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.

HAPPY THANKSGIVING. LIFE STINKS. |

November 28, 2008

HAPPY THANKSGIVING. LIFE STINKS.
Name: Rocinante
Posting date: 11/28/08
Stationed in: Iraq
Hometown: Virginia
Milblog: Rocinante's Burdens
Email: roci_burden@yahoo.com

Framed Roci THANKSGIVING Thank you all for your warm wishes on this festive holiday.

On a personal note, I am not enjoying life right now. I won't go into why. I have recently been transferred to Baghdad. Everything is worse than it was and not looking like improvement will be likely soon.

The Army hierarchy went to special trouble to make the Thanksgiving meal special.

They started by closing the main mess hall for breakfast, and half of the backup mess hall. They needed to do this to have enough time to decorate. No breakfast for me.

Then for lunch, it took 50 minutes just to get inside. One of the special arrangements was having each customer stand in front of the turkey to get it carved while they (and everyone behind them) waited. Not the best way to serve a few thousand people. I am sure it briefed well. There were also lots of decorations and a visit by Santa Claus.

I am having to type this at an MWR facility, and the computer has a persistent virus that constantly warns me that it has a virus and needs to download a special program (from a suspicious site) to fix it.

THE INCREDIBLE HESCO |

November 26, 2008

THE INCREDIBLE HESCO
Name: Rocinante
Posting date: 11/27/08
Stationed in: Iraq
Hometown: Virginia
Milblog: Rocinante's Burdens
Email: roci_burden@yahoo.com


More pictures of HESCO basket abuse. You may recall my previous post on these marvels of technology and all the wonderful things the Iraqi Army does with them.


Framed Roci HESCO 1

Clothesline. A good use for the twisty corner rods that usually get thrown away.


Framed Roci HESCO 2

Decorative entry gate.


Framed Roci HESCO 3

Decorative fence.


Framed Roci HESCO 4

Bridge over nasty waters.


Framed Roci HESCO 5

HESCO guard shelter.


Framed Roci HESCO 6

Decorative planter boxes.


Framed Roci HESCO 7

Water pump shelter.

 

Framed Roci HESCO 8

Decorative minaret for the camp mosque.


Framed Roci HESCO 9

Shoe rack for said mosque.


Framed Roci HESCO 10

And finally, HESCO bicycle rack.


Is there anything these incredibly expensive pieces of military hardware can't do when cut apart and used in place of raw materials worth a small fraction of their cost?

Last I heard, the IA does not buy any HESCO baskets. They depend entirely upon the US Govt to buy them for them. This is what happens when you give people stuff for free. Waste.

If you find yourself in Iraq, in charge of giving stuff to the IA, and they ask you for HESCO-brand baskets of all sizes "for force protection", just say no.

If they had to pay for these themselves, and really needed them, they might open their own factory and produce them at a fraction of the cost of the ones we get. There is nothing incredibly complex about the basket design, materials or fabrication. But when you get the milk for free, why buy a cow?

PLUSES AND MINUSES |

PLUSES AND MINUSES
Name: Cheese
Posting date: 11/26/08
Stationed in:Afghanistan
Hometown: Binghamton, NY
Milblog: Cheese's Milblog

On RRF* we are subjected to unholy amounts of AFN. AFN, or Armed Forces Network, is just like any collection of television stations who are programmed by field grade officers in a weird mishmash of what they think the soldiers want to see.

Framed Cheese PLUSES 1 Most notable, however, are the AFN commercials. Every one is a PSA, warning me about smokeless tobacco, alcohol and motorcycles. Based on how many soldiers partake of these vices, often in rapid succession, I'm starting to doubt their effectiveness.

Anyway, as part of an Army Pride campaign, they've started airing short segments about technological advances brought on by war. Now, they don't talk about the bombs, machine guns or even the brand-spanking-new combat knife, mostly because we are all giggily and intimately aware of such breakthroughs. Instead they focus on boring yet life-saving medical equipment, jacket insulation and the like.

The RRF shack, for all our progress thus far, has no bathroom facilities. So, when "To Tell The Truth" segued to a "Future Weapons"-like PSA about military research into Perma-loft, I grabbed my hat and  headed to the porta john that sits two speed bumps (read:10 feet) from the back door. As I shut the door, I began to think about the little things -- the technological advances -- that have made this tour different from the last. 


