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.

METAL MEMORIALS |

May 31, 2010

METAL MEMORIALS
Name: Alex Horton
Posting date: 5/31/10
Returned from: Iraq
Milblog: Army of Dude

“Hey man, just so you know, I’m going to set this thing off.”

I don’t have a metal plate in my head or shrapnel in my legs, but I carry with me something that might as well be lodged deep under my skin. After Vietnam, soldiers and civilians alike would wear bracelets etched with the names of prisoners of war so their memory would live on even if they never came home. Veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan continued the practice, but with a twist. The same bracelets are adorned with the names of friends killed in action. The date and the place are also included as a testament to where they took their last steps.

One of the first things my platoon did after coming home was order memorial bracelets from the few websites that specialize in military memorabilia. You don’t even have to type in the name or the date; their system uses the DOD casualty list. All you have to do is filter by name and a software aided laser will burn the selection onto an aluminum or steel bracelet. What emerges out of this casual and disinterested practice is jewelry teeming with the amount of love and commitment found in ten wedding rings.

Every trip to the airport has the same outcome: additional security checks and a pat down from a TSA agent. I tell them it’s the bracelet that the metal detector shrieks at. “Can you take it off?” is always the question. “I don’t want to take it off” is always the answer. To some screeners my answer is a poke in the eye of their authority, a wrench in the system of their daily routine. Others recognize the bracelet and give me a gentle nod and a quick pat down. I suspect they have encountered other veterans like me and realize the futility of asking to have it removed. In a glass booth at the security gate is where I most often get the question, “Who’s on the bracelet?” Those who realize the significance of it usually want to know the name. I stare down and rub my fingers over the lettering. “Brian Chevalier, but we called him Chevy.”

At times the memorial bracelets seem almost redundant. The names of the fallen are written on steel and skin, but are they not also carved into the hearts of men? Are the faces of the valiant not emblazoned in the memories of those who called them brothers? No amount of ink or steel can be used to represent what those days signify. My bracelet says “14 March 2007,” but it does not describe the blazing heat that day, or the smell of open sewers trampled underfoot or the sight of a Stryker, overturned and smoke-filled as the school adjacent exploded under tremendous fire. It was as if God chose to end the world within one city block. When Chevy was lovingly placed into a body bag under exploding RPGs and machine gun tracers, worlds ended. Others began.

The concept of Memorial Day nearly approaches superfluous ritual to some veterans. It's absurd to ask a combat veteran to take out a single day to remember those fell in battle, as if the other 364 days were not marked by their memories in one way or another. I try to look at pictures of my friends, both alive and dead, at least once a day to remember their smiles or the way they wore their kits. I talk to them online and send emails and texts and on rare occasions, visit them in person. We drink and laugh and recall the old days and tell the same war stories everyone has heard a thousand times but still manage to produce streams of furious laughter. I get the same feeling with them; Memorial Day does not begin or end on a single day. It ebbs and flows in torrents of memory, sometimes to a crippling degree. Most of us have become talented at hiding our service and safeguard the moments when we become awash in memories like March 14. The bracelet is the only physical reminder of the tide we find ourselves in.

Perhaps it's best to let civilians hold onto Memorial Day and hope they use the time to reflect wisely. A time to remember old friends or distant relatives that they did not necessarily serve with but still honor their sacrifice. Not just soldiers are touched by war. Chevy was a father and a son, and his loss not only rippled through the platoon and company but a small town in Georgia. The day serves as a reminder that there are men and women who have only come back as memories. Maybe the reflection on those who did not return is a key to helping civilians bridge the gap with veterans. Occasionally my bracelet spurs conversations with friends and coworkers who did not know I was in the Army or deployed to Iraq. I still don't feel completely comfortable answering their questions but I'm always happy to talk about the name on my wrist. His name was Brian Chevalier, but we called him Chevy.

