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.

MURPHY'S LAWS OF COMBAT |

April 30, 2008

MURPHY'S LAWS OF COMBAT
Name: 1SG Troy Steward
Posting date: 4/30/08
Stationed in: Afghanistan
Milblog url: bouhammer.com

The following was sent to me a while back from an old army buddy. It is a pretty good list, with both humor and truthfulness it it. Anyone that has served will probably be able to relate to many of these.

1. If the enemy is in range, so are you.
2. Incoming fire has the right of way.
3. Don't look conspicuous, it draws fire.
4. There is always a way, and it usually doesn't work.
5. The problem with the easy way out is that it has already been mined.
6. Try to look unimportant, they may be low on ammo.
7. Professionals are predictable; it's the amateurs that are dangerous.
8. The enemy invariably attacks on two occasions:
9. When you're ready for them.
10. When you're not ready for them.
11. Teamwork is essential; it gives them someone else to shoot at.
12. If you can't remember, then the claymore IS pointed at you.
13. The enemy diversion you have been ignoring will be the main attack.
14. A "sucking chest wound" is nature's way of telling you to slow down.
15. If your attack is going well, then it's an ambush.
16. Never draw fire, it irritates everyone around you.
17. Anything you do can get you shot, including nothing.
18. If you build yourself a bunker that's tough for the enemy to get into quickly, then you won't be able to get out of it quickly either.
19. Never share a foxhole with anyone braver than yourself.
20. If you're short of everything but the enemy, you're in a combat zone.
21. When you've secured the area, don't forget to tell the enemy.
22. Never forget that your weapon is made by the lowest bidder.
23. Friendly fire isn't.
24. If the sergeant can see you, so can the enemy.
25. Never stand when you can sit, never sit when you can lie down, never stay awake when you can sleep.
26. The most dangerous thing in the world is a second lieutenant with a map and a compass.
27. There is no such thing as an atheist in a foxhole.
28. A grenade with a seven second fuse will always burn down in four seconds.
29. Remember, a retreating enemy is probably just falling back and regrouping.
30. If at first you don't succeed, call in an air-strike.
31. Exceptions prove the rule, and destroy the battle plan.
32. Everything always works in your HQ, everything always fails in the colonel's HQ.
33. The enemy never watches until you make a mistake.
34. One enemy soldier is never enough, but two is entirely too many.
35. A clean (and dry) set of BDUs is a magnet for mud and rain.
36. Whenever you have plenty of ammo, you never miss. Whenever you are low on ammo, you can't hit the broad side of a barn.
37. The more a weapon costs, the farther you will have to send it away to be repaired.
38. Field experience is something you don't get until just after you need it.
39. Interchangeable parts aren't.
40. No matter which way you have to march, its always uphill.
41. If enough data is collected, a board of inquiry can prove ANYTHING.
42. For every action, there is an equal and opposite criticism (in boot camp).
43. The one item you need is always in short supply.
44. The worse the weather, the more you are required to be out in it.
45. The complexity of a weapon is inversely proportional to the IQ of the weapon's operator.
46. Airstrikes always overshoot the target, artillery always falls short.
47. When reviewing the radio frequencies that you just wrote down, the most important ones are always illegible.
48. Those who hesitate under fire usually do not end up KIA or WIA.
49. The tough part about being an officer is that the troops don't know what they want, but they know for certain what they DON'T want.
50. To steal information from a person is called plagiarism. To steal information from the enemy is called gathering intelligence.
51. The weapon that usually jams when you need it the most is the M60.
52. The perfect officer for the job will transfer in the day after that billet is filled by someone else.
53. When you have sufficient supplies and ammo, the enemy takes two weeks to attack. When you are low on supplies and ammo the enemy decides to attack that night.
54. The newest and least experienced soldier will usually win the Congressional Medal Of Honor.
55. A Purple Heart just goes to prove that were you smart enough to think of a plan, stupid enough to try it, and lucky enough to survive.
56. Murphy was a grunt

HAMID MEETS THE GANG |

April 28, 2008


HAMID  MEETS THE GANG

Name: CAPT Doug Traversa

Posting date: 4/28/08

Returned from: Afghanistan

Milblog url: Afghanistan Without A Clue

 

All of my previous Hamid postings have been about discussions just the two of us had. Towards the end of our tour, my hut mates would join us in our little chats. By this time Hamid was becoming a bit of a celebrity. A couple of the other interpreters would read my blog and tell Hamid he was famous. My roomies, Doug, Mike, and Drew, were also starting to contribute to AWAC (my blog), so we were all one big happy blogging family.


One day Drew and Mike joined us for lunch. Poor Hamid. His brains hurts enough when I talk to him; imagine the migraine he must have had after talking to the three of us. I don’t remember how we got on the topic, but we ended up discussing freedom of religion.


“People in Afghanistan don’t need the freedom to switch religions; no one would leave Islam,” Hamid assured us.


“Well, how would you know?” I countered. “Right now it’s like having a gun held to your head. Remain Muslim or die. Your government forces everyone to remain Muslim. Leaving the faith is never a realistic possibility for anyone, unless they flee the country.”


“But no one would ever leave Islam. It is the perfect religion.” Hamid was very confident on this point.


“Hamid, you’ve never even read the Qur’an. Don’t tell me it’s the perfect religion.”


Mike joined in: “I find it amazing that so many people here have not read their most holy book. I’m not talking about people who can’t read, I’m talking about those who know how, but never bother.”


I piled on. “Why haven’t you read it? It’s the most important book in your life, and you’ve never read it.”


Hamid didn’t hesitate. “I don’t need to. My mullah tells me what is in the Qur’an.”


[Yes, I know, we’ve had this discussion before. Please bear with us.]


Mike (did I mention he is a lawyer?) pounced: “So you are basing your entire set of beliefs on what one man tells you? Why would you do that? What if he’s wrong?”


“If he is wrong,” replied Hamid, “Someone can say something in the mosque.”


I had to jump on this one. “Hamid, has anyone ever stood up and said that the mullah was wrong about anything?”


He paused, then shook his head. “No. But they could if he was wrong.”


“Hamid,” I disagreed, “No one is going to contradict the mullah. They are probably afraid, or think he knows better than they do. That’s why no one ever disagrees with him. But let me ask you something else. Do you think it would be a good idea to change the law in Afghanistan to allow people to change their religion?”


Hamid seemed puzzled. “No one would do that. Islam is the perfect religion.”


“That doesn’t matter. Would you change the law if you could?”


“No,” he said simply.


“Why not? What are you afraid of?” I demanded.


“We don’t want people to go to hell.”


Mike joined in: “In our country, you are free to worship as you please. The government doesn’t tell you what to believe or how to worship. I could make up a new religion today if I wanted to, and they wouldn’t stop me.”


“Yes,” I added. “I could worship that chair if I wanted to.”


Hamid gave us one of his exasperated looks. “But the government must stop you from doing that. It is crazy.”


“No,” insisted Mike, “In America, the government is forbidden to interfere in your worship, even if it seems crazy. We believe in the marketplace of ideas. If you want to convince someone that your religion is true, you must do it by words, not by force. If you had that freedom over here, people might not stay Muslim.”


“No, no one would leave Islam.” Hamid was firm on that point.


Drew finally joined in: “How do you know? Let me illustrate. Suppose you went to get ice cream, and every day all they had was vanilla. Then one day they also had chocolate chip, but the guy serving it refused to give it to you. How do you know if you would like it unless you were allowed to try it? Here, the people aren’t even allowed to try another religion, so how do you know what they’d do?”


“Do you even study what other religions believe?” asked Mike. “Are you even allowed to read a Bible?”


“Our mullah tells us about other religions,” replied Hamid.


“Yes, and you say he claims that the Bible spoke about the coming of the Qur’an and Mohammad. Yet I can tell you the Bible says no such thing,” I pointed out.


“So you are saying the mullah is lying?”


“He is probably mistaken, or ill-informed, but I have read the Bible several times. I assure you, it doesn’t speak about Islam. If it did, don’t you think more Christians would become Muslims?”


“But the Qur’an came after the Bible; it must be better, it is that last book from God,” protested Hamid.


“Oh, there are many books that came after the Qur’an that some religions claim are from God. The Book of Mormon came later. Are you going to become a Mormon?”


We talked some more, and I wish I'd had a tape recorder, because it was a good discussion. Mike got up to leave and said, “Hamid, we aren’t being mean. We are trying to get you to think. If you believe the Qur’an is God’s word, then you need to read it so you know what it says, not what one man tells you it says.”

