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.

GOODBYE AFGHANISTAN |

May 30, 2008

GOODBYE AFGHANISTAN
Name: SPC Beaird
Posting date: 5/30/08
Stationed in: Afghanistan
Milblog: All Expenses Paid Afghan Vacation 

Framed_beaird_portrait_3 My war is over, pretty much. I still have a little while longer in country before I head to the states, but I am now in the land of the Fobbits wearing my arm out with all the saluting we have to do every five steps we take. My last week on the FOB were pretty uneventful. My squad picked up QRF duties for that last week and we didn’t have to roll out the whole time at all. I was kind of hoping for one last hurrah of a mission, but it never came. It’s hard to believe it’s coming to end. We knew weeks ahead of time an estimated date we would leave, but the days leading up to it just didn’t feel like we were leaving. Even the morning we left it still felt like a surprise, somewhat surreal.

We performed an intense cleaning of the barracks and our rooms, getting ready for the new guys, packed up all our bags, headed to the LZ, boarded the chopper, and said goodbye to my FOB and home in Afghanistan. The day before we left we had a small part of our replacements come in, and I have to say I’ve never been so glad to see a group of strangers as I was at that moment. When the choppers that would take us away came into view I immediately thought back to being on the same bird my first day coming into the FOB with so much being unknown.

I had originally volunteered to stay back with the group of our PRT that would be doing left seat right seat missions, training the new guys once they arrived. There was only a limited number of spots they could keep back, so unfortunately I had to leave with the first group out. I don’t like being here while there’s still some of our guys back at the FOB running missions. There was actually another chance to sign on with the last group because one of our gunners had to head home for personal reasons, but my buddy shot his hand up when asked in nanoseconds (because he’ll take as much time away as possible away from his team leader he hates) before I even had a chance to weigh staying in my head.

I’m at BAF (Bagram AirField) now being extremely bored out of my mind. There are a Subway, Dairyqueen, Burger King, Pizza Hut, a coffee house, and a much better run chow hall here -- so that’s one plus.

Other than the food, I’d rather be back at my FOB. At least there I would have kept busy with missions and passing on words of wisdom to the new guys. Instead, here I keep busy by going on long walks down Disney Drive (not named after Walt but after a fallen soldier), movie night at the USO, half hour spurts of time at the MWR using the only decent internet connection on this whole base for transient non residents like myself, blowing cash on fast food which my stomach is having to readjust to, browsing in  the PX, and getting lost in the KBR-run chow hall with an overwhelming amount of choices for food.

Those are the highlights. Yeah the food is much better here, but I’d rather be eating crappy food back on my FOB, as long as I had my own bed to go back to and the convenience of a decent internet connection coming into my room. Sleeping in a massive airplane hangar tent with over a hundred other guys is getting old. I’d even rather be staying at our COP instead of here if I had a choice.

This being one of the largest, possibly the largest, bases in Afghanistan there are all kinds of high-ranking Fobbits. Being here is pretty much being like on a garrison back on US soil. Attacks on the base are rare, and when they do happen, things are so spread out here nothing ever gets hit. How much threat could there really be if they took away all of my ammo already and handed it over to our replacements?

One of the nice things about being on a smaller FOB like my home for the past year is that things are much more relaxed in terms of the political BS and bureaucracy that abound on a huge base like this. On my FOB we didn’t salute officers. Here we have to, which gets old every few steps we take. On the FOB you can walk around and get away with small stuff, like breaking uniform regulations like unbloused boots or an untucked shirt in the gym. Here that’s a no-go, and we even have to wear a stupid bright yellow reflector belt with our PT uniform 24 hours a day, and with any uniform at night. Uniform nazis who have nothing better to do will give you a hard time if you don’t have it.

One of my buddies who was here getting medical treatment after being hit by an IED was hounded for walking around with no name tag and rank on, and wearing tennis shoes with his uniform. Maybe he didn’t have boots or a uniform because they were cut off him and he was stripped down as he was being medevac’d from our FOB! That is among one of the many reasons why Fobbits are so depised. The word Fobbit comes from mixing hobbit and FOB together. Fobbits are desk jockeys for the most part and never leave the wire, complain about their mocha frappaccino not tasting right, or about not having their favorite type of bread at Subway, and never have any clue about what its like to look for IEDs in the road or even chamber a round in the old-school M-16s they have.

We all know the admin people, the finance people, the postal clerks, the cooks, and gate guards are important, and life would be a lot worse off here if it wasn’t for them. We’d be eating MREs every day, not getting paid, and never get mail from home. So we know they’re important and we value their service. It’s just the Fobbits that complain about how tough their job and life is while deployed that we want to slap around and tell them to shut the hell up.

So now we wait for the rest of our guys to finish training up our replacements and join up with us here so we can all ship out together and call it a day. However, each fallen comrade ceremony that proceeds down the main avenue here with flag-draped caskets is a vivid reminder that though my part in this war is ending for now, it is just beginning for others and will still be dragging on long after my unit and I leave.

* Editor's note: A Sandbox salute to SPC Beaird, with thanks for his many contributions to this site. Here are links to some of his posts:

YOU DESERVE THIS 2-29-08

A COLD DAY 2-20-08

TIMES ARE CHANGING (with video) 2-5-08

JINGLE CULTURE  (with great photos) 1-29-08

TOWER RANTS 12-19-07

100 DAYS (with video), 12-10-07

BACK FROM A BRUTAL MISSION |

May 28, 2008

BACK FROM A BRUTAL MISSION
Name: Adrian B.
Posting date: 5/28/08   
Stationed in: Afghanistan
Milblog url: The Satirist at War

Framed_adrian_rout_3 Two dramatic events from my most recent Operation bear remarking on. The first is that I was part of a rout involving a Battalion-minus element from an ally that will remain nameless. The second concerns a series of incidents that occured on a mountaintop somewhere in Eastern Afghanistan. The picture is of me on that mountaintop,not long before the first of those incidents. I'm looking to the South, and I don't like what I see.

For OPSEC reasons, I can't go too far into detail with either, but we'll begin with the rout. For those of you who have never imagined a rout, or read of another's imagining, a rout occurs when two elements clash, one is soundly defeated, and runs away without concern for anything, anything, but getting to safety. The other element is then left in sole possession of the battlefield.

You remember the child's game "King of the Hill," when that one fat kid got up to the top, and pushed everyone down until he was the King? It's not like that. That's defeat: You want to go back up there, but you know you're going to get pushed down again.

A more appropriate analogy would be when you were playing baseball by Old Man Collins' place, and someone hit a screamer through his living room window. Everyone dropped what they're doing and scattered, as quickly and far as possible. The terror of being caught, the rush of bodies away from getting your a** tanned, that's what fuels a complete rout.

I was with a Battalion-sized element of not-American soldiers in a village with strong insurgent activity. We handed out some HA*, got some Shura* action in, did a bit of engaging of Village Elders, and, on the way out, decided to split up. My element went South, and the Battalion went North.

