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.

OEF 2008 |

February 24, 2010

OEF 2008
Name: Bouhammer
Posting date: 2/24/10
Returned from: Afghanistan
Milblog: Bouhammer.com

Here are a couple of great videos I stumbled upon, from the 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 82nd Airborne Division.The first one is an eclectic mix of pictures, video, battlefield sounds and music that these guys put together to capture their year in Afghanistan:


OEF 2008 Part 1 from jean baugnon on Vimeo.


This one gives the viewer a short but powerful glimpse into life in the Stan:


OEF 2008 Part 2 from jean baugnon on Vimeo.

JUMPING THE DEPLOYMENT SHARK |

February 18, 2010

JUMPING THE DEPLOYMENT SHARK
Name: Guard Wife
Posting date: 2/18/10
Spouse deployed to: Iraq
Hometown: Dayton, Ohio
Milblog: Spousebuzz

Here on Spousebuzz we have discussed Deployment's relationship with Murphy quite a bit. And, even when everything that can go wrong does, there may come a time in deployment where we are lucid enough to realize that we have jumped the deployment shark.

Maybe you remember the scene in Happy Days that spawned the phrase "jumping the shark", but if not, good old You Tube can help:


When Fonzie jumped that shark, the series went to the point of no return. Sometimes commentators or others will use this phrase as a way to describe someone who has reached a completely crazy level of absurdity -- so far off the rails, things will never be the same again.

It occurred to me today that Deployment, even with Murphy in tow, will have one moment where you realize you've stepped onto a different plateau.

My moment came today when I found myself standing on a portion of the roof of my house. This portion of my house is a cheaply built one-season room that was typical for the times in which my house was constructed. It is what it is -- usually no more than a shelter from the elements for the dogs.

In the past couple weeks, we have had a ton of snow fall in our area. And, with below-freezing
temperatures between snowfalls, the inches just keep piling up without the benefit of melting. The day before yesterday, I noticed that the ceiling in the add-on room was dripping in various places. By today, every seam in that ceiling was leaking. A lot. And it appeared things were bowing under the weight of the snow.

I knew from previous repairs made to that roof that my husband and a good-sized neighbor had both been up there at the same time and it had not collapsed, and even with the numbers on my scale starting to creep upward, I am nowhere near their combined weight. I had no excuse not to fix that snow problem, I told myself.

When I mentioned it to my husband yesterday he said, "Well, if you get up there, be careful."  So it occurred to me that, perhaps, he thought I should be remedying this situation and/or that I was capable of doing it. It crossed my mind to ask our neighbor for assistance in this project, but as an attorney, I spent even more time considering the civil liability of asking someone who is not bonded and insured to climb on your roof because you are too scared to do it yourself.

I thought, "Do we even have a ladder?"  My six-year-old informed me that we did indeed and she even told me where it is stored. 

Framed Guard Wife shark ladder From the looks of this rickety thing, I'd have been better off finding a rope and climbing the wall. Actually, the ladder wasn't so awful, but the snow and ice under it didn't really help it maintain any sort of stability.

I had to shovel quite a bit of snow even to be able to set the ladder up, and even then it was on the cobblestone walk, which is uneven anyhow. And yet the room continued to leak and I continued to think this was somehow something I should be doing.

I spent nearly an hour on this little project. You see, once I began to clear the 16-18 inches of snow off the roof, I realized that underneath the snow was a nice sheet of solid ice made even more slippery by the slush layer right between the snow and the ice. I suppose the "this stupid room has a metal roof" should have been a clue that it might be a wee bit slippery up there. 

As I neared the center of the roof, I remembered, only after nearly sticking a booted foot through it, that there is a skylight. It was then that I realized: I have jumped the shark. I am on a roof. A snowy, icy, metal, angled roof. And this has created a fundamental change that I may never be the same after -- if I live.

Once I had avoided sacrificing myself to the snow gods, I was so glad to be finished. I was on the  complete opposite side of the roof and had to carefully return to where I had parked my ladder.  That's when I realized something; getting up was the easiest part. I really began to feel sorry for all the cats in treetops and the reasoning, "Well, he got up there...he'll come down when he's hungry."  I calculated my chances if I did happen to fall, and they weren't good. I decided I'd better try and exit the roof as gracefully (ahem!) as I had climbed onto it.

