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.

MERRY CHRISTMAS FROM AFGHANISTAN |

December 31, 2009

MERRY CHRISTMAS FROM AFGHANISTAN
Name: Troy Steward
Posting date: 12/31/09
Returned from: Afghanistan
Milblog: Bouhammer.com


This is one talented songwriter, singer and musician. Please take a few moments to enjoy his video.

THE LAST GOODBYE |

December 28, 2009

THE LAST GOODBYE
Name: Six Foot Skinny
Posting date: 12/28/09
Stationed in: Iraq
Hometown: Minneapolis, MN
Milblog: Lost in the Desert

The alarm goes off way too early. But then, when does an alarm ever go off at the right time? It’s always too early or too late. She stirs a little, makes some cute noises. I leave her sleeping. She didn’t need to be up yet. Kitchen. Coffee started. Bathroom. Shower started. Teeth brushed. Water’s warm. Shower. Turn off the coffee. Shave. Wake her up. Good morning kiss. She tells me to quit looking at her like that. Like what? Like you’re going to miss me.

She makes me fried eggs and toast for breakfast. The bread in Iraq is terrible -- Wonder bread or brown Wonder bread – and we can’t have runny yolks with our fried eggs. She eats cereal and yogurt. We don’t say much. There’s not much to say. It feels odd to put my uniform back on. I’ve been living in my favorite pair of blue jeans for the last two weeks, and loving it. The boots are particularly uncomfortable.

Last check of the apartment. Didn’t bring much home, think I got it all. A last look around. I like this place.  It smells and feels like everything that is home. Down the stairs and out the door. The weather has been mild. I take credit for that. Not too cold in the car. The slightest drizzle in the air and on the windshield. Perfect for the occasion really.

Short drive to the airport. She pulls up to the curb and turns off the car. We have decided that coming in to see me to the gate sounds like a better idea than it actually is. We look at each other. We get out. Hug. Kiss. Cry. Like the drizzle -- just a little. Go, so you can come back. And I do. So I can. The last time.

CHRISTMAS WISH |

December 24, 2009

CHRISTMAS WISH
Name: RN Clara Hart
Posting date: 12/24/09
Stationed in: a civilian military hospital in the U.S.
Milblog: From Our Perspective
Email: clarahart2@yahoo.com

Who would swipe a Christmas tree from a wounded soldier? That was the question we were asking ourselves at work last week. The parents of one of our wounded had placed a small artificial tree in his room. Frequently the only lights to be seen were the glow from the heart monitor and the twinkling lights on the tree. This particular patient lies in a quiet slumber waiting for his brain to wake up and take notice of his surroundings. He has lain that way for weeks.

One morning we noticed the little tree was gone, and we began a feverish search. As the other nurses and I stomped around the unit muttering under our breath “Who in the hell would appropriate a Christmas tree from a wounded guy?” his mother sat quietly holding his hand. The next day his parents brought in another tree complete with lights, garland and ornaments. As we expressed our outrage and offered our apologies his mom said, “There is obviously someone who needed it more than we did.”

Last week the family was told "Santa" wanted their Christmas list. They were handed a blank form and given 24 hours to fill it out. Initially they refused to write anything on it so we jokingly threatened them, telling them if they didn’t we would and heaven knows what could end up on it then. They laughed, mentioning several things, but were unwilling to write them down, saying over and over, “We don’t need anything."

One of the other nurses finally took the paper and began to write. Gift certificates for restaurants (so they wouldn’t have to eat fast food all the time), gift certificates for Target and Wal-Mart (everyone needs toiletries), home cooked meals. It was a collaborative effort, and once we had the list started we left it with them so they could add more items.

The following day they handed it back to us. As they walked away we looked at their wish list. The very first thing on it left us looking at each other with aching hearts. They had written, “Prayers so our son wakes up on Christmas Day.”


GEARDOS |

December 23, 2009

GEARDOS
Name: CAPT Benjamin Tupper
Posting date: 12/23/09
Returned from: Afghanistan
Hometown: Syracuse, NY

Remember back in high school, when the cool kids had the designer threads and the poor kids wore cheap clothing?  The newest, flashiest brand name stuff was a badge of social prowess, and the more you had, the easier it was to climb up the ranks into the realm of popularity.

