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.

CARNAGE OF THE MIND |

June 30, 2008

CARNAGE OF THE MIND
Name: RN Clara Hart
Posting date: 6/30/08
Stationed in: a civilian military hospital in the U.S.
Milblog url: 
www.mcneillysperspective.blogspot.com
Email: [email protected]

I sat at a concert last night letting the music calm my heart and soothe my soul. Eyes closed, I let it sweep me into a mindless drift.  But as much as the music comforted me and try as I might, my mind refused to stay quiet. Back and forth it went, like a tennis ball lobbed across a net, sometimes relaxed in the notes wafting from the stage, sometimes turbulent and anxious as it recounted my workday. Over and over I struggled against the mind games. Listening to the music, I could almost pretend everything was all right, that I really hadn’t heard the things I had heard and spoken the things I had spoken.

The battle was lost on the drive home, as my mind unlatched the tightly closed box and the memories spilled out.

He was a patient in his 50s, in for a minor surgical procedure. As he rolled to a stop in the recovery room he became combative. The OR nurse and the anesthesiologist, quick to leap to either side of the bed, tried to quiet and calm him: “You’re in the hospital in the U.S., you had surgery, you’re safe, you’re all right." My mind pinged “PTSD” at the same moment the OR nurse said, “He’s got PTSD”. Oh...How many times have I heard that?  Far, far too many.

Educating one of the new staff members helping me, I told him, "Speak to this patient in a quiet, calm tone of voice, don’t hold him down unless he’s really going to hurt himself, and continually reorient him to where he is, emphasizing that he is safe." The newbie looked at me, eyes wide, and nodded. "Welcome to the world of OIF/OEF," I thought to myself.

As the patient woke from his slumber we began to converse: He was from a small rural Midwest town, had been military since he was 17, had been to Vietnam, Grenada, Iraq. He spoke of his struggles dealing with things he had seen in Iraq, and was confused by the fact that Vietnam hadn’t bothered him to the extreme OIF did. He spoke of one particular incident, of holding one of his squad members, blown up by an IED. The grief shone in his eyes as he told me he held that kid in his arms while he called for his dad. He relived the trauma while he said, “I knew he was gonna die, he was missing half his head, but he still called out for his dad. So for those moments I was his dad, and his dad was holding him in his arms and when he died I didn’t want to let go.”

I laid my hand on his shoulder and asked him if he was talking with anyone.

"Absolutely!” came his quick response. “But ya know, it’s hard.  It’s embarrassing for an old guy like me to lose it and bawl like a baby."

“You realize that’s what it takes to heal, don’t you?” I asked him.

“Yeah, I’m learning," he said, "but it’s tough, and some things, most things, I don’t want to remember. I tried to fix it on my own but started drinking too much, not sleeping, having nightmares and waking up screaming, scaring my kids, so I kinda got forced into getting help. But I’m glad I did, for my family."

"The other thing though," he continued, “is I have these pictures in my head and it’s like a video that constantly runs. I can’t get rid of them."

I stood there, looking down at him, seeing the tremendous pain in his eyes, the uneasiness with the emotions that accompany psychological trauma, and I began to speak. In a low voice so no one else could hear I started to share things with this total stranger that I rarely share with even my closest, dearest friends.

“I have PTSD too,” I told him. “I saw the carnage left by September 11th, and I am a survivor of a brutal sexual assault. I know all about the mental pictures engraved on your brain. I know of the videos that take over your mind and hard as you try, you can’t get rid of.”  This man looked at me, his gaze fixed on mine and listened while I talked. “I know what it’s like not to sleep, to have nightmares so bad you sleep with the lights on because you’re afraid of the dark. I know what it’s like to try and pretend everything is okay when your life is really falling apart and you don’t know why. I know what it’s like to walk into the grocery to get milk but have to leave before you do because it’s too crowded, or someone looked at you funny and all you felt was rage so strong you wanted to beat the shit out of them. I know what it’s like.

“PTSD sucks, it never goes away and it’s absolute agony to deal with but you can. You’re going to have to hurt like hell and you’re going to have to force yourself to talk about things you never even want to remember much less speak about, and you’re going to have to cry. Put aside every pat crappy cliché about “real men don’t cry, crying is for pussies, etc." It’s all bullshit. Let yourself cry. Go to therapy, go to group, and if you lose it in group, lose it. It’s a safe place; the people you are with are dealing with the same hell as you. It’s absolutely okay to cry, to lose it, because in the end it is the only way to get better. And you will, you’ll heal. With the right help and with time, it does get better. You learn to watch for triggers, you learn different ways to cope, you learn how to heal. You learn how to be a PTSD survivor and not a PTSD victim.”

I quit talking, shocked at myself for sharing what I did. Appalled and embarrassed that I had spoken of such painful pieces of my past, I removed my hand from his shoulder and went to turn away. He grabbed my hand and said, “You do understand, when no one else does, you do.”  Nodding, I tried to get my hand free but he wouldn’t let go. He continued, “You’re just as much my battle buddy as any of the guys I deployed with. I appreciate what you told me, it helps to know.”

I agreed with that comment; we are battle buddies, battle buddies in a war just as devastating and debilitating as one fought with IEDs, RPGs and .50 cals. "I'm not sure why I told you all that," I responded, "especially since it’s not a subject I go around sharing with my closest friends much less complete strangers."

“Yeah, kinda figured that," he said. He talked on, telling more about what was going on in his head. Me listening, making suggestions, encouraging or simply nodding silently in agreement as only another survivor can.

Before he headed home, I shared my email address with him and told him to contact me if he wanted. He held out his massive hand and I placed mine in his. “Thank you," he stated simply, then holding up the piece of paper with my email address he spoke again. “This has now become one of my prized possessions.”

“Safe travels,” I said. He nodded in response and we parted ways.

Later, as I talked with the OR nurse, he asked me how this particular patient had done. “He did well, we chatted for a bit. He’s got some heavy shit to deal with.”

“Yeah," the nurse responded. “He tell you about the kid dying in his arms?”

“Uh huh."

“Sucks, I hope he gets the help he needs. Crap like that can seriously mess with your head. It certainly did mine.”

And for the second time in my shift another horror story unfolded: “I was forward deployed on a medical strike team when a fuckin’ female suicide bomber took out one of our medics.  Blast left our medic in five pieces. Took eight months of therapy once I got home to work through all the shit and get my sanity back. It should be mandatory that everyone who goes over there has to spend at least a month in counseling.”

The tale told, he walked away, back to work, and left me standing in heartbreaking silence. A silence filled with commiseration, as I know only too well the pain that walks hand in hand with horror. The horror that comes from seeing carnage so damaging it is forever imprinted on your mind.

BEING HOME |

June 27, 2008

BEING HOME
Name: Eddie
Posting date: 6/27/08
Returned from: Iraq
Milblog url: Eighty Deuce on the Loose
Email: [email protected]

...is great!

It is the most amazing feeling in the world to be back in the States after so long in Iraq. While over there, it seemed like this day would never come, but finally it did. The flight back was full of anticipation as we all just wanted to end our long journey and be back with the ones we love and care about. For myself, from the time I was last walking around the streets of Baghdad until I landed back in the United States was only four days. Mind blowing, really.

Once we arrived at Ft Bragg, there were so many friends and family there, that it was a HUGE crowd. We formed up and marched in while everyone was screaming and cheering, and it was so hard to not break out with a huge smile across my face. The shivers ran throughout my body, and even a little bit right now just thinking about it. It was amazing and I couldn't have asked for much more. We headed back to the company, turned in our weapons, and got released for six hours until we had to come back to receive our safety brief before going into our three-day weekend.

