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.


July 15, 2010

Name: Edda2010
Posting date: 7/15/10
Stationed in: Afghanistan

I don’t particularly believe in dreams, but I pay attention to them; they are like signposts, the precise direction and meaning of which must necessarily remain obscure 90% of the time. Every once in a while, there are dreams that exercise a particular power of fascination, and capture my attention well after the fact. When I awake from such dreams I am able to remember them in detail, and the associated mood / emotion. This can be a good thing, as in the flying dreams, or a bad thing, as in the maddening-eye-of-chaos-is-upon-me-descent-into-paranoia-and-despair dreams. I had one of the latter the night before I flew back here, and one of the former sometime around Christmas.

There is another type of dream that falls into neither camp; it is neither joyful nor horrible. When I was younger, this dream revolved around college, and was characterized by a certain sadness that I was not there, or that I could not go there, or that I could not go back — this sadness was measured by the overall experience of the dream, which was rich, and moving, and good. I would call it nostalgia save that I was having these dreams as early as the 8th grade. An imagined future utopia of learning and acceptance that somehow existed in the past — in my dreams. I’ve never been able to puzzle my way through that, save that it was obviously very important that I attend the institution.

Which brings us to the dream I had three days ago, which I took the unusual step of recording in
detail. Like the college dream, this one has the same unreasonable nostalgic emotion attached to it.

I return to Bermel with a Cavalry Troop. We conduct reconnaissance as we arrive at the Bazaar,
whereupon we discover that the old FOB has been incorporated into the Bazaar. Rather than on the flat portion of a wide valley, the FOB is now at the base of a massive hill that slopes gently upwards. I understand that the top of the hill represents the border with Pakistan, but this is never expressly considered or comprehended. The FOB resembles a fort with three levels, in an alien architecture that reminds me of the Star Wars buildings from the original movie. 

There is a cave system to our southeast, a bit up the hill. Much further up the hill and due East is the village of Mangritay, which is a conflation of Malakshay and Mangritay. The two insurgent villages are, in the dream, a fort, an actual castle-like structure with walls — still an insurgent stronghold. There is a rudimentary awareness that the unit we are replacing is leaving Bermel from what we now realize is a completely new and improved FOB that is integrated with the Bazaar. The old FOB is still more or less where it always was, a bit further east, closer to the danger. 

We push onward and are then in the old FOB. I walk through the old familiar corridors, visit the artillery emplacements, the guard towers, live and breathe what it was like to spend months away from everything except the expectation of imminent contact. 

At this point, there is an imagined patrol further up the hill, dangerously close to the Mangritay area, and as I realize this they take contact and our unit responds. I regard the element in contact as a cautionary tale against moving too quickly against an enemy that is known to attack at certain points close to their fort.

We push East, up the hill, and drive the enemy back to the fort. The decisive point in the battle comes as a result of us having a device that in the dream is described as a “German Marder,” but bears no resemblance to the actual vehicle. In the dream it’s a wedge-like tank with enough room for three people, with a 20mm cannon in front, two medium machineguns on the side, and a .50 calibur machinegun in the rear. The tank itself has two treads that are pointed out from the rear in a rough v-shape; the crew compartment is a box in the center. This is a machine that could not actually move forward without tearing itself apart were this not a dream. Having driven off the insurgents, we and the attacked element form a company-sized element of 100 and decide to attack Mangritay. With the presence of the Marder, we are able to knock holes in the walls and move easily into the fort as defenders fire from windows and walls.

Inside the fort the insurgents have retreated to the building in the middle, where they throw grenades down staircases. Having suddenly realized that the Marder is vulnerable and that we are too weak to push further, we withdraw and establish a perimeter around the fort, and I dismount from the tank. I walk from the perimeter off to the south, where the hill begins to slope downward, and I can see into a valley below. In the valley there is a massive Afghan village, and outside the village two factions of Afghans are fighting on the plain in slow motion. One side is wearing gray and white, and the other is wearing green and white. 