Not much has changed since then, and judging by what I see today in the Army, this game of sporting the newest, coolest gear has continued with a full head of steam. We as soldiers are still contestants in the hunt for the new fashionable item. In Army lingo, the guys who personify this pursuit of new stuff are known as “Geardos” (a fusion of the words Gear and Weirdos). In my unit, I jokingly called the Geardos' endless pursuit of new stuff The Arms Race, and the term stuck as a running joke, especially with the undisputed leader in the race: the Greek.

The Arms Race started the first day we arrived at our mobilization training, and it didn’t stop until we all came home a year later. The first shots in the Geardo war were fired when UPS boxes addressed to the Greek arrived in the first week of training. The boxes were still arriving months later when we were living in remote and distant FOBs in the mountains of Afghanistan. These bundles of Geardo joy delivered the newest military items to the Greek, as well as to other competing unit members, who were constantly fighting to be the leader in the Arms Race.

Given the proliferation of small designer companies pumping out new and improved tactical gear, Uncle Sam just couldn’t keep up with the evolution of gadgetry. Woe is the soldier who had only the items he was issued by the Army. It was tantamount to the poor kids wearing the Kmart sneakers and Rescue Mission hand me downs, while the cool kids (i.e. the Geardos) sported Air Jordans and Hollister.

The levels one took to be the best Geardo were intense. Money was no issue. To be at the vanguard of new gear was worth every penny, and the Greek had a big financial advantage in funding his arsenal. His wife had recently won a sizeable chunk of money in the lottery, so he had more slack and could spend more on  tactical accessories. Most wives held the financial reins pretty tight, as they had assumed control of the family budget once their husbands left for mobilization training and deployment.

The Arms Race was a predictable and regular process. One guy, usually the Greek, would order a new accessory, and the ritual of its arrival and introduction to the unit was a celebrated event. He would open the box to a crowd of anxious onlookers. We would stand around and ogle the new item, jealously wishing we had found it first. Soon packages would arrive bearing the same item for other soldiers: Bipods. Tripods. Slings. Chest Rigs. Optical sights. Magpuls. Mini flashlights and mega rucksacks. The list of privately purchased gear went on and on. And once an item became too popular and common among the unit, it no longer had the pizzazz, and a new one had to be acquired to maintain the desired level of tactical street cred and, more importantly, leadership in the Arms Race.

For example, the Greek was the first to buy a high-speed bi-pod for his M-4 rifle. We weren’t issued any bi-pods by Uncle Sam, so this was an arms race coup on his part. Soon many soldiers in the unit had purchased the same thing. Now that the bi-pod had lost its uniqueness and was common among the troops, the Greek decided to up the ante. He declared that the color of the bi-pod was not tactically correct enough, and purchased a can of sand-colored spray paint to correct this flaw. Before long, the barracks were a toxic chamber of fumes, as soldiers were busy spray painting their gear in variations of sand and brown and green.

It was a whole new battlefield that the Greek had introduced in the gear Arms Race. Color was now earning points for style. Green was frowned upon -- it was so 1980s. Everyone knew Afghanistan had nothing green. Brown was an okay color selection, as it was generally agreed that it could blend into many landscapes, but sand was the undisputed best choice given the desert-like terrain we expected to be operating in. But it better be flat spray paint. Those who bought gloss spray paint lost points on their customization projects. Even the most inexperienced private knew that shiny accessories would only attract the eye of the enemy on the field of battle.

In the heat of this absurdity of the gear Arms Race, I began to develop fake products in order to show my buddies how silly the tit-for-tat purchases were becoming. The fact was everything we were issued by Uncle Sam was better than anything our enemy would have, and it all had been rigorously field tested before being issued to us. So my intent in creating a fictional uber-tactical gear catalog was, through comedy, to show people the folly of the hunt for the perfect designer product.

