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.

EYES |

January 29, 2009

EYES
Name: Zachary Scott-Singley
Posting date: 1/29/09
Returned from: Iraq
Milblog url: A Soldier's Thoughts

In my head are swirling memories and thoughts, things that I cover up with my charisma and my freakishly large ego. People look at me and figure I am an asshole or someone who is amazing to hang out with. Little do they know that in my head I harbor secrets that scare even me, the keeper of them. Secrets about how I feel about myself, secrets about what kind of person I see in the mirror when I open my eyes and actually look at myself.

Go ahead all of you who have read my blog and decided that I am someone you'd like to meet, tell me how wrong I am, or how I'm a good person, but you are not me, you don't really know what is in my head or what my eyes have seen. I write and tell you of the things I have done, of the death I have born witness to and of the death I have caused. I feel no shame for my actions, regret for some, but shame? No. For that I may burn in hell, and perhaps I deserve to, but fuck anyone who dares judge me.

When I look in the mirror I see the cold dark eyes that I use to mask my thoughts, or at other times I see those warm friendly eyes that belong to a handsome man who is a good father and a good provider. Regardless of those eyes, I know what lies behind them. Maybe I look at my eyes to make sure that they are opaque, that none of you (those who know me, or those who read my writing) will ever see even a glimpse of what lies behind them. I do not like looking into my eyes. It makes me sad to see what is behind them. I pull my sleight of hand with those in my life so that they are focusing on the carefree unembarrassed fun individual I bring to them, as opposed to the monster or the hurt soul with all of its cracks and wounds. A soul that is amazing to me because of the fact that it is even there at all.

My soul. My inner being, that is so flawed that I don't even know what to say. I can tell you all of this because I still do not let on as to what is behind my eyes. I merely tell you the symptom of it all. My soul, it was once some marble statue created by God to be a beautiful form of man. What I have now is a cracked thing whose glory has long since passed. An unpolished broken and deformed version of what you have inside of yourself.

My soul is strong, yes, behind all those cracks and behind exactly how horrid it is, it still maintains its strength. It is like the scars on a shark. They were all wounds that have healed, and while the body is a disgusting mass of healed flesh the shark is more powerful because of its wounds. Each one of those brutal lacerations have taught it a lesson and it is where it's at because of them.

I am that shark. Judge me if you will, I may even deserve it, but I will always hold my head high, I will not ever let you in. As I said before, behind my eyes are things that can still make me cry, those things are only for me to see; even then they belong hidden away from all but the deepest chasms of my memory.

VIPs |

January 26, 2009

VIPs
Name: RN Clara Hart
Posting date: 1/26/09
Stationed in: a civilian military hospital in the U.S.
Milblog url: www.mcneillysperspective.blogspot.com
Email: clarahart2@yahoo.com

“Good Morning!. . . Hello? Anybody home?”  Slowly one brown eye slid open.

“Hi! My name’s Clara, I’m going to be your nurse today.” The brown eye peered out at me from underneath a headdress of gauze.

“How are ya feeling?”

“Tired.”

“Any pain? Nausea? Dizziness?”

“No, no and no.”

“Okay then, here’s today’s plan." I rattled off a list of things to accomplish.  “You ready?”

“Nope."

“Huh! Well! That’s not really an option. So this is what we’re gonna do," I said with a smile.

A long-suffering sigh was the only response.

My patient, injured three years ago in Iraq, had returned for additional surgery and so, in caring for him with tasks to be completed, I forged on with the morning.

At one point the causality affairs officer stopped in and asked if a high profile visitor could come by. Since my patient was stable I said it was fine with me as long as the patient didn’t mind. My patient looked at me, then reluctantly agreed.

“Damn, man!  If I known today I was going to have a VIP patient who was going to have a VIP visitor I’d have done my hair!” I joked with him. For that quip, my patient awarded me with a crooked smile and a gurgle of laughter.

Timetable for the visit set, we began to complete some of the day’s tasks. While working, my patient, in slow, deliberate speech, said, “They come in, shake your hand and tell you how proud they are of you. They say thanks for serving your country, how grateful they are for men and women like you. They struggle to figure out what to talk about next and try real hard not to stare at your blown off leg or damaged face. Then they leave and you never see or hear from them again. If you’re lucky they might remember you, but most don’t.” Brown eye looked out at me, sadness clearly evident. “I get so tired of being on display for these people. People that don’t know me.” 

Later, while charting as my patient lay sleeping I looked up to see the VIP striding down the hallway,entourage in tow. I stood and moved into my patient’s room, waking him by calling his name.

“Visitors," I said.

The VIP came into the room and began to speak. At times my patient’s speech was slow and halting, softly spoken, and the VIP had difficulty understanding. To cover the awkwardness, I began to joke with my patient, the mood lightening when the crooked smile appeared on his face. As quickly as he came the VIP left, and with a remembrance gift in his hand my patient simply looked at me, tired expression on his face. I told him to go back to sleep, and returned to work.

Several hours later a second visitor approached me, another liaison, inquiring as to the status of my patient and asking if he could see him. As my patient was finally getting some much-needed rest, I threatened him with great bodily harm if he even attempted to wake my patient. 

“Oh no, Ma’am, I wouldn’t do that! I just wanted to make sure he was okay. See, we served together in Iraq three years ago, and the last time I saw him was a couple of days before he got blown up. I won’t wake him, and if you tell me he’s doing okay, that’s good enough for me. I’ll see him some other time."

