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.

VICTORY IN AFGHANISTAN |

March 30, 2009

VICTORY IN AFGHANISTAN
Name: Vampire 06
Posting date: 3/30/09
Stationed in: Afghanistan
Hometown: Folsom, CA
Milblog: Afghanistan Shrugged

There’s been a lot in the news lately about what “victory” in Afghanistan looks like. I really don’t know, nor do I want to venture an opinion. People at much higher pay grades than mine can figure that one out. All I can speak for is the little piece of Afghanistan that I share with my ANA and the local populace of Bermel.

I’ll tell you this; it’s little things. Try to accomplish much more and you’ll begin a slow circling of the drain leading to frustration and self-induced psychosis. What I’m about to tell you about is this: 5 kilometers. That’s 3.1 miles, not very far. But it might as well be a light year.

When we arrived here the fighting season was drawing to a close. It typically runs from late March to early December.Then snow shuts down the rugged passes used by the Taliban to enter into the country. During the fighting season military operations focus on what’s termed kinetic, meaning fighting the enemy directly. As this time drew to a close we were somewhat at a loss about our next course of action.

We sat down and started brainstorming for a direction in which to proceed. As an ETT* in a remote area we have quite a bit of leeway in determining our strategies. We started with the central premise of counterinsurgency (COIN) warfare. Separate the insurgents from the local populace. How could we do this using the assets at our disposal?

I can’t claim sole responsibility for our course of action as it was developed by me and one of my CPTs here, CPT Brain. He’s an extremely intelligent, well-read and insightful individual who was called out of the Individual Ready Reserve to serve with us here in Afghanistan. He’s doing great things for his country.

We noticed that our contact with the enemy and their means of support ran along a north/south road -- what I’ll call the line of friction. This is the best description I can think of. It wasn’t open conflict all the time, thus "friction" seems better than "conflict." This line traced the western wall of the desolate valley in which we live. Along this line lay the main villages, and it served as the major travel corridor. Our hope was to push the line farther to the east.

Next we analyzed our assets. Obviously we had firepower, but that didn’t accomplish what we hoped to do. The best asset we had was humanitarian and medical assistance. Tons of food, clothing, cooking oil and blankets were here on the FOB. We also had a US aid station and an ANA aid station from which we could pull medics and medical supplies for use in the local area. We saw these as our conduit to engage with the locals on a frequent and more direct basis, allowing them to see the ANA as bringers of hope and not violence.

Framed Vampire Victory 1

The timeframe to capitalize was limited. We only had between December and late March, while the ACM were out of the valley and couldn’t hinder our operations. Thus, we needed to be outside the wire at least three times a week. That doesn’t sound like much, but planning and staging a military operation takes time. It was a very high operational tempo to shoot for.

Our strategy consisted of two tasks in support of our overarching goal of population separation. One, demonstrate that the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan could assist them materially and in conjunction with this conduct an information operations (IO) campaign. Two, try to gather intelligence on the local area and personalities in preparation for the upcoming fighting season. All of this was focused on the line of friction. We defined some criteria that would cause us to deviate from the line. I won’t elaborate on those but we stuck to them and didn’t lose our focus.

We also decided on criteria that would cause us to go into kinetic operations. Basically this was self defense only; we would not chase the enemy. We couldn’t allow the enemy to distract us from our task. That may sound strange, but insurgency warfare is theater in the round, and often their attacks are conducted just to provoke a response which detracts from the greater purpose.

The single theme of our IO campaign was this: “The government is here supporting you during the winter and the ACM is not." It was as simple as that. We didn’t deviate or elaborate, and as the politicians like to say we always stayed on message. Simple to the point and indisputable. The sub-governor, ANP, ANA and CF all communicated this message. If we heard about someone sending a different message we sat down with them and discussed why they’d strayed off the message. Everyone pounded this message into whoever we could, anytime we could.

Along with the IO, we brought all of the humanitarian assistance that we could find. In fact many of you reading this sent us stuff. We took anything that we could and at times used our own monies to buy firewood, food or cooking oil. We didn’t care where it came from or what it looked like. We took it out to the people.

Additionally we brought medics and medicine. The CF and ANA medics along with our interpreters would see anyone who came, no matter what the injury or sickness. We attempted to treat anyone; we even looked at some sick goats at one point. We’d treat all comers!

The ANA established an SOP* for putting these sites up. It was painful and in the beginning there were some near riots, but we worked through it and got the method down. The ANA also ensured that the materials were distributed directly to the people and not through the tribal elders. This ensured that the people knew that the government had provided the materials.

Framed Vampire Victory 2

During these operations we’d talk to the locals and build relationships. We didn’t ask about ACM*, just about what was going on in the area, what their concerns were and how they thought the issues could best be addressed. We started mapping out the local tribes, their boundaries, learning their histories and any conflicts. Additionally, we took pictures of villages and the surrounding terrain. Nothing overt, we’d just take snapshots that could be used in the future if we ever had to come back there on a kinetic mission.

So what did all of this get us? It moved the main line of friction 5K to the east, closer to the Pakistani border into the foothills of the mountains. All of this for 5K. We’ve moved to the doorstep of the ACM and now we’ll start working on those villages. If the ACM stay in the mountains, so what? Nobody lives there.

We now have no IEDs along the previous line and if someone does plant one we hear about it. No rockets come from that area anymore. Taliban safe houses have been moved. Additionally, people stop by to talk to us when are out in the villages and even sometimes come to the FOB, which is invaluable. We know the local area and can discuss it in depth. It seems that we’ve accomplished most of our goals.

