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.

COMFORT |

January 28, 2010

COMFORT
Name: RN Clara Hart
Posting date: 1/28/10
Stationed in: a civilian military hospital in the U.S.
Milblog: From Our Perspective
Email: [email protected]

I’d like to bring to your attention the military personnel now deployed to Haiti. Unlike those deploying to Iraq and Afghanistan, who frequently know they will be leaving at least a month, two months  or even three months ahead of time, the personnel sent to Haiti were given minimal notice. My coworkers and friends deployed on the Navy’s hospital ship USNS Comfort had only four days notice.

Framed Clara COMFORT USNS Comfort big


After they arrived off Haiti’s coast they continued to take on medical personnel from other locations, and now have so many personnel on board they haven’t enough sleeping quarters.They have had to resort to the infamous and much hated “hot racking." While a day shift person is working, a night shift person is sleeping in their shared bed, and vice versa, so the bed never really gets cold -- hence the term “hot racking”.

Haiti is a disaster scene, so the medical personnel must do disaster triage. When evaluating patients they must determine who is viable and who is not. They are forced to make decisions based on injuries, the possibility of survival, and the availability of resources. Many times the causalities from the earthquake are too badly injured, and the medical personnel must make the heartwrenching decision to allow them to die so they can save others.

I recently heard from a friend who has served two tours in combat zones, one in Iraq and one more recently in Afghanistan. He told me Haiti is exponentially worse than anything he ever saw or dealt with in either Iraq or Afghanistan. He has never seen the kinds of things he is currently seeing, or worked as hard for so long.They work 12 hours on with 12 hours off, seven days a week. The Operating Rooms run almost 24 hours a day. There is no rest for the weary, and weary they are. He told me many of the staff, young and inexperienced, are frequently breaking down into tears, and even the seasoned veterans have been impacted.

Many of the patients they are caring for are “dispo” problems. You can care for their injuries, but the ones who need further treatment, rehab or long term care, where do they go then? Even the less acutely injured, where do they go? They no longer have homes to return to. The USNS Comfort was not designed as a long term care hospital. It was designed to be used in times of great need as a place where patients could be stabilized and then flown to tertiary care centers. Where do you send people from a country which never had a decent health care system to begin with? 

Here is a link to an article on the Baltimore Sun website regarding the USNS Comfort and its personnel. Here are some photos from the mission. And here's a link to COMFORT XO, a blog maintained by the ship's executive officer, CAPT John Larnerd.

Those on the USNS Comfort and those on the ground -- Marines, Soldiers, Sailors and Airmen -- are facing something difficult, and need us to remember them. Please keep all who are deployed to Haiti in your thoughts and prayers.

FLIGHT OF TEARS |

January 25, 2010

FLIGHT OF TEARS
Name: America's 1st Sgt.
Posting date: 1/25/10
Returned from: Iraq  
Milblog: Castra Praetoria
Email: [email protected]

Flight of Tears and A List Of Countries That Suck

Some months ago I recounted the tale of The Longest Day in which we couldn't possibly conceive of a flight to a combat zone being more arduous or lengthy. At the time we didn't consider the fantastic possibilities of our epic return flight from said combat zone.

It all began with our ejection from the trailer park we were billeted in for seven months and transition into the concentration camp set up at the JCOT designed to "temporarily" house personnel waiting for their flights to land. Ideally, 24 hours before your scheduled flight you move into the tents and go through the fine Naval Customs inspections experience.

In almost every case the flight as scheduled doesn't arrive on time. For instance, ours was moved back 24 hours the first day; then another day; then a mere 16 hours more. See the trend here?

Finally we got to spend a day standing in lines under the crisp Iraqi sunlight dragging our seabags behind us in the gravel. First there was the dumping of everything I own so our friendly neighborhood customs ninjas can paw through my gear and explain to me that while yes, the spring loaded knife I was issued from supply can indeed go back with me, the double edged fixed blade knife that I carried with me through two deployments isn't allowed.

What?

Then everything we carefully packed to maximize room in our bags and protect more sensitive items was unceremoniously jammed back into all our bags by the poor jarhead who was unfortunate enough to be picked as part of the working party tasked with helping the process hurry along. By this time we could have cared less anyway as our desire to be done with customs usually outweighed our need to know which bag we packed our DVDs in.

I will cut the customs portion of the tale short this time except to say that the only thing possibly worse than going through customs is actually being a customs agent who sometimes may have to process up to three flights in a day. Imagine handling someone's dirty drawers at 3AM; then again at noon; and again at 8PM. I think I would prefer being shot at by a firing squad armed with RPGs.

For at least a month I had been warning Marines not to believe they were actually leaving Iraq, let alone tell their family when, as it would inevitably be a wrong date due to the fluidity of the timetable. As recounted in The Longest Day even getting on the plane is no guarantee that you are going anywhere.

"Don't believe it until the wheels are actually up!"

As our flight blasted off the wretched Al Asad runway Marines howled with glee like a plane full of werewolves. Thus we said goodbye to Iraq, and with any luck, for the last time.

Two hours later we landed in the United Arab Emirates to refuel and switch out crews. UAE sucks because they wouldn't let us off the plane. Fortunately we were only a few hours into this part of our journey so it wasn't a big deal to us. As we waited, a customs guy resembling UAE's version of Meatloaf boarded the plane. Meatloaf frankly will be forever known as such since his whole purpose seemed to happily let crew know that their replacements were being delayed by UAE customs. So there we waited on the evil forces of the local customs bureaucracy.

Remember that word: bureaucracy. Write it down. You will see it again.

After we got our new crew on board we were able to leave wonderful UAE behind us, and took off for Thailand which was to be our next stop, before hitting Okinawa where we would drop off some of our brethren stationed there, and finally on to Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii. Or so we were led to believe. As it turns out it was merely part one of an epic struggle that was to rival Viking sagas of old.

The Mumbai Conspiracy

Marines openly flirted with stewardesses as our flight path took us into Indian air space. Theories vary about what actually took place at this point, but what I think happened is our brilliant pilot used the wrong call sign talking to the Mumbai tower then tried to use a new one. They caught him in the act. Somehow they found out there were 200 U.S. Marines on board and all hell broke loose.

The mental image of a tower full of Indian air traffic controllers losing their minds as 200 storm troopers enter their airspace is comical. Sovereign nations being what they are (petulant children), instead of letting us go home we had to land in Mumbai, because now big bad ugly America was violating their air space. Sad part is they were right. It was their air space and they get to do with it as they please. I blame our pilot for the mixup, but the joy of the Mumbai experience I lay firmly at the feet of our "allies" in India.