“I know you,” he added. "You’ve taken care of another one of my guys and you’re good people. Protective as hell of your patients, but I like that. Makes me feel better knowing someone like you is looking after my guys when I can’t.”  I smiled and nodded not sure what to say especially since I didn’t remember ever working with him. 

After some prodding on my part he began to tell me about the crooked path that had taken him to two other duty stations before being tasked as a liaison. “Come on,” I said. “Let’s go wake him up. You’re one visitor I know he’ll want to see."

Walking into the room, liaison slowly following, I again called my patient’s name. Leaning toward his head I softly spoke his name, then louder said “Wake up! There’s another visitor here to see you and you’ll like this one."

I heard the sigh he gave before the brown eye reluctantly opened. I began to smile as I watched recognition slowly dawn as he looked at his visitor. Then, as with an overexcited toddler whose entire body moves, my patient struggled to get his hand out from under the covers. He grinned, “How ya doing, man?!”  All of us laughed, the visitor and the patient shook hands, then with hands tightly grasped, simply looked at each other.

Finding a chair for him, I urged the visitor to sit and talk. As I went about my work I heard snippets of the conversation drifting out of the room. Talk of guys they served with, promotions, life’s paths, laughter, tears, war stories and more laughter. Later, as the liaison stood up to leave, I wandered back into the room. With grins stretched across our faces we all gazed at each other. 

I have no need to wonder which VIP my patient will remember most.

DEAR PRESIDENT OBAMA |

January 23, 2009

DEAR PRESIDENT OBAMA
Name: Vampire 06
Posting date: 1/23/09
Stationed in: Afghanistan
Hometown: Folsom, CA
Milblog: Afghanistan Shrugged

Dear President Obama:

I know that you just took office about 48 hours ago and you’ve got a lot on your plate, but I thought I’d provide you with a small letter for SA, situational awareness. I’m sure that Gen. Petraeus will provide one for you also; but mine comes from the trenches of the War On Terror. My team is out here every day making sure that the policies you set forth get carried out, so we see the impact, successes and failures first hand.

First, let me describe the current situation from my fighting position. It’s not great. Currently we’re chasing the wrong thing, that being enemy forces. They can always recruit more people. We need to attack the motivations to join the enemy. Eliminate the supply. 

Predators, ROVER and other implements that we’ve paid billions for are most often used to second guess the guys on the ground and tell them that they’re not seeing what they’re seeing. If this seems convoluted, it is! It boils down to this; you’re getting shot at and some dude a long way off is telling you you’re not and that by the way you better not shoot back at the enemy.

Logistics suck! No ifs, ands or buts about it. This is day 26 for this team without mail. This is a lot different than you’ll see at the big FOBs, where there’s ubiquitous ice cream, coffee and hot chow, and totally different than Iraq. There they throw away more than we eat. I haven’t seen a PX in three months and I just ran out of deodorant and soap today. My wife mailed some to me in the middle of December, but I haven’t seen it yet. As they say, “Amateurs talk tactics, professionals talk logistics."

There are some great American Warriors here doing their darn best to win the war, but the higher ups are too afraid, so they won’t let them off the FOB to do the work that needs to be done.They track things like how many rounds we expended and what patch you’re wearing on your ACUs instead of issues like how many feet of road or how many schools have been built.

So now that I’ve painted a little picture of what it looks like, let me indulge myself and highlight a couple of things I think we could do to close the deal.

Roads; we need more of them. A lot more! This is the cornerstone to building Afghanistan and the government.The Romans were not successful because of military technology. It helped, but they were successful because they built an extensive network of roads, many of which still exist today and are in better shape than roads in Afghanistan.

Without roads the Afghans don’t really need a centralized government. That’s a broad statement but I’ll qualify it here in a minute. The tribe pretty much provides what they need.  The tribe protects them, settles disputes and enforces laws.They’re more than capable of doing this and have been for the last several centuries.They fulfill the basic governmental requirements -- common defense, law and order.

The tribes, though, can’t build and maintain roads. You need a centralized government to construct, maintain and protect the roads. You get an influx of money and people work on the roads instead of getting paid to blow us up, and it stimulates a demand for goods and services.

With the road comes inter-province commerce, for which you need regulation by a central government; a function a tribe can’t accomplish. Sounds kind of like a little situation we had around 1776. The road brings money, communication and progress. You cut the link between Pakistan and the tribal regions because it’s now easier to travel to the interior of Afghanistan to get medical treatment, goods, services, the whole lot.

So with a simple road we’ve now created an environment friendly to the support of the Afghan central government. That doesn’t exist now. It’s a lot easier to explain to the Afghans that the Army and police protect the roads and regulate commerce. It also takes the, “This is a war on Islam” factor out of the situation.

We’re making sure people can conduct trade and are free to travel as they wish. Sounds like freedom.

Democracy and liberty are damn hard concepts to explain to someone who doesn’t see any benefit from the government in Kabul. So what if I elect the guy, if he does nothing for me? The population earns money and then we explain that the government will protect their continued ability to do so, and that’s a discussion someone understands.

Next we need education. Only about 10% of the Afghans are literate. This means that 90% of knowledge and news is spread through verbal means. Thus, you’re at the whim of whoever is telling you the information. You get the info with the bias and slant of the communicator; there's no real way to get an independent source.