BLUE-WATER

The reason why the porta-john triggered this thought process is simple. We have gone backwards in our development of porta-john blue-water. Standard blue-water smells like soap -- for a short time -- and is tolerable. Apparently someone decided that we might prefer a peppermint smell. Trust me; we do not. In the heat, the smell is the equivalent of a can of Altoids in your mouth, and if you happen to use the facilities just before they are emptied, the smell can forever ruin candy canes for you.


ACUs*

Really, Big Army? What the hell? There's so much velcro on these new uniforms (and yes, I can call them new; I wore my BDUs* until the day we reported for MOB*) that I lose my combat patch at least once a week onto someone else's uniform. The velcro on the pockets lasts for about a week and the camo blends into gravel -- and only gravel. I could go on, but anyone who cares already knows. BRING DCUs* BACK!


COLD / WET-WEATHER GEAR

So long old, bulky, sweaty Gore-Tex! Hello new, lightweight, breathable hood-less Gore-Tex. They actually made a wet weather jacket that fits underneath my body armor. I had given up on this years ago, because if they could why wouldn't they have done it in the first place? I was just issued a softshell jacket and pants. I don't even know what that means, but it's comfortable, and the Army is gonna have a hard time getting it back.

As for the old Polypro long underwear, it was hard to say goodbye. I guess I didn't notice how much it bunched, made me sweat and gave me "layer claustrophobia" until we were issued the new stuff that does none of these things. It rocks, and the Army will never see it again.


ARMY COMBAT SHIRT

The jury is still out on whether this is an improvement or not. It is much more comfortable under body armor, but I'm hoping that the next rotation will get a version that lacks the Army Pride "recruiting over retention" logo and has a higher tensile strength than crate paper.

HESCOS

These were in use when I deployed before, but were not yet everywhere. Now, "Hesco" is more a part of my vernacular than "woman" or "beer." Check the link if you aren't familiar with Hescos and prepare to be amazed. I have to warn you, if you ever spent more than a week filling sandbags, you may want to brace yourself. All I can say is there is a very rich former-Private Hesco out there who now has a hell of a lot of money and plenty of my admiration.

RIP-IT

Rip-It is an energy drink, or so I've been told, that is free in chow halls throughout Afghanistan. Last time, we had free Red Bulls and Burn. My guess is that Rip-It is some new drug they're testing on us, because I've never consumed something that has to be so rapidly evacuated. I guess it keeps me awake, but only because of the concentration required to not soil my Humvee seats.


CRYSTAL LIGHT

During my last tour, there were approximately three tolerable flavors of Crystal Light -- and they came in foil-topped tubs that had to be pierced with a pen, partially mixed into a water bottle, then resealed to use
later. There is now an obscene number of different flavors, two-thirds of which I estimate contain the new "it" fruit, pomegranate. The new uniform even has a calf pocket that I think was developed specifically for the new, delicious, single-serving packets.

Crystal light should be in charge of blue-water scents from now on.

*

RRF: Rapid Reaction Force

ACU: Army Combat Uniform

BDU: Battle Dress Uniform

MOB: mobilization

DCU: Desert Camouflage Uniform

GOODBYES |

November 24, 2008

GOODBYES
Name: T.T. Carnehan
Posting date: 11/24/08
Deploying to: Afghanistan
Milblog: Long Warrior
Email: longwarriorblog@gmail.com

When you graduate the Fort Riley Training Mission and are granted the non-existent but still impressive title of “Combat Advisor,” you are rewarded with a final bit of leave home prior to heading out. For us, this was short -- too short -- but this is always the case.

The pre-deployment leave is a desperate, uncomfortable type of leave. With the impending separation looming large, the entire period is spent in a hushed anxiety with stifled emotion. The elephant in the room puts everyone on edge. You try and assuage the fears, and this is most easily accomplished by trying to change the subject. Confrontation is avoided as much as possible with all those around you. In this setting, one assumes that no frustration is worth a fight, so more often than not everyone agrees with everyone. Using that as a template, perhaps we should deploy both houses of Congress to Afghanistan in the hopes that they all shake hands smile, hug, kiss, and agree on everything before departing.

