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.

THE PULSE OF IRAQ |

February 26, 2009

THE PULSE OF IRAQ
Name: SGT B.
Posting date: 2/27/09
Stationed in: Iraq
Hometown: Rockford, WA
Milblog url: The Gun Line 
Email: hvygunner@gmail.com

I have access to a tremendous amount of "insider information." I cannot go into details, of course, but I can tell you that I have my finger on the pulse of Iraq. And if things were going badly, I assure you that the world would hear about it. But as I take in all of the information, there are so many positive reports, so many subtle signs that tell me that this country is fast approaching the point where they won't need us. It is exciting indeed. We are almost there.

Many of these subtle signs would only be recognized by somebody with a soldier's eye. For example:  A few years ago, a picture of Iraqi soldiers would show a bunch of guys in olive drab uniforms, half with cartridge belts and the rest without, maybe wearing steel helmets, maybe not, looking nervous and carrying AK-47s haphazardly on their persons, sitting in the back of a pick-up truck. A sorry sight indeed. 

Now, those same soldiers are wearing pattern disruptive camouflage, state of the art body armor, Kevlar helmets, everybody has the proper webgear, they wear eye-protection, tactical gloves, tactical radios, and they look very much like the Americans who are standing at the checkpoint with them. The Iraqi Non-Commissioned Officers confer with their American counterparts, and lead their soldiers in armored vehicles.

The Iraqi Army is quickly becoming a professional Western-style force to be reckoned with, and that, from a soldier's perspective, is an amazing thing. The relationship between the coalition forces and the Iraqi forces is now based on mutual respect, and the latter are well suited for taking back the duties of protecting the country. I am very proud of them.

And that's just from a military viewpoint, never mind all of the civil, financial, and political gains that are happening.

If it wasn't happening, I wouldn't say it -- I don't write things I don't personally believe. I'm writing this in order to pass word along to the folks in America.

GETTING LOST IN ACHIN |

February 25, 2009

GETTING LOST IN ACHIN
Name: Michael Brameld
Posting date: 2/25/09
Stationed in: Afghanistan
Milblog: A Year in the Sandbox

A few weeks ago we went to check out sites for future schools at some villages in the Achin district. We found the first village no problem, but in our vehicles we couldn’t get to where the school site was supposed to be. We tried a few different ways of coming at it, but there was a ditch in the way. Finally we decided to just walk to it.

Framed Brameld Achin dog 1 I was on security and kid-entertainment duty. This was the first place I juggled for kids, and they didn’t run away when I picked up the rocks. :-) They brought a dog over to me and told me I could take him back to Jalalabad with me. He was really sweet. They said his name was Mazique.

He was really skittish. When I reached to pet him he shied away, but he stayed and wagged his tail. Once I started petting him he warmed up a little bit. When I stood up from petting him one of the kids kicked him right in the face! No wonder he’s so shy.

I pushed the kid away and told him no, but he just laughed and said yes. Afghans in general seem to not think too much of animals. I’ve seen other dogs get rocks thrown at them and kicked, but they’re domesticated and not wild, so at some point the Afghans must have treated them better.

Framed Brameld Achin valley 2 We left that village and made our way toward a village called Watch Kowt. It was way up in the mountains and we didn’t have a clear route to get there, but we tried anyway. We drove up through an amazing valley towards the village. At one point we stopped to check the map and figure out how to get where we wanted to go. We could see where we wanted to be on the other side of the river valley, but there was no way to get over there, and the valley was full of terraced fields. The only way we could see was a few miles up and then back across the mountain, so we went for it.

On the way up there we passed a road that cut back across the valley and looked like it might take us where we wanted to be, but the road we were on was right on the side of the mountain and too narrow to turn the trucks around on. So we pressed on.

Framed Brameld Achin village 3 We eventually made it up to where the road that cut back across the mountain was supposed to be. It was right in the middle of this village built on the side of the mountain, about 5km from the Pakistan border. We looked for the road, but it turned out to be a goat trail that was too narrow for the 1151s.* We had the interpreter ask some people there if it was possible to get to where we wanted to go from there and they said no.

I was talking to one of our interpreters while they were trying to sort out what we were going to do next. He was really nervous about being there and kept telling me we needed to leave as soon as possible. He also told me this was the first time the PRT* had been up to that village, so they don’t see Americans very often. The people seemed friendly enough, or at least curious. We left them with some Humanitarian Aid stuff we had, got our trucks turned around, and headed back down the mountain.

The trip back to the FOB was pretty uneventful despite the interpreter’s fears. There were a few hairy points on the road coming down, but nobody fell off the mountain.

*

1151s: four-seat version of the up-armored HMMWV

PRT: Provincial Reconstruction Teams


HERE, BULLET |

February 23, 2009

HERE, BULLET
Name: Brian Turner
Posting date: 2/23/09
Returned from: Iraq

Editor's note: The Sandbox appreciates having the opportunity to post six poems by Brian Turner, who served in Iraq for a year as an infantry team leader with the 3rd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division. These poems are taken from his remarkable book Here, Bullet.