I will spare you the several erroneous methods I used prior to almost knocking the ladder over with my foot, made extra clumsy by my sensible (but snazzily colored) boots. I finally sat flat on my bottom and stretched my legs down as far as I could, one at a time, until both were securely on the ladder's second rung -- because, as you know, if you step on the top rung you may fall (insert sarcastic cackle here).

As I straightened into a standing tall stance on that second rung, I quickly realized that my sensible boots were also wider than the shoes that must be normally worn when one uses this ladder. This occurred to me when I went to step down to the next rung and couldn't because my boots were wedged tightly together. I tried to put a little weight behind the backward tug of my foot and the ladder teetered so much it made my stomach flip.

Luckily (but freakishly scarily), the screen door to this room was wedged solidly open in the snow.  I could reach it with my hands if I leaned over the top of the ladder. So I grabbed it with one hand and steadied the ladder by holding onto the icy overhang of the roof with my other hand. I was able to free one boot and come down the ladder.

When I re-entered my house, my backside was soaking wet and freezing cold from my waistband to the tops of my boots. And yet, I was sweating. I believe that was my body's way of saying, "You crazy, crazy woman! We are entirely too old for these shenanigans!! You must never ever
do anything like this again!!!"

Framed Guard Wife shark shovel Then, I realized I'd forgotten my shovel on the roof.

I grabbed my camera (because I needed proof of my mental instability) and headed back up the ladder. Yeah. I'm not doing this ever again. Ever.

Of course, you and I both know that Murphy and Deployment conspire to ruthlessly push the envelope, so I know better than to say this was the "shark" moment of this deployment. I sincerely hope it was, but I'm not holding my breath.

I know I can't be alone in jumping the Deployment Shark. I would love to hear your shark jumping moment in the Comments section below. Share away!

STRAWBERRY BARS AND BULLETS |

February 15, 2010

STRAWBERRY BARS AND BULLETS
Name: Bouhammer
Posting date: 2/15/10
Returned from: Afghanistan
Milblog: Bouhammer.com

This is a great video that was shared with me by a Soldiers’ Angel. It gives the American public great insight into what our Soldiers and Marines have to carry downrange. It has some vulgar language in it, because -- well, that is the way many Soldiers and Marines talk when not near civilization. So don’t take it personal.

INTERPRETERS ON FACEBOOK |

February 11, 2010

INTERPRETERS ON FACEBOOK
Name: Old Blue
Posting date: 2/11/10
Returned to: Afghanistan
Milblog: Afghan Quest

Some of the interpreters here at the schoolhouse have started a Facebook page called Support ANA (Afghan National Army).

The interpreters are very important to our mission, adding the ability to communicate with and teach Afghans of all types. The Afghan National Security Forces are obviously key partners, and they need to be able to apply the principles of COIN* in their own country. It is, after all, their fight as well. They are the ones who are going to have to live here in the future.

There are other key stakeholders in this fight, too; we teach and partner with various non-military Afghan government entities as well as non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Without our interpreters, those interactions would wind up being pantomime sessions of extremely limited value. Several of our interpreters can teach any of the classes in our Program of Instruction (POI) by themselves. They are invaluable.

Our interpreters are patriots. Almost all of them have several years or more of experience as interpreters, and they are some of the best in the country. By experience, I mean operational, combat experience. They have put their lives on the line for Afghanistan and their American counterparts. One was even an ANA Commando until a wound ended his military career -- but he’s still contributing to the success of the fledgling Islamic Republic of Afghanistan.

Being an interpreter can be a dangerous business. They must be careful whom they disclose their
employment to. Some do not burden their families with the knowledge. One of our interpreters suffered a home invasion a few months ago. The reason? Because he is an interpreter. Like I said, these men are patriots.

They are also very open about sharing their language and their culture with their allies. They actively encourage American and NATO personnel to ask honest questions and truly enjoy it when someone expresses a genuine interest in Afghanistan, its language and its culture.