Such a conciliatory attitude makes the pre-deployment conversations difficult at times. When people tell me what we should be doing, my instinct is to politely ask them to “Shut the f*#! up, and sit there for two hours while I explain what I know of Afghanistan.” What an obscure country, with an even more obscure mission. This is why veterans don't discuss their experiences with their families. It’s not that you will have a Born on the Fourth of July style meltdown, pee your pants, and start screaming at the heavens. The problem is just that no one knows enough to even buy into your conversation. The ante is too great.

No one knows what FOB, ETT, PMT, PRT, DoS, M1151, RG33, DFAC, MWR, HMFIC or any of the three million other acronyms and jargon we use mean. And beyond the language, the reference points just aren't there. To have a topical, free and easy conversation about the subject, I need to have someone who actually knows Afghanistan. It’s a world away, and maybe I’m not the best at communicating it, but if you’re reading my blog posts, keep heart -- as the tour rolls on, I hope to at least partially educate (using the word loosely).

On your final leave there are too many responsibilities. Too many people to see, too many hands to shake, and too many memories to create. You want to spend quality time with every individual that you care about, but the calendar simply won’t cooperate. The time is spread a little too thinly. Really, you miss out on the depth with that one individual you’re thinking about the most. But you realize that even if you had more time, the looming deployment would keep the conversations much the same. More difficult than the amount of people, is the tone of each encounter. The urgency is palpable, and you try to turn each moment into a golden one. More often than not they turn out to be bronze, and sometimes aluminum.

Eventually, right around the last day, the visit comes to a head, and nearly all the pretense of normalcy is dropped. Very few people have a screenwriter living in their head, relaying to their mouth killer lines to deliver at the perfect moment. Instead, people say exactly what is necessary with as little window dressing as possible. Here’s an example of a final goodbye:

“I love you so much.”

“I love you too. Don’t worry, I’ll email or call as soon as I can.”

“Be safe.”

“Don’t forget to take care of yourself.”

IN A RHYTHM |

November 20, 2008

IN A RHYTHM
Name: GruntMP
Posting date: 11/19/08
Returned from: Afghanistan
Training for: Iraq
Hometown: Springfield, MA
Email: gruntmp31a@hotmail.com

(Editor's note: Longtime readers will remember GruntMP's contributions to The Sandbox from Afghanistan in 2006-7, including his tribute to Scott Lundell,  Rest in Peace. As he and his unit prepare to head for Iraq he has begun chronicling their deployment, and we welcome his return to the site.)

We have been here for just over two weeks and this is the first time I've had the chance to sit down and write. It seems that we are finally in a rhythm and I'm not running around all over the place 18 hours a day, which is nice. Things are starting to come together.

I am beginning to realize that this deployment will be very different from my last one, working as an MP officer rather than a freewheeling ETT.  I'm glad I was an ETT first. Working in two-man teams meant I was either the gunner or the driver whenever we left the wire, so I can look my soldiers in the eye and tell them I've been there and done that, and give them advice based on my experience not just textbook answers.

I was afraid I wasn't going to be able to get much reading done in preparation this time, but I think I'll have sufficient opportunity to get through some very relevant material. I won't read the 14 or so books I read prior to deploying to Afghanistan, but the books I do read will provide me with a lot of relevant information that will help me better understand Iraq and the religious divides between the Shia and Sunni.

I finished Packing Inferno: The Unmaking of a Marine, by Tyler E. Boudreau, and Inside the Jihad: My Life with Al Qaeda, by Omar Nasiri. Tyler is a very capable writer, but I think at our cores he and I are very different creatures. I do not grapple with the moral conflicts that led to his undoing. Not because I drank the Kool-aid -- I've always considered myself a JuicyJuice kinda person -- but because by and large I always strove to maintain my individuality regardless of the institutions that I have been a part of. Just a personal observation. I could be completely off base, but I hope not.

Inside the Jihad was not bad once all was said and done. The closing statements to the book were probably the most interesting. It provided some interesting  insight into life in the Jihadist camps in Afghanistan in the mid-1990's. I liked it. I'm going to begin reading two more books tomorrow.