If we start educating people they can form their own opinions. Once again this sounds a lot like freedom to me. But I’m just a dumb ground pounder.

We open up a whole new world to people if they can read and write. The Taliban has the corner on the market for information; they tell the locals what they want. We don’t even participate in the information operations fight. We’ve put in radio stations, but that’s a small step. They need to be able to read and write for themselves.  

Finally, start letting us make decisions at the tactical level. That doesn’t mean we go out and start shooting everyone. It means we go out with our Afghan brothers and protect roads, trade and schools. We help them enforce the laws that have come with the roads. It’s damn hard to do that sitting on a FOB or only going out to attack people. Quit rewarding commanders who only think they’re killing enemy. No one ever won an insurgency by killing insurgents. Instead, reward those guys making a real long term impact and who get the counter-insurgency fight.

Also, force the Afghan government to start taking the lead. Make them build roads outside the major cities and quit letting them do nothing while we shovel money into this country to no avail. Make the government a meritocracy instead of a means of rewarding tribal loyalty. This goes for the Army and police too. As long as these guys just enrich themselves nothing is going to happen, and the people will become more pessimistic, forcing them back to the tribe that looks out for their welfare.

So, Mr President, just a few thoughts from the trenchline. You probably won’t hear any of this from the higher ups.They’ll tell you we need more combat troops, but we can’t even support the ones we already have here. They should tell you to send engineers and logisticians, but that’s not too sexy.

Very Respectfully,

VAMPIRE 06     

GOING CRAZY |

January 21, 2009

GOING CRAZY
Name: Cris Misner

Posting date: 1/21/09
Husband stationed: Overseas
Milblog: June Cleaver After a Six-Pack
Email: Carlcris2000@yahoo.com

I asked Carl yesterday if he could see himself at home -- if he could see himself here -- and his answer was "No."

I was glad he said that because I have been nervous about the fact that I cannot see him here either. I don't know if it is because he has been gone for five months, or because I know we have another seven months of separation ahead of us after this R&R, but I have been unable to close my eyes and see my husband sleeping in our bed, or eating breakfast at the kitchen table, or laughing with me or even sitting in front of me having a face to face conversation that lasts longer than 15 minutes.

Isn't that crazy?

There is nothing more I want than to have my husband here, so why is it so hard to let my heart and mind picture him here with me?

Some days I wonder if we'll survive this year -- meaning, I fear that when he does come home for good we will be different. Will we be each other's best friend again? Will he want to always be with me and love only me?

The mind is a horrible enemy for the wife of a deployed husband.

How easily he has slipped from being someone I can reach out and touch to someone that I only get to talk to for minutes a day and when something happens in our lives here he may not ever even know about it. Just the other day he asked if the back window had ever been fixed. I had it fixed weeks ago but never remembered to tell him when we talked.

I try and email him everything that is happening, but so much happens and emails are so tedious that somewhere along the line our messages to each other went from lengthy love letters to quick one-liners about the day and whether or not the oil in the van was changed.

Not a moment goes by that he is not in my thoughts, but is that enough? He remarks that I do not write him enough or send enough pictures and I know that is only because he is there, away from us, but there are times when I want to say "What about me?"

How selfish is that. "What about me?" Five months ago I had a husband at home and I felt secure in everything we did. Today I am without him and I have had to do it all, his jobs and my jobs. But look at what he has to do. How can I ever be so selfish as to complain about my situation over his. That is hard because I really like to complain sometimes -- I am a woman, I can't help it.

But if I say this is unfair, I am not being supportive.

I just want to close my eyes and see him here. I just want to go to sleep at night thinking that he is with me.

I am not going to want him to leave after this R&R and that is what is worrying me the most. How am I supposed to say good-bye again? No wife should ever have to do this. All I will have is two weeks to get me through the next seven months -- to get him through the next seven months. I believe that his sanity relies a lot on me and how I handle things. If I go crazy, he will feel helpless so far away from me, and that is not good.

After 15 years of marriage I am nervous about seeing my husband.

If I am being completely honest, I would admit that my stomach clenches at that thought of having him so close to being here, and what if something happens between now and then? Is that why I can't picture him here with me? Because I am so frightened that life will throw us a curve ball that I won't be able to handle? These are thoughts that I push far from my mind and never dwell upon. Five months is nothing in comparison to a lifetime without him. And I can't even talk about that right now.

I wish he was already here so that I did not have to worry about so many things right now. I remember the day that he left I thought that I would never feel such heartache, but having him almost here -- almost with me -- the thought of him being just days away from me, is proving to be the hardest yet.

THROUGH SOMEONE ELSE'S EYES |

January 19, 2009

THROUGH SOMEONE ELSE'S EYES
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.

LOOSE INTERPRETATION |

January 16, 2009

LOOSE INTERPRETATION
Name: Alex Horton
Posting date: 1/16/09
Returned from: Iraq
Hometown: Frisco, Texas
Milblog: Army of Dude
Email: hortonhearsit@hotmail.com

"Battle Five, Battle Five, this is White 7 Romeo. Radio check, over."

"Roger out."

