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.

MORALE |

October 30, 2008

MORALE
Name: Cheese
Posting date: 10/31/08
Stationed in: Afghanistan
Hometown: Binghamton, NY
Milblog: Cheese's Milblog 

I never thought it would get this bad. I feel ashamed to even talk about how miserable it is here while people are living in much worse conditions other places. That being said, I've lived on patrol bases before and they were heaven compared to this.

There are many things that are hard to explain to people who have never been in the military, and the "Joe" mentality is one of the hardest. "Joe" is the nomenclature for the average lower-enlisted soldier. Joes are often Specialists (don't even get me started on the E-4 Mafia -- that's a whole 'nother post in itself), but the term can include NCOs and officers, depending on the situation.

Joes, however different they may be, have certain basic characteristics, most of which are often attributed to a gang mentality. Joes spread rumors like pro's, they are easily whipped into a frenzy, etc. Most importantly;Joes are heavily influenced by morale.

Now, morale is a tricky subject. The Army likes to think that morale is affected by things like the availability of Burger King or Salsa Night, but it's not. In fact, I bet you'd find that the overall morale on a particular base is inversely proportionate to the facilities that the base provides. Sure, internet is great, and so is decent food, but I have never had higher morale than when I lived on a tiny outpost in the middle of nowhere in Iraq. My morale there was based on baby-wipe showers, a warm sleeping bag and, most importantly, camaraderie. Here, Joes sit in their rooms, surfing Myspace, interacting with each other only when missions so dictate -- or for the occasional smoke break in between downloaded movies. This is a different war, and a different stage of that war.

It's sad that there's a whole generation of soldiers that won't know what it's like to sit in folding chairs, shooting "near-beer" cans over the wire, or how much fun a scorpion fight can be. More importantly, these guys are missing out on the kinds of missions that build soldiers. I was a better Joe when I was in Iraq than I am now. I would work for days on end because I was motivated to do so.

I couldn't say at the time what it was that motivated me, and I guess it was that camaraderie and the pride I took in my work. Here, there is very little to be proud of. Sure, we patrol and that's more than many can say (not that I'm knocking people whose jobs keep them inside the wire, I'm just referencing my guys' mentality here), but it's still mind-numbing work for troops that have spent a good chunk of their lives preparing for war.

That, combined with a belief that the command is ignoring us (a belief that I think is right on the money), saps morale. We are not allowed to act as highly trained soldiers. Every step is dictated by echelons above us. Ultimately, we all either become solely motivated by a desire to not have our free time interfered with by punishment, or stop being motivated all together.

Now I may be rambling here, but I'm okay with that. I have a lot on my mind and I'm happy enough getting it out where someone above me in the chain may see it -- in a language that they'll understand, and that won't offend my readership (that last part has been the hardest thus far). If you want Joes to listen to you, you have to trust them. Joes make mistakes, but those mistakes are never as catastrophic as the fallout from command environments like those found at Camp Phoenix. None of my previous bases have had karaoke nights, ready access to internet or massage parlors, but you still never saw the theft, the vandalism or the hostile attitudes that are plaguing this base.

Joes can be abused. They are resilient. That being said, the very second that they feel that they are being treated like children, as they are here, they will begin acting like children. This is when sensitive items get stolen, when General Order #1 gets violated and when soldiers begin cutting dangerous corners.

If you let the company commanders take control, let the platoon leaders decide how missions will be accomplished, let the squad leaders decide how their individual trucks will be run, etc, troops will be too busy to get lazy or get in trouble. Leaders may think that micromanagement saves soldiers from getting in trouble, but Joes know the right decision 99% of the time -- and they deserve whatever punishment comes from making the wrong decision. Joes will most often make the right decision if they are allowed to make it for themselves, rather than having it dictated directly by an officer who has no business speaking to them. If not, you get Camp Phoenix...

HOW TO DEAL |

October 29, 2008

HOW TO DEAL WITH A RETURNING SOLDIER
Name: Alex Horton
Posting date: 10/29/08
Returned from: Iraq
Hometown: Frisco, Texas
Milblog: Army of Dude
Email: hortonhearsit@hotmail.com

I received a bit of feedback from my post about the feelings of coming home from a deployment, and a couple of emails from women who have a romantic link to a deployed soldier asked for advice on the flip side of that coin -- how to deal with a returning soldier. I've never set foot in an FRG* meeting, so I'm not familiar with the concerns and worries of wives and girlfriends of a deployed soldier, but I hope my comments below benefit the kind women who inquired, and those out there that have unanswered questions gnawing away at them. 

How often do soldiers want to receive letters (especially if you have rare access to internet/phone)?

The answer is simple: all the time, especially if contact by phone and internet is limited. Forget mp3 players, DVDs and X Box 360s -- letters from home, and especially from a woman, provide the ultimate comfort and peace of mind to a soldier in a war zone. No matter how long a deployment feels, they're ultimately finite. The link back home must remain strong to keep a soldier's head level, and writing letters to them is instrumental. When a young lady named Lauren was writing to me, I treasured every letter sent, reading them over and over. They came with me everywhere. As long as there has been war, there have been letters sent from home to the men fighting, as a delicate reminder of what was left behind.

Ideally, what do you want to hear from your friends?

This is a tough one. All my loser friends from home couldn't be relied upon to send an occasional e-mail while I was deployed. My only friends were to the left and right of me in Iraq. But if you're a better friend than what I had, let them know what you have planned for their return. If it's a party, a get-together with other friends, a getaway to a favorite spot, whatever. It provides something to look forward to, a familiar setting for a place that will seem a world of difference when the soldier returns. A year, fifteen months, however long the deployment is -- a lot has changed in society. Familiarity is key to reintegration. When I left, the coolest thing cell phones did was flip open. When I came back, phones had keyboards. It was incredible, strange and confusing all at the same time.