Our Captain let us in on the bad news beginning with how we were too heavy with fuel to land so were in a holding pattern around Mumbai before we could touch down safely. For the next two hours we cut grid squares in the sky as our pilot explained that the UAE really didn't want us back, and alternative nations didn't want us to overflight either. The Indian Ministry of External Affairs considered this a violation of their airspace and wanted us to land to get all it worked out. This was merely the first of many, many Ministries constituting the labyrinth of India's governing body. It's a wonder anything gets done there, really.

Having left Iraq the night before around 8PM we finally landed in Mumbai around 0730 the next morning. We taxied to the far corner of the runway reserved for lepers and other pariah. A shanty town of corrugated shacks were built right up to the wall surrounding the runway area. You could probably leap off the roof of one right onto the runway if you wanted to.

In the meantime we were introduced to Indian-flavored bureaucracy as various representatives came on and off the plane asking questions and getting nothing accomplished. At least a dozen times we were asked if we had ammunition on board. Around the thirteenth time I was wishing we did.The joy of contracting flights to the military is we of course always go with the lowest bidder.

This means our veterans get to ride home in planes with no AC that are pretty much held together with duct tape and bubble gum. Even in October Mumbai is hot. Plus we were on the runway. We estimate it was probably over 110 degrees on the tarmac. With no AC this was a recipe for misery of rather high proportions. Imagine being strapped to a chair that has been bolted to the inside of a dragon's raw throat. Then imagine 199 other guys who haven't bathed in over a day and a half. Ambrosia.

With nothing better to do, some of our Marines broke out their cell phones and began to surf the internet. At one point someone let me know we had made the news as "200 Marine Commandos were forced to land in Mumbai after violating Indian air space." It was kind of cool, but mostly laughable. Indian news reported 200 commandos were on vacation, going to Thailand. Of course the news media is never wrong. I had a plane full of logisticians, truck drivers, clerks, analysts, radio operators, but really, we're commandos. It sounds more newsworthy doesn't it? Shhhhhhh, we've got ninjas!

"I'm going commando; does that count?"

Framed AmFirst Tears three

Commandos lounge in overheated economy seats! Lethal I tell you.

At some point representatives from the American Consulate arrived and let us know a good Indian
wouldn't be caught dead without a day liberally spiced with healthy doses of bureaucracy. I believe the term they used was IFI: It's Freakin' India. Our pilot must have resubmitted his flight plans a bazillion times to the Ministry of Flight Plans. Fuel had to be appropriated through the Ministry of Bulk Fuels. Heat was free. More and more Indians showed up, which resulted in less and less actually being accomplished.

Some 14 or so hours later the brilliant plan to get us to a hotel for the night was finally executed. The Ministry of Buses was contacted and the Ministry of Hotels and Lodging was more than happy to accommodate us. The Ministry of Punching People In Their Face was unable to be reached.

"My wife is going to punch India in the junk."

Some time after dark, buses arrived to transfer us to the Hyatt. This was a fine hotel and the staff treated us great. We were served a bounteous feast of local cuisine. Of course, when you pay for 200 or so people to eat and stay the night you're bound to be taken care of.

Framed AmFirst Tears four

For at least an hour and a half more I dealt with assigning Marines to rooms and explaining this wasn't a liberty port and the government of India really didn't want us here. The Marines stayed in their rooms and were not to wander the city or other nonsense. Our story was also big news locally and the press had been milling around the front of the hotel.

The room was great. The shower was big enough to not require a curtain and you had to take two steps down into it. There was also a knob in the bathroom which controlled the TV volume, so you could shower and watch the local news at the same time. The top story involved 200 Marine commandos storming the Mumbai Airport. Apparently they were on a holiday to Thailand. Just goes to show the news media never gets the story right.

Luckily, I had decided to stay up all night and milk all the hospitality I could out of the situation because around 0100 in the morning I was called down to the front desk. The Ministry of Counting People felt there was a discrepancy between numbers of Marines we were claiming got off the plane and how many were in the hotel. So I went room by room and name by name to prove we had who we said we did. Yes, 200 odd Marines landed, but only 192 were in the hotel. Why? We left some on the plane as a watch because it's what we do. What I didn't mention was the crew was also in the hotel, because while the Marines were allowed off the plane the crew were not granted visas to stay overnight. Of course, without eight hours of rest the crew couldn't fly. The Ministry of Let's See How Difficult We Can Make This was definitely on their game.

Framed AmFirst Tears five
Finally I got to relax in the luxury of my room and watch Rambo on Star Movies, drink some complimentary coffee, and knock out 100 burpees or so.

Buh-Bye Mumbai

The following morning we enjoyed a fine breakfast buffet where I braced myself for the inevitable. This would take the form of Marines who were going to violate certain parameters we had given them the night before. I had pointed out during dinner that we weren't exactly welcome in Mumbai and the press were looking for opportunities to sell more news at our expense. Our guidance was that in no way were they to be wandering around the hotel; they could stay in their rooms or in the dinning room. There was a two beer ration for the night, and everyone was to be in the dinning room by 0900 for a head count.

While examining the two beer max rule the average person generally exclaims, "Are you crazy? No one is going to just drink two beers!" In particular Marines who have been dry for seven months and are eager to get their "tolerance up" as soon as possible. Indulge me for a moment as I draw back the curtain and reveal a piece of the subtle art of leadership 18 years in the Marine Corps has taught me.

I know someone is going to break the rules; it's all a matter of controlling the conditions under which they are broken. If we had told the Marines not to drink at all I would be forced to conduct Office Hours on someone for violating a direct order when inevitably they would try and sneak some alcohol and get caught. If we had said, "You can go ahead and drink," this would have resulted in everyone drowning themselves in liquor and I would have had to pour 200 commandos back on the plane the next day. If we say: "You may have two drinks," we have given an order that hasn't sapped the morale of the men and allows me to destroy only the most egregious of violators.

Are some of them going to have more than two drinks? I know they may have as many as 4 or 6, but they won't consume an entire beer truck as they would have tried to do under the other two conditions. If no drinking were allowed then having one drink is as bad as 12 so why not go for it? If we leave the parameters wide open to interpretation with a broad statement like, "You may drink," then we open the door to a wide range of mayhem and chaotic scenarios. That's not a pretty door so we like to keep it firmly closed. Hopefully this logic makes sense to you but if not that is why we have comments below.

During roll call a number of people were missing. Some were late; others were dragging their buddies out of the rack (which I not so calmly explained they should have done 20 minutes earlier, not right at 0900). Different situations call for varying levels of volume. While the Master Sergeant called off names I wasn't going to apply my audibly powered flame thrower on high, but sometimes grunting my displeasure under my breath about a centimeter from someone's eyeball is equally effective. This also gives me the opportunity to smell the amount of alcohol still permeating their system. Everyone within sight of these searing discussions knew what kind of language was being used so no need for volume anyway. In the end the handful of late arrivals were all accounted for and came out of it medium well. I always prefer to leave a little pink in the middle.

