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.

CHICKENS, CATS AND BEGINNINGS |

March 30, 2010

CHICKENS, CATS AND BEGINNINGS
Name: Edda2010
Posting date: 3/30/10
Returned from: Afghanistan

The last time I went to Afghanistan there was this thing the soldiers did, something they got from the older NCOs who'd been with the unit for years. They'd meow like cats, then say, "Here, kitty, kitty!" and yowl. I asked one of the NCOs what it meant, and he told me a story about how they'd had a cat in Iraq, after the unit airdropped in to seize the airfield. The cat had disappeared, and for the next two deployments they were always asking after this cat. Even when they weren't in a place where there could possibly be a cat -- come to think of it, especially in those situations, like up at the COP* -- they'd give these cat calls: "Kitty? Kitty!"

This was the first exposure I had to deployment psychosis.

Until recently I'd put the "Here, kitty" incidents out of my mind. When we were at JRTC* training up for the Iraq deployment that never came (boots are on ground in Afghanistan, just like last time), I was writing missions for other units to execute (a deeply satisfying job), and I heard what sounded like a cat meowing. At first I didn't think anything of it, then I heard it again. "Son of a b****," I thought. "It's finally happening to me -- in training, for chrissake!" Then one of the commo guys walked by the office, looked at me, and meowed.

That was back in August.The cats went away while we were back in garrison, but for a couple of weeks now, as the unit has been deploying, they are back in full force. What surprised the hell out of me was that my shop, the S3 section, has begun making animal noises too. Mostly clucking, though a couple of the NCOs make a sound like an animal in pain. A kind of moaning, like a cat or a dog when it's irritated.

I have not participated in this. I feel somehow I'd be giving the worst kind of example. It's funny, of course, to hear people clucking like chickens, and acting, really, crazy, and treating it seriously would just make the whole thing more ridiculous. And if treating it seriously would be a minor concession, joining in would be a major concession. I don't know exactly what to do about it. But the last unit I was with had it, and did it, and ended up fine as far as I could tell -- maybe better than most. So I'm just going to ride it out. Maybe it's a good thing.

*

JRTC: Joint Readiness Training Center

COP: Combat Outpost

WHAT WE DO |

March 25, 2010

WHAT WE DO
Name: RN Clara Hart
Posting date: 3/22/10
Stationed in: a civilian military hospital in the U.S.
Milblog: From Our Perspective

I held the hand of a dying warrior who fought death. Flown to us from the battlefield he was gravely wounded, with no chance of survival. His family, at his side every step of the way, elected to fulfill his wishes of being an organ donor. As loved ones gathered at his bedside saying final goodbyes, the OR and organ procurement team readied the operating room and started the process of organ compatibility.

No eye was dry in the ICU as he was wheeled from the room and down the hallway toward his final
surgery. In organ donation at our hospital the family has the option of going into the OR to be with the patient until they take their last breath. His family elected not to do so. After being placed gently on the operating table he was disconnected from the ventilator and life sustaining medications were turned off. The wait had begun.

Just as the “golden hour” in trauma dictates that for maximum recovery the trauma patient should receive care within an hour of injury, there is a “golden hour” in organ donation. Only it should be called "the black hour," as it is the darkest of all hours. Once totally disconnected, the patient has an hour to die before the organs become unusable.

Our fine warrior, so valiant in his career, who fought so hard in life, continued to fight in death. Disconnected, he started to breathe on his own. Sixty minutes never felt so long as we watched his agonal breathing become stronger. When we reached the end of that blackest hour we gazed at each other, once again in tears, hardly able to bear what we knew came next.

This family who had already said goodbye once must now say goodbye again. The hope they had held, that perhaps in one’s death another might live as they received a stronger heart, healthier lungs, undamaged kidneys, was now futile. We carefully removed him from the table and placed him back in bed. The physician went to talk to the family and we rolled him back to the ICU.

For three more days he fought. For three more days his family and friends sat vigil. The nursing staff passed out coffee and gave hugs. We wiped tears and held hands. We listened to stories and laughed uncontrollably at the adventures of his all too short life. And we became tired. The dread at returning to work only to see him still battling was overwhelming. The emotional drain was all consuming and soon everyone was saying out loud what we had kept silent: “I wish he would give up." Even his parents put those thoughts into words.

At a moment when there was no one at his side I quietly walked into his room. Laying my hand along his check I leaned down and softly said to him, “We know how hard you fight, how hard you always fight. But now it’s time to stop. You gave absolutely everything for your country, your family and your friends, and I thank you with all my heart. Please let go.” I gently kissed his forehead and left the room. Three hours later this valiant warrior died.

