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.


August 14, 2009

Name: CAPT Benjamin Tupper
Posting date: 8/14/09
Returned from: Afghanistan
Hometown: Syracuse, NY

Target practice is a relatively easy task for a group of soldiers to accomplish. It requires a remote and unpopulated area in which to shoot, paper targets, and wooden target stands.  In America it would take a few dollars, a quick trip to a hardware store, and a couple of hours to build the latter.
Things take a little longer in Afghanistan. We were tasked with conducting a weapons qualification training event for Afghan soldiers, but executing this simple mission took weeks.

First off, we didn’t have a Home Depot out in rural Afghanistan, so building the wooden target stands had to be contracted out to an Afghan carpenter. At our base a white-bearded elder we called “The Godfather” controlled all such contracts through a mix of threats and patronage, price-gouging and delaying any project to ensure his desired level of graft. Then there was the issue of quality control. We drew up plans for the wooden target stands and gave them to the carpenter who the Godfather had selected for the job. But when the stands arrived, they had not been built to the needed specifications.

More days passed before the proper frames were built and delivered. The final price for the wooden stands was so inflated it would have made an American defense contractor envious.  

Another obstacle was the Afghan soldiers themselves. They had a strong dislike of training of any type, and the idea of target practice left them unimpressed. We would schedule a date for the weapons qualification, and they would cancel it. The excuses for the cancellation varied; it was too cold, or there was not enough fuel in the vehicles to get them to the range location. My favorite was when the Afghan supply sergeant informed us that all the ammo was locked up, and the officer with the key was on vacation for two weeks. This really caught our attention, because we were living in a war zone, where the ability to have extra ammunition handy is about as important as having oxygen to breathe.

In time we came up with a way to get the Afghan soldiers to show up for training events. We bribed their leadership with odds and ends like printer cartridges, pens, and dry erase boards, which they would receive if they delivered their soldiers. 
Framed Tupper afghan rifle range After weeks of waiting for the stars to align, all the ingredients were in place and we conducted our weapons qualification. But as the first groups of soldiers completed their firing, the paper targets revealed very few hits. Shooting tips were given, and weapons were re-sighted, but this failed to improve results. So with limited daylight remaining, our group of American advisors decided to do the only thing left to improve scores; we moved the targets closer to the shooters. When this produced the same inadequate results, we moved the target stands even closer. 
The poor results were enough to convince the Afghans that they needed more weapons practice, and seeing as we already had the target stands built, future weapons qualifications would be easier to conduct. That is until someone came up with the bright idea to shoot higher-caliber weapons at the targets. Within minutes, machine guns and rocket propelled grenades were blazing away, and when the smoke cleared, our over-priced wooden target frames had been reduced to smoking splinters.

To complete this comedy of errors, it was only then, when we began packing up to leave our firing range, that anyone noticed the funny little red-painted stones that were peeking through what remained of the light snow that blanketed the ground. We had picked the site for our range because it was close to our base, and because it was in an area that was unlikely to be attacked by the Taliban. When we did our reconnaissance on it, the layer of snow had obscured the fact that the area had been marked as a mine field.

It was a miracle that no one stepped on a mine, as we had over one hundred soldiers on the range. Suffice to say that as we left the area we laughed out loud at our silly mistake and good fortune.
This Weapons Qualification Range experience was a pretty good metaphor for the war as a whole: lots of time and planning to accomplish a mission without fully achieving the desired results; an over-expenditure of resources and, ultimately, a loss of investment; exposure to unknown and unpredicted dangers and the luck to survive them. 


Aren't all known minefields plotted using GPS? I realize there would be many of them but at least it would help. Or maybe GPS the spots with no minefields ;)

This experience would be a perfect definition for the word "boondoggle."

This is kinda depressing, to be honest.

Holy crap! Doesn't sound good.

This reminds me of the time we made target stands out of wood pallets and paper targets out donated school supplies (construction paper and Elmers glue) for the Iraqi Border Patrol to practice on. Fun stuff.

" The Range" is a great story that illustrated how I take things for granted . I can hop in my car and two minutes later arrive at the hardware store for comparatively inexpensive resources. The story also made me very grateful that there are those who continue to put themselves in harms way so my family and I don't have to. Thank you!

Thank you. Not only for the obvious reason of serving for our country, but for laying out an account for someone who does not know a lot about what is continually going on in the Middle East.

wow!!! The end of this story is incredible!!! You definately had a guardian angel with you that day!

The statement that the building of the “Range” experience was a metaphor for the war as a whole, brought to my attention that the way projects are done in the United States are not the norm elsewhere. We who have not been faced with these challenges would have difficulty in having the patience to lead those of another culture in such ventures. It is amazing that in all of the time that soldiers were present in the range area that no one was injured.

Reading blogs and learning more about the way of life of those who our soldiers are training and working with is very helpful to those of us here at home. It is good to know that everyone came away safely and that they still can laugh even in the face of danger. It reminds all of us that often the desired results are not achieved but lady luck was in the background. Thanks for sharing this story.

That had to be one of the most frustrating things ever. We do take stuff for granted here. I'm glad no one was injured or worse! You guys are in danger at all times even if you aren't on the battlefield.

I admire anyone who can maintain such a casual tone even upon reflection of such an event. I hadn't known patience was such a strong quality among soldiers.

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