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.

THE WHITE HOUSE |

April 30, 2010

THE WHITE HOUSE
Name: K
Posting date: 4/30/10
Returned from: Afghanistan
Milblog: Embedded in Afghanistan

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. 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.


Framed K The White House 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.”

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 20s, 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 may have been 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 a while 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 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.

THE ECONOMICS OF INSURGENCY |

April 28, 2010

THE ECONOMICS OF INSURGENCY
Name: CPT Mark Martin
Posting date: 4/28/10
Stationed in: Afghanistan
Hometown: New Hope, MN
Milblog: 270 Days in Afghanistan
Email: [email protected]

Framed Martin POPPIES 1 One of the most significant issues ISAF Forces are working on is the elimination of Poppy Farms.  Afghanistan produces over 90% of the world's supply of poppies.  Poppies, a flowering plant used in the production of opium, are the crop of choice for the Taliban.  They coerce or force farmers to produce this crop in order to finance their terror organization both here and across the globe.  Suffice it to say, it has been a problem that we have been very aware of since the beginning of the war. 
A recent MSNBC story
highlights some of the efforts that the US has developed to impact this problem.

It should be a simple enough mission, right?  Teach them how to grow wheat instead of poppies.  After all, wheat is a sustainable crop, it feeds people, and it doesn't hurt anyone.  The Ministry of Defense in Afghanistan has been a willing partner, publishing public service messages in the paper.  The comic below shows a child walking in a field of wheat with a piece of bread next to a different field with plants that have skulls as flowers.  The caption reads:  Wheat is food.  Poppies are poison.

Framed Martin POPPIES 2 Unfortunately, it isn't as simple as showing them how to farm other crops.  The problem is that farmers can make almost 5 times the amount of money farming poppies as they do farming wheat.  The farmers in Afghanistan are not bad people, but they are caught in a difficult economic situation.  They are faced with a choice between farming poppies to feed their familes and avoid the wrath of the Taliban, or farming something else and taking a chance on whether they can market their crop as easily and for as much money.  Most farmers who have farmed poppies continue to do so because it makes financial sense, and after all, there is a global market for it.  As ugly as the truth is, it doesn't change the fact that in the United States, we have a drug culture which demands the product, thereby making us the architects of our own disaster.

As the war continues, it is more and more obvious that in order to effectively limit the enemy's
capabilities, our approach needs to focus first and foremost on their funding channels. Without money, the insurgency will die out, and Afghanistan will truly be free.

NOT IN FRONT OF THE KIDS |

April 26, 2010

NOT IN FRONT OF THE KIDS
Name: Charlie Sherpa
Posting date: 4/26/10
Deploying to: Afghanistan
Hometown: Boone, Iowa
Milblog: Red Bull Rising
Email: Sherpa at RedBullRising.com

A couple of weeks ago, the very same medical soldier who, back in 2008, inadvertently announced our deployment to my wife passed me as I was on the way into pick up my kids from daycare. She wasn't in uniform, but I was.

"Hey, you got called up!" she said brightly.

I wish I had been quick enough to say, "Not in front of the kids." I know she didn't mean anything by it -- in fact, she was probably trying to be supportive -- but Household-6 and I haven't even started talking about the deployment with 5-year-old Lena and 3-year-old Rain. Lucky for me, I was on my way into the daycare center, not out of it, and didn't yet have the kids in tow.

Framed Red Bull NOT IN FRONT Later that week, I asked around the Tactical Operations Center (TOC). Apparently, my near-miss at daycare is a little more common than I would've thought. A couple of TOC-dads reported similar experience. One of our sergeants major described how, prior to a 2007 deployment, he'd been greeted by a good friend at the grocery store. The friend spilled the proverbial milk. Or let the deployment cat out of the grocery bag. Whatever.

The sergeant major hadn't told his kids yet, either.