We were supposed to link up at a nearby Madrassa. We conducted our part of the movement, but just as we were pulling up at the Madrassa, there was a boom, a machinegun began chattering away somewhere to the East, and the next thing I knew I was surrounded by allied soldiers streaming westward. Running, speeding by in 5-tons and Hilux trucks, screaming away from whatever contact had clearly terrified each and every one of them.

Leading the charge was the Battalion Commander, a short, belligerent chap who saw death, wanted no part of it, and decided discretion was the better part of valor, his soldiers be damned. I was almost struck by a Hilux*, then again by a 5-ton careening wildly through the woods. It was chaos. Three hundred meters to my West, where the road turned, I saw a traffic jam of allied vehicles trying to get away from the contact, and one lonely MRAP fighting its way East to my position.

So myself and another MRAP headed East, and eventually were followed by two more MRAPs. Heading into certain contact, with people running in the opposite direction on every side, was one of the strangest but most excellent experiences of my life. I remembered a scene in The Empire Strikes Back where the snow-speeders move in to take out one of those giant "Imperial Walkers," while the routed rebel army flees away from certain destruction. We secured the Eastern Flank, and, our rear safe, over the next two hours were able to rally the shattered forces, gathering them up over some five kilometers.

The second incident, or series of incidents, occurred on a mountaintop overlooking three insurgent-friendly villages. The actors here were myself, an Artillery Captain, a Reservist NCO Medic, a terp, and 30... uh... allied soldiers. A Platoon's worth.

"On a mountaintop" means one hour from the nearest reinforcements, so you'd think that pulling security would have been at or near the top of everyone's priority list, what with the insurgents and all. Well, myself and the Artillery Captain were the only ones in full kit until I reminded the Medic that we weren't in Kansas anymore, at which point he donned his body armor and helmet. Meanwhile, the 30 soldiers were drinking tea, sleeping, wandering away from their equipment (it is surreal to "walk the line" and discover three rucksacks, an AK-47, a Draganov, and an RPG-7 with spare rounds, look around, and not a soul in sight), and generally screwing off, save for four, who were diligently pulling guard.

I'm not saying that everyone should always be pulling guard. But on a mountaintop, alone, without hope of reinforcements? I don't know; one can only do so much, suggest so often, before one is reminded that it's three against thirty. When people don't like being told what to do, there isn't much one can do. So we established guard shifts for the night, I took first watch, followed by the Captain, then the Sergeant opted for the last one. "Wake everyone up at 0400 local, for stand-to," I said. "That way we can be ready to move locations at first light if we need to." An enthusiastic "Wilco!" was the reply I received.

My shift raced by under the glare of a beautiful full moon that filled me with anxiety that we'd be attacked and overrun, then it was the Artillery Captain's turn. Off I went to my position, to sleep fitfully among the jagged rocks. Next thing I know it's 0420 local, and the sun's rising. I throw on my kit, grab my rifle, and walk, as calmly as I can, over to the radio where someone should be pulling guard. There's the Medic, stretched out in his fartsack, sawing logs. I woke him up, perhaps a bit more rudely than I would have under different circumstances.

"I'm so sorry, sir, I swear it won't happen again," he said, after a bit of instruction on why it's important not to fall asleep during guard shift when one is alone on a mountaintop. He would not be pulling radio guard with me around ever again. I couldn't sleep secure at night for two days afterwards, nodding off during the day when exhaustion was too much.

I heard that the Battalion Commander who, like Sir Robin of Monty Python fame had "bravely run away", was drinking tea one day while I was one thousand meters above him. An officer who'd conducted a "security inspection" of his soldiers informed him that most were lounging in the open, or not pulling guard. His response was to turn away and ask a subordinate what time he planned on preparing dinner. When the next, logical question was posed: "What do you plan to do in the event of contact?", his answer was "We will fight." Based on experience, this seemed the least likely scenario. If he'd answered truthfully, it would've sounded something like this:

"I will run, as fast as I can, in whatever direction looks the safest. My men will become confused, and, in the absence of any clear orders, follow my example. My first thought will be to preserve my own hide at any cost; after that, I will think of the horrible things that might happen to me if captured; finally, I will consider refining my path of flight as necessary, and consider jettisoning unnecessary personnel so that my personal HMMWV might travel faster."

It is a minor miracle that I'm still alive. The good news is that, at this point, we have so weakened the insurgents that they cannot even exploit our weaknesses. The jab is the only punch they have left to throw.


*
HA: Humanitarian Assistance
Shura: meeting with village elders
Hilux: compact Toyota pickup

MEMORIES |

May 25, 2008

MEMORIES
Name: RN Clara Hart
Posting date: 5/26/08
Stationed in: a military hospital in the U.S.
Email: clarahart2@yahoo.com

We said goodbye to one of our medics today. He’s a young man hardly out of high school, willing to help, eager to please and hungry to learn anything he can from this old trauma/medevac nurse. He watched me put in an IV yesterday saying, “You’re my new hero! You did that so quickly, and no bloodletting! I’m in awe!”

My droll response, “I’ve probably been doing this as long as you’ve been alive.”

“No way, ma’am," was his endearing reply.  I simply smiled and shook my head.

I will hold this memory of the innocence of youth, which only a young man such as he can have. And I will grieve for its loss. This young man will get on a plane today, Memorial Day, to go train up before heading to Iraq. Once he returns stateside after his deployment, Memorial Day will hold new meaning for him. I know that the young man I now know will be forever gone.

I recently had a conversation with another soldier, a conversation which began when I walked into his office and saw that his computer’s screen saver was a photo of him and a friend at a grave site. When I inquired, he told me the story. The grave belongs to a battle buddy, KIA in Iraq. Every September he takes leave and makes the trek to the cemetery to be with his dead friend. He said he has nowhere else he wants to spend that day in September, the day his friend died and he didn’t.

As we continued to speak, I learned about a completely separate incident in Iraq, one where he lived and no one else did. He walked away the sole survivor of an ambush so horrible he wasn’t even able to put it into words. He's a handsome man in his 20s, made far older by his memories.

I chatted with a Marine who unexpectedly asked if I liked the group Nine Inch Nails. Unsure how to respond, I said “Um, I’ve heard some of their stuff." He said they have a song called “War" and it was playing on the day he was out on patrol. Not sure where the conversation was going, I nodded my head and pretended I knew exactly what he was talking about. “I can’t listen to that song anymore. Yeah, out on patrol one day we hit an IED. I’ve hit ‘em before and they suck but usually it’s not too bad. But that day, the day I was driving, when we hit that IED my buds in the backseat were blown to bits. So now every time I hear that song I gotta turn the radio off.” He stated all this very matter-of-factly, as if we were discussing the weather or the latest baseball score -- another young man scarred by memories.