A family member gazed at me with tears in his eyes and said, “How can you deal with things like this all the time?”

“It’s what we do," I told him. “It’s what we do.” 

MY CROATIAN PARTNERS |

March 23, 2010

MY CROATIAN PARTNERS
Name: CPT Mark Martin
Posting date: 3/24/10
Stationed in: Afghanistan
Hometown: New Hope, MN
Milblog: 270 Days in Afghanistan
Email: moosecpt@gmail.com

Framed Martin MEDAL 1 Recently, we had a ceremony here to recognize those soldiers who had served longer than 30 days in theater with the International Security Assistance Forces (NATO) Afghanistan. To commemorate the international partnership and spirit of brotherhood as we continue to mentor the Afghans toward a stable democracy, the NATO ISAF Medal was awarded.

As a team, we decided to wait until we could get all of our troops back from leave before we awarded the medal. Therefore, our senior mentor, Lieutenant Colonel Vucic accepted the awards on behalf of the entire team. We'll have a chance to receive them individually once everyone returns.Framed Martin MEDAL 2

Since the war began, over 450,000 troops from more than 72 different nations have been awarded the medal, the bulk of which have been from the US. Popular opinion about the award has been mixed on the US side, with some remarking that it is a "warm body" award to everyone who is serving in theater, regardless of their job, rank or position. However, as I spoke with my Croatian partners, I began to see it from their point of view.

Framed Martin MEDAL 3 To the Croatians, it is all about the camaraderie and partnership between nations. As you might imagine, they are very "European" in their views, aligning closely with the views held by Germany. For them, it is more important to have a consensus with other nations rather than exercise unilateral authority. Regardless of the political angle, Croatia is certainly not a superpower on level with the USA, and they know it. Their opportunity to contribute to this fight for democracy in the middle east is limited to the ISAF mission here in Northern Afghanistan. Therefore, they take the award of this medal quite seriously. It is noteworthy for them to have a chance to give back to another nation what they had to fight to secure for themselves in their Homeland War.Framed Martin MEDAL 4

 I consider myself fortunate to have had this opportunity to serve alongside my Croatian partners here in Afghanistan. Seeing things from their perspective has not always been easy, but it has always been interesting.

HOME |

March 22, 2010

HOME
Name: Six Foot Skinny
Posting date: 3/22/10
Returning from: Iraq
Hometown: Minneapolis, MN
Milblog: Lost in the Desert

Kuwait: still hot, still flat, still full of sand. And waiting. Ft. McCoy: lines and civilian contract workers and paperwork and waiting and gestures of thanks and goodbye. I probably won’t see many of these people ever again. Late night, early morning, buses. Two coach buses take some of us back to Marquette, Michigan. Two buses take some of us back to Ellsworth, Wisconsin. And then later, after I’m gone, buses take the rest to the airport where they fly home to Oklahoma City. I am on the Ellsworth buses. Three hours west of McCoy. Three hours on the bus for the last time.

We meet a county sheriff when we get off 94 and then another squad car, an ambulance, and a fire truck just outside town. They cut all the kids out of school for the afternoon and they line the streets, waving flags and cheering -- either for us or for the joy of not being in class. There are old men in hats, saluting and waving again -- just as they did when we left. The fire department has hung another giant flag over the road and we drive under it. And then there’s the drill center. Looking as it did when we left.  Cinder block buildings that used to be a car dealership. We drive by, go a couple of blocks farther into town, turn around, and come back.

There’s Mom. Dad. The Steps. The Dane. Broser, Sisser, Bubba, and Benjor. Friends. Hugs and tears and handshakes and more hugs and pictures and then we’re gone. Me and The Dane. In the car and headed back to Minneapolis. Back to our apartment. That was Thursday, now it’s Monday. I’m sitting at the little breakfast bar drinking good coffee and enjoying a little time to myself. The Dane went back to work today so it’s just me.

I know I have things to do. Have to go file my DD 214 and see the County Veterans Service Officer. Have to go pick up some of the boxes I mailed to Mom’s. Have to unpack. Have to go to Target. It’s weird, but good. Although I’m not wearing that damn uniform anymore, I am wearing more or less my civilian uniform -- jeans and a t-shirt. I have to drive to get much of anywhere while I am used to walking everywhere. The food’s good here, really good. I can have a beer if I want to, but I think I’ll wait until five for that.