This is good advice for everyone, regardless of our personal beliefs. People are very good at leading us astray, whether intentionally or not. Although we were encouraging Hamid to critically examine his beliefs, it brings into sharper contrast the blessings of our country, where we are truly free to do just that. Imagine what it would be like to live in a country where the people do not have freedom to choose their faith (or choose to have none). I don’t have to imagine it; I’ve been there. It’s a scary place.

iWAR |

April 25, 2008

iWAR
Name: LT G
Posting date: 4/25/08
Stationed in: Iraq
Hometown: Reno, Nevada
Milblog: Kaboom: A Soldier's War Journal                 

Rumble young man, rumble.

Make it more true than true is. As muddled as war appears on paper, it still has to make some sort of sense to survive the transformation into language. That is why I write. It makes more sense here than it does out there. If I ever make sense of it all, there won’t be a reason for these words anymore. I’ll finally fade into that proud sand castle defying the sea for the sake of defiance. Alone, under the red hot moon. Doomed to fail, blessed to try. That’s all I’ve really ever wanted out of life. To be left alone, to fight impossible on my own terms.

The act of creation. Jimmy Rabbit on a bus. Pogues in a Port-a-John. Emily Dickinson locked away in an attic. God at a pub, liquored up in a dark corner, doodling on a napkin. Like pulling fangs off of a rabid baboon with pliers, as explainable as the board game Wall Street Land to a people who do not comprehend the concept of excess. Diversify those bonds, mistah.

We all have our methods. Mine has always been somehow sitting still long enough to retch up a pile of brain vomit, followed by meticulously rigid editing and re-editing ingrained by journalistic tendencies by way of poking said brain vomit with a sanity stick. Don’t analyze that too deeply. There was nothing phallic about that statement.

WhoWhatWhenWhereWhyandWhyagainandWhyoverandover. Save the Chief Wahoo greeting for the mathematicians and meterosexual drag queens. Invert that pyramid. It takes time to organize random musings into something worth sharing and even more time to make it readable. I used to write at night, beer in hand, and edit in the morning, water in hand. Cue General Order No. 1. Now I write mad and edit sad, whenever I can.

iWar. Fitting, in that succinct, catchy pop culture kind of way. Perfect for this Era of Irony. No LOL-erskates for the whYkids, but they’ll get over it. iWar. It’s not my phrase, though I appreciate it and am happy to Oscar Wilde it. I got it from an article about blogging in the Iraq War that quoted me. Bask in the shameless self-promotion. To be fair, I don’t think it was the reporter’s phrase either. It begins with "i", so Apple Computers probably has a patent on it. Just like iPod, iTunes, and iRack.

I War. Subject. Verb. Where’s the object? We’re still looking for it, five years later. How’s that for iRony?

I get it. My suffering and soul-searching is not as deep or as angst-worthy as your suffering and soul-searching was. Were you in Fallujah, LT? How about Somalia? Now that was some fucked up shit. My war was SO much more trying than your war. Spare me the juvenile sensitivities; internalizing anything makes you soft. We didn’t have time for that bullshit in Desert Storm. How tough can it be? You have internet access, for Mohammed’s sake. And a mattress.

Fair enough. Counterinsurgencies are not nearly as cool or memorable as the apocalyptic offensives that spawn their existence in the first place. Following that logic though, we all owe the survivors of Antietam our first-born sons and a free rub-and-tug at the local Asian massage parlor.

But wait! They had a pen and a pad to write letters home! Some of them even owned socks. They aren’t nearly as legit as Alexander the Great’s epical Macedonian Marauders. They literally did nothing but kill things 25/8, which clearly elevates them beyond mere soldier status. Their rules of engagement were simply two words. Rape. Pillage. The “and” came later, inadvertently fucking everything up, leading to the point where the world’s lone superpower can’t make juice boxes out of the fruit of their enemy’s skulls anymore. Not directly, at least. Now we just hire them to squeeze their own juice while we provide the fruit and the pre-shaped cardboard and the plastic straw.

ShootMoveAndCommunicateBOOMBOOM.

Scouts Out.

ShootMoveAndCommunicateBOOMBOOM.

Scouts Out.

ShootMoveAndCommunicateBOOMBOOM.

Scouts Out.

As the keyboard Marines of the blogosphere reminded me during the rules of engagement saga, this is war!!! How e-tuff. Thanks for the advice, it’s kind of hard to forget that when you live it and sleep it and breathe it on a daily basis. I play real-world Frogger with IEDs every time we roll out of the wire, Mesopotamian sand rests at the bottom of my lungs like spare change in a swimming pool, the Gravediggers are awaiting CABs for actioning into combat and whistling bullets without hesitation, and I’m still removing bits of Boss Johnson flesh grunge from my memory with a spatula -- and the computer screen dares to lecture about what war is? Typing to kill and repeating asinine banalities found on World War II-era posters are clearly more profound and well-intentioned than ten pages of literary greatness devoted to five seconds of black-bursting clairvoyance written by someone who was actually fucking there. No thanks for the exclamation mark abuse.

Sigh.

To hell with it though, as skewed and as wrong as those individuals may be, at least they are interested. That’s about as rare nowadays as finding a polar bear that thinks global warming is a communist conspiracy.

Give the cute baby seals a hammer and sickle, and put them to work. For the Motherland, of course.

Chew Tobacco

Chew Tobacco

Chew Tobacco

Spit

If You Ain’t Cav

You Ain’t Shit.

I know people care about the iWar. But not enough, given the circumstances. Not even close. Agree or disagree with the war, I don’t care -- just give a fuck. Be able to find Basra on a map, know that the Tigris isn’t some sort of unholy crossbreed found at the San Diego Zoo, try to figure out the difference between a Sunni and a Shi’a even if it conplexes and perfuses your mind beyond repair.

I wish I could issue some loud, righteous proclamation here about the repercussions of such continued resounding American apathy, but who are we kidding? The warrior caste is simply too small nowadays, and too proud. There will be no reckoning for all of this. We’ll fight the fights not because we necessarily want to, but because no one else will. We were bred to protect. Even if we’re protecting nothing more than an isolationistic yawn prefacing the continental slumber history demands occur after protracted warfare.

I used to dream of a life without consequences. Like that defiant sand castle though, it has been swallowed up by a crashing surf of memories, washed away, lost in the swirl of bleeding blue.

iWar. Mine, not yours. This war. My War. Our War. We War. I War.

You peace. Out.

Here’s a secret, though. I’ll let you in on it, if you promise not to tell the chickenhawks or Jody or the Spooks. Sand castles can be rebuilt. The surf can destroy the castles, but not the sand itself. No one and no thing can destroy the sand but myself. And that won’t happen anymore. I will rebuild my sand castle, someday, somewhere else, somewhere where I think the surf can’t find me. In a lagoon where peace is stillness and stillness is peace. Alone, under the red hot moon. Fighting to fight, finding a noble cause in an ignoble world. And tucked away in the deepest dungeon of the castle, where no one will be allowed to go, not even me, will be a piece of scrap paper with the address to this blog site written in smudged ink on it. My link to this iWar, where I finally stumbled into an adventure that I couldn’t sleep off. The last link to a life with consequences.

Rumble young man, rumble.

HERE |

April 23, 2008

HERE
Name: The Usual Suspect
Posting date: 4/23/08
Stationed in: Iraq
Milblog: Unlikely Soldier 

The same familiar dry and dead landscape flies past me as I stand in one of the hatches, on the same repetitive mission, and in that moment it is like I never left Iraq on leave. Nothing has changed; same faces, same buildings -- some destroyed, some just in pitiful condition.

We stop and the ramp drops. I step out and scan windows and rooftops and nooks and crannies and everything in between as we all link up and enter a building. My travel buddy and I take up positions in the stair well, not having much to talk about.

The sun shining through a small window dimly lighting up the stair well adds to the recurring surreal feeling I sometimes get. Once again, I can't believe that I am here.

I light a cigarette and my train of thought begins to flow. I start thinking about all the events that led up to this singular moment, working backwards. For five minutes I backtrack, blowing my mind with each significant event. At any one of these points, a different decision would have changed everything. I follow it all the way back to the first real decision of my life.

The places I put myself, the people I surrounded myself with and the events that shaped me. Meeting one person caused a series of events and introductions which led to new insights, opinions, disasters. My head begins to spin a little. Anything could have re-directed this train.

A different MOS. A different branch. No military at all. College, or no college. Associating with different people, choosing to live in a different town: any small detail would have resulted in a completely different life for me.

The scary thing is that I don't want the ability to change anything.

Reality takes a hit of ether and a tiny part of me wonders if this is really happening, all of this. Or is it just one long vivid dream?

Later, as we drive down the streets again, I wave at a kid and he extends all fingers except the thumb and the ring finger, commonly referred to as "The Shocker".

I guess this is real.