It’s Memorial Day and while I want to remember, I don’t want to remember. I don’t want to remember my friends killed on September 11th, or the others who've died serving our great country. Those who I’ve worked so hard to save only to fail. I don’t want to remember the broken bodies I try so hard to fix. I don’t want to remember the scarred hearts that may never be mended.

I, as much as anyone, want this war to end. My Soldiers, my Marines, my Airmen, they all tell me the U.S. is doing good things. They assure me OIF and OEF are making a difference. I try to take solace in that knowledge. I try to take that information and be encouraged and hopeful. But somehow when I think of my own memories, the memories of the hundreds, if not thousands, of patients and their families I have met and cared for, it doesn’t seem to be enough.

Please don’t get me wrong; I am neither anti-war nor pro-war. I have only the utmost respect for each and every person who wears and has worn the uniform of our U.S. military. You are all truly my heroes and will always have a special place in my heart. Simply put, while Memorial Day is a day to remember, there are many memories I’d rather not.

Framed_nurse_arlington_natl_cemeter

TRIPLE DIGITS |

May 23, 2008

TRIPLE DIGITS
Name: LT G
Posting date: 5/23/08
Stationed in: Iraq
Hometown: Reno, Nevada
Milblog: Kaboom: A Soldier's War Journal

As spring limps into summer, a new contender with an old face ascends to challenge the concept of war for peace for complete dominance of Iraq’s ever-malleable now. It reigns with small flares of absolute tyranny, doling out punishment to the masses and the elite equally in spells of burning subjugation. What this aspirant lacks in constant staying power, it makes up for in the promise of consistent rebirth every dawn, rising like a digital Jesus stuck on repeat.

I speak, of course, of the big ball of orange suck the Tibetan monks and icebergs commonly refer to as the sun. And yes, this will be a very elaborate, very obnoxious, and very imagery-laced, vocabulacious way to say that it is fucking hot now. Here’s to the wordgasm.

Baroque birdman badness, even. In blue bursts like banana-bombs, brimming beyond Baghdad burning.

(Here’s to writing for nobody but yourself !)

Down goes the ramp. In comes the light. Out goes the soldier.

97...98...99...

It starts with a dry mouth. Thirst. The body is more clever than the brain, no matter what the haters say. Speaking of which … Hater-Ade is far more prevalent than water and Rip-Its over here, with flavors ranging from that old vanilla staple “Bored Colonels Make Grown Men Cry” to the newest rage “Passionless PowerPoint Punch.” No liquid is going to help you though, when you realize the source of the thirst in question. There’s that big ball of orange suck again, climbing up the horizon like a stoned sloth lost in a tree.

Diggity.

Suddenly the personal tragedy becomes less of a bitch and more of the Bitch. You remember that your 140 pounds of raw American fury carries 70 additional pounds of raw American gear. The lightest glide becomes the heaviest step. Anu al-Verona’s shoebox diorama walls fall down, revealing a destitution that exists beyond e-journal entries made every two or three or oops I got lazy four days. Stay vigilant, you're here to kill. Remember? And then you feel the sweat -- and it’s not coolly bracing anymore. It’s the physical manifestation of everyone’s internal What the Fuck monologues. It might as well be another layer of skin, lacquered up underneath cloth. What the Fuck monologues? As in. What the Fuck. Over. As in. Pour and pour and pour.

Say again? You’re coming in broken and retarded.

100! 101...102...

Would you rather be refrigerated or air-conditioned? Be careful how you answer that. It’s a much weirder question than it appears to be at first glance.

I’m a desert child. I understand the arid, the dry, the barren beauty only the gila monsters and man-monsters appreciate. This is something else, though. Over-baked, like any Western Europe megalopolis, and baked over, like the little blue pills for America’s Greatest Generation. This place literally sizzles with a heat that links every living creature to a chain-gang slaving away in Loki’s very own boiler-room. This … this was the Holy Land? We're sure about that? I’m at the point where I truly believe the first Hawaiians and Caribbeans straight punked out the other founding members of humanity. Or they were really good at Go Fish.

Either or.

105...110...115...

The sun’s rays beat on. Maybe another sandstorm will happen today, you think. That’d be nice. Cool everything down with dust and clutter and maybe even a flying goat if we're lucky. Even if it provides cover for Ali Baba to plant another IED. I mean, whatever. There are ways to negate all that.

Don’t be giving the Good Idea Faerie any more Absinthe. She’s already got the bored Colonels addicted to the sauce. Which, you know, is alright with me. Not that they need my support with these matters.

Drink water, for the hydration nation.

116 ... 118... 119...

Ramp goes up. Lock-and-load. Black shades go on. The soldier moves forward.

How'd we skip 117? Crafty, that 117.

That damned stoned sloth. So pretentious. So demanding. So fleeting.

119...120...alright, that's enough. It can go higher, just don't tell me about it. I don't want to know if the thermometer is playing me. No mas, mistah.

Diggity.

So yeah. It’s fucking hot.

PRECIOUS WORDS |

May 20, 2008

PRECIOUS WORDS TO A WARRIOR'S MOTHER
Name: Christine Steward
Posting date: 5/20/08
Son stationed in: Afghanistan
Husband returned from: Afghanistan
Milblog: Bouhammer.com (StewBlog)

Today as I sit here in my empty home the silence is deafening. The other boys left for school earlier and this is the time of day when I sit down and type away in my journal and for our blog. It is also the time of day when my oldest and I would touch base and chat.

Today like everyday since January 3, there is no one here to chat with. No one to tell me about the grand plans for his life or to crack a joke that brings me to my knees with laughter, and no one to tease me about my attire. No one to ask me for a favor or complain about the dinner selection, but most of all there is no one to tell me “I love you Big Mama” as he walks out the door. Unless you have ever placed your baby in harm’s way, you can never begin to understand the pain the surrounds a mother’s heart when you send your baby off to war.

War is ugly, painful and difficult for those directly affected by it. No soldier wants war. It was General Douglas MacArthur who said it best: "The Soldier above all others prays for peace, for he must suffer and bear the deepest scars of war." No Mother or Father wants war, especially for our children. We spend years protecting, guiding and loving our children with a desire for them to have a bright, loving and peaceful life. We military parents serve in silence with our children, standing quietly in the shadows of their world.

War is something that the human race has been dealing with for many years. I was a child during the Vietnam War, but I still have memories of it. Images of news footage roll through my mind. I remember watching the TV as soldiers were being filmed riding on the back of a truck, waving to the camera while they headed off to some remote area. I remember the words of a soldier, waving and saying "Hi Mom." As a child, I thought nothing of the importance of those simple words, but as a Mother I cherish them.

Like any Mom, those childhood memories have stayed with me. As a Military Mom, at times those memories haunt me. Today, I find myself hanging on to my computer instead of the news channel. My computer is the first thing I look at when I roll out of bed and the last thing I view before I go to sleep. Why? I’m looking for the Hi Mom. I just want two little words, to know that my baby is okay. No one will understand the importance of those two little words to a Military Mom. Sure, we would love to get a full detail of the day’s events from our babies, but in reality there are days when it would be more than we as mothers could bear to hear. For now I am grateful for a “Hi Mom. I’m OK. I miss you and love you! Love, Your Boy."

