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.

SANTA GAVE US C4 |

December 31, 2008

SANTA GAVE US C4
Name: Vampire 06
Posting date: 12/31/08
Stationed in: Afghanistan
Hometown: Folsom, CA
Milblog: Afghanistan Shrugged

In  a previous post I wrote about finding an IED underneath a building and then discovering that the building was an ACM* headquarters.

Yes, I'm still calling them ACM despite the popular move to call them EOP, Enemies of Peace, by our higher headquarters at CJTF-P. Boredom must have set in at Kabul and for Christmas they decided to give us a new acronym to call the Bad Guys. I'm still unsure why Bad Guys isn't descriptive enough; it's accurate (they're bad), simple ( we all know who we're talking about) and Infantry proof (even I can remember it). I'll drop this line of thought as it will force me into some tirade.

Anyway, we'd visited this abandoned town previously and discovered a large IED. (Please remember the rules of IEDs -- that there are no small IEDs.) When we pulled back from the town the ANA* mortared the building and it was pretty darn effective. In the meantime the ACM (Bad Guys) decided to move next door. Neighborhood Watch isn't great here.

A small caveat for those of you who like to critique what we do: This town is abandoned. Which means no one lives here, nor have they lived here for a long time. I say again, nobody lives here, so please don't write me a comment about COIN* and destroying people's houses. The only dudes who live here are bad. Now some wise ass is going to ask me, "How do you know they're bad"?

I have two main criteria that I use to determine if dudes are bad or not. These were developed through rigorous research and study. The bulk of the research into bad-guy determination was conducted by noted social scientist Don T. Killme and published in his book Hey,Those Dudes Are BAD. You may not be able to find it on Amazon but if you act now and send me $50 I can find you a copy.

Criteria number one: Did said dudes shoot at you? Yes, they did, in fact with a belt-fed weapon.This actually places them into the category of Well-Armed Bad Dudes.

Criteria number two: Did said dudes try to blow you up? Yes, with a big-ass IED that they hid underneath a building which I was about to walk into.

Thus, they pass the famed Killme test and are classified as Bad Guys, ACM, EOP, AAF, enemy, or whatever you want to call them. As I said before I'm sticking with Bad Guys.

So, Bad Guys have moved next door. What should we do about this?  I think we should blow up the building. Luckily, as an early Christmas present, Santa gave us C4 and a cratering charge. And that is what we did, we blew it up. Here is the result:

Framed Vampire Santa

Before I end this post I'll answer some Frequently Asked Questions that people have sent to me:

Are there women on your FOB? 

No, there are not. All there are is stinky Infantrymen and Artilleryman.
No sane women would want to be here. In fact no sane man wants to be here.

How does the Rover* system work for CAS?* 

Go to Janes Defense weekly and look it up. I'm not going
to encourage your laziness by just giving you the answer. Plus, it's electronic and I don't know.

Do the Afghans have an Air Force? 

No, they have helicopters and that's it.

How many ANA and CF* are on your FOB? 

What the...?  Do you work for the Taliban?

Are you worried about OPSEC?

Yes. The stuff I write about has already happened a while ago. I want
all my guys to come home alive and I especially want to come home alive. I'm not going to go James Frey on everyone but I use some literary leeway to account for time.

Hope everyone had a Merry Christmas and please drink one for me and the boys on New Years! Please remember to not drink and drive and I'll not drink and post. Hell, I can't drink here anyway! 


*

ACM: Anti-Coalition Militias

ANA: Afghan National Army

COIN: Counter Insurgency

AAF: Anti-Afghan Forces

Rover: Remotely Operated Video Enhanced Receiver

CAS: Close Air Support

CF: Coalition Forces

OPSEC: Operations Security

LAUGH OR YOU WILL GO INSANE |

December 29, 2008

LAUGH OR YOU WILL GO INSANE
Name: Vampire 06
Posting date: 12/30/08
Stationed in: Afghanistan
Hometown: Folsom, CA
Milblog: Afghanistan Shrugged

There's a storm coming. We can smell and see it as it rolls across the eastern mountains. One of my Captains and myself are standing on top of a two-story connex* looking at a distant spiny ridge through binoculars when we notice it. The clouds are beautiful, but like lots of things here in Afghanistan, if it looks good it's usually a harbinger of something bad.

The ridge we're looking at in the opposite direction of the storm is several klicks* off, low slung so that we can see the ridge line behind it. Pakistan. We often get rocketed from this first ridge line and we're now trying to figure out what the ANA and we can do about these rockets. Really not much. Usually they're set up on washing machine timers and then left to do their damage. By the time you see or hear the rocket, the ACM have scampered back across the far ridge into Pakistan. This post isn't about the rockets but the storm -- a metaphorical one headed toward each of us serving here.

I had one of my usual sarcastic posts ready for this afternoon, one about the supply system and how it fails to work for us, but that'll be for another day. This one is inspired by a simple question posed by a Specialist Fourth Class (SPC4) from the 101st Airborne, who is stationed with us here on the FOB.

I was walking through the chowline, collecting my usual sampling of luscious flavors, when he asked, "Sir, can I talk to you for a minute?"

"Sure, what's up?" I replied, figuring he wanted to ask about being an ETT or the ANA. The 101st doesn't talk to us much as we report to different bosses and don't actually do much together. We're the weird guys that hang out with the ANA.

Then he hits me with the question I think all soldiers in a war zone ponder. "What do you think it's going to be like when we go home, how do I explain it here?" I'm still not sure why he chose to ask me; maybe because I'm an officer and a field grade at that so I must have all the answers. Who knows? We did have a lengthy discussion about this topic but that's between he and I.

What I will share is my own thoughts on this topic. As I've stated before, I think all soldiers here grapple with this question at one time or another, many times not until they go home. I've read posts on other blogs asking questions or citing struggles. Early in my Army career I deployed to Haiti, and failed to learn the lessons about what to do when you come home or how to cope with events that occurred. Now I have some perspective, I think.