MEMORIAL DAY |

May 30, 2010

MEMORIAL DAY
Name: The Dude
Posting date: 5/30/10
Returned from: Afghanistan
Milblog: c/o  Bouhammer.com

As I sit here on the porch of a cabin, admiring the scenic beauty of upstate New York, I can’t help reflecting on the importance of Memorial Day. As a veteran of the war in Afghanistan and a fan of American history, every day is Memorial Day for me. However, I also understand that everyone isn’t a history buff at heart and that the average citizen likes the Memorial Day holiday because of the three-day weekend, the Indy 500, and the fact that it unofficially kicks off the summer season. Over the years I have “evolved” to accept the average citizen’s view of this weekend, but I do like to take opportunities to educate my fellow Americans. Here is a very brief historical background about Memorial Day:

Framed Bouhammer Memorial Day Arlington At the end of the Civil War, communities set aside Decoration Day to mark the end of the war, or as a memorial to those who had died. Many of the states of the South refused to celebrate Decoration Day, due to lingering hostility towards the Union Army and also because there were relatively few veterans of the Union Army buried in the South. A notable exception was Columbus, Mississippi, which on April 25, 1866, at its Decoration Day commemorated both the Union and Confederate casualties buried in its cemetery. The alternative name of “Memorial Day” was first used in 1882. It did not become more common until after World War II, and was not declared the official name by Federal law until 1967.

On June 28, 1968, the United States Congress passed the Uniform Holidays Bill, which moved three holidays from their traditional dates to a specified Monday in order to create a convenient three-day weekend. The holidays included Washington’s Birthday, now celebrated as Presidents’ Day; Veterans Day and Memorial Day. The change moved Memorial Day from its traditional May 30th date to the last Monday in May. The law took effect at the federal level in 1971.

On Memorial Day we now honor the service members who have been killed in all of our nation’s wars, not just the Civil War. Whatever activities you partake in this weekend, please take a few minutes to at least say thank you to our great Americans who made the ultimate sacrifice so that we can have the freedoms and pleasures to do whatever we want. I know I will.

Live Free or Die Trying!

REBUILDING THE INFRASTRUCTURE |

May 27, 2010

REBUILDING THE INFRASTRUCTURE
Name: CPT Mark Martin
Posting date: 5/26/10
Stationed in: Afghanistan
Hometown: New Hope, MN
Milblog: 270 Days in Afghanistan
Email: moosecpt@gmail.com

Framed Martin MTV 1 Once "tip of the spear" combat operations were over here in Afghanistan, and the Taliban had been banished back to their caves in the mountains like goblins in a J.R.R. Tolkien novel, we started the exhaustive process of rebuilding the infrastructure of the country. Like so many undefined and unquantified projects, this has been a journey with almost no end in sight. The U.S. Army's efforts in this area have included the purchase of equipment for the Afghan National Army in the form of vehicles and weapon systems.

Framed Martin MTV 2 One of those vehicles is the Medium Tactical Vehicle (better known as "Internationals"). We purchased these trucks for the Afghan Army to replace their aging and mostly broken down fleet of cargo trucks so that we could help them improve their mobility and ability to supply their troops on the battlefield. A few years down the road, we started to find that the Afghans were doing a relatively poor job of maintaining these vehicles.  Once we started to investigate, we found that attrition and lack of internal training management had degraded their ability to drive and perform maintenance on the vehicles. Therefore, in a cooperative venture with our German Army counterparts here in Regional Command North, we launched a driver's training course with a heavy emphasis on maintenance.

Framed Martin MTV 3 My partner in this venture, First Lieutenant Tritton from the German Army, is much like me. He was prior service enlisted before he commissioned as an officer. He's got about 20 years in the German Army, and he has been a Maintenance Platoon Leader in his German Airborne unit at home. Sounds pretty familiar! He has a great focus on training soldiers, and wasted no time in jumping behind the dashboard with these guys to start teaching them about their vehicle.