So here's a new rule of thumb, for you true patriots and well-wishers everywhere: It's more than OK to say "thanks for your service." It's great to say "I like your uniform." If a soldier's kids are within earshot, however, don't wander off into the conversational minefield of "deployment" or "Iraq" or "Afghanistan." If the soldier brings it up him- or herself, then OK. Otherwise, mum's the word.

Trust me on this one. Loose lips rock the family boat.

I didn't feel any better when I saw my medical-soldier colleague that same week. Leaving the daycare again, one of her children was in the throes of a Chernobyl-class meltdown. I tried not to make eye-contact, because I've been there once or twice myself. I don't like feeling other peoples' pity. Or judgment. Or even sympathy. I figured she might be the same.

"Hey," she called out after me. "Does your unit have any more slots open for the deployment?" It was a joke, I know, a nod to the idea that ducking bullets downrange was somehow preferable to the occasional slings-and-arrows of outraged children.

The smile I tried to flash, I fear, turned out more of a grimace.

MAN-LOVE THURSDAYS |

April 23, 2010

MAN-LOVE THURSDAYS
Name: 1SG (retired) Troy Steward
Posting date:4/23/10
Returned from: Afghanistan
Milblog: Bouhammer.com

I have written before about the confusion that Afghan men have with sexuality; the rampant number of homosexuals there are amongst the Afghan male population, the “chai boys” and the young soldiers in the Afghan Army and police who become R&R tools for older, senior members. I have had many people ask me about “Man-Love Thursdays", which I discussed in a post in July 2006.

Well, in case you didn’t believe me or anyone else who has been to Afghanistan and talked about it, now you have a chance to hear about the subject from an MSM outlet.

According to a recent Frontline report, Pashtun men interpret the Islamic prohibition on homosexuality to mean they cannot “love” another man -- but that doesn’t mean they can’t use men for sexual gratification. This story shines some light on how Afghan men can justify this practice in their own minds. I have heard the term “selective compliance," but for a supposedly religious man whose faith says homosexuality is a terrible sin to follow this practice is, well -- pretty selective in my book.

But they say “perception is reality” and in this case I guess Afghan men don’t perceive themselves as homosexuals, so they aren’t. When we would talk to our Afghan Army counterparts about two men snuggled together in a bed, or why the Kandak Commander kept young boys with him all the time, they commonly would say it was okay because they were “deployed away from home." I guess it doesn’t matter that for some “home” is only a few hours drive away and they get there at least every two months.

In May, 2009 The Dude, my former ETT teammate and a guest blogger on Bouhammer.com, wrote a post called "Can You Look at My Wife?", about an Afghan men having a hard time understanding why his wife couldn't get pregnant. After you read that, the following statement from the Frontline story should not be a surprise:

The U.S. army medic also told members of the research unit that she and her colleagues had to explain to a local man how to get his wife pregnant.

The report said: “When it was explained to him what was necessary, he reacted with disgust and asked, ‘How could one feel desire to be with a woman, who God has made unclean, when one could be with a man, who is clean? Surely this must be wrong.’”

Frontline's documentary “The Dancing Boys of Afghanistan”, by Afghan journalist Najibullah Quraishi, is about the Bacha Bazi or “boy play” that is so popular in Afghanistan. I have told many people in the US that they will never even get close to understanding the culture of that country, and this practice is one of many reasons I say that.

If you want to learn a little more about Afghanistan and its culture, then I advise you to check out "The Dancing Boys of Afghanistan", which aired on PBS this week and is viewable online. Here's a clip:

LEAVE |

April 19, 2010

LEAVE
Name: CPT Mark Martin
Posting date: 4/19/10
Stationed in: Afghanistan
Hometown: New Hope, MN
Milblog: 270 Days in Afghanistan 
Email: [email protected]

Coming home was quite the ordeal. Being home was something else altogether.

I can't convey to you in words the feeling you have when you arrive home and see your loved ones after having been gone for a while. It is like nothing else you can imagine. I recently had a chance to come home on leave and spend some time with the most important people in my world. While I was home, I occasionally wrote down some of the things I was feeling and/or thinking. I'd like to share some of those with you...