"Man, 1stSgt, I've heard of face-to-face counseling; that was a nose-to-nose counseling!"

All in all the Marines' conduct was quite satisfactory. No one had made a public spectacle of themselves and were all accounted for. Now we had to move on to our next phase of Indian adventure.

Framed AmFirst Tears one
More bus rides! Hooray!

Our buses took us through a small throng of cameramen who were camped out in front of the hotel, and  toward the airport. This time though we didn't simply go right to the flight line. Since every Ministry in the government of India wanted to be involved in our situation, it was decreed that we would go through customs at the Mumbai airport and board our plane. We hadn't been anywhere but the hotel and the tarmac but we didn't want anyone having a stroke on account of our skipping a step in the Ministerial Handbook Of Creating More Nonsense.

While we disembarked from buses at the terminal, local news jockeys attempted to swarm us as American consular types gave them a hand. Our numbers looked good so we entered the terminal in a single-file line.

Upon entering the terminal we presented our ID cards, and our names were checked off a roster we had been required to produce the day before. We shuffled on to another area where a red tag was affixed to our carry-on bags and our names were checked off an identical roster, only this time a number was written on our hands with a marker. This was beginning to look like some kind of concentration camp scenario and I was getting uncomfortable. We moved on to the actual customs area where our names were checked off the very same roster again as verified by the number on our hand. Why we had to be cross-checked at three different locations within 100 meters on identical rosters will forever remain an unsolved mystery. I suspect the Ministry of Lists requires everything in triplicate.

Finally we went through security, the metal detectors, probes, and all that business. Security dutifully screened us, confiscating the odd lighter here and there. We weren't sure what they were really looking for, as none of us were interested in hijacking our own flight. At least we didn't have to take off our boots, which I always find is the single most ridiculous practice in airport security. So I will give the Indians that one.

Maybe they just haven't thought of it yet.

As we boarded yet another bus, which we were assured would take us to our plane, it occurred to me that on this leg of the trip I had actually logged more miles on buses than planes. It was really beginning to get out of hand. Once on board the plane our captain assured us we had a 12 noon departure time.

By 3pm we really started to get angry. Leaders even fired off-handed remarks as the stifling conditions made our mood worse. For the fifth time Monster Vs Aliens played on the screen, and it wasn't any better than the first time. Stranded on the runway with no AC or airflow, we sat perspiring in our frustration as our takeoff continued to be delayed for one mysterious reason or another. Again flight plans were submitted multiple times, and a tide of Indian officials got on board the plane wagging their heads in authority. More folks pulled up in vehicles outside the bird. What purpose they served remains a mystery.

Framed AmFirst Tears two

"How is bringing more people to the plane helping? More people need to leave!"

By 4:30pm one of our flight attendants had succumbed to the furnace-like environment of our flying sauna and went down. Between her polyester outfit, tights, and no air flow it seems she suffered a little heat exhaustion. Luckily, there were well trained commandos on hand to deal with the situation.

At one point a female Gunnery Sergeant stationed in Okinawa remarked: "Man, I'm going to miss my hair appointment."

"Well I haven't had sex with my wife for seven months!" Came the bellowed reply.

It's all about perspective.

Finally the Ministry of Proper Alignment Of Heavenly Bodies gave the all clear, and by 5:45pm we were finally allowed to depart the fine city of Mumbai and it's various hospitable ministries. We estimate that we spent at least 24 hours on the runway as the sloths employed to expedite issues for the Ministry of External Affairs mulled over our case. Utapao, Thailand awaited us and the final leg of our journey...


MARLEY AND ME |

January 22, 2010

MARLEY AND ME
Name: Eric Coulson
Posting date: 1/22/10
Returned from: Iraq
Milblog: The Long Walk Home
Email: [email protected]

"Take a knife and cut this pain from my heart."

I am a demonstrative person when it comes to my emotions. Certainly as I have gotten older and more experienced I have worked to reign that in in certain circumstances, so that I will actually accomplish my goal for that situation. But I would think it rare for someone to meet me and not know how I felt about a given issue. Imagine my surprise last night to find how I had compartmentalized the emotion of grief in my life.

Last night Mrs. Badger Six decided we needed to watch Marley and Me on HBO. Now I don't do dog movies. Movies that want to impart us with some sort of life lesson invariably require some form of loss. In dog movies that can only mean one thing -- the dog dies at the end. I love my dogs beyond all reason and I suppose I will have to accept that they will most likely not outlive me, but as they are only seven years old I should have a few years before I have to deal with that fact.

During the course of the short film I went through the Five Stages of Grief. At first I was in denial about how the movie would end. I had never seen it nor had I read the book. Soon though I was angry at having the movie on while we were cooking dinner. In the second half I was bargaining with myself about watching it; I wanted to enjoy the movie about the dog, but I did not want to deal with what I knew the end had to be. As Marley first got sick in the film I became depressed; depressed that I knew I would watch, and knew what the end would have to be. As the credits rolled after Marley was buried, I accepted that he was dead and buried my head in my hands and sobbed. As much as I knew what the end was going to be I was surprised at how much it impacted me.

After I returned from Iraq my mother told me I could not let the things that had happened there "dominate the rest of my life." I suppose on a certain level that advice is good and true. But the fact of the matter is Iraq and the experiences there changed my life and me forever.

We recently moved, and now live on post in the southwestern US. I like it. There are a lot of conveniences to living right here. It also reminds me of living on a FOB; all of the things I must have are here. I can easily go a week without leaving the post. At night I walk the dogs up the hill near our home and look out over the city and the highway heading north. I am reminded of the lights of Ramadi and how our FOB sat in total secure darkness on my first tour. I am reminded of the lights of the trucks on Tampa heading north for Baghdad or south for Kuwait on my second tour. And as I think of Iraq I think of Holtom, Clever, and Werner. I think of Shannon, Grothe and Schwab. I think of my Soldiers that still are dealing with the wounds of their service and whose lives will never be the same.

After I come back down the hill I walk around the old post; around the parade field and the old barracks that are now a combination of offices and housing. Soldiers stationed here once fought a counterinsurgency of their own in the Indian Wars; they supported the punitive expedition to Mexico, and two infantry divisions trained here before shipping off for World War II. A lot of guys went, and a lot of guys didn't come back. And those that came back weren't the same anymore. I'm not the same anymore.

So where do I find the balance for that grief and that pain. I long ago accepted that all the Badgers were not coming home alive; I could not change that. But what does that really mean? Acceptance and moving forward are not the same as forgetting; but remembering cannot be done without that touch of grief. I have no idea where the balance can be struck.