What Every Soldier Should Know
          To yield to force is an act of necessity, not of will;
                                         it is at best an act of prudence.
                                     
            -- Jean-Jacques Rousseau

If you hear gunfire on a Thursday afternoon,
it could be for a wedding, or it could be for you.

Always enter a home with your right foot;
the left is for cemeteries and unclean places.

O-guf! Tera armeek is rarely useful.
It means Stop! Or I'll shoot.

Sabah el khair is effective.
It means Good Morning.

Inshallah means Allah be willing.
Listen well when it is spoken.

You will hear the RPG coming for you.
Not so the roadside bomb.

There are bombs under the overpasses,
in trashpiles, in bricks, in cars.

There are shopping carts with clothes soaked
in foogas, a sticky gel of homemade napalm.

Parachute bombs and artillery shells
sewn into the carcasses of dead farm animals.

Graffit sprayed onto the overpasses:
I will kell you, American.

Men wearing vests rigged with explosives
walk up, raise their arms and say Inshallah.

There are men who earn eighty dollars
to attack you, five thousand to kill.

Small children who will play with you,
old men with their talk, women who offer chai --

and any one of them
may dance over your body tomorrow.


Here, Bullet

If a body is what you want
then here is bone and gristle and flesh.
Here is the clavicle-snapped wish,
the aorta's opened valves, the leap
thought makes at the synaptic gap.
Here is the adrenaline rush you crave,
that inexorable flight, that insane puncture
into heat and blood. And I dare you to finish
what you've started. Because here, Bullet,
here is where I complete the word you bring
hissing through the air, here is where I moan
the barrel's cold esophagus, triggering
my tongue's explosives for the rifling I have
inside of me, each twist of the round
spun deeper, because here, Bullet,
here is where the world ends, every time.

Observation Post #798
                               It is in the watches of the night
       
                       that impressions are strongest
                                       and words most eloquent.
                                            -- Qur'an 73:1


Tonight, we overwatch the Market District
by the ruins, where we know of a brothel-house:
green light above the door, windows shuttered
in French panels swung open, gauze curtains
hanging translucent in the heat.

It's over a hundred degrees, even at dusk.
I scan each story with binoculars
and a smile, hoping to glimpse the girls
drawing open the curtains,
their silhouettes edged in light.

When a woman walks out onto the rooftop
smoking a cigarette and shaking loose her long hair,
everyone wants what I hold in my hands,
but I am stilled by her, transported 7,600 miles
away, as a ghost might gaze upon the one he loves,

thinking, how lovely you are,
your pain and beauty a fiction
I bend into the form of a bridge, anything
to remind me I am still alive.

16 Iraqi Policemen

The explosion left a hole in the roadbed
large enough to fit a mid-sized car.
It shattered concrete, twisted metal,
busted storefront windows in sheets
and lifted a BMW chassis up onto a rooftop.

The shocking blood of the men
forms an obscene art: a moustache, alone
on a sidewalk, a blistered hand's gold ring
still shining, while a medic, Doc Lopez,
pauses to catch his breath, to blow it out
hard, so he might cup the left side of a girl's face
in one hand, gently, before bandaging
the half gone missing.

Allah must wander in the crowd
as I do, dazed by the pure concussion
of the blast, among sirens, voices
of the injured, the boots of running soldiers,
not knowing whom to touch first,
for the dead policemen cannot be found,
here a moment before, then vanished.


Ferris Wheel
    Al Sadeer Tourist Complex, Mosul, Iraq

A helicopter went down in the river
last night, hitting a power line slung
a few feet off the water. They were searching
for survivors and bodies from a boat
capsized earlier, Americans and Iraqis both.

It's dawn now, and the sky
drifts low and flat and cold
the way search-boats on the Tigris
drift further and further downriver.
When Navy divers bring up the body
of an Iraqi policeman, it will be a man
we weren't searching for, and still another
later in the day -- a college student from Kirkuk.

It will be a long week of searching
like this, every morning near the shoreline
restaurant, where open fires are fed
kindling and tinder, a cook's hands
lifting the silver bodies of fish,
weighing them on scales.

The history books will get it wrong.
There will be nothing written
about the island ferris wheel
frozen by rust like a broken clock, or
about the pilot floating unconscious downriver, sparks
fading above as his friend swam toward him
instead of the shore, how both would drown
in this cold unstoppable river.

Night in Blue

At seven thousand feet and looking back, running lights
blacked out under the wings and America waiting,
a year of my life disappears at midnight,
the sky a deep viridian, the houselights below
small as match heads burned down to embers.

Has this year made me a better lover?
Will I understand something of hardship,
of loss, will a lover sense this
in my kiss or touch? What do I know
of redemption or sacrifice, what will I have
to say of the dead -- that it was worth it,
that any of it made sense?
I have no words to speak of war.
I never dug the graves in Talafar.
I never held the mother crying in Ramadi.
I never lifted my friend's body
when they carried him home.

