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.

A BANDAID |

August 29, 2008

A BANDAID
Name: Cheese
Posting date: 8/29/08
Stationed in: Kabul, Afghanistan
Hometown: Binghamton, NY
Milblog: Cheese's Milblog

Framed_cheese_bandaid_1_2 I just got off of Rapid Reaction Force(RRF) and am surprised to not be heading right back outside the wire -- for once! RRF was much more interesting this time, mainly because we just got a Wii in the mail.

For those who are unaware, RRF is where we get all of our stuff ready to roll out the gate, then we sit around and wait for something to happen. Think firefighters...with guns.

Normally the RRF shack is a place to watch old DVDs, but not this time. One by one, each guy who made fun of us as we whacked away at digital tennis balls ended up joining in. Seeing guys in ACUs swatting WiiMotes around in an under-sized RRF shack is beyond hilarious.

On a more serious note, we stumbled upon a tragic little village during a patrol a couple of days ago. The place is a landfill. Framed_cheese_bandaid_5_4 The people live off of the garbage that other people throw away. Their homes are patchwork tents sewn together from discarded clothes. The people, and their livestock, eat garbage. I have never seen people so sick. The children are covered in sores and burns which we found out were caused by the frequent tent fires.

I cannot accurately describe this place. I have seen many people living in squalor, but these people are actually dying as they stand. The incredible thing about this village, at which we were compelled to stop when we spotted it on our way to somewhere else, is that when we offered what meager supplies we had (tea, sugar, cooking oil) the people stood back while the village elder divided it evenly.

Framed_cheese_bandaid_2_3 This is a first. Usually the kids swarm us and some people try to steal more than their share, but here, where the people need it the most, everyone waited patiently.

It felt like giving a band-aid to someone on their deathbed. Thankfully, we were able to scrape up more of what these people actually need and will be bringing it to them soon. And I'll be making it my personal mission to get these kids inoculated, in the unlikely event that my lieutenant doesn't get to it first.

10TH MOUNTAIN DIVISION |

August 27, 2008

10TH MOUNTAIN DIVISION
Name: 1SGT Troy Steward
Posting date: 8/27/08
Returned from: Afghanistan
Milblog
: Bouhammer.com

This phenomenal video honors and pays tribute to CJTF-76, OEF VII. This was Third Brigade, 10th Mountain Division. The first third of the video is a tribute to all of the brigade and what they did. The last two-thirds is a tribute to all that were in the CTJF who fell in combat. Watch with pride and maybe a few tissues.


DISPATCHES FROM THE (WAR) HOSPITAL |

August 25, 2008

DISPATCHES FROM THE (WAR) HOSPITAL
Name: Jennifer M. Pierson
Posting date: 8/25/08
Volunteering in: Walter Reed Army Medical Center
Hometown: New York City
Email: jmpmerton@starpower.net



NIGHTWATCH ONE
But in their brilliance angels do not lift us above our ruinance

you arrive in the night
your body laid down and wait

a hand or a shoulder braces it
grief moves through us

as
our bodies lift your stretcher oh

the body moves the heart the hands how
rough they love

        (a careless angel hovers)


THE BOY IN 5715: Visions

                *
stumped:
            above the leg the leg
a stump-with-knee
& then

a stump
above

two legs cut off
at Landstuhl

             *
three
fingers lost

others
burnt and bent

            trigger's absent

             *
I almost miss seeing
you when coming into
the room: steam-heated
as you lie tiny on the bed

blue covers
nothing

then

your shaved
head monklike
blued

gorgeous
smile
skinny
face too
big teeth

you laugh

            *
room's hot

your dad's curled up
on a steel chair in the corner

mother's gone
for a smoke and a bite

but

            the effort's there
(to stand up)


ON THE BUS

his head his
neck slashed

black: the cuts
        elegiac a
        scarf of loss

humanness seeps out

            **

as he turns
his cheek to show
the impeded bullet

       tears
       pool

he moves his mouth to say hello


PASTORAL
A gentle ghost will ease in his place

Seamus is famous in the hierarchies of angels
who walk quiet the long pavements of grief.

He wears his suit shiny
teeth crookt in a grin.

Seamus listens to dreams of the dying.

        How I love this man
this priest who comes in the light
seeking comfort, something sweet to eat.

(A Roman Catholic priest, in service to Walter Reed 39 years).


GIRL SOLDIER
Five years out they'll all have leukemia

demerol's wearing off

she's sleepy shivering
in a chair

skin's blemished blue

shorts
tiny for her tiny frame

snakes covet her
pallid thighs then
verge with
tigers at her crotch

we bring girly things
to ease her edict of dying

Great tattoos!

My daddy did em, when can I rest?


SORRY FOR YOUR LOSS

Oh sorrowed one
how we negate the absent
self, body and its particulates.

How we distance hearts: your,
not our, loss.

Who grieves once
condolence is drawn
from the mouth? Smear us with ash.

Who pulls hairs? Rends cloth?
Lifts the chest, wailing?

Sorry for your loss.
From your lips to God's ear.

Save us.

Around the stone church
in Provence gitanes ride
horses to encircle us.

The crypt oh   it's dense
with soot, votives burning
centuries of hope.

Spirit lies inside the pale glass.