There I am, that's me. Almost seeing myself from the third person, drifting through the most illogical experience of my life. Yeah right there, that's me again, teaching kids the universal hand signal for "rock on". Now I'm holding the flag at a friend's re-enlistment ceremony.

My feet are kicking up gravel and I'm on my way to get some chow. How the hell did I get here again?

I'm explaining that yes, ratemyboobies.com is in fact a viable excuse for being late to work.

I'm watching director's cut episodes of Beavis and Butthead in a third world country. What the fuck am I doing?

Most of the time, I don't think any of us really think about the reality of actually being here. We keep ourselves sidetracked when we're off duty. If you thought about it too much it just might drive you insane. And then you utter that subtle mantra:

"Holy shit... I'm in Iraq..."

VERBOSITY, VIOLENCE AND CHAOS |

April 21, 2008

VERBOSITY, VIOLENCE AND CHAOS
Name: 1SG Troy Steward
Posting date: 4/21/08
Returned from: Afghanistan
Milblog: bouhammer.com

I was browsing one of my favorite milblogs the other day -- Matt Burden's Blackfive -- and came across this video, sent in by SSG Ryan Creel, that I think does a good job of highlighting and demonstrating the verbosity, violence and chaos that exists in a typical firefight. Granted this is a two-dimensional view of a 360-degree moment, and it is absent the chest-pounding booms, smells, and fear that the guys are experiencing, but it gives the viewer a little appreciation of what 10% of the time in combat is like. Typically the other 90% is boredom.

THE ROYAL THRONE |

April 18, 2008

THE ROYAL THRONE
Name: MSGT Ken Mahoy
Posting date: 4/18/08
Stationed in: Afghanistan
Milblog: Third Time's A Charm!

I recently headed back to my old stomping grounds -- Iraq. Specifically, Baghdad. I was to meet up with another ASOC*, which resides at the old palace that I used to call home in Southwest Baghdad. Returning to the very place that we occupied five years ago was quite an experience.

I was with one of the first units in Baghdad, during what they now call the "major combat phase" of the war. We took over the airport, lived there for a few weeks, then moved into a nearby palace. We were the first new occupants of the building that the Army gave the Air Force as a way of saying, "Thanks for the close air support!" There are a thousand stories about that experience that I can't go into here. Suffice it to say, it was quite a time.

When we landed on the tarmac in Baghdad I stepped off the back ramp of the C-130 and looked across the runway to see Baghdad International Airport. There it was, glowing, with power, and lights -- looking back at me as if it were a living, breathing creature, not the once-bombed-out shelter I remember. I am here to tell you, it was emotional. I didn't expect it.

Framed_mahoy_throne_2a Once we arrived at the palace, we pulled out our sleeping bags and snoozed for a few hours up on the fourth floor. I awoke the next morning restless, anxious to walk around and see what they had done with the place in five years' time, so I got dressed and walked outside. The first thing I had to check was to see if the old outhouse that Scotti and I had built was still there. This outhouse was like none other. It was built using one of the gold chairs from Saddam's palace as the "stool", retrofitted with a toilet seat and lid. There was stained woodwork fitted in and around the marble steps that led to the gold chair, and gold trim taken from the frame of a now-destroyed oil painting of Saddam.

Framed_mahoy_throne_1a_3 For Scotti and me, this outhouse ended up being our legacy. People came from all over to use it, until, after several months, power and plumbing was finally restored to the bombed out palace compound. Even years later, I've run into folks who talked of that outhouse, not knowing we were the ones who built it. Heck, the bathroom in my own house was even inspired by it, and is decorated in an outhouse theme. A picture of Scotti and me standing in front of our outhouse resides on a shelf on the wall! 

I walked out the door that was backdropped on the edge of the lake, and there it was. The Royal Throne, as we referred to it, was still there. It was well worn, however, and showed how hard the last five years had been on it -- not too different from me, really. I felt like I had found an old friend, as funny, or sickening, as that may sound.

The door we made was now off and laying on the ground, half buried in the dirt. The inside was covered in a thick layer of dust and cobwebs, while the outside that once shimmered with a bright white coat of paint was chipped and peeling. The once shiny, stained and laquered wood trim inside was now drying, faded, and exposed to the elements. The round mirror, the gold and glass shelf and the toilet paper dispensers were missing. But in all honesty, it still was in really good shape. A cleaning and paint job would've restored it to its former luster.

Framed_mahoy_throne_3a_2
Me and Scotti, May 2003, standing in front of our newly completed Royal Throne.

Framed_mahoy_throne_4a
Me, March 2008, standing in front of a now well-worn Royal Throne.


Framed_mahoy_throne_5a
The inside is still mostly complete, though dusty and weathered.


Then I remembered: After completing the build Scott and I had signed the inside framework just above the door. Was it still there? A quick look inside, up over my head, revealed that the inscription, penned with my Sharpie marker, was still legible: Framed_mahoy_throne_6a_3
"Designed & built by MSgt Ken Mahoy & TSgt Scott Stadler (signatures) May 2003, OIF." Wow... That just brought it all home. The only problem was, Scotti was not here with me to experience it. I had fought hard to get him to go on the trip with me -- because I really did need his satellite expertise on my project -- but after three attempts the commander would not budge. I brought SSgt Chris Lambert with me instead -- and he did a great job, mind you -- but for obvious sentimental reasons I really wanted Scotti to come along. I was more upset than I can say that he wasn't allowed to go. Scotti was too. 'Nuff said.

The next few days there in Baghdad were busy, but just before I flew out I borrowed a vehicle from the ASOC and Chris and I went for a drive around the palace compound. With each direction I looked, at least a dozen memories popped back into my head. It was fun for me to be able to take Chris and point to a particular area and tell the story of what happened "right there", or to walk past another area and remember the fun things that Scotti and I did when it was all so fresh and so new. No ten-foot-tall concrete barriers blocking the beautiful view of the lake or the other palace buildings. No fences. No sandbags stacked up in front of all the windows. No trees cut down for security reasons. It was beautiful! And it had all been ours for a short spell.

Framed_mahoy_throne_7a_2 Looking back exactly five years later, and after all that has transpired -- there at the palace in Iraq, and even in my own life -- I can get nostalgic. But only for a spell, then I have to quickly divert my attention back to the now, and all the things that are going on today, and all that I have to accomplish before I get out of the sandbox yet again. But for those few short days, it was hard not to remember back to that time that was so breathtaking, so exhilarating, and terrifying, yet somehow fun, all at once.

Before I left, I decided that I'd bring a momento back for Scotti, so Chris and I removed the brass door handle and I packed it in my backpack. I sat with Scotti alone a few nights ago and showed him the pictures and video I took of the palace, and then, at the very end, I pulled out the door handle. We shared a good laugh over it and recalled all the great memories. We even kidded about how we could scheme to get the entire outhouse shipped back to our unit in Peoria. It has had a life of its own, and we often joke that our outhouse is "the story the refuses to die" because of how many times it's come back to us with yet another chapter. But this time around, sadly, I know I'm leaving it behind for good.

*ASOC: Air Support Operations Center

THIS IS WAR |

April 15, 2008

THIS IS WAR
Name: Eric Coulson
Posting date: 4/16/08
Stationed in: Iraq
Milblog: Badgers Forward

If you read milblogs then you know your single best source of what is happening in Iraq is the people who have been there; the Soldiers, Sailors, Marines and Airmen that have been slugging it out on the ground for the last five years. The milblog was the first outlet that allowed those serving here access to the world at large to tell their story.Framed_coulson_this_is_war_2

Soon after people started returning home books by the warriors started appearing. One of the best was what I called "the Ultimate Embed" -- Sean Michael Flynn's chronicle of The Fighting 69th, an infantry battalion with the New York Army National Guard as it went from Ground Zero to the streets of Baghdad.

Now Soldiers bring their story to the big screen with This is War: Memories of Iraq. The film follows the 2-162 Infantry Battalion from the 41st Infantry Brigade of the Oregon Army National Guard, from mobilization, to six months of training at Fort Hood, Texas and then a year in Iraq. In theater 2-162 drove north from Kuwait, having drawn equipment there. They took their first casualty before they arrived at Taji, the unit's first posting. The battalion spent weeks in Najaf dealing with Sadr and then assisted in the second Battle of Fallujah. The footage in This is War was all shot by the Soldiers of the 2-162. It is amazing; touching, cynical, inspiring, sad, violent -- it is real. And it lets you see life in Iraq from the point of view of the Soldier.*

If you see one movie this year, make it this one.

I would encourage everyone to purchase the DVD -- you can get it here from Lucky Forward Films or here from Amazon.

*The 2-162 Infantry was also the subject of the book The Devil's Sandbox.