A life of grieving for my comrades does not seem healthy; neither though does compartmentalizing it to the point a movie sends me through the Five Stages of Grief in a two-hour period. I know not what the answer is; I guess it is just part of the Long Walk Home.

DEPLOYING IN DROVES |

January 20, 2010

DEPLOYING IN DROVES
Name: RN Clara Hart
Posting date: 1/20/10
Stationed in: a civilian military hospital in the U.S.
Milblog: From Our Perspective
Email: [email protected]

Two to Iraq, seven to Afghanistan, four to Haiti; my coworkers are deploying in droves. Here on the home front, our capacity to handle the arrival of any large scale war wounded is impacted by staffing -- inadequate staffing, that is. Beds have been closed because we no longer have the staff to care for the patients who might otherwise occupy them. Our mission is simple; provide the best care we can with the personnel we have left.The world is focused on Haiti; it is forefront in the media. But even if wasn’t the prime topic of discussion, I wonder to what degree America would be focused on Iraq. On Afghanistan. There are many of us who count days until our friends and family return.

A friend arrived home last week after nine months in Afghanistan. She flew in on a commercial flight so the only cheering crowd she had at 0645 was her mom and me. Balloons in hand we waved a crazed "Welcome back!" I don’t think anyone else in the airport even noticed one of our war veterans returning home, safe and sound to American soil.

I check on the elderly parents of one of our war wounded, and they are anxiously looking for a traumatic brain injury rehab facility for their son. Told by the military there isn’t sufficient manpower to drive them to a rehab center, they attempt to go it alone. Their son will more than likely spend the rest of his life in a vegetative state. I’d like to be hopeful and think he will recover, but experience tells me otherwise. And the military cannot offer even the assistance of transportation.

How many times I hear “They gave me meds,” in response to the questions I ask when encountering a patient, coworker or other military friend struggling with PTSD and combat stress.  Medications -- those magic cure-all pills -- seem to be the quick fix of the mental health providers for our veterans. The VA prescribes them by the ton. Here, take this one for sleep, this one for anxiety, here’s another for depression. Oh, yes, don’t forget the ones for nightmares, flashbacks and rage!

In all honesty here's the simple truth; many of our veterans simply need someone willing to listen to them, psychological professionals willing to provide the nitty gritty therapy that does not involve prescription drugs. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a firm believer in antidepressants and other medications, but these meds have to go hand in hand with talk therapy, with group therapy and with support groups. Many times I see providers who are only handing out meds, when the problem will never be solved with drugs alone. It’s like putting a band aid on an amputation.

My thoughts are disjointed; I hardly know which issue to focus on when I write. Discouragement is
prominent. So many problems. Is there a solution to all these issues? Is there anyone willing to do
something, anything, about them?  I wonder.

THE WHITE HOUSE |

January 18, 2010

THE WHITE HOUSE
Name: K
Posting date: 1/18/10
Returned from: Afghanistan
Milblog: Embedded in Afghanistan

"Still looking for someone who was around, barely coping." 

                                            -- from Everything Dies, by Type O Negative

Our typical mission was to conduct “Leader’s Engagements” with the populace. Basically, that meant we’d go into the villages and talk to the people, typically the head man. The idea was to get the ANA out there mingling with the populace and basically showing themselves to be present and competent. Gathering information about security developments in the area and what projects the villagers would like to see done was a secondary part of those missions.

We might have considered the actual information gathered to have been the most important part of the mission, and not of ancillary importance, if we’d been able to get relevant information about the security (enemy disposition, whereabouts, etc.) more often, or ever for that matter. But given the peoples’ reluctance to tell us anything about the enemy we’d usually just talk about happenings in the area in a general way, unless we had something specific we wanted to talk to them about. We’d always ask them about what small projects we could help them with. As ETTs with the ANA we depended on the US Army logistically for, well, everything really, so obviously we didn’t have control over the money for projects or humanitarian assistance to give to the villagers, but we could help coordinate with the US Army.

Often when the Army had humanitarian assistance to hand out, they’d let the ANA take the lead on the actual distribution of the goods. Those “HA drops” were always interesting. We’d usually try to hand out whatever it was -- like radios for instance -- in an organized way, but in the end it almost always became a scrap for whoever could grab what. A bunch of men with guns are no match for determined youngsters in the presence of what, for them, must be riches.

At any rate, we’d always prefer the ANA to do the talking with the villagers. We’d try to prepare the ANA beforehand on what topics should be discussed, or which propaganda pieces we’d like to mention, but it’s tough enough to get the ANA to patrol and conduct security the way you might want -- getting them to conduct “conversation ops” perfectly was not a major concern.

Whether the ANA were taking the lead on the talking or not, if you spend enough time out there you’ll have some interesting conversations. Sometimes it’s funny stuff. Sitting down and having tea in a village I’d never been in before with an old man I’d never seen before, the old man inquired who I was and whether I was new in Afghanistan. I mentioned I’d been around a little while, but had been over in the Korengal Valley before. The old man and his friend looked at each other and said something to the effect of the Korengal being “the tiger valley” (referring to the fighters in the area). I was like, “Yes, beautiful place, the Korengal, but I don’t think the locals liked us very much since they were always shooting at us.”

That brought a few laughs.Another time a village elder, when asked what help the village needed, stated they needed a well. At the time we were sitting in a kind of small village square, complete with a fully functioning well. When I pointed out the nice, relatively new well to the old man, and asked if there were some problem with it, the elder replied that the well was fine, but the village needed a well nearer his home, which was apparently on the other side of the square, a good 30 yards from the well. Those requests usually end with a “We’ll see what we can do” from our end, which I was fairly certain was interpreted on their end as I intended, i.e. as a “Not gonna happen.”

Framed K The White House Some of the conversations are not funny at all though. The average Afghan has seen a lot of tragedy in his or her life. They usually don’t feel compelled to share stories that are personal in nature, but I do recall one time when it happened. The mission was to visit a particular village, known for having a huge white house. The village was not far up the valley from our base. In fact, we could see the white house from the base, though it would take a good 30 minutes to walk over there.Upon getting into the village, we did the usual -- looked around at the terrain and figured out how we were going to set up security with our sparse forces (two Marines and perhaps a dozen ANA), before looking around for the village elder to talk to.

We eventually got ourselves set up and found an elder, who invited me, my terp, and the ANA leader inside “The White House” for tea, nuts, and candies. No matter how poor, down and out an Afghan is, they’ll always have some small provisions for guests. It was a pretty gloomy, rainy day and the old fella seemed kind of down, though it’s never easy to really read people when you can’t understand a word they are saying.