I have only the shadows under the leaves
to take with me, the quiet of the desert,
the low fog of Balad, orange groves
with ice forming on the rinds of fruit.
I have a woman crying in my ear
late at night when the stars go dim,
moonlight and sand as a resonance
of the dust of bones, and nothing more.

Poems copyright c2005 by Brian Turner. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

Here, Bullet published by Alice James Books.


PEN PEN PEN! |

February 21, 2009

PEN PEN PEN!
Name: Michael Brameld
Posting date: 2/21/09
Stationed in: Afghanistan
Milblog url: A Year in the Sandbox

Here’s a quick video I took outside Our Mother of Hope school here in Jalalabad. I had climbed down out of the turret and was trying to get my bag out of the back seat, and these kids crowded around asking for a pen. It cracked me up, reminded me of the gulls in Finding Nemo. I didn’t have any pens with me…

A DAY IN THE LIFE |

February 19, 2009

A DAY IN THE LIFE
Name: SGT B.
Posting date: 2/19/09
Stationed in: Iraq
Hometown: Rockford, WA
Milblog: The Gun Line 
Email: hvygunner@gmail.com


1100: The workday begins.

In the CP*, the oncoming shift familiarizes itself with the happenings of the previous night. Nothing out of the ordinary, this time. I dread the day when I wake up in the middle of the night to the din of confused conversation as everybody tries to wrap their minds around a tragic incident, or I come into work and find the entire command group there, with a small constellation of higher-ups on scene. The day when a few of my brothers won’t be coming home with us.

Hasn’t happened yet. Didn’t happen to the folks we relieved. If we play our cards right, and stick to our training, it won’t happen, and I cling to that mantra. My guys are professionals; they’ll do it right, and the only folks who won’t come home with us are the ones who left early because their shin splints or back started really acting up. At least they’ll be alive and mostly in one piece.

1130: Chow.

Because of my skewed hours lunch is actually breakfast, and my tummy is rumbling. In my research of this place, I spoke to many veterans who said it was not the enemy that I had to watch out for, but the DFAC (we used to call them “chow halls” in the old days). Not because the food is bad; on the contrary, the food is very good. There is a wide selection of offerings, from main entrees of steak, pot roast, baked salmon, stuffed peppers, to the short order line, with chicken strips, sloppy joes, fries, onion rings, and even Mongolian Barbecue. There’s the potato bar, the taco bar, the sandwich bar, the pasta bar, the pastry bar, and the ice cream bar. It is a gastronomical minefield, waiting for the unwary to tread through its enticing terrain, packing on the poundage in a fete of gluttony and indulgence.

Okay, maybe a bit over the top, but I can assure the Mothers of America that Johnny and Jane are being fed very well.

Chow takes about 30 minutes, and I get back in plenty of time to relieve SGT Westminster, SFC Crane, the Sex-O, and CPL Zoltan (our IT guy). I keep the place squared away until they return, and then it is time for my favorite part of the day:

Mail Time!

I jump into my trusty LMTV* (the replacement for the old M35 “Deuce and a half”) and motor down Pennsylvania Avenue to the battalion mail room, where CPL Red is waiting.

CPL Red is a phenom in her own right. Short, red-haired, well read and well spoken, with a roguish, rapier wit and a taste for fine cigars, she is the “big sister" to derned near everybody in the battalion who is open to such tings. She can hold her own in a conversation laced with innuendos and double entendres, and make you wonder, at the end of it, who had the better time. She is married, and furiously in love with her husband, and she is a good friend. My day is brightened by picking up the mail and tossing esoteric snippets of conversation to and fro with one of the few females with which I will ever have any contact while at Balad.

I walk into the holding area, where the Bone Crushers’ mail is stacked. There are boxes upon boxes, and I know that the Post Office stocks three types of flat rate boxes. I know because I have carried them. Sometimes I swear that the lads are ordering weight sets by mail.

I place the stacks on a hand cart and wheel them out to the truck, and load up the bed. I check to see if something has arrived for me, and make sure that everybody is getting at least something in the mail, either the aforementioned boxes, or a letter. Today I see a box addressed to me, the address written in a familiar hand. I give a celebratory “Hooray!” and set it up in the cab. There’s a letter from Mom too! Happy Days!!

The truck loaded, I bid farewell to Red and motor off, back to the company, where I back up to the mail room, shanghai a platoon leader and platoon sergeant (who are normally waiting for me; the better to find out if they have mail before anybody else), and we load all of the assorted packages and letters into the mail room, where I then mark on a placard the guys who have letters (in red dry erase marker, for a “red letter day”) or a package (in blue, for “blue box).

(Want to take a guess at home long it took the lads to get that one figured out?)

I lock the mail room, and head back to the CP.

The rest of the day is spent getting ready for the night, and I shall draw the shade of security over this aspect except to say that we coordinate our efforts, hold meetings, issue ammo, eat dinner, and perform assorted other tasks as the platoons come trickling in to start their “day."

2000

By 2000 I'm pretty much beat. I check out with the swing shift, answering any last minute questions, and making sure I have tied up any loose ends. I strap my rifle across my back, hop on the bike, and pedal myself back to the CHU*.