I can remember seeing beautiful scenes as the sun set on the desert in Iraq, or just dipped behind the mountains in Afghanistan. But I have never seen anything so beautiful as the first rays of a new dawn touching the face of the most beautiful woman in my world.

I am watching my son as I stand at the front of his 8th grade history class. I have returned home and come to his school to surprise him, and he is manfully blinking back tears. Eighth grade boys do not cry at school. I see all the mixed sadness, happiness and disbelief in his eyes, and I don't think I have ever loved him more than I do at this moment in time.

She screams, "Daddy!" and immediately slams into me with the fiercest hug she has ever given me. Fifth grade girls cry unabashedly when their father comes home from Afghanistan to surprise them at school. I love being ambushed by all her classmates' questions as she holds on to me for the rest of the class. I wonder how much longer the little girl will hold sway over the young woman, and I worry about that first time when I will accidentally embarrass her in front of her friends.

The whole rear end of the dog wags, not just the tail. It is the funniest and most enjoyable thing to see after having been away from them for so long. It doesn't last long, they have to go pee now. The cats are more reserved and aloof. They raise their eyebrows and cant their ears as if to say, "And where the hell have you been?"

I am looking around my house and trying to count the number of people who have come to the surprise party that Holly has managed to pull off behind my back. I smile and soak in all their hugs and well wishes as I welcome them inside. I am astounded that there are this many people who will actually admit that they know me.

I am sure that sitting in bed at 9:30 on a Friday night and watching figure skating pairs on the Olympics with my wife violates some guy code somewhere, but I really don't care. I would rather not be anywhere else in the world right now than here.

Movie date night is pure magic. There is nothing better. Can't even remember what we saw because it's not important. The important thing is the son or daughter I am with on either respective night. They are the coolest people in the world, and I can't believe I get to be their father.

I love the way she looks at me. It is a look that says she belongs to me and no one else. She is talking to our friends across the arena and smiling at me as if she has just told them about one of the dumb things I did. She is, and always has been, the goddess to me.

We are laughing. It is one of those laughs that catches everyone just right and sends us all into
collapsible fits while we gasp for breath. It is all about this short moment in time, and tomorrow we might not ever remember that we laughed about it, but right now it is the most important thing in the world. And man is it funny.

We are crying. It is one of those times that you knew was coming, but avoided thinking about because you didn't want to ruin the time you had left. There are too many things to say, and so we say only that we love each other and that we will see each other again soon. And then the moment is gone, and once again I am alone.

Life continues. In a few months I will be home, and this will be yet another experience to put in my
memories. This mission and these people here in Afghanistan are worth my personal sacrifice. But I can't help thinking that you don't love home like you love home when only get to spend two weeks out of the whole year there.

As of Summer 2010 I will have spent three of the last five years away from the people I love, and this year I have officially been in the service for 20 years. Time for some reflection...

EATS, SHOOTS AND LEAVES |

April 15, 2010

EATS, SHOOTS AND LEAVES
Name: K
Posting date: 4/15/10
Returned from: Afghanistan
Milblog: Embedded in Afghanistan

Thinking back on it, it does seem strange some of the things that went on. You walk around among, shake hands with, and eat and drink in homes of, people you don’t really know and who may not like you. But I never felt any fear in those situations, though I knew some of these people collaborated with insurgents. Pashtuns are hospitable people, and they'll take it to the point that they're equally hospitable to some of our enemies as well.

I’d say we returned the favor and were pretty darn hospitable to local people as well. On one
occasion the local villagers brought men to the base with bullet and shrapnel wounds. Framed K Eats, Shoots and Leaves They looked like Taliban, with their beards and stares, and my interpreter was absolutely convinced that they were. And how does an innocent get bullet and shrapnel wounds anyway? There was generally enough notice given before a battle commenced (often in the form of a single shot cracking off, followed some five seconds later by larger barrages) to allow most people to take cover before things really got crazy. Well, we patched those Taliban up, though they may have been detained for awhile since they had to be shipped away for better care. It’s all part of the game. Patch them up and send them back out to play.