TRANSPORTATION |

August 22, 2008

TRANSPORTATION
Name: Rocinante
Posting date: 8/22/08
Stationed in: Iraq
Hometown: Virginia
Milblog: Rocinante's Burdens
Email: roci_burden@yahoo.com

I have no idea what the price of gas is in the USA. Here it is free. All I want. We don't even lock up the tanker or have anyone watching it. Take all you want, we'll get more. Iraqis on the other hand have rationed fuel. They wait in long lines. Mostly because they don't have gas stations on every corner. Instead they have a few major fueling stations in each little town. They also do a lot of siphoning. People will make a living by selling their rationed gas. They wait in line, fill their tanks, then siphon it out and sell it on the street for its true value instead of the rationed price. Controlled markets are the number one cause of black and gray markets.

Framed_rock_transport_1

Tanker.

Framed_roci_transport_2

This guy doesn't care about the price of gas either. Incidentally, the price of a used Donkey here is about $50. That is all. And that is why there are so many of them.

Framed_roci_transport_3

This is a typical Iraqi army vehicle. Made in the USA. This one, converted to be the commander's vehicle, has a light machine gun on the back. I also see a lot of Ford F-350s here. By far though, the preferred vehicle for the Iraqi army is the HMMWV. They love those things. They love the horsepower and the armored sides and all the room inside to carry stuff. There is nothing comparable in their military history of vehicles. They are hoping that they will get all of our HMMWVs when we leave. They saw how much stuff we left behind in all the other countries we abandoned and are salivating at the prospect.

Framed_roci_transport_4

This is my antenna. Yes, I can talk to God. If He isn't responding, the problem is obviously on His end.

GRAVEYARD OF OLD T-WALLS |

August 19, 2008

GRAVEYARD OF OLD T-WALLS
Name: James Aalan Bernsen
Posting date: 8/20/08
Stationed in: Iraq   
Milblog: James Aalan Bernsen

Among the most ubiquitous things on a U.S. base overseas are security barriers. They range from the lowly sandbag wall, to the low but more stout Jersey Barrier, to the massive T-Wall. They're used on our bases, out in town to protect Iraqi neighborhoods -- everywhere.

Framed_bernsen_wall_1

In fact, the concrete wall-building industry is one of the biggest industries in Iraq right now.

Framed_bernsen_wall_2

Hesco barriers. A frame of wire and cardboard filled with sand. These are portable, easy to put up, and you just add sand. They're better than nothing, but certainly not ideal. Over in a far corner of our base -- so close to the edge that you can look over the wall into a Baghdad neighborhood -- is a place where T-walls go to die. Or at least to wait.

Most of the early T-walls are about five feet tall and built with long horizontal bases. These served lots of purposes, but they were far from perfect, and less than ideal when it came to force protection (see this post on the rocket shrapnel that hit my trailer). The military decided, perhaps to the taxpayer's chagrin but definitely to our relief, to build tall, vertical T-walls that reached up 12 feet or more.

Framed_bernsen_wall_3

T-walls of the larger variety. These have become such iconic symbols of life in Iraq that generals give miniature replicas out as departing gifts to their subordinates. But though the trend towards the larger T-walls replacing everything else, there are still tons of other kinds around.

Many folks have taken to decorating them. At the Baghdad International Airport there's a row painted with the flag of each of the 50 states, and signed by soldiers from those states. Some of the drawings are crude, but most are elaborate and well-done:

Framed_bernsen_wall_4

Framed_bernsen_wall_5

Framed_bernsen_wall_6

A close-up shot of the previous image.

Framed_bernsen_wall_7

This one is at the base you enter and leave through in Kuwait. I hope it will be the last T-wall I ever see.

Framed_bernsen_wall_8

Another one from Kuwait.

Framed_bernsen_wall_9

Here's a T-wall from the airbase in Qatar.

Framed_bernsen_wall_10

Back in Iraq, the Military Police do a good job on their T-walls.

Framed_bernsen_wall_11

More T-walls over at the M.P. compound

As I said, T-walls outlive their usefulness at some point. With the Hesco Barriers, it's easy. You just dump the sand -- which they do over on the golf driving range -- and then send the barrier frame to be recycled. T-walls, however, are a different problem, hence the graveyard:

Framed_bernsen_wall_12

Framed_bernsen_wall_13

Framed_bernsen_wall_14


Framed_bernsen_wall_15

It's not exactly China Lake, California and B-29s, but these desolate remnants of our military past will be a reminder, long after we're gone, of what it was like at the peak of the war.

Walking to lunch one day, an Army captain friend of mine nodded to some of the barriers we passed on the way. "What do you think will happen to these things when we're gone," she asked.

"I don't know. Maybe they can lay them on their sides and use them for road beds. Or for canals," I said,not too convincingly.

The truth is, there probably isn't any good use for them other than making walls, and hopefully Iraq will one day get to the point where walls aren't all that necessary anymore. Still, they're big, they're heavy, and there here, and they will likely still be here for generations -- if not centuries. Kind of like the Marsten Mats I kept running across in France that were left over from D-Day, T-walls will endure long after the American military is gone.