Except for the soft, quiet hum of the radio at my side, there wasn't a sound in the makeshift combat outpost in the heart of Old Baqubah. After an impossibly long day of patrolling in the summer heat, we bedded down in an occupied house to await the next groundhog day of patrols, weapons cache destruction and ubiquitous firefights. At sundown we had filled a filthy kitchen sink with ice to cool down bottles of water and Gatorade. Hours later, only a warm pool remained in the sink, the bottles offering little relief from the torrid wind that swirled in from the open front door. It was barely fifteen minutes into my one hour watch when my eyelids began to betray my only task: to keep my sleeping platoon safe from anyone who might come through the courtyard gate.

A faint metal-on-metal clanking sound drew me out of my lethargy. It came from the other side of the courtyard wall. Was it the intermittent rustling of an unknown intruder? Jolted out of my chair and out of my loose and sweat-soaked boots, I reached for my short-barreled shotgun. Without boots and body armor, I crept slowly to the wall, my feet leaving behind moist footprints barely noticeable under the silver glow of a full moon.

With my platoon resting for a few precious hours inside the house, I had but two lifelines with me. One was the ten pound clunker of a radio. The other was the shotgun I held in my hands. I racked it as slowly as possible, the sound of double-aught buckshot shells rubbing against the chamber barely audible. I thumbed the safety on top of the weapon to red. The noise on the other side of the wall grew louder and more menacing. I stepped on top of an empty barrel, one hand on the shotgun pistol grip and the other on the courtyard wall. Taking one last deep breath, I stood up and swung the shotgun over the wall and pointed the barrel at what was making the noise: a piece of sheet metal rattling in the wind against a steel cabinet.

My paranoia assuaged, I stepped down off the barrel, put the shotgun on safe and walked back to the chair. My senses heightened, I listened as the metal clanking blended with the radio static and counted the seconds until my watch was over.

***

Make no mistake: the Army owns your ass even when you're not in it anymore. When you sign an enlistment contract for three, four or five years, there is a period of inactive service tacked on for a total of eight years. Once you leave active duty, you are placed in the Individual Ready Reserve (IRR). At any time and without warning, an inactive soldier is subject to recall and mobilization for a deployment. The reason is simple: in times of emergency, a pool of trained soldiers is readily available to once again answer the call of duty.

Reality, of course, is not so simple. While the ashes of September 11th were still warm, it was pledged that this nation would fight its enemies abroad, its will redoubled in the fires of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Our government declared a global war to combat our enemies, with the American people behind the military every step of the way. But a call to arms was not sounded from the White House. There was no effort to get young men and women into recruiting stations, only a suggestion from President Bush to go to Disney World instead of the mountains of Afghanistan.

A wise man once said: "You go to war with the military you have and not the military you want." It soon became a doctrine instead of a red flag of personnel shortage. You cannot fight a war without soldiers. With recruitment down and units constantly rotating in and out of Iraq and Afghanistan, it became clear that the demand for warm bodies far outweighed the supply. The National Guard and Reserve were tapped. Where to turn?

Before the Pentagon raided the IRR cookie jar in 2004, fears were calmed by recruiters and career counselors. If a recruit had a question about the IRR and the chances of getting recalled, the standard line given was, "Only if World War III breaks out." It was generally regarded as an absurd possibility to get recalled, thrown back into active duty and sent to a war zone. These days, career counselors have changed their tactics. Instead of characterizing an involuntary recall as a remote possibility, they will tell a soldier with a straight face that there is no escape from the looming shadow of the IRR.

***

"You might not want to pack just yet, but I would get ready."

A single sentence from my father on the other end of the phone was enough to send my head spinning, every drop of blood drained from my face. It was spring, and I had just moved from Seattle to Austin for school and began working in a warehouse for a wine distributor. All of my Army records listed my parents' house as my mailing address. Without notice, two Army career counselors on the hunt for inactive troops showed up at my parents' doorstep looking for me. They were dressed in sharp combat uniforms and wanted to discuss with me the possibility of joining the Army Reserves. If I did not, they warned my father, I would be on my way to being recalled.

"He's 11-Bravo infantry, a trigger puller," the ranking sergeant grumbled to my father. "His job is in high demand and infantry will be the first they recall." The only way to keep me from getting deployed again, they insisted, was to join the reserves with a guarantee to not be deployed for at least a year. "It'd be the smart thing to do," he said. I knew the line well, but I wasn't a trigger puller anymore. I was trying to make a home somewhere else, far from where the Army could interfere with the lives of my family. I sat alone, crumpled and defeated. What if they were right?

***

It was no accident they spoke in such a way that made my dad feel uneasy about the prospect of me going back to Iraq involuntarily. Since recalls became routine four years ago, government civilians and military counselors have used the same fear tactics to push soldiers to their breaking point with the veiled threat of recall. Other tactics are beginning to emerge, however. Not long after the two counselors showed up at my parents' door decked out in combat fatigues, two different counselors showed up again, both of them women dressed in casual civilian clothes. They were much more informal than the previous pair, keeping recall talk to a minimum yet sticking to their insistence that I take a look at the reserves. Some counselors are more nefarious. One even suggested that with the election of Barack Obama, two years would be enough time to avoid a deployment since we'll be out of Iraq anyway. Shit, sign me up. Does it come with a juicer?

***

This area is under surveillance by undercover police.