Framed Martin MTV 4 Of course, any time there is an engine and two or more wheels involved, I have been hard pressed to keep my resident mechanic away. True to his nature, SPC Lane was right there along with us, teaching our Afghans. In so many ways, our team has people with a wide spectrum of experience and knowledge that they bring to the table to make our mission successful. Lane is one of those guys who can look at something mechanical and tell you everything there is to know about how to fix it. It's uncanny.

Framed Martin MTV 5 This training is a "train the trainer" course, and on the first day, I had to send four guys back to their company because they were illiterate.  I apologized to them and explained that I needed people who were able to read and write so that they could then go back to their companies and train the rest of their soldiers about the vehicle. All in all, I think the program of instruction is a good one. The next mentorship challenge will be to encourage them to share their knowledge with other soldiers.   

TROOP |

May 25, 2010

TROOP
Name: Bouhammer
Posting date: 5/25/10
Returned from: Afghanistan
Milblog: Bouhammer.com

This is an awesome video and song that honors all service members. It is a rap song, but even if you don't like rap I can guarantee that you have never seen or heard a song like this before.Troop is a by Minnesota Guardsman Joe Roos, and gives the perspective of a Soldier of the 34th Red Bull Infantry Division. It was shot and produced during the Red Bull’s deployment to Basra, Iraq.


THREE WAYS TO REMEMBER CAPT. DAN WHITTEN |

May 23, 2010

THREE WAYS TO REMEMBER CAPT. DAN WHITTEN
Name: Charlie Sherpa
Posting date: 5/21/10
Deploying to: Afghanistan
Hometown: Boone, Iowa
Milblog: Red Bull Rising
Email: Sherpa at RedBullRising.com

West-Pointer Capt. Dan Whitten, a 1999 Johnston (Iowa) High School graduate and active-duty soldier who was killed in Afghanistan earlier this year, was recently inducted into the Johnston Community School District Hall of Fame. From what I've read, Whitten enjoyed writing for the school newspaper when he was a student there. Framed Sherpa WHITTEN 1 Given time -- unfortunately, that probably means "after my deployment" -- I'd like to follow up on that. Maybe there's a way to celebrate Whitten's life as more than just a plaque on the wall? Like a journalism scholarship. Or a writing program.

In the still-under-construction no-man's-land between the northern Des Moines suburbs of Grimes and Johnston, Iowa -- you know, where they're building the new Wal-Mart -- I recently noticed the installation of street-pole banners bearing Whitten's name. While he may have been a Johnston schools graduate, Whitten was also a Grimes resident -- so the location is particularly appropriate. The banners are a simple and immediate way to celebrate his life --  and I think it's great that someone in local government acted so quickly (when does that ever happen?) to remember him in this way. The one I saw (I hope there are more) is perfectly placed to be seen by those traveling from the Iowa National Guard headquarters in Johnston, to the 2nd Brigade Combat Team (BCT), 34th Infantry Division's headquarters in Boone.

In the same week that Capt. Whitten's death was reported over Iowa airwaves, came also the news that the 2nd/34th BCT had lost a chaplain to an industrial accident at his civilian employment. Chaplain (Capt.) Eric Simpson also had local ties -- he had been a pastor in a small town north of Johnston. He was planning to go with us to Afghanistan later this year.

Both stories were near misses -- they were local, but I didn't know them personally -- but pre-deployment life also provides a lot of distractions. It's just too easy to not find the time, to not breathe deep, to not momentarily reflect and pray. We're not even out the door, and we're too busy to mourn. Granted, you can drive yourself (and your family) crazy with too many "what-ifs" and "but for the graces of God." My own practice has been to try to remember to turn off the radio for a few minutes while driving to Boone, to clear the head and the airwaves, to listen for the still, small voice. Carney, Whitten, Simpson ... I realize there may be other names someday, names that hit even closer to home.