AFGHANISTAN, THE BEAUTIFUL |

August 18, 2008

AFGHANISTAN, THE BEAUTIFUL
Name: Cheese
Posting date: 8/18/08
Stationed in: Kabul, Afghanistan
Hometown: Binghamton, NY
Milblog: Cheese's Milblog

I'm starting to get a pretty good handle on this place, due in no small part to our having visited every village in our sector. Thankfully, our leadership makes a point to visit with all the local elders to ask what they need and drop off some basic supplies. You'd think that the South Carolina boys we replaced had been doing this all along...and you'd be wrong. Some of these people hadn't seen American troops in years! How is that even possible? But that's neither here nor there, the important part is that we're doing it now, and the people love us for it. It makes me feel a lot safer knowing that all the villages are on our side.

This country is equal parts inspiring and heartbreaking. The people here are more ambitious and resourceful than any I've ever seen. In contrast to Iraq, where you'd see small children wandering aimlessly in the street, here you see small children herding sheep, manning shops and riding bikes weighed down with lumber. Instead of begging exclusively for candy, these children ask for pens, although I'm sure this is as much motivated by the knowledge that every soldier carries pens as it is by a desire to write.Framed_cheese_atb_2

One day, during a supply drop at a local village, I was doing crowd control when I heard someone ask me, "Where are you from, soldier?" I was shocked to see that it was a young Afghan boy, who spoke with little accent. We spoke for several minutes and I left feeling more than a little embarrassed. This kid spoke five languages, and could read English almost as well as any American his age. I signed up for Rosetta Stone that night.

In Iraq, our vehicle antennas had a tendency to pull down the haphazard electrical wires that seemed to have been carelessly tossed from house to house like nets. Every time this would happen, the locals would come ask for money to repair them, then hang them back up exactly the same way, if not worse. During my second week here in Afghanistan, we accidentally tore down a wire just as we entered a village. We immediately tied our antennas down to not cause further damage, as many of the village's wires were hung low. Keep in mind, this town had not seen humvees, or soldiers for that matter, in years.

A few weeks later, we drove through that village again. We tied our antennas in advance this time, but it ended up not being necessary. The villagers had raised every single wire to a height that was safe for our humvee antennas and had not asked for a penny from the reconstruction teams. Iraq this was not.

Unfortunately, the smell of diesel, human waste and burning garbage has followed me here from Iraq. I hope it's not me. This smell, in conjunction with the dilapidated buildings, slashed and burned vegetation and failing infrastructure, serves as a harsh reminder of the impact of Soviet occupation here. It's heartbreaking, because you see what used to be a beautiful country is now dangerous and filthy. Many of the trees were eradicated by the Soviets to deny cover to Afghan and Chechen marksman, and as a part of their "total warfare" campaign. The rest were used for fuel after the infrastructure was destroyed. It's like looking at your house after a devastating tornado; you can see how beautiful and strong it once was, but you don't know where to start putting it back together again. It's immensely frustrating.

At least I know, much as I did in Iraq, that I will always have an answer when people ask me if I'm glad that I came here, and if I thought I made a difference. This time, however, I believe that I'm only returning the favor for all that I've already learned here.

THE REGULATORS |

August 15, 2008

THE REGULATORS
Name: 1SGT Troy Steward
Posting date: 8/15/08
Returned from: Afghanistan
Milblog: bouhammer.com

This is a great video, actually one of my favorites. The music is awesome, and is coordinated well with the images. It was created by the men of 2nd Platoon, Alpha Company, 2/87 Infantry, 3rd BCT, 10th Mountain Division.

CHAI |

August 13, 2008

CHAI
Name: Old Blue
Posting date: 8/13/08
Returned from: Afghanistan
Milblog url: Bill and Bob's Excellent Afghan Adventure

I saw a picture the other day of a soldier and his terp having chai with a couple of Afghan men. The men were Pashtun; you can tell by the black turban with the tail hanging down the back over one shoulder. The turban isn't always black, but the tail is a Pashtun thing. Black is a standard color, but not a rule. This is my observation.

I've written before about having chai, but it's always been part of another story. I've always wanted to describe, in detail, the uniquely Afghan experience of having chai.

One of the key tenets of the Pushtunwali, the code of conduct of the Pashtuns, is hospitality. Hospitality is not just a Pashtun value, though. It is an Afghan value. It is shaming to be considered inhospitable, and as O and I discussed over the weekend, we have both been offered chai by families whose khalats we were either searching or had just searched.

We have both had chai served to us by Taliban, as well. A Talib will not kill you while offering you hospitality. It just isn't done. They may have been shooting at you an hour before, and they will be planning their next ambush even as you sit there with them, but they won't kill you during chai or while you are leaving immediately afterwards. A mile up the road is a different story, but not during chai.

More often, the offer of chai was not an obligatory gesture but a genuine expression of friendship and a desire to have relaxed conversation with another. Either way, refusal of an invitation is a delicate thing. While you may be excused for having to fulfill other obligations, genuine regret and thanks for the offer are in order. If there is a possibility of following up on the promise, a promise to accept the invitation at a later time is acceptable. However, this is not a "get out of jail free" card, but a promise.

Afghans expect you to keep your word. In America, it's a commonly used tactic to express regret and promise, with no intention of ever keeping that promise, to "get together another time." This is considered acceptable here, and actually more polite than saying, "I don't want to spend that time with you." That is not the case in Afghanistan.