Using my slightly-above-average art skills, I put together two fake catalogs, one originating from the Greek’s fictional company, the other from that of his main rival in the Arms Race, a guy called Spanky. The catalogs became daily reading for my unit as they sat through three-hour-long training classes in 100-plus-degree Deep South heat.  Every couple days I would introduce new products and they would be passed around during the classes and keep people entertained.

The catalogs included such items as a tactical spittoon that was worn like a camelback canteen, a field manual on jerking off in a combat environment, Day Vision Goggles, and my favorite, the R.A.N.G.E.R., which was spawned by a guy in our unit, nicknamed Ranger, who had a proclivity for either losing gear or misplacing it. R.A.N.G.E.R stood for “Rugged, Any purpose, Nug approved , Gear & Equipment Retainers."  The product was a ten cent piece of 550 cord (rope) that you would tie onto your item, and then tie the other end to your belt. I had turned the classic Army “dummy cord” into a high-priced essential piece of tactical gear available for the low cost of $99.99. It was fortunate for my unit members' bank accounts that these items were all fictional, because I’m sure someone would have wasted their money on a couple of them in the endless pursuit of the newest high-end designer gear.

Perhaps the best real world example of the folly of the gear Arms Race was the hunt for the perfect holster. Uncle Sam issued us a thigh rig that allowed for the low-hung placement of our M-9 Beretta pistol on our leg just above the knee. The cool kids, led by the Greek and his arch rival Spanky, decided that this was a horrible design concept, and many a thigh rig was replaced with a private purchase holster that placed the weapon further up the leg and nearer to the waist. I remember a third participant in the arms race spending hours debating which holster he should purchase. He treated it like a major purchase, like a house or a new car. It was serious business with life or death consequences in his mind, and he eventually settled for an expensive holster that set off a pursuit among others for an even better holster. Like the rising hemlines on women’s skirts, the fashion worthiness of holsters began to be measured by how high up they rode on the wearer. Within weeks, pistols were practically invisible under the body armor we wore. A thigh rig was so passé. Wearing anything low was considered tantamount to tactical and fashion suicide.

Yet when all was said and done, after our year-long tour at war was over, not one of us ever fired our M-9 pistol in anger. The arms race for the perfect high-speed gunslinger holster was all for naught.

HASH |

December 21, 2009

HASH
Name: K
Posting date: 12/21/09
Returned from: Afghanistan
Milblog: Embedded in Afghanistan

Drug cultivation was not something we really dealt with in Kunar. When it comes to illegal trade funding illegal activity, Kunar is more known for the timber trade. You might say the situation with the opium in the south is analogous to that with timber in the northeast mountainous provinces. Undoubtedly, some opium is cultivated in the mountainous regions, but it wasn't something we really saw or dealt with.

What we did deal with regularly was hashish smoking among the ANA. The hash smoking was something I saw much more of at the more austere bases, and not so much at the more developed bases we were responsible for. I suppose you might say the hash provided a bit of an escape from the poor living conditions at those bases.

The fact that the ANA smoked hash was not a surprise to any of us. I'd seen the same thing with the Iraqis, and we were told we'd see it from time to time, if not regularly. One night early on in the tour, I was woken up by an ANA soldier asking me to attend to a sick soldier. So I grabbed my interpreter and headed over to the sick soldier's hooch to have a look at him. When we got there, my terp informed me that the soldier was only "sick" because of excessive hash smoking. I gave him a couple of aspirin and went back to bed.

It was a common experience to smell hash burning in the early evening or at night. We understood that it's a part of the local culture, so we were never intent on eradicating the habit completely among our ANA, but it didn't seem right to completely ignore the issue so we brought up the hash smoking with the different commanders we had. One commander denied that it was occurring at all, so we simply asked him to see to it that the soldiers standing guard were sober. Another commander acknowledged the problem and pledged to do something about it, but not surprisingly nothing changed. A third commander would not tolerate it at all, and sent a couple of guys back to the battalion after catching them indulging.

That third commander turned out to be the worst commander of the group I had during that time period, but have to give him credit for maintaining some discipline with his men.