Having the opportunity to engage Afghan patriots is a rare privilege for the average American. I encourage you to visit their page and engage them in discussion. Get the Afghan point of view on the issues that face Afghanistan and the Coalition. These men are speaking only for themselves, but what an opportunity to get rare insight from patriotic young Afghans.

Here's an Afghan National Army commercial about suicide bombers, from the site:



*COIN: Counter insurgency

A SOLDIER'S LOVE |

February 09, 2010

A SOLDIER'S LOVE
Name: Eric Coulson
Posting date: 2/9/10
Returned from: Iraq
Milblog: The Long Walk Home
Email: badger.six@gmail.com

This post was written a few weeks back in response to an ongoing situation involving one of the soldiers in my unit, SSG George G. Nickel. It began with this incident last summer.


"This love burns inside me like the last light in the world"

As the weeks go by, the sense of urgency has passed. How quickly most of us return to normal. It is surreal.

I love the Soldiers I served with in Team Badger. Love has become so associated with sex in our culture that most men seem reluctant to admit that. I refuse to let our culture's reticence to admit to brotherly love stand in the way of that admission. I want to you to know I love those Soldiers. A few of them were leadership challenges; a few of them did not get awards they felt they deserved; and I had to punish a few. None of that gets in the way of how I feel about them. I love them all.

Why do I feel that way?

When we were in Iraq those Soldiers saddled up in RG31s, Cougars, and Buffalos; they got in HUMVEEs and HEMITT wreckers. The drove from Ramadi to Balad to get supplies; they cleared the roads of Ramadi, Falluja, and Karma to ensure they had no IEDs on them. They did not always know why, but they had the discipline and professionalism to do what they were asked.

PFCs and SPCs drove Huskys in tandem to sweep for metallic objects.

At they end of the day they did all of this because I, as the Commander, asked them to do it.

I remember back to April and May of 2006: The Company went to the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, California for our first prep for Iraq. We spent four weeks running around the California desert getting to know each other. As we simulated dealing with irate Iraqi crowds, SGT Jack and SGT John clawed at my webgear to keep me from getting sucked into a crowd of people that were angry at the US. I finally told them to let me go. SGT Jack told me they could not do this mission with a dead Commander.

On our first night out in Ramadi third platoon got out of their vehicles and hauled thousands of pounds of weapons and explosives into a central location to destroy them.

When directed to do so, second platoon, just returned from Falluja, went on mission into Ramadi to escort a construction element so we could begin the process of taking the city back.

First platoon got on the road to escort supply elements for most of the tour, and then when route clearance became plentiful, transitioned to a new and difficult mission.

The mechanics would work whatever hours were necessary to ensure the Soldiers going outside the wire had the right equipment and that it was serviceable enough to do the mission.

Now, over two years later, one of our members sits in jail and it hurts to have him there. It hurts to go about my life with him sitting there. It hurts to return to normal when he is living every moment with what happened that night in Boise.

Who knows what happened that night in Boise? I'm a lawyer by education so I know there are issues that I can't answer for but I do know this -- no one was killed, no one was hurt. And that means, regardless of whatever else happened, this can and should be fixed. If I could impart one overarching thing I learned from being in Iraq it would be that: if no one is killed, if no one is permanently injured, a problem can be fixed.

People have been through worse than what SSG Nickel is going through. If he could speak to you, SSG Nickel himself might say he has been through worse. But to me it is him. My Soldier. And he is going through this. Right now.

So even though I can't do very much, I have provided an affidavit to his counsel and I am trying to raise money to pay them. And I think about him every chance I get.

But the stars are burnin' bright like some mystery uncovered
I'll keep movin' through the dark with you in my heart
My blood brother


For an update on SSG Nickel's situation -- and my urgent request for your help -- please click here.

SHORT |

February 05, 2010

SHORT
Name: Six Foot Skinny
Posting date: 2/5/10
Stationed in: Iraq
Hometown: Minneapolis, MN
Milblog: Lost in the Desert

It’s gotten cooler here. I guess it’s “winter.” I hesitate to call it winter when back at home we occasionally have air temperatures (that means the temp without the wind-chill, to those of you in southern climes) in double digits below zero. I don’t miss that, but I promise I will do my best not to complain about it when I get home. Which is soon. We welcomed the change in weather here, because it means it’s just that much closer to the end. We won’t have to endure the cursed heat of this country again before we’re frozen in our tracks by the icy winds of Wisconsin.