Be sure to keep them up to date with news.Toward the end of my deployment, we spent anywhere from 3-10 days in the urban wilderness of Baqubah.When we came back to the base, sweaty, filthy and exhausted, the only news we caught was at the dining facility, which was permanently set on Fox News. I could only rely on Bill O'Reilly and Fox & Friends for news, which is like relying on a prostitute to give you safe-sex tips. Let them know what's going on in the world using whatever means you like -- phone, emails or letters.

What do you NOT want to hear from your friends?

Don't ask obtuse questions like "How hot is it?" and "Did you kill anybody?" It's offensive and flippant. Let them know how things are going in your life, but don't approach it as something they're "missing." They know. Don't press the issue.

What can a friend do to bring her soldier out of his darkness, besides consistent messages of support and willingness to listen or just sit with him?

Let him decide when to open up. It's not something to coerce out of him. He knows you'll listen intently with empathy and support. That's not the issue. The issue is him being comfortable enough with what he has seen and done to talk about it openly. It takes time, and unfortunately everyone is different regarding this issue. War does not leave anyone untouched, physically or mentally. Something about him will change. Your best bet is to recognize that and do your best to understand why the change happened. It could take six months or six years for him to come out of his shell. Be patient.

Is him wanting to be alone to decompress and adjust normal for someone coming home from war, even when you have loved ones who want to be with you?

This is a position of extremes. A soldier will either want to be surrounded by loved ones immediately, or he'll want to be alone to sort out his feelings. Everyone is different, so there's no real solution to this if he wants to do something contrary to your wishes. He knows what's best for him to do, so go along with it. Just be sure he doesn't get on that slippery slope of alcohol abuse. It happens like clockwork to returning units, and the first line of defense is other soldiers and loved ones. Keep an eye on him but don't be intrusive.

Hopefully this provides at least a shred of insight for those looking for answers during trying times. If you want answers to your own questions, either leave a comment or email me at hortonhearsit at hotmail dot com.

* FRG: Family Readiness Group

WHAT WINNING LOOKS LIKE |

October 26, 2008

WHAT WINNING LOOKS LIKE
Name: Rocinante
Posting date: 10/27/08
Stationed in: Iraq
Hometown: Virginia
Milblog: Rocinante's Burdens
Email: roci_burden@yahoo.com

Well, we are finished with the first third of our tour here. Four months into it and still not a sight nor sound of combat. Still think we are in a quagmire? In case you were wondering, this is what winning looks like. It is what we have always wanted here. A peaceful Iraq that is no threat to its neighbors.

Framed_roci_peaceful_1_2

A busy market street.


Framed Roci THIRD 4

The area in the background is a crowded market area. It is like that every day.



Framed Roci THIRD 2
A car load of children on their way somewhere. Note that seatbelt use is not encouraged here. This being the modern age, and no cars being manufactured anywhere in the Arab world (except Detroit, and not many there), every car manufactured in the past 30 years has seat belts included. They just don't know why anyone would use them.


 Framed Roci THIRD socball

Street urchins sell boxes of tissues. Arab drivers must use a lot of tissues for some reason. Older kids move up the product chain to selling fruit, canned soda and other objects that I can't identify.

The boy in front is demonstrating the international symbol for "give me a soccer ball" --  hands in front facing each other, while doing a kicking motion.The Americans who were here before these kids were old enough to walk must have given away soccer balls like candy. We never have, but they make the motions every day when we pass them.

Another gesture they use -- hands holding an invisible bottled beverage to the lips as if drinking from it -- is the symbol for, "I am dying of thirst because my parents make me work in the hot sun all day and don't give me any water. Please give me your Gatorade."

Of course, we wouldn't dare give them anything. We know the system too well. If you give one something, the bigger kids will beat him up and take it away.Then the smaller kid will expect you to make it better by giving him another one. We also don't throw candy at them from our vehicles because we don't want them darting out into traffic to get it. It may seem selfish on our part, but the Third World is not a place of rainbows and unicorns for children. As one of my interpreters once told me, "Did you know that we actually have soccer balls in Iraqi stores? If their parents wanted them to have a ball, they would have bought them one."


Framed Rock THIRD guns

Captured guns, taken away from assorted bad guys. In Iraq, every house is permitted to have one AK-47 rifle and some ammunition. Any more than that and they are up to no good. The penalty for having too many is having all of them confiscated. We also captured some brand spanking new RPG-9 rockets. They were still in the factory wrappings from Iran, with production labels less than three months old. Anyone out there think Iran is not at war with us? (Clue: They have been for thirty years).


Framed Roci THIRD Penguins


Ending on a light note: More Penguins.

THIS STUFF |

October 24, 2008

THIS STUFF
Name: RN Clara Hart
Posting date: 10/24/08
Stationed in: a military hospital in the U.S.
Milblog url: macneillysperspective.blogspot.com
Email: clarahart2@yahoo.com

“You could be the poster child for nurses," said one of the docs.

“Uh huh.”

What’s that supposed to mean?

I don’t want to be a poster anything. An hour left to go on my string of 12-hour shifts, I anxiously await the arrival of my relief. One more shift not going home on time. Another patient crashing, circling the drain and all of our energies focused on trying to save them.

Another family, a husband and grown daughter this time. Huddled in a chair, tears free flowing. Me hardening my heart and turning away. Busy with my own patients and devoid of emotional reserve to share, I call the CDO’s* desk and ask that they send the chaplain forthwith. It’s all I can do. 

Another night shuffling out of the building too tired to think. Grateful not to have to return the next day, or the one after, but finding sleep interrupted by dreams of MASCALs* and dead bodies everywhere.