Oh before I forget, we (my company) have a web page that we are going to use throughout our deployment. It is already up and running, and there are photos of the going away ceremony in Taunton. I wasn't there for it, as I came down here two days ahead of the company as the Officer In Charge (OIC) of a small advanced party. We laid the ground work so things were in place when the Main Body (the rest of the company) got here. The site also has photos of some of our training, and as this progresses the site will be a good source of information. There are some really beautiful photos on there.  


"The Nation that makes a great distinction between its scholars and its warriors will have its thinking done by cowards and its fighting done by fools."

    -- Thucydides

 

A DAY IN THE LIFE |

November 17, 2008

A DAY IN THE LIFE
Name: Vampire 06
Posting date: 11/17/08
Stationed in: Afghanistan
Hometown: Folsom, CA
Milblog: Afghanistan Shrugged

Our first patrol here in Bermel was quite exciting, a short jaunt down to the Paki border to check on the outposts there. These outposts routinely exchange fire with Pakistani Military (Pak Mil), so who knows what could go on. A little insight as to why the two countries shoot at each other might be valuable here: One of the Pak Mil outposts is actually 500m inside of Afghanistan, thus the Afghans aren't happy. Now it's pretty clear from the map that they, the Afghans, are correct. So this is the setting we're rolling into.

As we prep to depart the FOB an interesting piece of info passes our way. Someone outside the FOB can see us, and knows we're prepping to move with the ANA. Additionally, he's reporting to his martyr-hopeful buddy where to emplace an IED in order to to hit us. This doesn't make us happy, in point of fact it's a tad bit of a bummer. We quickly huddle and decide that we should change the route. Seems like a prudent decision!

We start to move. We're still getting reports that they're trying to get ahead of us and emplace an IED on the route. We're trying to get recon in front of us and get some close air support (CAS) to screen us. The tension level is building now. Imagine you drank 10 espressos one morning prior to leaving for work and then drove in rush hour traffic. This might approximate the feelings we're having right now. 

CAS finally appears on station and we start trying to talk them onto our position, which, due to the fact that we're convoying, is changing constantly. Plus everything in Afghanistan looks the same -- i.e. "I'm by the brown mud building" just doesn't work. It's like saying, "I'm next to the Starbucks" in Seattle.

The CAS is a flight of two F-15Es. Oh, and meanwhile back at the ranch we're now about 800m from the reported position of the IED. Tension is much higher now, at about the 20 espresso level.

The pilot, a female (this is significant in that Afghan culture doesn't value women the least little bit, so if they knew a woman was about to bring the smackdown on them it might offend their sensitive cultural morays), calls tally on our position. This means she can see us. We're now about 300m from the IED. I'm trying to get her and her wingman down to conduct a show of force mission. Show of force is the jets flying very low, very fast and very loud to announce to the Taliban that we will pound them into oblivion if they do something. We're now 200m from the IED.

At about 150m the driver turns to me and says, "Dude, where's the F-15?"  Which now makes me laugh at a totally inappropriate time. Because this is funny!  Ashton Kutcher couldn't have done any better. We could be blown up soon, but this is really funny. I reply, "Dude, it's inbound 30 seconds out with good tally,"  Meaning they are 30 seconds away and can see us. Now it's even funnier. 

BOOM!  It's not the IED: The F-15 screams overhead. If this is designed to confuse us, it does, and we all check to see if anyone is now BBQd. The pilot calls overhead, a little late, and we drive on to the order. Anticlimactic, yes, disappointing, NO! 

A day in the life of an ETT; scared to death, laughing like crazy and relieved, all in the same moment.

TEAM FISHER HOUSE |

November 13, 2008

TEAM FISHER HOUSE
Name: Paul McCollom
Posting date: 11/13/08
Returned from: Vietnam
Daughter stationed in: Iraq
Email: paul.mccollom@gmail.com

Now that the Marine Corps Marathon is over I want to express a heartfelt THANKS to each and every person or organization that contributed to Fisher House Foundation in response to my requests (begging, pleading, etc). Together you gave an amazing $11,500, and more than a third of that amount came from Sandbox readers. In total the 285 runners making up the 2008 Team Fisher House raised an incredible $380,000!

Framed McCollom during race
Here I am (in the yellow shirt) at about mile seven, not yet feeling the pain and enjoying a great fall day. The Twilight Zone was waiting and things would change in a couple of hours.