Framed Vampire Victory 3

Did we come up with anything revolutionary? No. What we decided to do is written down in plenty of books and field manuals. We just took the leap and decided to conduct unsexy, unspectacular and at times very boring operations in support of the local populace. The temptation was there, to revert back to just killing the enemy, but we resisted. We’re not geniuses. We just made a choice, developed a plan and stuck to it.

So what does victory in Afghanistan look like? Like 5K of desert floor. It ain’t much to look at, but we got it back for the Afghan people!


*

ETT: Embedded Training Team

SOP: Standard Operating Procedure

ACM: Anti-Coalition Militia

DOC CLARA |

March 27, 2009

DOC CLARA
Name: RN Clara Hart
Posting date: 3/27/09
Stationed in: a military hospital in the U.S.
Milblog: From Our Perspective
Email: clarahart2@yahoo.com

“You’re back in the U.S.”

“Kay.”

“Can you give me the thumbs up sign with your right thumb? Great! Good job. How about your left?...Thumbs up on the left. What’s your name? Can you tell me your name?”

“Tommy.”

“Awesome, Tommy!  Pleased ta meetcha!”  And so went the greeting and assessment of a patient newly arrived from Germany, as we worked to displace wires and lines from the aerovac team and replace them with ours.

“Okay, Tommy, we’re gonna move you to our bed, this is probably going to hurt, you ready?”

Having survived a high velocity gunshot wound to the head and subsequent surgeries, our patient was amazingly alert and oriented. After repositioning him, a discovery of pink earplugs embedded in his ears was made. Used by the flight crew to muffle the plane’s engine noise, they are frequently still in place when patients arrive.

“Tommy! You got pink earplugs in your ears. What’s up with that?”  I jokingly chided him.

“Pink? That’s fucked up!” came his laughter-provoking response. 

“Hey Tommy, have to draw some blood on ya.”

“Well just don’t do it like the insurgents did, okay?”

My coworkers and I looked at each other and once again laughed at this patient’s sense of humor. We were all delighted to banter with him, a patient who against all odds was doing better than we ever imagined. Back and forth we went, asking, commanding, assessing, caring and joking as we settled him in.

“Ma’am, I’m real sorry I smell bad, but I had no chance to shower these last two months,” was his chagrined, solemn statement.

“Tommy, let me tell ya, I've smelled bad, and trust me when I say, you ain’t it," I assured him, earning a relieved smile and a chuckle.

“What’s your name?” he asked me many minutes later.

“Clara."

“You a doctor?”

“Nope, a nurse."

“Even though you’re not a doctor would you mind if I called you doc?"

“You can call me Clara, it’s really okay," I assured him, a lump forming in my throat at the implication of that particular title. “Just call me Clara,” I told him again, uncomfortable with the honor he was attempting to bestow upon me.

“How about Doc Clara then?” he persisted.

“Ok, done.” Seeing I was not going to win I gave in.

Many times over the following days coworkers and other hospital staff would come to me and say, “Tommy’s asking for Doc Clara, do you have a moment for him?”  And each time if my own patient was stable I would walk across the hall and marvel at the young man with the remarkable will to live and endearing sense of humor and it would make me smile, glad that for once I was looking at a wounded warrior who would survive.

HONORING A FALLEN MILBLOGGER |

March 25, 2009

HONORING A FALLEN MILBLOGGER
Name: J.P. Borda
Posting date: 3/25/09
Returned from: Kuwait/Iraq
Hometown: Burke, Virginia
Milblog: Milblogging.com
Email: milblogging@gmail.com

Sgt. Christopher P. Abeyta, 23, of Midlothian, Illinois, was killed last week while serving in Afghanistan. Sgt. Abeyta and three others who were with him, Sgt. Robert M. Weinger, Spc. Norman Cain III, and Sgt Timothy Bowles, were killed when the vehicle they were riding in was struck by an IED.

Sgt. Abeyta ran a military blog from Afghanistan called The Chronicles of Butters!  and according to a news story Sgt. Abeyta had kept a journal since he was 11-years old. 


Framed Borda thechroniclesofbutters


The Southtown Star reports:

"Sgt. Abeyta had survived a year in Iraq and was on his second deployment, in eastern Afghanistan, in the region that borders Pakistan, when the vehicle he was riding in hit an improvised explosive device set by the Taliban..."

The Southtown Star story also shares his passion for writing:

"While deployed, he wrote entries in his ever-present journal, stories on two blogs and letters to his family. His mother held tightly Tuesday to one from November, which she read aloud on her back patio, demanding that his grandmother, Elvira Abeyta, and local veterans gathered around her know the man she raised.

"I know you don't enjoy the path I have chosen for myself but trust me it's so very rewarding," she read. "You know I know it bothers you that I am here. ... but what kind of person would I be, Ma, if I didn't try to make this better.

"OK?" she said at the end. "That's my son."


My prayers and thoughts go out to the family, friends of Sgt. Abeyta and all of America’s fallen and wounded. If you’d like to make donations, according to another Southown Star story:

"The Abeyta family has requested donations be made to a fund for the family of Spc. Norman Cain III, 22, who died with Abeyta in the same explosion and left behind a wife and two children..."


Note: Mike, an Air Force Staff Sergeant who was also on the mission, wrote this tribute to the four men, on his blog A Year in Afghanistan.