That weekend was a good time of just relaxing and enjoying being back. Of course the alcohol consumption was a necessity, but fortunately everyone drank responsibly and had a plan for being out there. No one fucked up, no one got a DUI. So far so good. Hopefully everyone continues to do the right thing and no one ruins it for everyone. For the next five or six weekends we will be having three- and four-day weekends every weekend. We work half days, so by 12:00 we are done. I'm not going to lie; it's nice.

We started doing typical PT, and I am hurting. Although I was going to the gym in Iraq I really didn't run all that much, and being back running hills and fire breaks in the woods has taken its toll on my legs. By the end of the third day of PT, I was officially broken off and walking a little funny. Guess it's going to take a little time.

One thing that was a little unsettling; out on some range on Ft Bragg they were launching mortars or artillery or blowing up something really big and often. One day the explosions were so loud it was shaking the barracks and could be heard AND felt throughout both adjacent cities of Fayetteville and Spring Lake. I was at the car stereo place dropping off my car to get my new system installed, when I walked outside and heard an earth-shaking explosion. It didn't startle me, but it sounded like how an IED sounded going off just outside the gates of the FOB, and I thought to myself, "I thought I was getting away from this crap!" Hahaha. I got used to hearing explosions back there, but I surely didn't expect to continue to have to hear them. Fortunately I only have a couple more months left in the Army and then I shouldn't have to hear them again.

I decided to take a last minute trip back home to Phoenix for our four-day weekend. I didn't let my mom know that I was coming and totally surprised her when I showed up at her place. It's been good to see her, as well as my friends. I'm having a blast here and I'm really enjoying my insanely low alcohol tolerance. I went all out on the car rental too and decided to drive around a brand new Infinity G35. It is a sweet car and I really really REALLY don't want to have to take it back.

Framed_eddie_home It's amazing how the weather is totally different here than in North Carolina. In NC I was freezing, especially in the morning, and it was incredibly windy all week. Here in Phoenix it's a completely different story. The temperatures are near perfect, the beautiful blue skies are amazing, and the sun beams down brightly and full of warmth. We were at the pool the other day for only a couple hours, and as a result of not applying any sunblock I have an attractive redness to my skin. Hopefully it turns into a nice tan and doesn't peel away.

So that's about all for now. Like I said, I am loving every minute of being back. In many ways it's so surreal, but I'm taking it all in, slowing and experiencing many things that I had missed out on over the last 15 months. It truly is so amazing to be back and I'm so happy that I am able to experience this amazing place again!

A CANDID ASSESSMENT |

June 26, 2008

A CANDID ASSESSMENT
Name: Adrian B.
Posting date: 6/26/08
Stationed in: Afghanistan
Milblog: The Satirist at War

Popped down to the bazaar yesterday for one of my last patrols (if not the last patrol), and when I got back, the FOB* was abuzz with rumors of an impending visit from G1*, to inspect living conditions. This on the heels of a visit from IG* that had been prompted by someone who, according to rumor, had described living conditions on various FOBs and COPs* in our AO* as "deplorable," or something like that.

The first thing I'd like to point out is that I've seen deplorable living conditions a few times during my sojourn in the Army, and those instances have all had the following in common:

1) outside in the sand or mud
2) heavy precipitation
3) stinging / biting insects
4) lack of food and/or water

Our FOBs have beds, or at least cots, air conditioning, and well-prepared food. Who goes to Afghanistan and expects a four-star hotel? There's no pleasing some people, I suppose.

The next thing -- and this is important -- is: how did I know that G1 was coming for an inspection tomorrow? I guess the logic must be: "If they know we're coming, and they're s***'s jacked up, they're really bad."

I've seen this on countless occasions: A "Distinguished Visitor" will fly into the battlespace, we'll know far in advance, prepare a highly-scripted briefing, and said visitor will come away with our well-spun version of the truth, which is always more complicated than can effectively be summarized in a one-hour brief. And yet, General after General comes through, speaks to a few high-ranking officers that have been preparing for days to receive him, then leaves, beaming, full of satisfaction that he's doing a good job.

The military cannot hope for accurate and effective top-down assessments if this is allowed to continue. We are sabotaging ourselves and our ability to self-criticize effectively by choreographing this type of event. If I were a General, or a Congressman, and genuinely interested in soliciting honest battlefield reporting, this is what I'd do:

1) grab a blackhawk and an apache from a primary hub
2) fly, unannounced, around the battlespace, visiting COPs and FOBs in no particular pattern
3) spend 3 or 4 hours at a single location, and speak privately with a representative cross-section of NCOs* and low-level officers, before speaking with the commander.

Why? If nothing's going wrong, that'll show. If, on the other hand, there are corrections that need to be made, the time to identify those corrections is not during a powerpoint presentation from the very individual / individuals who have the most at stake.

In this fashion, we, the military, could identify problems before they spun out of control, rather than waiting for some tactical or strategic disaster and performing "After Action Reviews" to brainstorm solutions. Often, a serious military reversal is the last act in a long-unfolding drama.

Then again, institutional change is painful; if nothing's wrong, no change is necessary. And, of course, every individual in the institution has some vested interest in keeping things the same -- the closer you get to the top, the stronger the loyalty to the institution.

Few leaders succeed who question the institutional capacities and functions of the Army -- though to question those capacities should not automatically be construed as disloyalty. So you get to the top, and you're not thinking: "Is that 240B broken?" You're thinking: "I'm glad everyone's doing great out here. I'm going to get you more air conditioners."

My solution would be an independant arm of the military, with its own dedicated air assets, composed of three retired four-star generals / admirals per theater (with personal security detachments), who would be reinstated with full privilage of rank, and lifetime appointments similar to the independant judiciary we enjoy.

*
FOB: Forward Operating Base
G1: personnel staff
IG: Inspector General
COP: Command and Observation Post
AO: Area of Operations
NCO: Noncommissioned Officer

EUROPEAN INTERLUDE |

June 24, 2008

EUROPEAN INTERLUDE
Name: LT G
Posting date: 6/24/08
Stationed in: Iraq
Hometown: Reno, Nevada
Milblog: Kaboom: A Soldier's War Journal

In this post-modern world of war and famine, 24-hour news coverage, and emo music, it's easy to forget that something as ancient as romance can be true and pure and overwhelming and original and...right.

Big ups to Italia for the assist on that one.

Cue whirlwind week of possibility.

Greet LT Demolition in the airport with a fist-pound.

This place is weird he says.

I think we're the weird ones now.

Yeah. I guess you're right.

Scouts out. To the hostel we go where we find City Girl and The-Artist-Formerly-Known-As-She-Devil (inside joke, we're friends, I swear) watching soccer. Awkward hug.

Umm. Hi.

Hi. How was war?

Umm. Different. How was life?

Difficult.

Right.

Yeah.

Let's eat!

Then the tourist carnival; animal crackers of pandemonium all around. With pasta. I am Maximus Decimus Meridius at the Colosseum. I won't shave for my girlfriend, but I'll shave for the Pope, because you know, he's the freaking Pope. The real Pantheon, the one that doesn't include Captain Jack Sparrow.

And some creeks of flowing red wine. And an accordion dude. And singing hippies on the Spanish Steps.

And you know what? All things considered, this is pretty awesomely normal. Or is it normally awesome?

They both work.

Ahh, Italy. Onto Sienna. Romantic strolls through Tuscan plazas, under a flashlight moon that beams new hopes and old dreams alike.

For fuck's sake, I'm a sapstar.

And then, after a rainy day spent bantering underneath umbrellas, I say to hell with it. I love her and I love her now and I know that will not change so what am I waiting for? No sane woman would ever put up with you or a deployment or a mixture of both.

Good thing I'm not attracted to the sane.

Today is so much better than yesterday. And tomorrow is no guarantee. We both know that now. So yeah. Umm. I'm taking a walk. I need...nail clippers. Yes. Nail clippers. Gah woman, I know it's hailing water-bullets! I'll be right back. Tell Demolition to mind the house, I'm hunting and gathering here.