So winter here means low thirties in the morning, warming up to the low sixties by afternoon. I throw on an extra layer or two and I’m more than comfortable. We’ve even turned the heat on in the CHU a couple of times. Today the sky is as clear blue as it always is, little cotton-ball clouds hanging here and there, warm sun, cool wind. Our replacements arrived a week and a half ago, and we’re trying to make sure they understand that now is the time to train, while it’s cool.

They are a good bunch, stoic New Englanders with easy senses of humor. The sergeants that we have been working with directly remind us of us, and it’s good to have some new energy. They’re excited and nervous and anxious to get on with it. Ready for us to leave so they can take the reigns and do their jobs.They’ll be busy.

We, on the other hand, are not busy. We’re pretty much done. Now we wait. Again. Surf the internet. Play guitar. Watch movies. Work out. Think about home. Lather. Rinse. Repeat. Home is an entirely abstract concept right now. It feels as if this -- this Army thing I do -- is my real life, and that civilian Skinny is but a long ago dream. Sure I can picture my apartment, quite vividly in fact. I talk to The Dane (my lovely lady friend) almost daily through video chat. I’ll still have a job. All my friends are excited to see me.

It’s more about the intangibles. I can’t remember what it feels like to snuggle. Get a hug. Kiss. I don’t remember what Minnesota smells like. I don’t know how it will feel to not have ten Soldiers to worry about. All I’ll really have to worry about is me, and The Dane. We have a Mexico trip  planned. I’ll buy a new(ish) car. We’ll buy a house. We’ll get married one of these days. We’ll continue the life that’s been on hold since a year ago June -- or longer.

So yeah, I’m short. As in short-timer. So short I can dangle my legs off a dime. So short I have to stand up to drive. It feels good and I can’t wait to get home and remember what home is. Wherever it is, whatever it is, that’s where I’m headed. And that’s where I’m staying.

PEOPLE: THE DIFFERENCE |

February 04, 2010

PEOPLE: THE DIFFERENCE
Name: K
Posting date: 2/4/10
Returned from: Afghanistan
Milblog: Embedded in Afghanistan


"It's not where you are but who you're with."

The ANA tend to move around a fair bit. Some of the areas where they work are considerably "different" from others, so everyone moves around to give everyone the chance to experience the different places.

The ETTs don't move around with the ANA; most of our guys have stayed in the same place for their whole tour. I'm one of the few that's moved around a lot, having been stationed at three different bases, each of which is very distinct from the other two, not only in the nature of the surrounding areas but also in the amenities (or lack thereof) available at the bases themselves.

Regardless of where I've been stationed, what's made the difference in my state of mind and the level of satisfaction I've gotten out of the job has been the people I've been with, both ANA and ETT. I can remember someone telling me years ago that it's not where you are but who you're with that often determines how much enjoyment you'll get out of your life. I've certainly found that to be true in my experiences, and probably never more so than here.

I have a great time with some of the ANA officers and platoons, and it's when I'm working with them that I really enjoy this job. Some of the others -- well, let's just say their attitude towards their work gives me the chance to practice being disagreeable, sarcastic, and occasionally downright mean. However, the cost is high for me when I act that way: I cease to have any fun at all on the job, which is why I only use that approach after exhausting all other methods of getting what I want out of them.Thankfully, more often than not it doesn't prove necessary to act that way.

Framed K People

A soldier holds the bridge steady for me as I walk across.

BLASPHEMY |

February 01, 2010

BLASPHEMY
Name: Old Blue
Posting date: 2/1/10
Returned to: Afghanistan
Milblog: Afghan Quest

The idea’s being kicked around -- probably not by anyone who is capable or motivated to make a change in the policy -- but it has been heard by these ears plenty, and from plenty of people. Most of them have “been there, done that.” They have the little knickknacks on their apparel to show it. The idea itself is about the knickknacks; the badges.

    “Badges? We don’t need no stinking badges!”
   