As they shoot each other, they methodically pick themselves up and continue fighting. I call back to the perimeter, trying to alert the unit to the scene unfolding before me — it is exceptional — and as soon as I do so, the insurgent leader of the fort (who looks like an Arab Sheikh and nothing whatsoever like an Afghan) indicates that these are all insurgents who have been waiting for the signal to attack. At this, they stop fighting each other, look up and see us, and begin moving up the hill to assume an offensive against us. 

I sign the retreat, and the unit, with the Marder guarding the rear, pulls back -- past the old FOB, to the new one in the village. On my way back I see a procession of figures I recognize from earlier dreams, the one that stands out to me is a woman I identify in the dream as “Harlequin, the governor’s mistress.” 

We enter the new FOB and do laundry, then wait in an improvised chow hall by the helipad for helicopters to evacuate us. Our position is untenable. At this point we’re talking about the financial responsibilities of soldiers. I find myself sitting next to my 1SG — a man I have never seen before in reality. I dispense advice I consider to be good. Having never spoken with the 1SG before we have not had an opportunity to gauge each others’ opinions about things, and he contradicts me publically and unprofessionally. 

At first I consider being diplomatic, but something about the way he’s saying what he’s saying and his demeanor makes me feel, quite strongly, that it is a way to establish who's going to be the boss, so I decide on delivering a verbal thrashing in public, and do so, pointing out that he was not fighting with us earlier, and thus not a credible source. After dressing him down in front of the soldiers, the first CH-47 lands, and a team of soldiers gets in. This is when I wake up.

I must conclude that I have been searching for Afghanistan, driving toward it with the same longing and intensity that I dedicated to finding my way to college. I am here now, and happy, and fully aware that a year from now I will have to leave Afghanistan. Not that I couldn’t stay, or come back, or any number of  equal potentials, but because it is a time in my life, a chapter that is drawing to a close. 

Seeing it unfold before me, the dramatic emotional highs and lows, the intolerable, boring winter months — all of it — and knowing that it will never play out like this again, that I will never have access to this kind of intoxicating uncertainty and control, the joy of making right decisions that save peoples' lives, the despair of watching, impotent, as people die or are hurt. Knowing that, in this moment, I am doing something tangibly good to affect the efficient and positive state of the universe, bringing peace and stability to a strife-torn land. And knowing that my soul cannot support another such expenditure of energy, another phenomenal burst of emotional and spiritual involvement -- knowing this because the last deployment nearly broke me, and this one promises to take me back to that point, and a little further.

I still have no real idea what comes after Afghanistan, after the Army. There is a certain old stereotype, of the retired soldier living out his days on a small plot of land. Having sacrificed the best years of his life spilling blood into the dust, he finishes out his years tilling the land, bringing things out of the earth, living simply, in peace. 

This is not the story that turns into a revenge narrative when an old friend from the past shows up with a grievance that requires righting — or the British come and burn the land, causing the soldier to forsake his vows and take up arms again against his better nature, redeeming himself in violence (why is this narrative so compelling?). In this story, the retired soldier dies, peacefully, alone in his sleep, and his house crumbles slowly to dust around and over him — the inevitable end-state of all human effort.


Wow that must be some pretty good hashish to make dreams that vivid. J/K :)

Whatever the future holds for you, I hope it includes your natural gift for writing.

The line: "An imagined future utopia of learning and acceptance that somehow existed in the past — in my dreams" is so compelling, riveting, evocative and thought provoking.

You have that whole war thing to dream about now, they won't go away, but they will sustain your hours awake.

AWESOME imagery, Soldier. Find a way to share this gift you have. It will outlast your human body.

Here's a great way to "Support Our Nation's Military Families"-- vote this weekend (and each day throughout August) for National Fatherhood Initiative's Pepsi Refresh Alliance at Click on NFI's project, "Support Our Nation's Military Families," and log-in to vote. Once logged-in, please click the vote button for each of the 7 alliance projects. THEN, cast another vote for NFI's project on Facebook at FINALLY, please cast two more military votes for Molly's Adopt A Sailor" & "Operation Combat Boot Comfort" at THANKS for your support of the troops and their families! --Tom Patras (Director of Corporate Relations, NFI)

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