don't spend much time waiting. Perhaps they think they are gainfully employed when they are in a guard tower, or checking IDs to let people into the chow hall. Guess what, buddy? You're still waiting most of the time you're doing that. Even out on the streets we do a lot of waiting. It's called "pulling security", and you're a little more proactive, but you're still waiting for Something To Happen.

I confess there are days that I get so bored I almost hope for that Something, but when it inevitably occurs I kick myself immediately for wishing for it. I am keenly aware of how much worse it could be, especially when I compare our unit to units in other areas, so say it with me now: Quiet is good. Boring is good.

It's going to happen eventually, so enjoy the wait!

Framed_cleland_burnin_poo_on_xmas_2

Waiting for the toilet to flush.

(Note: CAPT Cleland posted on The Sandbox during his 2007 deployment to Afghanistan. Here's a link to GETTING SHOT AT.)

PRINCE HARRY |

March 04, 2008

PRINCE HARRY
Name: MSGT Ken Mahoy
Posting date: 3/4/08
Stationed in: Afghanistan
Milblog: Third Time's A Charm!

Framed_mahoy_harry_1_3 The big news in Afghanistan lately has obviously been the reports of Prince Harry being secretly stationed here, and subsequently being removed. The most interesting thing about this story to us here at the ISAF* Headquarters is that many of us didn't know either. Yes, there were obviously a few who knew, particularly his fellow Brits, and those who possess a much higher pay grade than me. But for the most part, we had no idea.

Once we got wind of the story, especially after learning that he was a FAC (Forward Air Controller) who called in close air support, we went back and looked up our past missions. We now knew the “call sign” that he used on the radio (which I can't say here for obvious reasons) and with it we were able to see just how much interaction we had with him. To our surprise, we had flown a number of missions with him, and in fact, there were a few missions that put some serious hurt on the bad guys down in the Southern provinces.

Framed_mahoy_harry_2_2 To us, we just deal in code names and call signs when we speak to the literally hundreds of different people out there, whether they be ground troops, pilots in the air, or other staff members. So flying missions for Harry was no big deal, no different than any other mission we fly, a hundred times each day at least. But the Brits who work with us in our ASOS (Air Support Operations Squadron) are particularly proud to have learned of their own royalty -- the third in line to the throne -- serving on the front lines with them. In fact, one of the Brits who works with us actually "trained" Harry last year on his duties as a FAC. He couldn't say anything at the time for obvious reasons, but once news of Harry hit the airwaves, he was finally able to share his story. Pretty fascinating stuff.

Anyway, the questions coming in asking, "Did you know Harry was there?", and "Did you work with him?", were getting more frequent so I thought I would let you in on what little we did know. Honestly, in the grand scheme of things, he was just another call sign at the other end of the radio, but somehow, in the end, it is a little exciting that we got to be a part of it.

*ISAF: International Security Assistance Force

NORTHERN DISCLOSURE |

March 02, 2008

NORTHERN DISCLOSURE
Name: SFC Toby Nunn
Posting date: 3/3/08
Stationed in: Kuwait / Iraq
Hometown: Oakland, CA via Terrace B.C. CANADA
Milblog url: tobynunn.typepad.com

(Note: This post is excerpted from Northern Disclosure, a memoir by frequent Sandbox contributor Toby Nunn. The book chronicles his previous deployment as an infantry squad leader during Operation Iraqi Freedom -- from stateside training, to the desert sands of Kuwait, and on into combat in Iraq. His unit was the first to train and fight as a Stryker Brigade Combat Team. The following episode is from a chapter about training Iraqi security forces.)

I was updating the schedule for staff duty and showers when an Iraqi asked to speak with me. Alla had already left and there was no interpreter, so I prepared myself for confusion, but hoped I would be able to understand as I was pretty pleased with my progress in Arabic in only a short time. The jundi was talking fast, his arms swinging around him like an octopus. I was not sure if he was speaking Kurdish or Arabic. Finally, he used his hands in a manner that gave me a hint, and I heard the word "douche", which has a similar word in French for shower. I started to demonstrate bathing, and his eyes lit up with recognition. Growing up in Canada I had to learn French, so I had a solid grasp on that language as well as German.