Just precious words to any Military Mother!

BADGER 6 SIGNING OFF |

May 19, 2008

BADGER 6 SIGNING OFF
Name: Eric Coulson
Posting date: 5/19/08
Returned from: Iraq
Milblog: Badgers Forward

Today I turn 40 years old. This, for what ever reason, seems like the appropriate place to end Badgers Forward.

When I conceived of this blog I imagined something as big a Blackfive except from the war zone. I suppose if you are going to dream, dream big. While this blog never reached that level of readership I think I did a fairly respectable job of gaining a readership and turning out consistent quality writing. I am generally proud of the job I have done with the blog.

Why end it? I was tempted to end it last year when I left Team Badger and Task Force Pathfinder as they all departed theater and I moved from the Ramadi - Falluja corridor to southern Iraq. Mrs. Badger 6 prevailed on me to keep blogging. The blog was simply not as good when I moved away from Command to work on a Brigade Staff. Life has a different flavor between those two jobs and staff work simply made for little good blog fodder. The most interesting things would either have given away future operations or been nothing more than catty. I like to think that I was above the latter and would certainly not engage in the former.

Although I conceived of the blog as a general Milblog, it really evolved into the story of the Soldiers of Company A, 321st Engineer out of Idaho and Utah. To continue blogging under this title and screen name would completely change the nature of the blog and in my view would corrupt the original intent. I want to write about other things besides the war in Iraq, and since I no longer have a front-row view, other venues seem more appropriate.

As I mentioned in the opening, I am proud of Badgers Forward. Milblogging is a new genre, and I think I have been an important part of developing that genre.

I would like to take one last chance to remind you to purchase The Sandbox, the compendium of blog posts to which the Teflon Don and I contributed. Get Sean Michael Flynn's The Fighting 69th and Michael Yon's The Moment of Truth in Iraq. See This is War. Continue to follow Iraq and the War against  Islmaofascism at The Long War Journal.

What's next for me? Well, I have been accessed to Active Duty; this summer I will go to school to re-branch and fuse my civilian and military careers. Someday I may return to blogging, but for now I want to focus on MB6, our dogs, and my Army career. I will also occasionally add something at Mudville.

I want to thank Mrs. Badger 6 for her love and support. Blackfive and Bill Roggio for being good blog role models. My Commander in Ramadi for supporting the project even when he was not completely sure it was a good thing. The Readers for showing up everyday to see what was going on from Iraq and all my fellow service members now serving in Iraq. Most importantly I want to thank the men and women who made up Team Badger, it was an honor and a privilege to serve with you on the front line in Iraq. You made a huge difference in the war, and I was glad to be there with you through all the good and the bad. I would not trade the experience for anything. You have my respect, admiration, and friendship. As long as Google keeps blogspot open, this will stand as a memorial to our fallen and a remembrance of our service.

Thank you for reading Badgers Forward.

Badger 6 Out.


Editor's note: We offer a Sandbox salute and big thanks to longtime and frequent contributor Eric Coulson, with much appreciation for all the good work. Here are links to some of his posts:

THE YEAR IN REVIEW 1-1-08

THINGS TO HOLD CLOSE 11-26-07

WHY? 11-9-07

LIKE A ROCK (slide show) 9-12-07

THE CLEAN STREETS OF FALLUJAH 8-15-07

WHAT RESERVISTS WORRY ABOUT 7-10-07

CONNECTION 6-26-07

DISTANT DEATH HITS HOME 5-9-07

THE SOUNDS OF WAR 3-2-07

MUSINGS AND MEMORIES |

May 16, 2008

MUSINGS AND MEMORIES
Name: Teflon Don
Posting date: 5/16/08
Returned from: Iraq
Milblog url: acutepolitics.blogspot.com

Who's up for some war stories? Ok, maybe not exactly war stories, but I've been mumbling through old memories of Iraq recently. This post will be pretty much stream-of-consciousness, so continue reading only if you want a look inside.

Trash. Iraq is covered in it. Some areas are getting cleaned up now, but canals and roadsides are still the skunky lairs of plastic refuse and decaying filth.

I never understood the guys who complained about the mess, saying "no one here cares enough to pick up the trash" (I would have a hard time caring, too, if the trash in my neighborhood covered IEDs), and then use the trash as an excuse to toss old water bottles-turned bathroom breaks out of the trucks.

An old favorite pit stop was Saddam's Mosque, the grandest structure in Ramadi, and oddly (I thought) named for the primarily secular former leader. Every night there was an IED on the corner next to the mosque -- often, the wires ran inside the wall. Every night, the Explosives Ordnance Disposal techs blew up a little more of the mosque wall. No sense, after all, in moving the bomb too far from the site in the interest of preserving architecture. Every night, piss bottles sailed over the broken wall in a barrage directed at the IED triggerman.

In some parts of Iraq, most of the sprawling garbage is composed of old plastic bottles. Some places, the average IED has a few 1-liter bottles full of diesel fuel attached. The "accelerant", as the military calls it, doesn't usually make the bomb more deadly, but it sure becomes a hell of a lot more impressive. Less like fireworks, but less fun to encounter were the 1-liter bottles straddling artillery shells and filled with pesticide. We started wearing Nomex jumpsuits just in case, so the Army-issue brand new polyester-blend ACUs we went to Iraq in wouldn't melt to our skin if one of those impressive fireballs engulfed the truck.

Those tan Nomex jumpsuits were controversial, sure. We considered them important to our continued, unmaimed survival in our constant dealings "out there" -- by a similar token, ice-cream licking desk jockeys considered those jumpsuits antithesis to good order and discipline "inside". I can see why: since we wore them to work in, those jumpsuits smell like work. It's best not to remind fobbits* too often of the vast difference in what you and they consider "work".

At Logistical Support Area Anaconda, the fobbit capital of Iraq (roughly equivalent to corporate headquarters in the Real World), no one knows how to address warfighters in jumpsuits. Little fobbit girls whisper in the back of the bus that those guys must be Special Forces! If they had been somewhere that actually sends men nightly into the breach, they might have known that SF and SEALs are more likely to be found wearing Carhartt and sporting a four-day growth of beard.

I abused that look every time I found myself on a large base when I went back to Iraq as a photojournalist. The press ID that I picked up in Baghdad was virtually useless (and indeed virtually unused). Once I learned that displaying my press ID inevitably led to the same tired litany of questions and the same display of orders permitting my presence, I began strolling around in my Carhartts and goatee, flashing my military ID to the confused Specialist guarding the chow hall and the Ugandan mercenaries guarding the PX. I had more freedom in Iraq on my own presenting myself as a member of the military than I had experienced while deployed to Iraq on orders from the military.

