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.


September 17, 2009

Name: Alex Horton
Posting date: 9/17/09
Returned from: Iraq
Milblog: Army of Dude

Framed Horton Amber Shay At times he must have been no more than two hundred feet from me, but I never had the privilege to meet Jordan Shay. Together we chewed up the most inhospitable terrain on earth, and back on Ft. Lewis, we worked daily in the same dilapidated Korean War era barracks. The only connection I shared with Jordan was through the comments section of his blog, which I keep linked on the top of my blog page, under our unit crest.

Though our companies faced a heated inter-battalion rivalry, Attack Company was always in the thick of combat with my company, Battle. They shouldered a far greater burden than us, sustaining eight KIAs to our two. Jordan, at 22 years old, saw more combat than a lot of crusty old vets before he could legally buy a beer. For his second combat tour with the 3rd Stryker Brigade, Jordan started a blog to chronicle his experience. He named it  Through Amber Lenses, the color of his sunglasses. He wanted to explain to the world what he saw with a bright amber tint.

What I read when I checked his most recent comment section hit me straight in the gut. "RIP Jordan." I rushed to the DoD announcement page and found nothing. Through a Google search I confirmed my worst fear: Jordan Shay, 22 years young, killed in Iraq. Shortly thereafter I read that the Department of Defense had officially announced the death of Jordan and fellow soldier SSG Todd Selge. I met Todd at Javelin School on Ft. Lewis. He was a quiet professional, confident in his skills as a leader. I believe he graduated at the top of the class, but it would be no surprise if you had talked to the man for more than a minute. The nation is lesser for the loss of these two soldiers.

It will always be difficult to hear a Regular soldier has been killed, but to see Jordan leave us too soon hits me especially hard. I didn't know Jordan personally, but I knew him well. I understand his need to commit his thoughts to writing in order to share with the rest of us. He spoke of his teachers and his mother pushing him to write more. I'm eternally grateful for their efforts, and to Jordan for taking them up on their challenge. We not only lost a great soldier, but a gifted writer. We suffer doubly at the loss, for his talent bridged the gap of understanding between soldier and civilian. Jordan's time on earth allowed just sixteen posts to be written in the span of four months, but his writing was honest, measured and disciplined. He must have thought he was bound for something great, but never realized he was already there.

Rest easy, Jordan. You've made a difference to more than you know. The United States lost a brave soldier, and the military blog community lost a brave new voice. I ask that you take the time to read his blog from beginning to end. In his comments section, his girlfriend tells us the blog was important to him. I hope he realized how important it was to those who read it.

Here is the final essay he put up on his site:

The Promised "Real" Post!

The back ramp of the Stryker dropped to reveal a dusty, rundown Iraqi Police station in a nondescript Baqubah suburb. We stepped out of the truck onto the ramp, and took the two foot drop to the ground in stride. Todd took off for a walk around the compound; I motioned for the rest of our squad and followed after him. The walk revealed a typical IP station, a large walled courtyard surrounding an average size building. The courtyard was filled with trash, sewage, broken generators and spare parts to nonexistent machines.

Framed Horton Amber  Leaning up against the back of the building we discovered half of a rusted Russian heavy machine gun, and another piece of a Cold War era anti-aircraft gun. No big deal, except both weapons had been used against our company two years prior during the retaking of the city of Baqubah. Pretending this find meant the IPs were doing their job and taking dangerous weapons off the street and not that they were the average two-faced insurgents, we rounded the last corner of the compound and headed for the front gate.

Thanks to the hand-tying status of forces agreement between Iraq and the United States, American soldiers are not allowed to operate in urban areas without having the Iraqi Police or Iraqi Army present. Exceptions apply, but they're few and far between.

By the time our squad had regrouped around the front of the building, our IA escort forces from outside the city had exited their humvees and stood around smoking and joking with each other. They were dressed in USMC desert fatigues, military body armor, and commercial tactical vests. They were also carrying clean weapons outfitted with modern American optics and flashlights. Apparently, Iraqi Army Special Forces are fairly well funded.

We passed them by and headed out the gate, since our absurdly strict platoon leader wasn't around to stop us. One lonely IP stood guard just outside the entrance to the station. He remained rooted to the ground while we moved past him and out into the neighborhood. We figured he'd count as our Iraqi escort if someone important came along. Crossing a small lot with a few scattered cars and trash piles, a pack of four or five dogs picked up our scent and barked to alert the area to our presence. We held up at the far side of the lot, less than a hundred meters from the IP station. A group of kids had been playing around in the street, but had scattered as soon as we left the station. In previous years, that was a bad sign. Kids scattered and plugged their ears before roadside bombs detonated.