Alright. Swiped an example from her jewelry bag to get the right size. Now I need to find a ring shop that takes me seriously, despite my terrorist mutton-chops, baggy plaid shorts, and plain white tee. And no, I don't speak a lick of Italian. This should be interesting.

It was.

Wake up the next morning and check to make sure it's still in the hiding place. Safe as a hibernating bear. Okay. You sure about this? I'm pretty sure matters like this are pondered over. Let's ponder.

I always said I'd wait until I was 35. Well, after half-a-year in Iraq, I feel like I'm 35. Commitment issues with love don't really seem like such a big deal after you deal with commitment issues with life.

Okay. Fair enough. It's a little spontaneous, don't you think?

Yes. But the best decisions in your existence have been spontaneous. Writing for the school paper. Going to Wake. Becoming a fratdawg.

This is a slightly bigger deal. And by slightly, I mean massively.

Okay. How about being born? Ten weeks early, that was pretty spontaneous, and all things considered, it worked out for you. Same with getting baptized. You could over-think anything if you allowed yourself, too. Spontaneous action is the only reason you've ever accomplished anything. Ever.

Touche.

For two weeks, you danced on the blackest edge, and because you don't listen, made her do it, too. That will not happen again. It's okay, though. You survived the test, and grew up. It happens to the best of us, even those of us with hero complexes.

Now you know. For sure. For surest's sure.

Now we wait. For the right moment. The right place. The rightest right.

And try not to look like too nervous in the mean time. Stuttering like an idiot savant every time she asks you a simple question like please pass the salt isn't helping matters.

Frago. Venice is drenched in a hurricane, and we're not talking the metaphorical kind here. Good. Let's avoid that cliche. Let's stay on this coast. Onto the Cinque Terre! Lead the way Demolition and The-Artist-Formerly-Known-As-She-Devil. Me and City Girl, we're too busy being disgustingly stellar back here.

Don't let the haters hate. Appreciate.

Strolls along the beachfront. A long, winding lunch, and the barest of emotions shared overlooking the sprawling sea in colors too vivid for this world. And a sun just as fleeting as this holiday escape, teasing we mortals with forever rays.

The sapstar striketh anew.

And then it was. The next morning brings the verbal leaves, the crunchy summer-red ones that mean we must go our separate ways. Time. It waits. For no. One. Now or never. Never or now.

Night. A crescent moon, loaned to Italia by way of my Arab friends down yonder in the Cradle of Civilization. One last walk on the beach, letting the crashing waves speak for us in languages we don't need to understand. Deep breath. You can't mess this up, you Irish bastard. Back in the day, during all
those basketball games with the boys, you prided yourself on being the clutchest of the clutch, the little point guard with a champion's swagger and a first step to the left that could shake anyone.

Yeah, but this ain't basketball.

I'm still fucking clutch, though. Smoother than ice.

Pause at a bench. One last deep breath. Soak in the ivory skin and refined grace and fiery auburn hair and jade ovals and brimming idealism and natural intellect and unrelenting sass that initiated this domino rally of classical romance way back when.

What follows is a word-valentine that I won't share, out of deference to all things personal. Even in the internet age, privacy can and should exist. All you need to know is her response:

I absolutely will.

Revoke my man-card. I could care less. Hearts explode in millennial fireworks that know no limitations of time. Viva. This.

All's fair. In love and...what's that last part, again?

ADJUSTMENTS |

June 20, 2008

ADJUSTMENTS     
Name: SFC Toby Nunn   
Posting date: 6/20/08
Returned from: Kuwait/Iraq
Hometown: Oakland, CA via Terrace, B.C. CANADA
Milblog url: Toby Nunn's Briefing Room

I have been back about a week now and life is good. Of course there are the little things that you think that you won't have to experience, or that are not applicable to you, and then there they are. Like many people coming home I am experiencing adjustments.

The first and foremost is me forgetting who I am talking to and with. SFC Nunn was a supervisor and definitely in charge, while Toby is a bystander in the house. Household 6 has been me at the house, so now I am out of my element and deep in hers. I am enjoying being with the kids, but with that comes constant lessons about everything I need to know. It's exciting to participate in that but also humbling to see how the better half just breezes through so many different things.

Framed_nunn_with_kids_2 Priorities are different. I am a mission-focused man and we are about to have a serious family movement. Of course to me it's just that -- a movement (mission) -- so I have been planning it as such, with timelines, and tasks to supporting units, and with a beautiful scheme of maneuver that I know will not happen. I need to remember that the family does not understand a five-paragraph Operations Order, nor my need to make one.

I stand by my ability to take a task and accomplish it because that's what I know to do, and I expect that when I am tasked, one knows I get it done. So when I task people I expect the same. SFC Nunn can issue repercussions when important things get neglected or not accomplished, but Toby really can't do or say "squat" about it.

The sleeping is getting better, but I attribute that to there being an infant in the house that allows us to keep limited sleep schedules. I am still running at 70 mph and I am not sure when I will slow down, but it is helping me accomplish all that I have to do in a very short amount of time.

I have been able to incorporate visits with friends into task accomplishment, and doing group visits. I was able to see my good friend Nick on his lunch, then swing by to see Chris afterwards while rushing around picking things up. Today I am going to disguise a trip to Starbucks to see Cody, one of my favorite former PLs, and I'm using a party on the weekend to close a lot of other loops. One, which I am so excited for, is getting to hang with my Web Wizard Tim.

 

LEAVING ROCKETMIYAH |

June 18, 2008

LEAVING ROCKETMIYAH
Name: Gruntshit
Posting date: 6/18/08
Stationed in: Iraq
Hometown: Clarkston, Washington
Milblog
: The Angry American

We made if off of Rocketmiya. We made it off and trust me, haaj gave us a pretty sweet send off.

We had our CIB (Combat Infantry Badge) ceremony early on in the afternoon. The SGM and BC had just finished with my Squad and started on 3rd when I hear the faint but familiar screeching of a rocket flying over head. The alarm failed to register that one until it hit, and I laughed out loud and thought to myself, "Hell ya! Our platoon would get rocketed during the CIB ceremony." The SGM yelled out "Incoming!" just as the siren started to blare. We all broke ranks and hauled ass for cover, most of us laughing. Simmons was right behind me and I yelled "Stay away from me you son of a bitch!" He laughed and said "What?" I know those fucking rockets follow that asshole.

With rockets done and exploded we finished up the ceremony and moved along the streets to eat our final lunch at the haaj restaurant.

Later that day we finished cleaning and the 1SG came by inspected rooms and we moved out to the assembly area. We loaded our rucks onto a truck and then moved to the helo pad. There were over 100 of us moving in a single file line with body armor, helmets, weapons, and assault packs, a single file line that stretched at least 200m.

Suddenly: WAAAAA WAAAAA WAAA INCOMING INCOMING INCOMING. With one bunker in sight we made a mad dash to it as we heard the rockets scream over and impact nearby. A rocket makes a distinct sound when it reaches its final destination. It's weird. It's like a crushing sound followed by boomness. With all this shit on not all of us could make it in, and we hunkered outside.

With that close call behind us we finally made it to the pad. As we waited, haaj decided that one more attack would be nice and we heard the sirens again and close. It was if someone was calling in our movements as once again the rockets impacted nearby. One final rocket attack at Rocketmiyah, no one hurt and we were waiting for the birds. You know who I was standing by every fucking time??? Simmons. That's right! Simmons the fucking rocket magnet. He told me I didn't have to worry, that he was good luck. I had to remind him of the guy running behind him from the rocket attack a couple of days ago that caught a hot piece in the back.