From here I have many options:

I can hop on the bus to the PX for a re-supply run, and avail myself of the Burger King, Cinnabon, Subway, or Pizza Hut at the food court (Taco Bell is but a little further down the road). I can browse the smaller local merchant shops, or I can go buy a car by mail order -- even a Harley!  I can try to catch a first-run movie at the theater, or go to the gym, the swimming pool, or, my normal choice, I can just stay home, tapping out words on my laptop, writing letters, reading, playing a video game, watching a DVD, all the while trying to ignore SGT Irish as he saws logs on the other side of the room.

My day ends at midnight, when my eyelids droop and my mind begins to shut down. I listen to a favorite song, or a recording of Phoenix’s voice, settle my mind until I finally drop off to sleep, recharging the batteries for tomorrow, when it starts all over again.


*

CP: Command Post

LMTV: Light Medium Tactical Vehicle

CHU: Containerized Housing Unit


THE DURAND LINE |

February 17, 2009

THE DURAND LINE
Name: Vampire 06
Posting date: 2/17/09
Stationed in: Afghanistan
Hometown: Folsom, CA
Milblog: Afghanistan Shrugged

De inimico non loquaris male, sed cogites.

She’s sitting there in the corner; we haven’t spoken in about 12 days. Green eyes leer at me each time I pass by; leering at me with a knowing that I’ll be coming back soon. Whether I want to or not. Jealous no more, a quiet confidence that no matter what in several days I’ll be back. A subliminal Siren’s Song calling me to return and smash myself against the razor sharp rocks of combat.

My rucksack.The green illum tape on the frame staring at me from the recess of my garage, still covered in Afghan dust.

Her ad hoc family is strung out halfway across the world, due purely to my actions. An overprotective if oft-described plump sister and hardheaded brother, my IBA* and ACH* are stored in a container in Kuwait. Waiting for my metamorphosis from normal human back to combat advisor.

The final piece of the functionally dysfunctional family -- a short, dark brother prone to loud outbursts -- my M4.  Secured in our arms rooms. The piece de resistance to the transition. Kafka would be dismayed that it happens over thousands of miles and hours of travel, more a slow Darwinian de-evolution than a sudden shocking change.

For right now she sits and waits in the garage, the garage door my own private Durand Line.* I’ll take stuff out of the ruck and bring it into the house, but not the ruck itself. As if my failure to bring it in ensures that where it’s been won’t contaminate my home. Having it here acknowledges that I must go back and ply my trade, but not at this moment.

Being home is wonderful, but it’s slowly waning to an end. The weather here in Northern California has been cold, wet and rainy, serving as a perverse amuse-bouche to my return.

Going from a land of peace and plenty back to Afghanistan; "un-peaceful and without" doesn’t seem to do it justice. So much to so little, in so quick a time.

Am I ready to go back?  No. I would never choose this, and yet I did!

But as I said before, it calls to you. Only those that have experienced the gentle, syrup-like call, know what I’m writing about. Leaving what you truly love for a scene of anarchy and violence doesn’t make sense in any rational way. However, I still go, pulled onward not just by duty but desire.

My friend Old Blue told me that Afghanistan would in some way be different upon my return. I don’t doubt that, and anticipate it with hope and dread. Things will have occurred in my absence, providing proof that no matter how important I believe my actions are, events still proceed without me.

But for now my ruck stays across our agreed-upon line of demarcation; her there and me here. The line is fragile, but what is on the far side does not belong here, and the reverse is also true.

The day is coming when I will step across the line and begin my evolutionary journey. Not today though.

It will wait, sitting, leering and waiting for my predestined return. What it does not know is that there is another line farther off on the horizon marking an end to its hold.

And each day brings it closer. 


*

IBA:    Interceptor Body Armor

ACH:   Advanced Combat Helmet

Durand Line: The 1,610-mile border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, named after Sir Mortimer                               Durand, foreign secretary of the British Indian government from 1884-1894.

THE LAND THAT WAR FORGOT |

February 12, 2009

THE LAND THAT WAR FORGOT
Name: Vampire 06
Posting date: 2/12/09
Stationed in: Afghanistan
Hometown: Folsom, CA
Milblog: Afghanistan Shrugged

DISCLAIMER:  No Fobbits were harmed during the writing or creation of this post. I would have liked to, but they took away my weapons prior to departing.Thus, much to my not so subtle dismay no Fobbits were injured physically; notice I did not mention emotionally.

I’ve been looking forward to going on leave for quite some time, in fact since the time I was notified of my leave date; I’ve been counting down the days. The part I’ve been dreading has been the trip between Bermel and arrival at home.

My dread stems from the sometimes horrific and often epic nature of the stories guys tell upon their return. The Iliad pales in comparison to some leave stories. Sorry, Homer. Weeks are the time measure for the actual travel, you can be gone for a month plus.