The Rand Corporation issued a study prior to my deployment stating that a huge number of combatants suffer from PTSD. I could have told the government that and they could have paid me half what they paid Rand. We each cope here in our own ways. Some guys watch TV, others listen to music, almost everyone works out.

I prefer to read and blog. As you can tell from the title of my blog I'm a huge Ayn Rand fan, Atlas Shrugged is my favorite book. So I'll read it again along with some others. 1984 takes on a new perspective here. I will probably stay away from Conrad's Heart of Darkness. I need some time just to myself; reading and blogging helps me vent and process what goes on here, and trust me, some days you need a lot of processing.

We laugh at totally inappropriate times and things. You have to laugh or you will lose it here. Our humor is immature. We think it's hilarious to yell out, "Who is Patrick Swazye in Roadhouse" to questions we don't know the answer to on Jeopardy. No one can actually identify where this joke came from, but we think it's the funniest thing ever.The other crowd-pleasing response to unanswerable questions is, "Where the Hell is FOB Bermel."

Another great moment in ETT coping is when another Captain here on the team says to me, as we hide behind a rock waiting for an IED to detonate, "Sir, you know what the problem is with real life?"

"No, what's the problem?" I'm wondering what could be so pressing at this moment. 

He responds, "There's no soundtrack. Wouldn't some Metallica be great right now!"

These are the things we do. I don't know if it's healthy or not, but it makes us feel alright. Which is pretty darn good. Mental Health sent out a questionnaire to see if we suffer any issues. One of the questions was, "Do you have any obsessive compulsive impulses?" Yes, I do. That's what keeps me alive each day. If I'm still checking for my M4 when I go to the mall next Christmas, please help me out.

ETTs are different from the rest of the Army. We are piece-mealed together from all over the place, we don't go back to our home base with the team. I have one other person from the unit I mobilized with in my team. TF Phoenix is butchering this process and I hate to think what will come of their inability to manage these teams. There is nothing worse than training with someone for two months, building friendships, learning who you can trust, and then getting to combat and everyone going their separate ways. There is a price to pay, but no one in Kabul will pay it.

The Army has gotten much better about transition counseling, and the VA has made huge leaps in assisting combat veterans. When I left Haiti there was nothing. Twelve hours later I had turned in my ammo and frags and was walking the streets of Honolulu.

So is there a storm or not, and did the SPC4 and I solve anything? If you watch the weather report you can take action and be prepared. Get your warm clothes and hunker down with someone. The bottom line is the storm hits everyone and you have to talk about it and each soldier isn't alone. I learned my lessons the first time around. So, I'll keep yelling, "Who is Patrick Swazye in Roadhouse," blogging, reading, working out, and talking to everyone about what goes on in Afghanistan.

As for the SPC4, I think he's good to go, especially tonight when he screams, "Where the Hell is FOB Bermel" during Jeopardy. And calls home to tell them about his day.

Alex, I'll take Afghanistan FOBs for $1000!


*

connex: large steel shipping container

klick: kilometer

YOU CAN GO HOME AGAIN |

YOU CAN GO HOME AGAIN
Name: CPT Beau Cleland
Posting date: 12/29/08
Stationed in: Iraq
Hometown: FLORIDA

I made it. Barring some mundane tragedy here in Kuwait, I will have survived deployment number two. A cursory review of the odds reveals that this isn't a statistically significant event, but if you're a member of the unlucky percentage you would probably disagree with that statement. I haven't been in significant danger since I left Sadr City after Mookie cried uncle back in June, but there was always the chance of a random rocket or mortar. On the whole, it still feels good -- there were a couple of episodes where my team and I could have easily been casualties, but we made it out with just one Purple Heart among us.

I thought that the last several months of being on staff (and a fobbit) would help me unwind from the tension that comes with being out on the street all the time, but by and large it hasn't. I've enjoyed the novelty of not having to wear armor or carry a weapon for the past week on this rear-echelon base in Kuwait, but I feel a great disconnect from (and not a little bitter hostility towards) the inhabitants of this place.

They get paid pretty much the same as everyone up north without sharing any of the danger. The only thing they have in common with us is being away from home and family, and I can't help but feeling superior to them, as if my comrades and I earned our gold medals in the Olympics of suffering and they got their blue participation ribbon, only to discover that the prize is the same. Sure, they probably didn't choose to be here and certainly had no say in the pay policy, but that doesn't mean I have to like it.

This has made me reflect on my imminent homecoming, relative to my last one. I know a little better what to expect, but that doesn't necessarily comfort me. Will it still take me six months to stop thinking about it all the time? Will I still drink myself to sleep in that time? Probably not. I hope. I'm one of those types who thinks he has the answers, that I won't need to get any help because I know better. I've given the brief to my soldiers before, about not being afraid to go talk to someone if you are having trouble dealing with it, but I have no confidence that I'd take my own advice without some deep problems first.

Personally, I don't think most soldiers would willingly go to a counselor, out of fear of seeming weak or like a shirker. If the Army really wants to make sure no one falls through the cracks, they should probably just make it mandatory for everyone to talk with one in private during redeployment processing. It might catch a few more than the current screening system, which isn't terrible and is certainly much better than the non-existent one when this whole thing started, but there's always room for improvement. Here's to hoping I won't need their help.

Editor's note: Beau Cleland was an early contributor to this site during his 2006 deployment to Afghanistan. His post GETTING SHOT AT appeared in the Sandbox book.

BATAAN MEMORIAL DEATH MARCH |

December 25, 2008

BATAAN MEMORIAL DEATH MARCH
Name: CAPT Adam Tiffen
Posting date: 12/25/08
Returned from: Iraq
Email: adamtiffen@hotmail.com

In the season for giving, we should not forget those who have already given so much.

In March, my team will be heading to White Sands, New Mexico, to participate in the Bataan Memorial Death March, a 26.2 mile march through the high desert terrain of the White Sands Missile Range.

Our goal is to raise awareness of the difficulties facing severely wounded service men and women upon their return to the United States from combat.