Every time we could hear the chop of the rotor blades people would cheer. Then we would realize they weren't ours and everyone would sigh. It was kinda like a big rollercoaster ride. Eventually the birds landed and we boarded, everyone hoping the bird would take off soon to avoid any rockets if haaj cared to share again. The bird pulled power and lifted into the night and the cabin erupted with cheers as we were off.

No more Rocketmiyah. Right now we are in limbo in transit, waiting for that big bird to send us into Can'tWait. I won't say where, though if you've been to Iraq you know. I will say that they have a big PX (not as big as the big big PX nearby) and the church of Flame Broil. I still have the after taste of Whopper lingering on my taste buds. Maybe not so much lingering as dancing and playing and making love to my tongue. Ahhhhhhhhhhhh.

Not too much longer folks, and the big National Lampoon's Iraqi Vacation will be a not so distant memory. My days of sitting on the porch sippin' my Sweet Iced Tea with my wife and kids in SC are just down the street.

Until then...

DEUCE DEUCE OUT!!!!!

Framed_gruntshit_waiting

Waiting for that big bird...

MAY I HAVE THIS DANCE? |

June 16, 2008

MAY I HAVE THIS DANCE?
Name: Owen Powell
Posting date: 6/16/08
Returned from: Iraq
Stationed in: Fort Hamilton, NY
Blog url: opowell.wordpress.com

(Longtime Sandbox readers will know Owen Powell as SGT "Roy Batty", the nom de post under which he filed many compelling pieces during his Iraq deployment. We welcome his return to the site.)

I spent most of last year and a decent-size chunk of the year before in Iraq. For the last half of that sojourn I was stationed at a combat outpost on the east side of Baghdad.

That may sound impressive in a military sort of way, but it actually consisted of being locked up in a burned-out shell of a building surrounded by several hundred thousand deeply antagonistic Iraqis, many of whom had fervently tried to kill me on a number of occasions, and nearly succeeded once, as proved by the hole in my helmet.

As if being hated by my neighbors wasn’t bad enough, the outpost was severely limited in amenities. Well, perhaps “amenities” is too positive a word; how about severely limited in the basic necessities of life?

And love? There isn’t a whole lot of love floating around Baghdad, particularly when you have an American flag on your shoulder and you’re driving seven tons of armor along the local alleyways. No, my concern was much more tangible and, at the outpost, apparently just as unlikely to be fulfilled.

For the first two months of my “lease,” there was no electric power or running water. The ground floor had been torched in the ecstatic looting at the start of the war, and the walls were charred with a thick black soot.

The basement was choked with algae-green water, diesel fuel and sewage. The medics had pulled out at least two bloated corpses the first week we moved in, and we were reasonably sure that there were others down there, judging by the odor.

Daytime temperatures exceeded 120 degrees, which gives you an idea of just how appealing that smell was. I didn’t smell much better. I got a shower every 6 to 12 days, depending on luck and whether the little inflatable shower tent had sprung another leak.

Meals consisted of the execrable MREs, which we often wolfed down to the chorus of incoming mortar rounds.

It was everything I had ever hoped to experience in the military. It really was. Not that I would ever choose to do it again.

I would stagger in from a six-hour patrol, peel off my grease-slicked 80 pounds of body armor, ammunition, grenades and assorted firearms, and collapse on my rickety aluminum cot. Privacy was unknown, as was air-conditioning. I would lie on the cot, listen to the competing voices of 600 or so of my closest friends, stare at the bone-gray concrete ribs of the ceiling, and let sleep flow into me.

If I was lucky, I would dream of Natalie Portman. Lord only knows why, but again and again she walked through my subconscious: serene, unsullied, good, like honeysuckle on a cool summer night.

Now I’m not some pimply fanboy in camouflage. I’m married, devoted to my wife. I have a home and a dog named Winston who loves me as only a black Lab can.

It wasn’t even that my dreams of Natalie were particularly notable, at least not in the usual soldier sense of notable. It was the texture within the dreams that mattered, and how that flowed into the rotisserie hell of another Baghdad morning.

She and I would have dinner in a darkened restaurant, somewhere hip and stratospherically expensive, thick with the smell of polished wood. The swirling flashbulb-pop taste of something unpronounceable on my tongue; looking up, smiling and feeling the shivering joy of having her laugh at a witticism of mine.

That smile! I had seen it a hundred times, on movie screens, on television sets, that sudden heart-skip pulse stabbing from glimpsing her image on a magazine stand.

Guarding an Iraqi police station in the glare of the midday sun, my carbine ready for the next catastrophe, I would cradle that smile in my mind, cherish it, grasp at it even as it faded and blurred and swam out of focus.

Dancing together, somewhere crowded, humid with perfume, the electronic beat of the music, and the pulse of a foreign city. The air twisting with a sort of water-shimmer light. Strobes, laser beams, the lightning-fast shot of an impossibly high cheekbone, frozen for a glimpsed eternity; the suggested promise of Natalie’s eyes, intoxicating, piercing.

Dreams of dancing? I can’t dance at all. Still, who am I to argue with my subconscious? Some people fly in their dreams — in mine, I dance.

I clung to those visions. Out on patrol, encased in the steel and Kevlar frame of the Humvee, my ears buzzing with the tinny voices on the radio, I eyed the burqa-clad locals outside the thick locked door, along with every single piece of roadside refuse.

In the Humvee, I searched for that elusive image of Natalie from the night before; I hunted for her through the blood-warm passages of my mind, chased the feeling of her down tunnels collapsing with the weight of status reports and threat conditions.

The thick brushstroke of a single arched eyebrow. A glance across that crowded dance floor, somehow simultaneously sharp and accusatory and mesmerizing. It was as if I had something secret and untouchable that was wholly mine, a delicate and perfect gift in a city that seemed to feast on hate.

My reveries weren’t all Lifetime TV romance, though. In a personal touch, sometimes the dream would be of losing her, or of desperate searches unfulfilled. The breakup argument in the spotless white penthouse apartment. Recriminations, tears. Running down rain-slicked city streets, locked doors, impassive doormen, and always that perfect angelic face; leaving with someone else, or seen in a blank stare through a limousine window.

Life on Baghdad streets is dominated by boredom, paroxysms of anger and the constant throbbing beat of resentment. Hatred and rage boil up from the shell-pocked concrete — you can feel yourself changing, morphing, becoming mean.

Even the specter of losing Natalie Portman was better than that; even the memory of imaginary heartache is preferable to the slow feeling of turning into a vampire. Perhaps it is the curse of all men; the sad final truth that the male half of the human race might only confide in one another over a few too many beers: you only truly love a woman when she walks out the door.

But like I said, none of the details really mattered. What mattered was that I would wake up in that green morass of mosquito nets, amid the faint ichor glow of the chemlights, and for one long delicious moment, I would not know where I was.

The logical waking side of me worried a bit about this imaginary romance playing out inside me. Was I losing it? Was this some bizarre form of post-traumatic stress disorder, forgotten from the field manuals, omitted from the obligatory psych journals? Wasn’t it bad enough that I was trying to hold together a marriage across 5,000 miles through crackling cellphone calls in the middle of the night or, wonder of wonders, Yahoo Messenger?

But my obsession wasn’t so strange. After all, we live in a world where we are more familiar with Britney Spears’s parenting skills than those of our next-door neighbor. Human beings have always set beauty upon a pedestal through paintings, sculpture or literature, and moreover we covet what we see every day. Classic art may have faded in the last 100 years, but the archetypes of beauty have merely been repackaged, reinvented — far more effectively than Botticelli could ever have imagined.

We are told exactly what we should look like, whom we should be, and most important, whom we should desire. The cultural legends of our past have faded, and now Hollywood packages the new deities in digital halos.

It’s almost a year later and I’m home now, home in the larger sense of the United States, instead of in the suspect sense of the world at large. Baghdad has receded in my mind, remembered now only by the names of my dead friends, tattooed forever on my arm.