Upon acceptance of an invitation, there is a bustle of activity as you are ushered to the place where the chai will be shared. While the offer is often given out of hospitality and chai will have to be made, very often they were already making chai and wished for whatever reason to share it with you.

Most often, chai is shared on a blanket or tablecloth type of covering placed either on the floor or the ground. Only in offices is there generally furniture to sit on, and the most important people have an office with furniture and another room which is usually furnished traditionally, with rugs and pillows around the periphery.

It is traditional to remove shoes before being seated; but when in uniform, the Afghans do not expect for one to remove boots. It is an option, though. The cross-legged position that they used to call "Indian style" when I was a kid is the normal sitting position. This position becomes miserable to an old guy like me about half way through the chai, and at that point positions other than supine may be assumed.

Weapons should be lain at your side with the muzzles pointed away from the center; a gesture of good will. Pistols should remain holstered. It is not appropriate to handle your weapons while drinking chai unless it is to make room for someone else.

If not present already, dishes of sweets and snacks will appear.

The candies are often individually wrapped toffees. I've had milk toffee, coconut toffee, strawberry toffee, and several other flavors. They are usually labeled in English and at least one other language. Often they are made in Iran. Some small candies are the bare minimum, but there are often other snack-type foods provided as well.

Kishmish (raisins) are a very popular snack to provide. Dried chickpeas and almonds are also pretty popular. Occasionally, there will be small fried noodles that are very similar to the chow mein noodles that come in a separate can when you buy the La Choy Chow Mein at the grocery store. Sometimes they are seasoned. These items are usually placed in a divided ceramic dish, while the candies are in a small bowl.

Most often, someone is playing the role of "chai boy." He will bring out the plates of snacks, always placing some of the snacks either in front of or very near the guest. There is usually more than one tray. This individual also brings the tray with the chai and cups in as well.

The standard chai cup is a clear glass cup like a coffee cup. The cups have widely varying levels of cleanliness. My tactic was to drink from the edge of the cup directly opposite the handle. The chai is always served to the most important people first, including the guest. Those of less importance are served last, and if there are not enough cups, they will wait until a cup comes available and is perfunctorily rinsed with chai.

Hence my sipping strategy.

Sugar is nearly always available, and its absence will bring a strong apology. When Afghans put sugar in their chai, they put sugar in their chai. There will be a layer at least a quarter of an inch deep left in the bottom of the cup after the chai is poured.

Chai is always served absolutely scalding hot. The chai itself is usually green, but sometimes will be black. It is made by putting the tea leaves in the pot and boiling the water, often on a burner sitting directly atop a propane cylinder. If they are making shiir chai (milk tea) the leaves are put into the milk directly and the milk is not quite boiled. The propane rigs are commonly referred to in American parlance as "haji stoves."

This is a bit of a misnomer, because anyone who is referred to as "Haji" is given a great deal of deference, as they have done the Haj, or pilgrimage to Mecca; one of the Islamic duties. But to Americans, it is still a "haji stove."

Having chai usually requires at least 45 minutes to an hour.

Conversation must always start with small talk. It is considered very polite to ask about a man's family, but not to ask specifically about a female member of his family. To ask a man how his mother is doing is considered very rude. Asking about a wife or daughter is actually dangerous. Pleasantries often include a query as to the health of the family, and how various minor things about their life may be going such as things about their house, crops, or business.

Afghans have a lively sense of humor and truly appreciate jokes and laughter. Very often they will poke mild fun at each other, but will not shame another man. Chai is all about civil relaxation, and Afghans love chai.

Only after the small talk can any serious business be discussed. Often, though, the whole experience is simply about having chai together. The American equivalent would be meeting for coffee or a drink. Since Afghans do not drink alcohol, this is the closest to sitting on a bar stool with their buddies as it gets.

Americans like to get straight to the point, but the Afghans will nearly always make small talk first, just to get conversation flowing. Sometimes Afghans who have significant experience dealing with Americans will get to the point quicker. If a situation is fairly tense, the small talk will be brief.

I had many fairly relaxed moments drinking chai in Afghanistan. I had a few that were not. O and I shared a few chai stories over the weekend.

One of his had to do with getting into a TIC (Troops In Contact, or firefight) with a group of Taliban in the southern Tag Ab Valley who had shot at his group from a higher elevation and then fled in the direction of a village. He and his group of ANA reached the village some time later, intending to search for weapons and evidence of Taliban activity. They were immediately offered chai.

O is quite sure that some of the people serving him chai that day had been shooting at him shortly before.

One of my favorites is the day that I was sent on a mission into an area of the Tag Ab where I had not ventured before. I was the guy who was available to go. The reason was because we had reliable intelligence that Taliban had been in two houses and were possibly still there. They were there for discussions, and they were there to have chai.

This was my first experience going down a particularly miserably narrow alley-like road between the main north-south road in the valley and literally into the riverbed. We parked in the riverbed and the team from the 82nd stayed there while I and my terp accompanied the ANP alone while we walked a couple of miles to the target houses.

We reached the first target house and it was the home of the village Malek, a senior elder position in the village. We asked him about the visitors he had had that day and the ANP searched his house.