SGT David Battle, a resident of Baltimore, Maryland, was severely wounded while serving in Iraq during combat operations on December 18, 2007. He is a triple amputee.

Homes for our Troops, a charitable organization that provides specially adapted homes for wounded soldiers, is building SGT Battle and his family a home in Baltimore, Maryland. All donations we raise during the march will go to building this home.

Please visit our fundraising page, and give what you can. And please be kind enough to forward this along to others so that they might participate. Our goal is to raise $5,000.

As we train for the march, we will be posting periodic updates and photographs showing our progress. Please feel free to contact us and offer your encouragement and support!


Editor's note: Adam Tiffen was deployed to Iraq in 2005-2006, and was an early contributor to this site. Here are some of his remarkable posts.The first four are included in the Sandbox book:

THE SEARCH

THE ENEMY

AMBUSH

THE ROADBLOCK

GRAFFITI


A CHRISTMAS STORY |

December 24, 2008

A CHRISTMAS STORY
Name: RN Clara Hart
Posting date: 12/24/08
Stationed in: a military hospital in the U.S.
Milblog: macneillysperspective.blogspot.com
Email: clarahart2@yahoo.com

No doubt about it, these past six months have been terrible; exhausting days filled with sadness and despair. Fatigue became my new best friend, with isolation surrounding and comforting me. As the end of the year approached, with Christmas only a day away, I sat and reflected. I looked at the lights twinkling on my newly decorated Christmas tree while thoughts and memories filtered through my head. I suddenly realized that, as difficult as the last 180 days have been, I've been given wonderful gifts, ones with no monetary value, and yet priceless. So on the Eve of one of the most joyous days of the year, let me share with you my gifts.

The beautiful young girl who trusted me enough to wrap her arms around me and sob against my shoulder over the death of her father.

No new WIA's in the past three weeks.

A soldier, shot in the head, prognosis poor upon his CONUS* arrival, and the absolutely awesome smile that appeared on his face when I walked into his room three months later.

An Airman, presented with his purple heart by the commander in chief, who when later asked who his favorite visitor was replied, "Clara".

The officer who told everyone who entered his room he had "the best damn nurse in the whole hospital".

My coworker who simply announced, "You are one of the best nurses in this place. You know your stuff and you're wonderful with the patients and their families. I'd want you to take care of me and my family." To those in this profession that is the highest compliment you can pay another medical provider.

The grin on an amputee's face as he played tug with my puppy. He had so rarely smiled.

Hearing "Clara" bellowed embarrassingly loudly across the hospital lobby as one of my patients from two years ago tried to get my attention, and the hour-long conversation that followed.

The Christmas card I received from a patient and his family wishing me well.

The laughter I shared with a Marine who brought me an inexpensive and highly amusing gift on my birthday.

The cookies, breads, cakes and photos that adorn the ICU break room, all from appreciative patients and their families, with their Christmas and New Year’s salutations.

Wonderful gifts, some simple, many small but oh, so significant to me.

My sincere wishes to all of you for a fantastic holiday and a healthy, happy New Year!

Merry Christmas!


* CONUS: Continental United States

CHRISTMAS GIFT IDEAS |

CHRISTMAS GIFT IDEAS
Name: Rocinante
Posting date: 12/23/08
Stationed in: Iraq
Hometown: Virginia
Milblog: Rocinante's Burdens
Email: roci_burden@yahoo.com

If you are struggling for some last minute gift ideas for that deployed person in your life, here are a few hints:

1. Get over it. You blew it. Christmas is in two days. There is no earthly way you can deliver a gift here in time. Try harder next year. Despite the Obamanator being elected, there will be a next year.

2. Some ideas that used to be good are no longer good. Last year, flash drives were all the rage. But thanks to Chinese hackers, flash drives (USB drives) cannot be used in any DoD computer system, which includes the MWR ones. The risk of another crushing virus is too high.

3. Candy. Also no good. Speaking on behalf of the offices I have been to recently, we are buried in candy, cookies and baked goods. Plus we still get all the free food we can eat at the dining facility. Granted, some troops are more "deployed" than others, so your mileage may vary.

4. DVDs. Yes. But don't get the $5 Wal-Mart specials. They are on special because no one wants to watch them. Also don't get the $20 first run movies. Most of us have already seen the pirated versions for only $4. What we can't get are DVDs of our favorite TV shows. So record them on DVR, then burn them to a disk and send 'em. Some of those made for TV miniseries are also quite good.

5. Hearing from the folks back home never gets old. Tell us how you are doing and what you are doing. Burn some home videos of our favorite people to DVD and send those. Nothing special, just friends and family doing normal stuff that we would be doing too if we were there.

So now you know what to get. Why are you still just sitting there? Get going.

Oh... rum balls also are a tasty treat, appreciated by everyone but the Baptist chaplains.

AFGHAN FEVER DREAM |

December 22, 2008

AFGHAN FEVER DREAM
Name: T.T. Carnehan
Posting date: 12/22/08
Stationed in: Afghanistan
Milblog: Long Warrior
Email: longwarriorblog@gmail.com

It's the middle of the afternoon and the streets are a few degrees under bustling. You know you're supposed to be looking for a red sedan, but can't remember why. The MRAP* is cavernous, like the inside of a submarine, and there is a disco ball hanging from the ceiling. Somehow, the gunner has managed to hook up his iPOD to the intercom system, and as you scour the streets looking for a red VBIED, all you hear is Lesley Gore singing "Sunshine, Lollipops, and Rainbows."

Without warning, you smoothly transition back to the FT Riley area. You're outside a piece-of-shit bar in Ogden known as The Rockhouse. The other vehicles in your element are gone and it's just your MRAP and your soundtrack. Like any good dream, nothing needs to make sense, so it seems perfectly reasonable that you're driving around Afghanistan in Ogden, Kansas.

You spot the red car. It's right next to you. Three girls wearing go-go outfits materialize out of the air, with short black hair, and start dancing your way. Now you're back in Afghanistan with a peppering of Pashtun men staring at you in a very uncommitted way -- the type of look that reminds you how little you have in common. One of the crew members invites the go-go dancers into the submarine/MRAP. Everyone is dancing and giggling inside, while the red car is parked close enough off the driver's side that you can read the VIN.