I recall drinking tea and eating nuts with an elder when bullets from across the valley started
impacting near our men outside the house. I immediately put my helmet back on and ran outside to help out, without finishing the nuts or tea, or even saying goodbye or thank you. Afterward, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the bad joke about bad punctuation -- the panda who walked into a restaurant, had a meal, and then shot the place up since a panda is a four legged, furry animal that eats, shoots and leaves. Being a panda, he eats shoots and leaves, but typically does not eat, shoot and leave. Well, Marines sometimes really do eat, shoot, and then leave the area.

Sometimes it's shocking how little we really know about the people we're fighting, but my feeling is that for a lot of these guys we're fighting, especially out in the Korengal, the insurgency is a way of life. It's just what they do, and how they gain respect. Many certainly are ideologically driven -- but not all.

The only time we really got a good look at our enemy was on Friday afternoon at the local mosque or occasionally out playing cricket. All those young men that were missing in the villages during our regular patrols would appear out of the woodwork to attend the mosque on Friday, kind of like Sunday morning church for Americans. Their age, body language, avoidance of eye contact, and lack of response to our greetings told us all we needed to know about the loyalties of those young men. But did being 90% sure that these guys were the ones shooting at us from the ridgelines a couple of times a week mean that we could arrest them and deal with them? No. Not at all. We let them go about their business, only to meet them again in the near future on the "modern" battlefield to play our dangerous little game of long-distance target practice.

UNDERWAY |

April 12, 2010

UNDERWAY
Name: Edda2010
Posting date: 4/12/10
Returned from: Afghanistan

When I walked off the CH-47 onto FOB Bermel (now FOB Boris) nearly two years ago, I was filled with the all the excitement and anxiety one might imagine in a man -- more of a boy, really, in retrospect -- who'd spent most of his formative years reading and re-reading histories of the wars that criss-crossed Europe from Odysseus' time on. This was it! Finally, I was doing what I'd read about for so long.

I was come to the place of battle, where the best warriors are put to the trial. The empty sporting
contests of high school, the impotent, uselessly channeled savagery of martial arts or boxing, the increasingly hollow aesthetic consideration of professional sports -- all preludes to that one great contest of wills that ends in the death of the enemy, or of yourself. I was full, in other words, of childish nonsense.

But times, they change, and I endured a grueling 15-month deployment. Now, on the cusp of another 12 months in Afghanistan (from what I can tell, under substantially more austere conditions), with the salient experiences of the last looming prominently in my memory, I recall a passage, one of the most wretched and moving in Shakespeare:


PINDARUS:
    Titinius is enclosed round about
    With horsemen, that make to him on the spur;
    Yet he spurs on. Now they are almost on him.
    Now, Titinius! now some 'light: O, he 'lights too.
    He's ta'en; and, hark! they shout for joy.

CASSIUS:
    Come down, behold no more.
    O, coward that I am, to live so long,
    To see my best friend ta'en before my face!


It is an awful thing, to have to watch helpless as death reaches out and takes a man you know. And even if you don't love the man like a brother, there's still a shiver -- a knowledge that death's about -- that penetrates to your core. That passage from Julius Caesar captures such an episode in excruciating agony, seen from afar, experienced without a say. But it's always like that, even when you're an arm's length away.

Even worse than that unavoidable moment -- much worse -- is the waiting. I think the training is not so much to condition you to be used to it, but to weed out those who absolutely, simply cannot stand having to wait for things. It does enrage a certain personality type.These people are generally quite meticulous about organizing themselves, usually quite fit, very disciplined -- save when it comes to standing around waiting for something to happen. It drives them bonkers. We had two people like that drop in Basic, one in OCS. It's an inability to let go, or turn off.