They found sixty rounds of 7.62x39 ammunition. AK ammo. In AK magazines. Not good. We detained him and took him and the ammo with us. We then moved a mile or so to the next house and after a search and protestations of innocence from the homeowner, we proceeded back to the district center. Upon my arrival the Wuliswahl, or Sub-governor, of Tag Ab, a man since replaced and who we believed was no doubt "dirty," requested the pleasure of my company. By name.

"Crap."

I entered his sitting room, carpeted with rugs and with pillows arranged around the periphery, to discover three other gentlemen seated whom I had never seen before. One vaguely resembled the man that I had only recently detained. The Wuliswahl ordered chai and bade me sit.

It turned out that two of the men were supposedly Maleks from neighboring villages and the third was the detained Malek's brother. The whole point of this chai was to dissuade me from taking the Taliban-friendly, ammunition-hiding Malek in to the temporary detainee-handling facility we had established at the north end of the Tag Ab Valley.

There were still small talk and solicitations as to my health. I asked how their villages were doing. This was brief small talk. They had an agenda, and they really didn't wish me good health anyway. If they had been able, they would each liked to have killed me; but this was chai. We were dancing an ancient dance.

We drank chai and they expressed themselves thoroughly; alternately asking for and demanding the release of the Malek, vouching for the detainee's character, and asking that we let him go in their custody so that they could bring him in the morning. This part went on for quite some time.

I countered their points with discussion of the finding of prohibited ammunition, his need to set an example, and our belief that he had hosted Taliban for chai in his home. They refuted those claims, his brother offering to let me burn his house with his family in it if his brother had Taliban in his home; a dramatic portion of the dance.

They spoke of his honor, his honor in the eyes of his village, and of their honor-bound duty to seek his release.

Finally, I told them that I understood that it was their duty to come and seek his release, and that they had done their part to uphold their honor.

I told them that I am an askar, a soldier, and that my honor depends on me following my orders. They agreed; that is what askare are supposed to do. I asked them civilly, as I sipped the opposite side of my chai cup, if they were asking me to dishonor myself. The four men assured me vociferously that none of them would ever ask me to dishonor myself.

I thanked them, as I rose to leave, for understanding that my orders were to bring the man in, and I thanked them for not asking me to violate my orders and dishonor myself. I excused myself, bowing slightly with my hand over my heart in the Afghan way, and shook each of their hands mumbling, "Tashakur, khud hafez."

They wondered how that had gone so awry, but the civility of chai provided a safe situation for us all to speak our peace and attempt to negotiate. I still get a chuckle out of the outcome of that discussion, though. Through all of that, voices were never raised. That's chai.

Some of my most unique memories of Afghanistan involved chai.

My first chai was something that I stumbled into quite by accident. In April of 2007, the ANA were practicing for the annual parade in Kabul. It is a big deal, involving a lot of practice. We went to visit them at the area of Kabul where they were staying during this. The team chief and several officers and the Sergeant Major were all escorted about on a tour of the Afghan temporary camp that had been set up, looking at tanks and armored personnel carriers and the like as they wandered about.

The Maniac and I were left watching the humvees while the others were off being feted.

Americans always draw a crowd, and some of the soldiers from the tents nearby began to drift over and try to communicate with us. We noticed that they had M-16's. Their captain, who spoke limited English, asked us to show them how to disassemble and reassemble the rifle.

The rifles had been issued to them for the parade. The Afghan soldiers had no idea if they were going to actually work with these weapons.

I showed the captain how to do it, the soldiers gathered around the front of the vehicle watching intently. The captain would not try it in front of his men, however. Maniac started working with individual soldiers, showing them the same thing and encouraging them to try it themselves.

The captain asked me to chai. Since I could hit his tent with a rock from the vehicles, I accepted and wound up experiencing chai for the first time. I also experienced heavy sugared cream that you dipped into with nan for the first time, but that's a different story altogether.

It all happened in the shadow of ruins built by Alexander the Great.

Framed_old_blue_chai

Afghan chai has nothing to do with coffee shop spiced tea drinks.

"I'll have a double mocha chai latte with just a hint of Madagascar cinnamon..."

But chai is more than the tea. If an Afghan ever offers you chai, take him up on it. Chai is an experience; a hospitable, civil experience that is done nearly the same way anyplace I went in Afghanistan. It's a distinctively Afghan experience.

And they're not supposed to kill you while you're having chai with them.

DEMO |

August 11, 2008

DEMO
Name: Teflon Don
Posting date: 8/11/08
Returned from: Iraq
Milblog: Acute Politics

It’s Day #2 of Annual Training -- that two week part of the “Just one weekend a month, two weeks a year!” that the US Army Reserve Component promises new recruits with dreams of playing soldier. Never minding, of course, those few odd years when there’s a war on.

Tomorrow is the first day of “real training” -- today and yesterday have been administrative, heavy with settling into living quarters and sorting out the rush of confusion that accompanies shipping hundreds of men and tons of equipment to a base hundreds of miles away from home.

Tomorrow is Demolition Day, the best day of the training cycle by far, and the main reason I became a Combat Engineer. I asked the recruiter what Army jobs dealt with explosives; she answered Combat Engineer and Explosives Ordnance Disposal. My nascent impression of the distinction was that Engineers blew stuff up, while EOD neutralized bombs that tried to blow them up. Since I didn’t want to go looking for trouble and get blown up in the process, I decided to join as an engineer. I’ll leave the irony to the reader.