I was grateful to belatedly come across these words from writer Ann Marlowe, who had met Capt.
Whitten while embedded with his unit in late 2009. She was also apparently able to attend Whitten's funeral at West Point. Here's an excerpt from her Feb. 14, 2010, New York Post commentary:

    Dan was special, even among the high caliber of officers I knew from the 82nd Airborne, almost all of whom are Army Rangers. Tall, big-boned and handsome, he had the West Pointer's confidence and the ideal American officer's ability to put others first. He had already earned two Bronze Stars for his efforts. Yet when it came time to edit my article, I realized I had far more material on Dan's subordinates than him. That was as he'd intended.

    Dan was kind and witty and socially at ease, and remembered everything I told him. We'd talked about my writing on Afghan archeology, and so, in the helicopter that took us back from Faisabad, he drew my attention to a mysterious large tower he had passed on previous trips. I could tell at once that it was very old. This tower isn't known to Afghan archeologists: Dan's sharp eyes and intellectual curiousity may have made a discovery.

    According to Capt. Derrick B. Hernandez of the 1-508, Dan and his men had finished a three-day operation on the Ghazni Province border when his Humvee struck an IED that wounded one of his men.
   
    Dan then jumped into another vehicle and recovered his original vehicle. Seven kilometers later, his truck again struck another IED, this one instantly killing Dan and Pfc. Zachary Lovejoy and seriously wounding three others.

    Dan died doing work that had meaning to him. As Derrick pointed out in a speech he gave at Dan's memorial in Zabul, Dan could have had any assignment he wanted. He chose to return with 1-508 to one of the most remote and insecure places in Afghanistan.

I particularly like that Capt. Whitten may have used his knowledge of newspapering in order to shine attention onto his men, and not himself. I also like that he had an eye for art and archeology, in a land that many people consider only rubble.

DEPLOYMENT METRICS |

May 14, 2010

DEPLOYMENT METRICS
Name: Edda2010
Posting date: 5/14/10
Deployed to: Afghanistan

Average liters of water consumed per day:     3.7

Paces from hootch to TOC:     83

CONOPs written or edited:     51

Meetings attended:     18

Song Most Listened to:     "Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger" by Daft Punk

Next most frequently heard song:     "They Threw Me Out of Church" by Wesley Willis

Briefings constructed and / or delivered:     5

Average hours of sleep per night:     6.4

Girls schools attacked by insurgents in Area of Operations:     3

Email messages sent:     11

Phone calls made:     0

O'LORD |

May 12, 2010

O'LORD
Name: 1SGT (retired) Troy Steward
Posting date: 5/12/10
Returned from: Afghanistan
Milblog: Bouhammer.com


O’Lord save me from my own abuse,
O’Lord help me to, see the truth
I’ve been blind for so many years, O’Lord

O’Lord help me be a better man,
O’Lord please help me understand
Why we all must hurt like this, O’Lord

Hard to keep the faith when I’m falling
Hard to see your face when I’m crawling
Hard to keep the faith when I’m falling down
With no one around

O’Lord help me to control my rage
O’Lord tell me its not too late
I been angry for way too long, O’Lord

Oh God help me get my head on straight
Oh God take all this booze away
I’ve been locked in a drunken haze, O’Lord

Hard to keep the faith when I’m falling
Hard to see your face when I’m crawling
Hard to keep the faith when I’m falling down
with no one around

Doing this alone is not working out
Booze and broken bones are keeping me down
I need some direction, need it right now
I’m falling down, I’m falling down…

Hard to keep the faith when I’m falling
Hard to see your face when I’m crawling
Hard to keep the faith when I’m falling down
With no one around


You might think the above is a poem from a person under the control of drugs or booze. Or you might think it is a poem by a veteran that suffers from PTSD. It could be either. Personally I think it speaks to many who have returned from war-- any war. It could be the poem of a veteran of WWII, Vietnam, Iraq or Afghanistan. You can see the pain, the struggles, the cries for help. They know the right thing to do, but they can’t do it themselves. They want help, but probably don’t know who to ask or are afraid to ask. Maybe it is their position in life, or their rank in the military, or they are scared of being perceived as weak.

It is no doubt a prayer to a higher power, yearning for help, for assistance, for a second chance.