Which is a bummer, because one suspects they'd do great in combat, if they could just get there. Well, for me, I just try to stay enthusiastic about whatever my mission is. I thought I was going to Iraq -- I'm excited to go to Iraq. Change of Mission to Afghanistan -- Great! I'm going back to Afghanistan! I can fight there! Now it's January -- It'll be tough, but I can make the necessary preparations. I'll be ready. Now it's February -- No problem. Sounds like a really fun, flexible mission. Now it's March -- My bags are packed, tell me which flight. Now it's April -- Doesn't matter. I know it's coming, and when it happens, I'll be ready to go. It just means I'll be coming home a little later than expected. So long as I don't miss my 15-year high school reunion in May 2011!

It seems like such a silly, trivial thing to be concerned about; high school.  I missed my five-year reunion because I was knee deep in finals and papers. The 10-year hit just after I got back from Ranger School, and it was a near thing, a very near thing. I really thought I was going to go. Actually that was a minor, selfish motivation for me getting through it all -- to be able to bask in the attention. Well, one thing led to another and when the weekend rolled around, I was just dog tired and horribly out of shape, still 10 pounds under weight. Couldn't do it. Stayed back and, in doing so, opened up the opportunity to go to a Reconnaissance Course.

That's how it ends up working. Everything happens more or less the way it's supposed to, I'm convinced. It doesn't make tragedy any easier to deal with, practically speaking, but there is some comfort when you consider that there is a momentum to life that one sees only in retrospect. So, feeling like going to a high school reunion -- that the time is right to finally show my face again -- well, it'll happen when it happens. High school was an excellent example of something that seemed tedious and excruciating while it was happening, but laid the groundwork for any academic success I had in college.

A reunion will be the perfect bookend for my Army / War experience, as I begin thinking about reentering the world of family, and career, and children.

But that's all ideas. Now, there's a plane waiting, in the not too distant future, to wing me back to Afghanistan. The North. I can barely contain myself.

PIMP MY RYDER TOC |

April 09, 2010

PIMP MY RYDER TOC
Name: Charlie Sherpa
Posting date: 4/9/10
Deploying to: Afghanistan
Hometown: Boone, Iowa
Milblog: Red Bull Rising
Email: Sherpa at RedBullRising.com

Framed Sherpa PIMP MY 1 It might not look like much to you, but this picture of my unit's latest equipment makes this old Army communications soldier get all misty and tingly. Maybe I'm just not grounded properly. More likely, however, it's just feelings of good old nostalgia setting in. After all, the names and equipment may have changed from 20 years ago, but a van-based commo van on the back of a two-seater Humvee is pretty much the spitting image of my first tactical ride.

So this picture makes me happy. To me, it's the Army version of a 1970-something conversion van featuring a purple shag-carpet on all interior surfaces -- including the dashboard -- with a scene airbrushed on its exterior involving an armored-yet-bikini-wearing young lass and a dragon. Or, better yet, a robot. Or, even better, a robot dragon. The overall artistic impression of this adolescent piece of work being akin to the worldly pin-up girl on the nose of Grandpa's bomber in World War II. Yes, I said that all in one breath.

Oh, and that van would have a name -- something like "Cap'n America," or "Mister E Machine," or "Thor's Hammock."

This new equipment is called a "Command Post Platform," or CPP. There are four of them that "boot in" (connect to) our brigade's Tactical Operations Center (TOC, pronounced "talk). (By the way, if I haven't mentioned it before, our brigade radio callsign is "Ryder" -- a reference to Maj. Gen. Charles W. Ryder, which explains the title of this post.) It's chockfull of radios and computer routers and other communications equipment, evidenced by the many antennas bristling on top of its Rigid Wall Shelter (RWS).

When I first joined the Iowa Army National Guard, we had a whole battalion of similar Humvee-shelter combinations. Radio and telephone operators used to sit in the little air-conditioned "vans" -- the cool air was for the maintenance of equipment, not the comfort of the soldiers, but it was still one of the best jobs in the Army.