There are several stages to any leave journey:

DENIAL:  My trip won’t be as bad as everyone else’s was. This is the “It won’t happen to me syndrome." Quickly dispelled as soon as snow cancels your helicopter (which happened to me) or when the C-17 you’re supposed to depart Afghanistan on belly lands on the runway with no landing gear (also happened to me). Luckily no one was hurt.*

Framed Vampire WAR FORGOT

RESIGNATION: This is as bad as I thought it would be and worse.  I’m surrounded by idiots and they control both the vertical and horizontal. This sets in after I’ve manifested for the same flight six time, four days in a row. I’m now an expert at the waiting game and fully tabbed out in the grab your armor and run to the gate to be told to return at a later time. At this later time no one will be there and anyone I ask questions of will stare at me like I just asked my Labrador what the square root of a billion is.

ACCEPTANCE: There is nothing I can do, however the ACM will pay for this upon my return. I can’t do anything to these idiots but I can exact some form of revenge on the Taliban when I get back; if I ever get back. I reach this point about the time I’m sleeping on a plywood floor in Kuwait, with the Superbowl blaring in the background and having a panic attack because I can’t find my weapon. My weapon as I stated in the disclaimer has been secured for others' safety in the arms room at Bermel.

My leave travels were much like getting a tattoo. I know that I’m going to be happy with the design and colors after, but as soon as the needle bites I know it’s going to be long, painful and out of my control. Once it starts you’re committed. Yes, permanent scarring occurs in both instances.

Here’s are a snippet from my trip into the heart of darkness:

Setting: Bagram, home to thousands of Fobbits. I’m walking to the chow hall -- yes I still call it that -- during darkness. I’m squeezing between several plywood B Huts on my way to the divine grounds of hot chow. I’m lost when suddenly Bob the MP Fobbit stops me.

“Hey, where’s your road guard belt?"  He confronts me in that arrogant, you stupid ass tone they use.

A road guard belt is a belt made of reflective material which you wear while running so you don’t get hit by a vehicle. From the look of Bob he hasn’t ever used his belt during PT hours but he can probably tell me where the chow hall is.

“What?"  I respond in an exasperated manner. I have limited time to get some chow and get back before the time my plane is rumored to leave. This rumor will later morph into a lie on the part of the terminal personnel.

“Your road guard belt. You’re required to wear one during hours of limited visibility regardless of uniform." He tells me this in a way that leads me to believe he thinks I’m an idiot.

Currently, my uniform consists of the same ACUs I’ve been wearing for the last seven days, my IBA and my ACH helmet.

“Where’s your belt”? Bob asks again.  I’m considering asking him if he has a brother --  a Chief named Retard working at another FOB.

“Obviously, I don’t have one or you wouldn’t be asking me where it is. I’m from a remote FOB and I didn’t bring one. Where I’m from we try really hard to have people not see us!" This seems like a darn fine answer to me and makes obvious sense. I start to move out smartly toward what I think is the Fobbit feeding grounds.

“Well, you’re going to have to get a ticket then." Bob informs me. Evidently, a violation of Supreme Fobbit Directive #1 results in a $35 ticket.

“You’re kidding, right?" My leave hasn’t even begun and I’m $35 bucks in the hole. Heck, I haven’t even made it out of Afghanistan. My wife is going to love this; I blew $35 dollars because I don’t have a reflective belt in a war zone.

“No, I’m going to issue you a citation for not being properly marked during hours of limited visibility." I keep wondering why Bob can’t just say "dark."  I guess the other sounds more dangerous.

I’m deeply perplexed at this point. I have no road guard belt which means I may get run over by a vehicle, but I’m standing between two buildings where Bob and I could barely pass each other. Mostly because of Bob’s refusal to use his road guard belt during PT hours.

“So, I have to be properly marked?"  I ask, as I take off my helmet and tuck it under my arm.  Visions of beating Bob with it are creeping in.

“Yes!"  Bob replies, self-satisfied.

He seems to be thinking, "Finally, this dumb-ass war fighter gets the sheer danger he’s placed himself in by moving about the FOB without a reflective belt. I should get a Silver Star just for saving this guy from himself."

“Oh, okay, cool." I say as I notice the infrared (IR) strobe I’ve attached to the back of my helmet. An IR strobe is used by us to mark our positions to aircraft at night (hours of limited visibility) preventing us from being torn to shreds by a JDAM or depleted uranium shells. Not as dangerous as Bagram. There’s a shield on it that you can slide back and it turns into a visible strobe. Something out of a disco!

I slide the shield back and turn on the strobe.

“What the hell is that?"  Bob asks clearly fascinated by the now-bright flashing light.

“It’s my proper marking, can you tell me which way the chowhall is?"  I respond, overjoyed by my ingenious ability to scam the man.

“But you don’t have a belt," he pleads.

“True, but I’m marked; which is what you stated to me I needed." I’m now starting to wonder if maybe Bob is just trying to keep me from getting to the chowhall because he’s afraid they may run out.

“Later,” I say as I move out smartly toward a chowhall I’ve got no idea about.

That just a little glimpse into my little journey; the nonsense and pain endured just to get home.

This next ordeal is purely self inflicted:

I arrive in Kuwait at about 3 AM. We pile out of the bus and stand in a windswept open area as a Specialist briefs us about the procedures here in Ali. I’m still basking in the pure cunning I used to outsmart Bob back at Bagram.