COLORS |

COLORS
Name: Mike T.
Posting date: 4/15/08
Stationed in: Afghanistan
Milblog: c/o bouhammer.com

A long time ago I learned one of the most valuable lessons that the Army had to offer. A Squad Leader took me aside and told me no matter what went wrong, or how hard things got, “Keep the colors close to you at all cost." I looked at him and wondered what exactly he was talking about. He then explained: “Brother, there are going to be times when you have to do things you never thought imaginable, things that would make any man scared for his own life and those of his fellow soldiers. But when it all seems lost and you're about to lose your mind, that’s when the colors become your lifeline.” The colors he spoke of were memories, smells, dreams, music, conversations -- those things that bring you out of the hell you are in and allow you to focus on what is truly important.

I have taken this as the single most important lesson in my life, and carried it with me and followed it wherever I have been. I am now a leader of men, a teammate, and a friend. Every day here I try to find my colors, and at times it seems almost too difficult. I will find a place to isolate myself, to concentrate on a specific color that brings me back to a somewhat normal level. I miss the ocean, the gentle breeze from the shore pines near my house, the cat and dog chasing each other, the perfume of my lovely girlfriend. The songs she and I used to sing out loud and dance to together, or the long drives to nowhere. I miss her smile and touch, how they brought peace to my soul. How a splash of Johnny Walker and red wine aromas filled our kitchen on a beautiful summer evening.

These colors are extensions of our mind, body, and soul. Without them what is the point? Why continue to fight? All people have colors, the things in our lives that bring us back from the breaking point. My colors represent all that I have done in my life, all the happiness and sadness. They are my living legend that I share with all those around me. But when it is time to take stock in what we have done here in Afghanistan I am afraid there will not be a specific color for this place. A friend of mine in Iraq emailed me the other day and told me that I need to be careful, and that everyone over there believes we are the true soldiers of the GWOT. I did not know how to respond to that. He is the same guy who told me about the colors.

Find your colors in times of need, reach back to the world and life you left. Close your eyes and search hard. Your colors are there.

RULES OF ENGAGEMENT |

April 14, 2008

RULES OF ENGAGEMENT
Name: LT G.
Posting date: 4/14/08
Stationed in: Iraq
Hometown: Reno, Nevada
Milblog: Kaboom: A Soldier's War Journal

Hour 18 of a 24-hour mission. Well, two missions really. We had spent the day pulling outer security for General Petraeus himself, while he strolled down Anu al-Verona with no helmet and basic body armor, surrounded by a camo entourage and media parade Patton’s ghost would respect, to buy some falafels. I didn’t get to meet the Big Man, but I did get a photo of the aforementioned circus from about 100 meters away, with all three rings in action. Trust me, I didn’t want to be any closer. No matter how many gorgeous aides there were in his posse who would have been dutifully unimpressed with a too-cocky, too-skinny scout platoon leader who can’t get rid of the black bags entrenched underneath his eyes, had drunk 10 bottles of water in the past eight hours to fight off sunstroke, and hadn’t showered in two weeks.

After the General left, the Gravediggers charlie miked straight into an escort mission for an engineer unit tasked to fill potholes. A straightforward enough concept -- surround the engineers in a Stryker diamond, and destroy any and all terrorists hordes that pour over the Anu al-Fulda Gap in the meantime. Translation: Rotate gunners and institute a much-needed and well-deserved rest plan for the platoon. Also, it gave us a chance to bring the three new Gravediggers -- SPC Tunnel Rat, PVT Stove-Top, and PVT Hot Wheels -- up to speed on the mechanics of our Strykers. Sounded like a great plan at the time.

Then the war got in the way. Again.

Forty-five minutes after we established our outer cordon security positions -- right at the aforementioned hour 18 -- SSG Boondock’s words boomeranged across the net, hiding the thrill in his voice as much as a teenage boy does while issuing instructions before a panty raid.

“Gravedigger 1, this is Gravedigger 3 … We got some real shady mother fuckers low crawling onto the road, down from the canal. It looks like two of ‘em.”

I bolted straight up in the back of my Stryker, and started studying my map. The 3 vehicle was on the complete other side of the diamond from my vehicle, oriented due south, overwatching a well-traveled north-south thoroughfare.

“Keep watching him,” I said, stating the obvious while conflicting thoughts of violent chaos and escalation of force procedures pumped through my mind like a million competing race car pistons.

Are they sure they’re seeing two guys low crawling? It’s night. They still haven’t done anything wrong yet. Technically. Not yet. Are they sure? Why are they low-crawling? Did I leave my rules of engagement card in the laundry? Are they sure? I need to stay calm; that’s what Lieutenants do in the movies in situations like this, they stay calm and make good decisions or they freak the fuck out and fuck everything up.

Why are they low-crawling? Why can’t we just shoot, again? It’s not just night, it’s midnight. He said they were shady. Are they sure? Can they be sure with night-vision? Can they ever be sure with night-vision? Just don’t be the guy who yells CHARGE and you’ll be alright. I need to ask if there’s another heat signature other than the bodies. That’s what I need to ask. Are they fucking sure?

“Heat signatures?” I finally sputtered out, hoping my question would be accepted as proper radio brevity, and not typical LT G brain vomit.

Five seconds that felt like a standard Pentagon deployment passed before SSG Boondock replied. “Roger! Roger! It looks like there’s a box and my gunner reports they have set it down 250 meters from our position.”

Cue brain retching.

Light ‘em up. A quick burst or two of 50-caliber rounds should suffice. I’ve never tasted bloodlust before, not the lethal brew anyhow, but it seeped into my soul this night. As I’ve written before, I didn’t come here to kill, and never felt the impulse or desire to truly end a man’s life. But here it was, arriving as quickly as the crawling terrorists had. Kill or be killed. Never has this war been so clear, so pure, so obvious, so clean. And yet …

The platoon leader in me knew we couldn’t shoot yet, and tugged at my brain like a giant anchor holding in place a battleship on full throttle. Escalation of force. Fuck. Rules of engagement. Double fuck. They haven’t technically dug anything yet, thus, haven’t begin emplacing anything.

SGT Axel was ready, certainly, zeroing in on the two human silhouettes with a long-barreled machine gun of raw destruction, but the Iraq War has become so PC, so cluttered, so trigger-shy five years into the war, that any round fired -- no matter how justified or understandable at the time of the incident -- yields paperwork inquiries and scrutiny more fitting of a Senate Judiciary Committee report. Staff monkeys have found new purpose in this combat zone as Monday morning quarterbacks, conducting investigations with omnipotent spotlights to cut through the fog of war days after the storm passed.

I’m not claiming that such retrospective studies are not healthy for a military unit, nor am I arguing that precision and restraint should not be fundamentals ingrained in every soldier fighting an insurgency. Part of what makes an American soldier an American soldier is that he fights with rules that sometimes hinder him, in an attempt to keep sight of the ideals and principles which led him to fight in the first place. That’s all gravy. I am stating, however, that the fact that these thoughts clouded my mind in a decisive moment of combat -- and not just my mind, as it would turn out -- proves that we are officially no longer on the offensive here. To repeat a new mantra of some of my NCOs, “Uncle Sam has gone soft.”

I didn’t want to spend the next decade at Fort Leavenworth cutting stone, and certainly didn’t want any of my men to do that, either. Maybe that’s what would have happened if I had ordered them to shoot then.

Maybe not. Anything now is just surmising, reflecting back with the benefit of hindsight on decisions made in mere seconds during a black tempest of confusion. We employed proper rules of engagement, just like we’re taught to by the Army lawyers hired to teach us how to avoid jail-time and war crimes and sensationalized scandals reported by a clueless, leaching mass media to an equally clueless public addicted to shock and awe. For every Abu-Ghraib there are hundreds of stories like this; unreported acts of trepidation brought on by the castigation of our combat operations in the name of nation building.

I kicked out my Bravo section’s dismounts, one team led by SFC Big Country (whose 4 vehicle was closest to the 3), the other by SSG Boondock, with the hope of being able to detain our targets. They were standing by behind the cover of our vehicles for the time being. I told SGT Axel, the 3 vehicle’s gunner, to beam the targets with a bright naked eye laser, to let them know we were watching. Then I told him, “If they begin to run, open fire and engage the targets.” There. I had satiated the gods of what if, and found an avenue for my soldiers to still do their job.

“Roger, will comply!” SGT Axel responded.

I had given the order to kill. Haughty enough to condemn two individuals to The End because they had been stupid enough to be fucking seen in a war of shadows. Somewhere in the time-space continuum, the boy who cried after my first fistfight -- not because I was hurt, but because I thought I had done something to upset the instigator and still didn't understand the concept of bullying -- hung himself with a calendar rope.

At least he succeeded. That’s something at least.