The banner, hanging low over a street a few blocks away, lets everyone know who is watching. My neighborhood is not a shining example of safe city life; prostitutes keep an eye out for potential johns within spitting distance of my front door step while stray dogs roam the streets in small, desperate packs. Drug deals are made under the few trees that line the intersection. While Lauren and I were moving in, a friendly old woman welcomed us to the neighborhood with a stern warning. "Be careful to always lock up and don't set any patterns," she said. "People on this street will watch you until they recognize a pattern, then they'll rob you," she added, her smile still intact. "Happened just last week."

I never owned a gun until that weekend. I went out and bought a pistol for home defense. I had an irrational fear of burglars since I was young, terrified to come home from elementary school by myself. Most of the time I waited for my older sister's bus to drop her off before I spent an unbearable few seconds alone. When I was brave enough to be in the house by myself, I was armed with a large steak knife, hoping the time wouldn't come where I would have to shove the tip into an intruder. It was inconceivable for my ten year old mind, the feeling of slicing open another person. Years later, I have no trouble with the thought of putting bullets into someone, sending brain matter scattering across the floor or plastered onto the wall in a fine pink mist. I'm a trigger puller after all. Or I used to be.

The first few months in the house didn't feel the least bit dangerous despite our seedy surroundings. I could usually count on a good night's sleep even with the bass from passing cars shaking the windows and nightly block parties blasting mariachi music. But the noises come back, and with it, the paranoia. Five times a night, ten times a night, I'm drawn out of sleep by sudden creaks and cracks around the house. One night, a pounding on the window sent Lauren and I five feet into the air and me scrambling for my gun. After chambering a round, I bent the blinds back slightly to peer out the window. The wind was knocking a trash can lid into the window with each powerful gust. Relieved but not yet calm, I went outside and secured the lid. It took me a long while to find the right state of mind to sleep again.

***

Hearing things on watch in Iraq. The constant torment of waiting for recall orders. Looming noises in a broken-down neighborhood. All took place thousands of miles away and months apart from each other, yet they all produce the same feeling of despair and malignant desperation. The battle for peace in a soldier's mind isn't settled in the streets of Iraq or the mountains of Afghanistan. It's waged for months and years later in cycles of inner reflection that can take a lifetime to interpret.

With the possibility of recall hanging overhead like a dark, lurid cloud, that interpretation is sped up until it crashes head-on with a stark realization: I could be going back to face those demons once again. If my time comes to accept recall orders and inevitable mobilization, so it goes. I always told my friends that I'd ignore the orders and not show up. Why do the job I've already done, that so many have resisted for seven years? But my obligation towers above that line of selfish reasoning. I've been out of the Army for a little more than a year now. I'd have a hell of a time waking up everyday at 5:30 and my infantry tactics might be a little rusty. But I haven't forgotten how to pull a trigger if the time comes for me to do it once more. I just hope that I can face the unseen terror that hides in the night.

ALL BEFORE 0800 |

January 13, 2009

ALL BEFORE 0800
Name: Vampire 06
Posting date: 1/13/09
Stationed in: Afghanistan
Hometown: Folsom, CA
Milblog: Afghanistan Shrugged

Beep...Beep, Beep...Beep, Beep...Beep.  I look at the green face of my watch; 5 AM stares back at me. It's quiet and pitch black in the room; nice that it's quiet; this is the last time today that it will be. The rest of the day will be filled with radio calls, reports, yelling. I lie there in the dark with my watch still beeping.

The war in Afghanistan is typified by brand names; Oakley, Under Armour, Suunto, iPod and a myriad of others. It seems at times when we roll out that we resemble NASCAR drivers with logos and brand names plastered all over us; subdued yes, but all over us. Right now it's Suunto that's upsetting me, with its beeping and unwillingness to let me go back to sleep. Just leave me alone.

No such luck. I shut the watch off, get out of my bunk and put my feet on the cold concrete floor. It's fitting that we're ETT Vampire as we live in a concrete bunker with no windows. When the lights are off it's black no matter the time of day. I leave the lights off, grab my red flashlight, searching now for my iPod. Found it! Plug it into the speakers and find my mission day music: Mettalica, "One" from And Justice for All. The music floats from the speakers; setting the tone.

This is my favorite. Not for the words -- if you really listen to it, it paints a pretty bad picture of war -- but for the pacing. It starts slow, pianissimo, and builds to the punching, fortissimo ending. Much like my morning and probably day is slated to be.

With the soundtrack for the morning rolling, I find my ACUs and start putting them on. I suffer from OCD; every good soldier here does. I get dressed in the same manner everyday. I do not deviate. It's what keeps me ready and alive. My life is a bushel of habits and rituals, ingrained in me by years of Army training.

Pants first, left leg pocket tourniquet, right leg Combat Gauze, another brand name.

Search the shelves for my blood chit -- a piece of paper that says in 27 languages that the US government will pay money if someone assists me. No amount is listed on it, and I'm concerned that the $700 billion bailout of Wall Street may have cut into the money they set aside to get us back. The cold hard truth is that we've all agreed that none of us will ever be captured. The Geneva Convention does not apply to us here. We follow it; they don't. Many have seen the video of Daniel Pearl on the internet and we know what awaits us if we're captured. We'll do whatever it takes to ensure that never happens.

Pants are on, ACU top. Nine line MEDEVAC card, map, another tourniquet. By this time Mettalica is punching its way out of the speakers. Shake boots out and put them on. Check my M9,  M4 and Aimpoint sight. These were all cleaned the night before, but I still check them. "In God We Trust, All Others We Check."