Then I hear a magic word, a whisper of democracy and true American power known throughout the world. Proof that we’re the only remaining superpower, a hegemony of greatness and invincibility. A word not torn asunder by the Soviets, Saddam or Al Qeda.

"McDonalds!"

As soon as the briefing breaks up I take off at the double time. I’m running like the wind, falling over tent tie-downs and rocks. I look like Jeffy the Special Olympics sprinter unleashed. I know that’s not politically correct, but for God's sake it’s illustrates the point and I get paid to kill people who don’t look like me so how correct can I be. Stumbling and huffing I reach the Golden Arches, basking in their heavenly glow.

"Two Big Macs and fries please," I order with a reverence reserved for buying a Ferrari or a house. My slobber would make Pavlov proud.

And then they are delivered unto me and I devour them. Breathing infrequently and in gasps I finish them. God has blessed me and shone his face upon me. Amen!

Now, let me backtrack a little. I haven’t eaten anything that wasn’t issued to me by the US Army in four months, and I just consumed enough fat, grease and carbs to support the entire village of Bermel for roughly two weeks.

About an hour later it begins. A hushed rumble, building to a cramping pain that to me verges on labor. It’s good thing that women give birth, because if it was up to me I’d never go through this again and the world’s population would greatly attenuated.

But it keeps coming and I begin my search for the latrine, commonly called "the clench and scurry", the half bent-over run of the panic-stricken. Pleadingly searching, I see it about 500 meters away. It might as well be the NYC marathon. Oh so far, can I make it? God please let me make it! I will be a better person if you let me make it, I swear, no more Jeffy jokes!

I am reduced to a lumbering ape. Pausing every few meters, pleading. It’s a long journey and I swear that at one point my life flashed in front of me; it did.

I reach the sanctuary of the latrine, but the first door is locked, the second, and the third the same. Oh how I’ve sinned and punishment is swift. I look and see another latrine is about 300 meters away -- the face of the moon.

The fourth door. I reach out, full of hopes and prayers. A life so full of promise about to be decimated by two Big Macs.

But it’s open and I quickly initiate the butt claymore. Saved! Thank you God, I really didn’t mean the Jeffy thing.

Thus are my journeys in the Land That War Forgot. I’ve finally reached home and it truly is glorious to be here, worth every ounce of the pain and suffering it took to get here, seeing my wife and our home. I know this is a crappy conclusion but it’s now dinner time and a beautiful woman and a beer are calling my name. 

* Thanks to The Duke for letting me know where I could find this picture of my original ride home.

BEST OF FRIENDS |

February 09, 2009

BEST OF FRIENDS
Name: Alex Horton
Posting date: 2/9/09
Returned from: Iraq
Hometown: Frisco, Texas
Milblog: Army of Dude
Email: hortonhearsit@hotmail.com

The two car convoy came to a stop at the departure section of the Seattle International Airport. With the engine running, I climbed out of the car and waited on the sidewalk as Steve grabbed his bags from the trunk of Chris' car. The loudspeakers reminded us to make it quick -- "This area for loading or unloading only" played on a constant loop as security guards leered in our direction.

After seeing Steve nearly every single day for three years, I was there to see him off on his one-way trip back home to Chicago. The brisk December wind whisked around us as we cracked our final jokes together. Being tough infantry types, I thought a couple of handshakes and a "Later, dude" would be enough before we parted ways. Instead, Chris and Steve came together for an emotional embrace. Then it was my turn to hug my best friend for the first and only time. "Take it easy, man." My voice cracked as the words came out. He turned and walked through the automatic door, leaving Chris and me on the sidewalk.

With a heavy heart, I got back into my car and headed back to Fort Lewis. In less than five minutes my pocket began to buzz. I pulled out my cellphone and saw a new text from Steve.

"I miss you guys already."

**

Nearly everyone I knew in the Army had one inseparable friend that they were around constantly. Steve was that person for me. We grew up a thousand miles away from each other but our paths were nearly identical. We both came from working class families and grew up on Nintendo and action movies. We joined the Army for many of the same reasons, mostly money for college that we didn't dare ask our parents for. What made us connect at the beginning was our intense love for debate and reasoning. For hours we could argue about anything. On a train from Geneva to Rome during our two weeks of leave, we debated for more than an hour about the main ingredient of salad. Anyone from my platoon can attest to our spirited, three year long argument about which band was better, The Eagles or Led Zeppelin. Of course it's Zep, but we're currently in a stalemate.

At the many combat outposts that we inhabited in Iraq, Steve and I talked about what we'd do after the Army. We both decided that one tour was enough and that higher education would be the next chapter in our lives. He wanted to be an architect and I wanted to write. We yearned to create something after wallowing in death and destruction for more than a year. The plan was simple: take the GI Bill and run with it.