Eventually, his nephews, young men in their 20’s, came out and proceeded to show us pictures of their father, who apparently had been the head man in the village, but had been killed by the insurgents just a few months before. At that point, the older gentlemen teared up and had to leave the room. The story was that the Taliban killed him because he had been a powerful figure in the local area, and wasn’t showing enough support to them. It’s those moments where you really realize how alone those people are. They may have had each other, living in a huge house built of stones fitted together like a jigsaw puzzle, but once we left the area that day they were really on their own. Our base was less than a mile away, but we didn’t really know what went on in that village at night. “Protecting the people” in Afghanistan is a tough thing to do.

We stayed there for quite awhile talking about a fair number of topics, and had quite a good time after we got past the initial sadness over the death of their relative. The young men were hoping to get jobs working on a base somewhere. In reply to their requests, I said my usual “I’ll see what I can do”, which I figured would get interpreted (by my interpreter and the young local men) as a polite brushoff. But apparently it was not, as they showed up at the base the next day saying I’d promised them jobs. It can be tough to know who your enemy is, but in that case I think those guys were good. It’s unfortunate that many of the men who can’t find jobs end up in the welcoming arms of the Taliban, but there was not a lot that we could do about that situation at that time and place, so we had to send them away empty handed.

OH DARK-THIRTY |

January 15, 2010

OH DARK-THIRTY
Name: Six Foot Skinny
Posting date: 1/15/10
Stationed in: Iraq
Hometown: Minneapolis, MN
Milblog: Lost in the Desert

Alarm, too early, as usual.  It is truly “oh dark-thirty,” and it’s cold. Start the coffee that I ground the night before so as not to waken my roommate. Rub my hand over my face -- I shaved late yesterday because we had the day off so I’m good for now. Brush my teeth and spit in an empty water bottle. Pull on flame-retardant uniform pants and undershirt, combat shirt over top of that. Check pockets. Notebook, pens, dog tags, ID, room key. Lace up my boots. Drink my coffee. Surf a little, while I wake up. Time to go. Wind breaker over everything else. Grab my helmet and gloves and sunglasses. Make sure I have clear lenses in case we’re out past sunset. Sling my weapon and hoist my body armor onto my arm. All on autopilot, all silent as I can. Out the door to the motor pool.

I am the first one there. I even beat my driver, so the truck’s not unlocked yet. Stack my gear by the passenger side door. The eastern sky is starting to glow, transitioning from midnight to that clear and startling blue that is every day in Iraq. My coffee steams from my battered aluminum travel mug. The hot liquid warms me from the inside and the caffeine and nicotine combine to give me a happy buzz as my head clears for the day’s activities. I watch shambling shadows morph into human figures as my Soldiers make their ways to the trucks, also toting body armor and helmets. One by one the lights go on and the trucks cough to life, diesels protesting in early morning chill.

As my driver checks fluid levels and tires and my gunner mounts his machine gun and prepares his turret, I turn on the dizzying array of electronics. Radio, check. GPS unit, check. Blue Force Tracker, check. Jamming equipment, check. My Lieutenant -- “ell-TEE” -- is at my door, there’s a glitch of some type. We work it. Find a solution. All good. A quick briefing, checks of personal equipment and protective gear. We’re rolling.  All snug in our reinforced up-armored steel and kevlar and thick-glass vehicles that sprout antennae like some giant beetle that just might eat your children -- we’re here to help.

I listen to the trucks in front of me call off their status, letting the convoy commander know that countermeasures are operating and weapons are loaded. My driver always loves it when it’s our turn and I click my button and announce, “One-seven is amber, amber, hot, and jamming.” She smiles to herself and we’re out the gate. Two hours north today, all on a modernish four-lane highway. Through slums and commercial districts and along the overpass that goes through “trash city.” It is just that -- a smoldering garbage dump as far as the eye can see on both sides. There are livestock and people and homes. The shacks are made out of things cast off by others. Reminds me of a documentary I saw about a similar place in Guatemala.

We BS and smoke and drink energy drinks and watch. Always watching. Watching for people and cars and trash and anything that looks out of place. Mid joke I mention a suspicious-looking dude to my gunner and continue the joke knowing that he is paying particular attention to the guy who is watching us intently with his hands in his pockets. And then we’re there. I always breathe a little easier when we clear the gate and are safely inside the wire. We make our linkup, do what we need to do, eat lunch, and get back on the road. More of the same on the way home and we’re back before we know it. Again breathing easier to be safe and sound. It was a routine mission, and uneventful and boring in hindsight, but never boring at the time. Just like a dozen other trips I’ve made in the last year. And just like all the others, it’s one day closer to home.

FOR CIVILIANS |

January 13, 2010

FOR CIVILIANS
Name: Air Force Wife
Posting date: 1/13/10
Spouse: deployed
Milblog: Spousebuzz.com

SpouseBUZZ is a site by military spouses for military spouses, but I'd like to write this post for someone else -- civilians. I live in a civilian community right now, and I've been lucky. I am surrounded by people who have been truly helpful and kind. They want to do what they can for our family while Air Force Guy is deployed and I appreciate it more than I can say.

But wanting to help and understanding how to help are two entirely different things. And honestly it really doesn't help that I'm fairly typical as far as military spouses go in not wanting to let people know I need help. Because I'm Superwoman and I can do it all myself, thank you. Don't want to put anyone out -- I'm fine... In military-speak we all know that means, "Um, guys? Can I get a hand here?" Actually, it wouldn't come out in military speak because we often tend to just barge in with each other and do what needs to be done. When you get a bunch of truly capable and strong women together in one small area, things get done -- let me tell you. My teenager spent her weekends mowing several neighborhood lawns one year during a large deployment; there was no asking if it was needed, we knew it was needed and it got done.

Anyway -- we speak the same language. The civilians who surround me truly try, but they don't. They want to, but Rosetta Stone doesn't offer that course (yet). And so it gets weird, particularly awhile ago when AFG's folks took some casualties.

Now, reporting recently hasn't been what reporting was in the last few deployments AFG had. Casualties aren't really reported. Actually, not much is reported. I think it's easier for people to ignore what is going on if they aren't interested in finding out. Often, the first time people hear about something is when they ask me, "So, how is AFG doing over there? Is everything going smoothly?"

Which leads me to Point Number One: If you ask me how my husband is doing, particularly if you follow it up with a phrase that leads me to believe you're really interested in the answer,  I will tell you. And I'm not going to sugar coat it, either. Trust me, I'm not going to be Eeyore, and there are more than a few funny anecdotes and interesting tidbits I'm willing to share. In fact, those will be the vast majority of my discussion. But they are not everything, not by a long shot. If you ask, prepare to hear the answer.