A group of nurses and techs attending the funeral of one of our OEF patients.Talking with young coworkers, hearing about their tears, anxiety and nightmares. Listening to them put to voice all the symptoms of compassion fatigue, PTSD and whatever else we struggle with. Another aerovac arrives and hell starts again. No relief in sight, we get no help.This stuff gets to us.

*
CDO: command duty officer
MASCAL: mass casualty/disaster

IN A TIME OF WAR |

October 21, 2008

IN A TIME OF WAR
Name: Teflon Don
Posting date: 10/22/08
Returned from: Iraq
Milblog: Acute Politics

I recently received a copy of In A Time of War, Bill Murphy Jr.'s book on the West Point Class of 2002.

I started reading a random chapter in the middle of the book, and quickly stopped and restarted at the beginning. I couldn't put it down. Murphy offers an amazing look inside the warrior culture that drives men broken by war to return to the battlefield. He writes eloquently of commanders good and bad, of fobbits and frontline grunts, of homesick soldiers and of the too-often forgotten "home front" of worried, scared and proud wives and families.

In A Time Of War took me back to Iraq. I smelled it, heard it, and tasted the dust. This is more than a book about West Point cadets; this is a book about the entire thin line -- volunteers all -- that protects and defends our great nation. It belongs on the shelf of anyone who cares to understand the military and its culture.

If you want to know what pre-surge Iraq looked like, if you want to understand why soldiers volunteer for multiple tours, and conversely, if you want to understand why those same soldiers serve their time and leave, you should read this book.

CREDENTIALS |

October 20, 2008

CREDENTIALS
Name: Scott Kesterson
Posting date: 10/20/08
Returned to: Afghanistan
Milblog url: c/o bouhammer.com

Getting around Afghanistan is slow and challenging. My destination was ultimately to the east, Gardez, and then further east towards the Pakistan border. To get there from Kabul, you have to fly north to Bagram, then fly south and east from there. Being that I had to complete my credentialing process for American forces in Bagram anyway, the trip north worked in well with my final destination.

As I arrived back at Camp Phoenix, I was informed that I had three hours to be ready to go to Kabul International Airport. The plan was to move me to the ISAF side of the airport, get a room for the night and then try to secure a flight the next day to Bagram. I called the Public Affairs Office in Bagram to notify them of my forthcoming arrival. I was given a contact number for when I arrived, and told that they would have someone available to pick me up. When I mentioned my experience with ISAF and media credentialing, there was a pause and then the NCO at Bagram added, “We will get you credentialed in fifteen minutes once you get here.” I packed my things, and then headed to the staging area near the front of Camp Phoenix for my trip to Kabul International.

When I was embedded in 2006 / 2007, transportation to Kabul International was done in large five ton trucks with armored cabs, wooden bench seats in the back, a canvas top and sides, and floors lined with Kevlar blankets. So I was a bit surprised when I discovered that transportation to the airport was now done using an armored bus. With a design reminiscent of a Winnebago on steroids, the entire concept reminded me of the movie Stripes. Air conditioned, leg room, individual seats encased in blast-resistant plating with emergency gun ports. We loaded, and sat back for the ten minute drive.

Once there, we unloaded bags and got ourselves situated. With a room for the night arranged, I headed to the flight terminal to put myself on the standby list for the morrow's flight. As I approached the counter, I started to laugh. The person running the flight scheduling was dressed in civilian clothes, but had been in the same position as an Oregon Guard Officer during my previous embed. He looked across the counter with surprise, “Scott, what the hell are you doing here?”

Funny thing about this war is that it seems likely that you will cross paths with someone you know. Like the time I was sitting on the back of a Canadian “G-wagon” bumper at a resupply point in the middle of Helmand Province, only to hear someone call my name. I looked up to see a line of vehicles, American and Canadian, stretching across the Ring Road and disappearing into the horizon. As I looked, I could see a dusty figure walking towards me. It was a 10th MTN Lieutenant that I had met a month earlier in a small fire base in eastern Zabul province. War brings about a randomness as much as it brings a fate. Destinies cross.

And here I was again, looking at a face of a friend that I never expected to see in Kabul; as he looked at me the same. Needless to say, I was on the roster for the morning's flight. After I settled in, and unpacked what I needed for the night, I headed out to get something to eat. The military side of Kabul International Airport is ISAF / NATOs “Club Med -- Afghanistan.” With over five unique military stores, referred to as “PX’s” representing the different NATO/ ISAF countries, several restaurants, a coffee shop, free wifi and a large dining hall, the war in Afghanistan takes on a surreal feel. So I embraced it and had dinner at the Thai Restaurant.

I had eaten here during my last embed. The food was excellent, especially considering where we were located. I took my seat, as the waiter brought me a bottle of water and the menu. I selected two dishes and waited for the waiter to return. Next to me were three officers from Denmark. They were studying the visual menu closely as the waiter arrived at their table to take their orders. It soon became apparent that they had little experience with Thai cuisine. As the waiter worked his way around the table, one of the officers spoke up, “Is the shrimp fresh?” It was all I could do not to choke laughing on the sip of water I had just taken. Did this officer realize what he had just asked? Did he consider where he was? Afghanistan is landlocked. The closest thing one will get to “fresh” shrimp will be via Pakistan or by frozen container via air. That is, unless the Afghans had created some form of shrimp pond farming I was unaware of. I finished my water, still laughing under my breath, as the waiter arrived and took my order.

The meal was excellent, and took me away for a moment from the war that is continuing around the country outside of Kabul. It has been nearly 15 months since I was last here. Nothing much seems to have changed. If anything, ISAF forces had been increased, while Kabul International has grown more distant from the reality I am soon to face. I walked back to my room, grabbed my things for a shower, set my alarm and fell asleep.

