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.


October 30, 2008

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...


Sounds like Vietnam all over again - where the bigwigs tried to micromanage right down to the individual level -and we will get the same results.

I get it. Nam Redux. Micromanagement from a gold plated dweeb. Usually with some strangelovian affectation about what human behavior OUGHT to be. And yeah, predictable results; screw-up, passive aggressive reisitance, incompetence bordering on sabotage. IOW, behaving just like you're being treated.

Don't blame you one bit. Deal with it any way you like. Except fragging. Bad idea. But yeah, our guys did some really STUPID things, under direct orders, because, well, they faced disciplinary procedures if they did not. Usually they faced discipline when the lying cockroach (Officer and Gentleman, by Act of Congress) tried to tell their superiors they had, in fact, given no such order. Oh, yeah, morale was an issue then too.

Think you guys do an amazing job! Keep up the good work!

Guess the brass thinks that a SUPER President that will tell them exactly what to do with the Joes they were issued will make them happy? You should be required reading at West Point, but it wouldn't stick after the struggle to make Major, would it? Do your best and we'll try to take care of what's left.

Guess the brass thinks that a SUPER President that will tell them exactly what to do with the Joes they were issued will make them happy? You should be required reading at West Point, but it wouldn't stick after the struggle to make Major, would it? Do your best and we'll try to take care of what's left.

This is so true. I'm a reservist just back from Al Asad, Iraq and there were folks in my unit i hardly saw during my year in the sandbox. It wasn't that they were on secret squirrel missions or whatever, they were just holed up in there "tin cans" watching Heroes and the like. My unit had deployed to Afghanistan in '03 (i was still in training) and it was a much differant experience. There stories had that element of comraderie that i think we could all use in this stage of the war, when the FOBS feel more like state-side duty stations. That feeling of friendship, of finding joy in the simpliest things (such as throwing small rocks at a bigger rock 25 yards away and see who hits it first) is what i enjoy most about my service, and what motivates me to suck it up and put on that uniform whenever my number is called.

I hear you, but I also wonder if you just got stuck with a bunch of bad Joes this time?

You hit the nail on the head and +1 to making this required reading for leadership classes at West Point.

The enforced idleness you're describing is completely hellish whether in war or out of it. It produces bad results no matter where it arises. When there's nothing to do but watch movies and grouse about the heat, of course everyone feels like crap.

And you're absolutely right about the micromanagement. That's another thing which pretty much universally destroys morale, typically without producing other good results which might have justified all the misery. Ugh!

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