The part that throws me is that it’s all the same. My friends are all still doing the same jobs. My family’s still crazy. I still hate doing dishes. I know I’ve changed but I’m still figuring out just what that means. I am no longer the crazy-informed political guy that reads three or four newspapers every day, that guy got left in Iraq somewhere. I am no longer a Soldier. No longer a squad leader. Now I’m just a veteran. Just that young man who might walk by you on the street and make you think, “There’s something different about him.” Sometimes it’s because we stand up straighter, but that’s not me. I’m a terrible slouch. A confidence perhaps? I don’t know. It’s certainly not my haircut. When I wrote that I'd had my last haircut, that was it. I’m a little shagged out now, at least for me. I’m still settling in. Still getting used to not being in charge of anything. Still getting used to being home. I’m home. And my troops are home. And we all made it. Safe. And that’s happy. Very happy. 

Framed Skinny and the Dane

Skinny and The Dane.

BLOWING UP BOMBS IS MY BUSINESS, AND BUSINESS IS GOOD |

March 15, 2010


BLOWING UP BOMBS IS MY BUSINESS, AND BUSINESS IS GOOD
Name: 1SG (retired) Troy Steward
Posting date: 3/15/10
Returned from: Afghanistan
Milblog: Bouhammer.com

Here's a great video from the 1141st Sapper Company, showing what a typical day at work is like for them.

(To read my review of The Hurt Locker, click here.)

SOME THINGS DON'T NEED EMBELLISHMENT |

March 12, 2010

SOME THINGS DON'T NEED EMBELLISHMENT
Name: Old Blue   
Posting date: 3/12/10
Returned to: Afghanistan
Milblog: Afghan Quest

I recently traveled to Germany to train part of the incoming International Joint Command (IJC) staff who will be taking over in Afghanistan this year. The group of British, French and Italian officers and senior NCO staff that I worked with were very good participants, with some very thoughtful discussion going on.

Because of the limited return flights, I had to spend a little over a day waiting before I traveled back to Kabul. I had contacted MaryAnn Phillips, President of Soldiers’ Angels Germany and told her I would be in Germany. I knew that she’d be disappointed with me if I went there and made no effort to say hello. I have too much respect for her to just breeze in and out and not say a word about it. MaryAnn found something for me to do with my bit of extra time; visit Landstuhl Regional Medical Center. When she mentioned it, I was torn. I have put the bodies of friends in bags. I had to go through their pockets for ID so that I could figure out who they were. I have helped MEDEVAC soldiers, some critically wounded. The dead suffered no more and needed only to be shown dignity and respect. The wounded suffered only for a brief time while I was near them and then they were gone. I am trained as a combat lifesaver, but I am an Infantryman and not a Medic. MaryAnn wanted me to go into the den of the great beast of what comes after the bird leaves. That’s what I saw in my head.

There’s a lot more to what I was in for. I got a little of that. I got a lot more than that, though. Like stocking shelves in the basement of barracks that house outpatients.

Landstuhl isn’t just for wounded. It’s where servicemembers from Iraq and Afghanistan go for medical treatment and evacuation for any number of reasons. Many are ill. Some have been diagnosed with serious diseases, such as cancer. It is also the waypoint for seriously and critically wounded warriors on their way to places like Walter Reed, the burn centers and the first big step on what may be a long road of recovery. Those people never see the outpatient barracks. They are stabilized and moved again. Some others are there for lengthier stays. For them, many of whom came in with little or nothing, a change of clothes can mean the world.

Enter Soldiers’ Angels and the force that defies gravity and fatigue; MaryAnn Phillips.

I can’t describe MaryAnn as unassuming, a word often associated with people who share her trait of recoiling physically whenever any kind word is directed at her (by anyone who is not a patient, the family of a patient or a medical professional). MaryAnn is a force of nature, possessing seemingly boundless energy and a benevolently powerful presence that melts barriers. She can appear to be tired, but while some would get a charge out of a Red Bull, all you have to do to give MaryAnn a charge of energy is tell her that a patient needs something. She is suddenly on the go, tracing the long halls of Landstuhl for the millionth time, seemingly tireless.

She starts by stocking shelves. Many probably never realize that she is there, but the staff at Landstuhl know her. She is accorded great respect and deference by the staff. She flows effortlessly between organizations and is greeted warmly by all as a partner, a member of the team. Her first stop is an administrator at the barracks, a woman who helps coordinate so that patients have a smoother stay. These two women belong to different organizations, but share a common purpose. The administrator smooths the path for the injured and sick, making sure that they have their paperwork straight, their vouchers available. MaryAnn and the rest of the Angels share something with her; they love the servicemembers who are in a strange place in difficult circumstances. The administrator shows this by her work. MaryAnn and the Angels fold clothing and stock shelves with sweats, t-shirts, underwear and blankets. Many of the sick and injured never really notice her comings and goings, but there are always blankets on the shelves, many made by volunteers and donated. Servicemembers who have been separated from their belongings find clothing and other materials that bring comfort made freely available.