At 4:30 a.m. my watch alarm woke me up. I quickly got dressed, grabbed my bags and headed to the flight terminal. I checked in and waited for my flight. The other soldiers were going on leave. There was an eagerness in their waiting. And then we were called for boarding, walking through two sets of doors with small glass windows, our hats tucked into our cargo pockets, as we walked single file onto the tarmac to the waiting twin engine Blackwater airplane. As we filed passed our guide, we handed the soldier our boarding passes and took our seats. Ten minutes of flying later, we landed at Baghram Airbase.

Once on the ground we were met by a ground crew who directed us towards the terminal. I called the Public Affairs office and was met by a staff member within 10 minutes. My greeting was the typical formal politeness practiced by military personnel, “Welcome to Bagram, Sir. We’ve been expecting you. Are these all of your bags? Have you had breakfast yet?” The doors of the SUV were closed, as I took my seat on the passengers side, and we headed to the dining facility. After a quick breakfast, we drove to the Public Affairs Office, where I was given a room and credentialed in fifteen minutes as promised. From that point the day was mine to relax and enjoy.

The next morning came quickly. I grabbed my bags as I was met by one of the Public Affairs NCOs waiting to drive me to the rotary flight wing. He helped me carry my bags in, as I checked in and was directed the waiting area. Helping me to the point of my seat, the Sergeant First Class wished me safe travels, told me to call if there was any issue, and left. A short time later I heard the last four digits of my social security number being called. Once again I grabbed my bags, loaded them onto the waiting truck and walked to one of the many Chinooks lined up on the flight line. After nearly one week to the day, my embed was about to begin.

Framed_kesterson_credentials

Looking out of the back of a Chinook on the Baghram flightline.

ORIGINS OF A DEPLOYMENT, ORIGINS OF A BLOG |

October 16, 2008

ORIGINS OF A DEPLOYMENT, ORIGINS OF A BLOG
Name: Old Blue
Posting date: 10/16/08
Returned from: Afghanistan
Milblog: Bill and Bob's Excellent Afghan Adventure

I had tried to deploy to Iraq twice with units from my home state of Ohio, but neither worked out. After my second go-round with the sons of Ohio, a fellow senior NCO, who had also volunteered, called me the day after we had both been told that there was no room for us with the deploying unit and gave me some information.

He told me to go and check out the NGB (National Guard Bureau) website and check the "Deployment Opportunities" page. I did, and found a spreadsheet with the projected needs for soldiers of all levels and many different MOS's listed. He also gave me the phone number of the SGM (Sergeant Major) at the deployment branch.

The spreadsheet didn't show any needs for someone with my rank and skill set, and so I called the SGM and asked him what he had projected. After a brief conversation about my skills and experiences, he told me that I should consider becoming an ETT in Afghanistan.

"ETT... Okay. What's an ETT?" It is said that a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. My journey of seven thousand miles began with three letters. I was stumped, and turned to my friend Google.

"Oh, mighty Google," my supplication began, "what in the hell is an ETT in Afghanistan?" Thousands of pages of information were suddenly at hand.* I dug in earnestly, seeking. I read a ton of stuff. I began with "One Valley At A Time," and a progression of white papers, articles and, finally, blogs.

Very few blogs. Two captivated my attention. One was Scott Kesterson's KGW Afghanistan Blog, sponsored by a Portland, Oregon TV station and written by an independent journalist who volunteered to go with Oregon's 41st BCT (Brigade Combat Team) as they assumed the TF Phoenix mission. Scott's writing is powerful. His videography is stunning. Scott finished an independent film about his experiences, "At War," earlier this year. Trailers for the film are available at the KGW blog link above.

Scott Kesterson touched me deeply with several of his posts, and became one of my heroes for his ability to convey the experience. Having had the experience, my respect for his ability has only grown. I hoped to meet him in Afghanistan; it was not to be.

The second blog was written by a National Guard Senior NCO from New York named Troy Steward. His blog, Bouhammer's Afghan&Military Blog, gave me more than theoretical information on the nature of the mission. His writing and pictures brought it home for me. Through all of this information, the mission became real, and I began to be a believer. Troy's blog was a huge part of this growth.

The perspective that I gained from Bouhammer gave me a sense of reality and prepared me for the challenges; the frustrations with Phoenix, the need for constant patience with the Afghans, the reality of small teams in remote locations with tremendous shortages and incredible odds to overcome.

I also perceived the sense of accomplishment; the tiny victories of  enlightenment, the incremental change that meant so much, the camaraderie and humor. Bouhammer's portrayal of life as an ETT was realistic, straightforward, and unromantic.

Troy's blog gave me the ability to peek inside the mission and get a glimpse of what men were going through seven thousand miles from my home. His blog inspired me and, with my own innate desire to serve, convinced me that the ETT mission was more than worthwhile; it was a calling.

His writing did something else for me. It made me think about writing, too. I had never seriously considered the idea of blogging. I didn't really understand what it was. Scott Kesterson is a writer by trade; Bouhammer is a soldier by trade and a writer by choice. He was sharing, for whatever reason, freely of his experiences, and I was a beneficiary.

It was Troy's blog, more than any other single thing, that gave rise to the impetus in me to write my blog. I never knew where that would take me. I've had a lot of great feedback, and I love it. Many have encouraged me to write a book; it's in the works. I'm a small player in the arena of blogging, but I do what I can, and I've spoken honestly about many things and have lent my small voice to help on a couple of occasions. I'm glad that I've had The Adventure as an outlet and a voice to add to the chorus.