After coming home from Iraq we started the separation process together, running all over post to collect the requisite signatures and dodge work at the barracks whenever possible. We sat through countless briefings that warned us about the perils of getting tossed into the IRR*, a group of inactive soldiers that can be activated individually and mobilized for duty in Iraq. To get out of it, one simply needed to join the Guard or Reserve and get exemption from deployments. Steve and I had both had a few promises broken by the Army, so we weren't going to be fooled once more. We decided to take our chances, load up the IRR revolver, and pull the trigger.

There is no warning that a former soldier is about to be recalled. There is no way of knowing that the game of Russian Roulette is over and your brains are splattered all over the wall. There is only an unassuming brown envelope left on the front porch to say what is already known: Uncle Sam doesn't run out of bullets.

**

"Just when I thought I was out...they pull me back in." -- Michael Corleone

I was at work when my pocket sent out a cheerful tone alerting me to a new text message. I pulled out my phone to see a new message from Steve. I figured it was some trivia question. I could tell he carried his debating persona back home from the messages he sent me. He asked about actors in movies and lesser known points of history that must have come up in discussions with his friends. I opened it to see that it had nothing to do with trivia.

"I just got official orders to go back dude."

My knees almost gave way after reading and rereading the message. I called him right away to offer any kind of help I could. As the phone rang, I looked down at my silver KIA bracelet and ran my fingers over the etched lettering -- CPL BRIAN L. CHEVALIER 14 MARCH 2007 BAQUBAH, IRAQ.

A thousand miles away, Steve was wearing the same bracelet.

I relayed to Steve all the information I had gathered on the IRR. I spent countless hours hunched over my computer researching IRR callups, a challenge considering the intentionally scant information put out by the DoD and Army Human Resources Command. I told him to sign up for any classes, get a doctor's note for any condition, anything that could delay or exempt him from mobilization. There is no shame in it. Steve volunteered during a war, knowing that he would be sent into combat. Not only combat ensued, but the bloodiest fight in Iraq since Fallujah. Steve did his time, and more. His place is at home, not on the battlefield anymore.

By way of Lt. Nixon, Thomas Ricks notes a Pentagon study that reveals troop levels have remained relatively the same since 9/11. A more alarming statistic: 6% of active duty troops have served more than 25 months in a combat zone while 74% have less than twelve months in. The study concludes that the lower to mid enlisted and company grade officers are carrying the most burden. Senior officers and NCOs are hiding like cockroaches in the cracks of TRADOC posts and non-deployable slots while lower level soldiers march to the steady drumbeat of repeated deployments, failed marriages and ever-mounting cases of suicide.

On top of that, the IRR continues to mobilize soldiers that have moved on, going to school or beginning careers and families. The only way to lessen the burden is to grow the size of the force. One idea: take the database of the newly minted Red State Strike Force members and dump them into mobilization slots. Those pathetic goons want to wear patches styled after special forces to fight on a battlefield of snark. They want to organize. I can think of no better way to organize than a shout of, "Dress right, dress!" The slack has to be picked up somewhere, lest our forces remain so broken that we must rely on involuntary callups to get bodies to the fight.

Steve's future hangs in the balance. School has been put on hold until a review board decides if he is fit to go back to Iraq. I have described the looming threat of recall as an ubiquitous afterthought, constantly degrading the sense of normalcy and safety as the days pile on. Now that recall has manifested itself as a clumsy destroyer of futures, the feeling has changed. Not only mental, the dread has become physical, hanging in my stomach like a sharply cornered anvil. My old infantry sore spots -- back, knees and ankles -- throb in a dull ache. The burden is back squarely on my shoulders, but I cannot imagine what Steve is feeling right now. I just know that as his best friend, a thousand miles away, I must carry some for him.

A few days after getting Steve's text, I got a call from our buddy Mark. We were the three biggest poker fiends in the platoon, always at the table no matter the time or the buy-in. He said to me, "You better sit down before I tell you this."

"Is it about Steve?", I asked.

"What about Steve?"

"He got recalled a couple of days ago. Got his orders in the mail."

"Fuck, I did too!", he shouted into the phone. "They got me. They got me."

**

As the weeks and months tick off the calendar, the game of Russian Roulette claims more soldiers foolish enough to play. It was nearly manageable to keep the thoughts of recall at bay before my friends started to get sucked in. Now, a family in in the suburbs of Chicago is contemplating what the future might bring for their son. The same is happening in the hills of Ohio and in cities and towns across the country.

The burden that veterans carry may lessen, but it comes back with a terrible vengeance. All it takes is one envelope to throw a life off a path that was so delicately created in the humid and dust-choked outposts of Iraq.

*IRR: Individual Ready Reserve

Framed Horton bestoffriends

 

A WHIRLWIND OF MICROMANAGEMENT |

February 07, 2009

A WHIRLWIND OF MICROMANAGEMENT
Name: Cheese
Posting date: 2/6/09
Stationed in: Afghanistan
Hometown: Binghamton, NY
Milblog: Cheese's Milblog 

As expected, the trip home was a whirlwind of micromanagement. See, I came home with a large group of staff officers and NCOs -- soldiers who probably haven't led troops since the Cold War and were very excited to do so again. Our NCOIC* was a basic training stereotype; not a rough combat arms NCO, just a vulgar carbon copy of so many drill sergeants that he'd seen in movies.