Combat Engineers live for demo. There’s a sense of raw power when dealing with blocks of C4 and loops of detonating cord. There’s a downside, too -- most of us can’t watch modern action movies without comment. Grenades don’t explode into fireballs, and a small satchel charge of plastic explosive won’t bring down a large building no matter how well placed.

On the other hand, we learn how much C4 it takes to cut through how much steel; how much Composition H it takes to blast impassable craters into roads; and how detonating cord explodes at 25,000 feet per second -- fast enough to race in a straight line from Los Angeles to New York in minutes.

On a night like tonight, we talk about intangibles and wishlists, too. How cool would it be to blow up the old tank that’s sitting out on the range? Better yet, how about we take our blocks of C4 and spools of detonator caps and fuse and teach a class on “field-expedient” demo -- the way simple cross-sections of steel with plastic explosive on the back can become simple shaped charges with many times the destructive power of the explosive alone?

I’ve heard older soldiers, experienced with more supplies and less oversight, talk about the way a military shaped charge, when tipped on its side, will send a superheated ball of metal plasma skipping across the desert. If that’s true, could we have shaped charge races? First plasma ball to the end of the valley wins?

Of course, we won’t try it. There’re too many high ranking officers and NCOs around who would take an extraordinarily dim view of the proceedings. Still, there’s a lot of improvised demo that is okay, because the Army Field Manual on such makes it so. I know of at least nine different ways to open a locked door with nothing more than detonating cord, tape, and hard rubber or spare intravenous solution bags. Some are so gentle they remove little more than a doorknob -- others will tear a steel fire door off its hinges and send it into the back wall of the building. I can stand within a few meters of them all.

Really, when you think about it, it’s little wonder that former combat engineers are on the short list of people for the FBI to talk to when something explodes.

P.S. About that demo...A few days after writing the above we accidentally sent a shaped charge skipping in similar fashion to what I described. Seriously, we didn't mean to. We had set up two shots of three shaped charges each, and one of the six charges misfired. Normally, a shaped charge is set up on a metal tripod, pointing downwards to punch a hole into the ground that will be filled with another charge for cratering. The standoff from the ground is required in order for the shaped explosion to fully form. When the one shaped charge misfired, the tripod was blasted away by the concussion from the other five charges, and the misfired charge was left lying on the ground. When we cleared the charge, we simply detonated it where it lay on the ground, for safety.

The blast sent a plasma ball skipping across a tinder-dry grassy meadow and up a ridgeline into a stand of trees and high brush, leaving a line of small but quickly growing fires in its wake. The base wildfire unit put out the fire on the ridge, and we just waited for the fires on the valley floor to die down before continuing to blast California sky-high.

MARINE CORPS MARATHON |

August 08, 2008

MARINE CORPS MARATHON
Name: Paul McCollom
Posting date: 8/8/08
Returned from: Vietnam
Daughter returned from: Iraq
Email: paul.mccollom@gmail.com

I'm a Vietnam Vet (Army, Medic,'69-'70) and have been reading Sandbox posts for almost two years now. The Sandbox became extremely important to me in 2007 when my daughter, a Marine officer, deployed to Iraq as a Platoon Leader/Convoy Commander.

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I read each and every post trying to get a sense of what was really happening over there and, even as an old Vet, I recognize many of the sentiments and the frustrations expressed in the posts.

As a parent, having your child deployed to a combat zone is a nightmare. If you’re a Vet it’s even worse because you don't really have to imagine the bad shit that can happen, you just remember. And as a parent you have a need to “DO” something. For me it had to be something beyond the politics of the war (I don’t even want to go there) and it had to be something solid and significant that would actually support those on the ground and paying the price (more than putting a "Support Our Troops" ribbon on my car or forwarding all those emails with eagles and flags and patriotic songs).

And then I discovered Team Fisher House -- 200 individuals from across the country who raise money for the Fisher House Foundation by running the Marine Corps Marathon; I signed up immediately and it has become my passion. No one is safe from my Fisher House “pitch”, and I speak to organizations and businesses across Michigan (VFW, Marine Corps League, Rotary Clubs, ROTC, etc, etc).

I would guess that most of those who post on the Sandbox know what a Fisher House is, and more than a few of you have had to take advantage of the good work that they do. But for those that don't know, a Fisher House is like a Ronald McDonald house for the families of wounded and injured service men and women. The Fisher House Foundation recognizes the sacrifices of our wounded service members and their families and provides a sanctuary where they can be together during treatment for serious injury or physical therapy. They build, furnish and equip multi-bedroom houses where military families in similar circumstances can stay, free of charge, and provide support and encouragement to each other.

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So far, 38 Fisher Houses have been constructed across the country and since 1990 they have saved veterans' families an estimated $100 million in housing expenses. Right now they can take care of about 12,000 families a year, saving them $10 million, but the need is greater than that and eight more house are being constructed this year, with more planned for 2009 and beyond.