I'm a blogguppy; a very small fish in a big pond, but I've been visited a few times. This blog has been read in every state in the Union, Guam, every province in Canada, every country in Europe (including Lichtenstein,) Norway, Sweden, Finland, Lithuania, Latvia, Afghanistan (go figure,) Pakistan, India, China, Hong Kong (still China, but I'm claiming it,) Singapore, Malaysia, Viet Nam, Thailand, Philippines, Korea, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Algeria, Morocco, South Africa, Egypt, Israel, Iraq, Iran, Chile, Peru, Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, Belize, Honduras, and Mexico.

Just to name a few.

Oh, and in the motherland; Ireland. I know that they count as part of Europe, but I wanted to give a shout out.

That's some legacy, huh Troy?

*ETT: embedded training team

BACK IN THE STAN |

October 14, 2008

BACK IN THE STAN
Name: Scott Kesterson
Posting date: 10/14/08
Returned to: Afghanistan
Milblog url: c/o bouhammer.com 

Editor's Note: Late last year, after returning from Afghanistan, frequent Sandbox contributor Troy Steward posted this piece about embedded journalist Scott Kesterson's award-winning documentary AT WAR.

From the windows of the India Airlines Airbus A320 the barren dusty hills surrounding Kabul came into view. As I watched, the brown haze that I remembered from my last trip blocked a clear vista of the city. Kabul is a dirty city; Afghanistan a dry and unforgiving land that somehow finds a kinship within your soul. It is a country that grows on you, offering its strange if not desolate beauty, amongst the war, the poverty, and its ancient ways, to every traveler that crosses its lands. What develops is a relationship of extremes, the proverbial love and hate, as if to emulate the culture of war that has found refuge for so many years within its borders. In an odd sense, I felt like I had returned to visit an old friend.

People and faces speak an unspoken language. The two Americans, husband and wife, I had met during my layover in Delhi were now sitting in the seats across from me. They were UN workers; as we got closer, she put a shall over her head to blend in more with local customs. In the seat in front of me was a young man, black hair greased back, wearing a black leather coat and smelling strongly of cheap perfume, curled up in his seat, sound asleep. The stewardess tried to wake him for a snack and drink. He woke for a moment and waved her off. Ahead of the Americans were three men seated side by side. The plane had plenty of empty seats, but they remained in their assigned place, one asleep, the others sitting motionless for most of the flight. They each wore slacks, slip-on leather shoes and long sleeved button up shirts with open collars. All these images were of a collage called Afghanistan.

The first time I flew into Afghanistan I came with the soldiers on military aircraft. There were no customs, only in-briefs, threat advisories, and directions to the various things we would need on the base while we waited for transportation to Kabul. This time I entered like every other civilian. We exited the airplane greeted by both Afghan National Police and Afghan Army soldiers directing us all to a waiting bus. As we packed in, there was the normal verbal excitement of orders being giving, an argument with the bus driver and finally the bus began to move.

Framed_kesterson_stan


Walking off the plane and back into the Stan.


Afghanistan is a developing country trying to find itself. It reminds me of young boy who wants to be an adult, who then emulates his father by reading the paper that is nearly as big as he is, offering opinions as if backed by years of wisdom, or dressing up in his best clothes to leave the house for his day at the playground. As I sat on the bus I could see the terminal. It was so close that I figured that we were being taken to another location. Instead, we were driven a distance of no more than 25 meters. The Afghans were offering the service expected of any big country’s international airport, even though Kabul International was neither big nor busy. The ride on the bus fulfilled the expectation regardless of the fact that I could have walked to the terminal with greater ease.

Once inside we waited while passports and visas were checked, and pictures taken. I then moved to the baggage area just behind the customs entry point. The airport has one baggage carousel surrounded by eager baggage handlers waiting with their carts. You don’t rent a cart, you rent a handler, paying him enough to gain his loyalty to get you through the maze of gates, police, and refugees and to the parking lot where my ride was waiting. In the end I paid two handlers $60 to do what I could have done in the US for $3. Then again, this was Afghanistan.

Kabul is a safe city. Our media reports tend to highlight the incidents of IEDs or the like, but those events are more the exception than the rule. Kabul is also the center for NATO / ISAF command. Our allies have sold this war as a peacekeeping or policing action to their respective publics. As a result, NATO / ISAF goes to great lengths to over ensure safety, even in the city like Kabul. The US now falls under NATO/ ISAF command, so for me that meant that the rules imposed on the US military were so strict that it was nearly impossible for them to guarantee a military pickup from the airport. I knew this before I came and therefore arranged to be picked up by an interpreter that had worked for a close friend of mine who was also a Major in the US Army National Guard.

With my bags now successfully moved from the customs point to the parking area, the two men I had hired waited. I used their phone and called my ride. He was on his way. Since I had never met him, I described my clothing and waited. As the time passed, the baggage handler called him again, speaking to him in Pashtun. A short time later my ride arrived. He greeted me, along with his friend, and we began moving my bags to his car. It was then that I discovered that he was not the interpreter but the interpreter’s brother. I found myself suddenly cautious, recounting my steps since I had arrived. I had spoken to the interpreter only twenty minutes before. He had assured me he would be there. Now I was being told that he was in Kandahar, not even in Kabul. My mind was racing, as I began to strategize my options.

I began asking questions through casual conversation as we loaded my bags into his car. I didn’t want to seem suspicious, only a bit overwhelmed with the trip. I chose questions that would be difficult to answer if he was not in fact related to my interpreter. He opened the passenger door, and asked me to get in. His responses to my questions were beginning to allay my caution, but I still wasn’t sure. As we drove from the airport, with his friend seated behind me, he handed me his phone, “It is my brother. He wants to talk to you.”