Point Number Two: I'm schizophrenic and bi-polar right now. And I'm truly sorry. I try very hard to behave in a socially acceptable manner and not take advantage of people's good will. I try very hard to be fun and engaging and a good friend; but I'll be honest, it's weird. And I know you notice it's weird. And I'm sorry, but I just can't help that. One day, the fact that my husband is thousands of miles away and people are trying to kill him and those with him is neatly tucked at the bottom of my mind closet with those socks that came out of the dryer with no match. I'm able to accomplish a lot, go out with friends and laugh like things are completely normal and AFG will be home bar-b-queing this weekend. Other days I can't seem to shake the thought. I never forget it, it's just that some days it is easier than others to ignore it.

The advice to us is always, "Go on with your life!" and I do. I mean, with a roiling horde of particularly over-active children and a personality that really does not lend itself to being a hermit, I have no choice but to go on with my life. But it's weird. I'm sorry. Please forgive my roller coaster emotions -- I promise you that I am doing my best to keep them as even as possible. Or at least to keep the worst excesses hidden up in my bedroom after lights out when I have some popcorn and a Stargate Atlantis marathon to pull me through. (I love Stargate Atlantis -- I have this thing for John Sheppard. He reminds me of my husband for some reason.) But sometimes I will say things that sound... off. Which brings me to:

Point Number Three: My sense of humor is weird. You can't live this lifestyle and not develop a finely honed sense of gallows humor.  I've probably said things that you thought were not funny (I mean, over and beyond the fact that I'm really not as funny as I think I am anyway), but really -- I do find the fact that AFG had some particular local food and there were... repercussions *ahem*... quite amusing. And so does he. Now that the incident is over, that is. Remind me to tell you the story of his favorite shawarma stand in Baghdad sometime. The one that the MPs closed for health code violations. In Baghdad. Seriously.  I still laugh about that one, and it's been six years

Point Number Four: Just because my husband is not one of the casualties doesn't mean that I'm happy. I mean, it's weird. I'm relieved, but I also feel guilty. Someone else lost their loved one, and how am I so special that I did not? I certainly don't want to be on the other end -- I can't imagine anything worse. But I also can't help feeling guilty that (and this sounds very odd, believe me, I know that) my husband dodged a bullet that someone else caught. I know that's not true, and not even rational. But it is still how I feel. I may not have known that other person, but I know they had people who loved them, a future, and now they are no longer there. That could have been my husband. It could be my husband in the future. And even though I can usually force that thought down, when casualties occur it is the number one thing in my mind.

I think that dealing with military families dealing with casualties has to be the hardest thing for a civilian to do. All that bi-polar schizophrenic behavior that they barely understand how to deal with in me comes out full force. At that point, I can't keep it hidden. And how do you respond to that? Particularly if one moment I'm happy to have a hug and the next moment I don't want anyone to touch me? What  a sticky, nasty situation to have to maneuver through.

I do understand how hard it is. I really do. But please understand how hard it is to be the one living through it. I wish I could say I would meet you half-way on this one to make it easier, but I can't. All I can say is that if you catch me on one of these days, please just go with the flow. Understand that I'm going to be moody and just go with that.  Don't run away and never come back, because I've got to be honest -- the military and military families can't do this without you. We need you, we really do, and I'll be honest -- we often feel abandoned. There aren't that many of us -- there are a lot more of you. We need the support and help of civilians, just please understand that supporting and helping us isn't going to be easy. And some times are worse than others.

Point Number Five: I'm often just putting one foot in front of the other. A big part of my day is trying to appear "normal". Whatever is going on inside my  head or wherever my husband is deployed to, I have to take the kids to Girl Scouts, Cub Scouts, Gymnastics, Swimming, and Boxing lessons. And I've got to figure out how to group everything around the times AFG might possibly call (because I will not miss those).

I've gotten really good at squashing down inner turmoil to get through the day. It's a defense mechanism and we all develop it eventually. It seems that there is always a crisis, and if we holed up in the house for each and every one we'd never leave. And the nice thing about putting one foot in front of the other is that eventually you end up somewhere and find yourself enjoying things. In any case, I'm on auto-pilot a lot. I'm multi-tasking parenting issues, planning a menu, grading schoolwork, getting laundry done, writing, planning for holidays, getting birthday parties planned, and making sure the dog gets to the vet when necessary. Among other things.  Meanwhile a large part of my brain is wondering what my husband is doing. Is he cold? Is he hot? Does he have enough clean t-shirts? What is he thinking about? Is he okay? I'm distracted, yes. And I'm sorry. I don't mean to forget things, be late, or in general act like "Hurricane airforcewife." Trust me, it could be a lot worse. Most of the time everything goes as planned, but when that kink hits my schedule...

There's more, of course. There is always more, but I hope this list helps. I'm certainly not trying to push the onus of our relationship onto you, but I am trying to make it easier for us to have a relationship in the first place. And we do need to have a relationship - believe me when I say we need each other.

I WILL CARRY YOU |

January 11, 2010

I WILL CARRY YOU
Name:  Lee Kelley
Posting date: 1/11/10
Returned from: Iraq
Hometown: St. George, UT
Milblog: Wordsmith At War
Email: [email protected]

I wrote the following at the end of 2009:

At this time of year I always get nostalgic about the past and excited about the future, ask myself the hard questions. Did my actions during the year match my ambitions? What is most important to me? Am I in positive relationships?

My main goal for 2009 was simply to provide a stable, secure, loving environment for my kids. To carry them, if need be, through the hard days. Human bonds are either strengthened or destroyed by time apart, and since getting home from Iraq in the summer of 2006, I have tried to overwrite many of the negative experiences. I definitely did so in 2009, defragmenting the hard drive of memory with meaningful ones and zeros. Now, instead of fellow soldiers, it is my kids flanking me almost everywhere I go, braving a vivid desert life.

These days I don’t only see the world through my own 38-layer lens, but I also experience it vicariously through two other sets of eyes. One set is the big brown eyes of a 9-year-old girl named Chloe. And the other is a big blue set of eyes on a 7-year-old boy named Lee. I was humbled by serving my country in Iraq, and now I am humbled to be raising these children, witnessing the beauty and innocence of their spirits. Every day here in southern Utah is a fresh adventure framed by red sandstone mountains.

Chloe likes to point out that she’s not a girly girl. She wants to be seen as a tomboy, and yet she dances and sings almost from the time she climbs out of bed until she gets back in, and she leaves the house every day, walking the 10 seconds between house and truck, brushing her hair. She brings extra shoes and change of clothes almost everywhere she goes. For Halloween this year she was Cleopatra and every night lately, if I tuck her in and then walk back into her room five minutes later, I will find her with her brush and ponytail holders arranged on the pillow in front of her, and she will be sitting Indian style and silently braiding her hair in the dark. She’s the lady of the house and she keeps us boys in check. She is absolutely hilarious and says things that cause me to laugh out loud all the time. She loves pens, pencils, notebooks, folders and everything associated with writing and books and office supplies. Her world is one of flowing creative thought and music. She recently joined her school newspaper and started voice lessons.