It isn’t until later, usually, that she moves on to the hospital proper. She stops in at Movement Control, touching base and getting an idea of what the patient flow is like and when planes are arriving. She touches base with the LNOs from various units, senior NCOs who track and facilitate for evacuees from their parent units in the theater. As I follow MaryAnn like a puppy, lost in an unfamiliar place, I am stunned by the atmosphere of caring and professionalism that she flies through. These professionals deal with personal tragedies and sacrifice on a daily basis with a calm sense of purpose and a sense of humor. None of the laughs are at the expense of the patients, though. I sense only respect and purpose regarding them.

We stop to see a patient whose parents are relaying messages via MaryAnn. She is in contact with them, reassuring them with news of their son’s personal reactions. She never shares medical information, leaving that task to doctors, sometimes cajoling a busy practitioner to make that call to fill in the parents or spouse on the medical details. MaryAnn shares only the human side, like the fact that their son is expressing a sense of humor, or that she saw him up and moving around. She tells the young man that his parents have told her that someone keeps getting on his bed at home.

“That’s my dog,” he says, his face brightening.

That’s something extra. That’s something special that the doctor or nurse, busy with medical details and other patients, doesn’t have to do. There is MaryAnn, flitting in and giving the young man a smile and a specially made blanket along with a Soldiers’ Angels coin. He is busy -- he has finally been allowed to get to a laptop and all he can think of is getting on Facebook. MaryAnn laughs repeatedly throughout the rest of the day that this young man, high on pain meds and walking unsteadily for the first time since being injured, the first thing he wants to do is get on Facebook. He’s behaving normally and contacting his world. It’s a good sign. He won’t remember her, she asserts. She may be right. But she was there, and she bridged that gap of thousands of miles to bring news of his parents and his dog.

And then she moved on.

It seemed like an afterthought. The CCU. “I should show you the CCU.” I am seized with dread, yet interested. I can’t say no to MaryAnn. She introduces me to some of the staff. She inquires as to the status of their supply of blankets and coins for the patients. A man lies seriously injured in a nearby room. A moth to flame. Suddenly I am alone. MaryAnn is holding his hand, talking with him, joking with him, listening to him. She sends me to get a blanket for him, and she gives him a coin. He is fixated on her. It’s as if she’s the only person in the world. In that moment, for him, she was.

I bring the blanket and hand it to MaryAnn. She shows it to him, and immediately it is the answer to all of his problems. He tells her exactly how he wants the blanket placed. She feeds him crackers and water while he struggles with the effects of powerful painkillers. We are there for well over an hour, and all he can see is her. MaryAnn later tells me that he will not remember it. He may not remember Landstuhl at all. But in that moment, she was the only one in the world for him. The next morning, as he is readied, or “packaged” for transport, there are only two things he is concerned with; his iPod and that blanket.

It was an incredible act of love, but to MaryAnn, it is just what she does. She puts the same love into organizing the stock room or folding sweatshirts. She is not the only Angel. She is not the only one who cares.

A number of patients are being moved stateside. The aircraft is on the ground, readied. The ambulatory patients are loaded and waiting. The final touches are being put on “packaging” the patients from the CCU. Every bit of equipment they need is specially affixed to their stretchers, each a mini-CCU tailored to suit their requirements. The Air Force flight medical personnel are there, getting the hand-off. An Air Force Captain notices that one patient is not completely covered. He gets a Soldiers’ Angels blanket, made by a volunteer in the States. A card is pinned to it. He puts the blanket on the wounded man and reads him the card.

He actually took the time to read the card to the recipient of the blanket.

It was an incredible day and a half watching the behind-the-scenes work of the Angels in action. This is amazing work, often with large doses of what most would call “drudgery.” It’s not exciting. It’s mostly work. Work done with love and persistence. Many, perhaps most, will not remember their encounters with MaryAnn and the rest of the Angels of Landstuhl, but they are there. They bring comfort, they bridge the gap that sometimes opens between professional medical care and people back home. They never share details, medical information or personal information. They are exposed to tragedy and yet they persevere. They do not tell tales of the wounded except in general terms. They see dignity in sacrifice. They care for the soldiers of Coalition nations just as they care for Americans. As awed by MaryAnn as the man in the CCU was, I think that she was just as awed. All of this is done with an overdose of humility. I’ve never seen anyone refuse a compliment as vehemently.