Most improbably, I’m here in New York, an offhand and completely unexpected gift of the Army. Thanks for getting shot; we’re sending you to Brooklyn. I didn’t know if I should laugh or ... well, laugh some more. It’s everything a soldier could ask for. No field training. Home every night. Easy duty.

Best of all, non-deployable — that legendary status combat vets dream of (at least any vet with a shred of common sense). No one trying to kill you. I get a nice rent-free three-bedroom house, plenty of parking, in New York. Culture and entertainment and handmade cannoli. Plenty of time to explore. Someone even told me that Natalie lives somewhere around here.

Problem is, I don’t dream about her anymore. Ten years ago I would spend my weekends flinging myself out of airplanes; now I spend Saturdays on the couch with the wife. I remember Friday nights roaring though Seoul on my motorcycle, blitzed and helmetless and immortal; now my free-time adventures are on an Xbox. Worst of all, I feel reasonably happy with the shifting winds of domesticity.

Call it the double-edged sword of contentment.

This is my new reality. Working the graveyard shift, alone. Sitting in my patrol car on the bluff above the water, I watch the cargo ships slide silently past in the silver-white light of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. Smoke what seems like my hundredth Camel of the night. Take another sip of lukewarm convenience-store coffee. Yawn the edge of sleep from my eyes; I know it holds no wonders for me tonight.

Staring across the cold water, I feel the end out there, somewhere, sidling past the buildings across the river, circling in. Not death — something subtly worse, in its own way. The growing certainty:

I will probably never dance the lambada with Natalie Portman.


This piece was originally published in The New York Times.

Here are links to some of Owen Powell's previous Sandbox posts:

THE DOG    1/18/07

GOT THEM IP BLUES   1/30/07

THE KEEP   3/8/07

THE TERMITE MOUND  4/23/07

BONKERS   7/26/07

A SUPRISINGLY HARD TIME     8/24/07

REMEMBER   10/26/07

OUT HERE IN THE WILDS |

June 13, 2008

OUT HERE IN THE WILDS
Name:
LT G
Posting date
: 6/13/08

Stationed in: Iraq
Hometown
: Reno, Nevada
Milblog: Kaboom: A Soldier's War Journal

I’d brushed aside the informal inquiries for months now. No, not me. Not interested. Keep me on the line. I want nothing to do with a lateral promotion to XO (Executive Officer) that involves becoming a logistical whipping boy and terminal scapegoat for all things NOTGOODENOUGH. I’ve been out here in the wilds too long, dealing with matters of life and death, to go back to Little America for PowerPoint pissing matches. Not me. I’m that too skinny, crazy-eyed mustang who drives a hippie van with a McGovern bumper sticker and keeps his hair long and actually read the counterinsurgency manual rather than pretending he did, even quoting it during meetings and out in sector in this era of recentralized warfare, remember? You aren't gonna break me, no matter how enticing the fires of the FOB are.

Semper Gumby.

I guess they forgot, and instead focused on matters of competency. Cue outright offer.

Cue LT G “thanks but no thanks” response.

Cue illogical backlash from higher, acting like a spurned teenage blonde whose dreamboat crush tells her point-blank that he prefers brunettes.

Q finding myself on the literal and metaphorical carpet of multiple field-grades, sometimes explaining, sometimes listening.

Mostly listening.

Yes, Sir. I’m getting out. No, I’m sure. Definitely sure. Surer than sure. What am I going to do? Don’t tell him Option A, he’ll scoff at Option A. He believes dreams are only for children. Option B will suffice. Well Sir, I’m going to go back to school, somewhere on the East Coast. Haven’t decided if I’ll focus on the Spanish Civil War or Irish History yet, though. I think I’d be a pretty good wacky professor. I already like to ramble and I look good in banana yellow clip-on ties. Sir.

No, Sir. I’m not saying that at all. I would absolutely bust my ass as an XO, and perform the job to the best of my ability. I’m just saying I’d be screwing a peer of mine, who is staying in, and could use this professional development, benefiting both him and the big Army in the long run. Uncle Sam agrees with me.

No Sir, I don’t think I’m selling myself short. Recognizing one’s own weaknesses isn’t a weakness in and of itself. Crushing balls is only my thing with people who aren’t wearing an American uniform.

If I throw enough clutter in the way, something will stick.

This is the Army, son. Your opinion doesn't matter.

Roger. Acknowledged. I figured I'd proffer it, just in case.

You need to start thinking big picture, Lieutenant. That’s what officers do.

I roll out of the wire everyday to bask in a third-world cesspool craving my attention for nothing more than the most basic human need -- hope. Is there a bigger picture than that, or just different vantage points from safer distances?

Yes Sir, I will remember to think things out more rationally next time. (Pause long enough to make the point that this was already a well-thought out decision.) Of course. Sir.

No Sir, this isn’t just because I want to stay with my platoon. (Maintain eye contact so he doesn’t think you’re lying, for the love of God, maintain eye contact!) I won’t lie though, Sir -- it was a factor. Just not my motivation.

Nice work, liar.

Another reason? Well, Sir, two of my best friends in the world are LT Virginia Slim and LT Demolition. If I were to become their XO, I would be extremely uncomfortable with possibly having to order them and their men to their deaths. As their peer, I should be right there next to them. Hell, I probably would insist on it.

Yes, I know that was a good point. Don’t say that out loud. Don’t say that out loud. Phew. That was a close one. I almost out-louded rather than in-loaded.

Yes Sir, I have full confidence in my platoon to be able to succeed without me. SFC Big Country would be more than capable of performing the job of a platoon leader. But he’s an NCO. He shouldn’t have to deal with lieutenant bullshit. That’s my bullshit to deal with. I’m the soldier’s buffer. (Cough. From you. Cough.) If a butterbar were here, I’d understand. That’s the natural order of things. But since an opening occurred without a backlog, I really strongly really definitely really definitively believe that it should go to a LT who wants it. Hell, there are some of them out there who NEED it. Aren’t I being a team player here?

The ballad of a thin man walking a thin rope. Moonwalking a thinly-veiled rejection of his superiors’ life decisions. Wondering why they are taking it personally. People are different. They want different things out of existence. Let’s not act like I’m a ring of Saturn stating the case that Pluto’s planethood should be reconfirmed.

Don’t fall on your sword, Lieutenant. No one likes a martyr.

Can’t help it, I’m Irish. And. Yes. They do.

Fine, I’m not going to make you do it. (Even though I spent three days trying to do so.) But you are now on my shit-list, and I want to fuck you over for daring to defy and defying to dare. A bullshit tasking will eventually come down the pipeline, and I got a rubber stamp with your name on it. And yes, I know your performance has been outstanding, and we have consistently rated you above your peers, at the top echelon. Doesn’t matter now.

You’re right. It doesn’t. Doesn’t matter at all. Even if I’ve only haggled a few more months with the Gravediggers, it was worth it; I came here to fight a war, not to build a resume. My men need me. And. I need them. It would have been worth it for a few more days.

Victory.

Mustangs don’t blink.

You know where we learned how not to?

It wasn’t behind a desk.

Every day of free-roaming makes it worth it.

BACK IN THE USA |

June 11, 2008

BACK IN THE USA
Name: Old Blue
Posting date: 6/11/08
Returned from: Afghanistan
Milblog: Bill and Bob's Excellent Afghan Adventure

Coming home is an adventure all its own.

The final flight out of Afghanistan, for us, was on a C-130. The C-130, a four-engine turboprop whale, is a slow and torturous ride to go the distance from Kabul to Qatar, where we boarded a C-17 for the short hop to Kuwait, from which we embarked on a civilian charter that took us through Germany and then to New Jersey and finally Kansas.