ABOUT JON STILES |

March 23, 2009

ABOUT JON STILES
Name: Old Blue
Posting date: 3/23/09
Returned from: Afghanistan
Milblog: Bill and Bob's Excellent Afghan Adventure

I hadn't been in touch with my old friend Jon Stiles for a while, which was not unusual. We'd emailed in October, and before that July. He was in Afghanistan, busy living his deployment. Figuring he should be coming off of active duty I'd started to wonder, and then I tried his cell phone. Still disconnected. Lots of guys shut off their phones while deployed. No big deal. Then I tried Google, and my heart broke instantly when I saw this story. Jon had been killed by a suicide bomber.

I called a mutual friend, a retired Master Sergeant who now works as a representative for a company that sells systems to the Army. He is the one who introduced me to Jon. They had been next door neighbors in Dayton, Ohio before Jon and his wife Launa moved back to Colorado. I asked if he had heard about Jon. He hadn't, and I became the bearer of bad tidings. Jeff was shocked. We spoke only briefly before he had to go, but he promised to call me back.

When he did we talked about Jon and how much effort he put into getting downrange. We talked about how hard he had to work to get back into the service. Jon sought out his service, he struggled to get back in. He jumped through many hoops, he ran into walls, he ran into lazy people who didn't want to do their jobs, he ran into bureaucracy and botched paperwork. Jeff and I talked about how Jon kept his purpose in mind and never quit.

In the past few days I've traveled hundreds of miles by road, and I wonder about the people I see. I see people who are too busy living their lives, too interested in their careers, having too good a time to give serious thought to putting themselves into harm's way for our country. In the past three days, driving around Florida during Spring Break, I have seen tens of thousands of people, including thousands of able-bodied men having their weekend.

Jon Stiles’ story needs to be told. He is such a strong example of the type of man this country produces in small numbers. Even among the members of the military, he stands out. Jon was not ordered to go. Jon marched towards the sound of the guns. He sought to do as much as he could. He worked so hard to lay his life on the line.

When I met Jon he was not a member of the military. He had been a Marine and had served on active duty in the Army, but he had been out of the service for years. He had been injured and had had surgery on his back. Jon wanted to serve again, but he had spoken to recruiters like Mr. Jones, an MPRI contracted recruiter in the Dayton area, who couldn't be bothered with a tough accession and blew Jon off. Jon believed that he couldn't get back in, though he desperately wanted to serve, to do what he saw as his part.

As we worked together, helping National Guardsmen from Tennessee and Pennsylvania get ready to go to Iraq during their pre-deployment at Camp Shelby, Mississippi, Jon and I became fast friends. We shared an apartment in Hattiesburg and in our off time we often played golf together. Jon had brought a PS2 game system, and when the weather was poor he taught me to play "Tiger Woods Golf." It took me nearly a month to become a worthy adversary; Jon demonstrated the patience of a saint.

He saw me taking phone calls related to deployments that I was seeking, and he asked for advice on how to get back in uniform. I did my best to be helpful, but Jon did the work, beginning a quest to get himself back into service that would span over a year and three separate states.

During that time Jon became frustrated with the family business, and he and his wife sold their home in Dayton and moved back to Colorado. Launa's family was there. She had sacrificed being close to her family so that Jon could be part of the business, when he decided to leave the business, they decided Colorado was the place for them to be.

I only met Launa once or twice, but Jon's relationship with her was remarkable. Jon never said anything negative about his wife. He was the type of husband that every father wants for his daughter. He was thoughtful, respectful, loving, kind and he would tell anyone that Launa was his best friend. He treated her like it, too. Jon was a man's man…because that's the way that real men are supposed to be. He could be an example of "this is how you do it right" in any pre-marriage seminar.

After their move back to Colorado, Jon and I spoke pretty regularly. He continued his pursuit of service, and finally found a recruiter who was willing to listen to him, hear his commitment to service, and put forth the effort to do the paperwork. This process took months. I've still got the emails that Jon and I exchanged over this time, and they span months until he finally sent me an email the day that I arrived in Afghanistan that he was raising his hand two days later.

Jon had gathered all of his medical records together and presented his case to a recruiter who was willing to go through what promised to be a lengthy process. Jon had a physical and his case was referred to a medical review board. There were so many hoops for Jon to jump through that I lost track.

Most men would have quit trying. There was dismal news at every turn. Jon was repeatedly given discouraging words, but he never gave up. He never quit.

Finally, the case had to go to a General for approval. The paperwork sent for Jon initially had the wrong name on it, setting him back months. Jon's email was ecstatic when he informed me of his impending enlistment. The email was sent the day that I arrived in Afghanistan, and showed that his efforts were not complete.


Hey Brother,  I am there man!!!!! They finally are going to let me in. I am raising my right hand this Friday morning!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Thank you for all of your support and prayer's it did help. I hope all is well in the ZONE drop me a line when you get a chance, and know that I am praying for you!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Keep your ass down and your eyes open brother!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! I will write soon and let you know if and when I can catch a deployment.

Love you BRO

Stiles


Every one of those exclamation points are his, and he was not one to use them lightly. Jon's commitment wasn't just to wearing that uniform, either. As you can plainly see, he fully intended to deploy.

While Jon looked into what it would take to get downrange, he worked for the Colorado Honor Guard, doing funerals for service members who had passed away. He took pride in rendering honors to those who had served their country.

Framed Old Blue Stiles

Jon dressed for Honor Guard duty.