She may actually kill me for writing this.

Personally, I am awed. MaryAnn and the Angels of Landstuhl do things that I could never do on an ongoing basis. To me, they are legend. Truly amazing. Volunteers all. You do not need to embellish their amazing work. But recently a journalist credited MaryAnn with coordinating medical care for a wounded British soldier. While I’m sure it sounded like a great story, it’s not true. The story has been corrected, but in the meantime it made it look like the very professional organizations involved weren’t doing the best they could until they were coordinated by this volunteer. This simply isn’t so. Soldiers’ Angels are truly heroes to me without having to give them superhuman multinational medical powers. They do many wonderful things, but international medical coordination isn’t one of them. Soldiers’ Angels supports soldiers and their families.

I bet at least one of them did hold his hand.

Greyhawk tells the story really well here.

AFGHAN NEWSPAPER |

March 08, 2010

AFGHAN NEWSPAPER
Name: CPT Mark Martin
Posting date: 3/8/10
Stationed in: Afghanistan
Hometown: New Hope, MN
Milblog: 270 Days in Afghanistan 
Email: moosecpt@gmail.com

Framed Martin newspaper one

I recently came across an Afghan paper, published by Hamid Karzai's government, which encourages people to stand up and take responsibility for their communities. This cartoon, which should be read from right to left in the Afghan reading style, depicts a good neighbor informing the police about a bad guy planting an Improvised Explosive Device.

The bottom line is this: Hearts and minds of the local populace in any given neighborhood is the key. If we can convince the Afghan people that we are here to help, not hinder, through our actions and our deeds, then maybe we can convince them to help us drive the bad guys out of their neighborhoods so that they can pursue their lives in peace. Nice thought....

Framed Martin newspaper two

ONE STEP CLOSER TO HOME |

March 01, 2010

ONE STEP CLOSER TO HOME
Name: Six Foot Skinny
Posting date: 3/1/10
Returning from: Iraq
Hometown: Minneapolis, MN
Milblog: Lost in the Desert

White lights blink and go dark, replaced immediately by red ones. Engine noises increase in pitch and volume. The aircraft lurches forwards as it slips its breaks. We all lean towards the back -- my right -- as the C-17 accelerates down the runway. We remain fixed that way while the pilot gains altitude. I look at my buddy, smile, bump fists, and we are gone. Gone from Iraq. Forever.

I can’t say that it was a joyous occasion. The excitement has been building steadily for the last week as we packed bags, made trips to the post office, and cleaned our CHUs. When you’ve been bracing for catastrophe for a year or longer, the absence of that weight is not cause for joy. Just relief. So as we rose over Baghdad I wasn’t ecstatic. I smiled, I do that sometimes. But mostly I just took a deep breath and tried to get comfortable in my seat for the one-hour flight to Kuwait. Which is where I am now but not for too much longer.

As happy as I am to be here in Kuwait, I had somehow forgotten my deep loathing for this place. I am sure there are nice parts, but I’ve never seen them. At this point, Kuwait’s only redeeming quality is its status as “closer to home than Iraq.” We are in the middle of the desert. Actual desert. Sand and wind and heat. As I said once before, all the fun of the beach without that lousy water. Another tour -- my last -- done, almost. We’ll head back to Ft. McCoy and get off the plane in the beauty of Midwestern winter. It’s 28 and sunny in Wisconsin right now, and it sounds lovely.

We’ll be there for a couple of days. Long enough to make sure that we don’t have tuberculosis, check paperwork one more time, and do a final medical screen. We also have to turn in some gear -- including our weapons. My M4 carbine has been a constant companion for almost a year. I will not miss it. There are lot of things I won’t miss, maybe I’ll make a list for a later post: “Things Skinny Doesn’t Miss About the Army.” For now though, I am a little apprehensive. I have a lot to do when I get home. I have to get back to life.

The Dane counts this deployment from June 10, 2008. That’s the day I came home from Ft. Irwin, CA, and told her that I would be returning to Iraq. It is one of the hardest things I have ever had to do and now I will never have to do it again. That’s the day our lives went on hold. House plans on hold. Career moves on hold. Engagement plans on hold. Life on hold. And now, we have to start it up again.

For now, we eat until we’re sleepy, and sleep until we’re hungry and we wait. But soon, very, very soon, I will take my seat on a DC-10. I’ll feel the engines spool up, lean back in my seat, rise out of the Kuwaiti desert (one ‘s’), smile, and take a deep breath.


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