My train of thought was interrupted here -- by my girlfriend coming home from work to find me typing on her couch. That's a kind of distraction that I didn't have while blogging in Iraq. Frankly, I think I prefer the distractions of home to those of Iraq. ;-)

*   
fobbit
"fob-bet"
-- Noun
1. A military member who works primarily on a Foward Operating Base
2. douchebag
a. A military bureaucrat concerned with style over substance
b. A soldier more worried about ice cream stocks than ammo stocks
See also: FOB Goblin, FOB Rat

DEEP THOUGHTS WITH BIGGIE SMALLS |

May 14, 2008

DEEP THOUGHTS WITH BIGGIE SMALLS
Name: LT G
Posting date: 5/14/08
Stationed in: Iraq
Hometown: Reno, Nevada
Milblog: Kaboom: A Soldier's War Journal

As someone whose foreign language efforts usually resemble beluga whale mating calls, I have zero right to criticize non-English primary speakers' attempts at my native language. I rationalize this by saying that my love for the English language is just too pure and too right to be tainted by something else, but really, who knows. I guess that synapse hadn’t connected yet before I escaped the womb in a Caesarean jailbreak. I even dated a French chick for a few months and never made any serious progression to learn her language. If a woman can’t make you do something despite all her harassments to the contrary, it probably isn’t meant to happen.

Still, one cannot avoid the very obvious truth that English sounds funny when it comes out of mouths untrained to its complexities. That’s not being culturally insensitive, that’s just straight comedic fact.

Language -- any language -- inevitably develops into a multitude of dialects, nuances, and cultural references that can be nigh impossible to understand, let alone replicate. Such is the case for the Gravediggers’ ever-present and always amusing interpreter, Biggie Smalls. A good-natured grandfather who has a weakness for ignoring his diabetes in the name of Pepsi Cola and cannot stand punk teenagers, Biggie causes as much of a ruckus around Anu al-Verona as we do; his diversity due to his heritage in the Heart of Africa and midnight black skin, when blended with his ability to make newfound friends everywhere he goes and the rolling chuckle that follows nearly every statement he makes, has proven to be an instrumental asset in the counterinsurgency fight. Everyone knows Biggie, and Biggie knows everyone.

Here is a short collection of some of Biggie’s finer moments with my platoon. Keep in mind that some of my soldiers think he suffers from PTSD, due to surviving multiple IED strikes in the three years he has worked for Coalition Forces. Also, after some prodding, he reluctantly revealed that he lost three young children during Desert Storm, and that he visits their graves every time he goes home. He has seen far more war over the course of his life than one man ever should. Not all warriors in Anu al-Verona carry rifles when they leave the wire.

-- Biggie: “I do not understand why you Americans insist on missions in night. Night is for sleep!” Me: “You’re right. You should take it up with CPT Whiteback.” Biggie, completely straight-faced: “That is a good idea, LT. I will summon him as soon as we return from mission and explain the situation.”

-- Biggie: “I am worry that my family would be hurt if people knew I work with Americans. That is why I do not tell them.” Me: “Wait. So you’re saying no one in your family knows you work here? Not even your wives?” Biggie: “Women cannot keep from the talk. They be too proud of me and do the chatter when I am away. Then they will die!”

-- PFC Boomhauer: “How do you feel about rules of engagement, Biggie?” Biggie: “I say kill them all! That way, I do not have to leave Stryker.”

-- Biggie: (after walking into a maze of wire at night, that my soldiers had to help him get out of): “Why is that still there! I say to have it to be taken away.”

-- SGT Chico: “I only have one wife, Biggie. That’s more than enough for me. Not to mention, she’d kill me if I married another woman.” Biggie, shaking his head in confusion: “But why? If they do not want to share, you must hit them around to show who is king. I had to do that with smaller wife when she stop listening to me.” SGT Chico: “Yeah, well, my wife would just hit me right back.”

-- Me, sitting in a Sheik’s house, anxious to return to my Strykers and feeling slightly guilty that not all of my soldiers are partaking in the impromptu feast laid out before us: “Let’s go, Biggie.” Biggie: “But … but why, LT? There is more food and chai to come. It is Arab culture!” Me: “I need to check on my guys, man. Let’s roll.” Biggie, clearly perturbed and shoving food into his mouth as I thank the Sheik, and begin to head out the front door: “But … but … LT, it is Arab culture! We must stay for more food!”

-- Biggie, who I stumble upon in the breakfast line, staring at a piece of sausage. “This is pork, yes?” Me: “Yeah, it is. Sorry man, I know you’re not allowed to eat pork.” Biggie: “Gah! I do not understand why Allah does not allow us to eat the pork when it smell so good.”

-- First Sergeant, catching Biggie carrying a new mattress to his room in the combat outpost: “No, Biggie, we don’t have enough mattresses for everyone. Not even all the soldiers are going to get one.” Biggie: “But you have one for Biggie, yes?”

-- First Sergeant, catching Biggie with a dinner plate that would feed a block in Anu al-Verona: “Come on Biggie, you gonna tell me you gonna eat all that?” Biggie, who puts his plate down and flexes: “Of course! I have two wives, I must be strong for them!”

-- Me, seeing Biggie grab a Pepsi during a meeting: “Biggie, put that down. Grab something without sugar.” Biggie, laughing: “You are good leader of me, LT! I will have orange drink.” Me: “Biggie, how long have you known you have diabetes?” Biggie: “Oh, I don’t know. Ten years?”

-- Biggie, after unleashing a tongue-lashing on a Shi’a fourteen-year old kid who failed to produce his ID in a timely fashion: “Stupid mother fucker.” Me: “Man, Biggie, what did you tell that kid? He looks like we ran over his house.” Biggie: “I tell him next time he looks at Americans with the angry we will come and drop him off alone in Sunni neighborhood. We will not have problem again with him.”

-- Biggie, who has become addicted to MacGyver re-runs: “It is excellent show. He always use his mind, you know? Very good hero.”

-- Biggie, on the Saddam era: “It was not so bad. There were discos.”

-- Biggie, on his actions during the initial American offensive in 2003: “I see smoke from American tanks and American heli-choppers and American bombs and I go inside. I stay in house for three weeks and make two new babies with my wives.”

-- Biggie, on his actions in 2004, when members of the Mahdi Army showed up at his business and requisitioned all of his assets, financial and otherwise: “There were 30 men with AK. They tell me we shoot you and kill or you give everything. I say, ‘Okay, have it all, bye bye! I go home now.’”

-- Biggie: “I tell all the other LTs and all the other terps -- no one works like Gravediggers! We work, work, work. We no talk -- we just do.” Me: “Word, Biggie. Word.”

-- Biggie, with a sense of absolute wonder in his voice that only someone from a third-world nation can attain: “Ahh-merr-ikaaa … America. It must be very beautiful place, yes?”

