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.

READJUSTMENT |

July 30, 2008

READJUSTMENT
Name: Old Blue
Posting date: 8/1/08
Stationed in: Afghanistan
Milblog: Bill and Bob's Excellent Afghan Adventure

The Army warns you about readjustment and "reintegration." They warn about depression, or let-down. They warn about the family, and things that happen normally as part of reintegration.

Oddly enough, a lot of it is true.

I never felt overly "jacked-up" in Afghanistan. It all felt pretty normal to me, actually. There were a few times when I knew that I could easily be killed, and there were several times when I knew without a doubt that if the ACM* had chosen to hit us at that moment that I was in a very, very precarious position.

I did, however, feel alert. There have been times here in the States that I have been inattentive, even though I was going through the motions. For instance, driving around town running errands but thinking about something else, to the point that I would suddenly realize that I had lost track of where I was. I never lost track so much that I was endangering other people or vehicles around me, just the bigger picture.

I was on autopilot.

That never happened in Afghanistan. When I was outside the wire I always knew what was going on -- at least what was going on in proximity to me, even if the rest of the situation was unclear.

At the time, I wouldn't have described it as hyper vigilance; it felt normal, and not uncomfortable. I liked being outside the wire. I pitied those poor fobbits who never left the wire. There are so many of them. I couldn't have felt good about myself had that been my existence in Afghanistan.

When you get so used to having to have your "hand on the stick," being where you can put it on autopilot and get away with it causes the spring to uncoil. When the spring uncoils, the lack of tension sends a ripple through the rest of the heart and mind.

It's disconcerting.

Being back in American culture you have a whole new perspective after having been in Afghanistan. The apparent inattention of the American public to the war, the seeming lack of support for the task, even with the apparent support for the individual, is something that requires some getting used to. It was my life for nearly a year and a half, counting the spin-up time and the deployment itself. To find it so trivialized in the daily life here is, for some reason, mildly disturbing.

I'll get over it.

I try to keep in mind that my brother, upon his return from Viet Nam, was encouraged by many to engage in physically impossible acts of self-love and was showered with dog feces at the airport in San Diego. I actually had to avoid running over people who stepped in front of me not to shower me with feces but to say, "Thank you."

Like I said, I'll get over it.

It is truly the electronic age. The mess halls on even some of the smaller FOBs had a big screen TV, with military satellite TV programming. We often watched AFN (Armed Forces Network) Europe while we ate. This was not the case at the firebase at the top of the Tagab Valley, but in many other places there was AFN.

The "commercials" on AFN consisted of such things as OPSEC* awareness commercials starring "Squeakers the Mouse," an evil, yet unnamed cat that was constantly spying on Squeakers with apparent ill will, and an occasional guest-starring hamster whom I'm not sure had a name. Other "commercials" were such things as military organizations advertising what they did for the overall war effort ("We are the Logistics Command, supplying everyone with everything everywhere") and so on.

Apple did have an iPod commercial; it warned that wearing earphones on a military base is generally against regulations, and exhorted iPod users to avoid incurring the wrath of military justice by being smart about not using their products in violation of post policies. It was done in the typical iPod crazy-dancing silhouette with white iPod wires style; and the silhouette was obviously wearing bloused combat boots, and then he was busted by a silhouette wearing an MP armband.

I thought that was pretty cool; a civilian company who paid enough attention that they would actually spend money to cater to the military market.

I've always enjoyed imaginative, humorous commercials. I used to quote the "Beggin' Strips" commercials in Afghanistan ("What is it? I can't READ!"). The amateurish Squeakers commercials were a stark contrast to the stylish commercials that even the most ridiculous of products sport here in the States. Smilin' Bob looks like a pro compared to the AV Club reject products that adorn AFN Europe.

Right now, though, the seriousness with which advertisers present their pleas for Americans to spend their money on trivial... well, there's just no other word for it but crap... it's just so glaringly obvious to me.

After having spent a year in combat, the vigor and earnestness with which such minor luxuries are touted just seems more than comical; make that nonsensical. Americans actually have the time to think about "increasing the size of that certain part of the male body" (eyes batting in amateurish seductiveness.)

