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.


April 18, 2008

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.

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

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

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


It's amazing how the outhouse was still there, exact and in good condition after 5 years. It must've been a wonderful moment to go back and cherish all the fun and terrifying memories of your old "home" in Baghdad. It would've actually been pretty cool if you guys were to ship it to Peoria. Or maybe leaving it on its landmark, making it history..

This is quiet a story, and i thank you for sharing it with us, Thanks for protecting our country, take care.

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