The unit that Jon had enlisted into had been slated to deploy to Iraq, but when that deployment was pushed back, Jon went looking for an ETT mission. Jon would have made a great ETT. His patience and  maturity would have stood him in good stead, but it was not to be.


Hey Hey Hey, Brother... I wish we could have talked more when you where home, but such as life, it was just good to hear your voice and know that you are hanging in there. As far as ETT deployment goes that is a big fat negative, they wont take an E-4 know matter how hard the DET COMMANDER fights for me.

He even went so far as to duke it out with Fort Riley and the powers that may be, but to no avails. On the other hand I am still going to the STAN I am getting deployed with the 927th Eng Co SAPPERS from Baton Rouge, L.A. I go on three week SRP/AT in February, and then we MOB in march for a 70 day train up at Fort McCoy Wisconsin. Then it is boots on the ground for 9 to 9 1/2 months (probably longer), the total order package is supposed to be for 400 day's.

The mission is a good mission! We will be on the Pakistani border doing the  route clearing mission (IED Hunting) using the Buffalo Vehicles, as well as   being the QRF for that area of OPS. Not sure exactly where on the border we will be yet but I am sure it will all become very clear soon enough.


Jon and I never crossed paths in Afghanistan. He arrived over a month after I had left the country. We exchanged a few emails -- very few. Jon was busy, his access to the internet limited, and he spent most of  it on his best friend; his wife.

Jon emailed me in October, telling me that he had a broken thumb from a bad ride on bad roads behind a .50 caliber machine gun. He also had a hairline fracture to an ankle. He reveled in the fact that neither injury would keep him out of the fight. I've seen men beg off of missions for less. Not Jon. Shortly  thereafter, I would learn recently, Jon sustained lung damage and vocal chord injuries while helping rescue two men from a burning truck after it had been struck with a VBIED (Vehicle Borne Improvised Explosive Device.)

Jon was awarded a Bronze Star for his actions that day.

He was offered medical leave, but he wanted to stay with his team. Even after that, Jon was still unwilling to take the easy road. If he had taken the leave, he likely would have been stateside when the IED that took his life detonated near his vehicle on November 13th, 2008. Jon died of his wounds that day.

Andy Rooney stated recently that we have no heroes today. I'm here to tell Andy Rooney that when a man can no longer find the relevant, he himself is irrelevant. When men like Jon Stiles walk the earth, and now lie in its embrace because of what no man can deny is valor of the highest caliber, men like Andy Rooney should take notice.

Jon Stiles was not remarkable in many respects. He looked like a normal Joe. He wasn't flamboyant, he didn't cry out for attention, and he wasn't a seeker of anything except service. He returned to the Army at a reduced rank without complaint. You cannot spot a hero by his looks or hear it in his words. You see it only in his actions. Jon clung to his ideals and values tenaciously, and while he laid his life on freedom's altar willingly, you can believe that his life was not willingly forfeit. It had to be taken from him. Jon had a lot to live for.

Jon loved life. He loved his wife, his family, his friends and his country. He believed that what a man does when the chips are down is what defines him more accurately than at any other moment of his life, and he defined himself well. I am honored to have known him as I did.

There are many others who knew him for far longer. Launa Stiles, his wife, gave her husband for this country; a husband that most women only dream of. You see, Jon was one of the finest men that I have ever known. He was absolutely dedicated to his wife, and I'm sure that she knew it. She knew what she risked losing, that Jon was a one-in-a-million man. Yet, she supported him in his service. She risked all but her own life when Jon went off to war in Afghanistan. She was taken up on her wager on freedom to the fullest measure. Jon and Launa Stiles were a heroic couple. Now she must wait to see Jon again, for it will not be in this life.

On Monday, March 17th, 2009, Highlands Ranch, the town where Jon and Launa Stiles settled when they returned to Colorado, will name a street after Jon.

If anyone needs a hero, I offer them Jon Stiles.


After I wrote about Jon on my website, Launa Stiles posted this:

Thank you so much for telling Jon's story. I was blessed to be his wife for eight years. He inspires me to this day. Following is more detail of Jon's last moments:

My understanding is that Jon was the gunner that day. He spotted the suspect vehicle and, by-the-book, did everything to take him out; including warning shots followed by more gunfire. The suicide bomber detonated his vehicle mounted bomb and Jon was caught in the blast. He was treated at the scene, intubated and flown by helicopter to the base hospital where he was pronounced dead. His cause of death was brain hemorrhage and shrapnel wounds to his neck and face.

The Louisiana & Colorado Army National Guard, our community, church and families have absolutely done right by us. Jon, the soldier, had a hero's homecoming and I have been well taken care of. This is not a story that can be told by other soldiers' families -- so, I am fortunate.

In the same breath, I am lost without him and struggle each day to re-discover who I am without the best part of me. I feel amputated. Military wife/widow will forever define me -- but I will spend the rest of my life fulfilling my husband's legacy of living life with purpose and passion.

 * MPRI: Military Professional Resources Inc.

ETT: MUTT SOLDIERS |

March 19, 2009

ETT: MUTT SOLDIERS
Name: Vampire 06
Posting date: 3/19/09
Stationed in: Afghanistan
Hometown: Folsom, CA
Milblog: Afghanistan Shrugged

mutt (noun): a dog, especially a mongrel.

mongrel (noun):

1. a dog of mixed or indeterminate breed.

2. any animal or plant resulting from the crossing of different breeds or varieties.

3. any cross between different things, esp. if inharmonious or indiscriminate.