It is Biggie, it really is. I just wish we could understand that the way that you do.

COMPASSION FATIGUE |

May 12, 2008

COMPASSION FATIGUE
Name: CAPT Beau Cleland
Posting date: 5/12/08
Stationed in: Iraq
Hometown: Florida

I sometimes wonder if I'm getting callous about death and suffering, like some crotchety old veteran in the movies or something. You tell me.

Example 1:

We are searching a neighborhood, and an old woman approaches us with four or five other female family members. They are squatting in this nice house while the owners are gone (dead?), but fear they will be evicted soon. They have no male relatives, no food, and nowhere to go, since their house was blown up by either the US or al Qaeda. She produces some snapshots of a completely demolished house to show us.

I have absolutely no idea what I could possibly do for them, so I vaguely direct them to a US FOB in that part of the city and tell them to ask for the civil affairs people there. I feel slightly sad, but really my predominant emotion is tiredness.

Example 2:

A man with his face wrapped in fresh bandages stumbles up to my humvee while we are cordoning a neighborhood with our Iraqi Army unit. He knocks on the window, so I open it and have my interpreter ask what he wants. He starts wailing and crying that the local police in the area beat him and stole his money, and could I please fix the situation for him.

He's clearly drunk and weaving around, and again I have no idea what I can do for this guy. I make vague promises to let "someone" know -- probably the MPs who babysit the local cops, but I really don't think they can or will do anything about it. He persists in crying and begging, and I get annoyed instead of sympathetic, and motion for the IA soldiers to shoo him away. He almost gets shooed with a rifle butt until some people from his neighborhood take him away -- and slap him around. Tough day for that dude. I just feel a little sick.

Example 3:

I'm covering on radio watch while the rest of the team is out getting a truck fixed. There is lots of contact as we build a wall down a contested street and the enemy tries their best to stop us. Tanks, Bradleys, helicopters, artillery, CAS -- the whole gamut is getting used like crazy as Real War(tm) returns for a period to the streets of Sadr City. So as this stuff goes on, the guy on duty notes significant radio traffic. Here's what I write that day (paraphrased and edited for OPSEC, naturally):

1400: Red 1 reports contact, SAF and RPG. 4 x EKIA (enemy killed-in-action) at grid x. Engaged with main gun and coax.

1418: AWT (air-weapons team) engages RPG team with Hellfire at building 44. 2 x EKIA

1424: Ironclaw 22 reports IED strike. 0 x casualties, 2 x flat tire

And so on. For several hours I make similar notes, then I write this:

1604: Red 3 reports 1 x MAM (military-age male) running in front of tank towards barrier with a black duffel bag. Engaged with coax, 1 x EKIA. Suspected IED in bag.

1610: IA positions on RTE Beer receiving heavy PKC and RPG fire. 2 x WIA. Evaced to hospital.

And here it came....

1627: EOD reports possible IED is cleared. Bag contained cigarettes. Smoking kills.

I just made a joke about a (possibly) innocent civilian being cut down by a tank because he wanted to get some cigarettes and was too dumb or lazy to go around the battle area. Then I laughed at my own joke -- I was by myself, but I enjoyed the irony even with the bitter guilt heaped on top.

I've thought about this a lot in the last couple of days, and I've come to the conclusion that this place has so much suffering, so many problems, that if I internalize them I'm just going to mess myself up mentally and emotionally. Laughing is a necessary defense mechanism against the inevitable bad feelings. I mean, I didn't kill that man. But I would have. I know I would had I been in the same situation as that gunner -- his actions were completely justified. And yet I still felt uneasy.

And so I made a joke, knowing he was probably not a combatant. But I don't think I did it to be callous. I did it to keep myself sane. Don't get me wrong, we help people all the time. Every day there's something done to aid people around here. But there's just more stuff to fix than we could possibly handle and still be able to do our jobs. Everyone has a problem and the US Army is the magic bullet that can solve it for them. So I make myself not care when I can't afford to, or face being overwhelmed.

ONE DEEP BREATH |

May 09, 2008

ONE DEEP BREATH
Name: SFC Toby Nunn
Posting date: 5/9/08
Stationed in: Kuwait / Iraq
Hometown: Oakland, CA via Terrace B.C. CANADA
Milblog url: Toby Nunn's Briefing Room

There has always been something weighing very heavy on my heart, from the second I walked off the bus at Camp Roberts in California. I looked at the motley crew of men that were potentially going to be under my charge and wondered who wouldn’t make it. I tried harder than ever before to truly look into the eyes of each soldier, so that if I lost them or if I should perish my memory and what I could have or would have said would be presented in one form or another. The awesome responsibility perhaps held me down sometimes, while at others it helped me soar above and fight harder for them and for what I thought was right by them.

Yesterday, I looked at the sun that fittingly was setting over the chain linked and razor wire fence that separates Iraq and Kuwait. As the sun was lowering itself in the sky I watched the remaining Bad Voodoo members who are still in combat leave enemy territory for the last time. It was like an old Western with the good guys riding off into the sunset. I was proud, and found myself in a moment similar to LTG (ret) Hal Moore on that fateful day in Vietnam; he hit the battlefield first and was the last to leave.

I met up with the guys at the clearing barrels and pulled my charging handle to the rear and watched as “ol' Death” came flying out into my hand. (I paint the top round in all my magazines so that its easy for this not-so-smart Canadian to keep track of my ammo. I also name the top round. I know its weird.) With that I placed “ol' Death” back on top like I have so many other times, but knew in my heart that would be the last time he stood on guard for me. It was over. There was no banner on a carrier deck, but Ranger Ben, Mr 300 (aka the Naughty Soldier), and Bad Voodoo Juan (aka Jose) looked at each other with the contentment of fulfilled promises.

We are not done yet but the biggest hurdle and really the only one I lost sleep over is behind me, and I am running now for the smaller family. So from short breaths to deep breaths we go.

I was sent this by reader David M. and I wanted to share it with you:

Where others see bewildering complexity,
     Leaders see simplicity
     And turn stumbling stones into stepping-stones
Where others perceive uncertainty as threats,
     Leaders see it as fertile grounds for opportunity
     And are willing to take risks.
Where others cringe from change,
     Leaders make friends with it, welcome it,
     Embrace it.
Where others grasp power jealously,
     Leaders share it, mentoring, and inspiring.
Where others are lost in confusion,
Paralyzed by the multitude of options,
     Leaders constantly scan the landscape
     Using interpretive power to
     Comprehend, intervene, solve, and move on.
Where others are exhausted by constant change,
     Leaders are energized

Framed_nunn_bad_voodoo_flag_2

Clockwise from lower left: JP, me, Ranger Nievera, Sgt. Q.