Traveling in a country like Afghanistan you have to accept that everything has a price. Rooted in tribal loyalties and individual survival, it is a place where trust can be swayed by threat or by monetary bribe, especially if you are a Westerner. I took the phone from the brother and was greeted by the voice of the person I had spoken to when I first arrived. “Hello, brother. How are you? I am so very sorry for not being able to meet you. My mother is sick in Kandahar. I sent my brother in my place to welcome you to my country. I hope your arrival was without issue and that my brother is treating you well.” I could feel myself relax as we continued our drive to the brother’s office for tea.

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On the way from the airport.

In the traditions of Afghanistan, a guest is seen as a gift from God. Once a guest is taken in, no matter if he comes from an unfriendly tribe, it becomes the responsibility of host to protect him for the remainder of his stay. The confusion at the airport began to make sense. The interpreter had promised to pick me up prior to my arrival. Though he had been called away the day prior, to say that he could not pick me up would have been an insult to God. So he sent his blood brother in his place. In the Afghan way, this was a gesture of great respect; as I would be told later by the interpreter’s brother himself, “I do not know you, but as a friend of my brother, you too are my brother, and I will protect you the same.”

We arrived at the brother’s office at the edge of Kabul. I was led to the upper floor, through the open stairwell; a dusty corridor of white walls and grey steps. At the top we followed the edge of an inner balcony that looked down into an interior court yard. The building was run down, covered with the fine talc-like dust that becomes part of everything you wear and own. As we entered through the last door on the right, I was directed to a sofa where I sat as additional friends came in to say hello. If there is one element of Afghan culture I admire it is the simple elegance of the ancient ways of hospitality.

We talked. Tea was made and served. We moved to the adjacent room, as more tea and small snacks of dried dates and nuts were brought in. I was asked if I would like to share in lunch, and I agreed. As I nodded yes, I suddenly realized that all that were present were in the middle of their annual fast for Ramadan. I quickly recanted and told the brother that I could not eat out of respect for their fast. He simply smiled, “You are our guest, I have already sent for food. Please have some more tea.”

We continued to talk and get to know each other. After an hour or so, a lunch of stewed lamb, rice, the traditional flat bread and fresh grapes was served. I sat and ate awkwardly, fully aware that all of this had been prepared solely for me. The others smiled, and reminded me that they would eat after sunset.

With another serving of tea, we closed the afternoon. I was given a cell phone as a welcome gift so that I could remain in touch and let the brother know I was safe. I called the Public Affairs Officer at Camp Phoenix to inform him I was on my way. We descended the stairs, returning to the car loaded with my bags. The brother wished me well, but stayed behind to prepare the evening meal. Guided by two of his friends, we drove to Camp Phoenix where they parked, each carrying one of my bags to the front gate. As I said my goodbyes, I was handed a large bag of dried nuts and dates. “Take care my brother. Let us know if you need anything.”

We shook hands, and I entered through the turnstile gate, welcomed by two New York Army National Guard soldiers waiting on the other side.

THE THING I CARRIED |

October 10, 2008

THE THING I CARRIED
Name: Alex Horton
Posting date: 10/10/08
Returned from: Iraq
Hometown: Frisco, Texas
Milblog: Army of Dude
Email: hortonhearsit@hotmail.com

Out of the Army and into school. That was the simple two-step plan that many of us adopted before we deployed in the summer of 2006. Nearly half of my platoon would be getting out if and when we made it back home from Iraq. We focused the best we could when it came to preparing for the mission, but there is no helping the excitement in the prospect of starting a new chapter of life on the government's dime.

In the run-up to the deployment, a lot of guys were buying their own equipment to take with them. It is generally accepted that government issued equipment is inferior to what you can go out and buy yourself. The assault pack was one of those things. It's just like a backpack except with a sweetass name. The only problem was the zipper sucked something fierce and it held no more than a high school backpack. I'm the kind of person who wants backups of everything. Extra knives, batteries, carabiners, socks. I needed to haul a lot more than what the issue assault pack could carry.

Jesse hooked our whole squad up with aftermarket equipment. His dad's company sponsored us with thousands of dollars to buy magazine and utility pouches, vests and other luxuries. Jesse budgeted himself enough to buy a new civilian assault pack. He didn't need his old one, so he gave it to me.

"You can use it for the deployment, but you have to give it back to me," he said. "But if you decide to reenlist, you can keep it."

"You'll definitely be getting it back," I replied.

I made the secondhand assault pack my own. It was well-worn after one deployment but still held together fairly well. The bottom corner was tearing. Jesse had written his Hawaiian name, Keawe, in thick, black lettering on the front. I sewed on a nametape to cover it up. I wrote in small print "24 Nov 2007" -- the day I was getting out of the Army -- below a message Jesse had written: For those who would NOT serve.

In Baghdad, I carried my assault pack everywhere we went. It was becoming a routine to leave our base in Taji and spend up to a week in smaller bases in the heart of the city. We began to live out of our assault packs, bringing whatever we could stuff in there. Mp3 players, books, movies, chess sets, snacks. I carried all of Lauren's letters with me so I could read them over and over. The rain had stained the notebook paper blue and red.

Jesse was always asking me when I was going to get a girlfriend. On the day I was going on leave, Josh told him I had a girl writing to me from Seattle. While my platoon went to check out insurgents loading weapons into a car, I stayed behind and told Jesse the unlikely story of our relationship. "Damn dude, good luck with that shit," he said.

Two weeks later, Jesse was cut down by small-arms fire in Baqubah. He would survive some time before passing away. I could not possibly avenge him; I was two thousand miles away. I heard about his death in the most undignified way; a Myspace bulletin read in an internet cafe in Rome.