I can't say I ever saw an officer smoke hash or look stoned, but a few of the NCOs were repeat offenders. Some of those hash-smoking NCOs were actually among the best NCOs we had. We even had an incident where a couple of ANA soldiers beat a terp supposedly for trying to interfere with their hash smoking. It's tough to know what's really going on with those guys sometimes, so the incident may have been over something else. Whatever the case, it resulted in us losing one of our best terps. The two soldiers involved were sent away for awhile, but came back eventually. It's tough to get rid of even the worst soldiers when you need everyone you can get your hands on to fight the war.

As you can imagine, having hash-smoking soldiers on hand during patrols can make for some interesting moments. We often stopped in towns to talk to local leaders during our patrols. We'd often just sit there until all hell would break loose -- an effective if dangerous and uncreative way to locate the enemy. During one of the first times we decided to just stay in the town until shots were fired, several of the soldiers lit up a joint when the wait was longer than expected. We got on their case about it, but a firefight erupted before we really dealt with the issue. I will say the ANA fought particularly well that day, putting several RPGs directly into a house 300 meters away.

One of our worst hash offenders, who I never once saw without bloodshot eyes, was often our RPG gunner. One day on our way out of base, we started taking large-caliber rounds from a ridgeline across the way. Our RPG gunner proceeded to load up his RPG and get ready to fire it with his back right up against a small cliff face, a no-no since the back-blast would likely rebound off the cliff and do who knows what to the gunner in that situation. Luckily, his comrades yelled at him and got him set up in a safe place -- though firing an RPG at a ridgeline 1000 meters away might not be the best use of ammo. In that same event, the ANA platoon sergeant accidentally shot a round that almost blew his foot off while loading a machine gun, and then pointed it right at me while clearing and reloading it.

Suffice to say, there are things we'd rather be doing when enemy contact is imminent or ongoing than chastising ANA soldiers for smoking hash, dodging errant ANA muzzles, and teaching the ANA how to use their own guns. The ANA certainly do keep things interesting, and as long as things don't really go wrong, it's all really a lot of fun.

ABOUT C.J. GRISHAM |

December 11, 2009

ABOUT C.J. GRISHAM
Name: J.P. Borda
Posting date: 12/10/09
Returned from: Kuwait/Iraq
Hometown: Burke, Virginia
Milblog: Milblogging.com
Email: milblogging@gmail.com

What can I say about C.J. Grisham, one of the first milbloggers? He’s been a friend to me since 2004/2005 when I blogged from Afghanistan. He has dedicated himself over the years to telling the story of the military from the soldier’s perspective, which says a lot in terms of him as a person. Many milbloggers who launch a site eventually stop writing, but C.J. has kept at it year after year after year.

He recently made the decision to shut down his popular site A Soldier’s Perspective, and all I can say is that it was disappointing to hear that news. Though I don’t know everything firsthand about the circumstances of his situation, I would vouch for my friend anytime.

If you’re not familiar with C.J.’s story, please read his recent post on YouServed. As he puts it, “I feel like I must humble myself and ask for help on my own behalf in this instance."

You can also read a recent story from Military Times here.


Framed JP CJ

BALANCE |

December 08, 2009

BALANCE
Name: K
Posting date: 12/8/09
Returned from: Afghanistan
Milblog: Embedded in Afghanistan

It's a common thing to see articles in the news media about the negative aspects of war on the micro level. The dead, the wounded, the mentally and emotionally damaged all appear to get a fair amount of coverage and exposure, so I'm going to focus on a few of the good things some of us get out of serving in combat -- because many of us are getting a lot out of it.

Framed K Balance Wearing a uniform that says 'US Marines' has always been a great honor for me, and more so when I've been able to wear the uniform overseas. Knowing you represent the ideals and power of the United States gives one quite a bit to live up to, and a lot of pride goes with that. Being out in the middle of nowhere, knowing you represent the end of the line of America's reach is quite a thing -- I can remember thinking how the power of all those billions of dollars and millions of people ended right there with us at a lonely outpost in an isolated valley. Maybe the thought of our 'power' ending there in isolated valley comes across as a bit imperialistic, but I make no apologies for what we're doing and love being a part of it.