My promise was that I would absolutely refuse to quit and that I would make a spectacle of myself for Fisher House. I delivered on both as I finished slowly, in great pain, and ugly. How ugly was it? So ugly that children screamed and ran, women fainted, grown men cried, Marines scoffed, and a group of peasant villagers were passing out torches and pitchforks.

Okay, I'm exaggerating somewhat, but while it did really hurt a lot over the last six miles I finished all 26.2 in just over 5 ½ hours. But my contributors are the real Champions for Military Families and whether they believe it or not they were with me in spirit. Their support, and thinking about those that need and use Fisher House, sustained me, and I quite literally could not have accomplished it without them.


Framed McCollom after race  Although I look fairly happy here it’s only because I’m done and sitting. Fifteen minutes earlier I was clutching the fence just past the finish line and barely able to walk.

As I’ve said all along the marathon is simply a tool for bringing attention to Fisher House, so to help personalize this I am going to tell you two stories about Michigan families:

A Marine Mom in Saginaw called me after she heard about my fundraising activity. Her son was wounded in an IED incident just over two years ago, and was treated in three different military hospitals over a 13 month period. She was with him the entire time and told me that had it not been for Fisher House they would have had to sell their home and declare bankruptcy. Her son now lives at a local half-way house as he continues his struggle to lead an independent life.

Another local family's son was badly burned more than a year ago in an IED incident. They too have spent months staying at a Fisher House in Texas as he continues his treatment. In addition to providing them with a place to stay the Fisher Foundation has paid most of their travel expenses as well.

Stories like these are repeated daily at each of the 42 existing Fisher Houses. There were 38 Houses at the beginning of 2008, there will be 46 before the end of the year, there are seven more scheduled for next year, and more are needed.

As for my daughter, 1st Lt. Rebecca McCollom (soon to be Captain), she is in the third month of her second Iraq deployment and remains my inspiration. She is well and working hard at doing whatever it takes to make sure that the Marines in her Company fulfill their mission, operate professionally, and return home safe and sound when their deployment ends. I was lucky enough to get a call from her as I was walking back to the hotel after the marathon. She was excited about my finishing and said that next year she will run with me on Team Fisher House 2009 and will “kick my ass”. I told her that I would hold her to that commitment, but if she doesn’t outrun me by at least an hour the Marines will probably kick her ass for embarrassing the Corps. By the way, you should consider this an early warning that I will be hitting on you again next year, asking that you continue your support for those who continue to sacrifice on our behalf.

I have a final story: A young soldier was near me at the start of the race, and I continued to see him from time to time over the course of the marathon. When I hit my personal “wall” at mile 20 I lost track of him, but I found out later that he went on to beat me to the finish by almost 15 minutes. I was ecstatic for him and moved by his accomplishment because he was running on one leg, damaged from combat wounds, and a high tech prosthesis.

So that’s my story of Team Fisher House and the 2008 Marine Corps Marathon. There is a lot more that went on during my training, and I have great stories about some of my contributors and more anecdotes from the marathon, but this is already longer than I wanted it to be. Since I am now committed to Team Fisher House 2009, if you have fundraising ideas for next year or would like me to talk to a group or organization just let me know.

You made a difference, my passion continues, and I will plod along towards the next Marine Corps Marathon finish line on October 25, 2009...

VETERANS DAY |

November 10, 2008

VETERANS DAY
Name: RN Clara Hart
Posting date: 11/11/08
Stationed in: a military hospital in the U.S.
Milblog url: macneillysperspective.blogspot.com
Email: clarahart2@yahoo.com

With all the talk of the elections, the economy, the housing crisis and the financial bailouts, for too many Americans the wars have slipped into nonexistence. I was sickened listening to the radio one morning this past week; reporters speaking with people waiting in line at various polling places found the most prevalent thought in the minds of Americans was the economy. What about our troops? Has America forgotten our sons and daughters who fight on foreign soil? Or their families who struggle silently alone?

For several weeks I have drifted south in a mire of sadness, depression and fatigue. War is what
took me there, these wars most people seem to have forgotten. I walk into work and the war is clearly evident. It is heartbreakingly apparent -- from the patients lying in the beds, to the families sitting in the waiting rooms, to the returning nurses, medics and physicians whose battle has now become PTSD. 