However it is not a poem, per se. These are lyrics to the song "O’ Lord" by Smile Empty Soul. Sean Danielson penned these words a while back as he wrote the song for their album Consciousness, and I think it speaks to the pain, anger and trials that many veterans face today. I have talked to Sean about this song and I don’t thing he realized its relevance when he wrote it. His hand was guided to write these lyrics and I am glad it was, because I personally feel the impact of the words reaches further than he will ever know.

THE KID IN THE BLUE-STRIPED SHIRT |

May 10, 2010

THE KID IN THE BLUE-STRIPED SHIRT
Name: Six Foot Skinny
Posting date: 5/10/10
Returned from: Iraq
Hometown: Minneapolis, MN
Milblog: Lost in the Desert

She is sitting on a step that leads to a door in a wall. Surrounded by Iraqi kids. Her rifle, magazine in -- no doubt locked and loaded -- in one hand, muzzle skyward, butt on the ground. The Vietnam-era flak jacket (yeah, we had those) riding up a little, kevlar helmet askew due to the small boy leaning on her head. And there, sitting next to her and clowning with a younger boy, is a kid in a blue-striped shirt.

Framed Skinny KIN IN THE BLUE-STRIPED SHIRT The kid in the striped shirt is Saef. He was eight years old when that photo was taken. If he survives this war, he will run Iraq someday. If he is alive he is fourteen. When we were first consciously aware of him, his English was limited to “HEY!  Jou-need-any-ting? I get Pepsee, Coke-a-cola, cheeken…” A huge voice booming from this impossibly little man. When we moved into the city, to a former Baath Party headquarters-turned Provincial Government Center, he was our lifeline. He brought cigarettes, foam mattresses, kabobs, falafels, and anything else. Once he brought us a couch.

Saef was hyperactive and wild and sweet and hilarious. He became our crazy little brother, an Iraqi Tazmanian Devil, and we loved him and he us. He was a constant ball of energy and good spirits. We never got to meet his family, never saw his house. Judging by his clothing, they were poor. Very poor. His vocabulary grew and he picked up our nuance and sarcasm and curses and greetings. By the time we left, he was bargaining forcefully with my platoon sergeant -- a man thirty years his elder and easily four times his size. Saef on his tiptoes, JC leaning over at the waist, red in the face, lip quivering. Trading expletives waggling fingers at each other. I think Saef won that one.

The day the photo was taken, we were guarding/facilitating/witnessing the dispersal of severance pay to former Iraqi Soldiers. It was a mess. It was hot. It was dangerous in a way that we half-joked about then, and that amazes me now. There were twenty of us, tops. There were 1,500-2,000 of them. The first day, when we took over from some American Military Police, all the former Soldiers were crowded around the teller windows on the outside of the bank, banging on the windows and hollering for their money. It was a mob-scene. Literally. Saef brought us Cokes and falafel sandwiches. No, not for free. Kid had to make a living, and he did it well. He figured out how to inflate his prices enough to make a profit and keep our business, ensuring future profits. Brilliant. I am fairly certain he supported his family throughout our tour.

When it was time to leave our little outpost and return to the big Forward Operating Base outside town, we told Saef to come that morning and say goodbye. The vagaries of military timelines had us rolling out the gate as Saef and his posse arrived. He immediately broke down in tears, and that was the last time I ever saw him, from the window of my truck as we drove away. We were crying too. That was the second time I ever saw Saef cry. The day B was killed, Saef showed up shortly after the chaplain and first sergeant had left. “Where’s B?”  He asked. He saw the answer in the tear-tracks on our dirty faces. This little man, a tough little street guy and hustler to the bone, dissolved into an eight-year-old pile of tears. He cried as if he had lost a brother. 