In Kansas the whirlwind of out-processing started in earnest. There were briefings followed by a welcome home ceremony in a gymnasium, attended by a few officers and NCOs who had been responsible for training us to go to Afghanistan, and the few families who had been able to make the trip to Ft Riley. The days that followed brought a myriad of out-processing tasks; medical, dental, turning in equipment, turning in our personal weapons, briefings about everything from our re-employment rights to dealing with post traumatic stress and the difficulties of reunions and readjustment to the family.

And spending the last few days that we would ever spend with a group of men with whom we had shared a lot over the course of the past fifteen months.

There was a lot of joking around, a bit of celebrating; some evenings were spent together. Some of the men's families had made the trip to Kansas to greet their warriors and welcome them home. Most of us had to wait to see our families, but it was only a few days. The good people at Ft Riley did all they could to speed us through our out-processing and move us on to our final destinations.

But we were still in our little enclave. While we were mentally breaking our ties with this ad-hoc organization, we were still just our little group. We were looking forward to our own reunions, towards returning to our individual lives. We were from many states, and each of us would go our separate way, beginning to live what had been normal to us.

I don't know about the rest of the guys, but it will never be quite the same again for me.

Everyone flew home via Kansas City. When I arrived at the airport, I had very little time to get checked in and get to the gate. Kansas City is a small airport, and it's a short trip from the ticket counter to the gates. The good people from Homeland Security carefully scrutinized my military ID and I moved towards the metal detector. Mind you I was wearing my newly donned Combat Infantry Badge, but I forgot the foil on the tobacco in the lower leg pocket and tripped the machine twice, and was slowly and carefully subjected to The Drill, a maneuver which many travelers have performed.

My uniform and accompanying bona fides had no affect on the defenders of our homeland. I was clearly up to no good, and my heinous plot had to be foiled.

I doffed my combat boots, had my feet carefully wanded, and then the full body wanding was artfully performed. This was followed by an equally artful full body pat-down, whereupon I was informed that I was cleared to proceed home. At just this moment my name was called over the intercom to report to the gate immediately for final boarding.

I was lacing my boots as quickly as I could when one of the HSA employees, an underutilized astrophysicist on loan from NASA, decided that my carry on bag had to be hand-screened. I was carefully maintaining my cool, but I was just about to lose my mind.

"Are you insane?" I asked the young Herbert Dingle reincarnate. "See my name tag? They just called me to the gate, and this guy just cleared me."

"This will only take a moment. They won't leave without you," he asserted.

"Yes, they will. They have no idea that I'm here. I have four children waiting for me in Cincinnati," I pled.

He was carefully examining my doxycycline, mentally evaluating the explosive potential as he slowly rotated the bottle at eye level.

"Those are my anti-malarial pills," I said, careful not to raise my voice or appear hostile.

The supervisor arrived and casually leaned on one of the posts. "We really appreciate your service, sir."

"Really?" I asked, restraining myself from having a post-Afghan meltdown, "Cause you're not acting like it. I just spent a year fighting actual terrorists, and you're treating me like I'm one of them."

One of the junior astrophysicists ran off to inform the gate personnel that I was being detained and would be there shortly. She was the only one of them who really seemed interested in whether or not the appreciation of my service included actually being permitted to make my flight.

I finally boarded the plane and they immediately shut the door behind me after cordially greeting me. I found my way to my seat and was relieved to see that the plane was perhaps a third full. I had the two seats to myself. Very pleasant.

The flight attendant was very solicitous and took very good care of me on the flight to Cincinnati. The flight was uneventful. As the descent to Cincinnati began, the flight attendant made the normal announcement and then mentioned that I was coming home. The passengers applauded.

We landed and taxied to the island terminal. From this terminal you must board a shuttle bus to go the main terminal and make your way to the baggage claim. I was in a huge hurry to see my children, to be home.

As I made my way towards the shuttle boarding area, there was an airport employee who was providing assistance to people who needed to make connecting flights. I needed no such assistance, but as I made my way around this woman, she stepped out.

"Excuse me," she said.

I changed direction and tried to go on my way.

"Excuse me," she said again, stepping in front of me.

Knowing that no one had any reason to stop me, but not wanting to be unkind, I stopped, exasperated.

"I cannot allow you to pass..." (I'm about to revert to my basic infantry training) "without shaking your hand and thanking you for your service."

"You're welcome," I said, shaking her hand.

Puff of smoke. I was on my way as quickly as I could.

The long walk from the outer terminal to the baggage claim area was the last obstacle. I traversed it as quickly as possible, and as I neared the end, I could see a little girl hopping kangaroo-like. It was my five year old daughter, who was very excited. My total focus was riveted on her.

At that moment, I was passing an airline pilot who was walking in the same direction. He reached over and grabbed my shoulder and said, "Welcome home. Thanks for your service."

I was so totally focused on my daughter, I'm not sure that I even acknowledged him.

My thirteen year old son was beaming. My two year old son appeared excited, too; but I'm not sure if he really understood what was happening or was simply under the influence of the excitement of the others. I ran the last few steps, shedding my laptop bag and backpack, and knelt to hug my daughter and son, oblivious to the rest of the passengers passing through the terminal. My eyes stung.

Sweetness.

It was now real. It was over. The Afghan journey was over, and I was back in the arms of my children.

Readjustment is a difficult thing. The time change has really struck me since I got back home. The kids are just starting to get used to having me around. I've got projects to take care of as well. There is a lot to do.

It's weird, too.

Just a few weeks ago I was in the hinterlands of Afghanistan, aware of the local goings-on and the changes that were happening. I was aware of the reports of this Taliban leader and that village swinging one way or another, of what our next step was with the local ANP. Now I'm back in Ohio, and nobody cares about any of that.

It's weird.

I took my children to the mall the week after I arrived back home. I've repeated many times the quote, "America isn't at war. The military is at war. America is at the mall." As I drove towards the mall with my little ones in the their car seats, it occurred to me that I was on my way to the mall now, too. How odd. I laughed to myself.

But I am not one of them. They cannot see it, but I'm not one of them. I have been at war, and part of me is still there. Perhaps that's what we're actually purchasing with our time spent over there; the peace of mind for people to go to the mall and not think of Afghanistan or Iraq unless they see a report on the news.

I got an email this morning from Jacques Pulvier, who is still in Afghanistan and should be leaving in the next couple of weeks, telling of one of the teams that replaced our old team in the Tag Ab Valley, sometimes called the Tagab Valley. They had gotten into a fight there yesterday, and I could picture exactly where that ambush had happened; one of the places where they like to ambush us there in the valley.

Part of me will always be able to picture that area, that valley, the people, the khalats, the riverbed, the fingers that pointed from the mountain at the villages along the newly paved road. The Ala Sai District center that you can see from the town of Tag Ab; it would take nearly a half an hour to get there and as many as three ambushes to get back.

There are still people who I know working in that valley. There is more work to do there. It is the changing of the guard, though. There are new people, new teams, a new division.

Jacques has run his last mission into that valley, thank God. He's about to return from our forgotten war, another single victory; a live American soldier who has been there, done his best, and returned.

HAMID SAYS FAREWELL |

June 09, 2008

HAMID SAYS FAREWELL
Name: CAPT Doug Traversa
Posting date: 6/9/08
Returned from: Afghanistan
Milblog: Afghanistan Without A Clue

It was over a year ago that Hamid and I had our last conversation and said our goodbyes. We have kept in touch sporadically by e-mail, but Hamid’s notes are usually short, as he is not comfortable with e-mail. Perhaps one day we will meet again, but he was very disappointed to hear I would be retiring soon and would not get to come to Afghanistan again. Here are my notes on the last two meals we shared:

Hamid was able to come by for lunch, so he, Drew, and I sat down for another philosophical discussion. Drew and I talked about all the great things we were looking forward to once we got back home. I told them how beautiful Germany was (I lived there for three years) and how it was green year-round. Drew was unaware that there is grass that stays green even in the winter (yes, there is) and then we both talked at length about real rolls and bread with real butter.