These CPPs are pretty much set-up-and-forget. They don't require a soldier to sit inside them to act as an operator, in the old telephone-switchboard sense of the word. Users throughout the TOC can use radios, text-message, and communicate via the intercoms provided by the CPP, using desktop devices called Crew Access Units (CAU, pronounced -- I am not making this up -- "cows"). The CAU headphones are noise-canceling, and you can actually set them up to monitor a different radio conversation in each ear. I'm in multi-tasking TOC-rat heaven.

That's why, although it's not exactly my baby anymore, this picture makes me happy. All it needs is a little up-armor. And some fuzzy dice. And some nose art.

"If the commo van's a rockin', don't come a'knockin'."

GREEN ZEBRA |

April 07, 2010

GREEN ZEBRA
Name: LT G
Posting date: 4/7/10
Returned from: Iraq
Hometown: Reno, NV
Milblog: Kaboom: A Soldier's War Journal


Despite the shadow the Iraq and Afghanistan wars cast over the greater American society, veterans of these conflicts are scarce amongst the populace. Trust me, I know. Having left the active duty Army last June, I’ve spent the past nine-odd months walking around in this land, attempting to adjust to civilian ways while simultaneously rediscovering my own civilian skin. Some days are smoother than others.

The separation between American and American-Veteran is wide, but it seems like only the latter group really grasps the fact – although I may be slightly biased in that interpretation. It's an unforeseen consequence of the all-volunteer force that members of our warrior caste often skeptically question why the other 99% of the nation’s population couldn’t/wouldn’t/didn’t fight next to them. Such isn’t fair of course, but self-righteousness is a sin many soldiers must grapple with after they return home.

With this self-checking truth in mind, I wish to share some of my own interactions in the concrete jungle of New York City which I currently call home. When new friends or acquaintances find out I served in Iraq, a consistent variety of reactions ensue. Some are genuine, some are contrived, but all seem hilarious to me. For many, I’m the only veteran their age they know, and it’s as if they’re suddenly seeing a zebra they’ve been watching turn green before their eyes.

The worst reaction came this past autumn from a Wall Street yuppie-type, who was straight out of American Psycho – tall, augmented by lifts, a perfect tan no doubt brought on by daily trips to the tanning bed, and that obnoxious domineering hand-shake tilt that doesn’t make up for the softness of the palm. Apparently his sense of masculinity became threatened when he found out the skinny kid in a flannel shirt and blue jeans in the corner had served in Iraq. “How many Hajiis did you kill?” he asked, cackling. “I hope a bunch!” I could only shake my head, smirk to myself, and notice how ridiculous the word “Hajii” sounded coming out of his mouth.

The best reactions I’ve had from civilian friends are the most honest ones – something along the lines of, “Umm, I have no idea what to say. Just tell me about it.” Thankfully, this occurs far more often than encounters like the one recounted above. Most friends and family members are willing to sit and listen to what you’re willing to give them, while understanding that there are going to be things you’d prefer to keep to yourself. But as refreshing, and sometimes cleansing, as these conversations can be, they’re not what I really miss – getting together with my old battle buddies and swapping stories.

Even green zebras enjoy returning to the herd sometimes, you know?   


Editor's Note: Lt. G was a frequent Sandbox contributor during his deployment to Iraq. Here are links to a few of his posts:

IN MY ARMY 

CRANK DAT IN IRAQ

RULES OF ENGAGEMENT

A SOUNDTRACK TO WAR

And here is information about his just-published book, Kaboom: Embracing the Suck in a Savage Little War.

SPRING IN MAZAR-E-SHARIF |

April 05, 2010

SPRING IN MAZAR-E-SHARIF
Name: CPT Mark Martin
Posting date: 4/5/10
Stationed in: Afghanistan
Hometown: New Hope, MN
Milblog: 270 Days in Afghanistan
Email: [email protected]

Framed Martin SPRING 1 Mother Nature has officially declared the end of winter here in Northern Afghanistan. In the mountain passes, trees are blooming and the mountainsides are lush with new green brought about by the significant amounts of rain that the region has received over the course of the last month. There is no doubt about it, spring has sprung.