Then you wake up to a snowy morning. You pet the FOB dog and go about your business, all the while wondering if you should warn the rest of your team about a red car.

I thought it was Christmas, not Halloween.

Oh by the way, I saw a fully-loaded passenger bus with a pickup truck and a station wagon strapped to the roof. The bus was on a jack while the driver changed a tire. That was no dream.

* MRAP: Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle

TALIBAN EGGS |

December 19, 2008

TALIBAN EGGS
Name: Old Blue
Posting date: 12/19/08
Returned from: Afghanistan
Milblog: Bill and Bob's Excellent Afghan Adventure

Our SECFOR guys from South Carolina were not only the cream of that proud state, but they were funnier than hell to boot. Their original explanations for Afghan phenomena were imaginative and often hilarious.

Many areas of Afghanistan are boulder-strewn. In one place on the J-bad Highway where the passes open up into a mountain-bordered plain, it actually looked like a boulder farm.

Thousands of large round boulders appeared as if they'd been purposely arranged in rows. I chuckled to myself from the turret of the humvee as we rolled along. We would encounter these fields in many areas of the country, and some were just mind-boggling. Like a carton of bb's scattered on a living room carpet, the thousands of boulders had been there for eons.

SGT Burt Schtickum, (who is still recovering from a torn aorta and resultant valve replacement that he narrowly but miraculously survived), decided that the fields of large round rocks were, in fact, Taliban eggs. Taliban, SGT Schtickum reasoned, were hatched from these eggs-cleverly-disguised-as-rocks in much the same way that killdeer hatch from eggs that look like pebbles.

The eggs, he maintains, have lain dormant for generations, Godzilla-like; and are activated to spawn by contact with diesel exhaust. Fiendish. As we patrolled, this sage of Afghan naturalism explained, we stirred our own foes with the exhaust plumes belched from our humvees.

It's hard to argue with the sheer Darwinian logic SGT Schtickum applied to explaining the constant supply of Taliban we were presented with.

The video below is from one of our drives through the fields of Taliban eggs. We were on a back road in Kapisa Province when we were suddenly surrounded by scads of them. As you can tell from the quantity of unspawned Taliban, we're in deep over there.




It was my turn to drive. Jacques Pulvier was up in the turret. When we got to the next village and dismounted, he looked like a frosted doughnut. Frosted Jacques; it's a good look for him.

Someday someone will recognize SGT Schtickum's work in this dusty realm where science meets insurgency. The odor of Nobel mixed with diesel exhaust wafts through the air. That will be a proud day.

Keep on keepin' on, Burt. Hope you're 100% soon.



DONE |

December 17, 2008

DONE
Name: Cheese
Posting date: 12/17/08
Stationed in: Afghanistan
Hometown: Binghamton, NY
Milblog: Cheese's Milblog

Today was my last patrol. Ever. I didn't even realize it until I was carrying my guns to the weapon locker. It was definitely fitting that I end my career in the turret, as that's where I've spent my best time as a soldier. It feels great -- but not nearly as good as American soil (read: snow) will feel under my feet.

The people replacing us are competent and reasonably excited to take over. I'm proud of my guys for not infecting them with the attitude that most of us carry after a tour as SECFOR in Pogueland. I'm guessing that my platoon's new found enthusiasm is in part due to the number of females that are flooding our FOB. This has been problematic for us, though. You may think that you can imagine what kind of conversations take place within an all-male Infantry unit, but you really have no idea. Some call it "infantry f%&k-speak" and it's littered with such horrible topics and obscenities that it could make a trucker blush. It's just how Joes have always been, and it's hard to turn off. Today I heard at least three in-depth conversations about bodily functions or "man-scaping" trail off as our guys realized that we had females in the convoy. "Yeah, tomorrow night I have to shave my...ummm...run time by a few minutes? Phew."

I do have to take a moment to apologize to the new guys for the hell they are gonna catch from maintenance after we leave here. Now, the maintenance guys here know us pretty well and have dealt with our nonsense all tour. As a present to them, we informed the new guys that they need to check the armor every so often for soft spots. This involves pounding the armor panels with hammers, marking the places that give off a dull "thud" with an "X" of chalk, and then bringing the trucks to maintenance to have the soft panels replaced.

About the same time that this is done, the turrets also need to be calibrated.
This is done (under maintenance's supervision, of course) by making ten clockwise rotations with the turret. But this must be followed by ten counterclockwise rotations to keep the turrets from unscrewing. Now, this is all harmless, as the maintenance guys will no doubt inform them that it was a load of bull. Of course, knowing them, they'll break the news to some very dizzy gunners as they stumble down from their "X" covered humvees. Welcome to Phoenix, where we've sold our souls for internet and Dairy Queen...

CATCH-22 OR OXYMORON? |

December 16, 2008

CATCH-22 OR OXYMORON?
Name: Vampire 06
Posting date: 12/15/08
Stationed in: Afghanistan
Hometown: Folsom, CA
Milblog: Afghanistan Shrugged

So much has happened. Where to begin? First, I turned 39. Bermel is not Chucky Cheese but does have a certain charm to it. We're just very unsure where that charm may lie, and if someone might shoot at us while we are trying to enjoy the charm. A birthday in a combat zone. Luckily there were no fireworks supplied by the Taliban.

I'd like to digress a moment and discuss the use of that word, "Taliban". We're not supposed to say
Taliban, even though that's who we're fighting. They call themselves Taliban, but we're not allowed. We call them ACM, anti-coalition militia; prior to that they were ACF, anti-coalition forces, prior to that AAF, anti-Afghan forces, and to add to the confusion there's a rumor that we now may have to call them APF, anti-peace forces. Out of all of this you'll notice something. These guys are very "anti". They're not very pro toward anything I'm interested in.  I'd like maybe PVHF, pro-Vampire goes home forces or even PSF,  pro-we surrender forces. Doesn't seem to be happening. In all honesty day to day we call them a) the enemy, or b) bad guys. Both of these seem to convey our desire to kill them and that we're not pro them. Does that make us anti? War is confusing.