I’m a mutt soldier. No ifs, ands or buts about it. I’m definitely a cross of breeds and varieties. Before I get to my explanation let me illuminate how I arrived at this conclusion. Which by the way was inevitable. I’ll explain that too.

Recently I spent some time reading through the past posts of two of my favorite blogs, the authors of which both happen to be former ETTs, not that I’m biased: Bouhammer and Bill and Bob’s Excellent Afghan Adventure. I highly recommend them, you won’t be sorry, and you’ll see what I’m talking about. But I digress.

After reading through Troy's and Old Blue's posts I realized that I experience the same things they did when they were here. No duh!  But I mean specifically with respect to our mission and where we fit with the coalition and the Army as a whole. We endure the same struggles; we just don’t quite fit.

I was suddenly resigned to the inevitability of this conclusion after we watched Lawrence of Arabia the other evening. (By the way a great movie about Combat Advising. No, we didn’t watch it all in one night wasting your tax money.) In one scene Lawrence has returned from the desert after capturing Aqaba, and is thrown out of the officer’s mess because of his Arab dress and demeanor. That's when the epiphany hit: Each and every one of us who’s been a Combat Adviser reaches this moment. Sometimes it’s thrust upon us and other times we reach it on our own. 

Now being a mutt isn’t bad. When I was an innocent child (my parents are rolling their eyes at this one) my family had a mutt dog named Sweetness. This was a dichotomy if ever one existed, as this dog was fast and mean as hell. Not to anyone in our family, but if you were a stranger then you’d better watch out. She would destroy stuff, and there was no getting away from her. So, there are merits.

ETTs are mutts because they just don’t fit anywhere.

We are not Special Forces soldiers, though we execute a traditional SF mission. Foreign Internal Defense (FID) was the founding paradigm behind SF, and they’ve now relinquished it to ETTs. They’d prefer the much sexier mission of direct action versus training foreign armies. An SF soldier gets about 18 months worth of training and goes through a special selection process to ensure that he’s the right fit for training foreign militaries, which they don’t really do anymore.

ETTs get two months training and are selected from the force with no pre-screening. As many have advocated -- Troy, Old Blue, John Nagl and myself -- there must be some type of pre-screening put in place. Not all personalities work for this mission. Our training consists of limited COIN* and weapons. Then we’re unleashed upon the Afghans to bring havoc or success.

I think SF will eventually regret this decision and try to retake the FID mission, but it seems the horse is out of the barn. The Army has figured out they can do it much cheaper and easier with ETTs. Suddenly the investment to train an SF soldier doesn’t seem worth it. I’m not advocating the elimination of SF, I’m just stating that they’ve ceded their main mission. ETTs hearken back to the Vietnam days of SF.

Picture it this way: You go hunting with your buddies, bringing your highly prized, small-fortune-to-buy-and-train Lab. Your buddy brings some dog that he got for free at the pound, unsure of the exact breed or mental stability of the dog. (An apt description of an ETT.) And the pound puppy keeps getting to the birds first and bringing them back. Now you don’t feel so hot about your expensive dog.

ETTs aren’t conventional coalition soldiers either. We operate on our own with limited supplies and combat support. The coalition has no idea what we are. In fact my team and I have been referred to as "psychotic", "cowboys" and "unhinged" by our fellow US soldiers, just for the fact that we’re willing to operate outside the wire, vastly outnumbered by the Afghans we mentor. We venture beyond the confines of the FOB much more frequently than our CF brothers. We speak Dari / Pashto and eat with the Afghans. We don’t look or act like CF.

We have no logistics or admin tail. We don’t belong or report to the CF, but we’re dependent upon them for logistical support and what we call effects -- CAS, artillery and attack aviation. Our own chain is unsure of where they fit and thus have chosen by all appearances to leave us to fend for ourselves. My NCOs are the master scroungers of the FOB. If it’s not secured they will figure out a use for it.

So where do we fit? John Nagl, author of Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife, has advocated for a standing advisor corps. Which I support. This is a valuable skill, and we have a vast untapped resource in people who’ve successfully accomplished the mission, and can be used in future missions and for training future ETTs. The idea, though, has been opposed by what seems to be the SF community, as it begs the question, "If we’ve got a Combat Advisor Corps then why do we need SF?"  I think this one is doomed from the start.

We’re comfortable and proud of our mutt status, and there is no fit right now for ETTs. Maybe there will be
in the future but as of now, no. Nobody expects much of a mutt, and then he starts whupping the pure breeds at their game. Then people take notice. Until that time we’ll continue to suffer the bewildered questions and looks of our fellow US soldiers, that sort of awe, wonder and pity that goes with being an ETT.

* COIN: Counterinsurgency

THE IRAQI DREAM |

March 16, 2009

THE IRAQI DREAM
Name: SGT B.
Posting date: 3/16/09
Stationed in: Iraq
Hometown: Rockford, WA
Milblog: The Gun Line
Email: hvygunner@gmail.com

We’re still in a combat zone, up against an enemy that uses deception and stealth (because they can’t face us in a stand up fight), so access to our base by local nationals is strictly controlled.  Most of the folks here haven’t met an Iraqi, and certainly haven’t had the chance to sit down and talk with one.

I was fortunate. One of the vehicle maintenance operations aboard base is managed by an Iraqi, an Iraqi who speaks outstanding English, and who has worked with Americans since the start of the war. While I was getting one of our vehicles serviced I had the chance to talk with him, and actually get into some deeper subjects, like how the Iraqis feel things are going.