People are good at different things. Some people happen to be good at conducting warfare. I spent months this past tour with a Marine who stated numerous times that he kept coming back over to war zones as an infantryman because it was what he was good at. He undoubtedly was very good at it, and there's nothing wrong with that at all. I believe everyone wants the chance to use his or her skills that he or she was born with or has developed and honed over time, even if those skills happen to belong to an unfortunate but necessary profession.

Undoubtedly, those that come back from combat have an increased appreciation for life generally. Anytime I'm away from friends and family for lengthy periods I miss them, but knowing that it can all be gone at any moment certainly helps heighten that sense of gratitude for the times together. Having survived some difficult moments, I know I personally have more confidence than I had before. Having taken some risks, lived through and overcome things that were legitimately difficult makes life's daily challenges at home that much easier to deal with: Hey, if I made it through those things how hard can this be?

The flip side of that coin is that sometimes daily life at home seems a bit trite. Before, I was on the ground directly doing things that were in the news regularly, which kind of makes me feel underutilized today, and the things I'm doing these days seem a little pointless. I'd argue that satisfaction is life's best feeling, and it can come to a person in many ways, but one of the best ways to find it is to overcome a period of difficulty.


Obviously, none of these positives are reasons to start a war, but given war's inevitability it's important to recognize the beneficial aspects of war on the personal level.

END OF LIFE |

December 05, 2009

END OF LIFE
Name: RN Clara Hart
Posting date: 12/5/09
Stationed in: a military hospital in the U.S.
Email: clarahart2@yahoo.com

End of life, withdraw care, comfort measures -- whatever nice euphemism you want to use it all means the same. We are going to remove the breathing tube, disconnect the vent, turn off all the life sustaining medications and devices and allow you to die.

Twice in my last three shifts I have done that. With two separate patients and two different families. The strange thing is I don’t remember the faces of my patients. I remember the families, the encouraging words I said, and the arms I opened to hug the grieving. But I don’t recall the faces of those I cared for. Is there something wrong with that?

I asked my significant other that question. He’s far away fighting a war and I see his face and hear his voice on my computer screen thanks to webcam and video conferencing. I tried to explain it’s not really the patients we are taking care of at that point, but rather the families, who now require all of our attention. I spoke of the drain on our psyches caused by engaging with so much emotional energy. He understood. He even said the same words at the same time as I did.

After my most recent patient died, I quietly tapped on the door in which a husband sat in sorrow. As I slowly entered the room I saw him standing at the bedside of his deceased wife combing her hair. “I’m not very good at this, but she always liked her hair to look pretty,” he told me. Wordlessly I walked to the other side of the bed, and with tears streaming down my face helped him comb her hair.

Then I left him alone with her and walking silently from the room found my coworker standing in the hallway. He came over, wrapped me in his arms and held me while I cried. “I’m glad it was you taking care of her today," he told me. I simply stood there, numb. As my day ended and I changed out of my scrubs in the locker room another nurse stopped to ask if I was okay. I nodded my head. “That family was lucky to have you as their nurse," she said. "You are so good at that.”

“That” being end of life care. I don’t want to be good at “that."  It means I have done it far too often.

THE END OF HEARTACHE |

December 02, 2009

THE END OF HEARTACHE
Name: Edda2010
Posting date: 12/2/09
Returned from: Afghanistan

My unit came off orders to Iraq recently. This frees us up to go to Afghanistan. Below are a list of reasons, in no particular order, why it would be a good idea for me to spend 12 of the next 15 months of my life back in that blasted land.

1) We made a commitment to the people of Afghanistan when we invaded their country and toppled the Taliban regime. Unless we feel comfortable allowing adulterous women to be stoned to death, or women in general to receive no education, or whatever non-Muslim culture remaining in the country to be savaged and destroyed; unless we feel comfortable going back on a promise we made to a country filled with poverty, devoid of natural resources, mired in hopelessness and ignorance; unless we are comfortable with an idea of ourselves as individuals who are not capable of making promises as a nation -- we must stay for a little while longer and give these people the legitimate shot at development that we offered them when we first put boots on the ground in 2002.