Lee is going through a skateboarding phase. Spiderman is still cool, he says, but not cool enough to dominate the comforter on his bed, his pillowcase and a poster on his wall. Now it’s all about the Tony Hawk (who, admittedly, is really cool) Pro Skater video game (when he’s not out front riding his own skateboard). He’s funny to watch when he plays the video game because his face gets serious and his fingers move so fast I don’t think there’s any way he could actually know what he’s pressing. But he does. He hits every button with a clear purpose, pushing himself heroically through each level of the game. Watching the world through his eyes is a joy, a surrogate adventure through a land in which every object holds the potential for climbing, where every piece of candy that comes within sight is a matter of destiny. He’s only in first grade but he already loves to read and write. In my son’s world, Tony Hawk holds the crown of coolness and presides over these concrete jungles. Lee is such a happy boy these days that he skips every few steps. His enthusiasm for life is contagious.

We were on a hike recently and Chloe fell down and cut her knee on some sharp rocks. It was bleeding pretty badly and she couldn’t walk. We were maybe a mile from the truck, so after I cleaned the wound and wrapped it up, she carried my backpack and rode on my back. She had her head on my shoulder and through her tears she kept trying to apologize, saying, “I’m sorry I got hurt, Dad. I’m so sorry.” She felt really bad that I had to carry her, and that we had to cut the hike short. I told her that she never, ever had to apologize for getting hurt. As I carried my daughter and looked down at my son, I felt like I was exactly where I was supposed to be.

With 2010 only hours away, and fully aware of the hundreds of thousands still serving in the Middle East, I remember what it felt like to be there during the holidays and I find myself looking inward — safely behind the still-hanging Christmas lights on my home here in suburbia.

The two memories about my deployment that stand out the most are the moment I left and the moment I got back. And in those memories my kids are there, looking right into my eyes. In the first, they are crying and waving their hands out of the back window as I stand and watch the car turn a corner through acid tears after having them sit on the trunk for half an hour while I tried to explain that I had to go bye-bye for a while. They did not understand. And in the second memory, they are smiling nervously, excited to see me but also confused because I had been gone for so long.

Here’s how this year is going to end. I will tuck these adorable human beings in on New Year’s Eve and when I wake them up they will shake off bright untarnished dreams and keep growing up way too fast. No more leaving and coming back for this dad. My place of duty is right here. Don’t worry, I tell them. Just leave the worrying up to me. I will carry that weight. And if life gets hard or you fall down and cut your knee, I will carry you, too.

Originally published by The New York Times.


Here are links to three of Lee Kelley's previous Sandbox posts:

MAIL BECOMES PARAMOUNT 10/12/06

SLOW MOTION LADDER 11/28/06

THE GOVERNMENT CENTER 12/8/06

STREET SMARTS |

January 08, 2010

STREET SMARTS
Name: K
Posting date: 1/8/10
Returned from: Afghanistan
Milblog: Embedded in Afghanistan

In an insurgency, when so much of the enemy's advantage lies in the element of surprise and its ability to hide among the populace, the power of perception and ability to 'sense' trouble become of the utmost importance. It's a skill we try to acquire in training, but some will always be better than others. I do believe awareness can be developed, and that the mind picks up on much more than we're consciously aware. Some days when we went out, just a few moments in the local area and we could feel that we're were going to receive some enemy 'attention' at some point. It's was not necessarily an absence of people or dirty looks that would alert us, just...something, and in time we learned to listen to those feelings.

At any rate, the ANA have their deficiencies, and they don't often bring their "A" game on patrols that have little chance of receiving enemy contact, but the ANA do have a way of doing well when it matters and knowing when to be their best. Much like how the ANA are deficient in formal education but are experts at reading people and making-do, what they lack in military tactics and proficiency they make up for with street smarts and ingenuity. I would not be surprised if patrols with ANA in them, as opposed to Coalition-pure patrols, were more likely to discover an IED rather than get hit by one.

I'd been in Afghanistan for months before I went on my first convoy. (This was by design -- I hate riding around in a truck waiting to get blown up. Being dismounted is not only a better way to interact with the local people but safer as well.) Since we were going off the paved road, we had some trepidation of the dreaded IED, a fear which would turn out to be not at all unreasonable since we would shortly discover one. So that cold February morning, off we went. Not knowing the area and mainly just being along for the ride, I got put up in the turret, which is generally not my favorite place to be in a humvee, especially when its 40 degrees, though the wind on your face can be invigorating.

Framed K Street Smarts I should mention that when a road in Kunar is unpaved, and the vast majority of them are (and probably all were unpaved before we arrived here some years ago), there's generally a very good reason for it to be unpaved; often the pre-existing dirt road has been narrowly hacked out of a steep hillside, not leaving enough width to make paving the road feasible in an engineering sense, given the realities of security and available resources. On the missions along those roads, an equally great threat along with the IED is the threat of driving off the road and ending up in the river 50 or more feet below. On missions out that way we more than once inadvertently got a chance to "spread the democratic message" while we waited for another truck in the convoy to be recovered after having nearly driven off the road into the ravine.

This time, we got some miles down the road before the convoy had to halt due to the presence of a large boulder in the middle of road. Now, we knew we'd had some rain in the area, winter being the rainy season in Kunar, and rain can always potentially lead to rockslides and boulders in the road. But this particular boulder looked rather well placed so as to stop our larger vehicles and yet allow for the local hi-luxes to pass unimpeded. By the time our vehicle, which was somewhere in the middle of a 10-vehicle convoy, had come to a halt, the ANA vehicle in front had already dismounted its soldiers, one of whom nearly immediately started pulling buried detonation cord out of the road and began following it toward the river below. The ANA can be fearless indeed.

We set up security around the site, detained a few suspicious-looking folks in the area, and waited some hours for Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) to show up. In the end, EOD found quite a fair amount of explosives buried in the road, and disposed of them in the usual way by, well, blowing them up.

A VERY FINE HOUSE |

January 05, 2010

A VERY FINE HOUSE
Name: Six Foot Skinny
Posting date: 1/6/10
Stationed in: Iraq
Hometown: Minneapolis, MN
Milblog: Lost in the Desert

I live in a shipping container. Yep, a good old twenty-footer. Like the ones you see on semi trucks and stacked up in ports. I have half of it. It’s the back half, which is by far the preferable half -- rank has its privileges, even when you don’t have that much. I am lucky to have outranked both my roommates, although I don’t pull enough to get my own. The Army calls them “CHUs.”  That’s short for “containerized housing unit.”