Framed_horton_pack2aa_2 Coming back to Iraq after leave, I looked at Jesse's assault pack a lot differently. I still carried it with me everywhere, but I treated it a lot better. I no longer tossed it off the Stryker into the dust. I didn't shove it into small spaces on top of the vehicle. In the outposts where we lived, I used it as a pillow.

The assault pack is not an assault pack anymore. It's a backpack. I no longer stuff it with extra grenades, ammunition magazines or packages of Kool Aid. It now carries textbooks, calculators and pencils. I started my first classes a few months ago to fulfill the plan two years in the making. I imagined it to be a seamless transition into civilian life. Boy, I was fucking naive, even when I came home. I saw some guys falling apart from PTSD, getting drunk or doing drugs to drown it out. I thought I made it out okay, relatively.

With my unassuming tan backpack at my feet, I break out in a sweat if I even think about mentioning Iraq in the classroom. I let it slide nearly every time, yielding the topic to daftly opinionated classmates. I feel like a foreign exchange student, confused about the motivation of my peers. I literally carry the burden of readjustment on my back, not wanting to let go of my past but anxious to get to the future. Fractured into part war veteran and part journalism student, who I am speaking to determines which part of me is actually there in the room. To many, my past is my best kept secret. For all they know, my parents pay my tuition and do my laundry. I can be honest here. It's terrifying to be honest out there. Perhaps it's best that way.

For those who would NOT serve -- It's faded now, not easily read unless you look closely. I secretly wish that another veteran will read it, see the dangling 550 cord hanging from one of the buckles and ask, "What unit were you in?" At least then I could be myself with someone that carries the same load on their shoulders.

IT KEEPS ME WARM |

October 08, 2008

IT KEEPS ME WARM
Name: Cheese
Posting date: 10/8/08
Stationed in: Kabul, Afghanistan
Hometown: Binghamton, NY
Milblog: Cheese's Milblog

Due to the current state of the GWOT, especially here in Kabul, we tend to forget that this is war. Don't get me wrong, I believe in helping the Afghan people as much as possible, but our (and by "our" I mean the military's) primary mission here is to seek out and kill the people responsible for the attacks that occurred seven years ago, and those that would aid them. We have a saying here that helps a lot of people through their tour: "embrace the hate." Now, you can say whatever you want about hate not being an adequate motivator, but it is best way for me to make sense of my role here. Even in Iraq, when American troops were killed you had two choices. You could listen to the combat stress briefings, talk about how senseless their deaths were and just check out for a few days, or you could embrace the hate that burned in your stomach, get back on your truck and go find and kill those responsible.

Seven years ago today, I was in my high school math class when I heard that a plane had hit the World Trade Center. I was watching live as the second plane struck. I am thankful for having that image to carry with me, as a reminder of all that I felt in that moment. I readily admit that more than fear, sadness or even concern, I felt unchecked rage and hate. Those feelings have not been tempered or dissipated. I carry them with me, just as I carry two KIA bracelets, to remind me of what I'm really doing here. No matter how many blankets or bags of rice I hand out to the well deserving people of Afghanistan, I will always be ready and willing to close with and destroy all who attack us, because that, above all, is my job and my mindset.

IMAGES FROM IRAQ |

October 06, 2008

IMAGES FROM IRAQ
Name: James Aalen Bernsen
Posting date: 10/6/08
Stationed in: Iraq
Milblog url: James Aalen Bernsen


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Why does Saddam's architecture always look like a bad set design from a Conan the Barbarian movie?


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A close-up over the window. This looks like a quote. Probably from Saddam. Nobody else in Iraq is worth quoting, apparently.



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What in the world could be cooler than a concrete swan?


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Except, perhaps, a concrete chicken...

 

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This is the abandoned mosque on base. Something blew it up between the first time I went by it and now. Most likely a rocket, and it was probably months back, since we've had I think two rockets on the entire base in the last two months. Good work Jihad Joe. I think if you blow up a mosque you pretty much ruin your chances of getting into paradise.


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The Rhino Runner making its morning trip. I've done this a few times, and fortunately it was a quiet ride.


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When we just drive around the compound, however, we use more conventional transportation: a Ford Ranger or Ford Explorer. The next few pictures are from a trip we made to another base also in the compound.


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If you don't have access to a vehicle, there are bus lines.


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The roads are pretty poor where they are actual roads. They're constantly working on them, and we often have to take a detour through sand. Fortunately, they've finished this section here.


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But they aren't going to make progress if the Pakistani guy is sleeping on the job. To quote Blazing Saddles, "It can't be more than 114!" Actually, I checked about an hour later. It was 113, but that thermometer was in the shade. Our truck, by the way, can cool the air down with its A/C unit to about 105 before it gives up.


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Oh, those nice folks in the Army safety office really know how to give you happy thoughts. This sign reads: "Narrow Roads + Fast Driving = Death!" Thanks. Happy happy, joy joy!


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On the other side of the wall there's a billboard for the Iraqis, which is at least more inviting. Beautiful blue skies and clouds and a green blob of Iraq. I'm sure it probably says something like "Calling in the tip line and reporting evil men will make Iraq a happy place again. With fairies dancing and lollypop trees!"


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A bunch of MRAP Vehicles. These are some mean SUVs. They crush lollypop trees.


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Wind + ubiquitous trash + miles of barbed wire = a fenceline strangely reminiscent of a Mexican border town.


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I say, anyone for tea?


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Sorry, no time for it. These guys are about to go down IED alley with nothing but up-armored Chevy Suburbans. The next time you hear some politician going nuts about how much contractors make in Iraq, ask them if they'd like to put their faith in an up-armored Suburban. It takes some serious intestinal fortitude to ride in a vehicle whose gun turret is an open hatchback.