Head for the latrine. I have a recurring fear here. It's not the ACM or an IED. It goes something like this; I head to the latrine with my flashlight -- we have portipotties here with no lights -- I get into the latrine and start to prep and sit down. Just then my flashlight catches the glint of the massive camel spider in the upper corner of the latrine. And the sucker pounces on me. I'm under attack! I spill out of the latrine in a very vulnerable position with this thing biting me. I now have to go to the medics and explain why I've been wounded in the latrine. I don't think this qualifies me for the Purple Heart, which is an award I'd just as soon not have, and I have to explain to everyone why I was evaced.

No attack in the latrine. Thank God!  Head over to the vehicles and climb in mine, start it up. Wait for air pressure to build and check the batteries. Everything in the vehicles is powered by the air lines or electrical. You can't open a 450-lb door without mechanical assistance. The vehicles are cold armored behemoths, sitting like tan mountains in the faint morning light.

Climb into the back and start the Blue Force Tracker and radios, do a radio check. Good to go! These have all been set up the night before. Vehicle is warming up and others from the team are spilling out of the building with crew-served weapons and various other pieces of equipment. The smell of exhaust, Break-Free and Copenhagen fills the air. These are the smells of pre-combat.

Belts of ammunition are feed into the crew-served; a shiny jewelry of death. Happiness is a belt-fed weapon. Clanking, hammering and cussing provide texture to the morning. Everyone knows their job and they go about it with precise professionalism. 

Go over to the Tactical Operations Center (TOC) and check on air evac status, close air support and artillery. The mission is a humanitarian assistance drop, but in the words of Big John McCarthy, you'd better be ready to "Get it On" at a moment's notice. The day you're not ready will be the one the ACM decide to get frisky and bite a piece off. The TOC is the nerve center of the FOB and it hums with energy, human and electrical.

Back to the hooch, call my wife and see how things are at home. It's the evening there and she's getting ready to have dinner. I can't tell her that I'm leaving or what I'm going to do. I have no idea who could be listening. She's doing well and I tell her I'll call later; she knows by the sound of my voice that I'm preoccupied and getting ready to go somewhere. She doesn't say anything, but she knows. I tell her I'll call or email later. "Love you and be safe" is what she tells me.

Grab the rest of my equipment. Check my vest, radio, mags, frags and all the other equipment that goes on it; at this point it weighs about 30 lbs. Individual Body Armor with plates is ready to go. It's getting a little ripe and needs to be washed. Won't matter in a couple of hours, as I'll smell just like it. Note to self: wash this nasty thing when I get back. Another note: check everyone else's armor to see what state it's in and get them to wash it. We all must smell rancid.

Put all of this stuff on and head to the vehicles. IBA, vest, helmet, gloves, eye protection, pistol. I've now increased my body weight by 60 lbs. Start doing inspections. You can do this one of two ways. The first, line everyone up, walk through and look at all their stuff. I prefer the second way taught to me by my first Platoon SGT. Go to each guy individually and ask them how things are going, talk to them and listen to their answers. Soldiers know when you're just talking to them to talk. While you're doing this look at their equipment. If you see anything wrong tell them you noticed it and have them correct it. My personal opinion is it keeps guys more relaxed, and you can have the other guys doing stuff while you inspect. Plus, you can spend more time on guys that have issues without embarrassing them in front of the rest of the team. Just a technique.

Load everyone into the vehicles and head over to the ANA side. The ANA are staged and getting ready to head out. I get out and talk to the commander. Any updates, changes, everyone ready to head out? He's good and ready to go. A nervous tension permeates the air. The mission isn't combat today; but the enemy always has a vote in the matter. The ANA are getting more and more professional by the day. It used to take us an hour to get them ready and now they're ready when we get there. We must be doing something right.

Final checks are going on, artillery laid on target, radios still up. Usually at this point a radio decides it doesn't want to work and we play the what happened and how do we get this thing back up game. Not today, things are going well. Everyone got everything? The team gathers a final time before we mount up. Rehash the mission, any critical points, check.

Mount up and strap in, discuss rollover drill. It's what we're going to do if the vehicle rolls over. The terrain here is a series of washed out wadis leading to steep hills, so the possibility that we'll roll a vehicle is very real. Inside our vehicle everything is tied down; an ammo can hitting you in the face as the vehicle rolls will ruin your Crest smile pretty quick. Everybody knows their part.

Start rolling, final radio check. "All Vampire vehicles, Vampire 06 in sequence radio check." All reply with good comms status. "All Vampire vehicles, Vampire 06, roger on comms. Good hunting!"

And now we see how the enemy will vote.

HOW TO PREPARE FOR DEPLOYMENT |

January 09, 2009

HOW TO PREPARE FOR DEPLOYMENT
Name: Zachary Scott-Singley
Posting date: 1/9/09
Returned from: Iraq
Milblog: A Soldier's Thoughts

Here's something a friend sent me:

HOW TO PREPARE FOR DEPLOYMENT TO IRAQ / AFGHANISTAN

1. Sleep on a cot in the garage.

2. Replace the garage door with a curtain.

3. Six hours after you go to sleep, have your wife or girlfriend whip open the curtain, shine a flashlight in your eyes and mumble, "Sorry, wrong cot."