“X-Ray, this is Gravedigger 1.” It had been a few minutes since I had sent up a situation report to Troop; an instrumental part of any Lieutenant’s job is to serve as a connection between the front line and whatever is behind us. Remembering such at this precise moment would turn out to be my only lasting regret from this whole ordeal.

“We have a possible IED-emplacement happening time now, at our location. Grid to follow. (Grid follows.) We’re employing ROE, and will engage with fire if they run and detainment is no longer a viable option.”

“Negative Gravedigger 1, you will not engage!” It was CPT Whiteback now on the other end of the radio call. What the hell was he still doing up? “Attempt to detain the individuals. Do not open fire unless the individuals attempt to directly engage you.”

I could hear the frustration oozing out of CPT Whiteback’s voice like pus coming out of a popped zit; I’m sure he wanted us to kill these two as much as we did. He has no love lost for insurgents. And as he reminds us at least twice a day, he had been in Sadr City in 2004, and knew what it was like to be pulling triggers all day, every day. So this newfound act of hesitation wasn’t a result of inexperience or nerves. That didn’t stop me from seeking clarification, though.

“This is Gravedigger 1 … I copy the only way we can open fire, even after positive identification, is if these guys open fire at us with rifles they don’t have or try to actually detonate the IED on us?” There may have been a few F-bombs in there, as well. I can’t recall.

“Roger,” came my answer.

I sighed, disbelievingly, and switched back to the platoon net. “You monitor the CO’s traffic, 3-Golf?”

SGT Axel’s voice could have cut through steel. It was that sharp. “This is 3-Golf. Roger.”

The next few hours morphed into a blur. I unleashed a primal howl and ripped the hand mic out of our radio, throwing it into the back of the Stryker, waking up a confused Biggie. SGT Axel lasered the two shapes, who quickly darted back into the canal. The two dismount teams moved after them in hot pursuit, but with it 1) being night and 2) not being our native terrain, we were automatically at a huge disadvantage in this impromptu hunt.

No one was surprised when the only thing that was found was sets of muddy footprints behind some broken reeds. No one was really surprised either, when SPC Tunnel Rat and newly-promoted PFC Das Boot stumbled upon a compact brick-like object covered in tumbleweeds; after PFC Das Boot gave it the scratch-and-sniff treatment and informed SSG Boondock (“You did what, you big German fuck? You scratched it and smelled your finger? Are you high?”), we cordoned off the area and called the Explosive Ordinance Disposal.

Turns out the brick was a state of the art pressure plate IED designed specifically for attacks on armored vehicles. EOD then blew it up without incident. Too tired to care anymore, the Gravediggers returned to the combat outpost with nothing to say to anyone who hadn’t been there with us. We felt like neutered wolves.

Forty-eight hours later, an individual detained by another unit outside of our AO admitted to attempting to emplace an IED exactly where we found the pressure plate, exactly when we had observed him attempt to do so. Just like all emplacers, he was just a punk teenager who knew next to nothing, got paid $20 to feed his family for a week for his act, and literally shit himself when he got detained. According to the intel geek rumor mill, he was also very curious as to why we hadn’t shot him up instead of tipping him off to our whereabouts with a green laser. No word yet as to the fate of his shadow buddy from the night in question.

SSG Boondock came up to me the morning after the initial event, as I brooded on the Crow’s Nest. I don’t let go of things easily, and while my platoon seemed to have shed the events of the previous night rather quickly with some sleep and Guitar Hero, I had not. He took a seat next to me and lit up a cigarette.

“Fucked up shit last night, Sir,” he said.

“Yeah.” SSG Boondock had killed before in this war, and would be ready to do so again. I could only imagine his thoughts on the matter, and quite frankly, was not sure I was ready to hear them.

He leaned back and chuckled. “For what it’s worth, I wouldn’t have given the fire command to open fire like you did. That took balls.”

I felt my eyes open wide with surprise. This was the last thing I expected this NCO to say. He had never hesitated to tell me how he felt about anything, even when it might hurt my feelings. I’ve always valued his candid voice, and simply could not believe he would have done anything but open fire if placed in my position.

“You’ve done it before,” I said. "A few times."

“Yeah … it was different then, though. Shit now … it’s just hard to explain how much things have changed here.” He patted me on the knee. “You did fine, LT. No one expects you to be Dick Winters. Fuck, no one wants you to be Dick Winters.”

I looked at him skeptically. “Did SFC Big Country put you up to this to cheer me up?”

Another cackle. “Naw, nothing like that. Three years ago, fuck yeah, those guys would be rotting corpses on the side of the road, and nobody would blink an eye. Things are just fucking different now. Everyone’s so scared to make a mistake, convinced they’ll end up on the cover of Time.” He paused, took a final drag, and continued. “Just get us home, LT. I’ll take care of the rest.” He cackled again, and walked back inside. I stayed on the Crow’s Nest to finish brooding.

Is one detained terrorist with some information better for the war effort than two dead terrorists? To hell if I know; it’s kind of one of those “Is the glass half-full or half-empty” questions. I do know though, that the lesson I’ve retained from this sequence of events is simple and straightforward, and something that could be garnered from any Clint Eastwood film ever made: shoot first, ask questions later. The way out is through. Even if the only ones who understand that are the ones on the ground, living in the Suck every day and every night, placing themselves in harm’s way every time they roll out of the wire in a manner that their countrymen cannot, will not, and should not ever comprehend.

That IED wouldn’t have hit the vehicle of the guy who tweaks the rules of engagement, or the guy who would’ve been appointed the investigating officer if we had shot, that’s for damn sure. They are tucked away safely and comfortably in some glass house on the Beltway and the FOB, respectively, casting stones. The IED would have cut through me, or my men, or some of my comrades in the other platoons, in an instantaneous fireball of death.

Fuck it. I will not hesitate again, even for just a few seconds, nor will I call up an update until after the fact. There’s too much at stake now for me to not employ those lessons learned. The next time, we might not be able to find the damn thing until after it explodes and we’re separating scrap metal from human remains.

We’d be out looking for the other insurgent right now, but we can’t leave the combat outpost. Some jackass somewhere else had a negligent discharge and destroyed a clearing barrel, causing the entire Brigade to go on a safety stand-down. Beyond being Grade A Garrison Bullshit, I’m just hoping that the terrorists got the memo that the war’s on timeout for the next 40 hours. I’m certain that they did. The actual war part of this war may be carefully regulated now, but the paperwork machine still has free reign to terrorize.

It is what it is.

OMEN |

April 11, 2008

OMEN
Name: 1SG Troy Steward
Posting date: 4/11/08
Returned from: Afghanistan
Milblog url: bouhammer.com

Two soldiers from the Polish Battle Group, which operates in the area I worked and operated in while serving in Afghanistan, were killed recently by an IED. There have been a number of Afghan Army and Police killed in that area, which is almost never reported. Since there is so little visibility, all we have to gauge the violence levels on are the numbers of coalition forces killed.

It is alarming that there were 21 coalition forces killed in the first two months of this year. It is alarming because this is the quietest time of the year, as the enemy is not adept at fighting in the cold winter months. They typically hibernate their operations in the winter time and wait until the spring-to-fall months, when they can move and operate more freely. To have this many killed already is an omen to me, and should be to the rest of the world as to what is coming.

Every year has gotten worse and worse, so I fully expect this trend to continue. I have written about this subject several times since I returned last year. I was also afforded the opportunity to spend a couple of minutes talking with the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff about this exact subject back in December.

I have a vested interest, since I spent a year away from my family living and fighting in Afghanistan. I have several friends over there now fighting, and soon my son and hundreds more friends and fellow soldiers from my state’s National Guard Brigade will be there. I know there is a lot of concern over the rising civilian casualties in Afghanistan, but I think this concern is directly attributable to a false sense of peace. We are still very heavily at war there and until the government of Afghanistan, our own government, and the people of our great country recognize and admit this fact, then our soldiers and the soldiers of our coalition forces will be held back in their ability to take the fight to the enemy with extreme prejudice.

So my question to the American people is: Are you ready for war?

Note: This piece originally appeared on VAMortgageCenter.com

HAIR TODAY |

April 09, 2008

HAIR TODAY
Name: SFC Toby Nunn
Posting date: 4/9/08
Stationed in: Kuwait / Iraq
Hometown: Oakland, CA via Terrace B.C. CANADA
Milblog url: tobynunn.typepad.com

We here in Bad Voodoo are still pretty busy, looking towards the summer and the changes it will bring. There have already been some changes and we are adapting to them. The biggest is in our living conditions, not an improvement.

So we are trying to come up with new and improved ways to entertain ourselves. Some of these are not-so-new means, actually Old School. No, not the oldest profession; the second oldest. That's right. Gambling! With time on our hands in the strangest of places we find ourselves turning to the old playing cards and other "carnival arcade type" games. From Texas Hold 'Em to knocking the Rip It cans off the hood of the Gun Trucks.