“Haseem” is a slim man in his mid thirties. His English is laced with properly used expletives when he speaks of foreign nationals coming to his backyard to kill Americans, and there is anger in his eyes. He has served as an interpreter with the Coalition Forces, and carries the scars of five gunshot wounds, earned while leading American patrols through dangerous areas. “If the Americans were willing to hunt down and kill the bad guys,” he said, making his point with the stab of a cigarette, “the least I could do was go into the house first.”

He is frustrated at the procedures he has to go through to get aboard base. “We come in late, and leave early. By the time I get here, I’ve got five trucks waiting.” Typical concerns of a business manager.

I point out that it won’t be too long before the Americans are out of here, and I mention that I see good signs for the Iraqis; they are actively pursuing the bad guys, kicking them out of their communities. “It’s not the Iraqis I worry about," I tell him, "it’s the Syrians, the Saudis, and all the guys who come here to take a shot at the Americans.”

“Yes! Yes!” he says, nodding emphatically. "And our own religious leaders," he spits, “who are filling our young people's minds with garbage! Al-Sadr, he is a thug!  He is known for his father. His father was a good man, well educated, but the son, he is not. He is an ignorant savage riding the fame of his father. He is no good!  Al-Sistani, he is a man of peace. He understands.”

I listen with rapt amazement. Haseem is a patriot. A patriot for Iraq.

The Iraqi people are a good, proud people, and to have us here is certainly a frustration for them, but they are well on their way towards breaking out of the mindset forced upon them by Saddam Hussein, and they are beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel. I will be glad when this place can be turned over to them with the knowledge that they are firmly in control.  There are many here like Haseem, who want their country back, and work with the Coalition to make it happen. They understand that there is much to be done, and they are doing it, with their minds and their talents.

Someday, when this is over, I would like to visit here, to get to know this place in the light of peace. To sit with a group of men my own age, drink chai, and swap stories. I am proud to be here supporting that goal.

I also had the chance to meet another local, “Achmed”, 22 years old, a newlywed of three months. We talked about his home in the neighboring village, and how he and his wife want babies. (I told him to keep practicing and it would happen, and he gave me a sly, sidelong look, and then laughed.)  We spoke of children, as a father and a prospective father, and not once did we speak of war, or strife, or the troubles of the government, or anything other than what two men might speak of about their families and their homes.

I told him about my three boys and my daughter, and he wanted to know a little bit about them. I told him how proud I am of my children. I told him their names, and want they are like, and my fatherly concerns about them. When I spoke of Katie Kat, he was interested in how Americans regard their daughters, and he was impressed that I thought Katie Kat would go to college, and become a strong young woman. (Very significant.)

I enjoyed our conversation, and bid him farewell at the end of the day.

I wish both Haseem and Achmed prosperity and success, and I feel confident that men like these will take charge of this country and do well by it.

BROTHERS AT WAR |

March 13, 2009

BROTHERS AT WAR
Name: J.P. Borda
Posting date: 3/13/09
Returned from: Kuwait/Iraq
Hometown: Burke, Virginia
Milblog: Milblogging.com
Email: milblogging@gmail.com

About two weeks ago I was invited to a pre-screening of Brothers at War at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., about a 20-minute drive from my apartment here in Northern Virginia. It was an honor to be invited. The crowd included troops from Walter Reed, veterans, press, and even Gary Sinise (LT Dan of Forrest Gump) who also happens to be one of the Executive Producers of the film. Gary Sinise is awesome and spends nearly all of his free time supporting the troops – which I didn’t know -- but CSI Las Vegas is still my favorite. Sorry, Gary.  

The movie is a documentary by Jake Rademacher, who wanted to learn more about his younger brothers’ service in the military and what they go through on the frontlines. 

It’s beginning to look like the best way to portray war, and for people to get a better understanding of what really goes on, is through the actual eyes of those serving. I served in Afghanistan in 2004/2005, and I returned from a tour to Iraq in the summer of 2008. Having written a blog from Afghanistan (The National Guard Experience, now defunct) and one from Iraq (Milblogging.com), it’s always been hard for me to explain to friends and family what I actually did over there. The challenges and pressures I faced on a day-to-day basis was something I chose not to share in words when I talked with family, and I mostly blogged about the mundane things in war as opposed to the missions.

In 2007, I contacted Deborah Scranton (director of the documentary The War Tapes), and working with her and Toby Nunn (my Platoon Sergeant), my Platoon and I made a documentary film called Bad Voodoo’s War that aired nationwide on PBS Frontline.

It was the only way for me to tell my story -- as a documentary. And after watching it, my family and friends had a much better idea of what I was doing on tour. What made it harder for them is that the film aired while we were still running missions throughout Iraq.

Jake did a great job of telling his brothers’ stories, and in the end, he achieved what he set out to do -- which was to understand his brothers’ service. This was his first time making a film and he put in all of the work himself. Although the film is Rated R, there is only one violent scene towards the end -- and much of the film tells the story of both of his brothers back home, which I thought was important since deployments impact families, too.

If you’d like to learn more about the film, visit the official website. The film is opening in theaters around the country this month.

Note: I'm not a very articulate writer and this happens to be one of my first movie reviews.  I did twitter the event, which was my first time tweeting from my Blackberry. If I had to guess, I'm pretty sure the group sitting at my table thought I was texting my wife or playing Tetris. I didn't bother explaining what I was doing, but halfway through the screening no one had punched me in the face, so I decided to keep tweeting. Although when I came back from the restroom, my lunch plate wasn't in the same place.  Also, I'm pretty sure my sandwich didn't have shoeprint on it before I stepped away. Just saying...