I started to walk toward the showers to see what I could decipher from his words while seeing firsthand. As I approached I was mobbed by the Iraqis, all speaking a mile a minute and obviously complaining. I quickly looked around to make sure I was not alone. I saw Souci within reach, looking his usual hard self. I was glad that he just sensed I was going to need help, and jumped in. I also nonchalantly slipped my hand down by my pistol, just to ensure that I still had it and was ready to use it. I tried to make it look as innocent as a man verifying that his wallet was still in his pocket after leaving the subway.

The problem was easy to detect. There was no water. With the use of the obstacle course we had just built, and needing additional water to clean uniforms, we had run out. I had underestimated what we would use in a day. I told the men to relax and go to bed; I would work it out. To me it was not that big of a deal since I had gone almost thirty days without showers when in field environments in the past. Less than a day would not be a big deal, right?

Wrong! I was in the middle of what was slowly becoming an angry mob. I was diplomatic, polite, and courteous, but it was not working. All these men were yelling and waving their arms at me, and I was starting to feel the encroachment of them on Souci and myself. We looked at each other, and I could tell he was thinking the same thing I was: "What the hell is wrong with these people?" There had never been a shortage of body odor among the locals, in fact at times being in some homes was so unbearable that we would hasten our activities to get out quicker because the smell was nauseating. Why were these men, for whom I had gone to great lengths to provide good living conditions, getting so riled up?

Then I heard the magic word come through the crowd like it was spoken on an intercom: "Prayer! We must be clean for prayer, Sadi!"

It hit me like a brick to the windshield. To prepare for prayer they must clean themselves ritually before God. This ritual consisted mainly of washing the hands, feet, and face several times in a particular order, always starting with the left. At times the procedure was a male's only source of bathing -- hence the body odor we had experienced. I knew that this shortage was going to be used as a political tool against me, so I called for Wally and asked him to coordinate the extra water buffalo, so that the Iraqis could wash for prayer.

This took time, since it was at night and I didn't have the appropriate vehicle. There was no potable water available, so I had to use non potable, but they were going to be washing with it, not drinking it. But I also had water bottles from our emergency supply brought out.

While we were working this out came the epiphany. I had heard the complaint in English, not Arabic. Did I translate it in my mind, or was it in English? I asked Souci, and he looked at me like I was stupid, and said it was in English.

"Why was it in English?" I asked. Then the enlightenment that had hit me, hit him.

"Do you remember who said it?"

"I think so, let's go grab him!" God bless Souci and his aggressive ways.

When we had interviewed and vetted all the recruits, no one claimed any understanding or ability in the English language. The person who had just spoken on behalf of the soldiers had hidden his abilities and understanding. This might not seem like a big deal, but all of a sudden every conversation I had ever had near an Iraqi was going through my head, and I was hoping I hadn't said anything that would have jeopardized anything.

It took us a few minutes to find the soldier, since we were trying not to alert him to our intent. We wanted to talk to him in private. Being careful to extract him from his sleeping bay without arousing suspicion was hard, but we were able to do it. I had a room set aside for detention and questioning, so we took him there. I expected him to be nervous, thinking he probably was beginning to realize that we now knew he spoke English. But he played dumb and pretended not to understand us.

Whenever we had to "talk" to someone, I usually took point. I asked a few simple questions about where he was from, and he spoke in Arabic, signaling he didn't understand us. I had already called for the human intelligence team to come and assist. I needed an interrogator, so I called for my friend, who had fought with us in Samara, to come. I knew it would take a while, since it was at night and I needed to send a runner.

Coincidently, one of the Special Forces guys was dropping off a movie he had borrowed from us and asked what we were doing. After we explained what had happened, he offered to assist. With some Arabic in his toolbelt, he went in and started to ask some of the same questions I had. Together we were able to trick the man into saying some words in English and translating some words for us. Then, like a floodlight had been turned on over his head, we saw the look of, "Oh shit! They figured it out!"    

I immediately asked him to remove his shirt, and my SF counterpart looked at me funny. It might have seemed like I was challenging the Iraqi to fight, but I was simply trying to get him to take off his shirt so I could see his skin. I was looking for scars, tattoos, or anything that might help tell his story.

He was a military-aged man, slender but athletic. His hair was maintained, which was a tell-tail sign; he obviously had the money to afford some basic grooming. Then, on his arm, there it was, calling out to me like a siren: the eagle claw with snake tattoo. He had been a member of the Fedajeen. Like a U.S. Marine will brand him- or herself to demonstrate "Once a Marine Always a Marine", the Fedajeen did as well, so there was a strong possibility this man was an infiltrator...

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