The provincial government has started to plant trees along the roadside, which says a couple of Framed Martin SPRING 2 things to me about where the province is at in the economic recovery process for the region. First and foremost, the effort to improve the landscape signals a departure from the stark and frightening goal of simply having a roof over their heads. The local Afghans here in this province seem to have progressed well into the middle of the pyramid of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. The second thing it says to me is that optimism has made a comeback among these people. Thirty years ago, Afghanistan was a majestic place, filled with tree lined parks and several local landmarks which people came from all around to see. 

After the Soviet invasion, and subsequently for the next 25 years or so, Afghans found themselves in difficult social and financial straits. Years of oppressive regimes and lack of economic stability or Framed Martin SPRING 3 growth brought about a depression similar to our own hard times in the 1930s. Trade routes shrank and in some cases died out altogether, which left residents without essential, everyday staples of survival. Most of the trees in those majestic parks and along those avenues were cut down for firewood in order to heat homes and cook meals. The scarring of the countryside and its people could be seen and felt across the land. Until now.

Although the past can never be changed for these people and their lives, the future is looking just as bright and full of promise as this year's spring. Every day their government and police forces are making strides toward becoming self sufficient. The more we continue to work alongside our Afghan National Army counterparts, the better things seem to get. Don't get me wrong, there are still hurdles to jump and sizable roadblocks to get through before we can claim a resounding success here, but as with all things, every little bit helps. As long as we can see those incremental advances, this is a fight worth finishing.

KANDAKS |

April 02, 2010

KANDAKS
Name: K
Posting date: 4/2/10
Returned from: Afghanistan
Milblog: Embedded in Afghanistan

In Afghan languages a "kandak" is a battalion. I can remember visiting a base outside of our area and talking to someone who during our conversation remarked, "Oh, you're with 3rd Kdk? Is that an infantry battalion?" I was a little taken aback by the question and almost remarked in Colonel Jessup from A Few Good Men fashion "Is there any other kind?" But I caught myself, as I remembered that there are indeed other types of kandaks out there, just like in our military. The ANA do have tanks, artillery, Afghan Commandos, and other types of units, to include aviation.

We had a small detachment of ANA artillery soldiers at one of our bases, complete with two D30 122 mm howitzers. In the month I spent at that base, we never once fired those guns -- and not for lack of enemy contact. We were firing mortars from the base nearly daily. It was a little tough for the ANA to get into the act of firing those indirect fire assets when they needed the approval of the Framed K Kandaks Kandak Commander, located some 25 km away, in order to fire. Real time comms are easy to achieve out there with cell phones, and that's what the ANA use for much of their communication. Nonetheless, having to route permission to shoot through someone miles down the road obviously does not make for efficient and timely fire support.

The ANA did apparently fire the D30s from time to time though. Since the ANA has very few people who can read maps and do whatever geometry is done to get artillery rounds on target, they simply direct fire the guns. And since most of the targets are up above them in that particular place, the technique works pretty well. The US forces would somehow mark a target with machine guns or mortars, and the ANA would be instructed to hit those impacts, which they evidently did pretty well. Unfortunately, I never witnessed it.

As for other types of battalions, we knew a few ETTs who got attached to a tank battalion. The tanks they have are Soviet-style, like the artillery. They, not surprisingly, did not use their tanks very often given the logistical difficulties in supporting tanks.

The ANA have commandos trained by our Special Forces, and having seen them in action as the opposition in a game of military-style paintball, I'd say they're pretty good -- not light years better than regular ANA infantry, but certainly more aggressive and better trained.

As for Afghan aviation, that was not something we ever saw, though they do have a few helicopters starting to fly around. I look forward to more of those ANA helos getting out there as I know it will be a big source of pride for the ANA to fly in their own equipment with their fellow countrymen at the helm.


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