FAMILY |

May 08, 2008

FAMILY
Name: Mike T.
Posting date: 5/7/08
Stationed in: Afghanistan
Milblog url: c/o bouhammer.com

I can remember the faint sound as the door to my house closed behind me. One foot in front of the other I walked down the sidewalk to the truck and felt what seems to be forever ago the breeze upon my face. No sooner did that door close than I was boarding a flight to the unknown, to a combat zone.

Words can only partially describe the feelings that raced through my veins to my heart, to my soul. Everything that I have known and loved was left behind that door, and since then there is an emptiness that can only be filled by going back to it as I left it, even though there will be subtle changes. In my heart I know that can never be. War changes you. I believe it was the famous war correspondent Joe Galloway who said it best: “Those who have seen war will always see it long after it is over." (sic)

If you are to fall on the battlefield you will always be remembered by those whose lives you touched, but it is your family that will forever carry the burden. They are left with the memories of your laughter, smile, and delicate voice that will always echo inside them. They are the unsung heroes of war that often go unnoticed and even forgotten. I have come to terms with the fact that there is a chance that something could go wrong and I may not return, but it is the faces of my loved ones that haunt me. To imagine being without them can rattle the heart and soul of the strongest soldier.

It is not the amount of money or material wealth possessed that dictates the worth of a man’s life, it is his family. Without family there is no point to why we are here. I do not miss such things as going to the mall, driving my car, or even the ability to go food shopping; it is them that I miss. They are the driving force for me to stay alive and to keep those around me the same. We are born by family and we will die by family. It has taken me many years to realize this, but more so than ever I need them now. It is their emails and packages; it is the hand-drawn pictures and words of encouragement. This is what drives me to continue.

A lifetime has passed since I have been able to hug them and tell them that I love them in person. How do we return and explain all that we have said and done here? All of us struggle with what we do to accomplish our missions, but if we do not, then our comrades might pay the price. Regardless if you are facing the enemy or stationed on the Forward Operating Bases, everyone struggles. Distance and time are the true enemies of the soldier.

For those who serve in Afghanistan, better known to some as "The Forgotten War”, we struggle with what we are doing here. Iraq is always served to the public as the true struggle, but for us it is here and now. It is hard to tell our loved ones how things are here, and I am not sure we even know. There is no one in the media, or even most of our key leaders, who praise our accomplishments. But the families of this war are displaced even more so.

I dedicate this to my family, to those who keep the watch while I am gone. This is for the endless pen marks on the calendar, for the Christmas presents that are still wrapped, for the tears left on the phone long after I have hung up, for the empty email boxes, for those who keep going on and look forward to the next sunrise, one step closer to me coming home. You are my heroes. This is for you, my love, who has shown me that this world has so much to offer. Thank you for believing in me during the darkest times. I love you.

“And if I stare too long I might not see you right, so close the door where the heart is out of sight.”
              -- COC

A SOUNDTRACK TO WAR |

May 05, 2008

A SOUNDTRACK TO WAR
Name: LT G
Posting date: 5/5/08
Stationed in: Iraq
Hometown: Reno, Nevada
Milblog: Kaboom: A Soldier's War Journal

Heat in the triple digits, an old, tired war, and increasing frustrations regarding a largely unseen enemy equals … new music offerings. Compliments of the best educated and most stratified Army in the history of the world, by way of the Suck.

WARNING: EXPLICIT. Reality curses.

                                      Gravediggers Mix Tape, Volume II

SFC Big Country: “Welcome to the Jungle,” by Guns N’ Roses. This song opens up Volume II not just because my platoon sergeant has a gigantic flag as tribute to GnR in our room. Although it helps. So does the truth that the jungle is the ideal analogy for our current operating environment -- with just a slapdash of we’re in the desert, Charlie don’t surf or car-bomb irony.

PFC Das Boot: “Boyz-N-The-Hood,” by Dynamite Hack. The Giant still refuses to cater to our beloved American stereotype that all Germans adore David Hasselhoff. So this seemed like a good alternative in the Hoff’s stead.

(newly promoted) SSG Chico: “I’m Shipping Up to Boston,” by Dropkick Murphys. Pure. Violent. Crashing. Power.

PFC Romeo: “What’s Golden,” by Jurassic 5. A happy-go-lucky rap medley for a happy-go-lucky Puerto Rican charmer.

CPL Spot: “Ohio is for Lovers,” by Hawthorne Heights. Even with family in the Buckeye State, I’ll never really understand Ohioans’ perverse pride for their home state. It’s like loving Texas, without the ridiculousness, or loving New Jersey, minus the general suck factor.

SPC Doc: “Been Around the World,” by Puff Daddy and the Family. Dedicated to our medic’s developing plan to know women across the globe in his post-Iraq global trek with SPC Haitian Sensation and PFC Das Boot. And yes, that verb was used specifically in the biblical sense.

SGT Axel: “The Wicker Man,” by Iron Maiden. Your time will come.

SPC Prime: “Bad Habit,” by the Offspring. The Army’s most perfect, most patient, and most experienced driver must have a breaking point. When it occurs, it’ll probably sound a lot like this song devoted to all things road rage.

LT G: “Lose Yourself,” by Eminem. Self-righteous, skinny white boys know all, and will make sure the world is aware of such. All in spite of being doomed with a clown’s soul.

SGT Cheech: “A Whole New World,” from the Aladdin soundtrack. Hey, five kids hooked on Disney like a fat kid on cake would change your outlook on life too.

PFC Boomhauer: “I Wanna Talk About Me,” by Toby Keith. The noble everyman’s most twisted anthem to every woman far away in distance but close to our hearts. Ever.

SPC Haitian Sensation: “Chain Hang Low,” by Jibbs. No, there is no synchronized dance for this song, which is precisely why it was selected. There will be no sequel to “Crank Dat in Iraq.” Epical awesomeness like that should not be ruined by cheap imitations. At least not publicly. (See: Godfather III and the return of Grover Cleveland to the White House.)

SPC Big Ern: “I Want to Know What Love Is,” by Foreigner. Yes, 80's love ballads bellowed in a deep Southern twang straight out of the Hollah’ are hilarious. And off-key. And strangely motivating, especially when dedicated to hetero-lifemates, who in this case, is PFC Van Wilder.

SSG Bulldog: “Numb/Encore,” by Jay-Z and Linkin Park. An eclectic mash-up for an eclectic kind of guy. Just don’t be the dumb bastard that gets in his way. He doesn’t like to bypass things.

PV2 Hot Wheels: “That Smell,” by Lynyrd Skynyrd. Encapsulates that ever-permanent raw sewage cologne that this country is doused in, in classic Southern rock form. On a quasi-related note, I’ve never seen a soldier as content as PV2 Hot Wheels was when searching for weapons of mass destruction in a bull’s pen at an outlying Iraqi farm.

(newly promoted) SPC Cold-Nuts: “Pain,” by Three Days Grace. Just as is the case with any joker, SPC Cold-Nuts channels a lot more than light-hearted humor at his core. As Mother Teresa always said, there isn’t anything wrong with a little masochism. Eh? What’s that you say? She never said that? You sure?