The most entertaining part for me is not the thrill of victory or the pain of defeat but the watching of JP and Ranger Ben the TCN's relentless ridicule and tormenting of each other.Framed_nunn_haircut_4 The stakes have long surpassed "double or nothing". Money is only worth the value of the public request for it. It started out with "Where's my money at, bitches?", and went on to accusations of being double agents and victory dances on the opponent's Gun Truck.

So what can you wager if money no longer holds value, and pride is the most precious commodity? Like Samson in the Bible many hold their hair as a source of individualism, and that's why the Army often takes it upon entry. Here we only have our personal beliefs and accomplishments, some of which we wear on our uniforms. Our coveted Combat Patches! I wear my 2ID Indian Head from my Stryker days, Ben wears an 82 All American from his Panama days (yes, he is that old), and JP rocks a 29th or 25th depending on his mood.

Well, Ben the TCN decided to do a little dance on JP's truck, which has cost him a little more than he anticipated. He had to wear the 160th, and entered into my realm of head dress patch. So careful who you call a double agent, because what you have could be hair today, gone tomorrow.

RUNNING INTO PROBLEMS |

April 08, 2008

RUNNING INTO PROBLEMS
Name: Alex Horton
Posting date: 4/8/08
Returned from: Iraq
Hometown: Frisco, TX
Milblog: Army of Dude
Email
: hortonhearsit@hotmail.com

Trudging. Walking. Strolling. No other thing was more common for our tour than the good ol' fashioned patrol. In Mosul we did it from our armored Strykers to show the world we could keep it under control without setting foot on the ground. We'd only get out if something happened (a sniper taking shots, IED, etc). In Baghdad it changed because the mission changed. We were constantly on the ground to clear houses and snoop out caches.

When we got to Baqubah and once found fifty IEDs on a stretch of road less than a mile long, we figured it might be a good idea to walk even more often.

Missions became longer and started earlier so we could walk in from miles away. It was the tail end of May and we had begun to feel the summer heat creeping in from a mild winter. Everyone had a distinct memory of the Mosul summer, and we were preparing for another one further south.

In the darkness of May 18th we began to clear and search scattered houses and lots. Without electricity and the sun to help, we covered the walls, ditches and trunks of cars with the beams of our flashlights. You could see us coming from a mile away.

We chanced upon a big hulk of machinery in an otherwise empty house. With a single flashlight on it, it was difficult to take in exactly what it was. Several dudes gathered around with beams dancing around it.

We quickly recognized the importance of our find. It was a Dishka anti-aircraft gun, the same type used by the insurgent-turned-concerned-local-citizen group 1920 Revolution Brigade to shoot at us from a rise in Baghdad after downing a Blackwater helicopter. It was bad news to see it in those parts, even if it was a little unkempt and rusty. We sat on the floor waiting for a decision to be made about what to do with it. We left without it being resolved, and another platoon came in to take care of it. I'm not sure what the fate of the disheveled weapon was...

Framed_horton_problems_1

Soon it was daylight and we had already been clearing for hours. Crossing a small stream, we walked into a huge field with isolated houses a hundred feet or more apart. The first stretch of open area was the worst. It looked to be more than a quarter of a mile until we would reach cover and concealment from enemy fire. In between, it was tilled, flat land with not even long grass in which to hide ourselves. A suicide run.

I was nearly at the end of my platoon in the long chain of men cutting across the field. The three line squads would hold two houses while our machine gun teams came up behind us. To our distant left was a road running parallel with our movement, clustered with houses stretching endlessly out of view, reaching into an area where we'd find a mass grave in a little more than a week. I was alert, my eyes open, but not in the direction of the road. I was watching for huge dirt clods that would bring a man tumbling down if he wasn't careful. I was about fifty yards from the guy in front of me, and he was nearing the gate to our house.

Suddenly, shots rang out. It being a common noise to hear, no one changed their speed and kept walking along. Then some more crackled. Shit, they were close. We began to pick up a light jog.

Crack-crack-crack. Fuck! As one of the last guys, I sprinted all the way into the gate. I ran cross country when I was younger and learned long ago how to control my breathing. Running was never a problem for me, and I was glad as hell to be able to use that when my own two legs meant the safety of a concrete wall instead of a bullet to the brain. I slid into the courtyard, where everyone was panting and trying to figure out what the hell. It was determined that the shooting was coming from the other side of the road. The insurgents weren't original, but they were smart.

My squad leader quickly closed the gate, as firing from our side started over the wall. No one knew exactly where the machine guns were, but we were determined to show them we'd fire back. We were trying to buy time for our weapons squad as they labored, with their own machine guns, across the field. Our forward observer was trying to figure out coordinates to the road when a heavy amount of firing came from across the road. Loud cracking noises told us the bullets were close, closer than usual.

This guy wasn't bad. Then we heard voices.

"Open the fucking gate!"

The gate! It was locked and our guys were naked out there. The closest guy grabbed the switch to the gate and swung it open as the squad scrambled into safety. Bryan was last and still running for his life when the firing became even more intense. Pieces of concrete were flying off the edge of the wall right above his head as he came flying in, his head hunched down low, screaming "Fuck fuck fuck!"

At this point, we were kind of screwed.

We put a machine gun down in between the gate's doors to provide some sort of response. Some guys hauled a dresser from inside the house to stand on to shoot over the wall. There was no cover up on the roof.

Guns were firing at all the rooftops in hopes of drawing out the machine gunner. He soon quieted down.

Bill had quickly earned the nickname Snack Master from me. No matter where we were, he'd always have candy, Pop Tarts or a soda handy. This was the part of war no movie will ever show: sitting around after the action, waiting for someone to tell us the next step. In these moments, Bill would kick back and enjoy a Sugar Daddy or two.

Framed_horton_problems_2
How he carried so many Jolly Ranchers, we'll never know.

After a near death experience, it's always good to have a laugh. I suggested that we hold a helmet up on a stick to see if they were still paying attention. It didn't draw any fire, much to our dismay.

Framed_horton_problems_3

After communicating our difficult situation, we were told to get out of there. There no was no back door, so we could either jump over the wall or go through the gate and make a break for the next house, where another platoon was. With urgency in our step, we filtered out and made our way to the back of the house for another suicide run.

Bill, always up front, poked his head out to scan the area. In response a volley of rounds passed by his head close enough to damage his ear and kick up dirt right next to him. He fell back screaming a line of obscenities, and we all thought, well, Bill's dead.

Bill was convinced he was in a movie, so he was one for theatrics. When he got up and we all realized he wasn't dead, he stuck his M-4 around the corner and began shooting wildly. Unshaken, the persistent machine gunner kept up his fire.

The next house was about a hundred yards from us. So we tried going back. The guy at the other end of the house peeked out and also got an earful of rounds. It was another machine gunner. We were trapped.

Framed_horton_problems_4

100 yards to death.

We called in to ask for helicopter support so they could make quick work of the dueling machine guns that kept our whole platoon at bay. The request was rejected: helicopters would scare them off, and we wanted to get them dead or alive.

We were to turn the corner and charge toward the road, which was several hundred yards away. I thought of the final scene from Gallipoli, where the dude charges across no man's land only to get gunned down after a few steps. Christ. I turned to look at the other building one of our squads had taken. The squad leader was standing in the window when I saw dust and concrete falling from just above him.

"They're firing at you!" I yelled. He held his hand up to his ear, the universal sign for "What?"

"They're fucking firing at you!" I screamed as loud as I could, pointing above him. He poked his head out, looked up, and quickly hid himself behind the wall.

Cooler heads prevailed on the decision to charge, and we decided to go back the way we'd come and flank around to the neighborhood from the left. The first run was the most dangerous, so a few smoke grenades were tossed to hide our movement. Like mad we ran to the next house, going as fast as we could under our equipment. We sprinted through hues of yellow and green to reach momentary safety. I looked back to see action star Bill, running with one hand on his rifle, shooting through the smoke. He tripped and came crashing down onto his face, in between the houses. Fuck, now he's really dead this time. He got up and finished the stretch.

We had a few more stretches to go before being out of sight. Once we were all gathered up, we'd start another run. In between breaths, Josh shouted in a southern accent, "These colors don't run!"

Exhausted under the May sun, we were almost at a walking pace by the time we reached a defilade from the guns half a mile away. Swinging into the neighborhood, we found one machine gun position. They had abandoned the gun and fled. That day, they would make it home.

For the rest of the day we'd walk the neighborhoods looking for any more trouble, but now with a more serious step. Those shots could start at any time and end you just as quick. And you wouldn't die bravely on a French battlefield or on the Rhine. You'd pass away spent, covered in sweat among the dirt and the trash of a forgotten Iraqi street, wondering where all the glory from war went.

