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.


January 19, 2009

Name: Old Blue
Posting date: 1/19/09
Stationed in: Afghanistan
Milblog url: Bill and Bob's Excellent Afghan Adventure

A goodly portion of the American population is very concerned with how the rest of the world sees us. We see ourselves in a funhouse mirror reflection, through the press and through anecdotal evidence reflecting the personal views of the teller. We find what we are looking for.

The piece below originally appeared on a French blog and is destined to be a classic, because it shows us something rarely seen -- a glimpse of ourselves through someone else's eyes. For a small group of Frenchmen assigned to an OMLT -- Operational Mentoring and Liaison Team, the NATO-partner equivalent of ETTs, working with the ANA -- a company-plus element of the 101st Airborne represented America. They were America.

It has been said that it's a blessing to see ourselves as others see us. This is true not just for an individual, but for a nation. It is easy to display the character that you wish for others to see for certain hours of the day and away from your home -- many people have a "public face." But a person's truest character cannot be concealed during months of combat. And a group's truest character is revealed the same way.

American Troops in Afghanistan Through the Eyes of a French OMLT Infantryman

We have shared our daily life with two US units for quite a while -- they are the first and fourth companies of a prestigious infantry battalion whose name I will withhold for the sake of military secrecy. To the common man it is a unit just like any other. But we live with them and got to know them, and we henceforth know that we have the honor to live with one of the most renowned units of the US Army -- one that the movies brought to the public as series showing “ordinary soldiers thrust into extraordinary events”. Who are they, those soldiers from abroad, how is their daily life, and what support do they bring to the men of our OMLT every day? Few of them belong to the Easy Company, the one the TV series focuses on. This one nowadays is named Echo Company, and it has become the support company.

They have a terribly strong American accent -- from our point of view the language they speak is not even English. How many times did I have to write down what I wanted to say rather than waste precious minutes trying various pronunciations of a seemingly common word? Whatever state they are from, no two accents are alike and they even admit that in some crisis situations they have difficulties understanding each other.

Heavily built, fed at the earliest age with Gatorade, proteins and creatine - they are all heads and shoulders taller than us and their muscles remind us of Rambo. Our frames are amusingly skinny to them -- we are wimps, even the strongest of us -- and because of that they often mistake us for Afghans.

Here we discover America as it is often depicted: their values are taken to their paroxysm, often amplified by lack of privacy and the loneliness of this outpost in the middle of that Afghan valley. Honor, motherland -- everything here reminds of that: the American flag floating in the wind above the outpost, just like the one on the post parcels. Even if recruits often originate from the heart of American cities and gang territory, no one here has any goal other than to hold high and proud the star spangled banner. Each man knows he can count on the support of a whole people who provides them through the mail all that an American could miss in such a remote front-line location: books, chewing gums, razorblades, Gatorade, toothpaste etc., in such way that every man is aware of how much the American people backs him in his difficult mission. And that is a first shock to our preconceptions: the American soldier is no  individualist. The team, the group, the combat team are the focus of all his attention.

And they are impressive warriors! We have not come across bad ones, as strange at it may seem to you when you know how critical French people can be. Even if some of them are a bit on the heavy side, all of them provide us everyday with lessons in infantry know-how. Beyond the wearing of a combat kit that never seem to discomfort them (helmet strap, helmet, combat goggles, rifles etc.) the long hours of watch at the outpost never seem to annoy them in the slightest. On the one square meter wooden tower above the perimeter wall they stand the five consecutive hours in full battle rattle and night vision goggles on top, their sight unmoving in the directions of likely danger. No distractions, no pauses, they are like statues nights and days. At night, all movements are performed in the dark -- only a handful of subdued red lights indicate the occasional presence of a soldier on the move. Same with the vehicles whose lights are covered -- everything happens in pitch dark even filling the fuel tanks with the Japy pump.

And combat? If you have seen Rambo you have seen it all -- always coming to the rescue when one of our teams gets in trouble, and always in the shortest delay. That is one of their tricks: they switch from t-shirt and sandals to combat-ready in three minutes. Arriving in contact with the enemy, the way they fight is simple and disconcerting: they just charge! They disembark and assault in stride, they bomb first and ask questions later -- which cuts any pussyfooting short.

We seldom hear any harsh word, and from 5 AM onwards the camp chores are performed in beautiful order and always with excellent spirit. A passing American helicopter stops near a stranded vehicle just to check that everything is alright; an American combat team will rush to support ours before even knowing how dangerous the mission is -- from what we have been given to witness, the American soldier is a beautiful and worthy heir to those who liberated France and Europe.

To those who bestow us with the honor of sharing their combat outposts and who everyday give proof of their military excellence, to those who pay the daily tribute of America’s army’s deployment on Afghan soil, to those we owned this article, ourselves hoping that we will always remain worthy of them and to always continue hearing them say that we are all the same band of brothers.

Here are several of the many comments that were posted in response to this post:

The original author writes:

Thanks for having translate my article. Thanks to my partnership U.S unit for all. American people must be proud to get this kind of boys.

The father of a 101st Soldier writes:

My son is a platoon sergeant with the 101st in Afghanistan and was recently serving alongside French troops. He had nothing but positive comments to pass along about THEM! Seeing such a nice article about our own men (and women!) should make us all proud. He and his men will be happy to see how they are viewed.

A veteran writes:

In four years soldiering with the French in France, Germany, and Iraq, I can tell all that the feelings expressed here were felt just as strongly about our French counterparts. Forget the stereotypes! Know the people.


Goes to show that shared hard experience will almost always promote comradery and unity beyond stereotypes.

I served in the US Army from 1989 to 1992 and was in the First Gulf War with the 82d Airborne Division. We invaded Iraq alongside the French Sixth Light Division. I also had a chance to work with the French Foreign Legion on a separate occasion. In both instances I was impressed by the professionalism and dedication of the French military.

I know some Americans like to slag off on the French based on the political views of their leaders, or base their opinion on a four-day visit to Paris, but this is no different than a foreigner judging America through the same narrow lens.

I'm honored to have served with my French colleagues and would do so again in a heartbeat. Besides, they have far superior cheese in their rations. ;-)

Thanks for a wonderful article.

I totally support the troops even if the war they are fighting in is a very controversial war. I know I will never understand what it is like in the military or especially in war, but I do have a friend who has a brother in the military and I have talked to him and understand some of the hardships he went through. At one point I was considering of entering a branch of the military but could not because I could not be away from my family and friends, even though I would love to have the honor to fight for my country.

What an inspiring post. It was great to read of the camaraderie of soldiers from allied nations who are stationed together overseas. After all, both countries (France and USA) are fighting for the same purpose; to insure that freedom remains in this world we share. As an American, it was an honor to hear my country’s soldiers described in such high regard. It was also very interesting to hear an outsider’s observations of the Americans’ physical stature, attitude, and action. It sounds like there is a great deal of mutual respect between these particular French and American soldiers. These brave men show that stereotypes can’t get in the way of their common purpose. I support you all.

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