There are rumors that Saef was killed in the violence of 2004 and 2005. The town where we were posted, one corner of the Sunni triangle, was an ethnic mix of Sunni and Shi’a and it dissolved into sectarian killings shortly after we left. I choose not to listen to those rumors and I choose not to believe them. When I got home from that tour, I looked at my youngest brother, the same age as Saef, and tried to picture him doing what Saef did. I couldn’t. I hope he’s all right. I hope he has a crush on a beautiful little Iraqi girl, and that he’s going to school. I hope that he has dreams about a peaceful Iraq where he can raise his children and tell them stories about the guys from Minnesota that he was friends with one year. And tell them about B. Mostly though, I just hope he’s OK.

SUPPORTING THE FIGHT |

May 07, 2010

SUPPORTING THE FIGHT
Name: CAPT Mark Martin
Posting date: 5/7/10
Stationed in: Afghanistan
Hometown: New Hope, MN
Milblog: 270 Days in Afghanistan
Email
: moosecpt@gmail.com


A little while ago, we went on a mission to mentor some of our Field Artillery guys during a fire support mission in an area that has seen some significant fighting in recent weeks. Their mission in the area is to provide indirect fire support to ANA and ISAF forces while they conduct counter insurgent operations (for my civilian friends, this means that they are the guys who fire the artillery shells high overhead to impact downrange to help support the fight).   

Framed Martin SUPPORTING 1 There were plenty of opportunities to mentor at the sight, and we made some much needed suggestions about their security situation and the way they had the guns setup. I cannot (and will not) go into detail here about the particulars for security reasons, but part of our focus was to liaise with adjacent units in the area, and get the word out to both coalition forces and ANA units that this support was available to them while they are in contact with the enemy.

Some of the villages we went through to get to the camp were decidedly unfriendly.  One younger guy (I like to categorize him as "Taliban-age") was giving us the business pretty good with sign language as we drove by, and spit at our vehicle in derisive contempt. Framed Martin SUPPORTING 3 I didn't feel like it was a good enough reason to stop, but I would be curious to see whether or not his attitude would have changed if I had stopped to have a short talk with him. I guess not everyone is a fan of the US Army. 

At the end of our mission, it was nice to get back to our Combat Outpost with our guys in Samangan, earthquakes notwithstanding. All the locals there are quite friendly, and I had a chance to share pictures of my children with one older gentleman who owns the local eatery. We shared a cup of chai and talked about our families. All in all, a successful mission!

SEMPER FI, MOON |

May 05, 2010

SEMPER FI, MOON
Name: Charlie Sherpa
Posting date: 5/5/10
Deploying to: Afghanistan
Hometown: Boone, Iowa
Milblog: Red Bull Rising
Email: Sherpa at RedBullRising.com

Framed Sherpa MOON bigger Bedtime prayers with Lena have always been sort of a beatnik version of the beatitudes. We start with  the standard verse of "Now I lay me down to sleep," followed by a roots-to-branches repetition of the immediate friends-and-family tree, followed by a mad-minute of shouts-out and God-blesses to everyone and everything that a 5-year-old warrior princess can bring to heart and mind. As with any oral tradition,the details may change slightly day by day, but the themes stay true.

By eavesdropping on my child's voice-mail to God, however, I occasionally pick up on some new thoughts. Tonight was the first night, for example, that Lena evoked the United States Marines. I don't think it was because I was going to sneak off downstairs to watch HBO's The Pacific, after everyone else had gone to sleep. My best guess was that she needed something to rhyme -- we're working on reading and rhyming skills -- with another recent addition to our nightly prayer's refrain. That's just a theory, however.

Here's how tonight's prayer ended:

    God bless all our friends and daycare,
    and all our teachers at daycare ...

    God bless soldiers and sailors,
    polar bears and penguins ...

    God bless astronauts and Space Shuttles.

    God bless marines and ballerinas.

    Amen.

Again, I'm not sure where that last line came from. Took me a little by surprise. Still, I'm amused by the sounds of the words, as well as the juxtaposition. Besides, I'm not about to argue with any little girl who loves both Devil Dogs and dancing divas.

Semper Fi, Princess. Sweet dreams.


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