SEMPER GUMBY |

April 06, 2008

SEMPER GUMBY
Name:  Old Blue
Posting date: 4/7/08
Stationed in: Afghanistan
Milblog: Bill and Bob's Excellent Afghan Adventure

When things are constantly changing, as they have been during so much of this deployment, there is a simple motto to keep us going: "Semper Gumby". Semper Gumby is Latin for "Always Flexible".

The ancient Greeks, the same good people who invented Latin, also invented Gumby. This was proven by the recent finding of a several thousand year old Gumby at the site of the battle of Marathon.

Okay, I made that up. Except for the part about Latin. The Greeks did invent that. That part is true.

And Semper Gumby does mean "Always Flexible".

Gumby is the ultimate warrior. Norissians (Chuck Norris fans) would disagree, and cry out that Chuck Norris could roundhouse kick Gumby into next week, but that's not true. Gumby's head would go into next week, but due to his flexibility, his feet would remain in this week, and he would simply unbend himself back into the same time frame as his feet, thereby defeating Norrissian mojo.

Flexibility is the key. All else leads to insanity and pissing off the leadership, who make the plans that require the ultimate in flexibility from those who must execute them with no visible means of support.

"With flexibility comes serenity. With serenity comes power. He who is capable of bending like the Gumby will pass through great forces without shattering to overcome his foe."
                                                                                            -- Sun Tsu*

Framed_old_blue_gumby_1
Gumby maintains an M-240 machine gun at an undisclosed FOB.

It doesn't matter what someone in a position of apparent decision-making ability says, because it will change. Rigidity in the face of such rapid changes of direction will result in cracking, peeling, chafing, and an overwhelming irritation. CRF (Combat Rigidity Fatigue) is a major contributing factor in many cases of PDCD (Post Dysfunctional Command Disorder.)

Framed_old_blue_gumby_2
Gumby prepares to head out on another exciting patrol.

Working with Afghans also requires a great deal of flexibility. Afghans will drive the mentally rigid to distraction with their sometimes unpredictable, seemingly whimsical behavior. Gumby was heavily involved in all of our mentoring and advising operations with the ANP.

Framed_old_blue_gumby_3
Gumby mentoring the ANP on flexibility operations.

Dealing with Afghan civilians requires a gumbylike flexibility, too. Nothing will screw up your timeline like an Afghan who suddenly decides that his 50 goats need to be on the other side of the road. Gumby is vigilant yet flexible, in order to deal with capricious Afghan conditions while on combat patrols.

Framed_old_blue_gumby_4_2
Gumby maintains vigilant flexibility.

Gumbyish flexibility is a combat multiplier, which is militarese for "It makes you fight better." Counterinsurgency operations require a particular flexibility. This isn't some barren wasteland where there are only two opposing armies. The enemy here dresses in no special uniform. His forts are mud-walled khalats that look just like every other mud-walled khalat. It takes flexibility to work your way into the cracks between the average working Afghan and the local Talibs.

Framed_old_blue_gumby_5_2
Gumby says, "If you can't find a crack, go in a window."

There is a lot of beauty in Afghanistan, as well as mind-numbing poverty and, of course, rocks. Gumbyish flexibility permits one the mental room to appreciate the quiet moments of combat, too. The peaceful serenity of a mountain stream is still the peaceful serenity of a mountain stream, even in the midst of war.

Framed_old_blue_gumby_6
Gumby enjoys the peaceful serenity of a mountain stream.

If the Russians had had Gumby, the Soviet Union would never have collapsed, the Berlin wall would never have fallen, and we would all be quoting Marx to avoid being beaten with sticks. The Russians did not have Gumby, because Gumby is all-American (the part about the ancient Greeks being made up), and he demonstrates the amazing flexibility of Americans. Being made of gumbyite, the most flexibly tough element in the universe, he is the only thing that cannot be destroyed by a Chuck Norris roundhouse kick. If Chuck Norris and Gumby ever teamed up, they could conquer the known everything, and Gumby would let Chuck Norris be the emperor of everything because he is just that damned flexible. Gumby saved the free world.

Framed_old_blue_gumby_7

"Semper Gumby!"

* Okay, I made that part up, too. I don't know if Sun Tsu ever said such a thing, but you can't prove he didn't. He just didn't write it down in his best-selling book The Art of War.

A COLD SPRING |

April 04, 2008

A COLD SPRING
Name: LT G
Posting date: 4/4/08
Stationed in: Iraq
Hometown: Reno, Nevada
Milblog: Kaboom: A Soldier's War

The pale curtains of the desert sun loom softly every dawn. Spring has arrived, bringing with it a heat eager to oppress.

It’s the same everywhere we go in this (insert writer's misleading and skewed adjective here) country. Same confused mixture of anger, sadness, and hope. Same matching black pools of the wild browbeaten, same bottled mistrust that could quench even this nation’s thirst. Caged, hellbent on survival if only to see you gone from their sight so they can focus this sensual wrath on something new. The only difference over here is that the poor aren’t afraid to openly cast it. Not jaded, like the homeless back home. Too vacant for that, and more hostile in intent. More like a junkie without the hallucinating hope for another fix.

When there’s nothing to lose, it’s easy to be honest.

The eyes tell all.

The Stare. History’s dirty little secret. The victor’s too-deep-even-for-tweezers thorn. The bat signal of the voiceless. The American G.I. received the same stare forty years ago in rice paddies while hunting down Charlie. Billy Yank felt it on his back while he Marched to the Sea with Sherman, saving our nation from itself. Redcoat Sally came to understand it in a Boston town square, while a brave new world teetered on Revolution. Hell, Jesus’ family -- if not the Master Messiah himself -- unleashed it at more than a few Roman Legionnaires, I’m sure. It’s the same look any foreign power -- or more accurately, the flexed bicep of said foreign power, the soldier -- gets when a majority of the local populace feels that they’ve overstayed their welcome, if such a welcome ever existed in the first place.

Telling them we know what is best and that they need to start relying on their own government and police so we can leave and everyone wins and that any help we can and do provide at least offers a new spring in a land of endless, destitute winters doesn’t often have the effect you think it would. Or should. Or could.

Whether I think we’re here for something other than oil doesn’t matter when they think that we are. Open up your freedom and treasure it! That’s a bow of independence. Pretty, isn’t it? And give back the wrapping paper, we’re trying to recycle our exports.

Thanks for the...gift?...mistah. Leave a blank check and go home and try to eat us away or drink us away or life with the white picket fence us away.

If looks could kill, there’d be far more than 4,000-plus American ghosts trapped in Babylon’s sand-spunk. That’s not commentary on politics, foreign diplomacy, or even an assessment of the state of the Iraq War. It’s just a fucking fact. Take it from someone who lives it every day and deaths it every night.

I’ve heard it before -- the Hawaiians have a term for this eye-hate. Da Stinkeye, bruddah-man, bettah stay in Waikiki haole, ya dig? I’ve seen it before -- drunk college-boys in pastel polos should be more careful where they venture in the doldrums of the Dirty South; good thing I’m fleet of foot, even after I’m Eighty Ounces into Enlightenment. And I’ve felt it before -- tourists with cameras and smiles and white teeth don’t penetrate this far into the seedy backwaters of Dublin, Scarecrow from across the Sea, unless they’re wanting trouble. You ever knife another man before just to feel his very essence pour out of him in pools of running red blood and guts of unidentifiable slop onto the sidewalk?

Umm. Yes we do. And no, no I have not.

This is different, though, now. And not just because the frequency of the Arabian stinkeye has escalated it from curious, unsightly phenomenon to something as natural as burping the worm. This is war. And five years deep, too. You never can really let your guard down when you’re never really safe. The flowers and hugs and cheers only last for a few months before one stare becomes ten stares becomes 100 stares and suddenly the stare is the norm house-by-house and block-by-block and town-by-town and all the flower petals have dried up and you suddenly recognize that those cheers of gratitude are actually pleas for salvation. Ask my NCOs. They know, and are far more familiar with this pattern of starbursting degeneration than I am.

Degeneration nation. Build, nation, build. Like that Transformer, Iraqticon. Ever heard of him? He cuts a nasty robot stinkeye. He used to be able to transform into a vintage Ford Mustang until I broke him. I lost a wheel. Or a muffler. Or something.

You can’t change a culture overnight, Lieutenant. Okay. Fair enough. How about over-millennia? Would that be reasonable?

I hate being hated. Strength and hardness don’t necessarily have to coincide. But it sure is cleaner that way.

The Iraqis may not believe our black-as-the-abyss sunglasses can see through walls anymore, but they still make me feel better when I put them on. And not for the cornea integrity, either.