Enough of my indulgent digression. On with the show and my original premise: Is "planning to be unpredictable" a Catch-22 or an oxymoron? We need a plan that they, ACM/ACF/AAF/ and maybe in the future APF won't expect, so is this a Catch-22? "Planning" and "unpredictable" mean the opposite of each other. Unfortunately, Joseph Heller is dead so I can't ask him, so I asked the team; the discussion degraded into whom is better looking, Sarah Palin or Cindy McCain? I have no idea how it got to that, but once again war is confusing and these are the issues we struggle with daily.

The above has been a foreshadowing moment, a literary technique our embed taught me. I thought it was just a preview, but I'm wrong. It is foreshadowing, which sounds a lot cooler. Now to the rub. We left the other day on a mission to conduct a cordon and search. The target was a small town to our west -- I won't name the town but you Taliban, oops APF, out there reading know who you are. A cordon and search is an operation where you surround / cordon off the town or target to make sure no one comes in or goes out -- what we call the "squirters" -- and then you search the target. We do these operations all the time. The last time the team went to this town a large firefight occurred. We're prepared for that.

We roll in and find some food on the ground. Nothing worth anything is left on the ground in Afghanistan. If it has any value at all somebody will pick it up. The food is an excellent indicator that the enemy was just here. If there's food someone must have been here planning to eat it. We keep looking around and find an IED in a pressure cooker under a building. A pressure cooker IED is just what it sounds like; take your pressure cooker at home, load it with homemade explosives (HME), wrap it in tape, and BOOM!

Another American and I are there, and we've been trained to get Explosive Ordnance Disposal on scene to take care of it. The ANA have another thought, "Let's just pick it up and carry it out from under the building." I wouldn't have been more surprised if I'd seen Elvis come out from underneath that building than when the ANA soldier comes out holding this big-ass IED. (There are no such thing as small-ass IEDs. It's all relative to how close you're standing to the IED. They come  in two sizes, big-ass and big f-ing IED. Both being variants of big.) The soldier sets it on the ground and they start taking pictures of themselves with it, while the other American and I look at each other in disbelief. There must be 30 lbs of explosive in this thing and the ANA are treating it like the first kill of the new deer season. 

Through my terp I ask what they want to do with the IED; the company commander says he's going to shoot it with their AK-47 to get it to detonate. I look at the other American and he says, "Yeah, sure they do this stuff all the time..." We pull back and they shoot it. I'll never need to see another episode of Jackass after this. Even Johnny Knoxville would balk at this one. It takes several shots and finally the thing goes off, KABOOM, knocking down a couple of trees and blowing out a stone wall. Pretty cool! After this we exfil back to the FOB.

Now the foreshadowing comes through. We know there's enemy up there but how do we get them.
How do we plan to be unpredictable? We huddle and decide we'll go back there tomorrow. They'll never expect us to do that, which it turns out they don't.

The next morning we roll into town. We're supposed to have a B-1 bomber in support, however they've flown here from somewhere and used up their fuel. Logical. They didn't plan that we'd actually want them to do something when they got here and have gone to the tanker, which takes them an hour. Hey, we only have them for an hour! You don't get a refund on this hour. We have them from let's say 0900-1000, which they spend at the tanker. I don't get to say where's my hour because they say 0900-1000 was yours. But you spent that tanking. Yes, that's true but that was your hour. What?! Exactly. War is confusing!

We continue into town and bad guys/ACM/AAF start running out the back. We all start shooting at each other and they keep running into the woods behind the town. Now we're all happy because our plan to be unpredictable has paid off and we've got them where we want them. So we call for artillery on them.

Keep in mind these dudes are running away as I cover this next part. We call and get a fire mission. Which takes 15 minutes to shoot, as the HQs makes sure we don't accidentally hit something. The rounds finally come and we get reports we hit some bad guys, always good. Then I decide I'm going to hit the empty Kalat they were in with artillery, so they can't use it again. By the way, this is the same place we found the IED yesterday. I call up and they tell me they won't shoot because it's within 100 meters of a Khalat. I tell them that's great cause I'm trying to hit the Khalat. They say no mission, it's within 100 meters, and I say yes shoot it, it's within 0 meters. Somewhere something is lost in translation.

Enter option #2 -- ANA Mortar teams. The ANA are confused because we can't get artillery, so I ask them if they want some practice with their mortars. To which they say YES! These guys can hit anything as long as it's direct lay, meaning they can see it. So they fire it up and pound this Khalat into the ground. I don't think they'll be using that one again for awhile. The ANA are overjoyed as they pound on the thing, and it almost takes on a festive atmosphere as they cheer with the KARUMP of each mortar shell.  All in all a good day!

FAYEZ |

December 12, 2008

FAYEZ
Name: CAPT Benjamin Tupper
Posting date: 12/12/08
Returned from: Afghanistan
Hometown: Syracuse, NY

In deference to the morals and traditions of countries like Iraq and Afghanistan, Army General Order 1
Bravo prohibits the consumption of alcohol, engaging in sex, and a myriad of other staples of young male American life.  

One of the lesser tenets buried in the rules of Army General Order 1Bravo is the prohibition of distributing religious materials, as well as other evangelical activities. This was a rule founded in common sense, that prevents numerous chances for friction between US Soldiers and Local Nationals.
  
But General Order 1B is in no way a gag order on religion, and I witnessed many a friendly religious debate between US soldiers and the Muslims we met on a daily basis.  

I had a unique role in many of these religious debates, as I was the lone Atheist on my small specialized US Army team embedded in the Afghan Army. I remember many cold nights, sitting on worn mats drinking Chai in cramped, smoky huts, pondering great religious subjects with my Afghan Interpreters, Afghan soldiers, and fellow US Soldiers. The Christians and Muslims in these amateur theology debates went back and forth with claims about the veracity of their faith. I never saw anyone converted during these conversations, but there was one thing they all agreed on. That sole point of consensus was the fact that I, the lone Atheist, was going to hell.    