Yes, our minds were elsewhere. We could barely bring ourselves to eat anymore. The quality of food had been going down steadily, and it would be good to leave. I intended to eat large quantities of pizza and many hamburgers when I got home.

Drew left after a while, and Hamid and I discussed his marriage prospects again. His sister-in-law knew someone who was a possible potential wife candidate.

“Do you know her?” I asked.

“No."

“Will you get to meet her?”

“Probably not.”

“Won’t you get to talk to her, get to know her?”

“No. I will get to see her once, that’s probably all.”

I wasn’t really surprised, but I’ve been a lot more candid with Hamid lately. “That’s stupid. I can’t think of any other word for it. You are expected to marry someone you don’t even know, and you can’t get a divorce if she turns out to be a monster? That’s just crazy.”

Hamid tended to agree, but what could he do? “Sir, I was talking to my friend who is married, and he is not happy. He says I should be happy to be single, because I can do what I want, spend money the way I wish, and I don’t have to take care of a wife.”

"That’s a good point,” I agreed. “If you do decide to get married, it is very important that you do it for the right reasons. If you are just getting married to be able to have sex, you will probably have a bad marriage. It is important that you want to put your wife first. If you have children, they must be a priority too. You can’t keep living like you are single. If you do, the marriage will fail.

“The problem is that you don’t even get to know the girl, so you may have nothing at all in common.  If your choice is marrying someone you don’t know, or staying single, I’d stay single.”

“So what do you think I should do?” he asked.

“Do everything you can to get to America.”

“How would I find a girl in America?”

“You’d have to go on dates, talk to girls, get to know them. Would you be willing to date and marry a non-Muslim?”

He immediately shook his head. “No.”

“Well, you might as well just stay here then. Frankly, I have no advice for you, other than staying single.

"Unless you can actually find stuff out about this girl, and really determine if you two would be a good match, I’d say you shouldn’t get married. If she turns out to be a bad person, you whole life is ruined. Do you want to take that risk?”

He looked crestfallen. “No, I suppose not.”

The next day Hamid came by for what turned out to be our last lunch together, though we didn’t know it at the time. He talked a great deal about how sad he was, yet he always kept a smile on his face. He was making friends with the new team, and he seemed in good spirits. We talked more about his marriage prospects, but I’ll keep most of it between us. He did manage to surprise me one last time, when he told me the girl he might marry was 15.

Of course, that is pretty normal over here, and in many places girls this young are married off to men in their 40s and 50s. I think she will be getting a very good husband, so the age difference is not a big deal (Hamid is in his late 20s). If this happened in the states, people would be shocked and outraged. Over here, she is a very lucky girl, assuming they do get married. I hope it all works out; too bad I can’t be here to see the wedding.

I walked him to the front gate, largely in silence. What do we say after all we’ve been through, all we’ve shared (and you haven’t heard a tenth of it). He’s been able to talk to me about anything and everything, and I with him. I told him that’s the type of relationship he should try to develop with his wife, as I have with mine. She is the one person I can confide in and share anything with. He is hopeful he can have a wife like that too.

We got to the gate, I hugged him and told him I’d miss him, and then the guards frisked him and let him pass. That may be the last time I see him. Ever. May you find happiness, my friend.

It turned out that we never met again. I did call him one last time to say goodbye, but he was not able to get out and see us off. For security reasons, I could not tell him when we were leaving. Months after my return home, I received an e-mail from a heartbroken Hamid. His mother had lied about trying to arrange a marriage, and one of Hamid’s friends ended up marrying the girl Hamid wanted to marry.

This was the last straw for Hamid, who had been willing to stay in Afghanistan to support his family. After this betrayal, he decided to try to immigrate. I wish him the best, and hope he can make it here.

RETURN TO SENDER |

June 05, 2008

RETURN TO SENDER
Name: Colby Buzzell
Posting date: 6/5/08
Returned from: Iraq
Hometown: San Francisco, CA
Milblog: My War

When I voluntarily enlisted in the Army, I remember asking my recruiter about the fine print on the contract about being called back up to active duty once my enlistment was completed. He assured me not to worry, that every contract said that and it would only happen if "World War III" broke out.

That was a little over five years ago. After serving in Iraq, I elected to use my GI Bill to enroll in a photography course at San Francisco City College. I felt good, and I had a feeling that the days to come were all going to be good as well.

On way out of my building two weeks ago, I checked my mailbox and found a letter from the Department of the Army with "Important Document" printed in all caps on the middle. I immediately felt sick, so I went back to my room, locked the door, grabbed a beer from the fridge and stared out my window for a while.

People outside were all wearing sunglasses and walking about enjoying the sun. I took a picture.

I got out of the Army three long years ago, and since then I've never really talked ill of the military, the people in it, or expressed any regrets at all about enlisting. If I had to do it all over again, I honestly would have. Granted, I got lucky and made it back with all my body parts intact. If I hadn't, my answer might be a little bit different than what it is now.

As terrible as this might sound, whenever someone asks me about enlisting, I'm tempted to encourage them. I figure that the more people who enlist, the slimmer the chances that I'll get called back up. But of course this is ridiculous: No one in their right mind would enlist now, whereas I've already signed the papers. I'm now going back to Iraq for a second time because people like me -- existing service members -- are the only people at the Army's disposal.

Looking back, would I have joined the military if I were doing something that I loved? Or had a job that paid $100,000 a year? Probably not. Those are the men and women I feel that we need to mail these letters to.

Let's see what happens when they receive letters telling them to put on a uniform and ship out immediately to the front lines in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Many people believe that the draft ended the Vietnam War. I'm convinced that reinstating the draft would definitely end this war. Rich, connected people will always find a way to evade mandatory service, but what about the rest of America? The middle class -- people with good jobs and nice lives -- would perhaps riot if the government even suggested that it expected from them what the Army expects from veterans.

What if there were a war and none of the veterans who were called up showed up?

Every time when I hear about a soldier's death now -- which is always reported very briefly -- there always seems to be a short mention that it was the soldier's second or third deployment, and now my name might be among them.

I know I won't get any sympathy at all from the "you dumb ass you signed the contract!" crowd, which is fine, but I really was looking forward to applying my GI Bill to photography classes so I could learn how to take pictures. But now, thanks to not enough Americans volunteering for military service, I have to worry about my picture appearing on the second or third page of my hometown paper with the words, "it was his second deployment" in my obituary.


Colby Buzzell proudly served as an infantryman in the U.S. Army and participated in Operation Iraqi Freedom 2003-04. He is the author of My War: Killing Time in Iraq, for which he won the Lulu Blooker prize in 2007. He lives in San Francisco and spends his free time going on long walks with his camera.

Note: This post was previously published in the San Francisco Chronicle.

THE BON JOVI IED |

June 04, 2008

THE BON JOVI IED
Name: LT G.
Posting date: 6/4/08
Stationed in: Iraq
Hometown: Reno, Nevada
Milblog: Kaboom: A Soldier's War journal

O Dark Thirty. Memorial Day weekend, not that any of us were really aware of that at the time. Patrolling up and down Route Daytona, the highway stretch that serves as the logistical spinal column for the massive American body draped across this part of Iraq.

“Gravedigger 1, this is X-Ray.” My entire vehicle groaned along with me. Radio calls at this time of night rarely bring good news.

I responded and waited for the details for the latest goat symphony we needed to conduct. “Roger ... Move south, to Checkpoint AL5. There’s a convoy that has come to a halt on the far side of that checkpoint ... Claims they see a box with some wires coming out of it. They need someone to check it out.”

The obvious question followed, on my end. “They can’t check it out themselves? If it's bad enough for them to totally stop, why haven't they called EOD*?”