Most of us can’t imagine not being able to go and visit a loved one who is in the hospital, but that is the situation faced by the families of many our wounded and injured troops. They more than likely live hundreds, if not thousands, of miles from the treatment center and even staying at a crappy motel for any length of time eats up scarce cash, especially for the family of a sergeant or PFC. A Michigan Marine Mom was able to stay with her seriously wounded son, at no cost to her, as he underwent more than a year of recovery at different hospitals around the country. In a newspaper article she stated, "I would have never been able to support my son without Fisher House and I will be indebted to them for the rest of my life."

In 2007 I raised $4,100 and Team Fisher House raised more than $280,000. While there are charities out there that pay a runner's expenses if they raise a certain amount of money, Fisher House does not reimburse us in any way; so all contributions go directly to Fisher House.

I will be 60 this year and am not really built for running; my abs are well hidden and my thighs are just made for chafing. While I have completed a couple other marathons I can’t honestly say I have run one; the last three or four miles are always agony and real runners have nothing to fear from me. I run, I trot, I walk, I dance a little, I work the crowd, and I hope to finish before dark. But what I don’t bring to this party in athleticism I do bring in an absolute refusal to quit, as well as a willingness to make a spectacle of myself if front of complete strangers in order to bring a little more money to Fisher House. This is how ugly it got after the 2007 Marine Corps Marathon:

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The bottom line is that my daughter is leaving for her second Iraq deployment in August and I am again running the Marine Corps Marathon (October 26th in Washington DC) for Fisher House. My personal goal is $10,000 and the team goal is $500,000. She is my inspiration, and a part me feels that this is my good luck charm and as long as I keep doing it I will never have to see the inside of a Fisher House.

I hope that I have gotten your attention and that you will support this incredible organization that directly supports those who have truly sacrificed.  If so then please go to this website and make a contribution.

If you're really feeling supportive then please pass word along to others who might be interested in donating as well.

Thanks for Truly Supporting Our Troops.

THE MWR |

August 06, 2008

THE MWR
Name: James Aalan Bernsen
Posting date: 8/6/08
Stationed in: Iraq
Milblog url: http://aalan94.blogspot.com

The MWR is where soldiers and others on base go to relax, sit on real, authentic couches, use computers, play pool and watch television -- although the television's almost always tuned in to wrestling, so I don't think you could call it relaxing. MWR stands for Morale, Welfare and Recreation, and every base has one of these places that ostensibly gives us a chance to unwind and take our minds off the war.

Not that you really have much opportunity to use one when you're on a 12-hour shift like me. Generally, if I'm not working, I'm sleeping or working out. But I do get over there to do a few things on the Internet that I can't do at work -- write on my blog, for instance, or watch videos on Youtube.

They've got a host of activities going on over here all the time. There are volleyball tournaments, for example: Woe be unto anyone who challenges the Tongans. There are horseshoe stakes too. I'd love to play, but who wants to put their hands on a steel horseshoe when the ambient air temperature is 115? They also have evening events, from Karaoke to dancing. There's a Salsa Night and a Country and Western Night. But the other evening, when I came by to check for an email I was awaiting, I stumbled upon Middle Eastern Night.

I've always been of the opinion that the more traditional, the more authentic a form of music is, the more vibrant, exciting and lively it is. It's a product of evolution, not marketing, and I think that there's something special about it. When I was living Southwest Texas just after college, I used to go to a lot of Tejano dances in little dance halls in places like Uvalde or Crystal City. Places where the only Anglo folks in the whole crowd were me, my date and the sheriff. But the music was fun, and no one cared.

I'm also a big fan of the blues, and folks like Muddy Waters or Robert Johnson. Rock and Roll in its early days still had some of that buzz, that vibe, that energy. Jerry Lee Lewis was fun. Chuck Berry made you want to get up and dance. And it sounded real, uncontrived. Not like the crap they put out these days.

The same is true of older country -- the kind of Bob Wills, Ernest Tubb, Lefty Frizzell type of stuff -- which is so much more fun and full of soul than "She Thinks My Tractor's Sexy." Bottom line, if you need to do a poll or ask a focus group to tell you what good is, then you're not playing good music. And the music doesn't have to be old or dated, to have this energy. It just has to be true.

So as I came into the MWR that night, I was greeted with the fun, exciting beat of the latest, but authentic, hits of the Arab music scene. Mostly the work of Egyptian pop stars -- I watch them on MTV Arabia at the barber shop -- it's got that unique beat, pulse and rhythmic singing that just makes you think of the Middle East, the desert, caravans and that kind of thing.

So I found myself typing away at the computer, matching time with my keystrokes to the beat of the songs. After a while, I finished what I was doing and came out into the main room to watch. There on the dance floor was an odd mix of people. Two obviously Middle Eastern women -- probably translators -- were the center of attention. One, wearing a short sun dress and high heels, was probably the best-looking woman I've seen in Iraq, at least outside of the Australian Air Force. The other wore tight jeans and a white blouse. Dancing to the beat, they raised their arms, lifted their heels and swayed around. You could almost imagine them in belly dancer outfits like some scene out of Lawrence of Arabia. Gathered around these women were an odd assortment of U.S. soldiers wearing their Army PT shirts and shorts, male translators wearing 1970s-looking button down shirts, and Iraqi soldiers, who kind of hung off at the side of the room watching, not sure if they wanted to go into such debauchery as actually dancing within 10 feet of a woman.