Sheesh.

Now, like I said, I enjoy products being presented with humor, and production value is much appreciated after having been subjected to Squeakers scurrying past a mousetrap baited with obviously paper cheese; but commercials that pander to the obviously asinine just grate on the soul.

My sense of being a "fly on the wall" in my own culture will probably decrease with time, but right now I am a witness to the slack-jawed amazement with which others can view our trivial thrashing about.

The network news is a whole 'nother issue. The American public has never been shown the truth about what is going on in the theaters of combat. They don't even pretend to try to present a snapshot of what is really going on; yet they will, with all seriousness (bordering on somberness) present a fingernail-clipping-sized snippet of deeply disconcerting "news" about something without ever really showing the value of what is being attempted, even accomplished, by a very tiny portion of our population.

No wonder sizable chunks of the American public appear to be more than willing to vote for somebody, anybody, who promises to "bring the troops home." I can tell you one thing; if we "bring the troops home" before we can leave the two governments capable of governing their countries, then all those lives will be wasted, and we will find ourselves less secure than we have been in a very long time.

I didn't go to Afghanistan to win the war. I am not that powerful. It takes the efforts of many like me for a long period of time to do that. I saw a lot of actions/inactions that were completely counterproductive towards that end; but I also saw a lot of people performing small acts of greatness.

Keep this in mind; we are fighting a counterinsurgency in both Iraq and Afghanistan. In history, there has never been a successful counterinsurgency that has been won in less than ten years. What we are doing requires consistent effort over a period of time. This is not a sprint, it is a marathon. We are a nation of 50 meter sprinters. We need to be a nation of marathoners, a nation of patience, and a nation that views itself as a citizen of the world. That doesn't mean that the world should dictate our actions, nor does it mean that we need to seek the approval of the world.

The past year and a half have changed my viewpoint in a number of ways. None of the above means that I am anti-American. I love this country. While I am concerned about our country failing to follow through on this endeavor, thereby wasting my efforts and the lives of those who lost their lives in putting forth their efforts, I still have tremendous faith in both this country and the amazing Constitution that established our great nation. I tear up when the National Anthem is played, and I am stirred by the sight of the flag.

While I was overseas, America was the ideal. It was the paradise willingly left behind to dwell amid the hostility and mud huts and poverty and strange languages. America is an ideal that our terps aspire to. Even a lot of the Afghans that we advised dreamed of how to get here, to be allowed at this huge table of peace and plenty. To be American.

It means so much more than I can convey with words. Many have tried to express it; I don't think that anyone ever will... just little bits of it at a time.

I'm not saying that America is bad, or trivial; but we do some absolutely inane things.

The biggest fear of most of the "good" Afghans that I dealt with is this; that we will leave. What they fear is real, and it is our pattern as a nation. We get halfway through and we get bored or tired and we leave.

And then the bad guys win.


Speaking of reintegration shock, what did everyone do while I was gone that pissed off the oil companies so badly?...

*
ACM: anti-coalition militias
OPSEC: operations security

Comments

I felt the same way about the trivial aspects of regular life in the states. It caused me a lot of grief on R&R, because I thought that the American will to accomplish our foreign policy endeavors wasn't strong enough, and that we would ultimately be defeated.

Blue, your observations are right on the mark. This is, or is often, a very trivial country. We seek short-term gains regardless & if a problem doesn't sit in our own backyard, we don't much care (if we don't have to). There is also the conflation of Iraq & Afghanistan, two very different situations. The response of the "average" American was exactly what the CiC called for in 2002 - unfortuantely the actual situation was not one that could be remedied by shopping. The disconnect between perceptions and reality is still there. The difference now is that you have lived it, so it is personal to you.

I don't want to get into a debate here about what Obama's policy really is but since you alluded to it and mentioned other media, it's worthwhile remembering how badly the media covers many things, not sure stories from Afghanistan and Iraq but also Politics etc. A humorous viewpoint is given at http://www.quotationspage.com/subjects/journalism/

sounds like it was your first time over and you "lost" people. i did in nam. my daughter and son have also in afghan + iraq.they stay dead. their lives were wasted. their deaths happened sometimes for others, sometimes foolishly, sometimes by just chance.the outcome of these conflicts won't change the past. it will affect many of thousands lives.welcome home. stay well.say hello to your brother for me.pointman 1st cav. 68-69

"small acts of Greatness" are what we can do best. I have hope, having seen what your brother met coming back from Vietnam, and knowing that war was lost in America's love of Easy, Sexy and Cool.
Thanks for the post. Thanks for your service, and I was quietly watching your return hoping you get all the best.