For all its faults, there are a few things that the Army does well. One of these is the task of moving and organizing luggage. Every Joe knows to form a chain and to line up the bags facing the same way so the names on them are visible. Now, that's exactly what the lower enlisted started doing with the duffel bags once we hit Kyrgyzstan and before all the chiefs decided that the Indians were taking too long. I wish I had taken a picture as a clan of E-8s and majors climbed atop the pile of bags and hurled them down into the giant puddles surrounding the pallet. We spent the next hour trying to find our own soaking wet duffel bags. I can't even describe how frustrating that was just to witness.

When we finally boarded the plane to head back to the States, each unit was assigned certain seating. This was done before speaking with any of the Air Force guys, of course, because those in charge were eager to assign themselves to the first class area that they'd promised to the baggage detail. As we started boarding, the stewardess pulled a bunch of us out of our assigned area to help balance the weight. A certain Lt Colonel looked down at an E-4 that was sitting by a window and asked, "Who are you with?"

"SecFor, Sir."

"Then you can't sit here. There's an empty seat back there. Move."

"But the stewardess put me here. My bag is already in the overhead. I have to do what she..."

"Move now."

So the young medic moved out and wedged into the open seat and the Lt Colonel sat by the window, dropping his carry-on into the middle seat to keep anyone from sitting there. The SecFor NCOIC tapped me on the shoulder and said, "You had better write about this, Cheese."

Fort Bragg, where I spent Christmas, was more organized that I had expected. Medical went quickly -- no broken spine this time around. While we were at Fort Bragg, we were still under the umbrella of General Order #1, which states that we can't drink.They expected us to sit all Christmas day, while the out-processing staff was home with their families, and not drink. That's all I'm going to say about that.

The most entertaining part of Fort Bragg was when one of our Joes, in an Ambien-induced coma, was shaken from his sleep and told to go to formation. He showed up in socks, shower shoes, PT shorts and a green fleece.

As we waited for our plane home to New York, an E-7 came in and bellowed, "As of right now this plane isn't going anywhere! If no one comes forward and admits to having gone out last night," he's now staring directly at SecFor," this plane is staying in North Carolina and so are we!"

He was shocked that SecFor couldn't stop laughing. We were shocked that we were the only ones. If this guy had ever deployed before, he would have known how empty his threat was. The Air Force doesn't ground planes for anyone. Plus, we actually hadn't gone out. The idiot that went to a bar and left his wallet there refused to say who had gone with him, and even though we had no idea who this guy was, everyone was sure that it was SecFor. I love our reputation.

The final ceremony was fine. SecFor lined up in the back row and we threw our berets on just before we marched in. See, as line troops, our soft caps (the standard baseball-style hats) were filthy and we hadn't bought new ones because we were told that the beret would be worn as soon as we hit Bragg. This changeover didn't happen because many of the soldiers had mailed their berets home, despite being told to hold onto them. Now, the Army can do a lot of things, but they're not gonna make me look jacked up in front of my family. Plus, it was a small act of defiance for my last ceremony as a member of the New York Army National Guard.

It's a good thing that I was in the back row, because I think my fiance took out at least three guys when we were released. It was hilarious seeing all the wives and girlfriends sprint to their significant others -- a "sexually frustrated tsunami," as my future father-in-law put it.

Anyway, I'm home and waiting for school to start. After that trip home, there is no part of me that is questioning my decision to leave. I am not a part of this organization any more and it is not a part of me.

Goodbye and good luck.

*Non-commissioned officer in charge


Editor's note: A Sandbox salute and best wishes to Cheese, with thanks for his service and his posts:

AFGHANISTAN, THE BEAUTIFUL

A BANDAID

WHEELS

IT KEEPS ME WARM

MORALE

PLUSES AND MINUSES

DONE

I'M STILL ALIVE |

February 04, 2009

I'M STILL ALIVE
Name: Vampire 06
Posting date: 2/4/09
Stationed in: Afghanistan
Hometown: Folsom, CA
Milblog: Afghanistan Shrugged

Yes, I am still alive! There's been quite a long delay in posts, and that's due to my soul-sucking journey back to the United States of America. It's great to be back in the US; getting here can crush your will to live.

I'm working on some posts, but seeing my wife, drinking a beer and eating food that didn't come out of a cardboard box have taken priority over writing.

I'm also trying to convince myself that the kids running up and down my street are not recon-ing my house for a possible IED or rocket attack.

In attempting to formulate my ideas about my journey into a coherent post, "truth is stranger than fiction" comes to mind.  Conrad's Heart of Darkness is a good base to start from, so that's what I think I'll use.

So; I just wanted to give you a SITREP and let you know that I'm alive and kicking and will be back up on the net soon.

Damn, there goes that kid again up the street. He looks kind of fishy. I may have to plan a Cordon and Search of the playground...


Search Doonesbury Sandbox Blog

LINKS


About

My Photo

FEATURED BOOK