Weeks ago I attended a funeral at Arlington National Cemetery. I watched the wife and children of the soldier laid to rest walk toward the gravesite. Tears flooded my eyes as my ears were filled with the sobs of his preadolescent boys.

Recently I cared for a patient, newly arrived from Iraq after being shot. He was a little confused, as most are. His behavior vacillated between somewhat normal and slightly inappropriate; furthermore I seemed to be the only one he listened to. When he flipped off a commanding officer he had just met I stood between the two and admonished him that I didn’t want to ever see that particular hand signal again. I then turned to the CO and shooed him out of the room before the dressing down could begin.

Later that day after hearing “Clara!” bellowed in a frantic, fearful tone, I hurried into his room to find him holding his IV tubing. He looked at me with panic-filled eyes and said “Clara! It’s a trip wire, somehow they got in here and wired me! I’m gonna die." Many, many moments later I finally convinced him it was not a trip wire and he was not going to explode and die. I then carefully moved the tubing into a position where he could not see it, and distracted him with the latest football scores.

Yesterday I listened to a medic talk. Recently returned from OEF, the only way he could sleep at night was with prescribed sleeping pills, and even then he still had nightmares. While conversing I mentioned a MASCAL* I worked as a medevac nurse, a bus accident on a highway. On final approach to the LZ I looked out the helicopter window to see bodies lying on the pavement.  He said, “Yep, I seen that too, only on a dirt road and the bodies were all kids.”

Today another nurse called, one already suffering from compassion fatigue, who had put in for a transfer to another section where the stress was lower. Tired and distraught, she told me her marriage was falling apart, her husband had left, and she was in serious emotional trouble. I told her to go pack her pj’s, hop in the car and head over, promising a slumber party.

Today is Veterans Day. While I personally continue to fight against compassion fatigue and PTSD I will remain where I am, caring for the veterans of OIF, OEF and GWOT. I only wish I didn’t feel as if awareness of our troops has faded into nonexistence and that the wars we fight have been forgotten. You see we pay a heavy price, and for that price is it too much to ask America at least remember?

*MASCAL: mass casualty/disaster

NOTHING TO FEAR |

November 08, 2008

NOTHING TO FEAR BUT FEAR ITSELF
Name: Cris Misner
Posting date: 11/7/08
Husband stationed: Overseas
Milblog: June Cleaver After a Six-Pack   
Email: Carlcris2000@yahoo.com

The one thing I hate the most about my husband being deployed is not feeling safe. Although his life fight is to help others be safe, when he is gone... I feel very vulnerable.

Last night someone was jacking around in my backyard. They were tapping on windows and walking on my deck. I lay in my bed paralyzed with fear. Thoughts of, "Is this just my mind playing tricks on me because I watched CSI before bed?", "Is that just the groundhog that we have living under the shed in the back lumbering about out there?", and "Do I call 911 because I am about to be killed?"

I crept my way through the house checking on each of my children before I sat and decided what I needed to do. Now, some of you may be yelling at your computer right now: "CALL THE POLICE YOU STUPID WOMAN!" and that thought did go through my head, but for some odd reason I didn't want to bother the police because I did not know what or who was in my backyard and chances are it was nothing, so I didn't want to look like a crazy woman calling the police out and have them come to my rescue because a groundhog came out to see his shadow. Or, it could have been a serial killer about to cut me into little pieces. I had a 50/50 chance.

Fear is a powerful thing when your husband is on the other side of the world and you think you are about to be eaten by a ground hog. The mind is a horrible enemy that never helps you to calm down but forces you to think of all of the horrible possibilities that could be lurking in the shadows of your flowerbed-bordered backyard.

I decided to call my neighbors, and they graciously met me at my door and walked through my yard with me at 1 o'clock in the morning. Whatever it was was gone. I was able to fall asleep by 3:30 in the morning and had a refreshing three hours of shut eye. Just what a crazy woman needs -- sleep deprivation.

It is times like these that I wish I had super powers. Or a 300 lb. bodyguard. Do men ever freak out from fear or do they just turn over and go back to sleep? I wonder...