2) If we abandon Afghanistan, it will fall to the Taliban, which will give the insurgency that is building in Pakistan a safehaven from which to stage attacks. A vulnerable Pakistan--a country that boasts nuclear capabilities--is not in our interest. By remaining in Afghanistan, we allow Pakistan some breathing room in its struggle against extremist Muslims in their country.

3) The Afghan people like us. We may be perceived as invaders or occupiers by some of the Afghans -- which should not come as a surprise, unless one has the political naivete of a six-year-old (many people in our own country felt as though the Bush administration was essentially a foreign occupation) -- but my experience was that the big gripe from the villages on the border was that we didn't have enough soldiers to offer them protection.

Everyone wanted roads, everyone wanted wells, everyone wanted their lives to improve, and recognized that the Taliban and the criminal networks operating from inside Pakistan were robbing them of vital economic opportunities. Americans were welcomed by children and village elders alike -- everywhere we went, we were handing out HA* and making friends.There was absolutely no confusion as to what our motivations were; we built schoolhouses and mosques, and gave out oil, food, fuel, and clothes, asking for nothing in return. Nobody I talked with confused us with the Russians.

Those people who seem concerned that we may be perceived as an imperial power must have some sort of personal issue that causes them to see the world in those terms; it was not the reality that I experienced during the time I lived there. The biggest impediments to progress, when I was in Afghanistan last, were institutional on our side, and corruption on the side of Afghans. Which brings me to my next rambling point.

4) Recognition on the part of Afghans that their government is corrupt, and that there should be a different result than the one they got in the recent election, is a mark of political progress. Corruption has been the norm in Afghanistan for as long as anyone can remember. Tribal chieftains, Taliban, Communists, Monarchists -- all this country knows is corrupt governmental models. Here, for the first time in recorded history, we see the people of Afghanistan legitimately outraged that their political will is being thwarted. This is not a moment for hand-wringing on our part, but rather celebration -- we have measurable proof that Afghanistan is beginning a true political, democratic / republican awakening. Good job, us! Let's stick with it a bit longer and see what else develops. Rather than throwing our hands up in disgust and walking away, leaving these people to the depredations of the savage, murderous Taliban.

5) The administration's tactical alternative -- "counter-terrorism" versus "counter-insurgency" -- was last experienced strategically during the Clinton Administration. Its failure led to an incident we remember every 11th of September. The bottom line is that firing missiles from Naval vessels and targeting specific terrorist cells with Delta operatives is the smallest, least effective type of band-aid, besides ignoring two crucial factors:

-- The Taliban and Al Queda are friends. They are separate entities, but should not be treated as such. If the Taliban (a grass-roots organization capable of being fought only by counterinsurgent tactics) retakes Afghanistan, Al Queda will have a safe haven there for as long as it takes for the Taliban to be toppled, or to topple Pakistan.

-- Our intelligence gathering assets are impressive to us, and our allies, and that's about it. Unless they are employed in direct support of tactical operations, they're pretty shitty. That's a fact. Many's the time when those unmanned drones totally suck. And we're supposed to believe that pulling eyes off the ground, and putting Delta / SOF* A teams on standby on airfields up to an hour away is going to be adequate for defeating a mountain-based enemy with robust and politically invulnerable safehavens?  Our administration is seriously considering this -- throwing missiles and bombs through UAVs and specifically targeting individuals / camps with squads of highly-trained soldiers. If you think this sounds like a good plan, please watch Blackhawk Down, then get back to me.

6) General McChrystal is a f***ing genius. If he feels that we can do the job with the resources he requested, let's get them to him, stat, and let him go. He's got the right idea, and is a just man. What more could you ask for. Our allies -- the British, no less! -- think this is worth fighting for. Sweet Jesus, let our great country and this noble purpose not be unmanned by the British of all nations.

Bottom line: we can do right by ourselves, by the Afghans. Let's do it. And be out five years from now.


*

HA: Humanitarian Assistance

SOF: Special Operations Forces


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