The TOC*-roach on the other end of the radio just snickered. “It’s a super convoy of fobbits, making their once-a-year run between FOBs*. So no, no they can’t check it out themselves.”

I just shook my head and relayed the FRAGO* to my platoon. SSG Boondock began chuckling from the back of the Stryker. “Good Christ, it has gotta be bad when the dude in the TOC is busting their chops.”

Prophetic words. The Gravediggers rolled up to the checkpoint, and SSG Bulldog slurred in disgust.

“’Dose mutha fuckas, they on the other side of the checkpoint. They keep beaming us and shit, but none of ‘em are on the ground. How the fuck can they even see anything from where they at? They too far away!”

“That’s why we’re here,” I said. “See you on the ground. We’ll check it out for them.”

Now, we don’t make it a habit of clearing possible IEDs on foot, but as we moved up dismounted to the location in question, we couldn’t help ourselves. We’ve seen IEDs of various sorts, up-close-and-personal. They don’t usually resemble broken banana crates.

While SFC Big Country took a fire team to go inform the super convoy that all was clear, SSG Boondock picked up the pieces of the crate and started pelting SPC Tunnel Rat, while using every colorful epithet for “pogue” imaginable. We still hadn’t found the reported wires though, and I knew that question would inevitably be asked, whether anyone blew up or not. I retraced our steps to the north, bent over, and picked up a long, dangling chord connected to a small squarish piece of plastic.

Cassette tape spool. Spool connected to a cassette tape. A cassette tape that contained the immortal, profound words of ... Bon Jovi?

Things that make you go. What. The. Fuck.

Why won't the Eighties die?

Kaboom.

After asking the soldiers if any of them wanted a vintage copy of Slippery When Wet, I tossed New Jersey’s finest to the side of the road. I told everyone to mount back up, and found my platoon sergeant returning from the south side of the checkpoint.

“They have anything to say?” I asked.

SFC Big Country laughed. “Yeah. They said ‘Thanks.’”

“What, those mutha fuckas’ don’t own no flashlights?” SSG Bulldog was talking to himself again. “What the fuck?”

“It could be worse,” SSG Boondock offered, as we traipsed back to our vehicles. “We could’ve called EOD for a banana crate and a cassette tape.”

PV2 Hot Wheels started busting out the chorus to Bon Jovi’s “Wanted Dead or Alive,” something that the rest of the soldiers either joined in on or started booing. We got back on our respective Strykers, and I called for Redcon statuses.

“This, uhh, Gravedigger 2,” SSG Bulldog drawled. “We Redcon 1.”

“Gravedigger 1, this is Gravedigger 3, we're Redcon 1!” SSG Boondock burst.

“This is 4,” SFC Big Country thundered. “Let's roll.”

“On your move 2,” I said, watching the wheels of my senior scout's vehicle begin to churn forward.

The patrol continued.

*EOD: Explosive Ordnance Disposal
TOC: Tactical Operations Center
FOB: Forward Operating Base
Frago: Fragmentary Order

MISSION ACCOMPLISHED |

June 02, 2008

MISSION ACCOMPLISHED
Name: Eddie
Posting date: 6/2/08
Stationed in: Iraq
Milblog url
: Eighty Deuce on the Loose
Email: [email protected]

It is over. The words I have been waiting to say for so long: I AM DONE!

I know back in the day when President Bush made his whole Mission Accomplished speech from the Navy aircraft carrier, the mission that most Americans assumed he was talking about was the Iraq War, which at the time was nowhere near done. There was and still is much controversy over his decision to make such a statement. My statement is a little less bold. I don't refer to "accomplished" as in "the war is over, send the troops home." I am referring to the work that we have done, ourselves, and the job we have done and done well. Our mission is accomplished.

We received word of our deployment a few days after Christmas 2006. We were on the deployment ready cycle at Ft Bragg, where we could potentially deploy anywhere in the world on a moment's notice, so it was no real surprise. When murmurs about a possible troop surge began rumbling, I knew we were probably going to be caught up in it. Sure enough, we were.

We learned that we would be heading for Kuwait just two days after New Years. We hurried to rush out of there and get going on what was to be a six-month deployment as the Iraq Theater's strategic reserve. By the time we were wheels up, it had been six days since we had received notification of our deployment. Soon after arriving in Kuwait, the decision was finalized to mobilize tens of thousands of troops and flood them into Baghdad and other parts of Iraq as a part of a new change in strategy. When the boots of our unit touched the dirty ground of Iraq, the "Surge" had begun.

It was a volatile time for Baghdad and Iraq when we began. Sectarian killing between Shiites and Sunnis was spiraling out of control. Sadr's militia was terrorizing and killing Sunnis, while Sunni snipers and bomb makers mutilated Shiites in ungodly numbers. They hated each other, but they both hated us.The Spring of 2007 brought some of the bloodiest months of this war. May 2007 was the 2nd bloodiest month, followed by April and June as the 5th and 6th. The year 2007 would turn out to be the single deadliest year for US troops since the beginning of the War.

The initial push of the Surge was into Baghdad, and the fighting between Sadr's militia, the Sunni Militia and Al-Qaeda in Iraq and the US Military was fierce. But our resolve and will did not falter and our advantage in warfighting proved once again that they stood no chance. They began to flee the Baghdad area and push to the outskirts, where the new Surge troops would soon follow and continue to give them the crushing defeat they were sustaining in Baghdad.

With the focus no longer on gun battles and firefights, we began going after the leaders of the militias that operated in our sector and began rolling them up one after another after another, until the picture became clear to them: Quit, leave or get caught. Our final task was to protect the economically important markets which were in our area, and were constantly the target of massive car bombs, killing hundreds of people with some of the blasts. The most economically important and largest market in Baghdad was in our sector, but between our constant presence and pressure on the militias, the attacks dwindled in size and frequency.

With the militias weakened, the civilian casualties at an all time low due to a lack of car bombs and sniper attacks, the confidence of the people began to rise and their trust and appreciation of us did as well. The last vital step was to get the Iraqis to begin to take over for themselves, and our assistance in the creation of the CLC (Concerned Local Citizen) groups have done just that.

The situation in our area had taken a complete 180 from where it was when we began. The Sunnis and the Shiites began to trust one another. Killings were almost non-existent. Attacks in the markets were so rare and weak, that the resolve of the Iraqi civilians was not shaken. People were no long so fearful of working with the Americans and giving us intel. And in some areas, you could tell the people really loved us being there. I wouldn't go so far as to say it's completely safe in our area, but it's getting damn close.

It's amazing to think how much of a difference 15 months has made. And it shows in the level of attacks on our troops. December 2007 was the 2nd lowest death toll since the start of the war, with the 3rd lowest being February 2008. Sadr, the leader of the Jeish Al Mehdi Army, has even noticed the change, and no longer feels the need for his militia to fight. He has stated himself that what the Americans have done has been good.

As tough as it was for us to deploy here on six days' notice, and deal with our deployment getting extended from six months to a year and then from a year to 15 months, I believe it has been worthwhile. It has had a profound impact on this area, one that only time can truly show. I hope the trend continues with the new units that are beginning to replace the Surge troops, and I hope peace will one day take over in this land. I want to be able to come back when I'm 50 and 60 and walk the same streets with my kids and grandchildren. I pray that this may one day be possible.

So for now my time is done. I am done with missions and very shortly will be heading out of this place I have called home for so long. The next time I post I will be back in the United States. Thank you to all who have read my blog, offered advice, support or just an encouraging word through the comments and emails. I appreciated it all, and I hope that you were able to get a little better picture of what life was like here in Iraq for an average American ground soldier in the middle of the Surge. I will continue to blog once I return, so don't think this is the end. It's just the end of a long long long long loooooong chapter.  :)


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