4. Renovate your bathroom. Hang a green plastic sheet down from the middle of your bathtub and move the showerhead down to chest level. Keep four inches of soapy cold water on the floor. Stop cleaning the toilet and pee everywhere but in the toilet itself. Leave two to three sheets of toilet paper. Or for best effect, remove it altogether. For a more realistic deployed bathroom experience, stop using your bathroom and use a neighbor's. Choose a neighbor who lives at least a quarter mile away.

5. When you take showers, wear flip-flops and keep the lights off.

6. Every time there is a thunderstorm, go sit in a wobbly rocking chair and dump dirt on your head.

7. Put lube oil in your humidifier instead of water and set it on "HIGH" for that tactical generator smell.

8. Don't watch TV except for movies in the middle of the night. Have your family vote on which movie to watch and then show a different one.

9. Leave a lawnmower running in your living room 24 hours a day for proper noise level.

10. Have the paperboy give you a haircut.

11. Once a week, blow compressed air up through your chimney making sure the wind carries the soot across and on to your neighbor's house. Laugh at him when he curses you.

12. Buy a trash compactor and only use it once a week. Store up garbage in the other side of your bathtub.

13. Wake up every night at midnight and have a peanut butter and jelly sandwich on a saltine cracker.

14. Make up your family menu a week ahead of time without looking in your food cabinets or refrigerator. Then serve some kind of meat in an unidentifiable sauce poured over noodles. Do this for every meal.

15. Set your alarm clock to go off at random times during the night. When it goes off, jump out of bed and get to the shower as fast as you can. Simulate the lack of hot water by running out into your yard and breaking out the garden hose.

16. Once a month, take every major appliance completely apart and put it back together again.

17. Use 18 scoops of coffee per pot and allow it to sit for five or six hours before drinking.

18. Invite at least 185 people you don't really like because of their strange hygiene habits to come and visit for a couple of months. Exchange clothes with them.

19. Have a fluorescent lamp installed on the bottom of your coffee table and lie under it to read books.

20. Raise the thresholds and lower the top sills of your front and back doors so that you either trip over the threshold or hit your head on the sill every time you pass through one of them.

21. Keep a roll of toilet paper on your night stand and bring it to the bathroom with you. And bring your gun and a flashlight.

22. Go to the bathroom when you just have to pass gas, "just in case." Every time.

23. Announce to your family that they have mail, have them report to you as you stand outside your open garage door after supper and then say, "Sorry, it's for the other Smith."

24. Wash only 15 items of laundry per week. Roll up the semi-wet clean clothes in a ball. Place them in a cloth sack in the corner of the garage where the cat pees. After a week, unroll them and without ironing or removing the mildew, proudly wear them to professional meetings and family gatherings. Pretend you don't know what you look or smell like. Enthusiastically repeat the process for another week.

25. Go to the worst crime-infested place you can find, go heavily armed, wearing a flak jacket and a Kevlar helmet. Set up shop in a tent in a vacant lot. Announce to the residents that you are there to help them.

26. Eat a single M&M every Sunday and convince yourself it's for Malaria.

27. Demand each family member be limited to 10 minutes per week for a morale phone call. Enforce this with your teenage daughter.

28. Shoot a few bullet holes in the walls of your home for proper ambiance.

29. Sandbag the floor of your car to protect from mine blasts and fragmentation.

30. While traveling down roads in your car, stop at each overpass and culvert and inspect them for remotely detonated explosives before proceeding.

31. Fire off 50 cherry bombs simultaneously in your driveway at 3:00 a.m. When startled neighbors appear, tell them all is well, you are just registering mortars. Tell them plastic will make an acceptable substitute for their shattered windows.

32. Drink your milk and sodas warm.

33. Spread gravel throughout your house and yard.

34. Make your children clear their Super Soakers in a clearing barrel you placed outside the front door before they come in.

35. Make your family dig a survivability position with overhead cover in the backyard. Complain that the 4x4s are not 8 inches on center and make them rebuild it.

36. Continuously ask your spouse to allow you to go buy an M-Gator.

37. When your 5-year-old asks for a stick of gum, have him find the exact stick and flavor he wants on the Internet and print out the web page. Type up a Form 9 and staple the web page to the back. Submit the paperwork to your spouse for processing. After two weeks, give your son the gum.

38. Announce to your family that the dog is a vector for disease and shoot it. Throw the dog in a burn pit you dug in your neighbor's back yard.

39. Wait for the coldest/ hottest day of the year and announce to your family that there will be no heat / air conditioning that day so you can perform much needed maintenance on the heater / air conditioner. Tell them you are doing this so they won't get cold / hot.

40. Just when you think you're ready to resume a normal life, order yourself to repeat this process for another six months to simulate the next deployment you've been ordered to support.

ROB YLLESCAS, R.I.P. |

January 07, 2009

ROB YLLESCAS, R.I.P.
Name: T.T. Carnehan
Posting date: 1/7/09
Deploying to: Afghanistan
Milblog: Long Warrior
Email: longwarriorblog@gmail.com

I was going through some articles that were posted on a news service provided by the Defense Department, known as The Early Bird. It's a simple site that posts full articles from newspapers, wire services, and even television reports that deal with Defense-related topics. One was about a Company Commander in Kamdesh, Combat Outpost Keating in Nuristan Province, replacing a Captain who was struck by an IED and evacuated from Afghanistan back to Walter Reed. After several long hard weeks of fighting at Walter Reed, the Captain passed away.