THE SEPTEMBER 11 FLAG |

November 05, 2008

THE SEPTEMBER 11 FLAG
Name: James Aalen Bernsen
Posting date: 11/5/08
Returned from: Iraq
Milblog: James Aalen Bernsen

On September 11, 2001, I was working as the Deputy Press Secretary for U.S. Senator Phil Gramm in his Dallas office. I woke up that day and as if my instincts told me something would be different, changed my routine. Fixing some breakfast, I had turned on the television and had just started to eat. The anchor was seated in front of a vast backdrop of the New York skyline, in which one of the twin towers of the World Trade Center was engulfed in a wreath of smoke.

As I watched in fascination, the reporter said that there was no indication that the attack was related to terrorism. At that point the source of the explosion wasn't even certain, much less the instigation behind it.

But seconds later, all doubt was removed as a massive fireball appeared on the screen and the second of the twin towers was struck. Literally as I watched.

I immediately gave up my breakfast and hurried to my truck, and drove into work, listening to the radio reports and trying not to lose my composure. Arriving at the office ahead of my coworkers, I rushed to my office, and turned on the three televisions I normally used to track the Senator's media appearances. Turning them all on different channels, I then called the Washington D.C. office and talked strategy with our head press secretary. Nothing like this had happened in America since Pearl Harbor.

With three televisions, my office soon became the gathering ground for our staff. We were watching when the Pentagon was attacked, and when a plane disappeared over Pennsylvania. And we watched in horror as first one, then two, of the twin towers collapsed.

Franklin D. Roosevelt had said after Pearl Harbor that "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself." But fear itself is hard to fight, when the true scope and nature of the threat are nebulous, the origins undetermined. Not knowing who or what was targeted, the order was given by the Senate to evacuate all capitol offices in Washington, and shortly after, the district offices as well. Soon, the staffers -- mostly young, 20-something kids -- gathered in the state director's office. In subdued tones, we stood in a circle and prayed. I will remember to my dying day the image of one of the girls, wiping away tears. Just the day before, she had been a carefree youth with no fear in the world. That day, I saw fear written large across her face. Across the face of a fellow American. Someone who had never done anything to hurt or oppress anyone, but was a target nonetheless, as we all were.

And then they left, all of them. Except me. I had been asked -- and agreed -- to stay behind to man the phones. With the D.C. office mandatorily evacuated, I became the only office contact for the Senator. Throughout the rest of the day, I answered press calls and drafted press releases for him in consultation with the D.C. press secretary, who gave me guidance on the phone. As he read off the Senator's words and I typed them out, the gravity of the moment was impressed on me. After finishing up the press release and sending it out, I was suddenly confronted with an aweful silence in the room. My televisions were muted and with my work done, I felt both relieved and drained.

It was then that I began to contemplate at last the new age we had entered, and to consider what my role in that age would be. Certainly, in my job, I was in a greater position to act and shape the world than I had been in even a couple of years before as a small-town journalist. But was this a real role? Was it enough to simply type out a press release calling for a war on terrorism and leave the fighting up to other people's sons, daughters, mothers and fathers?

I felt compelled at that moment to drop everything and sign up for the military. It was a natural, emotional reaction. But there was a catch. In two months, I would turn 30 years old, and that was the cutoff for most military recruitments. It seemed that my destiny would be to watch, from the sidelines, a great drama unfolding without me. For many, this would have been a relief. For me, perpetually inspired by heroes of older generations, it was a torment.

September 11 was a Tuesday. That Friday, I walked with a friend to the Catholic Cathedral in Dallas for Mass. Passing through an indoor mall, we stopped at a booth for the American Red Cross. They were taking donations of anything and everything. I reached into my wallet and found only one piece of currency -- a fresh, $100 bill. And nothing else. After a moment of hesitation, I handed it over. The woman who received it was stunned. I didn't look rich, and despite a great-sounding job title, government work doesn't make you rich either. But it was something, and I felt I had to give. After I had passed her the bill, I felt a growing sense that I had done the right thing. It was silly, really, to worry about $100 when so many people had lost so much.

Almost as an afterthought, the woman stopped me before I could walk away, and gave me a small plastic American flag. "Thank you, and God bless you," she said. I took the flag and carried it with me to the prayer service.