This time around, it's a different war. "War" is hardly the word to describe the current situation. Anyway, the unit we're replacing didn't spend a single second of their tour mingling with the locals around this particular IP station. It had been months since the last American foot patrol through their village. They peeked around corners and out from behind courtyard gates. Families weaving around rubble and small rivers of sewage eyeballed us suspiciously, rarely returning a wave.

Two young boys crept closer, stopping about ten meters ahead of us. I motioned to them to come closer while Todd called to them in broken Arabic. Cautiously, the older of the two darted up to us. Todd pulled a pack of gum from his pants pocket and handed a piece to the boy, who looked confused but optimistic. Todd pulled out another piece for himself, and popped it in his mouth. The boy smiled and darted back to the safety of his house. When he stuck his head out a moment later, he was chewing happily and surrounded by a new group of local kids.

I motioned again to them, and a younger boy came running up over the broken bricks and dirt littering the street. I handed him a little pack of Sweet Tarts as my squad started moving back to the police station. He accepted happily and ran back to the house. I turned and followed the squad out of the neighborhood and back through the guarded station entrance, offering the lone IP a wave as he closed the gate behind me.

We walked up to the front of the building, wondering where our blundering platoon leader was. The Iraqi Army Special Forces soldiers were still lounging around, smoking cheap cigarettes in the scorching afternoon sun. Approaching them, they welcomed us with open arms and all sorts of broken English. Cigarettes were offered all around, we removed our helmets and gloves, and relaxed. The language barrier is always difficult to overcome, but through the few Arabic phrases I remember from my first deployment and creative sign language, we got to know each other. We examined each others rifles and pistols, resisted the pleas of the IA soldiers to trade watches and jokingly traded insults. An American private from Guam was played up as an Iraqi who forgot how to speak Arabic, and the sexual preference of all involved was questioned. Some things are funny to soldiers no matter their nationality.

A number of the Iraqi soldiers pulled out mobile phones with built-in cameras to take pictures with us. In true Iraqi style, they showed us pictures of their wives and children and poked fun at each other before finally settling down to pose for pictures. Todd took a few pictures with my camera, then moved into the group for a few more.

Our platoon leader emerged from the station a short time later, and ordered us back onto the trucks. We said goodbye to our new friends and loaded up into our Strykers. As our convoy pulled out of the compound onto the bumpy village roads, we offered the locals a final wave. Surrounded by young kids, even the parents waved back.


It's scary to think the few minutes my squad spent outside the police station interacting with the local kids, showing that we're there to be friendly and help the Iraqis, and proving we're not afraid to wander the streets alone may set the tone in KBS for the rest of our deployment.

Also interesting to note: According to the interpreter we had along with us today, the citizens of Baqubah (and most of Diyala Province) fear the men who wear the patch with the Indian head and star on a black shield (2nd Infantry Division.) When asked about 5-20 Infantry, they talk of the grey phantoms (rough translation) who appear in the night, move without sound, and rain incredible destruction down upon their enemies. At the same time, they praise our battalion for driving Al Qaeda out of their city, out of their neighborhoods, and out of their children's lives.

We are respected in Baqubah. We are also feared. Our battalion has a fantastic opportunity to use these facts to our advantage and make a real difference before the withdrawal of all combat forces in the summer of next year. We made a difference in 2007, we could do it again in 2009. I fear we will not.


Thank you, Alex, and my deepest sympathy for your loss. There have been times that the Sandbox has posted word of one of the bloggers. We the readers do not get nearly as close to the writers as other service members who are or have been deployed, but reading is an intimate experience. We feel the loss.

Again, thank you.

My heart just breaks.

Poor guy. I cannot understand the logic of anyone who supports these wars, unless they personally benefit, and the guys personally benefiting are the war profiteers. I don't think anyone would want to be the last American soldier who died in Viet Nam.

It saddens me to see a Shay fall in battle, though we have been doing it for a long time, in fact the celtic ancestor who gave us the name of shay died in battle sacrificing himself for the safety and well being of his country and family. I myself am currently deployed in Mosul, Iraq. leaving soon, the danger is still there but i thank my lucky stars that i made it through the first six months when the heat was intense before we left the city and let the iraqi army take the lead. it saddens me that another shay didnt do it with me. Though i never met him, he is still just as much family as any of the brothers and sisters i grew up with. May he rest in peace, im sure he does.

It is my pleasure to read your article! Thank you for sharing! good luck!

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