To bad someone like you (been there, seen that and heard their worse fear of America leaving) can't address the nation on behalf of a presidential candidate. It would seem to me that it only makes things worse for them, than before we came. I also believe that we have left countries to themselves when we were only have thru. For our sake, the worlds, the Afghans and Iraq I hope this is not the case again. Good to see you home. May Good bless this phase of your life.

"The apparent inattention of the American public to the war, the seeming lack of support for the task, even with the apparent support for the individual..." That sums up your average American attitude towards the war perfectly and why would it be otherwise? The burden of fighting this war has been placed on solely on the military and their immediate family members; the American public at large has not had to sacrifice a thing.

I'm confused. What kind of a reaction do you expect from everyday Americans?

To say America is unaware to the consequences of this conflict is incorrect, and your criticism of them for going about their lives (and the choices they make) astonishes me. Whether you realize it or not, everyday Americans are sacrificing and feeling the pain of this war whenever they pay inflated prices for everyday necessities.

That pain and sacrifice affects everyone, and needs no cheap symbol or song to conjure up faux emotions such as patriotism.

My advice: Zoom out, look at the larger picture. Everyone is sacrificing, and your attempt to appeal to other's emotions mirrors the same tactics used in the MSM you claim to deplore.

Actually, Old Blue, the commercial you saw on AFN isn't an official Apple advert. It's actually a safety commercial (from USAREUR safety, if I recall correctly--they were showing the same "commercial" on AFN Europe when I was in Afghanistan in 2006), reminding us GIs that we can't run anywhere with our headphones on.

What you did not address in your thoughtful message was that over half the voting public did not agree with our sitting President when he made the decision to invade Iraq. We are still a democratic republic and can disagree with inane policies of our elected officials. We can speak for ourselves and also vote for ourselves. We can also vote with our purchases and the way we live. Can Iraq and Afganistain?

"To say America is unaware to the consequences of this conflict is incorrect, and your criticism of them for going about their lives (and the choices they make) astonishes me."

Eddie, you're part of the problem if you're truly shocked at this. I've had the same feelings since returning from Iraq eleven months ago. What's different from me and Old Blue is I have since separated from the service and hold down a civilian job. For that, my thoughts on society's lack of shouldering the burden have been refined now that I see the war once again from the civilian side.

Higher prices for everything from gas prices to food is not even in the realm of sacrifice (and nominally attributed to the wars). While you might lament that milk costs four dollars a gallon, I'm still thankful that I can drive and buy that milk without my car exploding from underneath me.

We were expected to fight two wars with just volunteers. A draft would be a sacrifice. A call to service from our elected officials, instead of a call to spend your stimulus check, would be sacrifice. Helping out at the VA hospital would be sacrifice. Filling up your SUV and feeling the pinch isn't quite sacrifice.

Old Blue sees what I saw: our citizenry that doesn't have its heart in the fight. I moved from Seattle to Austin, Texas and hit nearly every state in the west on the way. The only glimpse I saw of a military at war was a convoy of Marines on a California freeway. Other than that, it's like there's no war at all, much less two.

Your observations about the limits of most Americans' thoughts on the wars are pretty dead on. Having lived here for only 12 years I'm still a little chastened when I watch the news (which I do rarely for that reason) and how hysterical people allow themselves to get over the price of gas.

Thing is, a lot of people are really uncomfortable trying to figure out how to handle you, how to talk about what must be a considerable part of your life which they cannot relate to in person. Wrapping their minds around living outside the US could be hard enough, but living so far from your family and with a reminder of your mortality a seeming constant is too much. I'm not saying it's right, it just is.

And Old Blue, thanks for telling us your story; it does the rest of us good.