Here is a preview of the film:

SILLY RABBIT, I HAVE TWO F-15s |

March 11, 2009

SILLY RABBIT, I HAVE TWO F-15s
Name: Vampire 06
Posting date: 3/11/09
Stationed in: Afghanistan
Hometown: Folsom, CA
Milblog: Afghanistan Shrugged

“I wish I was Spiderman, and then this would be much easier,"  I think to myself as we scale the side of the mountain. Afghan soldiers scamper past CPT Brain and I, doing their best imitation of Icarus. We slowly plod along through the cracked pieces of shale that populate the slope like broken dinnerware. My wings have already melted and I’m now stuck with my leather personnel carriers to propel me.

The ANA look at us as they move by with pity. They’re well aware of how much the equipment we’re carrying weighs. Several of them have tried it on prior to this and been shocked. We have failed to grasp the lessons of medieval knights. Mobility vs armor. I am also 20 years older than many of them.

My Afghan counterpart, the Kandak XO, chose to remain back at the vehicles, 2000 ft below us. Upon realizing I was serious about scrambling up here h
e informed me that he felt it was most advantageous to command from below.

Framed Vampire rabbit one

Now I’m at 9000 ft, moving backwards with each step forward as I slide through the broken rocks. CPT Brain is carrying even more than I, as he has an FM radio in his ruck. I offered to carry it but he declined, I suspect out of fear that everyone would razz him about me humping the radio and being older.

Framed Vampire rabbit two

(The building where the trucks are is in the middle background.)

The patrol gradually thins as we continue our expedition. Below us bodies are littered along the line of march, leaning against small trees and rocks, attempting to wring any amount of oxygen out of the air. Even the Afghans are falling out at this point. The ANA refer to American soldiers as robots, due to the fact that we never stop, despite the heat, cold or altitude and the immense loads we carry. We pray to die sometimes, but never stop.

We reach a rocky ledge overlooking our vehicles and pause for a moment. I think I’d be in pain right now but I’m high from hypoxia. Kind of like high school, but that’s another story. CPT Brain and I consult, and agree that he’ll stay here and relay over the radio and I’ll move farther up on the mountain with one of ourTerps.

The mission that brought us here was a Movement to Contact. Basically it means you set out trying to get in a fight. It’s the military equivalent of shoving someone in a bar. Prior to today, CF forces had been in contact with the ACM near here and we’ve come to see if we can bite a piece off of the ACM.

I continue on, working my way up and around the top of the mountain in order to observe a valley and ridge to our north.  My brain continues to tell me to stop; luckily I damaged a lot of brain cells in college so the message isn’t too loud or convincing. Up I go.

Reaching an outcropping near the summit, I flop down doing my best imitation of a goldfish out of water. I reach into my vest and pull out my binos; starting to scan the ridge to our north.  I see nothing, due to the fact that my hands are shaking so violently that I almost give myself motion sickness. I try to slow my breathing and gather myself. It is always important to look very cool no matter what in the Army. I’m doing a poor job of it right now. Danica Patrick is not pushing me hard enough on the elliptical trainer despite her loathing for me.

My breathing slows and I start to scan. And what to my wondering eyes should appear but two booger eaters on the far ridge. Booger eater is our new derogatory term for the enemy. Once again, please don’t comment about my cultural sensitivity. I know it’s insensitive to call them booger eaters. But I know they call us some derogatory names too. What fun is war if you can’t make up names about your enemy?

They look at me and I them across the valley; a distance of about two kilometers. We stare at each other through binoculars for a couple of seconds and then they move into a bunker. They seem unconcerned because of the valley separating us, believing it keeps them safe. Oh, silly rabbit. I have two F-15s.

I move back down to CPT Brain and get on the radio, calling the CAS, telling them what I see and asking them to take a look. They overfly the area and confirm what I’ve seen. By the way, now the booger eaters are running around because they can hear the jets. The pilot calls and asks what I want to do.

“Smoke them,” I reply. Not really, but that’s what I was thinking and it sounds a lot cooler than going through the steps of a nine-line call.

“Roger that, we’re going to release one 2000 pounder and three 500 pounders in this pass,” he replies. All pilots sound like Chuck Yeager.

“Roger, I have eyes on point of impact,” I radio back. I wish I sounded like John Wayne, but I think I sounded more like a couch potato in the middle of an aerobics class, wheezing away.

“Weapons release in 30 seconds,” the pilot tells me.

“Dude, standby. This is going to be big,” I tell CPT Brain. We’re both giddy at the idea of 3500 lbs of high explosive hitting something. Little kids waiting for the door to open on Halloween and yell "Trick or Treat!". Unfortunately for them it’s Trick.

“Weapons away,” as the jets scream overhead, harbingers of what’s to come.

And we wait.

“Dude, what the...? Where the hell is the explosion?” We look at each other, disappointed that our Fourth of July show has fizzled. “I thought it’d be really big,” I comment, downfallen.

KABOOOOOOOOM!  A massive blast rips through the air and orange flames shoot off the opposite ridge.

 Framed Vampire rabbit three

“Hell YEAH, that was awesome!” I shout.

“We have good impact and full detonation, no secondaries observed at this time," I radio the pilots as they pull off station. “Thanks for your help and have a good day!"

At this point I’m pretty darn happy with the day's production. Then the artillery fire direction center calls us and tells us that they’re shooting a fire mission at the same grid to follow up on the CAS.