The name jumped off the page: Rob Yllescas. I knew him, not well, but knew him nonetheless. We worked
around each other in Iraq.  His wife, Dena, has a blog through which she's been keeping friends and family up to date with her struggle, Rob's recovery efforts, and now her coping. I remember him, for my part, as a high quality officer.That is to say he was energetic, focused, eminently capable, helpful, affable, and respectful. From what I saw, he treated all fairly and earned every one of the dear friends who have been sending his wife sympathy messages and were sending him recovery wishes. He, and all those like him, are forever missed; no peoples have an inexhaustible supply of his sort.

Dena, God bless you and your family. Rob, Godspeed.

HIGH ON WAR |

January 05, 2009

HIGH ON WAR
Name: The Usual Suspect
Posting date: 1/05/09
Returned from: Iraq
Milblog: Unlikely Soldier

It's true what you might have heard. We do sometimes miss being deployed. It doesn't make much sense and we know it. The truth, though, is that things were usually pretty simple "downrange".

Anytime we were forced to assemble together, it was for a reason. Not formation just for the sake of formation. If there was information to put out, a huddle was good enough.

Not drinking was easy. Some dudes handle it just fine, I ended up cutting mine down to a bare minimum -- a drink or two. Some dudes just need to not drink. Ever.

Our safety briefings are continuously lengthier now because we're all supposed to be harboring sinister, self-destructive thoughts or subconscious desires. Buying up sports cars and crotch rockets. Deliriously wasting money.

My friend and I took an ass beating a month or two ago in Seattle. I was logic-defyingly drunk and I'm pretty sure he was too. I came out of a blackout just in time to see him turn to face me and say, "Yep.We're about to get our asses kicked." Then five or six dudes proceeded to do just that. All I could think was, "This shouldn't be happening.Wouldn't happen if I had a gun." That's about when it hit me.

We aren't worth dick if we aren't armed. Myself especially. No eye contact in public, don't cut anyone off in traffic, don't turn onto the wrong street, hope no one smashes your windows out when you go to see a movie, neurotic social terror. But put me in full kit and give me my rifle again, and I'm God.

One day you're detaining some asshole who rigged a house to explode on you and your guys, negotiating with the train-tunnel-sized shotgun barrel. The next, you're John Q Whogivesashit, capable of not much.

Oh yeah, I thought long and hard about spending my last year in Iraq. It sounded like a really good idea too. More money, actually doing my job. Sounded wonderful. But there's more people to consider than just me. So it's John Q Whatsit.

You get back, and everyone goes back to focusing on their own little things. Their upcoming marriage and/or divorce. Their suped Volkswagen. It isn't Us vs The World anymore. And it's a law of nature that everything eventually goes downhill. When that happens, you can either pout and live in the past, in the good ol' days, or you can move on and find something new and good, and enjoy it while it lasts. Then move on again when it's drained of awesome.

See, I don't know if I ever made this clear enough: I didn't enlist for "freedom", and I didn't enlist for college. I didn't even THINK I'd go to college back then; thought it "wasn't for me". (Vomit blood here.) I didn't give two shits who the President was, I didn't care who the enemy was. I've said this a million times, but I did it for the dudes of my generation that were going. We could have been storming London and I still would have signed up. I signed up for dudes that I didn't even know. Some that I came to hate, some that I never knew all too well, some that were just too fucking weird not to love, and some that are the best friends I'll ever have.

That Band Of Brothers feeling is few and far between though. Only in rare moments that you don't talk about in the first place. But I've done some really stupid things to help or bail a friend out.

The Army is where you go if you're afraid to grow up. If you have that Peter Pan Syndrome. But it isn't always the party you thought it would be. For some reason, I really thought it would be a life of excess and all things awesome. Sometimes it is. But no one advertises the gray moments in between. I'm not against recruiting for the Army. It's actually a really good thing for most people. I just think there should be more honesty in the advertisements. But wait, that defeats the purpose.

The thing though, is that you almost have no choice but to try to plow forward. If not, all you can do is look back. And I can't do that. So I have to stay busy. Bring the new guys in, I promise not to ruin their attitudes and I'll do everything I can to teach them and look out for them, and not ruin their mindset. The Army really could use more high speed, low drag, motivated types.

My heart is just never going to be in this unless I'm in a war zone again. So it's time to move on.

I was reading a book full of miscellaneous writings by Henry Rollins when I turned the page and read an entry that blew my mind. Described my feelings better than I could:

All my war stories are old
They hang like old clothes in the closet
No one wants to hear old war stories
It's all I have right now
My mouth flaps dry in the air
I am in this room pacing the floors
Sun up sun down grinding my teeth
Jumping at shadows waiting
I don't want to think about that old war anymore
It's driving me up the wall with bad insanity
I need new war

High on war

SLAP YOURSELF |

January 02, 2009

SLAP YOURSELF
Name: 1SGT Troy Steward
Posting date: 1/2/09
Returned from: Afghanistan
Milblog: Bouhammer.com

"If you think Iraq is worse than Afghanistan -- or didn’t even know there is a major conflict in Afghanistan -- slap yourself..." 

That is the info tag line on this video from the 2nd Battalion (ARN) 503rd Infantry, and it pretty much says what my blog has been trying to say for several years. I remember making videos while I was in country, thinking they were really good. But they are nowhere nearly as good as what's been coming from soldiers in the last year. The production quality continues to impress the hell out of me.


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