Despite my best attempts to explain my worldview, half the Afghans couldn't take me seriously. The other half took me for my word, and made efforts to reassure me that they wouldn't hold my belief against me, even though I was surely doomed to hell. 

And then there was Fayez. During one of these religious discussions, he floored everyone when he stated that my faith in man to do good deeds without intervention or guidance from God, was a possibility they all should consider as being true. This was a brave thing to do in a country that even today stones people to death for questioning Islam. 

Fayez was one of our  interpreters, a soft spoken teenager who seemed out of place brandishing an AK 47 out on combat missions. In our country, he would have been the kid in the high school drama club, too skinny to play sports, and too nerdy to get a girlfriend. But in Afghanistan, his intelligence and proficiency in English meant he was on the front lines in war, earning a high salary to support his large family back in Kabul.

I am often reminded of this moment when Fayez spoke in support of my beliefs, at great risk to himself. He was a brave young man, even though he didn't look the part. Fayez was always a ray of hope when I pondered the future of Afghanistan. He was intelligent, tolerant, and decent to others in all his interactions with everyone. 

I recently received an email from one of our Afghan interpreters informing me that Fayez had been killed in action. The HUMVEE he was riding in had been hit by a devastating IED that killed all the American soldiers on board instantly. He had survived the initial blast, but was subsequently captured by the Taliban, tortured, and then killed.

It's disturbing news like this, of a friend cut down in the summer of his youth, that shakes one's faith to the core. This equally applies to a person like me, who holds no religious faith. I find myself in an awkward position of hoping there is a heaven, and that the rewards promised to the faithful in the Koran, which Fayez patiently and compassionately explained to us in our many discussions, are being enjoyed by him.

It would be dishonest to say that in the shadow of his tragic and cruel death I'm now a believer in the afterlife, but I can say that if there is such a thing as heaven, Fayez surely belongs there.

A TALE OF TWO WARS |

December 10, 2008

A TALE OF TWO WARS
Name: Vampire 06
Posting date: 12/9/08
Stationed in: Afghanistan
Hometown: Folsom, CA
Milblog: Afghanistan Shrugged

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. I plagiarized that one from a great novel, but it's a superb opening to illustrate the difference between the war that we fight as ETTs* and the war the Combined Joint Task Force - Phoenix (CJTF-P) fights.  CJTF-P is the headquarters for the ETTs here in Afghanistan. I could understand a marked difference between conventional coalition forces and ETTs, but there's a huge dichotomy between us and our headquarters.

The difference came to light recently when we received some replacements through Camp Phoenix. We were briefing them on our day to day activities and they were telling us about what they were told at Phoenix. What they were told was shocking, and if you followed their guidance it would ensure that you were universally disliked by the ANA and would accomplish nothing here.

First, was Chai. They were told not to ever drink Chai with the ANA due to contaminated water and the possibility that you'd be poisoned. This is an idiotic statement. Chai is the social glue that holds things together here. When you meet someone you have Chai, if you disagree with someone you have Chai, you do anything here you have Chai.

A blogger once taught me a great technique that I use all of the time, if things get heated ask for Chai. Thanks, Old Blue! Let me tell you it works. The disagreement stops immediately and they start making Chai; you can then pick up the conversation once Chai is made and almost universally you can come to an agreement. 

I drink Chai at least once a day and many days, several times. I have not taken gravely ill or had my DNA mutated by Chai. I'm not concerned about getting sick as the tea is served so hot that I could sterilize surgical instruments in it. A good indication of how well you're doing with the ANA is if they remember how you like your Chai: I don't like sugar in it and they now know and make sure that's how they serve it. I bond with my guys over Chai. 

The next stellar briefing point from the brain trust in Kabul was "Don't eat with the Afghans."  Afghans are very hospitable people, they're always asking you over for lunch, dinner, whatever. We go over and eat with them all the time. I've never gotten sick or begun bleeding from my eyes after eating with them. Again, this is a bonding experience, and what does it say about you if you're scared to eat their food. Hey, I'll run into battle with you; but no way I'm eating your chow? Obviously, no one in Phoenix has ever been out and operated with the ANA. 

Terps are another area where we don't see eye to eye. Standard party line is "Terps are not armed." I won't say what we do here. But I trust my terps with my life.They're great Afghans and most of them are trying very hard to be great Americans. A good terp is better than all the fire support in the world. I can't say enough about how important your terps are. CJTF-P seems to want us to treat them as some type of lower caste than us and that just don't hunt here.

Terps aren't supposed to get US Army cold weather gear. I guess they think there must be some special
Afghan Terp force field that keeps them warm. These guys are my soldiers and I'm not letting them freeze because some guy who hasn't heard a round fired in anger doesn't think they deserve our gear. They can kiss my fourth point of contact. You paratroopers know what I'm saying.

I've posted before about the spas, coffee shops, PXes and plethora of other things that exist at Camp Phoenix, KIA and BAF. There is no war there and they seem to think it's the same down here. I want more ammo and they're worried about the seven different kinds of ice cream at lunch and dinner. The institutional attitude there is that Afghans are nasty people to be avoided at all cost unless they're cleaning up the Camp.

God forbid that the war interferes with Salsa Dancing Night, yes they have that at Bagram.  Salsa night here is when we get UGR-A mexican food rations. Let me tell you it's FUN!  We're easily amused here.

Now don't get me wrong, I'm not belittling what others are doing, I'm just asking that they look at it from my perspective once and awhile. I know not everyone signed up to be a direct fight guy and that's OK. There used to be a saying here, "What have you done for your ETTs today"; it's now morphed into "What have you done to your ETTs today". I have the original statement on my emails as a joke now.

There are two wars here, make no mistake. Chai, eating and Terps are just points of illustration, and they're just the tip of the iceberg. What they think and how things actually get done are so far apart it borders on absurd. Actually, I take that back: It is absurd. As ETTs we have to build trust and have trust in our counterparts.They, Camp Phoenix, just doesn't understand this. 