Sometimes I like to run numbers. Arithmetic has always been a strong suit for me. I dug algebra, did fine with geometry and trig. Was hopeless in calculus. So I have half of the twenty-foot CHU, and they’re seven feet wide with an eight foot ceiling. That gives me seventy square feet of floor space. It's not much, so I lofted my bed and now I get to count in cubic feet. By that rationale I have 540 cubic feet of space that is my own.

To be fair, this isn’t exactly like the shipping containers you see in ports and on the backs of trucks. These are outfitted (in Turkey someone told me), and they’re deluxe, if you will. There are two windows with blackout blinds, a door, and an air conditioner. Sweet digs. Oh, and there’s also some high-quality, laminated faux wood paneling on the walls. I feel like I'm trapped in a suburban rec room. And it’s 1983. Also, we get two lockers -- lockers like in high school -- two beds, two nightstands, and two reading lamps. The rest is up to us and whatever scrap lumber we can scrounge.

My half of the CHU is in its third and final arrangement. Having my bed lofted gives me space for a big L-shaped desk underneath. That’s where my computer, coffee maker, coffee grinder (high class), an assortment of books and DVDs, and a little chest of drawers (underneath) live. It’s also where I spend most of my time. The wall that I face is plastered with pictures of friends and family. I stopped asking people to send stuff about a month in, and asked them to send pictures instead, and they obliged. Back behind me, but within reach -- well, everything is in reach really -- is my guitar, and a plywood shelf I got from the unit we replaced. I also have one of those sweet “chair in a bag” chairs. I tell myself it’s a reading chair, but the reality is that it’s a horizontal space where I put crap until it piles so high it falls off and then I get frustrated and clean. I mostly read in bed when I can’t sleep. Oh, there’s also a nice little area rug that really ties the room together.

The CHUs are laid out in rows, facing in, and surrounded by blast walls. Our whole platoon lives in one row. It rained last night and that middle walkway area is a lake of sorts. I look at it as a moat; it keeps the riffraff away from my door. We’ve got a big charcoal grill just outside the blast walls where we grill burgers and brats on weekends. It’s a definite improvement over the chow hall.

Soon -- well, Army soon -- we’ll pack it all up and move into tents in preparation for the move south. Seems like not too long ago I was writing about preparing for the move North. Time flies when you’re having fun.

WHAT IT'S LIKE TO BE AN ETT |

January 04, 2010

WHAT IT'S LIKE TO BE AN ETT
Name: Troy Steward
Posting date:1/4/10
Returned from: Afghanistan
Milblog: Bouhammer.com

Do you think you know what an ETT (embedded training team) member does? ETTs have been the true tip of the spear in Afghanistan since Task Force Phoenix was first stood up in 2002. Task Force Phoenix and the ETT teams were initially charged with standing up, training, mentoring and assisting the Afghanistan National Army. The first mentoring was done by the active duty 10th Mountain Division. After Iraq kicked off in 2003, it was realized that the mission would need to be transitioned to the National Guard as there were not enough active duty forces to do the Phoenix mission in addition to the other missions they were being tasked.

Training and empowering a country’s indigenous Army has always been a mission of the Special Forces, and is what they have mastered over the last 40 years. However there was not enough of them, so National Guard was tapped. And if there were a second best option to Special Forces doing the mission, it was the National Guard. The soldiers in a National Guard unit have just left being civilians and will soon return to that status. They know and understand the basics of COIN, and did so long before it became a buzz-word and well before it became a standard part of our doctrine.

The National Guard soldiers bring with them a mixture of civilian skills which are vital to the mission, as many of the ETTs are very far downrange and must provide for their own life-support. There is little to no support from higher headquarters at all. So the skills of carpenter, plumber, HVAC, mechanic, school teacher, etc., etc., all are transferable to the mission of being forward deployed on a small FOB or COP with no support and almost no other Americans with you. In 2007, Task Force Phoenix took over the mentoring and advising of the Afghanistan National Police with PMTs (Police Mentoring Teams).

Famed WWII history author James F. Christ, who is known for his novels about the small but important Marine Paratroopers during the battles in the Pacific, has now taken up a new focus for his writing. James is in the process of writing a 10-book series on ETTs in Afghanistan and the very important, but unknown battles that have happened there since 2003. His first two books are available and can be downloaded for the Kindle or purchased from Amazon.com here or here. You can also learn more about the books at the publisher's website. 

I have read both of these books cover to cover, along with the next one in the series that is not yet published. They are all easy-reads and will suck you right into reading them nonstop until you are finished. There is no building up of characters, there is no plot development, all because there is no need. James takes you right into the ETT team, and before long you get to know the individual soldiers, how they act in combat, etc. If they have dialects or accents, James writes in a way so you can hear the accent as you read. I relate these books to the famed book Blackhawk Down (which the movie was based on). I say this because just like Blackhawk Down, James’s books start right before the battle, take you through the battle and then wrap up soon after the battle is over. The entire book is about the battle itself.


The battles are huge and the odds are stacked up against the American forces (most of which are National Guard ETTs). As you read either Morghab Canyon or The Boneyard, you will be amazed at how out-numbered and how brave the American soldier are and you will even be more amazed that more US and ANA forces were not slaughtered. The ingenuity, initiative and drive to survive by these soldiers is amazing.

I have interviewed James twice on You Served Radio (you can hear the latest interview here, ) and after talking to him then, and on multiple one-on-one phone conversations since, I am convinced he is one of the most knowledgeable civilians about Afghanistan that has never actually been to the country. He has spent so many hours interviewing ETTs for these books that he has truly become immersed in what it is like to be an ETT and in my opinion would have earned an honorary ETT title if there were such a thing.

I have told James and his publisher that if these books are not finished and published that it would be a dis-service to all ETTs, past and present. I have circulated several of his books to other past ETTs to get their opinions, and the response has been 100% that “he gets it", with comments such as, "This is the best book ever written about ETTs."

I recently heard back from Vampire 06 at Afghanistan Shrugged and his response to James’s writings was: “This book is awesome! It definitely needs to be out there for people to read. I think every ETT has a story like this…. While reading this I could identify with these guys and felt like they were just like guys on my team. Truly awesome book!”

So if you have been an ETT/PMT, are an ETT/PMT, will be an ETT/PMT or you are a family member or friend of a past, present, future ETT/PMT then you need to go to Amazon.com and get these books. I cannot stress enough how accurate these books are and how well they will educate you as to what it is like to be "on the Tip of the Spear, but at the end of the line.”


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