As you can no doubt guess, I have kept this flag with me throughout the years. I kept it as I made the decision to join the Navy Reserves after finding a program that would take me and let me serve despite my age. I kept it as I was commissioned, as I went through my first year of training. I kept it through my second and third years as I served as a reserve officer, putting in weekends working on projects that relieved the strain on the folks on the front lines. Finally, my time came to go forward as well, and as I packed last July for my year in Iraq, I mused for a moment on the flag, hanging on my bookshelf. I pulled it down without a moment's hesitation and stuck it into my backpack.

My flag was with me through every part of my journey. It was displayed proudly in my foot locker at Fort McCoy. I carried it through Kuwait, and it was in my backpack as I boarded the C-130 to Iraq. Moving into my new trailer, I stuck it on my wall. It was there, and emerged unscathed as that same wall was riddled with shrapnel following a rocket explosion last November. Though the wall nearby was pierced, the flag was untouched.

Finally, as I left Iraq, it was with me. At my last stop in theater, at Camp Arifjan, Kuwait, I unfurled my tattered September 11 flag and snapped a picture -- something I had never gotten around to doing up to that point. It's only a small piece of plastic, but it's a reminder -- a bind -- which ties my service today to that moment so many years ago when we all felt small, unempowered and vulnerable. And yet it reminds me of all that I did throughout those years to change from a civilian who could do nothing, to a serviceman who could do something. My role may have been small -- but like a voter on election day, one person, doing their small part, can make a big difference, when multiplied by thousands.

And across America in the last few years, thousands and thousands of Americans did just what I did. They all had some experiences which they look back to, which reminds them, just as my flag does. And like me, those thousands of Americans are doing their part. As I left Iraq, I knew it was in good hands, because so many of those people had come and so many would follow. Somewhere, deep down, we all have a little flag which inspires us -- a small, insignificant token which represents something greater, something noble, and something to which we are willing to dedicate our lives. And that's what keeps us going.




Framed Bernsen flag

THE U.S. ARMY SUPPLY SYSTEM |

November 02, 2008

THE U.S. ARMY SUPPLY SYSTEM
Name: Rocinante
Posting date: 11/3/08
Stationed in: Iraq
Hometown: Virginia
Milblog: Rocinante's Burdens
Email: roci_burden@yahoo.com

The US army supply system has many advantages over that of the IA. Still, we have many problems too.

1. First, let it be known across the land that the U.S. Army lacks for nothing that is essential to winning or protecting troops' lives. We never say, "We don't have enough money" when it comes to what we need. Still, there are some things we just can't get and other things we get deluged with that we really don't need.

2. Fully half of the equipment I was issued at Fort Riley has never been taken out of the bag. And everything I was issued there was brand-spanking new. The U.S. Army bent over backwards to ensure that everyone had everything on their deployment list, and in the right sizes. That included things like wet weather gear and ponchos (if you have one, what do you need the other for?) for soldiers going to countries that are famous for not raining.

3. Since I have arrived here, my supply system has delivered in about 60 days things like high quality knives (Benchmade brand), Leathermen, and expensive flashlights (Surefire brand). None of which I would call "essential". We have no trouble at all getting as many non-essential expensive "gifts" as we want. Every week, it is like Christmas when the supply truck arrives. What is Uncle Santa bring us today?

4. We have also received some things that the previous team ordered. Things we can't identify and we don't know why the other team needed them. For instance, we received two small metal clips that are labeled "contact, electrical". We don't have a clue what they are for.

5. We also have an endless supply of "sign here" Post-it notes. We have boxes and boxes of these and no earthly use for them.

6. Some of the things we get we just have to scratch our heads, because we don't know why anyone would ask for it -- i.e. 25 cases of Lemon Pledge. We can't give most of it back. No one else wants it either.

7. Some stuff that was ordered by a previous team two years ago is now just coming in. We can't cancel orders that are already coming in. I can only imagine how much brand new stuff goes into the dumpster every month just to get rid of it.

8. We also have trouble getting some of the obscure stuff we really need. And we always get excuses like, "That is easy to get, all you have to do is fill out the proper requisition forms." We did, and we are still waiting.

9. We also get stuff that seemed like a good idea at the time, but the guy ordering it didn't read the fine print. For example, how about some rechargeable batteries -- AA, AAA, and 9v. All very useful. And some chargers to go with them. Except the chargers only work on 110v power. Iraq and U.S. bases in Iraq use 220v. OOPS!


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