I'll even goes as far as to issue an open invitation to anyone at Phoenix that wants to fly down here and live with us for just a week. They can come and we'll show them what it's like to really operate as an ETT, a trusted mentor to your ANA. I do think of them as my ANA, my soldiers, my brothers. 

Skip the ice cream and come visit. It ain't the Hilton but I'll assure you that you do and see things that will stay with you forever. You may even make some friends. I can tell you for sure that you'll drink some Chai and eat some pretty darn good food.

Come on down, we'll be waiting! 


*

ETTs: Embedded Training Teams

GOOD TO GO! |

GOOD TO GO!
Name: American Soldier
Posting date: 12/10/08
Returned from: Iraq
Heading to: Afghanistan, as a private contractor
Milblog: soldierlife.com

(American Soldier was one of the first contributors to The Sandbox during his 2006-7 Iraq deployment,* and we welcome the opportunity to once again post his work.)

Alas, the final Sunday before I depart. So much has happened since starting to prepare to go. It feels exactly like a military deployment but not exactly. I know that it’s not, but my wife and I have prepared as if it is. The paperwork shuffle, talking to friends and family, etc. We’ve been at it nonstop for nearly two weeks. I found myself changing out a check valve for my well yesterday and I am the furthest from being a plumber. Good thing for proper tools! I was also adding border insulation for my windows yesterday as well. My wife made a comment that I have never prepared this much before leaving. I just told her that I wanted to make sure things were squared away so she wouldn’t have to worry about it.

As I write this I look around on my desk and see the new and old comfort devices that I will be bringing with me. Music – check, movies – check, camera – check, laptop – good to go!

Today we will have some friends and family come over for a ‘see you in a few months’ party. I wanted this to be about just seeing them before I depart. Goodbye parties are too depressing anyway. I wrote about one of mine in the book The Sandbox. It’s always awkward when it’s time for people to leave. The slow walk to the door, saying those last few words and the emotional departure. I didn’t want that this time around.

So right now everything is falling into place and it’s just a matter of waiting for the departure date to come. I am feeling real good about this mission. I have missed the brotherhood and I am sure to find it while I am there. Life has been interesting since I got out of the Army last year. I had plenty of time to reflect on things and where I am in life. One of the best decisions of my life thus far was to leave the Army completely. The reason why I say that is I needed to see what my life was all about. I placed a few bad habits in the ground and became a stronger person, mentally and physically. Oh yeah, I grew some guns this past year!

I won’t go into a reflection session but things seem to have prepared me for this moment. So if that isn’t a sign then I don’t know what is.

Carpe Diem!


*

A DIFFERENT PERSPECTIVE

FEBRUARY 27th

RULES OF ENGAGEMENT

SO IT GOES FORWARD

THEY SAY IT'S YOUR BIRTHDAY |

December 08, 2008

"THEY SAY IT'S YOUR BIRTHDAY..."
Name: Simon H.
Posting date: 12/8/08
Stationed in: Iraq
Milblog: Army Poet 

It is my birthday today. Cold snap here. Damp and cool. Sky is grey like steel, although a little while ago a gleam of pale sun -- faint yellow like a boiled egg -- popped through the clouds. I am stuck in the north of Iraq after a short mission, and am awaiting transportation. The wind and damp air are gently blowing. A few puddles reflect the sky, which is similar in color to the gravel-strewn earth.

It is a bit run down and despondent here, as at a lot of the camps. Old Iraqi military buildings are adorned with faded murals and Arabic writing. But the run-down and shabby feel of the place suits my mood today.

I will lift my spirits with a coffee from the DFAC, although I am not really "down". I am travelling with Iraqi-American translators. They speak Arabic amongst themselves and with the other translators. I am responsible for their safety, and perhaps they resent the overwatch. I am removed from their language and conversations. Today I felt detached from them, as well as from the fellow soldiers around me. Not lonely, just more alone.

I am thinking of a girl.

I can't remember last year's birthday. I won't forget this one. It started with a morning flight in a helicopter. I thought, "My God, what an honor, what a privilege it is to serve on this day, away from home!"

My love for my country keeps me warm.

Framed POET helicopter

There is nothing like flying in a helicopter. Here is the rear gunner's view. On a clear day you can see off into the haze of the distance and wonder what you are doing here.

WHO KNEW IT WOULD BE THIS HARD? |

December 05, 2008

WHO KNEW IT WOULD BE THIS HARD?
Name: City Girl
Posting date: 12/5/08
Fiance stationed in: Iraq
Milblog: Kaboom: A Soldier's War Journal

This past week I spent a good amount of time talking about CPT G and the deployment, with spouses and parents of soldiers serving in the Middle East. Naturally, it has made this an especially emotional week. It saddens me to hear that throughout the various branches of the military, in various parts of the country, and at various stages of deployments, spouses, fiancées, girlfriends, and boyfriends experience the same feelings of loneliness and isolation.

By no means am I suggesting that this is the fault of our soldiers who
are deployed. I completely understand that they want nothing more than to provide love and affection and attention and to be at home with us. It is even harder for them since they do not have the chance to seek out support from loved ones. I guess I just hate to see that so many people are affected, beyond the soldiers, by this war. At no point do politicians take these things into consideration when making decisions about wars. Does anyone think, "Gee, I wonder how many children will celebrate their first birthday without their mother or father this year?" Of course not.

I am making this rant without being fully exposed to the military. Despite dating a commissioned officer for over three years, I can count on my hand the number of times I have stepped foot on a military base. Our long distance relationship, fortunately, helped to shelter me from the harsh realities of life in the military. Unfortunately, it also prevented me from seeing the harsh realities of life in the military. I am now attempting to get through this deployment without my Army for Dummies guide. I never thought that I would regret not living at Fort Knox while CPT G was there. I wonder whether I might have been better off if I knew what to expect and knew how much my life would change as a result of CPT G leaving.