SSG Boondock: “Three Little Birds,” by Bob Marley. Although he tries very hard to hide it, my junior section sergeant has a closet hippie tucked away deep down in his warrior soul. Well, maybe tucked isn’t the right description. Being held hostage would be more accurate.

PV2 Stove-Top: “Don’t Tread on Me,” by Metallica. The riffs of raw machismo explain this young soldier, who is convinced he missed his calling by not being a part of the initial American incursion into Iraq. I remind him that he was 13 at the time, but I don’t think it has much of an effect.

SPC Flashback: “Road Trippin,’ by the Red Hot Chili Peppers. The horrible tasking monster known as “Headquarters” finally sank its’ claws into this O.G. -- original Gravedigger -- but he remains with us in spirit. The love-taps he facilitated from various Iraqi inanimate objects getting in the way of my Stryker remain as well.

BAJA 1000 |

May 02, 2008

BAJA 1000
Name: MSGT Ken Mahoy
Posting date: 5/2/08
Stationed in: Afghanistan
Milblog: Third Time's a Charm!

You know it's amazing to me, the efforts that have to be put forth in the name of "supporting the mission." Take for instance something as simple as supplies. We are not a large compound here at HQ ISAF, so to get the "beans and bullets" to our troops we sometimes have to conjure up a convoy to Bagram Airfield, an hour north of here, to get what we need. I just got back from one of those trips, probably my 3rd or 4th. Heck I don’t remember. All I know is I’m exhausted.

You drive, completely cognizant of the fact that you are in IED Central, looking this way and that for anything suspicious. Intel, for instance, tells us to look out for a Toyota Corolla in black, white, red, blue. Heck that is about every car out there! They also say to look for particular trucks, SUVs, and even an Afghan National Army vehicle that was stolen. Ugh! You get the picture. You basically can’t trust any vehicle out there because they are potential VBIEDs.

Then you’ve got to navigate through a city that has no traffic laws, with people crossing the street everywhere, taxis and buses routinely stopping in the middle of the street, and -- I kid you not -- donkey carts in the middle of it all, slowing up everyone and creating dangerous choke points. The key word is avoidance, and we have only one rule to driving here in Afghanistan: "Drive it like you stole it." And try not to hurt anyone in the process. Ha! What that entails is utilizing driving maneuvers that seem to make things worse, not better.

For instance, we don’t stop at most stop signs. We drive way faster than the rest of traffic, weaving in and out of lanes, nearly missing the corner of every vehicle we pass. We slam on the brakes so often it is common to return from the day’s trip with bruised knees. We honk like we own the road; we have to swerve into oncoming one-way traffic to get around a slow vehicle that could make us vulnerable to attack; we’ve played “chicken” with oncoming cars, trucks, buses, and large jingle trucks more times that I can count.

Yes, we’ve been in accidents. On the convoy before this one, a car panicked and pulled out right in front of us. Our lead truck slammed into the back of it, pushing the car in front of my truck and we slammed on the brakes to avoid hitting it. Shortly afterward, a bus pulled out, and again, our lead truck side-swiped it, ripping the mirror off. We're not exactly winning the hearts and minds of the Afghan people here with our highway habits!

Framed_mahoy_baja_1a_2 Once we make it out of downtown Kabul into the open desert, we drive an average of 80 mph on roads not fit for a fully-suspensioned Baja truck to traverse. We often slide and skid, especially in wet weather like today. We come back with dented rims from the gaping pot-holes, so large they could swallow our light-armored truck whole. And we frequently go completely airborne through many of the hillcrests and dips in the road. (We have the stiff necks, from slamming into the roof, to prove it! )

We drive around in an 8000 lb light armored 4X4 Toyota Land Cruiser, retrofitted with 1-inch-thick windows and 1/4 inch inside armor, so it’s already extremely top-heavy. And when you have the additional weight of 2-5 passengers and their cargo, I liken the feel of driving it to that of steering a boat on water. That’s really what it feels like. You have to anticipate the tire-roll, the heavy lean to one side with the slightest of turns, especially at speed -- and the fact that 8000+ lbs of man and metal does not stop on a dime, no matter how hard you slam on those brakes.Framed_mahoy_baja_2a

We drive tactically when in a multi-vehicle convoy, and that often means the tail vehicle will provide “block” for the lead vehicles, meaning when we come to a turn, or intersection, he will speed past us to block the oncoming cars. Last trip out, our “block” predicted his move incorrectly and locked up his brakes, skidded right through the intersection, down into a 4-foot drop-off ditch, and then smashed into the side of a mud hut.

The lead vehicle is the most vulnerable. He is the lookout, calling back on the radio all the suspicious activities and sites that he observes as we're traveling. You’re a two-man team in that lead vehicle, one driving as the other calls out cautions in the road, or our intentions -- like passing a slow moving truck. Then each vehicle behind the lead will, in turn, call out “Clear!” as they pass so that we know we’re all still together.

Some may say, “Well, at least you’re not driving a Humvee.” What I would say to them is, “I wish we were!” At least they are wider, don’t practically roll over every time you turn the wheel, are armored better, and have ECMs (ours don’t). And driving in full body armor in our Land Cruisers certainly doesn’t win you any comfort awards. Because we're wearing full body armor, we can’t sit back all the way. We have a 12-pound bullet-proof plate behind us, and then another up front, along with an ammo belt, all playing interference with the steering wheel. We wear our Kevlar helmets, not particularly for the threat outside the vehicle, but because of how often we get banged around inside the vehicle.

Today was one of the worst convoys I’ve been on. It was rainy, muddy, and to boot, I was in charge as the convoy commander today, so everyone’s safety resided on my shoulders. We had so much cargo loaded in the back that all rear view visibility was gone -- not that we had much to begin with. Scotti, Bixby and I had other passengers too -- a couple redeploying and going on R&R, and our Chief first sergeant, the highest ranking enlisted guy in Afghanistan, who had meetings to attend.

Framed_mahoy_baja_3a The fact that these peoples’ lives rested on my ability to put together precise and sufficiently briefed convoy procedures in the event something should “interrupt” our normal course of action, did not rest easy on my mind. This is not my first convoy. Heck, I've been shot at in past deployments, even ambushed, and this is also not the first time I have had a responsibility like this put on me. But weather conditions made it worse, and this was also the first convoy where we did not accompany another unit, so we were completely on our own today. What if I got everyone lost? What if we hit an IED? What if...???

A couple months ago on our first trek through this desert, I actually thought it was fun. I likened it to competing in the Baja 1000 -- except under duress. But it's not so fun anymore. I don't know, maybe it was turning 40. Maybe I'm getting too old for this. Or maybe I've just been through enough situations like this now that I realize all the wonderful things I have to come home to, and am more cautious than before. Either way, these trips now seem more and more like a game of Russian Roulette, and I worry that eventually our odds will be stacked against us.


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