                                    ~John Belushi

Oh, yes, we do. We really really do.

We have a little phenomenon in the Army called “badge-hunting.” Although mid-grade officers, very senior NCOs and fobbits are most often accused of it, everyone wants their “stinking badges.” It affects how those who haven’t yet “gotten some” go about their business. They are looking for the fight that will earn them their combat badge, either the CIB (Combat Infantry Badge) or CAB (Combat Action Badge). Medics are less likely to go way out of their way to get their CMB (Combat Medical Badge), but if they earn it, they want it.

You have a tendency to find what you are looking for. Sometimes, it gets extreme.

    "In late 2007, a Police Mentor Team assigned to train and mentor the ANCOP (Afghan National Civil Order Police) were operating in Konduz for a brief period. Miles away from their accustomed stomping grounds, which to that point had been mostly in and around Kabul, and many kilometers from the nearest flagpole, the PMT were wrapping up their visit to Konduz and would soon return to Kabul. No one could predict where their next mission would take them, or when. They had spent months in the classrooms and training areas to that point. There had been no contact.

    During a CONOP, there was a loud explosion near the convoy and a gunner opened fire with his M240 machine gun. Finally, there had been contact! Sworn statements were drawn up, and paperwork was submitted for the vaunted combat badges. Then the wheels came off the bus; an investigation ensued.

    The attack, it was determined, had been faked. The gunner, an NCO, had thrown a hand grenade, announced that the convoy was under RPG attack, and opened fire with his turret weapon without a legitimate target.

    Weeks later, the same team was sent to the Tagab Valley to replace the Tagab District ANP while they proceeded to Konduz for FDD (Focused District Development) training. The NCO who had thrown the grenade was not present. The ANCOP PMT was involved in several legitimate firefights with their ANCOP, all “qualifying” for the CIB/CAB. Irony."


While the above is an extreme case, it is an actual event. It is very likely not the only case of its type. A Soldier endangered lives, both military and civilian, in pursuit of a combat badge. While extreme cases are certainly rare, what about the less obvious badge hunts?

Do we really need Soldiers looking for their CIB or CAB? I submit that we need Soldiers who are attuned to their whole environment in the current fight -- which often doesn’t require actual fighting as much as it does awareness of the other, more subtle signals of the environment -- not Soldiers who are attuned more specifically to seeking the kinetic contact.

“Well,” one may say, “we do need Soldiers who are attuned enough to the actual fighting aspect so that they don’t leave themselves exposed to potential danger. We want aggressive Soldiers.”

Granted. However, once the Soldier knows that he has the badge qualifications, the Soldier has a tendency to do a couple of things. First, he realizes that getting shot at is not a picnic, and it’s not glorious. Many discover that, for instance, RPGs suck. And they become a bit more circumspect about seeking that fight. If their unit suffers losses, the bloom comes completely off the rose. Violent death and injuries are not adventure.

But a tremendous amount of damage can be done in that in-between time -- the time between when unadorned Soldiers arrive in-country and the time that they are absolutely sure that they have qualified for their badge, the symbol that they, too, have “been there and done that.” If one were to accept that this can have a detrimental effect, the question becomes, “So what would alleviate that negative effect?”

Take a step back in time. In WWII and Korea, for instance, an Infantryman (there was no such thing as a CAB at that time) had to be of a rank lower than Colonel and be an Infantryman in an Infantry unit in a combat line unit for thirty days; then they were all awarded their CIB. There was no requirement for sworn statements and determinations that the Soldier individually was exposed to a specific danger that would reasonably be expected to potentially cause him personal and immediate bodily harm or death. There were no awards boards considering CIBs for each and every individual Soldier and officer. The rules have changed, and many of us who have seen what it does to a Soldier’s mind; or especially a leader’s mind, wonder if this is productive.

The recommendation is to go back to the old rules. If you are in a qualifying unit in a combat zone for the requisite period of time (or are wounded prior to that time) then you qualify. Take the pressure off. All you have to do is perform your job satisfactorily. When you are there, in a combat zone, you can be attacked at any time. Why is it a lottery? What is the purpose? Recognize that everyone risks it, and then take the pressure off of the individual to come up with a story to earn it with.


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