It makes it a lot fucking easier to keep walking past the hollow stares of people when you think that they think you aren’t looking into their eyes. They want me to escape their pain without effect or a spare thought. They need to believe I’m that cold, and that is the reason why I walk past them.

I wonder now if that was an overlooked option. Tuck what you can away, try to ignore it for now, and harden up. It’s going to be a cold spring.

WHEN A TEAM UNITES |

April 02, 2008

WHEN A TEAM UNITES
Name: Mike T.
Posting date: 4/2/08
Stationed in: Afghanistan
Milblog url: c/o bouhammer.com

What will be left of our original team is being moved to a remote location to start all over again. In a time of doubt, anxiety, and frustration the remainder of my team has united to literally stay alive in the harshest of conditions. I know we are neither the first nor the last team to have to deal with such issues, but this is my team and our problems.

A few days ago we were told of the situation and after the initial shock wore off we got together and started breaking off into our respective areas of expertise. We realized the magnitude of our situation and the total lack of support by our higher command. What basically has transpired in the past 72 hours is a situation of contempt, and distrust that those who are in command are making realistic decisions. We face a growing number of problems because of our location and an even greater lack of real operational support.

My team has pledged to see it through all the way, each step watching out for each other physically and mentally. We all come from very different backgrounds for one common cause; survival. No one of us is any less important than another, and true leadership and courage is transpiring at a rate I have never really witnessed before. This is the finest of the Army right here and right now. With our combined experiences both on the Army side and the civilian sector we may just be able to pull this thing off.

We are being moved to a remote location which is in the middle of some pretty bad areas. We are going to be fending for ourselves until people from our main base get into gear and realize what we are seeing at ground level. This is all being quarterbacked by people who have never seen the terrain, or simply drove through it with their heads tucked in their helmets. There are not many of us to pull this off, and in all honesty I am wondering why this plan was put into motion with so many questions unanswered.

I look at these guys with respect and pride; they are truly what America represents. We are stuck in a situation where once again the amateurs are calling the shots, and not really listening to what we, the guys on the ground, are saying about so many issues that have already shown their colors to us. We have tried to plug the holes in the wall, but some things are so far above us that we cannot do it all.

It got to a point today where we were all so frustrated that we started calling our new home "The Last Stand”. We decided which actors would play us if a movie was to be made about us, and I was very lucky. I got Jude Law, so hell, it couldn’t be that bad of a movie! We all know what we have gotten into, and respect that all of us are nervous and even scared about the situation. We all have many things to go home to and we only hope to do it together and in one piece.

In my last post I wrote about leadership and the lack of it in this area. Well, here it is in the flesh. I accept risk with this job, but I have a difficult time accepting stupidity. We are being kicked out the door with a note in our hands simply stating, “Hang on. We will get to you eventually." I guess the management has a very different outlook. What it is I am not at all sure. I asked when someone of significant rank would be joining us, to stay until this thing is completed; needless to say, there will not be anyone joining us. I think that should say something about the meat grinder we are being placed into.

As I said though, our team has formed a united front to combat the issues at hand, and I think that in time we will prevail. Courage comes in many forms; this is truly the purest of forms -- to go out the door into the unknown with little or no support, at someone else’s convenience and to serve their agenda. Right now we are killing time and mentally preparing ourselves for what is to be.

If you are coming to Afghanistan, prepare for this. It seems every day here we shift the focus to new problems without solving the ones we already have right in front of us. For those who have to pick up every day and venture out to fix these problems it seems impossible. For anyone who thinks that since the Marines are coming all will be better, you’re wrong. I have had the pleasure of working with the Marines, and where we are going I am glad they will be with us. But those poor bastards are simply joining the pool party.

BAD VOODOO'S WAR (reminder) |

April 01, 2008

BAD VOODOO'S WAR (reminder)
Name: JP
Posting date: 4/1/08
Stationed in: Iraq
Hometown
: Burke, Virginia
Milblog url: milblogging.com
Email: milblogging@gmail.com

The film Bad Voodoo's War airs tonight on Frontline on PBS. Filmmaker Deborah Scranton and my Platoon Sergeant SFC Toby Nunn have done an outstanding job telling the story of the Bad Voodoo soldiers. I know for a fact that my family, friends, and several of my readers are excited to finally see what I do over here.

It's always tough to explain my job. Even after my last deployment to Afghanistan from 2004-2005, I had some short video clips, photos, and my blog to help illustrate my job as an Infantryman. But man, having this film is way neater.

As a military blogger, I don't share a lot of what I experience as an Infantryman. I never have. Not because of the so-called new restrictions on blogging, or because of lack of support from my chain of command; on the contrary, the DoD guidelines on blogging have never prevented me from writing online, and I've always had great support from my leadership. No, I choose not to write about things I do because my family and friends read my blog, and I'm sensitive to their feelings. Therefore I choose write about simple things, like Care Packages and other day-to-day experiences.

Now, with this film, my family and friends will know a lot more about me.  More than I've ever shared.

Personal Note:  When I tried explaining to my kids what I did in Afghanistan I used to dress up my mom's cats, and we would re-enact events in the kitchen. Sweet, I know. But I swear, cats are a pain in the ass to work with. Take my mom's oldest cat, 'Mr. Punky' for instance. He didn't like being forced to wear DCUs. Nor did he like having a rucksack strapped to his back or standing fire watch for 14-hours straight on the refrigerator.

Anyway, I think I only confused my kids more about what I did in Afghanistan. Especially when 'Mr. Punky', in the middle of an Air Assault scene, would storm off set (the kitchen table) to go poopy in the kitty litter box.

COPING CLIQUES |

COPING CLIQUES
Name: Doc in the Box
Posting date: 4/1/08
Stationed in: Iraq
Milblog url: docinthebox.blogspot.com

Framed_docinthebox_cliques_2 We each find our way of coping with the distance. Being a Corpsman of Marines has turned me into a watcher of people, and being tapped as the unit photographer gives me an unbiased license to see everything. Humans are social beings, and just observing the interaction between people gives me hours of enjoyment. Lately my focus has been on the unconscious cliques people form to deal with the stress of deployment.

If you're watching us from the outside, the first people to catch your eyes are the PT Studs in all of their muscled glory. In some past life before they became Marines they were probably jocks, or someone who dreamed of being a jock. Now they're deployed, and unencumbered by the social niceties of family and network television they have free reign to shape their bodies into an Arnold-like state of physical perfection. Back home, it’s rare to be able to fit a daily three-hour workout into your schedule. But here? Once your work is completed, a distraction-free day provides optimal work-out conditions.

Another group is the Halo/Call of Duty/Unreal Tournament Super Virtual Soldiers. They're sort of an upstart group, only appearing in the last decade or so. These guys spend a good percentage of their deployed lives training their brains into becoming one with their warrior avatar, till they find that cyber nirvana where they are able to lay waste to the online countryside and bask joyfully in the sound of curses and moans of the Marines whom they have fragged. In decades past, their ancestors were probably D&D players. The hardest task these guys have when returning to the States is remembering that they have responsibilities outside of the game.

No matter where you go or how primitive the environment is, you'll find a group of people who live to play cards. They spend hours each night practicing telepathy on each other, not that it works. Watching from the outside, you expect to hear a eureka moment that never happens. They lie in wait, an empty chair at the table for fresh meat to have a seat, and when they lose to the outsider, their moans can be heard for weeks. The banter of card players is a familiar drone that has laid the backdrop for every conflict for centuries. Don't think it's going to stop anytime soon.

Myself? I follow the more nerdy studious crowd. I walk around with a paperback in my cargo pocket, and when I'm not reading I spend a fair amount of time online catching up with email and talking to people around the world.

There are as many categories as there are people. I've only named a few that stick out. The folks who end up having the problems out here are the ones who haven't developed a good method of spending their free time. They spend hours dwelling on being in the middle of the war, or feeling lonely, a clock ticking in their heads counting off the seconds to that date far off in the future when they get to go home.These are the people I watch the closest and with whom, when I have to, I intervene.

I've learned over the years that the more time you hold in your head, the less space you have for other things. The old adage of taking things "one day at a time" actually works.

I'm lucky in most respects, to sort of quote one of my SSgt's: "There's too many Frikkin happy people around here!" It's true. This trip I've deployed with a cheery bunch. Every morning I'm forced though a gauntlet of smiling Marines saying "Hi Doc!", "What's up Doc?", "Good morning Doc!" with high fives. You think I'm kidding? Nope. At least they like me and it makes it hard to be down for too long. Most days it’s difficult to imagine these guys as lean mean fighting machines, but I've seen them slip on their battle skins, and then it's hard to believe that they were ever soft.


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