ICE |

October 03, 2008

ICE
Name: RN Clara Hart
Posting date: 10/3/08
Stationed in: a civilian military hospital in the U.S.
Milblog url: www.mcneillysperspective.blogspot.com
Email: clarahart2@yahoo.com

Today, I came to the realization that I long for the days when I was a coldhearted, cynical trauma/medevac nurse. It was so much easier taking care of inner city trauma patients, where the knife and gun club was in full swing and the much used excuse of “I was just standing on the corner minding my own business and this dude, this dude, man, he comes up and shoots me for no good reason” was ever present.

Now I long for the days when I didn’t care. For the days when the majority of my patients were where they were because they had been doing something they shouldn’t. For the days when I had no compassion. For the days when a scornful sneer was the expression fixed upon my face as I listened to my drunk or stoned patient alternate between whining, cussing and crying. For the days when I wouldn’t even attempt to make time to deal with the wife or mother reeking of alcohol claiming her baby was "a good boy who never got into any trouble",  though this “good” boy had shot four people.

Four years ago I made a change, and in making that change my heart melted. But now some indifference would be welcome, a reprieve for a heart that hurts too much. I want to be that cynical nurse again, the one so cold and standoffish they nicknamed me "the ice princess". God, please! I want that ice. Please take away this pain.

Today, my first day back to work after ten days off, I learned that a patient I have cared for since June has taken a turn for the worse. He was shot in Iraq and gravely injured, and his wife has been at his bedside since the moment he came through our doors. A woman my own age, she and I quickly became friends. She has nothing left of her life before his injury, and her children have been uprooted to live with their grandparents so she can be with him.

She stood up when she saw me and started to talk. She said she had learned from the doctors that due to the latest setback he would no longer get better. He would spend the rest of his life needing 24/7 care and remain in a vegetative state. She said knowing her husband, that would not be what he wanted. Today she made the heart wrenching and difficult decision to withdraw life support. Tears rolled down her face. I wrapped my arms around her shoulders and whispered to her, ”If there were anything I could do, I would do it.”  She nodded and told me she knew I would. We stood that way for a minute, her stifling the agony inside her and me brushing away the tears flowing from my eyes.

So the children came. After we spruced him up, put on his favorite aftershave, I watched his children come into the room. I watched as they crawled up on the bed and lay beside him. I watched these children, far too young, say goodbye to their dad. Tomorrow when the children leave for their temporary home with their grandparents we will begin to withdraw life-supporting care. His wife asked me how long it would take after we stop everything. Hours, days, weeks? I don’t know and I could not give her an answer.

Tomorrow when I go back to work I will begin the process once again of helping a family whose loved one is dying. Please, can I have that ice?

WHEREFORE ART THOU ROMEO? |

October 01, 2008

WHEREFORE ART THOU ROMEO?
Name: Cris Misner
Posting date: 10/1/08
Husband stationed: Overseas
Milblog: June Cleaver After A Six-Pack
Email: Carlcris2000@yahoo.com

This really does suck you know. Sure, sure, I am supposed to be the strong military wife that we all like to imagine. The one who can handle everything that comes her way while her better half is on the other side of the world. Sounds romantic doesn't it? The strong wife keeping things afloat at home while her soldier is fighting for those less fortunate? Well...it isn't.

Today was a bad day. The kids are making me go crazy. Seriously. Crazy. The older two cannot say a kind word to one another if you paid them. If she says the sky is blue he says it is a aqua hue. If he says he brushed his teeth, she pretends to pass out from the smell of his breath. If she says that she needs another bottle of acne cream, he falls over laughing and pointing at her. I was tempted to put duct tape over their mouths earlier. I would have too if I could have found the duct tape, but all I could find was Hello Kitty band-aids. They weren't even waterproof.

The five year old has decided to be a dog for the past few days. A dog that has just had a litter of puppies and is lactating. That's right. She lays on her side and "attaches" little stuffed puppies to her tummy and says she is feeding them. She also pretends to go potty outside when I let the "real" dog in the house out. What are the neighbors thinking? At least she isn't barking at people. My friend's daughter used to bark at me when I would say hello to her. "Hi Susie, how are you today?" "Ruff Ruff" "Nice dog, Susie."

The baby is teething, which means she has a runny nose and slobbers all over everything she is wearing. I can't really complain about her though because she is a baby and that trumps anything bad that can be going on. One look at her and I melt. Thank God for babies.

It does not help that I feel so disconnected from my husband. 15-20 minute phone calls every other day are just not hacking it. I mean, I am a woman who likes to speak her 25,000 allotted words a day and now I have no one to listen to my theories on why I think Angelina Jolie eats only cottage cheese and laxatives and how the speed limit should be raised 10 mph if you have to go to the bathroom really bad. I cornered the mailman the other day and started telling him a story about unclogging my son's toilet until I realized he was slowly backing away from me and trying to slide into his little square mailman car.

We have tried to IM (that is "instant message" for all of you readers out there who only come online to read my blog and check the weather) but he will be knocked offline every 30 seconds or so and after I have written a small novel about life out here I will realize that it is all one-sided and he hasn't gotten any of it.

So if I start writing blogs about the water bill or what I am going to cook for dinner, just understand it is because I am in need of an outlet other than the BBC's "You Are What You Eat."

I miss my husband. Not just because it is lonely at night, but because I don't have anyone to listen to me talk. Oh, and because he used to hang up all of the clothes that I throw on the floor of our closet and now I can't even see the floor and I have nothing to wear. It would be nice to have the bathroom trash emptied as well. And my bedside table lamp light bulb has burned out and now I have to turn the bright 100W overhead light on. And my van needs gas.

*Big Sigh*


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