“Roger, I will adjust,” I call back. The first round is on target, no adjustments, and more rounds follow.

The rounds rip through the sky headed toward the ridge, impacting all along it. Those boys over there are having one heck of a bad day. I predict it’s their last day. Rounds continue to impact, tearing the ground apart. Suddenly we see huge secondary explosions, meaning we’ve hit either their rocket or mortar dump. Which means they can’t shoot those at us later.  Ah yeah, it’s business time!

The fire mission ends and we begin our slow march down the mountain, excited by the fact that today we did our jobs successfully, slipping and sliding our way back to our vehicles for the long convoy back to the FOB. Another day in Afghanistan down, and many more to go.

25 UNIQUE THINGS ABOUT IRAQ |

March 09, 2009

25 UNIQUE THINGS ABOUT IRAQ
Name: SGT B
Posting date: 3/9/09
Stationed in: Iraq
Hometown: Rockford, WA
Milblog: The Gun Line
Email: hvygunner@gmail.com

Editor's note: Sgt. B. was recently tagged with The 25 Meme, which led him to write this:

25 UNIQUE THINGS ABOUT IRAQ

1.  We get our water in bottles, which comes in handy at 0200 in the morning.

2.  What takes the Marines an hour, the Army can do all day.

3.  The crows have musical “caws". Considering that we all walk around armed to the teeth, I think it’s because they don’t want to get blown out of the sky.

4.  We’re under General Order Number One:  no booze. And there are still people getting nabbed for drunk and disorderly.

5.  When I get home, I wonder if I’ll have to walk down to the next block to shower or use the bathroom for things to seem normal.

6.  The distance to the bathroom increases exponentially at 0200 in the morning.  (See 1.)

7.  There are chickadees in Iraq.  Do they speak “Iraqi” ?

8.  I can sleep through an F-16’s F110-GE-129 engine being run up to max thrust (29,588 lb/f), which shakes the walls a kilometer away, but I can hear the quiet thump of a rocket being launched at us in the middle of a lively conversation (right Ed?).

9.  Ten years ago, I’d never dream to call an officer by his first name. Now I have three:  Zack, Aron, and Terry.  (Don’t worry, I still salute ‘em.)

10.  There are no new vehicles in Iraq.

11.  Why aren’t vehicles that travel at night painted black?

12.  Classified.  But it sure is cool.

13.  There are no motorcycles on JBB.*

14.  There are damned few infantrymen on JBB.

15.  There are tons of Air Force on JBB.

16.  Most of the people on JBB will never leave the wire.

17.  Our next door neighbors used to be the bad guys, and some of them still are.

18.  Iraqi teenagers hate to work just as much as American teenagers.

19.  Even the fast food tastes like chow hall food.

20.  The advertisements on the side bar of commercial sites here are all in German.

21.  There has been such a massive emphasis on sexual harassment prevention that I’m scared to treat a woman like a woman. That kills me because I’m a gentleman, a romantic, and understand chivalry.

22.  Iraq reminds me of Palm Springs, only with incoming.

23.  I used to know how to say hello in five different languages. Now, double that.

24.  There’s no place on JBB for folks who don’t enjoy cut-throat politics.

25.  You don’t realize that you're in a war zone until somebody points out the bullet scars on the walls.

* JBB: Joint Base Balad, formally called LSA Anaconda

ANATOMY OF AN IOTV |

March 03, 2009

ANATOMY OF AN IOTV
Name: Michael Brameld
Posting date: 3/4/09
Stationed in: Afghanistan
Milblog: A Year in the Sandbox


“What’s all that crap on your vest?”

I’ve gotten a few emails asking that question now, so I figured I’d post this for everybody. Here’s what I carry on my IOTV ( Improved Outer Tactical Vest):

Framed Brameld VEST 1


Framed Brameld VEST 2

   1. Improved First Aid Kit, or IFAK.
   2. 2 x 15 round magazines for the M9 pistol.
   3. Multiband Inter/Intra Team Radio, or MBITR.
   4. 6 x 30 round magazines for the M4 rifle.
   5. 2 x 40mm HEDP rounds for the M203 grenade launcher.
   6. Strap cutter, for cutting seatbelts or gear in an emergency.
   7. This one’s hard to see in the picture, but it’s a SPOON! For digging foxholes and field latrines.
   8. Quick-release to separate the vest into 4 pieces for quick removal.
   9. Random stuff pouch. Right now there’s an extra set of gloves, a cold-weather hat, some misc cable and a couple 40mm smoke grenades inside.
  10. Casio Exilim EX-S10! Never leave home without it.
  11. Ear plugs, so I don’t have to listen to whining about broken comm equipment.
  12. Photon Proton Flashlight cause I’m scared of the dark.
  13. Gerber Multitool.
  14. Back to the top picture: one-handed tourniquet.

That's it. Total weight is just north of 60lbs, but the vest is so well designed that it really only feels like 55lbs when you have it on.

THE WAY WE GET BY |

March 02, 2009

THE WAY WE GET BY
Name: 1SGT Troy Steward
Posting date: 3/2/09
Returned from: Afghanistan
Milblog: Bouhammer.com

Last week C.J. Grisham and I interviewed the gentlemen who made the documentary The Way We Get By on You Served radio. It looks to be a truly phenomenal film. Watch the trailer below and you will see what I mean. If you watch this and don’t end up with a lump in your throat or a tear in your eye, then you need to take your pulse, because you don’t have a heart.


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