I can already predict the flood of messages I am going to receive from readers offering their love and support upon reading this. I mean it when I say thank you. I realize you are far more experienced in being a military spouse and dealing with a deployment than myself. I admit, I probably should have developed and explored more social networking with military spouses. But I wonder how much it would help to develop relationships with people simply because we are both missing someone else in our lives.

I do have my war buddy, as I often call her. Her husband is with CPT G and they have worked together for nearly two years. She has been heaven-sent throughout this deployment. When the boys first left, we talked weekly on the phone and texted and facebooked almost daily. It was great to have someone to bitch about the military with, especially one who, like myself, was completely removed from the military world.

As this deployment has gone on, I have noticed that we speak less frequently. I think it is because both of realize that we do not need to lean on relative strangers in hard times. I am so incredibly thankful for all of the support and understanding that she has provided for me thus far. Despite our situation, we can only get as close as this deployment allows us. I, personally, feel that I need deeper-rooted relationships, from people who know me and understand me. What I need is to somehow make my closest friends and family understand what it feels like to wake up each morning wishing he was here, or even in the same hemisphere. I need them to know what its like to hear him speak of his men and the needs of the platoon.

I was naïve 10 months ago. I figured that since we lived 3,000 miles apart for three years and made it work that there would not be much of a difference once he actually left. I did not realize the changes that would occur when one person is making decisions about what to do over the weekend and the other is making decisions about how to protect a village of people. I thought that we would talk weekly, email daily, miss each other hourly, and think of each other constantly. Instead, we speak sporadically, and oftentimes force conversation just because we have the time to talk.

I love those days when I say nothing and he is able to bitch and moan and help me understand what he is going through. Some of my favorite conversations have been when he is so consumed with work that he unknowingly opens up to me about everything that is going on. It makes me feel so much closer to him.

With more than two-thirds of the deployment over, the end is so close, yet so far away. Now more than ever I need to have patience. I have never had too much trouble waiting to see CPT G -- until the very end. When our next visit is within a reasonable countdown (I have stretched the reasonable for this one), my every thought and desire is consumed with running into his arms. The promises of this reunion, more than anytime before, will make concentrating on reality extremely difficult.

THROUGH THE J-BAD PASS |

December 03, 2008

THROUGH THE J-BAD PASS
Name: Old Blue
Posting date: 12/3/08
Returned from: Afghanistan
Milblog: Bill and Bob's Excellent Afghan Adventure

I made the trip through the J-bad Pass a number of times during my deployment. Twice in one day, with one of them at night; which was crazy. It was one of the most dangerous things that I did the whole time in country. One of the drivers later told me that he had started hallucinating from fatigue during the trip.

This particular clip was shot on December 15th, 2007. The total trip from Kabul to Jalalabad takes over three hours and is about 90 miles in length. Along the way you lose about 5,000 feet in elevation. This clip is nearly seven minutes in duration, and is the most exciting part of the trip; the switchbacks. It is the most dramatic elevation change, probably around a thousand feet or so. The first time I made the trip there were no retaining walls, which was really interesting as I was driving at the time, with O in the turret.

It may sound like I am talking to myself during the clip, but we use an intercom in the humvee, so you can't hear anyone talking back.

Yes, humvees really do rattle like that.


WHEELS UP |

December 01, 2008

WHEELS UP
Name: T.T. Carnehan
Posting date: 12/1/08
Deploying to: Afghanistan
Milblog: Long Warrior
Email: longwarriorblog@gmail.com

Pack your bags. Decide they are good enough. Stare at them for five minutes. Dump them all out on the floor and start over. Make a mental checklist. When this fails you, make a written one. Keys, wallet (don’t need the Sam’s Club or Blockbuster cards anymore), Sta-Bil in the fuel tank (like your car is going to start right up in 12 months anyway), check your watch, check it again. Go drop off your car. You’re officially locked down.

Get accountability. The army loves accountability. You will continue getting accountability every three seconds for the rest of the year. This is the civilian equivalent of keeping an adventurous child within eyesight at WalMart.

Once you have your accountability, you need to get ready for the movement. Better check your carry-on to make sure it will fit. The army was kind enough to build a breadbox that is supposed to approximate the size of the carry on compartment. If your bag fits in the breadbox, you can go to Afghanistan. If it doesn’t, you need to rip your carefully packed crap apart and start over. Unfortunately, this carry-on gauge doesn’t appear to be life size, so you feel like an ass when you’re easily sliding your bag into the plane's carry-on compartment. Guess you had plenty of room for those Danielle Steel novels after all.

Framed Carnehan WHEELS UP Before you get on the plane, you have to manifest. Manifesting is a process of getting accountability.The two go hand in hand. Manifesting is the Superbowl of accountability. We had some saints from what I believe was the VFW’s lady trooper society with us. They baked a couple of pecan pies, enough cookies for a small army (which is what they had), and gallons and gallons of coffee. As we were munching down on these goodies waiting for our transportation, we were called to order.

Apparently, there was one last inspiring speech we were to hear before leaving.This final inspiring speech was actually to be the first inspiring speech, but this was no time to be technical. I knew it was going to be good. You see, we (The Combat Advisers) are the military’s main effort. We are simultaneously the exit strategy and the victory strategy. How could this speech miss? Just when our anticipation was piqued, a junior major came to the microphone to address the 200-some TTs on their way. Really? A major? Imagine a trombone squeezing out WAA-WAAAA. He was outranked by a third of the audience.

Twenty-hour plane rides are a good time. You get to find out who has overactive sweat glands and who hates other people, and who thinks What Happens in Vegas starring Ashton Kutcher is a really, really funny movie. Shocking. Other than the deep lingering disappointment that was everyone’s when a 30-something steward with a lisp took the place of the imagined comforting wife/mother figure stewardess we were hoping for, the flight was wonderful. They tell me that the seven movies that were played were all dubbed and lame. Apparently the lines aren’t as effective when the hero is called a “son of a biscuit” by the villain. Of course, I slept the whole way, so I can’t really comment.

Next stop: somewhere...


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