The Egyptians and Lebanese men didn't care, and they were out on the dance floor in all their uncoordinated glory, having a good time. The dancing, of course, was tame by modern Western standards, and most of the time the men and women didn't even touch. The one exception was when they gathered together in a line and danced together, kicking their feet out and yelling. Kind of like an Arabic version of the Cotton-Eyed Joe. My Arabic is limited, but I think I heard something like "Bull Shit!"

It was a fun night, and everyone was happy. These are good times. Our base hasn't been hit by a rocket in nearly two months (they used to hit us twice a week) and everyone here seems to have a bit more of a spring in their step. Of course, there's still work going on outside the wire, and all these people had long hours ahead of them -- poring over captured enemy documents and translating their contents for the Americans and their allies -- but tonight they could relax, let their hair down, and do what people all over the world all like to do. Have a good time.

ENEMIES WITH BENEFITS |

August 04, 2008

ENEMIES WITH BENEFITS
Name: Alex Horton
Posting date: 8/4/08
Returned from: Iraq
Hometown: Frisco, Texas
Milblog
: Army of Dude
Email: hortonhearsit@hotmail.com

Don't tell the pathetic non-serving members of the old media (and new media), but the surge wasn't wholly responsible for the drop in violence seen in Iraq over the last year. I have outlined the three main reasons violence has subsided, but one of the more important aspects is still largely misunderstood and mischaracterized by the punditry across the country.

The "awakening group" movement first appeared in Anbar in late 2005 (or if you're John McCain, it started in a time warp before and after the surge) and has since grown to a large, lethal force that battles elements of al-Qaeda in Iraq and the Islamic State of Iraq. That is usually where the media narrative leaves you, insinuating that these groups are patriotic volunteers casting out the demons of al-Qaeda.

What they don't mention is both the original motivations for these groups and their history of battling American soldiers. One of the latest to operate (and propped up by my unit in Diyala Province) is the 1920 Revolution Brigade. I covered their nationalist history a year ago, noting that their name was a throwback to the 1920 revolution to oust British influence. So this group in particular didn't start in 2005, 2006 or even 2007, but in 2003 for one reason: to attack and kill Americans. They got pretty good at it. While in Baghdad in late 2006 and early 2007, any group that we battled that wasn't Sadr's militia was likely the 1920s. Their most dramatic act?

Framed_horton_enemies_1

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Above is the crash site of a Blackwater Security helicopter, downed by the 1920s Brigade. My platoon responded to the crash, found the crew members executed, and were caught up in a firefight started by anti-aircraft guns in high rise buildings.

The insurgent group met us head on in Baqubah, being present in the attack that killed my friend, and an IED ambush that resulted in four explosions on three Strykers in just seconds. Yet somehow it was deemed not only acceptable but advantageous to work with these killers. Two months later, we began our first patrols with them.

Without any remorse on our part, many of the 1920s (called "concerned local nationals" at this point) were killed accidentally by our hands at the start of that shaky alliance. American rifle and helicopter fire was the biggest "concern" of these local nationals until they began wearing reflective belts and brown t-shirts.

Some even brought up the notion of killing them once they outpaced their usefulness. Our battalion surgeon, a well respected medical doctor in the civilian world, had the best idea: "Kick the Stryker up to sixty and throw them out the open door."

Framed_horton_enemies_3

Insurgent "Concerned local national" checkpoint stops a deadly kid on a bike as an old man looks on.

Unfortunately, we couldn't take out the trash that easily. We grudgingly worked with the 1920s as per our orders. We were moderately successful in tracking down al-Qaeda operatives (or possibly doing in-house cleaning) and caches. But the point isn't the success of turning over a new leaf with insurgents. We traded in our values, our self reliance to get things done, for $300 a head. We did not destroy our enemy but rather aided them. We secured not only their future success, but the future instability with the Iraqi government. Maliki and his Shia government adamantly oppose the Sunni groups and have said in the past that they will never become a permanent part of Iraqi forces.

But they don't pay the former insurgents, we do, as taxpayers. That's why they're trying to leverage the American military into giving them more money -- the ol' "pay me more or I'm going back to killing you" ruse. And for their part, they'll probably be successful. Commanders know that they're important not for killing al-Qaeda, but for not fighting us. They're not allies, they're enemies with benefits. And they're holding the cards.

Why isn't there an outcry from the media and citizenry about these people? Quite simply, the military led the media by its nose when they characterized insurgents as "concerned" and proudly spoke of them as volunteers. To further confuse people, they were renamed "Baqubah Guardians" and then finally "Sons of Iraq," each name a brighter shade of lipstick for the same dirty pig. They're only growing stronger and more experienced as time goes on, watching coalition forces close up, looking for every weakness.They've already discovered a big one: our over-reliance on their dirty, sectarian work.

Framed_horton_enemies_4

A 1920s member who likely lifted a bullet-proof vest off a dead Iraqi policeman.

You can only pay someone not to fight you for so long before they ask for more and more. We're past that point now, and approaching another tough reality on the horizon. If we're as successful at defeating al-Qaeda as the media says we are, who will our new friends fight, if not us?

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The very definition of "a friendship of convenience."


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