I don't know how anyone can say that there's NOT a disconnect between the military fighting these wars, and the civilian world that remains untouched by them. I don't think a draft would have any effect on this one way or another. The American people, as you say, do not have the heart to fight -- not just these fights, ANY fights. If there comes a time when a truly existential threat to the U.S. emerges, if we don't have a committed warrior class to defend us, we're toast. And if we're supposed to depend on Chip and Bobbie from down the street to pick up a rifle and drive the tank, it's over for America. The stomach to fight any fight is absent in this society, and our adversaries know it.

"Alot of people are really uncomfortable trying to figure out how to handle you, how to talk about what must be a considerable part of your life which they cannot relate to in person..." copperred.

You can't open a news magazine these days without running across some terrible PTSD (not diminishing the seriousness of this problem at all) story or account of the "emotional cost" of the war on our poor, hapless soldiers. This lopsided coverage has given people the wrong impression. Iraq vets are not the fragile, emotional, hair-trigger, drug-crazed people some would have you believe.

Awesome post and so true on many fronts. Even though I have put a ton of words in print and out of my mouth in interviews, you truly were able to express some of the things I also feel and saw during my time in the Stan better then I ever could.

Bouhammer...

Lives wasted? When brave, loyal American women and men do their job and do it with brains, compassion, and endurance against all the crap? Never say that! Talk about commercialization, sounds like you're spinning it yourself!

I've always been amazed at seeing how the french people hardly ever give a thought to the Afghan war.

I was even more amazed in the last five years each time I went to the US. Everything goes on in such an ordinary way while some American citizens are fighting deadly wars abroad. The disconnection is somehow very disconcerting.

I expected something else than seeing so many people wasting their money on useless crap in the malls. Oh, but there are some yellow ribbons and flag pins, let's not forget it !

I'm also quite amazed by the numbers. Five years ago, about 75 % American people and 99 % of the MSM were in favor for the wars. Five years later, about 75 % American people want the troops home.

I guess that if Iraqi oil was flowing on the international market, if one could fill one's tank at 1.50 a gallon, the percentages wouldn't have changed so much.

It's sad to realize that greed seems to be the greatest motive of human behavior.

Maybe our western nations can't financially afford these two wars any longer. They're done on the cheap, with no sufficient effort on reconstruction. Military effort alone can't achieve the "victory". Political and humanitarian efforts should be increased.

But these efforts are too expensive for western nations which are currently victims of an international recession.

So I guess the troops will be brought home after having destroyed countries, displaced and killed millions.

Nice not-finished not-accomplished missions, at the expense of so many wasted lives.

War is always the worst solution, and even more when one can't afford it.

Old Blue, thanks endlessly for your sacrifices.

And I must disagree with many of the comments here. My family -- all of us -- and friends are acutely aware of the War on Jihadistan. We teach our children every night to pray for the troops and their families. For the last few years, instead of exchanging useless gifts at Christmas, we send dozens of care packages to the troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Yes, we still coach little league, we still laugh at funny movies, we still cheer for our sports teams, etc.

But please don't think we aren't thinking about you guys and gals who are doing the heavy lifting. We are, and we care deeply.

*sigh*
Francoise: Get a clue. Funding for the war is one of the less-expensive things we spend money on. We spend a lot more on welfare, social security, medicaid, medicare, etc.

And for your info, read up:

http://www.mnf-iraq.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=21918&Itemid=1

“When I talk to my family and friends back home, they want to know what it’s really like over here and if we are truly making a difference,” Hotaling said. “Each time, I have explained to them the kind of change they have not witnessed yet. Battles and lethal operations have long ago ceased to be priorities. Our focus now is a return to normalcy – living and working and interacting with the Iraqi people. Positive changes are happening every day. They might not be big or flashy, but they are making lasting improvements that have already put victory for the Iraqi people within their reach.”

There's some federally approved research going on with the administration of MDMA for PTSD, having amazing results. It blocks the fear center of the amygdyla and creates massive empathy, allowing you to see traumatic experiencies from a new perspective and recognize that ok, over there in war that was horrible, but I'm here now and everything here is ok, and really helps you integrate that experience and let things go. Sounds amazing

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